The Flight of James II
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Louis [XIV of France] had tried to save [James II] by warning the United Provinces that any movement on their part against James would be treated as an act of hostility to himself. To conciliate the Dutch James made overtures to them, accompanied by declarations that there was no treaty between himself and Louis. The Dutch took the overtures for a trap, and declined to be ensnared; but Louis was extremely irritated, and at once cancelled the preparations which he had just resolved upon for direct measures against Holland.
A Protestant wind
At the end of October all that William needed was a favourable wind; until then westerly gales had defeated all attempts to set sail. But on November 1st a "Protestant wind" from the east carried William's ships to sea, while it held James's fleet wind-locked in the estuary of the Thames. William passed down channel unmolested and landed at Tor Bay on November 5th.
William of Orange arrives in England
William's arrival aroused no enthusiasm. He was not naturally endowed with the superficial qualities which make for an easy if insecure popularity, nor did he ever condescend to cultivate them. He had none of the winning graces on which Shaftesbury had relied when he chose Monmouth to be the rival of James.
Moreover he was a foreigner, and Englishmen are seldom ready to take a foreigner on trust. Also the nation was not in love with revolutions, and was doubting whether a revolution would be really necessary to secure its present aims. The king had conceded so much during the last weeks that there was reasonable hope of extracting the rest of the national demands without proceeding to the last extremities. Had a Tudor been upon the throne of England William would not have been long in the country unless as a prisoner.
But James, as usual, carefully threw away all his chances. The obviously politic course he could hardly have been expected to follow. That course would have been the immediate summoning of a parliament and the dismissal of Romanist officials.
James, in plain terms, could have secured his throne if he could have brought himself frankly to accept the principle which William had publicly recommended — of toleration for all forms of worship accompanied by religious tests for public office. His son-in-law would have been left with no justification for remaining in the country, except the demand that James should deny the legitimacy of the infant prince, a demand which it would have been quite impossible to make good.
With this James would not be content; but he still had an alternative. If he had appealed to the nation as the national king, declining to accept the dictation of English affairs by a foreign prince backed by a foreign army, the probabilities were that his appeal would have been successful.
That chance he spoilt by his conspicuous mistrust of Englishmen. Even his own English troops were already disgusted by the arrival of the Irish regiments; instead of assuming that all true patriots must be on his side, and would join him in teaching the foreign invader a severe lesson, he made it obvious that he was afraid to fight William. By behaving as if his cause was already lost, he ruined a more than respectable chance of victory.
A rapid march to the west would have created a conviction of confidence which would have secured the waverers on his own side; vacillation and the display of his desire to remove the infant prince out of the country to safe quarters in France had the precisely contrary effect.
With every day's delay the certainty increased that the malcontents would declare for William, and when once they began to do so openly a steady stream of desertions was assured. And meanwhile William was carefully abstaining from any action which might arouse hostility, and was maintaining the theory that he was in England not to claim the crown, but to secure a free parliament and a constitutional government.
Royal support wavers
Ten days after William's landing men began to declare themselves, many of the gentry of the West joining William's standard. Danby in Yorkshire and the Earl of Devonshire in the Midlands began to raise troops in those regions. James had given the command of his troops to the incompetent Lord Feversham, who was a Frenchman born.
When it was decided that the forces, which were assembled at Salisbury, should fall back to cover London instead of taking the offensive, John Churchill and the Duke of Grafton went over to William; they were followed immediately by George of Denmark, the husband of the Princess Anne, and then by Anne herself. Before the end of the month James had made up his mind that the game was lost and that flight was the only course left for him, although in the meantime he had agreed to a course which might have saved his throne.
The Tories who had remained loyal to him, reinforced by Halifax extracted from him the promise to summon a parliament in January, dismiss popish officers, break off alliance with France, issue a general amnesty, and send three of their own number — Halifax, Nottingham, and Godolphin - as commissioners to treat with William.
But even when the commissioners were treating he succeeded in despatching his wife and child out of the country; and on the same night he himself took flight, dropping the great seal into the Thames by way of embarrassing any possible administration after having, with the same object, destroyed the writs for the assembling of parliament.
The king's flight cleared the way, or seemed to do so, for William to establish a provisional government. Some of the most unpopular of James's adherents attempted to follow his example; Judge Jeffreys, amongst others, was caught and hardly saved from the fury of the mob, to die soon afterwards in the Tower. And yet James was given another chance.
By sheer accident the fugitive was caught by some fishermen and detained at Sheerness. The Council of Peers, who had temporarily assumed the functions of a government, brought him back to London, where, in the curiously oscillating state of public opinion, his return was received with bonfires, bell-ringing, and general acclamation.
James flees again
Nevertheless the flight itself had really sealed James's fate. It had seemed for the moment to give William what he could not venture to claim; for it was one thing to eject James by force, and quite another to act on the assumption that his voluntary flight was equivalent to an abdication. It had carried over Halifax and others of James's ablest supporters to William's camp and it was now William's object to frighten James into a repetition of the performance, and to take care that this time his escape should be unhindered.
Some display of coercion was all that was needed to give effect to William's design. On December 22 James fled for the second time, to be hospitably received by the king of France, who established him in the palace of St Germain.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.