"If occasion were, I hope God would give me his grace to suffer death for the true Catholic religion as well as banishment."—James II of England.
History has largely remembered James II of England as a “loser” king. Born as the younger brother and heir of Charles II, he simply wasn’t raised to take the job. Moreover, James was by no means universally loved by his own people; he was ardent Catholic in a Protestant majority country. Eventually forced out of the country by his own son-in-law, James will go down in the books as the deposed monarch in the so-called “Glorious Revolution.”
How exactly did King James lose it all? What did bedroom pans have to do with the so-called birth of his son? Hold onto your crowns and read these 42 little-known facts about James II of England, the king who lost his crown to his own daughter.
James was not born to be king. He grew up as just the second son of his parents, Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France. It was his three-years-older brother, the future Charles II, who was set to continue the royal line. At least in theory…
James disguised himself as a woman to escape his captors during the English Civil War. In 1646, he was residing in the Royalist fort in Oxford, which fell soon to the anti-monarchy roundheads. James was then confined to St. James Palace, but he managed to elude his captors, adorned with his feminine wiles, and make his way to refuge in the Hague.
In 1649, the roundhead rebels officially executed James’ father, Charles I. James’ brother was declared Charles II, however, he could only be the King of Scotland and Ireland. The English crown refused to fall for obvious reasons. Charles, James, and their family were now royal exiles in their mother’s home country of France.
James's French exile wasn't just about sitting back and cowering; He spent part of his family’s forced vacation in France as a soldier for his host country’s army. His military prowess was noted—in battle, he was apparently known to charge valiantly head on towards his objective—and he was appointed Lieutenant-General in 1654.
Unfortunately, James’s brother put an end to his French military career. Although the French sheltered the English royal family during their exile, the French crown also officially sided with Oliver Cromwell and his government at the same time. Charles had enough of this and simply made an alliance with France’s enemies: the Spanish. This snub cost James his military position and he was promptly expelled from his own adoptive army. James did not take this well and he argued furiously with his brother over the executive decision.
By 1659, James didn’t hold much hope about his brother securing back the English throne anytime soon. The younger prince had adapted well to their new military allies in Spain; he even considered taking a sweet job offer by the Spanish crown to be an admiral in their navy. It’s a good thing James didn’t take the offer. By the next year, Charles II was back on top in England and officially king again.
While serving with the Spanish army, James experienced his first rift with Protestantism. His disagreements with his brother Charles led to him drifting away from the Anglican clique and more towards the friendship of two Irish Catholic royalists named Peter and Richard Talbot.
With Charles II back on the throne in 1660, James enjoyed the benefits of being a king’s brother again. I speak, of course, about the ladies. The newly re-minted Duke of York (and now also Albany in Scotland) carried on a scandalous affair with Anne Hyde, the common-born daughter of King Charles’ chief minister, Edward Hyde, and it turned into more than a fling. Unfortunately for everyone else, Anne and James fell in love.
While courting Anne Hyde in 1659, James promised to marry her if she fell to his seduction. She was pregnant by 1660 and he actually followed up on his promise, even though everybody—Anne’s father included—wanted Charles’s heir presumptive to be married to a noble, no matter what vows he made before. Nevertheless, the couple married in secret on 2 September 1660.
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James and Anne struggled with fertility. Their premaritally conceived son, Charles, died just two months after birth. His death was followed by the young demise of five more of their children. In the end, the couple had just two surviving daughters: the future Mary II and the future Anne of Great Britain.
By the standards of the day, James was particularly involved in the lives of his daughters, Mary and Anne. The writer Samuel Pepys notes that he doted on and played with the girls “like an ordinary private father of a child.” You know, instead of doing whatever it is royal dads do with their spare time (something with horses?).
James took after his older brother, at least in terms of promiscuity. The younger prince had a reputation for being “the most unguarded ogler of his time” and kept two influential mistresses, Arabella Churchill and Catherine Sedley. For what it’s worth, his wife Anne didn’t seem to take this personally. Their affection and Anne’s influence on James’s political decisions remained strong until her tragic death of breast cancer in 1671, when she was just 34 years old.
James’s first notable mistress, Arabella Churchill, wasn’t considered a great beauty. One chronicler wrote how the Churchills found it “a joyful surprise that so plain a girl had attained such high preferment." Despite her “eh-Ok” looks, she gave James four illegitimate children (two during his wife’s lifetime) and stayed at his side for ten years.
Catherine Sedley was James’s most powerful mistress, who resided with him both before and after he became king. Catherine’s life before meeting James was also hardly charmed: the notoriously raunchy poet Sir Charles Sedley was her father and his affairs reportedly drove his wife, Catherine’s mom, to “insanity.” After the institutionalization of Catherine’s mother, Sir Charles took up with another woman and kicked his teenaged daughter out of the house. With his background, James really was her Prince Charming.
Did James have a thing for plain girls? It seemed so to others. Sedley was “notoriously plain” by the standards of the day (she had an unfashionably thin figure and brown hair). His brother Charles II joked that James’s confessor must have “imposed” these bland-looking lovers upon him as penance for his sins.
James was a chief firefighter during the Great Fire of London in 1666, taking over for the absent Lord Mayor. His bravery made him very popular among the common people.
In October 1660, James was made the Governor of Royal Adventurers into Africa (aka the Royal African Company). One of his notable military accomplishments in that position was the capturing Dutch slave ports. But this was no noble act—he captured them so the British could use them instead.
Although James continued to attend Protestant Church services until 1676, he had secretly converted to Catholicism back in the 1660s. By the late 1660s, he had even taken part in the Catholic Eucharist. It’s believed he and his wife Anne had been drawn to Catholic beliefs from his years in France.
In 1673, James officially outed himself as a Roman Catholic when he refused to take an oath as part of the 1673 Test Act. In this decree, all military officially were required to officially disavow the doctrine of transubstantiation and other Catholic beliefs. As a secret Catholic for years, James obviously couldn’t do this. He refused to take the oath, thereby relinquishing the office of Lord High Admiral and letting the world know his faith.
In 1673, the 40-year-old James got married for the second time, to the 15-year-old Italian princess Mary of Modena. It’s said he was pleased with his young bride’s beauty. Mary, in turn, burst into years every time she had to look at him. Not off to a great start.
James’s religious relations were making people anxious. By 1677, James agreed to let his eldest daughter Mary wed a Protestant ally, Prince William of Orange (big mistake). Despite his efforts, this did little to assuage public fears about a Catholic King, since James’s wife was also Catholic and still fertile. His brother, Charles II, had failed to produce a legitimate heir, which meant James was still next in line to the throne. It was looking like England might have to face its first Catholic ruler in more than 100 years.
In 1683, both Charles II and then-Prince James became targets of a murder plot to overthrow the royal family and restore a Cromwellian-style government. What was shocking about this plan, called the Rye House Plot, was that it might have been instigated by Charles’s own illegitimate son, James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth. Some of the conspirators killed themselves before they could be questioned, while Monmouth confessed his role, but then recanted. He survived the ordeal, though he was sent into exile afterward.
James was appointed the Lord High Admiral when he was just three years old. Now, this title was meant to be ceremonial, but it turned out to bear remarkable power in the reign of his brother. Plus, it gives me an idea for a sitcom: Baby Admiral!
Charles II passed away from apoplexy in 1685. As he left no legitimate children, his brother was now crowned King James II. A Catholic king shocked the country, but that wasn't the only bombshell: Charles had converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, apparently ceding to his little brother’s preferred faith.
Soon after James’s ascension, his nephew, James Scott (remember him?), launched the Monmouth Rebellion against the newly crowned king. However, it was only one of two rebellions launched against the new regime. He also had to deal with the smaller 300-men strong Argyll’s Rising in Scotland. This smaller resistance was easily crushed.
We’re not done with the Duke of Monmouth, the troublesome illegitimate nephew to the new King James II. His Monmouth Rebellion was coordinated right alongside that of Argyll’s. This was not a great start to a reign. In any case, Monmouth’s attempts at a nighttime surprise attack fell flat. The king’s nephew was captured and executed on 15 July 1685. This event would cause James to increase the size of his personal standing armies.
James was the first English ruler since Mary I to receive a papal nuncio (Pope’s representative). Ferdinando d’Adda was the first Roman proxy to step foot in London in over 100 years. To a largely Anglican country, this visit was very alarming.
James’ reign immediately saw reforms to grant more rights and power back to Catholic factions in the country. Since he had only two Protestant daughters at this point, the people could tolerate this as a temporary stop in an Anglican succession… until his second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son, Prince James Francis Edward, on 10 June 1688. The Catholic succession looked a little more permanent than most would have liked.
The birth of James’ only surviving son was treated with (convenient) suspicion by the Protestants at court. Since Prince James Francis Edward was born five years after his mother’s last conception. Rumors spread that Mary of Modena had not really delivered a true Catholic heir; that little James was really an imposter baby, smuggled into the birthing room inside of a warming pan! This theory was fueled by proponents of James’ Protestant daughter Mary of Orange, who did not want to see more Catholics on the throne. It seems ridiculous (and it is), but the allegations were so serious that King James actually had to publish the testimony of over 70 people to confirm his son was born via natural birth—not by bedroom appliance.
Getting rejected by your peers hurts in any era: in 1688, the “Immortal Seven”—a group of seven English Protestant nobles—sent a letter to James’ son-in-law, William of Orange, inviting him to overthrow his own father-in-law. With James’ wife pregnant, the nobles would not settle for a new Catholic dynasty.
On 5 November 1688, William of Orange successfully invaded his father-in-law’s kingdom, even managing to capture King James himself. Fortunately for James, the new king was not willing to make a potential Catholic martyr out of his father-in-law. To save face, he secretly let James “escape” from the guard and into the custody of the French.
On 11 April 1689, James II was officially denounced by Parliament for “abuse” of power. The charges laid against him included “cruel” punishments, suspending the anti-Catholic Test Acts, and prosecuting even bishops just for petitioning the crown. But the most important decree was this: from then on, no Roman Catholic would be allowed to sit upon the English throne, nor could the monarch even marry a Roman Catholic (This remains the case to this day).
After James’s expulsion from the country, his eldest daughter and her husband jointly ruled England as Mary I and William III. To her credit, Mary wasn’t exactly happy to see her dad overthrown. She did, however, accept his exile as a necessary evil for the sake of her religion and her country. James, in turn, did not see Mary’s side of things; he wrote her a letter which lambasted his daughter for her poor excuse for daughterly loyalty.
After James lost his English crown, the deposed monarch was not going to give up Ireland without a fight. Landing in Ireland in 1689, James was able to mount some defense against King William’s forces in what became known as the Williamite War in Ireland. Several months later, the Williamites won over the Jacobites, and James officially lost his final hold on Great Britain. He fled back to France, never to step foot on the British Isles again.
In 1696, an attempt was made on King William III of England’s life, in the hopes of putting James II back on the throne. Although William survived, the scandal ruined James’s international reputation forever.
Exiled in France for the second time in his life, James kept busy. For one, he fathered another child on his young wife—a daughter named Louisa Maria Teresa, born in 1692, who became known as “the Princess over the Water.”
James’s supporters (known as Jacobites) would still toast James and his successors as the “King over the Water,” in reference to his exile. Louis XIV of France would later recognize James’s son, James Francis Edward, as the King of England after his father. While rebellions were raised, and titles pressed by several of James’s descendants, this cause was largely lost. For what it’s worth, the Jacobite claim was still being pressed as late as 1807.
In 1696, Louis XIV of France offered to elect James as the King of Poland. However, James rejected the crown—it might have interfered with his ability to claim the English one. Although James lived his later years as a penitent, he still saw himself destined for the English throne, as evidenced by how he prepared for his son to potentially take it over and rule wisely.
In addition to being torn from his country, James II was also torn apart in death. The once and not-future King of England passed away from a brain hemorrhage on 16 September 1701 at the age of 67. His heart was put in a silver locket, his brain was put in a casket (and given to Scots College), and his entrails were halved and put in separate urns in separate locations. Some lucky English nuns were also given the flesh of his right arm. At that point, why shouldn’t everybody get a piece?
When James introduced his daughters Mary (age 11) and Anne (age eight) to their new stepmom, Mary of Modena (age 15), he reportedly cut the tension by self-reflexively quipping, "I have brought you a new play-fellow.” Does it make it any less creepy if you acknowledge it? Probably not to them.
James actually knew of his son-in-law’s plans to invade the country and take his crown. However, the king was perfectly confident that he could handle it on his own. He even turned down an offer of allyship from his cousin, Louis XIV of France. At least Louis gave his cousin a palace and pension when it turned out that, yes, James could have used the helping hand…
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