As explained briefly in a former post on the topic, James II has been buried by the current historiography and demands a more critical eye than he has currently received. James II appears to remain somewhat of an unknown monarch in relation to many of the more popular kings and queens covered in the history curriculum, media, and the public imagination. Since the public’s hunger for knowledge far exceeds the information provided, it seems that even this well-intentioned attempt to present an overview of an often-ignored king may be well received and encourage further interest on the subject. Since it is always an injustice to summarise a person in a few words, it seemed appropriate to write two posts to capture a general overlay of James for the casual reader. This first post intends to cover his life before he was king.
James was born on the 14th of October, 1633 (using the Old Style) at St. James’s Palace. He was the second surviving son, preceded by Charles (b. 1630, later Charles II, 1660-85), and Mary (1631-1660), and older than Elizabeth (1635-80), Henry (1640-60), and Henrietta (1644-70). At the age of three, he was given the honorary position of Lord High Admiral – a position which he would take up in earnest following the Restoration. His infancy began in a period known as the “Personal Rule” of Charles I (commonly held as 1629-40), where the king ruled without calling Parliament. It has been seen as a time of relative calm, especially in comparison to the troubles in Europe, where religious and political strife had led to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). However, this relative calm was shattered by internal dissent over taxation, religious policy, and governance, leading to the Bishops’ Wars (1639-40), the Irish Rebellion of 1641, and the English Civil Wars, which began in 1642.
James was present when his father raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham, and nearly captured along with his brother at the first pitched battle of the civil war, the Battle of Edgehill (1642). Though only nine years old, he kept memoirs of the military actions, as he would later in his military career during the 1650s. After the initial battle, he stayed in the Royalist capital, Oxford, where he was made Duke of York in 1644. However, as the tide turned against the Royalists, Oxford surrendered in 1646, and James was confined in St. James’s Palace. He found his stay most uncomfortable, worrying about the plight of his father, and was stripped of all his retinue, “not so much as excepting a dwarf whom his Royal Highness was desirous to have retain’d with him”. In 1648, he escaped from the Palace with the Joseph Bampfield by pretending to play hide-and-seek, and dressed in women’s clothing to avoid detection. A barge master discovered James’s true identity when he witnessed his “most unwomanly behaviour” while attempting to put on his stockings, but he was convinced to keep his silence and ferry the young prince to France. This would be the first exile for James, and the last time he would see England while his father still lived.
While in exile, James gained a commission in the French army during the Franco-Spanish War (1635-59) and the Fronde (1648-53). Serving under the sublime general, Turenne, he gained a reputation for gallantry and bravery in the face of the enemy, and seemed both accustomed to life in France and at home with his role in the army. When the political situation changed, and an alliance between France and Cromwell’s Commonwealth seemed likely, Charles showed favour towards Spain, with the consequence of forcing James to resign his commission with the French army. Although chagrined, James obeyed his brother’s commands – a loyalty which showed no sign of decay throughout his life. By 1659, France and Spain had made peace and James considered accepting an offer to become an admiral in the Spanish navy. Ultimately, he declined, and in 1660, Charles II was restored as king after the collapse of the Commonwealth regime.
His life as Duke of York and Albany courted suspicion and rumour for a variety of reasons. Announcing an engagement to Anne Hyde, the daughter of Charles’s chief adviser, caused scandal for the proposal that James would marry a commoner. Accusations were made to Edward Hyde, the father, that he intended to mix “royal blood with ink”, and using his position to form dynastic ties beyond his station. Regardless, the marriage went ahead on 3 September, 1660. Two surviving children were the result of this union, Mary and Anne, both of whom would become monarchs.
“I do not believe there are two men who love women more than you and I do”, Charles remarked to the French ambassador in 1677, “but my brother, devout as he is, loves them still more”. The reputation of James as a womaniser rivalled both Charles and John Wilmot, the famous libertine, and earned the ire of more than a few in the court. In his Memoirs, Count Grammont recounted with humour many of the sexual exploits of the Duke of York, and Thomas Pepys – secretary for James in his capacity of Lord High Admiral, and no saint in the bedroom either – wrote in his diary of catching James’s gaze lingering over his wife.
Holding the office of Lord High Admiral, James took the responsibility quite seriously, and appeared to be dedicated to maintaining and improving the navy. He was personally present at the Battle of Lowestoft during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, where he was splattered by the blood of an unfortunate aide-de-camp who was hit by a cannonball. One of the greatest embarrassments of the English armed forces also occurred under his watch; the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway, burning many ships and even capturing the flagship which carried Charles II from France to his restoration, while the English navy could do nothing but watch. However, the responsibility was instead put upon the anti-war minister Edward Hyde, who was forced to resign from public life as a result.
A more heroic recording of his life relates to the Great Fire of London in 1666. As the Lord Mayor was not currently in the town, Charles II placed James in command of the firefighting efforts. James immediately began to set up posts to coordinate fire-fighting teams, pressing persons into aiding the rescue attempts, and organising the tearing down of buildings to allow firebreaks. Both Charles and James personally helped in attempts to tear down homes and put out fires, and a contemporary wrote that “the Duke of York hath won the hearts of the people with his continual and indefatigable pains day and night in helping to quench the Fire.”
Perhaps most importantly, an interest in Catholicism led to both James and Anne Hyde becoming attracted to a form of worship which was subject to great fears and suspicion in Restoration England. By 1668 or 1669, James took Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church, although he kept this secret until the English Parliament introduced a new Test Act in 1673, designed to prevent Catholics from holding office. When James refused to take the oath – which included a passage denying the doctrine of transubstantiation – he chose to resign his post as Lord High Admiral rather than convert to the Anglican faith.
As Charles had no legitimate children, it seemed increasingly likely that the heir-presumptive would remain James: fears of the first openly Catholic monarch since Mary I were becoming increasingly realised and provoked. These fears may be said to have come to a head when Titus Oates and Israel Tonge fabricated lies of a “Popish Plot” in 1679, said to be designed for the murder and overthrow of Charles II. Despite great suspicion and cross-questioning from Charles himself, the accusations were given credence by a series of unfortunate events which supported such a plot. Eventually, the plot was said to include James as a conspirator, fuelling fears to such a degree that attempts to change the succession – and bar James from becoming king in favour of Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth – climaxed in the Exclusion Crisis of 1681. James was commanded to leave the country while political tensions burned bright. It was during this period that the “Whigs” and the “Tories” first emerged as names and loose coalitions: the Whigs being named after a band of rogues in Ireland and being in favour of changing the succession, and the Tories named after a group of outlaws in Scotland, who were opposed to any change, even if it meant that a Catholic would become monarch and Head of the Anglican Church.
Eventually, the Exclusion Crisis was averted by Charles II proroguing Parliament, and opposition to James as the next king appeared to almost evaporate as Whigs were deprived of public office. A half-hatched plan to assassinate Charles and James in the Rye Plot of 1682 led to the implication of many Whigs, and further arrests, dismissals, and exiles of notables meant that the monarchy seemed far stronger than it had been when it was restored in 1660. James was appointed Lord High Commissioner in Scotland in 1682, a vice-regent in Charles’s name, where he appeared to be quite even-handed and amiable. Finally, in 1685, Charles II died and James II began his turbulent and unexpectedly short reign.
– Any reader that wants to discuss or learn more about James II should feel more than free to tweet (@BroJayDee), message, or e-mail questions and queries (firstname.lastname@example.org). The ODNB article by the excellent W. A. Speck (also author of James II – Profiles in Power) does an incomparably better job than this post and is highly recommended for readers with a strong or academic interest.
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/james_ii.shtml – brisk history
- http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage.php?Dir=characters&FileName=james2e.php – another overview of James II
- http://www.andrewcusack.com/2006/10/16/james-ii-our-catholic-king/ – a Catholic interpretation of his life
- http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/james_ii_stuart.htm – a useful narrative that focuses on James’s reign