Who called it a “Glorious Revolution”?

On the 5th November 1688 William of Orange landed at Torbay, a key event in the “Glorious Revolution”. It has been said of the Glorious Revolution that it was not glorious and not a revolution. But who called it that in the first place?

The first account of the events which culminated in the crowning of William and Mary was written in 1689. The title called the change in ruler a revolution (The history of the late revolution in England). It’s questionable how acceptable those in power would have found the description. After James II’s escape from England, the Convention Parliament had declared on 12 February 1689 that his flight constituted an abdication. Thus the transfer of power to William III and Mary II as joint sovereigns was not an abandonment of the constitution but a (admittedly unusual) implementation of it.

Nonetheless the term continued to be used. The first person recorded adding the adjective “Glorious” was a Whig radical, John Hampden Jr, who spoke of a “glorious revolution” while giving testimony to a committee of the House of Lords in the autumn of 1689. “When that term appeared again it was in 1706 in sermons by Bishop Gilbert Burnet (a friend and confidant of King William and Queen Mary) and nonconformist preachers.”1

“People who used the epithet revealed how narrow and myopic was their perspective, for obviously ‘Glorious Revolution’ could apply only to England, not to Scotland or Ireland” 2. But is this entirely true? As noted above, the English Parliament took pains to portray the bloodless coup in England as passing on the crown post abdication. But this argument could not be used in Ireland. The war that raged from 1689 to 1690 was called in the Irish language Cogadh an Dá Rí, the War of Two Kings, reflecting the fact that both James II and William III were on the battle fields. In England adherents of passive obedience (that is, the idea that absolute obedience or submission of a subject to the authority of a ruler was mandatory, even to a tyrannical ruler) could argue their king had abandoned his kingship. For the likes of William King, then Dean of St Patrick’s and representing Archbishop Marsh in Dublin, no such argument was possible when James II arrived on the spot in March 1689. A private manuscript survives in which William King works through the question of what it would take to justify a break between church and state. The key question: “What if our governours and bishops should be persecuted and has’d away by force and popery establish’d without a legall method?” That, for King, justified a break and meant that, for him at least, the link was not a matter of divine law (or divine right), but a contingent political settlement3 Thus, it’s unsurprising the event was seen in Ireland as a revolution, and for Irish protestants (both of the Established Church and dissenters) the preservation from “popery” was readily called glorious.

Because of this, it is unsurprising that the first use in print of “Glorious Revolution” seems to be in Willam Molyneux’s Case of Ireland. The Case of Ireland makes an extended historical and philosophical argument for Ireland’s parliament making laws for Ireland without the interference of the parliament at Westminster. While arguing that the method of repaying the cost to England of suppressing rebellion should be left to the Irish parliament, Molyneux says “We have an Example of this in Point between England and Holland in the glorious revolution under King William the Third: Holland, in assisting England, expended 600000 Pounds, and the English Parliament fairly repaid them” 4

Another example comes from the non-juror Charles Leslie. He had certainly read Molyneux’s Case, since he replied to it in Considerations of importance to Ireland in a letter to a member of Parliament there; upon occasion of Mr Molyneaux’s late book. In his 1708 A Letter from a Gentleman in Scotland to His Friend in England Leslie uses the term a number of times, including the following: “It is a principle of undoubted certainty, and on which the late glorious Revolution turn’d, That the Civil Constitution is founded upon contract” 5. The only other descriptor he uses for “revolution” is “happy” (once). Given Leslie was a non-juror (he refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary) it is unlikely the usage reflects his feelings.

The term was also used in Faction Display’d (1709), a satirical poem about (Richard Steel’s printer and friend) Tonson and his Whiggish Kit-Kat Club. (The work puts the term in the mouths of the Kit-Katters, just before they recommend Toland as the man to “the unreasoning mob to guide.”) In 1711 it was used in High-Church Display’d: Being a Compleat History of the Affair of Dr. Sacheverel, a pamphlet written by Toland himself (perhaps prompted by this satiric print?) Google Books shows that in 1710 Burnet used the phrase in two thanksgiving sermons, and in 1712 it was used by the journalist Abel Boyer in his Political State of Great Britain.

Steel made use of the term (this time a fully initialised “Glorious Revolution”) in The Guardian no. 41 (1713) in defending Lady Charlotte Finch, the daughter of the Earl of Nottingham, from an attack by The Examiner (a Tory paper). Steel points out the attack on the daughter was motivated by animosity to her father, who “upon the late Glorious Revolution” had voted against Wlliam’s succession, but had thereafter faithfully served him 6.

William Oddisworth who took over the editorship from the Examiner from Jonathan Swift (who later claimed to have no acquaintance with him in another dispute with Steele) put the term into the mouth of one speaker in A Dialogue Between Timothy and Philatheus, a reply to Tindal’s The rights of the Christian church asserted. Oddisworth was a Jacobite who fought in 1715. Another attitude entirely is shown by the pseudonymous writer of Some occasional thoughts concerning the original, principles, and practice of the thing called a High Flyer who calls all those who “damn the Glorious Revolution” false brethren.

In 1714 the dissenters Thomas Ely in London, John Abernathy in Antrim and Nathaniel Weld in Dublin (whose son later attended Francis Hutcheson’s academy) all used the phrase in thanksgiving sermons.

In this time period, then, the phrase was used by Irish writers William Molyneux, John Toland, Charles Leslie, Richard Steele, John Abernathy and Nathaniel Weld: six of the thirteen examples in Google Books. The other seven included Scottish writers (2.5 examples: two by Burnet and co-authorship of “Faction Display’d by Defoe), English writers (3.5:co-authorship of “Faction Display’d by Shippen, William Oldisworth, the writer of High Flyer, and Ely’s sermon), and one Anglo-French writer (Boyer). This supports a tentative hypothesis that the phrase had a special resonance to Irish writers, particularly given the smaller number of Irish writers compared to English.

After 1714, there is no marked link between the phrase and Irish writers. Its use (based on Google n-gram) only gained in popularity in print after 1735. However, the first historian to use the phrase was also Anglo-Irish: Walter Harris, whose history was published in 1749 (The History of the Life and Reign of William-Henry, Prince of Nassau and Orange, Dublin)7.

william-1688Featured Image: William of Orange landing in England, Romeyn de Hooge (detail). Wikimedia/Public Domain.

Further reading/resources

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time: The Glorious Revolution (podcast)

The History of Parliament: A ‘Glorious’ Revolution? (Blogpost)


  1. Lois G. Schwoerer (2004) “Introduction” in The Revolution of 1688-89: Changing Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, pp 1-20. See pp. 2-3.
  2. Schwoerer (2004), p. 3
  3. Christopher Fauske (2011) A Political Biography of William King, London: Pickering & Chatto, pp. 39-44.
  4. William Molyneux (1698) The Case of Ireland’s Being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England, Stated Vol. 1, Dublin: Printed for Augustus Long and Henry Hawker, p. 51 (google books).
  5. Charles Leslie (1708) A Letter from a Gentleman in Scotland to His Friend in England, Against the Sacramental Test, London: Benj. Bragg, p. 18 (google books)
  6. Richard Steele (1714) “The Guardian No. 41” in J. Tonson (ed) (1714) The Guardian Vol. I London: J. Tonson, p. 145
  7. Schwoerer (2004), p. 3
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