Exclusion Crisis

views updated May 11 2018


EXCLUSION CRISIS. Exclusion Crisis was the name given to the crisis over the succession that developed in England in the aftermath of Titus Oates's revelations in the summer of 1678 of a "popish plot" to murder Charles II (ruled 16601685) and massacre English Protestants. The plot was a fabrication, but because Charles had no legitimate children and the heir to the throne was his Catholic brother, James, duke of York, Oates's revelations provoked anxieties about what would happen should the king suddenly die and be succeeded by his brother. The English associated Catholic rule with religious persecution and tyrannical government.


Concern over the possibility of a Catholic succession had been expressed before. In early 1674 a group of opposition peers, following the duke of York's public acknowledgment of his conversion to Catholicism and marriage to the Catholic Mary of Modena the previous year, had sought to introduce legislation providing for the education of York's children as Protestants and the exclusion from the succession of any prince of the blood in the future who married a Catholic without parliamentary consent, but backed down in the face of opposition from the bishops. However, the popish plot gave the issue an immediate intensity. Between 1679 and 1681 opponents of the Catholic succession (soon to be christened the Whigs) introduced three bills into successive Parliaments to exclude James from the throne. The first made it through the Commons on its second reading on 21 May 1679 by a vote of 207 to 128 (with 174 members being absent), but was lost to a royal prorogation later that month (and subsequent dissolution in July). The second made it to the Lords, where it was defeated by a vote of 70 to 30 on 15 November 1680, and the third was again lost in the Commons following the king's speedy dissolution of the short-lived Oxford Parliament of 2128 March 1681.

The first Exclusion Bill stipulated that the succession should pass to the next lawful, Protestant heiras if the duke of York were actually deadthereby implying James's eldest daughter, Mary, who was married to Prince William of Orange. The second was initially more ambiguously worded so as to leave the way open for settling the throne on Charles II's eldest illegitimate son, James Scott, the duke of Monmouth, though subsequently modified in committee to make it clear that Mary was the Commons' preferred successor. The third was again ambiguously worded but never made it to the committee stage.

An exclusion bill was not the only solution proposed for dealing with the possibility of a Catholic succession. Charles II and the court favored imposing limitations on a Catholic successor to make it impossible for York to do anything to undermine the Protestant establishment once king. This idea won some support among more radical Whigs like Algernon Sidney (16221683) and John Wildman (c. 16211693) because it seemed to bring England nearer to the status of a republic. But it was seen as a trap by most Whigs (who merely wanted to preserve Protestant monarchy in Britain and who thought that limitations could never be made binding) and was disliked not just by James but also by Mary's husband, the future William III (ruled 16891702). The earl of Shaftesbury, the leading champion of the Exclusion Bill in the Lords, also backed attempts to persuade Charles to divorce his barren wife and remarry, or to declare Monmouth legitimate, but to no avail. For this reason, some historians have suggested that the term Exclusion Crisis is not really appropriate, preferring instead Succession Crisis, although this seems somewhat pedantic. Indeed, Shaftesbury himself saw the remarriage and legitimization schemes as nothing more than other ways to exclude the Catholic heir should the Exclusion Bill fail.


The Whigs conducted their campaign against the duke of York not just in Parliament but also in the press, at the polls, and in the streets, whipping up popular anti-Catholic sentiment to try to convince Charles of the necessity of diverting the succession and organizing mass rallies and petitioning campaigns in support of their position, most famously the notorious pope-burning processions in London on 17 November, the anniversary of Elizabeth I's accession in 1558. Recalling the miseries that English Protestants had suffered under England's last Catholic monarch, Mary I (ruled 15531558), and pointing to the alleged tyrannies of Europe's leading Catholic monarch, the absolutist Louis XIV of France (ruled 16431715), they alleged that a Catholic successor would pose a threat to the lives, liberties, and estates of English Protestants. In order to justify Parliament's ability to exclude James, they documented historical precedents for diverting the succession and also employed natural law arguments to insist that the people's representatives had the right to debar James from the throne in order to guarantee the safety of the people. Yet the Whigs were not just concerned about what might happen should James become king; they were also worried about developments under Charles II. Thus they complained of what they saw as a drift toward popery and arbitrary government not only in England but also in Scotland and Ireland, and were particularly critical of what they saw as an intolerant episcopalian establishment in the church. They accused the bishops and the high Anglican clergy (who opposed exclusion) of being papists in masquerade, and urged that the penal laws against Protestant nonconformists be relaxed so that Protestants of all stripes could unite against the perceived Catholic menace.

Charles was able to defeat the exclusion movement by refusing to call Parliament again after 1681. He also launched a rigorous legal onslaught against alleged political and religious enemies of the state with a cleverly crafted propaganda campaign designed to poison public opinion against the Whigs (who were represented as threatening to embroil the three kingdoms once more in civil war). Although a few radical Whigs continued to conspire to divert the succession, either by open revolt or by assassinating the royal brothers (the so-called Rye House Plot of 16821683, which was leaked to the government before the conspirators were able to attempt anything), public opinion had by now turned decisively against the Whigs. York succeeded to the throne upon the death of his brother in February 1685, and an ill-planned rebellion led by the duke of Monmouth that summer was easily put down by the government.

See also Charles II (England) ; James II (England) ; Parliament ; Political Parties in England ; Republicanism .


Harris, Tim. London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II: Propaganda and Politics from the Restoration until the Exclusion Crisis. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

. Politics under the Later Stuarts: Party Conflict in a Divided Society 16601715. London and New York, 1993.

Harris, Tim, Paul Seaward, and Mark Goldie, eds. The Politics of Religion in Restoration England. Oxford, 1990.

Jones, J. R. The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 16781683. Oxford, 1961.

Knights, Mark. Politics and Opinion in Crisis, 167881. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Scott, Jonathan. Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis, 16771683. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Tim Harris

Exclusion crisis

views updated May 09 2018

Exclusion crisis. A period of intense political strife during 1679–81 generated by the attempt to bar Charles II's catholic brother James, duke of York, from succession to the throne. Widespread apprehension that James would inaugurate a catholic ‘absolutist’ monarchy was aroused in 1678 by Titus Oates's revelations of a Popish plot against king and government. In the three parliaments called between 1679 and 1681 discontented ‘Whig’ groups exploited their majority in the Commons to promote ‘exclusion’ measures, but were each time defeated when the king used his prerogative to close proceedings. The exclusionists' campaign against James represented a radical move by Parliament to dictate the succession in the face of conventional assumptions about the divine nature of monarchical authority, and highlighted the conflict between crown and Parliament which had germinated since the 1660s. Though initially the movement made much impact in the constituencies, it lost momentum as fears of renewed civil war increased, while the king's refusal to summon Parliament again after 1681 took away its main platform.

Andrew Hanham