The Immortal Seven were the seven individuals who put their name to the formal letter of invitation sent on the 30th June 1688 to William of Orange requesting that he make the neccesary preparations to depose James II.
Disatisfaction with James II grew during his short reign as a result of his attempts to establish a standing army and to introduce religous toleration, both of which were seen as a prelude to the re-imposition of Catholicism in Britain. As a result there had been a number of contacts made between James' opponents within Britain and William and his wife Mary, the eldest of James' daughters by his first marriage to Anne Hyde.
Although William of Orange was more than happy to take on the job, he was minded to simply wait until James II died; since James had no sons the succession would pass to Mary in due course. By this means it was hoped that the problem of James II, as it appeared to many in Britain, would simply disappear with a little patience. 1
All this changed on Sunday, 10th June 1688 when Mary of Modena, the second wife of James II, gave birth to a boy. The boy naturally named James, (and later known as the Old Pretender) would obviously be raised as a Catholic and gave rise to the prospect that the country would continue to be ruled by a succession of Catholic monarchs for the forseeable future.
Although it was widely believed that James and his wife were incapable of having childen, and that the birth therefore was a fraud - (As the Immortal Seven wrote to William with reference to the birth "which not one in a thousand here believes to be the Queen's" 2) - many now believed that the time had come to take action.
However William was anxious that he did not share the fate of James, the Duke of Monmouth whose rebellion of 1685 had ended in disaster; he wanted to ensure that there was widespread support for his attempt on the throne so that would appear as a liberator rather than a conqueror and refused to come unless formally invited.
The Immortal Seven
On the morning of the 30th June 1688 the news was received of the acquital of the Seven Bishops on a charge of seditious libel. Their acquital could be interpreted as a confirmation of the illegal nature of James' use of his dispensing power but the scenes of public celebration that accompanied the verdict was certainly a confirmation that the popular mood was against him.
So on the afternoon of the 30th June 1688 seven men sat down to put their names to a formal letter of invitation to William of Orange, seven men who were thereafter known as the Immortal Seven, being;
None of these seven were so foolish as to actually sign their names to the invitation itself, but rather identified themselves by a secret code, the two digit number that follows their names above.
Both Edward Russell and Henry Sidney were leading members of the Whig party, but the the Earl of Danby was a prominent Tory as unsurprisingly was the Bishop of London, whilst the Earl of Devonshire represented one of the wealthiest landowners in the country. Together they represented a broad selection of the highest level of English society, sufficient to convince William of Orange that he would enjoy a suitably wide degree of support from across the country.
The Letter of Invitation
In their letter of invitation the Immortal Seven wrote to William of Orange, assuring him that,
the people are so generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government in relation to their religion, liberties and properties (all which have been greatly invaded), and they are in such expectation of their prospects being daily worse, that Your Highness may be assured there are nineteen parts of twenty of the people throughout the kingdom who are desirous of a change
The seven where also at pains to convince William that James and his supporters would be unable to organise any kind of effective opposition as "we do upon very good grounds believe that their army then would be very much divided among themselves" and that neither could they rely upon the navy as "amongst the seamen it is almost certain there is not one in ten who would do them any service in such a war".
The letter was duly carried to the Netherlands by Arthur Herbert, the Earl of Torrington (discretly referred to as Mr H within the letter) and had the desired effect as William of Orange ordered the necessary military and naval preparations for his invasion of Britain.
And as it happens the Immortal Seven were quite right, when William of Orange landed at Torbay on the 5th November 1688 there was no oragnised resistance and support for James II rapidly evaporated. Key officers in the army and navy defected to William's side whilst the rest of James II’s supporters either fled to France or otherwise disappeared from view. The Glorious Revolution became an entirely bloodless affair.
All seven of these gentlemen received their due rewards when William of Orange and his wife Mary became settled in as William and Mary . The earls of Devonshire and Shrewsbury were upgraded to the status of Duke, the Earl of Danby became the Duke of Leeds, the Lord Lumley became the Viscount Lumley and eventually Earl of Scarborough, Edward Russell became the Earl of Orford, and Henry Sidney the Earl of Romney.
1 It is said that Charles II ensured that Mary and Anne, the daughters of James II were brought up as Protestants specifically to ensure that his subjects would find the rule of his Catholic brother James more bearable if they had the prospect of the succession subsequently passing to a Protestant ruler in due course.
2The idea that James Francis Edward Stuart was some kind of fraud is known as the Warming Pan Plot with young James himself known as the Warming Pan Baby. There was probably no truth in these tales, but that was neither here nor there; what was important was that they were widely believed at the time to be true.
Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
Donald E. Wilkes The Forgotten Tricentennial: England’s Glorious Revolution at
Selections from the Invitation to the Prince of Orange, June 30, 1688
which reproduces part of the text of the letter sourced from pages 120 through 122 of English Historical Documents, 1660-1714, edited by Andrew Browning (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953).
See The Jacobite Heritage website at http://members.rogers.com/jacobites/documents/16880630.htm