It happened today - June 30, 2016

  William III

He’s got mail. Specifically William of Orange. On June 30 of 1688 he received a possibly not unexpected letter from the “Seven Immortals” asking him to, you know, sort of invade England, boot out its wretched king and take the throne himself. That was an envelope worth opening.

It was also an envelope worth sealing. The specific trigger was that King James II, the most reckless and openly obnoxious of the four Stuart kings to reign in England, had just gone and produced a male Catholic heir. And so he had to go.

In ways hard to recapture today, the question of James’s Catholicism and his penchant for absolutism were inextricably entwined. There were many things the Stuarts wanted to do that were contrary to the ancient English constitution, from taxing without consent to keeping standing armies in peacetime and disarming the populace. But Catholicism was often the sharp end of the stick, especially with James, because he was determined to foist not just toleration of Catholicism but its presence high in official circles on England and the English didn’t want it.

Hence, for instance, he issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1688 whose contents we would mostly approve of today, removing legal penalties for dissenting from the Church of England. But when seven Anglican bishops denied James’ right to dispense with laws by proclamation, we would surely side with them that the king cannot simply make law by saying “Let it be so.” Furthermore, the king reacted to their petition against the Declaration by having them tried for seditious libel. To the king’s furious horror, they were acquitted in a grotesquely inept and vitriolic proceeding.

The extent to which James would have sought to govern without the consent of the people even if he hadn’t been openly Catholic is unclear. But his predecessors, his brother Charles, his father Charles and his grandfather James, had all sought to do so in varying degree, and none of them were as ardently Catholic as James II. Indeed, James I seems not to have been at all, though he was certainly high church.

However that may be, for the most part people were content to wait James out, figuring that one of his two Protestant daughters would inherit the throne and it would all quiet down. And then came baby James Francis Edward Stuart, a.k.a. “The Old Pretender,” born June 10 1688, and the letter by the Immortal Seven.

Oh. You were wondering when they would make an appearance? You thought perhaps they were the Seven Bishops, whose picture still hangs in the House of Lords or at least did when I had tea there in 2008 (true story). No. They were in fact The Earl of Danby, The Earl of Shrewsbury, The Earl of Devonshire, The Viscount Lumley, The Bishop of London (Henry Compton, who was not one of the Seven Bishops primarily because he was already suspended for defying the king in another matter, but was very close to them), Edward Russell (later First Earl of Orford) and Henry Sydney who actually wrote the invitation and was later First Earl of Romney and also, um, a drunk.

Now that sounds like the sort of hoity-toity crowd with whom one would have tea in the House of Lords. But when they wrote to William, they staked a great deal, because they said if he brought a small force to England they and their friends would rise up in force to back him, even giving some logistical advice. And it worked.

Thus assured of the backing of important English leaders and, be it noted, their armed citizen followers, William came over and with his wife Mary, 2nd last reigning Stuart (I did say kings above – there were two queens, Mary and Anne, definitely the best of the Stuart lot) accepted the Bill of Rights and made the Glorious Revolution a reality.

As for the Immortals, I do not think their names have lived on forever. Even I couldn’t name them without Googling. But for all their wigs and pretensions, they were statesmen. It was a trans-partisan group, some Tory, mostly Whig, ready to stake fortune, reputation and even life on defending good government. And at least some of them were quite liberal in their religious views when it came to low-church Protestants. They were just very uneasy about the association of Catholicism with tyranny, both in the persons of various Stuart kings and in their unsavory and in the case of Charles II secret links with Catholic foreign powers bitterly hostile to England and its liberty.

It is therefore worth asking whether in our wonderfully democratic age, in which we would not follow an earl nor bend our knee to a bishop, why we generally seem to have much seedier and more spineless leadership than back when there were rotten boroughs, Lords with real power, and limited government defended to the hilt by citizens with principles and actual hilts as well.