It was only years later that historians described the turbulent ousting of James II as the 'Glorious Revolution'. It certainly did not seem glorious to those caught up in the events: the monarch, obstinate, cowardly, self-righteous and devious, infuriated even his own supporters, who had risked the kingdom's stability and the wrath of the Puritans and dissenters in allowing an avowed Catholic to ascend the throne. Bewildered, frustrated and increasingly suspicious that, just like his father Charles I, James was determined to enforce his will against the wishes of Parliament, even the Tories turned against him. It also did not seem much like a revolution. There was no mass uprising in favour of the Dutch princeling, or stadholder, William of Orange, nor any decisive battle. When he finally landed in the late autumn, most people were perplexed, nervous and determined to sit on the fence. Their relief that the King's increasingly arbitrary rule had been challenged was tempered by deep suspicion of the large foreign army that, for the first time in more than 600 years, invaded England and seized power. True, he had, after a fashion, been invited in to rectify abuse and restore the authority of the established Church. But who was he? What were his intentions? Had he come as a conqueror or a liberator, or was he a usurper, set on making himself King of England, Ireland and Scotland?

The questions were never properly answered. For instead of restoring certainty, unity and authority, William and his wife Mary (James's own daughter) brought only confusion. Those who had most fiercely opposed James were quick also to find fault with the unpopular, isolated and cautious new ruler; those who had resisted the change found themselves wooed back into power by a king who was himself obliged to agree an extraordinary set of limitations on his power. The result was an unsatisfactory compromise, pleasing neither Whigs nor Tories, dissenters, Catholics or Anglican clergy, commonwealth republicans or libertarian philosophers. But it was this very compromise, this uneasy balance that held in check the opposing forces of a burgeoning new mercantile society, that laid the basis for the individual freedoms which were so vital in opening the door to new ideas, new learning and new prosperity.

That is why Patrick Dillon, in his masterful account of the James's self-destruction and William's opportunistic power-grab, sees 1688 as the creation of the modern world. For not only was the political struggle between opposing parliamentary and religious factions the basis of future democratic tolerance, but the noisy debate took place against a background of fizzing intellectual and social ferment: Isaac Newton was elaborating his revolutionary scientific theories; Henry Purcell was producing England's finest music (which had to be swiftly adapted for a new coronation and a new court); Daniel Defoe was getting into the scrapes and adventures that would enliven his novels; John Locke, both in Dutch exile and in England, was writing the definitive philosophical defence of tolerance and liberty. Press censorship was abolished, and new newspapers stimulated debate. Fashionable coffee houses opened in profusion, venues not only for flashy new fashions but for serious business discussion. Trade expanded and risk became addictive – at the gambling tables as well as in the new stock market. Frivolity coincided with thundering religious jeremiads, as vain attempts were made to curb new liberties, reform manners and return England to vanished political and religious deference.

Dillon's account is panoramic. He relates the central struggle between James and his enemies as though it were a thriller: indeed, each short chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. But he intersperses the account of the monarch's hubris, fall, ignominious flight, recapture and eventual exile with a look at how the turbulence was affecting attitudes to science, learning, exploration and commerce. He rightly underlines the importance and influence of what was happening in the Netherlands – the United Provinces – and the titanic struggle on the Continent between Louis XIV, the overweening French 'Sun King' and his many enemies. And he dwells also on Ireland, whose divisions and antagonism to England were probably sealed by the Battle of the Boyne, King William's famous victory in 1690 for which he is tribally celebrated every year by Protestant Ulstermen.

Dillon's research is impressive and voluminous. Scores of quotations, bons mots, anecdotes and eye-witness accounts fill in the fast-moving detail. The only difficulty is keeping track. Some names are notorious and have resonance to any layman, the notorious Judge Jeffreys in particular. But so many competing figures, for ever switching allegiances, fill the canvas that the account often becomes confusing – as it must have been for the various bishops, MPs, land-owner, courtiers and plotters themselves.

The only figure who remains something of a blur is William himself. Dillon notes: "William liked to tell Tories that 'the crown should not be the worse for his wearing it.' Rochester replied, apparently, that 'he had made it little better than a night-cap'." And he adds: "The king had no charm. He had no small-talk. He listened and gave his painful, dry cough. He did not express opinions." But if he remains intangible in Dillon's account, his meek, submissive but pivotal wife Mary – Queen in her own right – is even mistier. Indeed, the pair of them seem to slink off stage almost imperceptibly. But their story is not the real thrust of this book. It is their legacy – "revolutions in freedom, in knowledge and in risk," as Dillon sums it up. "The conceptual breakthrough on which the Industrial Revolution depended was made at the time of the Glorious Revolution," he says. "It was a moment at which disturbing possibilities became a state of permanent change". He has argued the case well.