Mark Kishlansky
A Monarchy Transformed

It was Nottingham who cut through the thicket of the new oaths of allegiance by devising a formula that avoided the question of whether William and Mary were rightful sovereigns—though not even this formulation could persuade Archbishop Sancroft, seven other bishops and about 400 clergymen to abjure their allegiance to James, an upheaval in the church unknown since the Restoration settlement. By refusing to pledge obedience to the supreme governor of their church, they became known as nonjurors, a profound theological oxymoron, and were suspended from their duties and ultimately removed.

At the same time, Nottingham worked to steer bills for comprehension and for toleration through Parliament: the first to relax the terms of membership of the Church of England, the second to grant limited toleration to nearly all the rest. Even bigoted Anglicans believed that most Protestant dissenters had earned the right to worship as they pleased, though not even liberal Tories wished to see them enabled to hold public office. Thus the bill for comprehension, which would have brought the largest group of dissenters within the church, raised religious opposition from the Anglican hierarchy and political opposition from the Tories. In the Commons it was met with the procedural suggestion that its second reading be put off till 'Doomsday'; in the Lords the bishops opposed it. The King himself urged the abolition of the Test and Corporation Acts, which would have brought Britain more in line with Dutch practice, and this intervention was sufficiently resented to ensure the failure of the Comprehension Bill. The Toleration Bill (1689), which did pass, was a cruel misnomer. Though it permitted non-Anglican Protestant chapels—dissent ceased and Nonconformity began—it did nothing to remove the civil disabilities for those who worshipped in them. Its principal impact, though unintended, was to tolerate those who attended no church at all. William did all he could to practise a toleration for which Parliament refused to legislate, declining to prosecute Nonconformists and Catholics—whose security he had guaranteed to his European Catholic allies—whenever he could.

While bishops opposed William's liberalism, politicians were working to frustrate his conservatism. The Declaration of Rights, which had been read when he and Mary had been presented with the crown, was in August 1689 converted into a Bill of Rights. Though the framers of the Bill of Rights argued that it was declarative only—enunciating only what already existed—it uniformly declared for people and Parliament against the crown. The bill pronounced the suspending power illegal and forbade a standing army in peacetime. It struck down the exercise of prerogative in judicial matters, and the king was forbidden to create ecclesiastical commissions or to raise money outside Parliament. The people had the right to bear arms, to hold free elections, and to have frequent parliaments in which members could speak openly. They were not to be subjected to excessive bail, exorbitant fines, or cruel and unusual punishment. The Bill of Rights also established the new line of succession if Mary continued childless, excluding James and his son and favouring Anne and her heirs over any of William's children should he have a subsequent marriage. In excluding James, the bill set out two new principles: that no Catholic could rule and that no ruler could be married to a Catholic without forfeiting the crown. This second prohibition would have disabled every previous Stuart king and was so great an encroachment upon royal prerogative that Queen Elizabeth had once dissolved a parliament and imprisoned her own counsellors at its suggestion. Besides its maddening intrusion into the monarch's personal life, it was a diplomatic straitjacket. Finally, declarative or innovative, the Bill of Rights had the appearance of a contract and tacitly implied that William III and his successors were constitutional monarchs.

As the Convention debated religion and the constitution, William plotted war. Even before he had become king he had directed his admirals to pummel French shipping, and with spring came his official declaration of hostilities. Louis XIV not only refused to recognize William's accession to the British thrones, he financed the invasion of Ireland in March 1689 with a reluctant James II at its head. Only Ireland had not deserted James in 1688. There a very different revolution had taken place. Under the determined leadership of the Earl of Tyrconnell, Ireland's government had been taken over by Catholics. In the courts Catholic judges presided, in the counties Catholic sheriffs. The army, which for generations had protected Protestant planters, now defended the dispossessed majority.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.