The Dutch Republic and England were the important exceptions to the the pattern of absolutism in Europe.  The Dutch kept local government strong and the Stadtholder weak.  In England, Civil War broke out between Parliament and King Charles I, who was trying act more like an absolute monarch.  The Parliament won, and the king was executed.  After Oliver Cromwell's death, the king's son, Charles II, was brought back to the throne.  When Charles's brother, James II, came to the throne in 1685, there was more trouble and another revolution.  A fews years later, in 1689, James and absolutism was finally defeated in the "Glorious Revolution." After sixty years of conflict, constitutionalism finally established itself both in theory and in political reality in Britain, setting the English-speaking world on a different political path from the rest of Europe.

The English Civil War

<>In the 17th century, the kings of France and England both moved towards the policy of absolute monarchy, but the results of this move differed a great deal.  In the 1640s, the English Parliament broke into open revolt against King Charles I over religious and taxation policy.  Many nobles and lesser gentry (landowners), along with many of the middle classes involved in trade and manufacture, believed that King Charles betrayed the benevolent principles of Queen Elizabeth, who had sought religious accommodation and ruled as a sort of servant rather than master.  Many gentry and middle classes were Calvinists, and thought, correctly, that King Charles was trying to suppress their brand of Protestantism (As Louis XIV was to do in France some years later).  Even more, English people were disturbed by Charles's  attempts to raise new taxes and wage wars, even when he could not get the approval of  Parliament.  A majority in Parliament and the King declared each other to be acting illegally.

It then became a test of military strength.  Parliament won the civil war against the king, primarily because it created a so-called "New Model Army."  This army was powerful because it was it was largely a volunteer army of committed soldiers.  In the New Model Army, officers were promoted on the basis of merit, not birth or wealth as was usual in the armies of Europe.  Above all, the Parliamentary soldiers thought they were fighting for freedom and a new era of opportunity for the common people.  At the famous Putney Debates, held as the army mopped up the kings forces, a number of officers argued that true democracy should be created in England, a very radical idea indeed!  Although Oliver Cromwell (who became the leader of the army and later "Lord Protector" of England,) rejected complete democracy, he did approve in 1649 the capture, trial and execution of the king for treason. If there was to be no true democracy, there was to be no monarchy either.

But what was the middle position?  There was little agreement about what kind of government should take the place of monarchy.  Should Parliament govern alone?  If so, who should have the right to vote?  Should there be a king at all, and if so, what should his powers be?  After Oliver Cromwell died, it was decided in 1660 to bring back Charles's son, who became King Charles II.  There was an understanding during the reign of Charles II that in order to maintain peace, Parliament ought to be consulted regularly, and that religious differences were to be tolerated.

The Glorious Revolution

When, however, Charles II died in 1685 (the same year that Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes) his brother James II ascended to throne with a plan to rule as an absolute monarch and to restore Roman Catholicism as the state religion of England.  James acted alone without ever calling Parliament.  He began to depose judges and bishops whom he did not like and replace them with Catholics loyal to himself.  The refusal of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England, to cooperate with this forced re-conversion led James to the extraordinary step of putting the Archbishop and six other leading bishops on trial for treason.  This was the moment for a second revolt against an English King in forty years.

Leading aristocrats, alarmed by James's extremism, invited the Protestant stadtholder of Holland, the Prince of Orange (who was married to King James's sister Mary, and who was himself related to the English royal family) to invade England and to become king.  In 1688, William landed with a force of 12,000 men, and was immediately joined by English nobles and escorted without resistance to London.  King James, his army and navy officers defecting on all sides, realized that his situation was hopeless, and he was allowed to escape in a boat to France.  So it was by this bloodless, so-called "Glorious Revolution" that absolute monarchy was defeated in England.

In 1689, Parliament passed important legislation intended to make absolute monarchy impossible. They stipulated that there shall be no Roman Catholic monarch in England, and they passed a Bill of Rights.  The spirit and intent
of these acts was to place the law above the King, and to establish both the principle and practice of placing limits on governmental authority.

This idea of government by law was most notably shaped into philosophical form by John Locke, a strong supporter of the Glorious Revolution.  Locke believed that government was a social contract entered into between people to establish order and protect their natural rights.  If the government did not hold its part of the bargain , and protect the natural rights of life, liberty and property, then the people might exercise their right to replace that government.  In this way Locke explained why the Glorious Revolution was just, and also gave shape to an idea of constitutional monarchy as opposed to absolute monarchy.  Eighty years late the American founders drew upon Locke's ideas to legitimate their own revolt against the English king.

By the year 1700, Europe had some small republics (Netherlands and Switzerland), many absolute monarchies, and one anomoly--the constitutional monarchy of England.  The political future of Europe was still much in doubt.    After long wars in the Netherlands and England, alternatives to absolutism were established in both theory and practice, but even in these cases compromises and uncertainties remained.  Constitutionalism had emerged, but most of Europe followed France's example in maintaining absolutism.  The future of both hinged in great measure, on the worldwide struggle between Britain and France for ecomomic and military superiority.