With the death of Charles II on the sixth of February, 1685, England was plunged into a Constitutional Crisis—perhaps the most significant crisis in the development of the unwritten English Constitution. Charles died without legitimate heir (he had more than enough children born “on the wrong side of the blanket” but no children of his marriage to the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza.) The Benedictine monk, John Huddleston, chaplain to Queen Catherine, had received Charles into the Catholic Church on the King’s deathbed. The new King, Charles’ brother James, the Duke of York, had been secretly received into the Catholic Church in about 1668. His wife, Anne Hyde, had preceded him into the Catholic Church about the time of their return from France at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. James and Anne had become familiar with Catholicism during their exile in France during the Cromwell years and found the new faith a comfort. King Charles was not happy with the conversions in his family (despite his wife Catherine of Braganza being Catholic and his own eventual conversion) and insisted that the daughters of James and Anne—the princesses Mary and Anne—remain as Anglicans. James was able to conceal his Catholicism until a Parliamentary act of 1673 required all military officers to take an oath against the doctrine of Transubstantiation and various other Catholic beliefs, and to take Holy Communion according to the Rites of the Church of England. James’ refusal to take the oath or receive Holy Communion in the Anglican Church exposed his Catholicism and he had to resign his post as Lord High Admiral.
James’ wife, Anne, died in 1670 and in 1673 James married the Italian Princess, Mary of Modena, who was, of course, Catholic. A proxy ceremony had been held in Italy according to Catholic Rites and upon Mary’s arrival in England, they were married in an Anglican service—despite both bride and groom being Catholics. Anti-Catholicism was rife in England at the time and Mary was highly distrusted as a suspect “agent of the Pope.” Nevertheless, the inevitable crisis of a Catholic succession was pretty much ignored until Charles death. Parliament three times proposed a bill to make the Crown bypass James for either Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, or for his nieces (James’ Protestant daughters), Mary and Anne. Each time the bill came near to passing, King Charles dissolved Parliament. James’ daughter, Mary, had married the Dutch Protestant Prince, William of Orange, in 1677. This split the English political establishment into parties with the Royalists (or Tories) supporting Charles and James; and the Whigs opposing the royal policy. This split would outlast the religious conflict over James’s eligibility to the succession and create the basic political divide in England that would last into the reign of Victoria when the parties would morph into the Conservatives and the Liberals. In 19th century America, opposition to “King” Andrew Jackson would help create the Whig party that would be the seedbed of the later Republican Party.
When Charles died, England was faced with the constitutional improbability that the Church of England had a Catholic head. Only two months after Charles’ death, James and his Italian Queen were crowned in an Anglican service at Westminster Abbey. Neither, of course, took Holy Communion. Surprisingly, Protestant England seemed willing to give the Catholic King a shot at good governance. Of course, the heirs to the throne, the princesses Mary and Anne, were Protestant so this would be, at most, a temporary inconvenience
James wasted this trust, however, and did several things to provoke Protestant anger. In Scotland he encouraged laws against the Presbyterians and in favor of Scottish Episcopalians. Throughout his realms—England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, he relaxed the legal disabilities against Catholics and dispensed many prominent Catholics from the Test Act of 1673, permitting them military and governmental posts without conforming to the Established Church. He received a papal ambassador, and indeed permitted the ambassador to be consecrated a (Catholic) Archbishop in the Chapel Royal in Saint James Palace with full Roman ceremonial (Cardinal Burke would have loved it) in 1687. That same year, he issued the Declaration of Indulgence, lifting most disabilities for both Catholics and Protestant dissenters and required that that the Declaration be read from every Anglican pulpit. This Declaration basically threatened the Establishment of the Anglican Church. England began to seethe with religious tension.
In April 1688 James imprisoned the Archbishop of Canterbury and seven other Anglican bishops who challenged his religious policies. When Queen Mary of Modena gave birth to a son in June of that year, England was suddenly faced with a Catholic succession—a permanently Catholic monarchy. A group of Protestant nobles petitioned James’ son-in-law, William of Orange, to come to England with an army and take the crown. By the autumn William arrived; James was captured and imprisoned. William, not wanting James to become a rallying point, permitted his escape to France where he was received at the court of Louis XIV.
James tried to raise an army for his support in Ireland which had remained loyal to him, but his forces were defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 by the forces of William. This battle, and day of its fighting (June 1), have since remained a symbol of the contention between Protestant and Catholic factions in Ireland.
In April of 1689 William and Mary were crowned in Westminster Abbey. The Bishop of London performed the ceremony as the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, refused to recognize the deposition of King James. Eight other English bishops, the majority of the Scots Bishops, and over 400 Anglican priests refused to take the oath to the new monarchs. They were known as non-jurors. Deprived of their livings, nonetheless, they had their supporters and the bishops continued to consecrate successors, thus establishing an independent episcopacy in both England and Scotland. This will be important later for the American Episcopal Church.
William and Mary, for their part, issued the “Bill of Rights” which established certain limitations on royal power. Parliament passed an act requiring all future monarchs to be of the Church of England and prohibiting their consorts from being Catholics. Most significant, however, is that Parliament established the principle that it, Parliament, has the right to choose the monarch. From Anglo-Saxon times, the English claimed that their monarchy was “elective,” but in actual practice it had become hereditary. While it is still inconceivable that it would not pass through the established lines of succession, the monarch technically reigns at the invitation of Parliament.