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James II

Banqueting House

I had a review at work recently in which I had to assess my strengths and weaknesses. I asked my long suffering wife what my strengths were, and she said something about being good with people. When I asked about my weaknesses, she paused for a moment and then rushed off to take our daughter to school.

Perhaps it is not only vanity that makes me struggle with the idea of strengths and weaknesses. In many ways strengths can be weaknesses, and vice versa, depending on circumstances. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard academic and natural history expert, has pointed out in his book Wonderful Life that we often talk of strength and weakness in explanations for the evolutionary fate of animals or plants. Various factors are picked out to explain why an organism fails or succeeds in the evolutionary struggle. But as Gould says, all explanations of this sort are offered with hindsight, with facts picked out to fit what happened later. It is actually impossible to predict beforehand which organism will flourish or fail, and what actually constitutes a strength or weakness. For example, being a small, decorative dog with a shaggy coat that gets knotted in five minutes might appear to be an evolutionary weakness. But if the dog found itself in a world where people considered such attributes attractive, the dog would proliferate and be successful. A dog of this kind lives very happily in our house.

All this brings me to James II, and an imaginary career review for a man who ruled England briefly between 1685 and 1688. James has been dismissed as autocratic, naive, incompetent, as "impractical, foolish, misguided" (Barry Coward The Stuart Age P336), or as "diligent but not very bright" (Maureen Waller Ungrateful Daughters P125). James could also be described as honest and straight forward. After his conversion to Catholicism he found it impossible to lie about it, unlike his politically astute brother Charles II. In the circumstances of the time this honesty did not work out well, and James was to get a poor mark in his review. In reality of course in an alternative situation it could all have been so different. The categories of strength and weakness are not absolute. If James did have a fundamental weakness it was that he did not appreciate this relative nature of human qualities. James had a very conventional mind, which accepted the old demarcations of the world, which at this crucial moment in history were just beginning to break down. His outlook was black and white. There were important people and common people, the right religion and the wrong religion, the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. James, who incidentally was happiest in the clearly defined life of the military, would have loved career reviews where strengths and weaknesses were poured over. He did not realise that history has little time for such arbitrary categories.



St James's Palace

James was born on 14th October 1633, at St James's Palace and lived an idyllic existence for his first seven years as second son of Charles I. Things had changed by 1641, however. In May of that year James would have witnessed the terrifying sight of Whitehall surrounded by a mob calling for the death of his father's chief minister Thomas Wentworth. Parliament was hardening in its attitude towards the king and civil war was approaching. In August 1641 James was with his father when the royal standard was raised near Nottingham Castle, marking the official beginning of the English Civil War. James was also present at Edgehill, the first battle of the war. Initially things went well for forces loyal to Charles I, but it wasn't long before a more efficient military and financial organisation allowed Parliament to start grinding the royalists down. James was captured when Parliament took the royalist stronghold of Oxford. He was taken into the Earl of Northumberland's household, and spent three years doing desultory school work. By May 1646, following defeat at Marston Moor, Charles I gave himself up to the Scots, who passed him on to the parliamentary army. The king was imprisoned initially at Hampton Court, and it was here that he was allowed to meet those of his children who were still in England: James, Henry and Elizabeth. The embattled King told his children to be loyal to their eldest brother Charles. James was then encouraged to join Charles in exile.

James was to follow his father's advice, and made plans to get out of England. His escape began with a game of hide and seek at St James's Palace. It is strangely typical of James's story that a game of hide and seek should merge seamlessly into a dramatic flight abroad which is mentioned in history books. What might be judged important or unimportant sat side by side, not that conventionally minded James would have noted the irony. James hid for half an hour in a quiet corner, until his brother and sister gave up the search. The fugitive then slipped out into the palace garden where Colonel Bampfield took him to a safe house. Here James was disguised in women's clothing before being taken to a barge at Bishopsgate, which took him down the Thames to rendezvous with a ship heading for the Continent. Once in France James was to settle, for a while, into a career in the army of Louis XIV of France. The young man turned out to be a competent soldier who naturally felt at home in the clearly delineated military world. Here his personality was an asset, rather than a weakness. But a promising career in the French army ended when England's new premier Oilver Cromwell made a treaty with Louis XIV which obliged James and his older brother Charles to leave France. The exiled Stuart brothers were now at their lowest ebb, virtually penniless, and with little prospect of better fortune. At least both young men were popular with the ladies. James in particular had a voracious appetite for women. It was right at the end of his time in exile that he met his match in Anne Hyde. Anne was the daughter of his brother's lord chancellor, Edward Hyde, a former lawyer. Usually the daughter of a lawyer would only represent a casual fling for a member of royalty, even if he was penniless, with one suit of threadbare clothes. The demarcations of life were strong enough in James's mind to overcome such minor details as extreme poverty and not knowing where his next meal was coming from. When James met Anne she was working as a maid for his mother, and it was clear that such a woman was not a suitable consort for James. Anne, however, was not willing to be a casual fling. She resisted the princely attentions, and James was to write in his memoirs: "She indeed show'd both her wit and her vertue in managing the affaire so decterously." (Quoted in Ungrateful Daughters by Maureen Waller P124.) Anne only gave in after some kind of marriage contract had been signed. This document turned out to be legally binding in the eyes of the Church, and James, the great prince and philanderer, was married to Anne, the maid, whether he liked it or not. When news of the marriage became public it caused a great scandal. Henrietta Maria was aghast that one of her former servants should be married to her wonderful son. Even Anne's father, Sir Edward Hyde, was furious. Various friends of James were quietly asked to come forward with stories of unsavory relationships with Anne. But Anne's courage in the face of this onslaught won her the admiration of many courtiers. James's friends were forced to admit that they had lied about their supposed relationships with Anne. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne of England, and James could have married any princess in Europe, but he could not escape his contract with Anne. He continued his indiscriminate relationships, but in every other way was dominated by his wife. According to the normal scheme of things a prince had more strengths than a maid, but in this marriage the opposite seemed to be true. "The Duke of York" said Samuel Pepys in his Diary "is in all things but his cod piece, led by the nose by his wife".



Windsor Great Park

James escaped the frustrations of his life with relentless hunting at St James' Park and Windsor Great Park, coming back from wild rides with frequent injuries. He was playing at war, which was the situation in which his strengths could show themselves. In 1665 James got the chance to play a better game when a real trade war began with the Dutch Republic. James fought enthusiastically on the deck of the Royal Charles at the Battle of Lowestoft. But according to Maureen Waller, it is thought that his presence was a liability, and the commander of the fleet had to be secretly ordered not to press home the engagement for fear of injuring the prince. After Lowestoft James was forbidden from taking part in future hostilities. He had to go back to playing at war in Windsor Park.

James was now a rather lost man, unable because of his social position to follow the career that suited him. He now turned to religion to fill the gap in his aimless life. James was not a deep thinker. In France he had been under the influence of his catholic mother Henrietta Maria, and had attended mass, but only to listen to the music. Now this superficiality flipped over, as it often does, into the blind enthusiasm of a convert. King Charles also had sympathy for catholics but was careful to play the political game. This meant Charles was willing to lie about what he believed in. James was much simpler in his outlook. He refused to compromise. His honesty only succeeded in encouraging the imposition of even more restrictive legislation on catholics.




Exeter Guildhall, Devon

Anne Hyde died in March 1671, her health ruined by repeated pregnancies and over eating. James then married a new catholic wife in September 1673. Her name was Mary Beatrice, a fifteen year old Italian princess. Because of their overt catholic sympathies the couple spent two periods in exile in Scotland, between autumn 1679 and February 1680, and then between October 1680 and May 1682. Surprisingly James's conversion, and his periods of exile did not fundamentally damage his position. As the death of Charles II approached many courtiers naturally gravitated towards James as heir to the throne. Parliament was dominated by traditionally minded Tory MPs who were enthusiastic monarchists, and believers in the divine right of kings. When Charles died in February 1685 James took over as a popular and secure king. This is demonstrated by the fate of a rebellion staged by the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles II. The protestant Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in June 1685, hoping that he would find enough resentment directed towards James to allow his overthrow. But James still retained popularity and the rising was easily defeated. Hundreds of people were executed. The Exeter Guildhall where Judge Jefferies handed out his violent punishments still exists in Exeter. But it was at this moment of triumph that things started to go wrong. With the rebellion suppressed James refused to disband the army he had gathered to fight it, which caused many worries about his future plans. Magdalen College Oxford, symbol of the specifically anglican education in England, was told that its fellows were to be sacked. James may have claimed he was only interested in religious toleration, but he was seemingly incapable of accepting a point of view different to his own. Lord Rochester, a great supporter of the monarchy, was driven from office because he could not bring himself to convert to Catholicism. Barry Coward says in The Stuart Age that it would be wrong to think of James as trying to restore Catholicism by force, as some later historians were to suggest. In reality he hoped that repealing legislation against catholics would allow a return to the "true faith" to happen by itself. But James's catholicising activities were not viewed in this benign way by most people at the time. Slowly suspicions of his intentions became acute.

In April 1688 James ordered the Second Declaration of Indulgence to be read from the pulpit at Sunday services. This document aimed to confirm religious freedom, but did not guarantee that Anglicanism would remain the dominant religion of England. Seven leading churchmen, including Archbishop Sancroft drew up a petition to the King, protesting against the Declaration, and questioning his authority to issue it. The king dismissed the petition, but it was still published. All the churchmen involved were sent to the Tower, only to be acquitted when juries refused to convict them. Then in the middle of all this confusion, on 10th June 1688, James's wife Mary Beatrice gave birth to a baby boy. This boy removed James's protestant daughter Mary of Orange from the succession, and a catholic dynasty was in prospect. A group of seven men, led by William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire, now met to work out what could be done. The home of the Earl of Devonshire at Chatsworth has reminders of these days. At the Cock and Pynot Inn - now called Revolution House - near Chatsworth, the Earl of Devonshire met with the Earl of Danby, and John D'Arcy to plan their move. A letter was prepared by the group of seven, which early in July 1688 was taken by Admiral Arthur Herbert to Holland. This letter called on William of Orange, husband of James's sister Mary, to invade with the aim of re-establishing English liberty and law. The letter, however, did not offer William of Orange the Crown. As autumn came on James now knew that an invasion from Holland was an imminent possibility. He watched a large weathervane on top of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. If the wind blew from the west William would be unable to sail and James was safe. If the wind blew from the east William could be on his way. Meanwhile the catholicising programme was stopped. JPs and magistrates who had been suspended for not cooperating in the repeal of anti-catholic laws were reinstated. The catholic fellows James had installed at Magdalen College Oxford were expelled, and the former fellows reinstated. All this came too late. After a false start on 20th October, William's fleet sailed for England on 1st November 1688. William's forces landed at Torbay on 5th November and began to move across England, powerful local figures offering their support as the Dutch advanced. On 19th November James was with his army at Old Sarum near Salisbury, but incapacitated by nose bleeds and misery he withdrew back to London without fighting. William marched on, taking his time. He even stopped off at Wilton House just outside Salisbury to admire the Earl of Pembroke's collection of Van Dyke paintings.


Aylesford Bridge, Kent

Many advisors and parliamentarians were pleading with James to stay in England. No one as yet was suggesting deposing James in favour of William. But James had lost heart, and saw William's invasion as a judgment on himself. He also remembered the fate of his father, who had been executed by Parliament outside Banqueting House. Fleeing from England now seemed the only option. In the early hours of December 11th James took a ferry across the Thames to Lambeth, throwing the Great Seal into the water about half way across. He and his small party then rode out of London, and through Kent in pouring rain. Supporters met the King's party with fresh horses at Aylesford Bridge, where a short rest was taken at the Woolpack Inn. At Sheppey the group were delayed by the necessity to ballast their ship against bad weather. This delay allowed James to be captured by local men, who thought his group were escaping catholics. James was dragged off to the Arms of England Inn, Faversham, where James was recognised as the king. His brother Charles would have chatted with the fishermen, told stories of his travels, and generally charmed them. Charles had been well known for talking to his subjects in St James' Park, and retelling stories of his adventurous life to anyone who would listen. James wasn't like that. He was a king, the men who held him were common fishermen. These divisions were unassailable in his mind. Strength and weakness could not be interchangeable. The King was haughty and distant, raving on rather sadly in Biblical quotations.




Statue of James II in Trafalgar Square

In London law and order was breaking down. Catholic chapels were being torched. James was brought to London, and bizarrely he was greeted by cheering crowds. A king could be deeply unpopular, and cheered by the masses at the same time. Weakness did not preclude strength. Life was full of grey areas which James did not appreciate. He still thought that he had no choice but to flee. James went to bed in a virtually empty Whitehall Palace on the evening of 17th December 1688. The bed he slept in still survives and can be seen at Knole in Kent. The next morning James was taken by boat to Rochester, and on the 24th he fled from his riverside lodging, made it to his yacht, the Henrietta Maria, and sailed to France. With James gone, public order threatened to break down, and Parliament was forced into a situation it did not want, the declaration that James had abdicated. Parliament had little choice but to offer the throne to James's daughter Mary, Princess of Orange and her husband William of Orange, who were to rule as king and queen. James meanwhile tried to build a new power base in Ireland with French support, but his forces were defeated at the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690. James went back to France, where he was generally considered an irritating bore. It still suited the French King to support James's delusions of grandeur, however, and another invasion was planned for 1692, but never took place. James lived on in exile, until 1701 when his health began to decline. He spent long hours in prayer, and actually had a stroke while on his knees at La Trappe Abbey. James died on 16th September 1701. He was then judged as a failure by generations of historians, and probably given his rigid outlook, by himself. There is now a statue of James in Trafalgar Square, portraying him in heroic terms as a Roman emperor, and as "Defender of the Faith". Perhaps looking at this statue should remind us not to take career reviews too seriously.