James II

James, Duke of York  
Reproduced from H. B. Wheatley, ed., The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 9 vols. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1894) 4:: 152.  


 James II was born in 1633, three years after the birth of his brother Charles, and was named after his grandfather James I, the first of the Stuart kings of England. His childhood was, like that of his brother, marred by the events of the English Civil War, which broke out when he was only 9 years old; he spent much of the next 5 years travelling with his father's armies. When Charles I was surrendered to Parliament, James was permitted to join him in his captivity at Hampton Court in 1647; he escaped, however, to the Continent in April 1648, joining his mother Henrietta-Maria in France. It was in her company that he learned of the execution of his father in January of 1649.

During the 1650s, James took up the soldier's trade, serving in the armies of the French King, Louis XIV, and establishing for himself the beginnings of a reputation as a brave and effective soldier. It was as a military man that he returned, with his brother, to England in May of 1660; Charles II appointed him Lord High Admiral, a position he was to maintain until 1672. James caused, however, some trouble for the new King when it was revealed that he had been having an affair with Anne Hyde, daughter of the new Chancellor, Lord Clarendon. The affair was discovered when Anne became pregnant, and created a great deal of trouble and embarrassment for the Chancellor, who was accused of prostituting his daughter in order to ally his family to royalty. Despite some reluctance, James agreed to marry Anne. The marriage was to result in two children, Mary and Anne, both future queens of England.

James personally commanded the English fleet against the Dutch at the Battle of Lowestoft in June of 1665, and acquitted himself well, presenting England with a modest, but important, naval victory. Trouble, however, was brewing unseen: James converted to Roman Catholicism in 1669, but this remained a secret until 1672 when, in retaliation for Charles II's attempt to issue a Declaration of Indulgence, Parliament passed the Test Act, requiring all office holders to swear an oath against the (Catholic) doctrine of transubstantiation. James resigned his post as Lord High Admiral rather than take the oath, thereby confirming what was already widely suspected. James' faith was fast to become a major political issue: as the years went by, and the Queen showed no signs of producing the looked-for Protestant heir, it became increasingly evident that James might well succeed his brother to the throne.

Alarm at this prospect grew with the lengthening of the decade. Memories of the Marian persecutions of the 1550s returned with new force: that Popery and French-style absolutism were firmly linked in the minds of most of the English did not help either. Unfortunately, James' pronouncements, in public and in private, were not reassuring: with regard to his private faith and public prerogatives, he was already demonstrating a stubbornness, and unwillingness to compromise, that no doubt reminded many of his father. His marriage to Mary of Modena, an Italian Catholic, following the death of his first wife in 1671, seemed again to confirm his intention of becoming a forthright champion of popery.

In this context, it is perhaps not difficult to understand why the fabricated Popish Plot crisis, which broke in August of 1678, had the kind of impact that it did. Invented by the unscrupulous opportunist Titus Oates and his co-conspirator Isaac Tonge, the "Plot" purportedly represented an attempt by Jesuit conspirators to assassinate the King, and elevate the Duke of York in his place. Next to no proof existed that such a plot had ever actually existed, but a search of the private papers of James' former secretary, Edward Coleman, did reveal that this incautious young functionary had been engaged in a rather dangerous correspondence with Jesuits, and had voiced his own view that the time was ripe for the suppression of the Protestant heresy in England.

It was, of course, a matter of guilt by association: if James' secretary had communicated with Jesuits in this kind of inflammatory language, then it followed that James himself must be implicated in the supposed plot. Coleman was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn in December of 1679, the first of a number of largely innocent victims of the anti-Catholic hysteria that Oates had stirred up. The crisis very soon took on a strongly political nature, and the efforts to deal with the Catholic "threat" to England focussed upon the danger of James succeeding to the throne. Thus, the Popish Plot shaded imperceptibly into the Exclusion Crisis, as the Parliamentary opposition, led by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (Dryden's "Achitophel") attempted to block James' right to succession; their favoured candidate to succeed was the King's eldest illegitimate son, James Stuart, Duke of Monmouth. Parliament proposed removing James from the King's presence and councils, and the election of a new and even more intransigent Parliament in 1679 actually forced Charles to send James into temporary exile at Brussels. James reluctantly acquiesced, but not before he had convinced the King to send a formal declaration of Monmouth's illegitimacy to Privy Council.

Still the crisis lurched on: Charles proposed introducing restrictions to the powers of his brother, should he succeed, but in May of 1679 the Commons brought in a bill formally excluding James from the succession. In reply, Charles dissolved Parliament. Although Charles did not allow Parliament to sit for another year, the opposition found other ways of harassing the Duke of York. In June of 1680, Shaftesbury had James indicted as a Catholic recusant, but the case was thrown out. A new Parliament, summoned in October, again introduced an Exclusion Bill, which was defeated in the House of Lords; the Commons retaliated by threatening to charge James with treason should he return to England. Frustrated by the defeat of two Exclusion Bills, the Commons informed Charles that they would vote him no more money unless he agreed to exclude James. Charles again responded by dissolving Parliament. A last Parliament was summoned to the staunchly Royalist city of Oxford in March of 1681; Charles, having received a new secret subsidy from France, allowed it to propose yet another Exclusion Bill before dissolving it. It was the last Parliament of Charles' reign.

Now Charles and his allies went on the offensive: Shaftesbury was arrested for treason in July of 1681; although he was acquitted by a sympathetic London jury, the tide was clearly turning. James, who had been serving as High Commissioner in Scotland from November of 1679 to March 1682, returned to England, and Charles and he busied themselves counterattacking the increasingly desperate opposition. In 1683 the existence of the Rye House Plot a Protestant conspiracy to ambush and assassinate Charles and James on their way from Newmarket was revealed, and many of the more prominent opposition leaders implicated and arrested.

Pushing his advantage, James successfully sued Titus Oates, and was awarded £100,000, plus costs. He and his brother spent 1684 and 1685 persecuting what was left of the opposition, especially in London, and establishing what very nearly amounted to an absolute monarchy. In February of 1685, Charles II suffered a stroke and died; so thoroughly had the opposition been silenced that James acceded to the throne with scarcely a murmur from the populace.

Protestant England's greatest fear had come to pass: a Catholic monarch sat upon the throne. Yet Charles and James had so effectively crushed the opposition in the two years previous that there was little anyone could do to oppose it. James also possessed a standing army of some 20,000 men, and a much fuller treasury than Charles had ever been able to boast. His first Parliament proved extremely compliant, and granted him a large revenue unconditionally, and for life. When, in June of 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis with a tiny force of volunteers determined to raise a rebellion, James had little to fear: Monmouth's ill-equipped force was easily cut to pieces by James' forces at Sedgemoor, and Monmouth himself captured, tried, and beheaded. The surviving rebels were soon rounded up, and there began the wholesale executions and transportations of the "Bloody Assizes," ably administered by the brutally efficient Lord Chief Justice Jeffries.

Monmouth's ragtag rebels had attracted very little support from those in positions of power, wealth, or influence; nonetheless, anxieties were growing. It was, in particular, noticed that James had been quietly but steadily commissioning and placing loyal Catholic officers into positions of importance in the army; when Parliament began hesitantly to voice its doubts, one of its spokesmen was sent to the Tower, and the session prorogued.

James now began to quicken the pace of his "reforms": he attempted to suborn the judiciary by dismissing unfavourable judges, and replacing them with supportive or even Catholic ones; he then appointed an Ecclesiastical Commission to examine "reform" to the Church; this quickly suspended Bishop Compton of London for refusing to discipline a clergyman who had delivered an anti-Catholic sermon. He also turned his attention to the universities, forcing upon colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Masters of his choosing. When, in August of 1687, the Lord Lieutenants of the counties (effectively in control of administering the law) were asked if they would support a lifting of the penal laws from Catholics, those who refused were removed. James also placed Catholics in command of Scotland, of Ireland, and of the all-important Channel Fleet.

The signs were all ominous, especially given that Louis XIV had, in August of 1685, commenced his own heavy-handed persecution of the French Protestants. It did begin to appear as though James intended the forcible conversion of England to Popery. In 1687, James' own daughter, Princess Anne (the future Queen Anne) expressed these very fears in a letter to her sister Mary. opining that "the desire the King has to take off the Test [Act] and all other laws against them [i.e., Catholics], is only a pretence to bring in Popery." By 1688, James had effectively alienated most of his subjects. Even staunch royalists were shocked: John Evelyn, witnessing a Catholic ceremony at Whitehall in 1686, was deeply dismayed:

I could not have believed I should ever have seen such things in the King of England's palace, after it had pleased God to enlighten this nation; but our great sin has, for the present, eclipsed the blessing, which I hope he will in mercy and his good time restore to its purity.

Two events precipitated the crisis that was to turn discontent into active rebellion. First of these was the issuance of a second Declaration of Indulgence in April, which James now insisted should be read from the pulpit of all churches. Seven of the Church of England's Bishops petitioned James to repeal this order; all were arrested for sedition and tried; their acquittal, on 30 June, was greeted with wild rejoicing.

The second event was the unexpected birth of James Francis Edward, a royal son and heir, to Mary of Modena. It was, perhaps, this more than anything else which sent English Protestants into a panic: the prospect of James being succeeded by a Catholic son (rather than by one of his Protestant daughters, Mary and Anne) was too much for many to take. Wild rumours greeted the announcement of the birth, the most fatuous, but most popular, being that the new prince was a changeling, who had been secretly smuggled into the queen's chambers in a warming-pan.

These two events achieved the impossible: they united Whigs with moderate Tories, and created an astonishingly broad-based coalition of opposition to James. On 1 July, 1688, a diverse selection of some of England's most powerful men secretly sent an invitation to the Dutch prince, William of Orange, to intervene in England. William's credentials as a Protestant were impeccable, and his marriage to James' daughter, Mary, in 1677, made him an obvious choice as "saviour" of English rights and liberties. William responded, through July and August, by assembling an army of 14,000 men, and preparing a sizable fleet for an invasion of England. James, in turn, ordered a large force to Hounslow, which later moved to Salisbury; at the same time, he began making desperate concessions to the opposition, reversing most of his most hated pro-Catholic reforms.

It was, however, too little, too late. On 5 November, 1688, William's forces landed at Torbay, his invasion coordinated with risings in Yorkshire and Cheshire. James responded hesitantly, unwilling to commit his army, the loyalty of which was by no means certain, to battle. Deciding at last on retreat, James hurried back to London, only to discover that many of his most important supporters, including his daughter Anne, had defected to the side of William. James now sought flight, but was unable to manage even this competently; even though William was more than eager to allow James to escape, the dispossessed monarch managed to allow himself to be captured, and brought back to Whitehall on 16 December. Embarrassed by the prospect of holding his own father-in-law prisoner, William permitted James to "escape" a second time, and he made his way, this time successfully, to the Continent. The bloodless Glorious Revolution had unseated the legitimate King in less than 6 weeks; in January of 1689, the new "Convention" Parliament determined that James had, in effect, abdicated, and his daughter and son-in-law were installed as joint rulers, as William III and Mary II.

James was accommodated in France by Louis XIV at a small palace at Saint-Germain, where he prepared, with some reluctance, to land in Ireland, which was still being held for him by the Catholic lord Tyrconnel. This he did in spring of 1689, and began to ready the poorly-trained and equipped forces there for an encounter with William. By summer of 1690, William was ready to respond in strength, and on 1 July, an army led by the new king met James' forces at the Boyne, and defeated them decisively. James fled precipitately back to France, having badly bungled his last real chance of regaining his throne. Disillusioned, James returned to Saint Germain, where he maintained a rather pathetic shadow court, supported by the charity of Louis XIV, until his death in 1701.


James II seems in every way a startling contrast to his brother Charles II. Where the latter was personable, witty, and popular, James was stiff, formal, and not well liked. Both brothers sought to increase their personal power, and both faced powerful opposition, but where Charles employed patience and subterfuge, James sought open confrontation. He frequently appeared arrogant or haughty and was also, likely, not terribly intelligent.

What was, possibly, James' most attractive personal trait was also, paradoxically, the cause of his downfall, and came to be the most forceful expression of his unthinking arrogance. Where religion had for Charles never been much more than a matter of state policy, James clearly possessed a strong personal faith, and indeed devotion, to the Roman Catholic Church. Such was his conviction that he remained steadfast to its principles even when it was clearly ill-advised to do so. In this often admirable personal characteristic he most resembled his father.

Yet, principle can easily shade into bigotry; despite his occasional opportunistic championing of "toleration," James never really saw the loosening of penal laws against dissenters and recusants as more than a means of advancing Catholicism. In practice, James was a religious bigot whose every effort was bent to emancipating Catholics, while offering little or no relief to those Protestant sects that were also persecuted under law. Thus, in 1686, he order the Scottish Privy Council to free Catholics from the punitive Penal Laws, while maintaining them against Covenanters. There seems little doubt that James, with his absolutist leanings, would have become a ruthless oppressor of Nonconformity and, possibly, even of Anglicanism itself. The Restoration was an age of intense religious bigotry: England had only recently recovered from one civil war that had featured strongly religious overtones. Negotiating the dangerous quagmire of English religious politics required a great deal more subtlety than James, with his self-assured prejudices and intolerance, possessed.

Strangely, James' strong personal piety seems not to have prevented him from enjoying a great many pleasures apparently incompatible with his faith. In particular, James was not far behind his brother in the pursuit of adulterous affairs, and he kept a number of mistresses and fathered his own illegitimate children. These sorts of contradictions made him, in his own life, one of the most unpopular monarchs ever to sit upon the English throne.

Further Reading

Ashley, Maurice. James II. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota

Press, 1977.

[DBW stack DA450.A83 1977]

Childs, John C. R. The Army, James II, and the Glorious Revolution.

New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

[DBW stack DA452.C47 1980]

Glassey, Lionel K. J., ed. The Reigns of Charles II and James VII & II. New

York : St. Martin's Press, 1997.

[A collection of essays on these two reigns, each addressing a broad theme, by some of the better known historians of the period, including Tim Harris and Ronald Hutton. Subjects include political theory, practical politics and finance, the relationship between England, Scotland, and Ireland, religion, popular politics and the press, towns, the aristocracy, and foreign affairs. Very worth well, and quite up-to-date.]
[DBW stack DA435.R45 1997]

Seaward, Paul. The Restoration, 1660-1688. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1991.

[Although this work might be better organized, it serves as a brief but worthwhile introduction to many of the most important historical "themes" of the period. Not a bad place to begin.]
[DBW stack DA445.S43 1991]

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