James Stuart was the second son of Charles I, king of England, and his French queen, Henrietta Maria. He was born on October 14, 1633, in Saint James’s Palace in London. He was eight years old when the English Civil Wars broke out in 1642, pitting the king and his supporters against supporters of Parliament, and in July 1646 the Parliamentarian army confined James to Saint James’s Palace. He escaped in April 1648 to become an exile—first at The Hague, under the care of his sister Mary and her husband, William II of Orange, and then at the French court, with his mother. In 1649, Charles I was tried by a Parliament-appointed court and executed, and the Stuart monarchy was replaced by the Commonwealth government.
James’s continental sojourn—and his father’s fate—would have a lasting influence on his temperament and outlook, rendering him much more inflexible than his older brother Charles, more authoritarian in outlook, and less patient with the complexities of English politics. As James forged his own political path, he increasingly sought advisors who showed complete loyalism and viewed even temporizing as subversive. These traits, common enough among seventeenth-century monarchs, would eventually prove to be fatal flaws in James Stuart.
James enlisted in the French army in 1652, after Oliver Cromwell‘s army defeated that of his brother Charles at the Battle of Worcester. He left the French and joined the Spanish army in 1657, reflecting a treaty his brother had signed with Spain. In 1660 Charles was restored to the English throne as Charles II and James returned to London. That same year, James married Anne Hyde, his sister’s maid of honor, in a secret ceremony. Anne, although the daughter of Charles’s Lord Chancellor, was a commoner and an inappropriate match for a dynasty trying to secure its rightful place among European royalty.
Restoration Politics (1660–1688)
During his brother’s reign James was an involved courtier. He took seriously his duties as lord high admiral, serving as a more-than-titular administrator of the Royal Navy and taking an especially active role at the time of the Second Dutch War (1665–1667). His conduct of the admiralty—in administration, in battle, and in fighting the Great Fire of London in 1666—won favorable notice from others, including the diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys. James took an active interest in colonization and trade, which he hoped would secure a strong monarchy; at least one reason for this was the Restoration settlement put in place when Charles II regained the throne, which rendered the royal income dependent on customs and excise revenues. His 1683 extension of representative government to New York, of which he was the colonial proprietor, by way of the Charter of Liberties and Privileges may have owed to similar thinking. However, James’s inflexible conduct as Lord High Commissioner of Scotland from 1679 to 1682 showed that he was not one to go overboard with experiments in liberty.
More to the point, James’s life and political career were dominated not by his commercial and colonial interests, or by the Scottish interlude, but by his conversion to Catholicism in 1668 or 1669. At first kept secret, James’s religious persuasion became more widely known after the passage of the Test Act of 1673, which required all persons filling a military or civil office to swear Protestant oaths; rather than comply, James resigned his admiralty post. Because Charles II had yet to produce legitimate offspring, James was the heir apparent, and his conversion intensified old fears about Catholic absolutism and raised newer ones about French influence.
These concerns climaxed with the hysteria over the Popish Plot (1678), an alleged Jesuit conspiracy to assassinate Charles II (thus ensuring his Catholic brother’s succession), and with what is known as the Exclusion Crisis (1678–1683), when successive Parliaments introduced bills that would have prevented James from becoming king. During these years, a nascent Whig party even tried to bar James from the throne by altering the succession in favor of Charles II’s illegitimate son, the duke of Monmouth. Meanwhile, the king played politics with vague promises of limitations on a Catholic successor, made further guarantees concerning the Protestant tutelage of Mary and Anne (James’s daughters by his first wife, Anne Hyde), and stored up grievances against the Whigs that would help fuel the so-called Tory Reaction of 1682–1685.
Thus James succeeded unconditionally and without incident following Charles’s death on February 6, 1685. Indeed, the atmosphere was so welcoming that he could be forgiven for thinking he was king by divine approval as well as by divine right. His reign was given a strong start by Charles’s somewhat surprising steadfastness for the legitimate succession and by Tory fears of a repeat of the civil wars—fears sharpened by discoveries of planned assassinations and coups, such as the Rye House Plot in 1683 and Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685. This welcoming atmosphere was epitomized in England by the very loyal Parliament that met in 1685 and in America by the continued efforts to strengthen of royal control over colonial governments, most notably in New England, but also in Virginia, Jamaica, and elsewhere. Fearful to offend their rightful monarch, colonists grudgingly gave way to many, although in Virginia not all, of these initiatives.
But James’s road in London was to prove much rockier than in Boston or James City, and soon it became a road to ruin. His use of the royal prerogative to place Catholics at court and in the army (through individual “dispensations” of the Test Act) quieted parliamentary loyalism and roused opposition even on his royal council. His dismissals of insufficiently loyal councilors, which began rather early in his reign, also caused concern. Far more serious were James’s efforts to pack Parliament, which intensified as he sought a House of Commons that might confirm his Declaration of Indulgence, a document that suspended laws enforcing conformity to the Church of England. The king issued the controversial document in 1687, first in Scotland and then in England. The next year, after he required the clergy to read the declaration to their congregants, the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops brought a petition to him asking him to reconsider; he responded by prosecuting them for seditious libel. (They were acquitted.)
Whether under individual dispensations or the Indulgence, James’s protection of Protestant dissenters and continued preferment of Catholics so alienated the political nation that it ultimately decided to be more Anglican than loyalist. The result was that James was deposed with surprising ease in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Seen against the royalist enthusiasms of 1683–1685, it was a remarkable denouement.
James and Virginia
Of the ten monarchs who ruled in London during the colonial period, James II was the most directly involved in American affairs. His involvement began prior to his reign: early in the Restoration period, as duke of York, James engaged in commercial ventures such as the Royal Fisheries Company, the Royal African Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he became lord proprietor of New York, formerly New Netherland, in 1664. It was James who granted away much of that territory (New Jersey) to two courtier friends, Sir John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, even before the invasion that wrested the area away from the Dutch, and in 1681 he endorsed an even more generous royal grant of New York lands to William Penn. These acts of patronage are best understood as ducal largesse, although they also look like bad policy: the loss of New Jersey, ceded for a grand total of ten shillings and a nominal rent, saddled New York’s governors with revenue problems. The famous Charter of Liberties and Privileges (1683), which granted New York a sort of parliamentary system, may have been an attempt to address these issues. The charter was short-lived, however, and if it was parliamentary in intent, it sat oddly with contemporary efforts to subject English colonies in America and the West Indies to stricter imperial oversight.
These efforts were epitomized in Virginia by Charles’s and James’s attempts to limit the power of the General Assembly—most notably through a plan to extend Poynings’s Law, which in 1495 had removed the legislative initiative from the Irish parliament, to the colonies. These attempts were overseen somewhat fitfully by Crown-appointed governors, first by, whom James knew well, and then by , whom James himself commissioned. Colonists in power, mainly in the , stubbornly resisted Poynings’s Law and thus retained initiative power in all legislation, including money bills. But, as in England, James’s peaceful accession to the throne was celebrated by loyal Virginians, as demonstrated by a commemorative sermon delivered by the Reverend Deuel Pead in James City on April 23, 1686—the first anniversary of James II’s coronation. Pead, a favorite of Governor Lord Effingham’s, delivered an extravagantly loyal address that endorsed the new monarch’s divine right to rule and wished for a long and happy reign in which God would grant peace to “Jerusalem [our] metropolis” and to James II “the hearts of his subjects, and the necks of his enemys.” Lord Howard duly sent Pead’s sermon to London to be printed, but it was not to be. Instead, its Tory platitudes were buried in the ruins of James’s kingship.
James spent his old age as he did his youth: in exile. He lived at the chateau in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, for thirteen years, and died there in 1701 of a cerebral hemorrhage. James’s Protestant progeny ruled in London through Anne’s death in 1714. James, his supporters (called the Jacobites), and his male heirs tried until the middle of the eighteenth century to destabilize British politics: James led an invasion of Ireland in 1689 that was put down early the next year; his only son, James Francis Edward Stuart (also known as the Old Pretender), instigated rebellions against the Hanoverian succession in 1715; and the grandson of James II, Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie, or the Young Pretender), made a similar grab for power in 1745. Neither James, his son, nor his grandson played heroic roles in these failed coups. Rather, all three fled back to France after botched invasions, leaving their supporters to pay the piper.
It might be said that the most lasting of James’s incursions into Virginia history were these captive relicts of the Stuart rebellions of “the Fifteen” and “the Forty-Five” who were shipped asto the Chesapeake. There they helped swell the tide of a Scots and Scots-Irish immigration that would, ironically, further weaken the colony’s loyalty to the mother country, its monarchy, and its church.
James II in Historiography
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the ideological parent of the American Revolution of 1776—no lesser students of history thanand John Adams saw things that way. But if James II’s failure as a king has long been clear on both sides of the Atlantic, his motives are everywhere disputed. The great Whig historians of the nineteenth century, notably Thomas Babington Macaulay, held that James aimed from the first to emulate the absolutism practiced by Louis XIV of France. This view survives, although it is now generally acknowledged that James was never as much of a French sycophant as his brother.
And new perspectives have emerged. Most notably, in his Popery and Politics in England (1973), the historian John Miller emphasizes instead the critical importance of James II’s desire to make England safe for Roman Catholics. James II did not aim for absolutism but was forced into it: only as avenues to his religious goals were closed off (by Parliament, by the Church of England, by England’s universities) did he recklessly employ the royal prerogative to gain his ends. An interesting sidelight of early modern historiography is the role scholars give to public opinion in the 1680s, first in securing James’s popularity, then in forcing him into foolishness, and finally in condemning him to defeat by not rising to his defense.
Miller’s scholarship has enjoyed great influence, but there is no doubt that a majority of James’s countrymen did not draw sharp distinctions between absolutism and Catholicism. To most politically aware Englishmen, these political and religious leanings were identities, a view confirmed by James’s actions as king. When James’s Catholic queen, Mary of Modena, birthed a male heir in 1688—dashing hopes of a “natural” Protestant succession to James’s daughter Mary—and as James went on the warpath against the Anglican bishops who refused to publish the Declaration of Indulgence, a knot of seven politicians invited Mary’s husband (and James’s nephew), Prince William of Orange, to come to England and put things right. These seven were not a Whig cabal, for they included the staunchest Tory of all in the earl of Danby, who had been Charles II’s chief minister. Together, they were powerful enough to speak to others and representative enough to speak for others. Prince William accepted their invitation—indeed, he had been angling for it—and Parliament, the Royal Navy, and the English army waited to see what would happen instead of rushing to defend the realm against what was, after all, a Dutch invasion.
Even so, loyalty to the hereditary succession was still strong, and, had James stood his ground, things might have turned out differently. Instead, he panicked, threw the great seal into the tidal mud of the Thames, and fled. The Lords and Commons assembled were thus enabled to call James’s actions an abdication and invite William and Mary to take up an empty throne, which, in the Revolution settlement of 1688–1689, was made safely Protestant and not quite so safely constitutional. James’s graceless flight of 1688 and his comprehensive success in squandering the assets he enjoyed at his accession in 1685 have strengthened a third school of thought about this most unhappy monarch: that he was astoundingly and irremediably inept. This seems to have been the view of Louis XIV, and is espoused more recently by John Callow in The Making of King James II: The Formative Years of a Fallen King (2000).