The Road to the 1688 Revolution: James, Duke of York

Summary of main events and background factors up to the death of Charles II in 1685

The 1688 Revolution marked an important milestone in the long transition towards arguably a less absolutist and a more constitutional monarchy. However, the invitation to a Dutchman and his wife to help solve an English constitutional crisis was a major step, and it happened against a background where, at times, there had been considerable support for both Charles II and his brother James II. What I have done below is try to plot some of the key events that lead to “King Billy’s” (and Queen Mary’s) arrival on the English throne.

The Duke Becomes a Roman Catholic

At some stage between 1669-73 Charles II’s brother, James, the Duke of York, converts to Roman Catholicism. He was almost certainly influenced by his mother, Henrietta Maria of France, and by his second wife, Mary of Modena. It became public knowledge in 1673.

On March 31, 1671 Anne Hyde (James’s first wife) dies. On September 30, 1673 James marries, by proxy, his second wife, Mary Beatrice of Modena (Modena was a French dependency). Mary had wanted to be a nun and the Pope had to intervene to persuade her to accept a different calling.

Duke of York (later James II)

At the time it was hard to see a choice to be a Roman Catholic as a merely personal matter for several reasons. Since the Reformation the country had become wary of Catholics gaining power and persecuting Protestants. It was the faith of the two great Continental Bourbon powers (France and Spain) and Louis XIV’s current expansionist policies meant that the Catholic faith was associated with oppression and with the enemy. For approximately one hundred and fifty years the English Church had guarded its independence from Rome and had no intention of tolerating a monarch who owed an allegiance to the Ruler of Rome (the Pope).

The danger of a Catholic monarch was now real. The Duke of York would succeed to the English throne unless Charles II produced a male heir (unlikely). And if the Catholic James II produced a male heir, the line would continue. Hence, in October 1673 after James’ second marriage, Parliament wanted to pass a motion that Mary of Modena be sent home on arrival and Charles II had to prorogue Parliament to stop the motion being passed.

The Test Act 1673

Test Acts were an attempt by Parliament to prevent Nonconformists and Roman Catholics from gaining influence and power in the country and from threatening the monopoly of the Church of England. All people appointed to a public office (civil or military) were required to take an oath affirming that they do not believe in transubstantiation (a key Catholic doctrine teaching that at the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ). They also had to receive Communion according to the rites of the Anglican Church within three months of obtaining the public office. The 1673 Act tightened up previous Test Acts.

James, the Duke of York, resigns as Lord of the Admiralty because of the 1673 Test Act as he was unable to fulfil the requirements.

James’ Daughter Marries a Protestant

Because of the anti-James and anti-Catholic feelings growing in the country, James is reluctantly persuaded by his brother Charles to agree to the arranged marriage between one of his daughters, Mary, to the Protestant William of Orange. The wedding took place on November 4, 1677.

William had quite good credentials. In addition to being a Protestant he was at war with the Catholic Louis XIV and in 1672 had achieved a remarkable victory despite overwhelming French superiority by opening the Dutch dykes and flooding the invading enemy.

James always trusted Mary more than his second daughter Anne. When Anne once asked him why he always paid Mary’s gambling debts, but never her own, James replied because he was never sure that any money paid to Anne would not be used against him. Ironically it could be argued that it was Mary who was to play a bigger part in his downfall, not Anne.

Plots and Exclusions

Between 1678 and 1683 there was considerable turmoil surrounding alleged and real plots, and attempts to exclude James from ever attaining the throne. Between 1678 and 1681 England and Scotland were gripped with anti-Catholic hysteria following accusations invented by a disreputable character called Titus Oates who alleged that there were serious Popish Plots to assassinate Charles II. These accusations led to the executions of at least 22 men (including Mary of Modena’s secretary) and precipitated a desire to exclude James from ever becoming king. Eventually Oates was exposed as a liar and he was arrested and convicted of perjury.

Charles II

In 1683 a real plan to assassinate Charles II and James was discovered (The Rye House Plot). The royal party went from Westminster to the races at Newmarket. However, a serious fire in Newmarket meant that they returned early as the races were cancelled. The plot was discovered and the government cracked down hard in a series of state trials, accompanied with repressive measures and widespread searches for arms.

Such was the growing alarm that the Roman Catholic James would become king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, that between 1679 and 1681 there were three attempts to pass bills to exclude the heir presumptive from the monarchy – the so-called “exclusion crisis”. All three attempts failed. However, the issue was to be finally resolved in 1701 with the Act of Settlement which excluded Catholics from the throne.

Death of a King

On 2 February 1685 Charles II suffers a stroke and he dies on 6 February. The Duke of York becomes King as James II.

© James Rye 2022

See also: Lynn MP’s Netflix Conversation


  • Acroyd, P. (2017) Revolution: A History of England Volume IV, Pan Books
  • Fraser, A. (1979) King Charles II, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  • Langford, P (2002) The Eighteenth Century: 1688-1815, OUP
  • Vallance, E. (2006) The Glorious Revolution: Britain’s Fight for Liberty, Hachette Digital
  • Wilson, M.I. (2014) Happy and Glorious: The Revolution of 1688, The History Press
  • Womersley, D. (2015) James II: The Last Catholic King, Penguin

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