On 6th February 1685, Charles II of England died. When his brother James II ascended the throne the inhabitants of the growing town of Belfast (population around 2000) sent a congratulatory address to the new King. But while “government in the last years of Charles II had been based upon a close understanding between the Court on the one hand and the High Church and Tory Party on the other,” James was an avowed Roman Catholic who was determined to adopt rapid methods of Romanizing the country.
The fears of the Protestant population in Ireland were first engendered by the recall of Ormonde, the Lord Lieutenant, whose Protestant sympathies were not in accord with James’s design for the island. According to Lord Macauley, James also “obtained from the obsequious estates of Scotland, as the surest pledge of their loyalty, the most sanguinary law that has ever in our island been enacted against Protestant Nonconformists.” With this law and the dragoons of Claverhouse he wasted and oppressed Galloway still more, the atrocities culminating with the foul murder of the Wigton Martyrs, Margaret Maclachan and Margaret Wilson in May.
However, in England itself, before James could proceed with implementing any of his designs, a rebellion was raised by the Duke of Monmouth, natural son of Charles II, and a claimant to the throne. Among the radical exiles in Holland who financed his expedition was the great philosopher, John Locke. However, this ill-fated rebellion was crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 15 July 1685. As G.M. Trevelyan wrote: “The revenge taken upon the rebels, first by Kirke and his barbarised soldiers from Tangier, and then by Judge Jeffreys in his insane lust for cruelty, was stimulated by orders from the King. It was the first thing in the new reign that alarmed and disgusted the Tories. In the general horror felt at the long rows of tarred and gibbeted Dissenters along the roadsides of Wessex, came the first recoil from the mutual rage of parties that had so long devastated English political and religious life, the first instinctive movement towards a new era of national unity and toleration.”
Although thus far triumphant, James’s Catholic Design was ironically thwarted by anti-Protestant legislation enforced by his cousin, Louis XIV of France. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes suppressed all the privileges granted by Henry IV and Louis XII to the Huguenots, inhibited the exercise of the Protestant religion, enjoined the banishment of all its ministers with 15 days, held out rewards for converts, and prohibited keeping schools, or bringing up children, in any but the Catholic religion. Dragoons were sent into Languedoc, Dauphine and Provence to enforce the decree, and it has been estimated that some half-million Huguenots left France as a result. They migrated mostly to the British Isles, Holland and Germany, and brought with them their arts, industry and resentment. Their most persistent memories were the wholesale massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August 1572, by order of the Queen Mother, Catherine de’Medici, and the Siege of La Rochelle, 1628, where out of a population of 25,000 at least 10,000 died rather than surrender to the Catholic army under Cardinal Richelieu. This flood of persecuted Protestants into England made James’s Romanizing intentions well-nigh impossible to implement. Lisburn is significant in the history of Huguenots in Ulster because it became the only place there to have a church, congregation, minister and services in French.
But while in England James had to tread warily, in Ireland he felt he could progress as planned. In 1686 he appointed Richard Talbot, an ardent Roman Catholic, Earl of Tyrconnell and General of the Forces in the island. Tyrconnell proceeded to dismiss all ‘Englishmen’ from the army, disband the Protestant regiments and replace them with Roman Catholics. In January 1687 Tyrconnell became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
It was well known that Tyrconnell’s real intention was to drive all the recent settlers out of Ireland, to destroy the Protestant faith in general, and to restore the Irish aristocracy. (In May 1689 what is generally known as the ‘Patriot Parliament’, composed mainly of the ‘Old English’, or Anglo-Irish Catholics, would, against the opposition of James himself who looked upon his Protestant Irish subjects more pragmatically, repeal the Act of Settlement and pass an act of Attainder against some 2,400 Protestant landowners.)
While many of the Protestants prepared for the inevitable defiance others emigrated to England, where they further enhanced the fears of its Protestant majority as to James’s intentions. However, the fears in England were not primarily religious. The Protestants feared the political implications of English Catholicism more than its theology; they feared the absolute nature of its claim to represent the ultimate in social order, more than its specific ceremonies; but most of all they began to fear for their country’s parliamentary system of government.
As loyalty to James ebbed in England, so the civil power of Catholics increased in Ireland. By the autumn of 1688 all the judges in Ireland were Catholics as were almost all the highest officers of the State. On 5 November William Henry, Prince of Orange and Nassau, at the invitation of James’s enemies, landed at Torbay in England with an army, and by the end of the year the King had abdicated and fled to France. Ironically, this development was welcomed by Pope Innocent XI, a man of moderation who disapproved of the policy being pursued by James, and who helped finance William’s army. As G.M. Trevelyan pointed out: “Innocent had quarrels of his own with Louis XIV and the French Jesuits; he dreaded the French power in Italy and in Europe, and therefore watched with sympathy the sailing and the success of William’s Protestant crusade, because it would release England from the French vassalage. [William] was, himself, the head of a league against Louis that sought to unite Austria, Spain, and the Roman Pontiff with Holland and Protestant Germany. What the Pope and the moderate English Catholics hoped to obtain in England was not political supremacy but religious toleration.”
There was not, however, a similar constitutional crisis in Ireland where Tyrconnell still held the country firmly for King James. Even in Ulster the Presbyterians “did not at once appear against the king’s government”. According to J. M. Barkley, “What settled the issue was Tyrconnell’s ‘sparing neither age nor sex, putting all to the sword without mercy’ (to use the words of a survivor) following the Break of Dromore,”