James II

James II (1633-1701) was king of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1685 to 1688. Britain's last Stuart and last Catholic monarch, he granted religious minorities the right to worship. He was deposed by the Glorious Revolution.

Since the Declaration of Rights of 1689 charged him with attempting to "subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of the kingdom," James II has traditionally been treated as a would-be tyrant by older historians. Recent writers have pointed out that his failures were more personal than political. In 1679, in lofty concept of his office, James stated that "the monarchy, … I thank God, yet has had no dependency on parliaments nor on nothing but God alone." And within the strict letter of the constitution, James was not wrong. James's Catholicism, to which he was converted about 1670, is viewed as a major impediment, for in its cause he committed most of his excesses.

Born in October 1633, the second son of Charles I, James was created Duke of York at baptism. He mastered the rudiments of soldiering and seamanship. He emulated his older brother, Charles II, to the point of matching him in number of mistresses. However, he turned increasingly to religion in his later years.

After his father's execution in 1649, James wandered into foreign military service during the Commonwealth period (1649-1660). With the restoration of the Stuarts, he served his brother as lord high admiral, administered colonies in Africa and New York, and fought at sea in two wars against Holland, in 1665 and 1672.

After his conversion to Catholicism, James's religion, his pro-French policies, and his antiparliamentarian sentiments attracted the hostilities of the emerging Whig party. The Test Act (1673), which deprived Catholics of government office, was aimed largely at James. Though he resigned from the Admiralty, the Whigs hounded him between 1679 and 1681 with the Exclusion Bill, designed to remove him totally from the succession to the throne. Charles crushed this opposition and reinstated James in the Admiralty and the Council in 1682.

In February 1685 James became king upon his brother's death and began a troubled reign of nearly 4 years. The Monmouth Rebellion (1685), led by his illegitimate nephew, was put down so severely by Judge Jeffreys that James's popularity was impaired. He attempted to master opposition by controlling local elections, expelling Protestant university officials and replacing them with Catholics, reviving the Anglican Church's High Commission, which removed the critical bishop of London, and maintaining a standing army outside London. While granting toleration to Catholics and to Protestant Dissenters, he did so by decree and not by parliamentary statute. When the archbishop of Canterbury refused to promulgate the decree, he and six bishops were arrested in June 1688. The occasion caused even passive observers to resent James's autocracy, and when a few ardent opponents summoned William of Orange, James's son-in-law, to save England's "religion, liberties and properties" by invasion, most of the nation willingly allowed the so-called Glorious Revolution to run its course. James fled England in December 1688, never to return.

Louis XIV gave asylum to James. Until July 1690 French military and naval units aided the efforts of James's English supporters, the Jacobites (from the Latin Jacobus, James), in Ireland, but at the battle of the Boyne River (July 1, 1690) James was defeated. Upon his return to France, James withdrew from active leadership of his own cause, demoralized still further by Louis's recognition of William and Mary's legitimate rule in the Treaty of Ryswick (1697). He died in September 1701.

Two marriages, to Anne Hyde (1660) and to Mary of Modena (1673), produced 15 children; two of James's daughters later became queens of England, and a son became the "Old Pretender" of the Jacobite cause.


Further Reading on James II

The only reliable biography of James is Francis C. Turner, James II (1948). The best study of his reign is David Ogg, England in the Reigns of James II and William III (1955).

Additional Biography Sources

Ashley, Maurice, James II, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

Miller, John, James II: a study in kingship, Hove: Wayland, 1978.

Trevor, Meriol, The shadow of a crown: the life story of James II of England and VII of Scotland, London: Constable, 1988.