English Revolution

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"English Revolution" has been used to describe two different events in English history. The first to be so called—by Whig historians—was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, whereby James II was replaced by William III and Mary II as monarch and a constitutional monarchy was established. [1]

Glorious Revolution 17th Century British revolution

The Glorious Revolution, also called the Revolution of 1688, was the overthrow of King James II of England by a union of English politicians with the Dutch stadtholder William III, Prince of Orange, who was James's nephew and son-in-law. William's successful invasion of England with a Dutch fleet and army led to his ascension to the throne as William III of England jointly with his wife, Mary II, James's daughter, after the Declaration of Right, leading to the Bill of Rights 1689.

James II of England 17th-century King of England and Ireland, and of Scotland (as James VII)

James II and VII was King of England and Ireland as James II and King of Scotland as James VII, from 6 February 1685 until he was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The last Roman Catholic monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland, his reign is now remembered primarily for struggles over religious tolerance. However, it also involved the principles of absolutism and divine right of kings and his deposition ended a century of political and civil strife by confirming the primacy of Parliament over the Crown.

William III of England 17th-century Stadtholder, Prince of Orange and King of England, Scotland and Ireland

William III, also widely known as William of Orange, was sovereign Prince of Orange from birth, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from 1672 and King of England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. As King of Scotland, he is known as William II. He is sometimes informally known in Northern Ireland and Scotland as "King Billy".


In the twentieth century, however, Marxist historians introduced the use of the term "English Revolution" to describe the period of the English Civil Wars and Commonwealth period (1640–1660), [2] in which Parliament challenged King Charles I's authority, engaged in civil conflict against his forces, and executed him in 1649. This was followed by a ten-year period of bourgeois republican government, the "Commonwealth", before monarchy was restored in the shape of Charles' son, Charles II, in 1660.

Marxism economic and sociopolitical worldview based on the works of Karl Marx

Marxism is a theory and method of working-class self-emancipation. As a theory, it relies on a method of socioeconomic analysis that views class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. It originates from the works of 19th-century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

English Civil War series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians and Royalists

The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians ("Roundheads") and Royalists ("Cavaliers") over, principally, the manner of England's governance. The first (1642–1646) and second (1648–1649) wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third (1649–1651) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The war ended with the Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651.

Commonwealth of England Historic republic on the British Isles (1649–1660)

The Commonwealth was the period from 1649 to 1660 when England and Wales, later along with Ireland and Scotland, were ruled as a republic following the end of the Second English Civil War and the trial and execution of Charles I. The republic's existence was declared through "An Act declaring England to be a Commonwealth", adopted by the Rump Parliament on 19 May 1649. Power in the early Commonwealth was vested primarily in the Parliament and a Council of State. During the period, fighting continued, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, between the parliamentary forces and those opposed to them, as part of what is now referred to as the Third English Civil War.

Whig theory

In The Glorious Revolution of 1688, James II was replaced by William III and Mary II as monarch and a constitutional monarchy was established and was described by Whig historians as the English Revolution. [1] This interpretation suggests that the "English Revolution” it was later then changed by Parliament to achieve a balanced constitutional monarchy in Britain, and laws were made that pointed towards freedom.

Marxist theory

The Marxist view of the English Revolution suggests that the events of 1640 to 1660 in Britain was a bourgeois revolution in which the final section of English feudalism (the state) was destroyed by a bourgeois class (and its supporters) and replaced with a state (and society) which reflected the wider establishment of agrarian (and later industrial) capitalism. Such an analysis sees the English Revolution as pivotal in the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from a feudal state to a capitalist state in Britain.

Bourgeois revolution Marxist historiographical term

Bourgeois revolution is a term used in Marxist theory to refer to a social revolution that aims to destroy a feudal system or its vestiges, establish the rule of the bourgeoisie, and create a bourgeois state. In colonised or subjugated countries, bourgeois revolutions often take the form of a war of national independence. The English, French, and American revolutions are considered the archetypal bourgeois revolutions, in that they attempted to clear away the remnants of the medieval feudal system, so as to pave the way for the rise of capitalism. The term is usually used in contrast to "proletarian revolution", and is also sometimes called a "bourgeois-democratic revolution".

Agrarianism is a social philosophy or political philosophy which values rural society as superior to urban society and the independent farmer as superior to the paid worker, and sees farming as a way of life that can shape the ideal social values. It stresses the superiority of a simpler rural life as opposed to the complexity of city life.

Feudalism combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe

Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour. Although derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief), then in use, the term feudalism and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Middle Ages. In its classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.

According to Marxist historian Christopher Hill:

The Civil War was a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and conservative landlords, and on the other side stood the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside ... the yeomen and progressive gentry, and ... wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free discussion to understand what the struggle was really about. [3]

Despotism is a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. Normally, that entity is an individual, the despot, as in an autocracy, but societies which limit respect and power to specific groups have also been called despotic.

Later developments of the Marxist view moved on from the theory of bourgeois revolution to suggest that the English Revolution anticipated the French Revolution and later revolutions in the field of popular administrative and economic gains. Along with the expansion of parliamentary power the revolution broke down many of the old power relations in both rural and urban English society. The guild democracy movement of the period won its greatest successes among London's transport workers, most notably the Thames Watermen, who democratized their company in 1641-43. And with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, rural communities began to seize timber and other resources on the estates of royalists, Catholics, the royal family and the church hierarchy. Some communities improved their conditions of tenure on such estates.

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

The old status quo began a retrenchment after the end of the main civil war in 1646, and more especially after the restoration of monarchy in 1660. But some gains were long-term. The democratic element introduced in the watermen's company in 1642, for example, survived, with vicissitudes, until 1827. [4] [5]

The Marxist view also developed a concept of a “Revolution within the Revolution” (pursued by Hill, Brian Manning and others) which placed a greater deal of emphasis on the radical movements of the period (such as the agitator Levellers, mutineers in the New Model Army and the communistic Diggers) who attempted to go further than Parliament in the aftermath of the Civil War.

There were, we may oversimplify, two revolutions in mid-seventeenth century England. The one which succeeded established the sacred rights of property (abolition of feudal tenures, no arbitrary taxation), gave political power to the propertied (sovereignty of Parliament and common law, abolition of prerogative courts), and removed all impediments to the triumph of the ideology of the men of property – the protestant ethic. There was, however, another revolution which never happened, though from time to time it threatened. This might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the Protestant ethic. [6]

Brian Manning has claimed that:

The old ruling class came back with new ideas and new outlooks which were attuned to economic growth and expansion and facilitated in the long run the development of a fully capitalist economy. It would all have been very different if Charles I had not been obliged to summon that Parliament to meet at Westminster on November 3rd, 1640. [7]

The term "English Revolution" is also used by non-Marxists in the Victorian period to refer to 1642, as (for example) critic and writer Matthew Arnold in "the Function of Criticism at the present time". ("This is what distinguishes it [the French Revolution] from the English Revolution of Charles the First's time.")


The notion that the events of 1640 to 1660 constitute an "English Revolution" has been criticised by historians such as Austin Woolrych, who has pointed out that

painstaking research in county after county, in local record offices and family archives, has revealed that the changes in the ownership of real estate, and hence in the composition of the governing class, were nothing like as great as used to be thought. [8]

Woolrych argues that the notion that the period constitutes an "English Revolution" not only ignores the lack of significant social change contained within the period, but also ignores the long-term trends of the early modern period which extend beyond this narrow time-frame.

See also


  1. 1 2 Cf. G. M. Trevelyan, The English Revolution, 1688-1689 (1938).
  2. Leon Trotsky. "4, Terrorism". Terrorism and Communism. In the seventeenth century England carried out two revolutions. The first, which brought forth great social upheavals and wars, brought amongst other things the execution of King Charles I, while the second ended happily with the accession of a new dynasty. [...] The reason for this difference in estimates was explained by the French historian, Augustin Thierry. In the first English revolution, in the “Great Rebellion,” the active force was the people; while in the second it was almost “silent.” [...] But the great event in modern “bourgeois” history is, none the less, not the “Glorious Revolution,” but the “Great Rebellion.”
  3. Christopher Hill (transcribed Andy Blunden (2002) [1940]. "The English Revolution 1640". Marxists.org.
  4. ChristopherO'Riordan, "Self-determination and the London Transport Workers in the Century of Revolution" (1992)
  5. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution, Penguin; New Ed edition,1991,
  6. Brian Manning, "What Was the English Revolution", History Today 34,1984,
  7. Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution, 16251660. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 794.

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