Parliaments, 1660-1690

Charles II, James II and the Revolution of 1688-9

When the Convention Parliament met in March 1660 there was still some doubt about what action it would take to settle the country, and what influence the army under General Monck would have. It quickly decided, though, that the government of the country should be by ‘king, Lords and Commons’. Despite attempts by prominent Presbyterians, it failed to demand limitations on royal powers of the kind which had been discussed between Parliament and Charles I in the late 1640s. The pressure to achieve a rapid settlement was too great, and by the end of May Charles II had returned to London.

He secured the support of many key political figures who had been influential in the Commonwealth and Interregnum by giving them significant roles in his government. Over the next few months the Convention Parliament achieved the disbandment of most of the army, removing a potential threat to royal government, and had settled substantial revenues on the king. But the Convention was dominated by Presbyterians, and, worried about its attitudes to the religious question, and, hoping that new elections would produce an ultra royalist assembly, Charles dissolved it in December 1660.

The Cavalier Parliament was initially marked by enthusiastic royalism. It voted additional revenues for the crown, and completed to the political settlement by repealing the legislation which had removed bishops from the House of Lords, and which had required a fresh Parliament to be elected every three years. It endorsed (though by quite narrow majorities) the reimposition of religious uniformity. Political faction, the conspicuous expenditure of Charles II and his courtiers, two unsuccessful wars with the Netherlands in 1665-7 and 1672-7 all took their toll, however, on royalist enthusiasm and contributed to the growth of ‘country party’ opposition. Even more significant were the increasing conflicts over religion, and the signs of Catholic influence at court – confirmed by the conversion of the king’s brother, James, duke of York, in 1668 or 1669. (For more information, see 'Religion and Politics, 1660-1690')

Parliament became a much less easily manageable body, rejecting the king’s Declaration of Indulgence – a use of the royal prerogative to dispense with the statutes against worship outside the Church of England – in 1673. During the 1670s the earl of Danby attempted to secure a more manageable Parliament through an alliance with the Church of England and its supporters, and distributing offices and pensions to Members of Parliament and peers. Opposition to Danby grew intense after the revelations of the ‘Popish Plot’ in 1678: he was forced out of office and impeached.

The political crisis of 1678-81 – the ‘Exclusion crisis’ – eventually focused on demands that James be excluded from the throne, although others offered alternative solutions to the prospect of a Catholic succeeding as king, including formal restrictions on the king’s powers. It created a clear division in politics, between supporters of the exclusion proposal, often associated with religious dissent – the ‘Whigs’ – and its opponents, closely associated with the Church of England – the ‘Tories’. Charles at some points seemed likely to accept a bill to exclude his brother, but in the end held firm: after 1681 he called no more Parliaments, and instead encouraged a Tory reaction, in which many Whigs were removed from positions of local and national authority.

As a result, James II’s accession in 1685 was unopposed and Tory support was confirmed by the rebellion of Charles’s illegitimate son, the duke of Monmouth, in the west country and the duke of Argyll in Scotland. But the king’s failure to obtain support for his project to remove the religious and civil disabilities against Roman Catholics resulted in his prorogation and later dissolution of Parliament, and his attempt to secure an alliance with dissenters. He attracted very few converts, and opposition grew from Tories and the Church of England. The invasion of William, Prince of Orange in November 1688, attracted considerable support in England. In February 1689, after James’s escape to France and his extremely controversial formal deposition by the Convention Parliament, William and his wife Mary accepted the offer of the crown.