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James II

(1633—1701) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland


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King of England and Ireland, James VII of Scotland, b. 14 Oct. 1633, 2nd s. of Charles I and Henrietta Maria; acc. 6 Feb. 1685; deemed to have abdic. 11 Dec. 1688; m. (1) Anne, da. of Edward Hyde (later earl of Clarendon), 3 Sept. 1660; issue: Mary, Anne; (2) Mary, da. of Alfonso IV of Modena, 30 Sept. 1673; issue: James, Louisa; d. 6 Sept. 1701; bur. St Edmund's, church of the English Benedictines, Paris.

James's conduct during his short reign was so inept that premature senility has been suggested. He inherited a stable throne, a healthy revenue, a large army, and a loyal Parliament, and within three years was in exile. A recent and sympathetic biographer has described James as ‘utterly humourless, lacking the intellect to rise above the minutiae of government … so egocentric that he was incapable of understanding the views of others’.

James was fifteen when his father was executed. He had escaped from England in 1648 disguised as a girl. In the 1650s he fought with gallantry in the army of Louis XIV and, after the rapprochement between Cromwell and Mazarin, transferred to the Spanish army. In 1658 he was at the battle of the Dunes, fighting against Cromwell's Englishmen. He accompanied his brother to England at the Restoration. In 1660 his marriage to Anne Hyde, the eight-months-pregnant daughter of Lord Clarendon, the king's chief minister, was thought a mésalliance.

Appointed Lord High Admiral in 1661, he was in command at the great victory over the Dutch off Lowestoft in 1665, and again in command during the third Dutch war, though sharing the honours off Southwold in 1672 with de Ruyter. James's difficulties then began. In 1668 he made a private conversion to catholicism, and when Parliament in 1673 passed the Test Act, forbidding catholics to hold public office, he was forced to resign. Henceforward the promotion of his religion was his main objective. By this time it seemed probable that Charles II would not have children by Catherine of Braganza and that James would succeed his brother on the throne. Alarmed protestants brought forward Monmouth, Charles's illegitimate son, as an alternative, and in the Exclusion crisis of 1679–81 Charles fought to preserve James's inheritance. James was sent to a safe distance to govern Scotland on behalf of his brother, where he used strong measures against the covenanters.

Surprisingly, James's accession in 1685 was undisputed. His first remarks were sensible. He had been accused, he told the Privy Council, of favouring arbitrary rule, but his intention was to preserve the constitution in church and state. Parliament voted him generous revenues, Louis sent him a new subsidy, and the coronation went off well. When Monmouth attempted an invasion in June 1685, it was crushed without difficulty, and James had him beheaded. Soon there was a change of tone. When Parliament in the autumn protested against filling the army with catholic officers in defiance of the Test Act James replied loftily ‘I did not expect such an address from the House of Commons’; Parliament was prorogued and did not meet again in his reign. His drive to promote catholicism gathered pace. The great bastions of government—the law, the church, Parliament, the Privy Council, the army, the navy, the universities, and the bench of magistrates—all felt James's hand. In 1686, he dismissed six judges who had queried his dispensing power. In 1687, he issued a new Declaration of Indulgence giving toleration to dissenters, despite the fact that his brother's Declaration had been declared illegal by Parliament. Catholics were appointed to supreme command in Ireland and Scotland, and a catholic placed in charge of the channel fleet. A new commission of the peace in October 1686 dismissed 248 justices of the peace and appointed 460 new ones, two-thirds of them catholic. An ecclesiastical commission was set up to supervise the Church of England. Charles's campaign to remodel the parliamentary boroughs was revived and the Lords Lieutenant were dismissed if they refused to support the religious changes. Sunderland, the chief minister, announced his conversion to catholicism, and four catholics were brought into the Privy Council. The Vice-Chancellor of the university of Cambridge was dismissed, and the Fellows of Magdalen, Oxford, turned out of their college. When James reissued the Declaration in 1688 his preamble observed, rather unnecessarily, that ‘we cannot but heartily wish that all the people of our dominions were members of the Catholic Church’. Many of his co-religionists, including pope Innocent XI, were dismayed at his headlong campaign, fearing it would misfire. It did. The birth of a son to James in June 1688 raised the stakes by appearing to rule out the policy of waiting for the king to be succeeded by his protestant daughter, Mary. When James prosecuted seven bishops for refusing to endorse his Declaration, they were acquitted at Westminster amid cheers, and a message sent to William of Orange to intervene on behalf of English liberty.

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Subjects: British History.


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