When Charles II died in 1685, his brother James, Duke of York, became King and ruled untill 1688. The two political parties of the time (Tories and Whigs) supported constitutional government by King and Parliament. But, in any contest of power, the Tories would generally side with the King, while the Whigs would defend the rights of Parliament. In matters of religion the Tories stood for the Anglican Church and the Whigs supported toleration for the Nonconformists. They both viewed Catholicism as a real and dangerous threat.The Test Acts of 1673 and 1678, were in part, meant to prevent the accession of the Catholic James to the throne. It didn't work. As a Catholic, James first action as king was to insist that the Act be revoked. Parliament refused and James like his brother before him dissolved Parliament when he couldn't get his own way.
On the 11th June 1685, James Scott Duke of Monmouth, the illegitamate son of Charles II, dropped anchor off Lyme Regis. So began the ill-fated Protestant Rebellion that Monmouth unwisely thought would secure for him the crown and rid England of what many thought to be a Catholic tyrant.
News of the landing soon reached James and he at once despatched Lord Churchill with six troops of horse and dragoons and five infantry companies to observe the rebels. On Monday15th June, Monmouth with 3,000 men marched for Axminster. The defenders, under the command of the Duke of Albemarle, outnumbered the rebels by at least a thousand. Although they had the advantage they had no stomach for fighting, and many of them joined the rebel army. Monmouth then proceeded on his way to Chard, Ilminster and finally reaching Taunton on June 18th. The following day at the market cross he was proclaimed king. Not taking Exeter at this point was perhaps Monmouth's first mistake. Exeter could have been taken without any diffilculty, and with it much needed arms, money and ammunition. A similar opportunity was later to be lost before Bristol. Monmouth left Taunton on the 21st June at the head of almost 8,000 men.
On the evening of Sunday July 5th, the rebel army and the royalist army met on the field at Sedgemoor in a battle that was both bloody and swift. The rebel army had planned a surprise night attack on the royalist encampment, unfortunately on that evening the element of surprise was not with them. The rebel army were no match for their royalist opponents, and although they fought bravely their only option was to begin a disorderly retreat. It is in pursuit of a defeated army that the heaviest casualties are most likely to occur, and this is especially true when that army is little more than an ill-organised rabble. Rebel casualties have always been diffilcult to assess but probably no more than 300 were killed in the battle and a further 1,000 in the retreat. The royalist casualties are estimated at around 400, but this is probably too high.
It was not the uprising that shocked the country but the treatment given to the rebels and their followers by James. At the 'Bloody Assizes' of Chief Justice Jefferys, over 1,000 men and women were condemned to death or slavery in the West Indies. Monmouth himself was executed. Although in life he was never a king, in the Tower he behaved like one and on the scaffold he knew how to die like one.
The successful defeat of the Monmouth Rebellion encouraged James to proceed with the restoration of Catholicism. He selected papists for his councillors. He created a Court of High Comission, similar to that which had been abolished by the Long Parliament. He openly encouraged Roman Catholic rites and institutions. He vastly increased the already existing small standing army and appointed officers who were extensively Catholic.
In 1687, James issued a Declaration of Indulgence. It gave freedom of worship to both Catholics and Nonconformists, and at the same time suspended the laws debarring them from civil and military office. This declaration was a change of tactics. James hoped that by placating the Nonconformists he might break down the Anglican monopoly in church and state; that done, the task of establishing a Catholic supremacy would be much easier. When James commanded the clergy of the state church to read his declaration from their pulpits it spurred the petition of the Seven Bishops.
The order to read the Declaration of Indulgence from the pulpit was a rash one and it caused the clergy to revolt. In large numbers the bishops ignored the order to circulate the declaration, and when the day came for it to be read only seven of London's clergymen obeyed the Kings order. In Westminster Abbey most of the congregation left as soon as the reading began. Two days before the declaration was due to be read, the Archbishop of Canterbury (William Sancroft) and six other bishops had petitioned the King to withdraw the declaration, on the grounds that it was illegal.
Going from absurdity to absurdity, James next decided to treat the petition as seditious libel - a libel on the Crown which might weaken the subjects allegiance. The seven bishops were arrested, confined to the tower, and then put on trial. The accused were turned into popular heroes; and when the jury returned a verdict of 'Not Guilty' there were celebrations throughout London that had not been seen since the Restoration. James had enemies; and if they had previously smelt blood they now tasted it.
A few days before the trial there occurred the event that would seal James's fate. His second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son. This meant that his Protestant daughter by his first marraige - Mary, wife of William of Orange - was no longer the heir. The new prince would certainly be brought up as a Catholic; and the largely Protestant nation would now have to look forward to a line of Catholic kings. A few days after the birth, and on a day when the rejoicings at the aquittal of the bishops left no doubt about the feelings of the English people, a letter of invitation was sent to William of Orange.
The news of the birth of a Catholic heir prompted Parliament to send a letter of invitation to William of Orange. This invitation asked William to come to England with an army to protect the rights of the Protestant Church and of his wife Mary. The invitation was signed by seven prominent men including the leaders of both the Whig and Tory parties, and was delivered by an admiral disguised as a common sailor. It informed William that an overwhelming majority of the people would welcome him. William set off for England. On November 5th 1688, he and 15,000 soldiers, many of them English and Scots, arrived unopposed in Torbay. James, having lost all available support fled to France with his wife and child and the protection of Louis XIV.
With James gone Parliament proclaimed the throne vacant and declared William and Mary to be sovereigns of England in 1689. James had been deposed by an act of Parliament, it was a 'Glorious revolution' and the end of absolute monarchy.