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Losing it all – of James II and his crown

William Dobson
James as a child

Today I thought we’d spend some time with James II. I am rather fascinated by this gentleman whose character must have been markedly affected by the terrifying events of his adolescence. Being somewhat of an underdog fan, I have also always felt sorry for James, so brutally ousted from his crown by none other than his own daughter. Come to think of it, neither of his two elder daughter showed much filial respect, and this to a man who, for his time, was considered a doting and loving parent. None of those qualities ultimately mattered: James final destiny was instead shaped by his faith. You see, James II was the last Catholic king of England.
James II didn’t begin his life as a Catholic. His father, Charles I, was raised an Anglican, remained an Anglican, and ensured his children were raised as Anglicans, no matter their Catholic mother, Henriette Marie of France. As we all know, Charles I hit the dust in 1649 – in his case almost in the literal sense, given that he was beheaded. At the time, James II was not quite sixteen, and he was to spend the coming decade in either the French or the Spanish army where he served with distinction and came into contact with various men of Catholic faith. Plus, of course, there was his mother, going on and on about the obvious merits of the single true faith, that of the Holy Roman Church.
EHFA James_II_and_Anne_Hyde_by_Sir_Peter_Lely
James and his first wife, Anne

Initially, James appeared impervious to all this Catholic influence. His interests were not of the spiritual kind, and just like his older brother, James had an eye for pretty women. In 1659 he seduced Anne Hyde by promising to marry her, and to his credit he followed through on his promise, even if no one expected a prince to do so – and by now James was a prince again, returning with his brother, Charles II, to England after the Restoration in 1660. Sometime during his marriage to Anne, James and his wife converted to Catholicism, even if he kept this secret. His surviving daughters by Anne, however, were raised as Anglicans, this on the order of their royal uncle, Charles II.
This secret conversion caused quite the tizzy amongst those in the know: primarily, the king must have clapped a hand to his forehead and said; “what have you done?”. Anne Hyde’s father, the Earl of Clarendon, probably despaired – he was one of those men who actively promoted an “Anglicans only” policy.
Mary of Modena

When the English Parliament introduced a new Test Act in 1673, it became impossible for James to keep his conversion a secret. The Test Act was one in a series of laws put in place to stop Catholics from holding higher office, either in government or the military, by requiring all such officers to take an oath by which they disavowed certain central tenets of Catholic faith, and also to take communion under Anglican rites. James refused to do so, stepping down from his post as Lord High Admiral. It didn’t exactly improve his popularity ratings when the recently widowed James went on to marry Mary of Modena, a fifteen-year-old Catholic Italian princess.
Poor Mary arrived to an England determined to hate her. There were even threats of accusing James for treason for having married without Parliament’s consent, which caused James to go into arrogant mode, but as always in these situations Charles stepped in and defused the situation. Charles must have had times when he despaired of his brother: while he loved him from the bottom of his heart, he was not blind to James’ faults.
Over the coming years, Parliament and King were locked in a constant power struggle, with Charles II adamantly refusing to sign anything that would potentially exclude his brother from the line of succession. When tensions were at their highest, James was recommended to leave the country, which he did, spending a number of years in exile, some of them in Scotland.
In February of 1685, Charles II died. By all accounts, his passing was horrifically harrowing, and on his deathbed he finally allowed himself to do what he had wanted to do for years – he converted to Catholicism, thereby according himself the privilege of dying while professing the faith he had held to in secret. With no legitimate heirs of his body, Charles was succeeded by James, and the powers that were in England were not pleased – at all.
The Duke of Monmouth – still with his head attached

Some of James II’s new subjects were so horrified at the idea of a Catholic king that they joined in the Duke of Monmouth’s ill-fated rebellion. The dashing young duke, you see, was not only Charles II’s son (if illegitimate) but he was also Protestant. A gift from heaven, some thought. Not so James, who made short work of his nephew’s uprising. Monmouth was beheaded in July of 1685 (an uncommonly nasty beheading, an inept executioner requiring several tries before he finally managed to sever the head from the body, thereby releasing Monmouth from his suffering) and his followers were subjected to the harshest penalties available. Very many were executed, even more were deported to the West Indies there to eek out the rest of their sorry lives as slave labour.
So far, 1685 was proving excessively exciting. It was unfortunate that in this self-same year, Louis XIV upped the persecution of the Huguenots. The Huguenots was a blanket name covering all French Protestants and, until 1685, they’d lived under the relative protection of the Edict of Nantes, set in place in 1598 by Henri IV and stipulating all Frenchmen (and women) were free to practice whatever Christian faith they wanted. Louis XIV wasn’t much into toleration. In fact, his Protestant subjects were a constant itch up the royal behind – Louis XIV saw himself as a Catholic monarch, and it followed that therefore his subjects – all of them – should be Catholic as well.
So in October of 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, unleashing a storm of persecution on the Huguenots. Most fled elsewhere – like to England – where they shared horrifying stories of what they’d suffered at the hands of their Catholic compatriots. The virulently anti-papist English shivered and quaked: their new king was, after all, a Catholic. Even worse, James II was Louis XIV’s cousin, and as we all know, blood will tell…
Had James but taken the time to stop and think, he would have realised that for a newly crowned Catholic king in a country so mistrustful of Catholics, it made sense to take things slow. Instead, the man immediately set off on his own personal crusade to revoke all legislation that made it impossible for Catholics to hold office. Not, to put it mildly, a popular move. Especially not with therrified Protestant refugees streaming into the country. (Which, by the by, was in many ways England’s good fortune, as the Huguenot refugees came with substantial skills.)
James II

At the time, James was accused of wanting to return England in its entirety to the Catholic Church. These days, historians agree that James’ purpose was rather to create a more tolerant approach to his co-religionists. (James was no fool, was well aware that reversing the Reformation would be an impossible task.) But James was somewhat inept – call it heavy-handed – in his attempts. However, even if Parliament grumbled and the Protestant Peers protested, there were never any plans to depose James. Deposing kings was simply not done, and the English public did not want a repeat on the royal execution not quite forty years ago.
So, what have we here? On the one side, a disgruntled English populace, angry with their king for promoting his Catholic friends, even angrier when he initiates a massive conversion campaign. On the other, a bewildered monarch, who doesn’t understand why everyone misinterprets him so. (A simplification, of course. And I haven’t even touched upon James’ attempts at fiscal reform, but seeing as most people find taxes boring, let’s not go there…)
On the other side of the Channel, Louis XIV was more than thrilled to see his Catholic cousin on the English throne, while further north William III and his wife Mary, James’ daughter, bided their time. Unless James had a son, the English crown would revert to their staunchly Protestant hands upon his death. The probability of James ever having a son was deemed as low. Anne Hyde had given him over half a dozen children, several of them boys, but only two girls had survived. So far, Mary of Modena and James had been singularly unfortunate when it came to children. Poor Mary had been pregnant close to ten times, with no surviving children.
It was indicative of how out of touch James was with his people, that throughout 1686 he tried very hard to influence the Anglican faction into accepting his more lenient approach to Catholics. England was a hotbed of anti-papist emotions, nurtured over several decades, first by the Parliamentarian forces, then by the Restoration government and their anti-Catholic legislation. Well, if we’re going to be quite correct, the anti-papist sentiments went back further than that, to the reign of Elizabeth I and onwards. No, in England of the 17th century a good Catholic was a dead Catholic – or at least a Catholic who had the sense to stay well away from the green fields of fair England.
In 1687, a frustrated James decided he needed new allies to pursue his political ambitions, and so he started flirting with the Protestant Dissenters. To win their support, in April of 1687 he announced a Declaration of Indulgence whereby all penal laws and the Test and Corporation Acts were suspended. Suddenly, religious freedom raised its head in England. Suddenly, one could openly be a Quaker, or a Baptist, or a Presbyterian – hang on, even a Presbyterian? Hmm. James was no major fan of the Scottish Kirk, but yes, they were also included – or a Catholic. We rarely give James II the credit he deserves for this attempt at creating a society where people could worship as they pleased. Was it self-serving? Of course it was, but for the thousands upon thousands that had been oppressed by the Anglican Church, the Declaration of Indulgence provided quite a breath of fresh air.
This innovative piece of legislation was not greeted with spontaneous outbursts of joy. Most people were sceptical of the king’s motives, and besides, there was a bigger concern. The queen was pregnant, and should she be delivered of a healthy boy child, England would face a succession of Catholic kings. The Protestant nobility gulped. Combining a potential healthy baby with the King’s recent legislation would, over time, erode their power base. No, this needed to be stopped before it went too far, and where else to go for support than to William of Orange in the United Provinces?
The much desired son, destined to a life in exile

It was a boy. Delirious with joy, James wanted to embrace the entire world. A son, he had a son, and even the cruel stories (circulated especially by his daughter Princess Anne) whereby it was insinuated that the boy was a changeling, smuggled into the royal apartments in a warming pan (as if! That would have had to be a very, very small baby), could not quench his joy. James Francis Edward Stuart was born on June 10th of 1688 – less than six months later, the baby would begin his lifelong exile.
On June 30th, seven protestant grandees sent a letter to William III, inviting him to invade and bring his father-in-law to heel. This letter, signed by Edward Russel, the earls of Shrewsbury, Devonshire and Danby, Bishop Compton, Lord Lumley and Henry Sidney cannot be described as anything but high treason. Had it been public knowledge, people would have been horrified. Yes, public opinion was against James, but far too many had far too recent memories of the consequences of plunging England into a civil war to risk taking up arms against their king.
This is where we have to return to Louis XIV and his revocation of the Edict of Nantes, this in an attempt to understand William’s motivations in invading England. If we’re going to be honest, no one knows the man’s motivations – William was a man who mostly kept his own counsel. One thing that is very apparent, however, is that William’s lifelong ambition was to halt France’s expansion, especially into his own territories. He found little support for his bellicose activities – the Dutch states depended on trade with France and saw no reason to antagonise this huge market, no matter that it was nibbling at the borders of the United Provinces. Spain was no help at all, the Holy Roman Empire had its hands full with the Turks, and William all on his own was no match for Louis XIV. However, should one combine England with the United Provinces, well then…Whatever the case, as long as the pacifists remained in power in the United Provinces, William was without the funds required to do more than gnash his teeth. And then came the revocation…
Horrified Dutch Protestants opened their homes to the refugees from Louis XIV’s France, people obliged to flee bloodshed, to leave all their wealth behind (with which the Dutch traders could more than relate), anything to escape the murderous Catholic mobs. Which is when William coughed and said “ahem”. Now he was given plenty of funds. Even more fortuitously, the Holy Roman Emperor beat off the Turks and was more than happy to join the coalition against France. Only England, ruled by Louis XIVs cousin, remained loyal to France. The invitation from the seven grandees therefore came at an opportune time. By invading, William hoped to strong-arm his father-in-law into supporting his efforts to contain France.
William III

William landed in Torbay on November 5, 1688. William was hailed as a liberator. James dithered, uncertain as to what to do – William was family, and James was more than aware of how much his eldest daughter loved her husband. (On a personal level, he must have been devastated by the fact that his Mary was indirectly heading up the opposition.) Besides, he was unnerved by the last year’s outbreak of violent anti-Catholic riots throughout the north of England, and he definitely did not want to be the one who started a new Civil War – he was as beset by spectres as his peers.
On November 23, James took the decision to retire to London rather than meet William on the field. An experienced battle commander, James could probably have held his own – and his was the larger force. So why did he retreat? Why did he attempt to flee to France rather than defend his crown? We will never know – but chances are that had he stayed and fought, he would have carried the day, thereby rewriting history as we know it.
Mary II, James’ daughter

In 1689, William and Mary were confirmed by Parliament as the new king and queen. James made one serious attempt to regain his throne that ended at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. His son would go on to make his own attempts, as would his son, the famous Bonnie Prince Charlie who for a short while in 1745-46 actually seemed to be carrying the day. Until the disaster at Culloden, that is.
These days, James II is often considered a parenthesis, a king who is remembered mainly because he lost it all. I do believe the man deserves a somewhat grander epitaph than that, however ineptly he handled the single most momentous event in his life. Yes, James Stuart was pig-headed and singularly blind to other opinions than his own, But he was also a loyal son, a loyal brother. He was brave and honourable, served his country as well as he could and was allowed to. He was a loving father – doting, even – a caring husband and a man who stood by his friends and his word. He was also a Catholic, and somehow the matter of his faith overshadows all his qualities. After all, it was because of his faith and his determined efforts to make life easier for his co-religionists that he lost his throne. A high price to pay for his faith, IMO. Very high.
The events of 1688 and 1689 play an important role in To Catch a Falling Star, the eighth book in The Graham Saga, while the Monmouth rebellion indirectly shape the events in Whither Thou Goest, the seventh book.

13 thoughts on “Losing it all – of James II and his crown”

  1. Very interesting. I didn’t know the north of england was ever anti catholic. James probably was so hurt his daughters turned against him he just gave up and didn’t want to fight especially if that meant killing family members.

  2. I came across an interesting quote recently comparing Charles II to James II when they were both living in France during the Protectorate. “The king (Charles) could see things if he would; the duke (James) would see things if he could.” I believe this epitomizes the manner each ruled England during their separate reign.

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  5. WOW! i am most impressed with this post I found kind of by chance on a google search. I’m reading the life story of JEAN BART, the famous privateer of the French king Louis the 14th. When I came to the 1688-89 events I just didn’t understand what was going on, what with this James the 2nd of England who was supposedly a catholic and for whom the French king sent troops to Ireland at the battle of Bantry. Now I get it!!! Thanks for your wit and great humour in telling this heavy History saga.

  6. A well written,informative and sympathetic article,and a fitting tribute to a man i have always admired and even loved.Also my inspiration to follow him in becoming a catholic. I took Jacoba as my confirmation name. After his death in exile miracles were reported and there was a cause for canonization of James,which was forgotten about because of a change of pope and the Stuart family becoming politically unfashionable. I am convinced that he is a saint and hope that his cause for sainthood will be reinstated. God bless Saint James the King.

  7. Wonderful article, Anna! I was not aware of much of the intrigue. I would only take issue with your last sentence, since a true and fervent Catholic would not consider fortune, crowns, or even life itself too high a price to pay in order to remain true to his or her faith. As Thomas More quoted, several centuries earlier, when he was threatened with death if he refused to sign the document making Henry VIII head of the Church: “It profiteth a man nothing to gain the world and lose his soul.” (And More wasn’t risking his position at court but his very life.) Although whether his faith was, indeed, James’s true motive remains to be seen, I guess! xx

    1. You’re right: a man of faith sets his immortal soul first. I do believe James was very devout, which in itself was a major problem for his English subjects. Could he have held on to his crown in a time and age where the majority of Englishmen considered Papists the equivalent of hounds from hell? Probably not – but his actions did not exactly help his position.
      Glad you enjoyed the article!

      1. Yes, I agree entirely. He does seem a man, as you say, who was a dreadful combination of inept and out of touch with his subjects. But I do admire his attempts at introducing religious tolerance, whatever his motives. Take care! x

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