James II and VII: Mad Wig or Mad Whigs?

James II of England, and VII of Scotland, deserves a more critical eye that history has so far suggested. Despite the efforts of some fantastic historians, this monarch remains the victim of a lingering Whig interpretation which can be seen more as a crime to professional history than any effort for objectivity. Where debates are fiery over similarly contentious figures such as Richard III and Henry VII, James has remained in the dark. The majority of historians and the public still assume quite a simple black and white perspective of James II, especially in comparison to his rival and successor, William III (of Orange). As the harbinger of the last breath of an absolute monarch, and the head of a Catholic conspiracy which is still enshrined in the Royal Succession today, it seems to be an open and shut case that James was an autocrat. The long eighteenth century even starts when James is deposed – as if history required his removal before some kind of progression could occur. Well, it’s high time for the debate to flare up and change to be brought about.

Historiographically, he is not a highly ranked monarch. He never wins any popularity contests for the people’s favourite kings and queens. His greatest claims to fame are being the son of an executed king, the brother of a labyrinthine and unfathomable “Merry Monarch”, and being a deposed king himself. Adjectives to describe him include “autocratic”, “tyrannical”, “inept”, “arbitrary”, and “stupid”.

The danger is that this perspective has rarely been challenged and modern debate is extremely muted in comparison to so many other comparable ideological conflicts. Treatment of Richard III has been much more contended than James II – and the proof is in the most famous event of James’s short reign: “The Glorious Revolution”. This is a slight to how history should be treated today. Even greater a tragedy is a current exhibition which portrays the events as “the Bloodless Revolution”. The archaic Whiggish interpretation of “the Eleven Years’ Tyranny” – where Charles I ruled from 1629-40 without Parliament – has been all but removed from academic discourse for preference of a more neutral “Personal Rule”, but James II is the wretched villain of a “Glorious Revolution”? Perhaps a little revision of the political motives behind the leading name could offer a more neutral tone.

“Bloodless”? In regards to these events, “bloodless” is definitely not the right word to use. Reflecting upon the bloodshed between 1640-1651 (and sporadic events after such as Penruddock’s Uprising in 1655), 1688 definitely saw less loss of life. However, it did see deaths from skirmishes, as well as anti-Catholic riots in several towns. As a rule, history should not proclaim an event “bloodless” if there is death.

“Glorious”? There are a couple of ways of using the word. Perhaps it was glorious because James II was deposed; if so, perhaps this is a little too subjective and highly charged to be used reliably. Glorious because of the relative lack of bloodshed? Definitely a use of hyperbole where there were many supporters of the old regime. Since there are always at least two sides to every story, it would be better to just avoid the exaggerated language and allow debate to discuss the alternate perspectives in a more objective environment.

“Revolution”? The home and international political environment does show that there was discontentment in many quarters. Since James efficiently sabotaged the traditional alliance between the Crown and Church, and threatened a pro-Catholic policy of conversions and full religious toleration which would be extended through his newborn son, there was certainly a high level of dissent. However, there was no attempt to copy the events of the Civil War, perhaps because the events were still very fresh and driven into memory. Instead, it was highly likely that the chief incentive for change came from William’s desire to force (after previous attempts to persuade) England into an alliance against Louis XIV of France. The unstable political situation, a beleaguered monarch, and a need to secure more allies against an expansionist France, meant that William intervened militarily. “Invasion” or “conquest” would be more accurate, and “intervention” would be less subjective, but “revolution” it certainly was not.

It's more likely the reader will recognise this portrait. It's William III.

It’s more likely the reader will recognise this portrait. It’s William III.

It does no justice to James II that he is most famous for the people around him. He is a notable figure, and merits greater attention; not just in the role of pantomime villain to the greater successes of William III, but as a monarch and a person who acted as a vehicle of change. As a result, the public engages forms of history which have not been revised effectively. The Whiggish historiography that has inundated this period needs to be weeded out, removed, and replaced by a more revised and professional discourse which interacts with academia, public, and interest groups. Perhaps it really is the case that James II was a terrible monarch, attempting to bring in an absolute monarchy styled on the monarchy of Louis XIV. It’s not likely, and complex lives are never so easily summarised, but it could be the case. Likewise, it could be that James II was misunderstood, or that he could be seen more as a tragic figure than a reckless authoritarian. Until the political bias and Victorian dialogue is removed from the historiography, we will never really know.

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4 thoughts on “James II and VII: Mad Wig or Mad Whigs?

  1. Well said – it’s about time this lazily-accepted Whig view was examined and challenged.

    And as for ‘bloodless’ – in Scotland much blood was spilled at Killiecrankie and Dunkeld. As for Ireland, well, the repercussions still continue. But you know all that anyway, I’m sure.

    • I was really surprise to see “bloodless” used actually. I was told that the exhibition was put on by a theatre company, which is great, but perhaps someone historically informed could have asked them to tone it down a bit. It’s a little disrespectful – especially considering how little attention Wales, Scotland, and Ireland receive during 1688.

      Hopefully this interpretation will start to be revised more effectively so the public can better engage with the evidence that we have, and not the politics of historians long gone.

  2. Pingback: James – Duke of York and Albany | Good in Moderation

  3. Great essay: James VII & II great patron of arts & building in Edinburgh in particular. The Glorious Revolution is part of England’;s mythic history and James II like Mary I are monarchs the English prefer to write out of their history because they tell us so much about so many aspects of the nation’s character or rather the character of the nation’s political establishment. venality and opportunism dressed in high principles. Not only did the bloodless revolution turn out not to be bloodless in Scotland and Ireland, the revolution further degraded the civic and civil rights of recusant catholics and created the terror of the Penal Laws which virtually destroyed the catholic lower middle class.

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