Whig historians would have us remember James II as a Catholic despot whose deposition was vital to the preservation of the British monarchy. His short but fractious reign was rife with tensions between Whig and Tory, Catholic and Protestant, and most importantly King and Parliament. The tumult only subsided when the Catholic king fled into exile, leaving his kingdom in the hands of a Protestant Dutchman, William of Orange.
As a young boy James was known to all as the Duke of York. He was concealed from the Parliamentarians during the Civil War while studying at Oxford, one of the last remaining Royalist strongholds. When the city of Oxford was under siege James fled, disguised as a woman, to the safer shores of the Hague and then to France to be with his mother. There he became an able soldier fighting alongside the French and the Spanish armies. He also served as a naval leader in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars.
When Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth period ended and James’s brother Charles II was restored as king, James returned to England. In 1660 he caused great controversy by marrying a commoner, Anne Hyde, daughter of Charles II’s chief minister. It was widely panned by the nobility but at the time few expected James to succeed his brother as king. Anne gave birth to several children, and James was a closely involved father which was uncommon for royals at the time. He also maintained several mistresses. He was as much a libertine as his brother, Charles II, in fathering several illegitimate children by two different mistresses. The diarist Samuel Pepys noted, “the duke of York, in all things but in his codpiece, is led by the nose of his wife.” Tragically, most of the children Anne Hyde gave birth to died in infancy. The chief issue associated with James was his Catholicism. Influenced by his time in French exile, both James and his wife converted to Roman Catholicism which very nearly caused a civil war in England as it grew more apparent that James was to set to become king -Parliament passed the Test Act in 1673 which ordered all civil servants to take an oath against transubstantiation and other Catholic doctrines. It was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the successorship of James. Anne Hyde died in 1671 before James could become king and he soon remarried a fifteen-year old Italian Catholic princess named Mary of Modena.
James was appointed Lord High Admiral after the Restoration and he maintained close involvement with the military throughout his reign. He also became the namesake for a variety of locales in the New World: the region between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers captured from the Dutch became known as “New York” in honor of his title as Duke of York, Fort Orange was renamed Albany in honor of James’s Scottish title “Duke of Albany,” and he was appointed Governor of the Hudson Bay Company though he was never actively involved in its operations.
The path to James’s crown was fraught with peril. When it became clear that Charles II would have no legitimate heir to succeed him, Protestant England nervously looked upon James Duke of York with suspicion. The Earl of Shaftesbury led the opposition to Catholicism in Parliament (the “Crisis of Exclusion”) coupled with the conspiracy theory of an odd Anglican clergyman, Titus Oakes, which spawned the Popish Plot. A real plot was planned in 1683 to assassinate Charles II and his brother James in order to instate a Protestant monarchy. The plan was discovered and perpetrators fled into Dutch exile. It was later known as the “Rye House Plot.” At any rate, outright mania against Catholicism had taken root among the English nobility.
Nevertheless James was crowned as King James II on April 23, 1685 (Saint George’s Day) at Westminster Abbey. His magnificent coronation injunction was to do ‘All that art, Ornament and Expense could do to the making of the Spectacle Dazzling and Stupendous.’ James’s early reign was marked by great celebration. Even Parliament, which sought to preserve the Restoration, was remarkably friendly and generous to the new Catholic king. In fact it became known as the “Loyal Parliament.” However, James had a somewhat alienating disposition about him. The Scots called him “dismal Jimmy” for his publicly stiff affect. One contemporary politician, the earl of Lauderdale, wrote that James has “all the weakness of his father without his strength”. In Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Time (1723) he writes, “He [James] had no true judgment, and was soon determined by those whom he trusted, but he was obstinate against all other advices.”
James had several early challenges to his rule, the most notable of which was the invasion of James Scott Duke of Monmouth, the eldest illegitimate son of the late Charles II. The Duke of Monmouth had been gaily spending his days in Holland with his mistress Lady Wentworth where he was persuaded of his chance to become king of England. He surrounded himself with fellow exiles and members of the Rye House conspirators as well as followers of Shaftesbury in exile who convinced the lad to invade England and reclaim his Protestant birthright. Monmouth approached William of Orange for military support from the Protestant Dutch and the situation revealed the superior statecraft of William of Orange. He offered to aid Monmouth, seeing the advantage of either outcome. If Monmouth succeeded, a Protestant king of England would assuredly help William against the Dutch conflict against Catholic France under Louis XIV. If Monmouth failed, the last barrier between William and the throne of England would be removed. William saw the kingship of England as a key strategic alliance due to its wealth, Protestantism, and powerful navy. Of the two alternatives William would be privately pleased with the eventual outcome.
The rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth was launched at Sedgemoor in July 1685, but Monmouth had failed to muster the forces necessary for success, and he also failed to sway any nobles to his cause after he orchestrated a frivolous self-coronation ceremony. Amidst a small rebellion in Scotland by another Protestant champion (the earl of Argyll), James II sent a small band of trained military men to Sedgemoor where they fought back the Monmouth rebellion. Monmouth attempted a bold night surprise attack but it rapidly backfired. His pathetic forces were easily overwhelmed by the king’s trained forces: 500 men were killed and 1,500 were taken prisoner. Monmouth escaped during the onslaught, disguised as a shepherd, but he was later found hiding in a ditch. Monmouth was brought to London where he was surprisingly granted an audience with the king. He begged on his knees for his life but the king was implacable. Monmouth was brought to the Tower to be executed. When he arrived on the scaffold he bribed his executioner to ensure a quick death, but when the time came the executioner took many blows which hideously hacked away at the head of Monmouth. His body continued to move about and had to be repositioned more than once as blow after blow from the axe failed to sever his head (some say it took five slices, others say seven). Monmouth’s head was eventually removed with a knife. It was a gruesome end for the Duke of Monmouth and many of his supporters met a similar fate. Several hundred were sent to work as laborers in the West Indies.
Once the battle ended James refused to disband the military. He maintained a standing army, the first such army since the Cromwellian era, and he began appointing loyal Roman Catholics to high military positions. It was shocking and disconcerting for Parliament. He also expanded “tolerance” for Catholicism more broadly throughout the kingdom. He eroded the authority of the Test Act, and decreed certain changes to the Church of England. Up until this point the Tories had fully supported James all through the Exclusion Crisis and naturally they expected their support to be reciprocated with full royal respect paid to the Church of England. However they were sadly mistaken. The king had no interest in paying false deference to the Anglican Church, and herein lay his greatest failure: a pig-headed rebuke of a loyal Parliament which thus united both the Whigs and the Tories against him. Nevertheless, James pressed forward with religious reforms. He believed himself to be ordained by God in finishing the Counter-Reformation of Mary I that had failed many years prior. He felt himself filled with divine Providence to reconvert England to the true faith: Catholicism. Meanwhile Englishmen learned of the horrors abroad when France revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which yielded fresh hostilities to French Huguenots. People were reminded of the Protestant persecutions under “Bloody Mary” which were so graphically documented in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as well as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris. Following the revoke of the Edict of Nantes, Protestant refugees fled by the thousands to England seeking shelter from the storm. This did not bode well for James II. He was compelled to prorogue Parliament twice. In 1687 he decreed the Declaration of Indulgence which negated laws punishing Catholics and other Protestant Dissenters (one of his strongest allies in this effort was the Quaker leader of the new Pennsylvania colony, William Penn). The Declaration of Indulgence, which was ordered to be read aloud in churches throughout the country, caused an open conflict with leading bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury.
However, James’s growing enemies were content for a while to simply watch the king continue his rule, patiently awaiting either the crown’s demise or succession. James had no male heir, and instead he had two Protestant daughters: Mary (wife of William of Orange) and Anne (married to Prince George of Denmark). Either way a Protestant successorship seemed all but assured. Queen Mary of Modena had given birth to five girls who died in infancy. Then in late 1687 the Queen announced she was pregnant and in June 1688 she gave birth to a boy: James Francis Edward. The boy became known as “Old Pretender” among the Whigs who immediately began peddling rumors that the boy was illegitimate or that Mary was never actually pregnant and a child had simply been smuggled into the king’s chamber. The king’s daughter Anne, who was no fan of her young step-mother, echoed some of these rapidly expanding theories. Per Winston Churchill: “The birth of the baby prince struck so cruel a blow to the hopes of the nation that was it was received with general incredulity, sincere or studiously afflicted” (377). The existence of a decidedly Catholic male heir to the crown threatened England’s Protestant future and it promised a Papist dynasty for years to come. This was unacceptable to many and within a matter of months rebellion was once again in the air. Parliament passed the “Bill of Rights Act” which sought to restrain the king’s power (it later became a model for the American Bill of Rights).
The Glorious Revolution (1688)
Per Winston Churchill: “The national fear and hatred of Catholicism were inflamed by the daily landing on the British shores of miserable victims of Catholic ‘toleration’ as practised in France by the most powerful sovereign in the world. All classes and parties knew the close sympathy and co-operation of the French and English courts. They saw all they cared for in this world and the next threatened. They therefore entered, not without many scruples and hesitations, but with inexorable resolve, upon the paths of conspiracy and rebellion. In England during the Autumn of 1688 everything pointed, as in 1642, to the outbreak of civil war… Never did the aristocracy or the Established Church face a sterner test or serve the nation better than in 1688” (375).
It has been called a “Bloodless Revolution.” A group of nobles known as the “immortal seven” wrote to William of Orange requesting his presence in England to inspect James’s heir but also to ostensibly grant military support to Parliament and possibly usurp the crown. It was the start of the Glorious Revolution. William mustered some 15,000 men and sailed across the Channel with the benefit of the “Protestant wind” before landing at Torbay, Devon on November 5, 1688 (an auspicious date). He carried a banner that read “The Liberties of England and the Protestant Religion I will maintain.” It hearkened back to another William’s invasion of the isles many centuries prior, only now it was a dutchman and not a Norman. William slowly made way for London gathering ever greater supporters wherever he went, forcing James to make the first move. Meanwhile, in attempting to rouse his soldiers in Salisbury, James underwent some sort of psychosomatic crisis that yielded a severe bloody nose. Incapacitated and depressed he retreated to London. That night his rising star general John Lord Churchill fled to join the forces of William. Churchill was soon followed by the king’s son-in-law, George Prince of Denmark (husband of the Princess Anne). Anne joined the rebels as well. In a state of despair, believing himself abandoned by both his God and his children, James felt he saw the grisly demise of his father Charles I repeating itself. He felt his only option was escape. The Queen escaped from WhiteHall in disguise as a laundry woman. And the next day James fled the capital in a boat. He pompously hurled the Great Seal into the Thames, thinking this would prevent Parliament from reconvening, but James was soon humiliated when he was captured by fishermen in Kent. James was hustled back to London by the military. William delivered the king an ultimatum and, in order to prevent the king from becoming martyr, William allowed the him to escape to France. Within six weeks, and without a shot being fired, England had been taken over by William of Orange.
Parliament declared James had abdicated the throne and they ushered in a return to Protestantism under William and Mary, but not before James made one final attempt at regaining his crown. James roused those loyal to him -“Jacobites”- in Ireland and Scotland in 1689 along with mercenary troops provided by Louis XIV of France. Despite his efforts James was finally defeated in July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne (so-named for the Boyne River) wherein William personally led his troops against the former king. Again, fearing the worst, James fled the battle scene. His courage ultimately failed, earning him the ire of both sides. He was known to the Irish as “Séamus an Chaca” (“James the shite”). He fled to become a French pensioner where the French courtiers found him pompous and boring.
James II died abroad in French exile in 1701. Unto his last days he was convinced that his predicament was God’s punishment for his infidelities. In future years there were several Jacobite attempts to reclaim the Stuart heritage of James II: The “Old Pretender” attempted an uprising that failed, another Spanish attempt was made in 1719 but it too failed, and James II’s grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie made one final shot at the crown but by then the country had moved on. The remains and memoirs of James were later destroyed in the French Revolution.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Samuel Pepys’s memoirs, Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Time (1723), and Peter Ackroyd’s Rebellion: The History of England From James I To The Glorious Revolution.