Exclusion Crisis

The Exclusion Crisis was a political episode that ran from 1679 through 1681, in the reign of Charles II (1630-1685). Charles’s brother and heir apparent, James, Duke of York (1633-1701) had converted to Roman Catholicism. In a climate intensely hostile to Catholicism, the prospect of a Catholic succession to the throne was unpopular. Thus in May 1679 a faction in parliament, led by Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683) and James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685), introduced a bill in the House of Commons with the intention of excluding James from the succession.

Propaganda for and against exclusion was produced on all sides for the duration of the crisis, most famously John Dryden’s anti-exclusionist satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681). Because Shaftesbury had lots of supporters in 1679 and it seemed likely that the bill would pass, Charles exercised his royal prerogative to dissolve parliament. Successive parliaments were called in 1680 and were likewise dissolved. In 1681 the Exclusion Bill passed the House of Commons, but was defeated in the House of Lords. James was not excluded from the succession. But the Exclusion Crisis was not an anomaly. The exclusionists, increasingly known by the label ‘Whigs’, continued to lobby against Catholicism and the threat of what they viewed as ‘arbitrary government’. The parties that were crystallized in the debates about exclusion—Whigs and Tories—dominated politics through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.