In November of 2014, that most famous of Spanish grandees, the Duchess of Alba, died. At the time of her death, this the most titled of all aristocrats in Europe was 88 years old, leaving behind six children, nine grandchildren and a couple of great grandchildren. And, of course, the ancient duchy of Alba, the Jacobite title Duke of Berwick and the duchies of Liria and Xérica, in her family since the 17th century. Plus a lineage tracing all the way back to the hereditary High Stewards of Scotland.
This is where my interest was tweaked. The Spanish Duchess’ full name was María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y de Silva (a mouthful I bet her mother NEVER used when she was calling for her daughter), and it is in particular the Fitz-James Stuart that I was aiming to talk about today. You see, the late duchess (and now, of course, her son) are descendants to the last Stuart king of England, James II.
Like his older brother, James liked the ladies. He was especially fond of Arabella Churchill, a lady with whom he had a long-standing relationship. Arabella was considered plain, and it was with great joy her relatives – including her father, Sir Winston Churchill, not to be confused with the Winston Churchill – received the news that this tall, pale young lady had attracted the interest of the flamboyant (and married) Duke of York, a.k.a. James Stuart, soon to be James II. At the time, the Churchill family fortunes were at something of an ebb, so maybe Arabella was considered a stepping stone upwards. Whatever the case, Arabella was given a position as lady in waiting to Anne, Duchess of York, thereby ensuring she was on hand to satisfy her lover’s whims.
I’m not so sure how poor wife Anne felt about this arrangement – especially not when Arabella went on to present James with a healthy son, something Anne had failed at doing. Maybe Anne was counting on James tiring of Arabella, but he seems to have been quite fond of his plain mistress – if nothing else he stayed around long enough to leave her with four children over seven years. (but by then Anne was dead, having given birth to eight children of which “only” two girls survived)
James Sr, Duke of York, may have had many faults – and while I am of the opinion that he has been much maligned, I’m not sure this post will benefit from an in-depth perusal into James II as king (if interested in my opinions on this matter, why not visit here?) – but he seems to have been a good father, genuinely fond of his children. Like his brother, he also recognised and cared for his bastards, and little James, siblings Henrietta, Henry and Arabella, grew up in material comfort.
Little James was born in 1670 in France. His mother had apparently been sent off to birth her child somewhat discreetly, although why there should be any need for secrecy at this point is beyond me. After all, everyone knew the Duke of York enjoyed Arabella’s B & B (body & bed) on a regular basis, just as everyone knew he also had other ladies he kept happy.
Whatever the case, James Jr was born, and things were a bit sticky for a while, seeing as James Sr was presently wrestling with his conscience – he had recently converted to the Catholic faith, but at Charles II’s behest he had not gone public with his change of faith.
In 1673, the Duke of York’s conversion became public knowledge, and in that same year James Sr married a Catholic princess, Mary of Modena. What Arabella might have thought is not recorded, but despite his new wife James still visited her regularly, as evidenced by their last child born in 1674. After this, Arabella went on to marry elsewhere and have more babies. James was also to have many, many more babies with his new wife – sadly, of all these infants (ten or so) only two survived beyond early childhood.
It was James’ wish that his children with Arabella be raised as Catholics, which was why little James and his younger brother Henry were educated in France, seeing their father only intermittently. Not only did James Sr want a Catholic son, he wanted a son educated in the fine art of warfare – James himself was a capable leader of men – and so a very young James Jr accompanied the Duke of Lorraine to Hungary, there to besiege Buda.
At the time, the lad was only sixteen, but his age did not inure him from action, so he ended up wounded. He was also present when Buda finally fell, and took part in the resulting sacking, returning to France somewhat richer than he’d set out.
By now, James Jr was the eldest bastard son of a crowned king, his father having succeeded to the crown of England in 1685. To do right by his son, James II created him Duke of Berwick, and also gave him a senior command in his army – a position John Churchill, the future Earl of Marlborough and James Jr’s maternal uncle, had his eyes on.
As we all know, James II’s reign was destined to be short and troubled. His faith was a constant cause for controversy, and when his wife was brought to bed of a healthy son, a future Catholic heir to the crown, the powerful Protestant lords were less than pleased and decided it was time to act.
Personally, I think the birth of James Francis Edward Stuart was an excuse – opposition to James II’s policies had been brewing for quite some time, and many were those who’d lost loved ones in the brutal aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion, a foiled attempt by Charles II’s bastard (but Protestant) son to claim the throne.
In 1688, James Jr was in England at his father’s side when things started to go seriously pear-shaped. Baby James Francis Edward had been born in June, and some weeks later those (in) famous seven Protestant Lords had sent a letter to William III, Prince of Orange and ruler of the United Provinces (present day Netherlands, more or less), inviting him to come to England and replace James II.
Hmm, one might think. Hmm, William III probably thought, seeing as not only was he James II’s nephew, he was also married to James II’s daughter. Problem was, until the birth of little James Francis Edward, William III had been quite comfortable in the knowledge that at some point the crown of England would come to him – well, to his obedient wife – thereby giving him the power base he required to keep Catholic France under control.
William III decided to invade England, and was welcomed by his supporters. James Jr stood by his father – watched him struggle with despair, no doubt – but late in 1688 James FitzJames fled to France, as did his father. The bastard son of a king was reduced to being the bastard son of an exile – not the best of career developments.
James FitzJames did his best for his father, playing an important role in the failed attempt to regain James II’s throne through Ireland in 1690. He was wounded and almost killed at The Battle of the Boyne, and in 1691 he was back in France, determined to make a life for himself the only way he could – by his sword.
Over the coming years, James FitzJames built a reputation as a good officer, a fearless leader of men. Fighting for the French, he had occasion to stand on opposing sides to his maternal kin, was at some point even captured by one of his Churchill uncles, but was quickly exchanged for an English Duke. By 1695, James FitzJames had been formally attainted, his English titles stripped from him. He retaliated by sneaking into England in 1696, where he attempted to foment a rebellion against William III. Didn’t work.
Europe at the time was at war – well, a more or less constant state for this poor continent. In the first decade of the 18th century, the Spanish War of Succession broke out, with on the one side, the Dutch and English teaming up to support the Austrian candidate to the Spanish throne, while on the other side the French allied with the Spanish Bourbon king.
James FitzJames saw plenty of action, and in 1706 he led the French army to a decisive victory over the allied English-Dutch forces (ironically lead by a Frenchman). By then, James was a French Field Marshal. The victory at the Battle of Alamanza elevated him to the peerage, both in France, where he was given the title of Duc de Fitz-James, but also in Spain, where he was awarded two duchies, thenceforth to be known as the Duque de Liria y Xérica. The bastard-born boy had made good, so to say, heaped with honours and riches that far exceeded those English titles stripped from him by William III.
James had not only been busy on the battle field. He’d married twice, first Honora de Burgh, the pretty widow of his Irish friend and comrade-in-arms, Patrick Sarsfield, then Anne Bulkeley, daughter to fellow English exile (and former Master of the Household to both Charles II and James II) Henry Bulkeley. Where his father had been singularly unlucky when it came to the fertility of his wives, James FitzJames was father to close to a dozen legitimate children, of which six were boys.
The Battle of Alamanza determined the Spanish war, but generals and kings being what they are, the war ground on a further number of years until our James stormed Barcelona in 1714. With the exception of some skirmish in 1718, James was now free to sit about and enjoy his wife and family – and riches. Not everyone agreed. In fact, one angry young man felt entitled to demand FitzJames’ services.
Had James’ younger half-brother and namesake had his way, James FitzJames would have led the Jacobite Rising in 1715, his fame as a military leader ensuring the disgruntled Scotsmen flocked to his banner. FitzJames refused. Far too pragmatic to see any possibility of victory, he told his young brother to forget the venture. James Francis Edward would ever after blame the failure of the rising on his half-brother, a convenient way of exonerating himself, I believe.
Men who live by the sword have a tendency to die by the sword, and FitzJames was to be no exception. In 1733, he was requested to lead the Army of the Rhine in the War of Polish Succession. At the time, he was sixty-three, too old, one would have thought, to clamber atop a horse and set off to do battle so far from home. The powers that were thought differently, so off James went, and in keeping with his track record he was just as successful here as he’d been in Spain. Until that June day in 1734 when he decided to inspect the siege works and was decapitated by a cannon ball, that is.
Upon FitzJames’ abrupt death, his sons took over his titles. His eldest son, by Honora de Burgh, took over the Spanish titles, as well as FitzJames’ original style of Duke of Berwick. His second son, firstborn in his marriage to Anne Bulkeley, took over the French title, which lived on well into the 20th century before it became extinct. The Spanish branch, however, lives on, as hale as ever.
By the time of his death, James FitzJames had more than overcome the stigma of his illegitimate birth. A respected soldier, a wealthy man, he was first and foremost a man of honour, the son who stuck with his father through thick and thin. Not a quality he shared with his two older half-sisters, both of whom contributed to James II’s fall. Ironically, neither of those sisters would leave a living heir (divine retribution?), and as to James Francis Edward, his line died out with his sons. And so, just like with Charles II, James II’s present day descendants all come from the wrong side of the blanket. I’m thinking that if James FitzJames was sitting atop my particular branch of the family tree, I’d be proud – very proud, even. I guess the Duke of Alba is.