Glorious Revolution playing cards

About the object

The Glorious Revolution of 1688

In 1688, for the second time in forty years, a British monarch was toppled from his throne. James II had only been king for three years, but had already alienated the majority of the British population with his overt Roman Catholicism and close ties with Louis XIV of France. He was forced to give up his throne and flee to France. The series of events that led to James’s abdication and the accession of Mary II and William III was known as the Glorious Revolution.

This pack of playing cards, made around that time, depicts the events leading up to the Glorious Revolution in the form of 52 political cartoons. Under each cartoon is a caption describing what event is being depicted. The narrative, told from the perspective of the supporters of William and Mary, deploys two main strategies for justifying what could be regarded as a Dutch usurpation of the British throne.

Attacking James II’s Catholic ties

The first strategy is to play on popular fear of popery by emphasizing James’s leanings towards Roman Catholicism and his close ties with France, Britain’s arch-enemy and a champion of Catholicism. The Ace of Spades features the financial support - £500,000 according to the card - that had been sent annually from France to support the monarchy during the reign of Charles II. The Three of Spades emphasises the royal family’s Catholic beliefs by showing James’s second wife, Mary of Modena, making an offering to the Virgin Mary in the hope of conceiving a son. The Nine of Diamonds illustrates the son of James II – James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender – being smuggled to France under the protection of the ‘papist’ soldiers of the Catholic Lord Salisbury. The Three of Clubs depicts James’s attempt in 1687 to force the fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford, to accept a Catholic president of his choosing in 1687; when the fellows refused, James demanded that all those who opposed him be expelled. The Four of Clubs claims that 200 Anglican ministers in the county of Durham were suspended for not reading the King’s Declaration of Indulgence.

Promoting William as the defender of Protestantism

The second principal strategy needed to justify handing over the British throne to a man with whose home country Britain had not so long ago been at war. A key emphasis here had to be on promoting William’s role as defender of Protestantism and on demonstrating that that role had support in England. The Seven of Spades portrays William as a sympathetic listener to the grievances of some members of the English nobility. On the Knave of Clubs, a Dutch army prevents a French force landing in England. The Queen of Hearts illustrates the decisive Battle of Reading in 1688 in which Irish Catholic soldiers fighting on James’s side suffer a heavy defeat by not only at the hands of William’s army but also of the local people of Reading.

Spreading propaganda

Playing cards first appeared in Europe in the 1370s, introduced from the Islamic world. The first European cards were hand-painted luxury goods for the rich. The German invention of wood-block printing in the early fifteenth century significantly reduced the cost of production, and the popularity of playing cards increased amongst the middle and lower classes. The development of the techniques of engraving and then etching, both of which use metal plates, meant that the production of printed images became cheaper and easier. Thus the media of propaganda, such as cartoons, handbills, and, in this case, playing cards, could be produced on a large scale. The added advantage of cards is that game-playing is by definition a social activity and can be indulged in in a variety of settings. The more people shared experience of these playing cards in their homes or in pubs, the better the Whig propagandists were able to convince people that the deposition of James and the accession of William of Orange were indeed a glorious moment in English history.

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Glorious Revolution playing cards