Skip to main content

Whigs and Tories

In January 1679 Charles II dissolved what was known as the Cavalier Parliament, which he had first summoned in May 1661, and summoned another one for May 1679. For the last years of the Cavalier Parliament a loose grouping of Members, known as the Country party, had opposed the Court's influence in Parliament, particularly its attempts to secure votes through bribes and patronage.

From 1679, in the wake of the Popish Plot allegations, a section of this opposition took on a more obviously religious dimension. Those who fought most vigorously against the Court's corruption and its foreign policy also strongly opposed the Church's persecution of Protestant Nonconformists and the possibility of the Catholic Duke of York's succession to the throne.

This group became known as the Whigs, and they showed their flair for organisation and propaganda through their overwhelming victories in the elections for the three 'Exclusion Parliaments' of 1679-81. In reaction, a 'Tory' ideology had developed by 1681 which equally loudly supported the monarchy and the Church.

The exclusion crisis

Each of the three Exclusion Parliaments saw the progress in the Commons of a Bill which aimed to prohibit the Duke of York from succeeding to the throne.

In November 1680 the Bill was rejected by the Lords, and the following Parliament, held at Oxford in March 1681 to avoid the turbulence of the Whig London (and the last Parliament to be held outside of the capital), was dissolved within a week, just as the Commons was preparing to vote on the Bill.

Charles never called another Parliament and in the following years he carried out a campaign against the leading Whigs. Two were executed, many went into exile, and even more were removed from town and local government. The success of this 'Tory reaction' was able to ensure James II a smooth succession when Charles II died in February 1685.

Early political parties

The Whigs and Tories of 1679-85 are seen by some as embryonic political parties in England. Although each group's relation to government and political power changed over time, they continued to fight for dominance in Parliament over the next centuries.


You can access biographies of

Charles II
James II

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

Did you know?

The names Whigs and Tories derive from religious differences. The Whigamores were Scottish Presbyterians known for rioting against the established Church, while Tories were Catholic highwaymen and robbers in Ireland.