What are the differences between the French Revolution and the Glorious Revolution?


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The most obvious difference is that the Glorious Revolution represented the affirmation or strengthening, but also a kind of adjustment, of an existing constitutional system, while the French Revolution overthrew an existing system of government.

The English Constitution has, throughout its history, been an evolving entity. Parliamentary democracy has been achieved gradually over a period of centuries, with key events that altered the balance of power between the King (or Queen) and the legislature, the representative of the people. In 1688, James II was expelled because he was perceived as acting against English liberty. William of Orange was brought in to replace him, but this did not mean the monarchy was abolished. The system of government, that of a constitutional monarchy, was preserved and still exists today—over 300 years later.

The French Revolution, on the other hand, abolished the monarchy (though this was not explicitly the intent from the start) . At first, the plan of those who initiated the revolutionary process was to preserve the monarchical system but to introduce democracy through a constitution, which Louis XVI was basically forced to accept. This in itself was quite different from what had occurred in England 100 years earlier. But events spun out of control. The king was distrusted at least from the time in June of 1791 when he had tried to escape from France. In 1792, the monarchy was abolished and the king and queen executed. This completed the overthrow of the system of government France had for centuries.

The events in France affected all of Europe. The other European leaders feared that similar revolutions would be initiated in their countries. Austria and Prussia declared war on France in 1792, initiating a period of 23 years of almost continuous war. No such outcome had occurred in response to the English revolution in 1688, which was essentially an internal governmental adjustment that did not threaten the other European monarchies. As Edmund Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the events beginning in July of 1789 were like nothing that had previously occurred in Europe. These events changed not just Europe, but the entire world.

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A major difference between the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and the French Revolution that erupted in France a little more than one hundred years later in 1789 was the level of bloodshed. The Glorious Revolution, in which William and Mary deposed James II to become king and queen of England, occurred with almost no violence. William arrived in England with a Dutch army but did not have to use it because James II immediately fled to France. Parliament took his flight to mean abdication and easily installed William and Mary on the throne.

In France, the revolution was a violent upheaval—a massive bloodbath that occurred as tensions that had been simmering for decades erupted. The French people had been oppressed for generations by both the absolute monarchy in France and the corrupt aristocracy that surrounded the throne. Unlike in England, the country's wealth was in the hands of a few families, and the peasants and lower classes were in a highly precarious economic situation. They finally had had it, and fanned by middle-class pamphleteers, burst into rebellion.

The Glorious Revolution was not a major upheaval meant to reconfigure the nation from top to bottom. Primarily, it was the swapping out of a monarch whose absolutism and affinity for Catholicism put him at odds with most of the people in his country. James II's removal stabilized the country and restored traditions, such as the primacy of the Anglican Church.

In contrast, the French Revolution aimed at nothing less that a total remaking of French society from the ground up. A republic replaced a monarchy. Women were granted broad rights. Even the calendar was reformulated. Such an attempt to radically restructure an entire society inevitably leads to bloodshed, and France was no exception. This revolution did not lead to stability but to a highly unstable bloodbath.

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The Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) were two of the most important movements in Early Modern Europe. While there were some similarities between these revolutions, they were also very different in character. Some of these differences can be summarised as below:

  • The Glorious Revolution was sparked by the ongoing power struggle between the monarchy and Parliament. In contrast, France's revolution was caused by economic problems, specifically the huge debts amassed by King Louis in fighting his wars.
  • England's revolution was, generally, not very violent in character. The French Revolution, however, was a period of intense violence, beginning with the execution of King Louis and his wife, Marie Antoinette. The violence intensified during the Reign of Terror, especially under Robespierre, and affected many ordinary people. 
  • While the Glorious Revolution deposed King James II, it did not seek to abolish the monarchy. Instead, Parliament invited William of Orange to rule Britain. The French, however, abolished the monarchy fairly early on in their revolution and were reborn as a democratic state, without the need for a king or queen. 

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