November 13, 2018 | Christine Tran

Pathetic Facts About James II, History's Biggest Loser

Forever scarred by the execution of his father, the infamous King Charles I, it was a miracle James II ever became king at all. But little did he realize, his father’s cursed crown doomed him to an even more disturbing end.

1. His Dad Lost His Head

King Charles I was such a bad king that the English people beheaded him—the only English monarch to ever meet such a fate. But the punishment didn’t end when his head hit the floor. His children, including the future James II, would have to deal with the fallout for the rest of their lives.

James II facts Wikimedia Commons

2. He Had It All

James II may have had a cursed life, but you never would have predicted it when he was born. As the King of England’s second son, James could look forward to a cushy life of obscene riches and little real responsibility. He received the finest education and received lofty titles such as “Duke of York” and “Lord High Admiral” when he was still in diapers.

But though little James was too young to realize it, there were stormclouds on the horizon.

Portrait of James II of England looking at side - 1647Peter Lely, Wikimedia Commons

3. His Dad Was A Tyrant

James was born in the early days of the Eleven Years Tyranny. His father had dissolved the British Parliament and ruled the kingdom unchecked for over a decade. If you asked Charles, he would claim God had given him the right to rule and that was that. Nothing to see here.

The people of England, well, they saw things a little differently…

Queen Henrietta Maria factsWikipedia

4. His Country Erupted

Things started to boil over when James was still just a boy. The First English Civil War broke out between the Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. And even though Prince James was still just nine years old, he soon found himself witnessing the horrors of battle firsthand. 

Oliver Cromwell oil painting - 1868Charles Lucy, Wikimedia Commons


5. He Saw Battle As A Boy

Both James and his older brother were there when fighting began at the Battle of Edgehill—and they were there when things started to go south. As his forces started losing ground, a panicked King Charles sent his boys away under armed guard. 

Thankfully, James and his brother made it to safety, if only just barely. But this was just a taste of things to come.

Portrait painting of James II of England looking at side - 1660sPeter Lely, Wikimedia Commons

6. He Was A Prisoner As A Boy

The Parliamentarians were not some petty rebellion, and they were not going anywhere any time soon. James and his family had to flee to Oxford, but it was no use. In 1646, the Parliamentarians captured him and his younger siblings. 

James found himself in the hands of the enemy and he was still barely 13. But while he was undoubtedly terrified, this did present an interesting opportunity...

The Radcliffe Camera Building of Oxford UniversityLina Kivaka, Pexels

7. He Was Nearly A Puppet

Although James’s father was still king, the Parliament had effectively taken control. Defiant til the end, King Charles refused to deal with them, despite being their prisoner. As they grew increasingly frustrated, someone pitched an interesting idea: 

Why not make young James their puppet king?

James, Duke Of York (Later King James Ii) As Lord High Admiral - 1600sHenry Gascars, Wikimedia Commons

8. His Father Had Him Escape

Had the plan to make James king come to fruition, who knows what history would look like today—but King Charles wasn’t going to let that happen. Perhaps frightened by the idea of his own son usurping his crown, Charles ordered James to escape the palace by any means necessary.

James complied and made his daring escape in 1648. He bade farewell to his father, unaware he would never see him again. 

Charles I of England FactsWikimedia Commons

9. He Never Got To Say Goodbye

Not long after James fled England, King Charles I ran out of time. Parliament found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to death. James never got to see his father before the end, but two of his siblings who remained in England, Elizabeth and Henry, were permitted to bid Charles a tearful goodbye.

Charles I FactsWikipedia


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10. His Entire Life Went Up In Flames

The axe fell at around 2:00 pm on January 30, 1649. For the first time before or since, an English monarch was executed by his own people. Over the following years, James’s older brother, now King Charles II (in his mind, at least), tried to retake control of England, but his attempts quickly fizzled out. 

By 1654, Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector of England, and the Royalist cause was dead in the water. James, whose entire life had been planned out since birth, suddenly had no future. What was he going to do?

Charles I FactsWikimedia Commons


11. He Got A Job

In a way, James had lost everything. In a more literal way, he was still fabulously wealthy and politically important. So, despite his calamitous circumstances, James still managed to land on his feet. He took refuge in France, and found himself a job in the French army.

And though he was still shy of 20, James surprisingly found himself right at home on the battlefield.

Portrait painting of James II of England with long hair is looking at front.John Riley, Wikimedia Commons

12. He Made A Name For Himself

Anyone who assumed Prince James was some spoiled royal dandy soon learned otherwise. While fighting for legendary French general Turenne, James proved himself a brave and inspiring soldier, and quickly moved up the ranks of Turenne’s army. 

But while James fought in another man’s wars, he never forgot about his birthright back in England.

Henri De La Tour D'auvergne, Vicomte De Turenne - wearing armor and looking at front - 17th centuryCircle of Philippe de Champaigne, Wikimedia Commons

13. His Brother Screwed Him Over

James found purpose fighting for Turenne—but his time with the general was cut unexpectedly short. His older brother Charles, who still believed himself the rightful King of England, allied himself with Spain in a desperate attempt to reclaim the throne.

This alliance didn’t put Charles back on the throne, but it did make the French furious. In revenge, they kicked James out of Turenne’s army. Once again, James found himself adrift in a Europe that didn’t seem to want him.

Portrait of Charles II in Garter Robes between 1660 and 1665National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

14. He Kept Fighting

James went back to the only thing he’d ever really known: Battle. With France out of the picture, he started fighting for the Spanish in the Netherlands. Once again, he worked up the ranks and became Captain-General, in charge of six regiments of English soldiers.

But while fighting for the Spanish, James was forced to make a terrible decision.

Portrait painting of James II of England - 1670John Baptist de Medina, Wikimedia Commons

15. He Fought Against His Brothers

Soldiers don’t get to choose who they fight—even less so James, who had nowhere else to go. That’s how he found himself at the Battle of the Dunes, face to face with French comrades from his days fighting for Turenne. Only this time, they weren’t on the same side.

James may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but ever since his father’s beheading, his life had been one nightmare after another.

Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne - 17th centuryAdam Frans van der Meulen, Wikimedia Commons

16. He Fell In Love

James was a good soldier, and he considered taking a permanent post as an admiral in the Spanish Navy. Around the same time, he also decided to settle down and find a wife—and one particularly beautiful woman caught his eye.

Her name was Anne Hyde. She had no idea what she was getting herself into.

James II factsWikimedia Commons


17. He Made A Dangerous Promise

James II met Anne Hyde while they were both in exile in the Netherlands. After a few short years of courtship, James decided to put his money where his mouth was: He promised he would marry her. To him, it seemed like an obvious gesture. Little did he realize, things were about to get a LOT more complicated.

Portrait of a woman, perhaps Anne Hyde, Duchess of York between - 1600 and 1699Adriaen Hanneman, Wikimedia Commons

18. Everything Went Back To Normal

When James promised to marry Anne Hyde, he was just the forgotten son of a beheaded king. But in 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. His Commonwealth collapsed soon after, and by 1660, James’s brother returned to England and was proclaimed King Charles II.

Suddenly, James’s life was back on track, as if the last 10 years hadn’t even happened. If only it were that simple.

Painting portrait of King Charles II of England in Coronation robes - circa 1671-1676John Michael Wright, Wikimedia Commons

19. His Proposal Was A Big Problem

James ignited controversy almost the moment he returned to England. When he had been just a soldier, proposing to Anne Hyde was no big deal. But as the King’s brother and second-in-line to the throne? That’s a whole different story. 

James had barely been back home for five minutes and already he was making powerful enemies.

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York - circa 1661.Peter Lely, Wikimedia Commons

20. Everyone Was Against Them

We’ve seen this story before. Edward IV wanted to marry Elizabeth Woodville. Robb Stark wanted to marry Talisa. When powerful royals decide to marry commoners for love, it rarely ends well. Unsurprisingly, then, nearly everyone in England was against James marrying Anne.

In a disturbing twist, Anne’s own ruthlessly ambitious father allegedly suggested Charles have her executed rather than let her marry James. But there was one thing he didn’t count on.

House Mormont factsGame of Thrones, HBO

21. He Had His Brother's Support

Plot twist: James’s brother Charles actually approved of the match. Charles and James never saw eye to eye, but the King hoped that the strong-willed Anne Hyde might have a positive impact on his brother. So, despite opposition from all sides, James and Anne married in secret in 1660, soon after the Restoration.

But their happily-ever-after quickly fell apart.

Painting portrait of King Charles II with long messy hair looking at front - 1684Antonio Verrio, Wikimedia Commons

22. The Scandal Only Got Worse

As if this marriage wasn’t scandalous enough already, Anne gave birth to the couple’s first child just two months later. However, anyone who raised an eyebrow at the timing didn’t have long to raise objections. The boy, Charles, died in infancy.

The couple mourned their first child, unaware that this was just the beginning of their nightmare.

King James II wearing a General Officer's State coat - 1685Attributed to Benedetto Gennari II, Wikimedia Commons


23. They Experienced Tragedy After Tragedy

James and Anne lost their first child in infancy…then the same fate befell five more of their offspring. Only two of their children would survive: daughters Mary and Anne. Perhaps because he and Anne lost so many children, James openly cherished his two daughters. 

Most men of his era would have been disappointed in having only girls, but James loved Mary and Anne and played with them just like an ordinary father. That didn't stop Mary from stabbing him in the back when the time came.

James Ii, When Duke Of York With Anne Hyde, Princess Mary, Later Mary Ii, And Princess Anne - circa 1668 and circa 1685Peter Lely, Wikimedia Commons

24. They Were Big On PDA

King Charles hoped that Anne Hyde would be a positive influence on his brother—and for the most part, he was right. Anne was utterly devoted to James, and she provided valuable counsel when he had to make important decisions. Apparently, he frequently showed his appreciation with obscene gestures of public affection, something that scandalized the court even further.

One thing is for sure: James wouldn't be half the man without his wife by his side. Which makes what he did to her all the more cruel.

Anne Hyde - Public domain portrait engraving - from 1600 - 1699Pierre Lombart , Picryl

25. He Was A Pig

Plenty of powerful men kept mistresses, but James took it to another level. Sure, he had a wife and two daughters, but that wouldn’t stop his eye from wandering—and he wasn't subtle about it. One observer in court described him as “the most unguarded ogler of his time”. 

Plenty of men in London noted that they'd seen James eying up their wives. But James wanted to do a lot more than just look.

King James II as Duke of York - circa 1660Peter Lely, Wikimedia Commons

26. He Flaunted His Mistress

James had many mistresses, but perhaps the most important was Arabella Churchill. They began their affair in 1665, and soon, James made sure she received a post as his wife’s lady-in-waiting. That must have been hard for his wife to take, but it gets so much worse. Churchill quickly became pregnant. She gave birth to the child…and then another.

After all of Anne’s miscarriages, watching her husband’s mistress give him not one but two children must have stung. But for Anne, at least there was one silver lining.

James II facts Wikimedia Commons

27. His "Type" Was Surprising

Anne Hyde was comely, witty, and stylish. Before she married James, plenty of suitors had vied for her hand. But all of James’s mistresses had one thing in common: No one thought they were attractive. One observer called Arabella Churchill “pale-faced and nothing but skin and bone”.

Another gossiper assumed that James’s mistresses must have been "given [to] him by his priests as a penance". If you were Anne, would that make it better? Or worse?

Portrait of Arabella Churchill looking forwardMary Beale, Wikimedia Commons

28. There's Endless Blood On His Hands

James liked to spend his time macking on his beautiful wife or sneaking around with his plain-faced mistresses, but he did actually have real duties. After his brother became king, he took command of the Royal Navy—and this would turn out to be the darkest part of his legacy.

While fighting with the Dutch, James saw an extremely lucrative new opportunity: The Transatlantic Slave Trade. And as the head of the Royal Navy, he saw his chance to get in on it .

Sarah Forbes Bonetta factsWikipedia

29. Slaves Were Branded With His Name

As head of the Royal Navy and governor of the Royal African Company, James fortified British positions along the Slave Coast and greatly expanded the exportation of African slaves. In fact, James’s RAC shipped more enslaved men, women, and children to America than any other organization in the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. 

The RAC branded many of those slaves with large DY on their chest; DY standing for “Duke of York,” so no one would ever forget who was responsible.

 James II facts Wikipedia 

30. You've Probably Heard Of His City

His role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade is by far the darkest part of James II’s legacy, but that’s not the only way his name resonates in history. During Charles II’s reign, the British captured the Dutch territory of New Netherland.

Soon after, the Brits renamed the port city of New Amsterdam after the King’s brother, the Duke of York. It’s remained the City of New York ever since.

Bobby Driscoll FactsWikimedia Commons

31. London Went Up In Flames

James was putting his stamp on England’s foreign territories, but they still needed him in the homeland too. In 1666, a fire broke out in a bakery on Pudding Lane. The blaze quickly spread throughout the city’s wooden buildings like they were kindling, and soon, nearly the entire City of London was engulfed in flames.

To make matters worse, the city’s mayor allegedly fled the city in a panic, so there was no one to bring the fire under control. That is, until James took over.

Bethlem factsWikipedia

32. He Became A Hero

James was never the most popular man in England, but his actions during the Great Fire of London won the hearts of the people. He helped restore order as the panicked residents of the city turned into a mob, and strategically ordered the demolition of specific buildings to help curb the blaze.

By the time the ash had settled, the people of London saw James as a hero—for about a minute. Soon after, he did something that made them hate him forever.

Charles II FactsWikimedia Commons

33. He Kept A Dangerous Secret

James was English, but he had spent a lot of time in France, where he was exposed to Catholic practices for the first time. By the late 1660s, under the influence of his wife, James took the Catholic Eucharist—a fact he desperately tried to keep a secret. 

James was well aware that his Catholic faith could be dangerous in the passionately Anglican English court. Still, I doubt he realized what a disaster it would become.

Portrait of King James II, in Garter Robes - circa 1715Benedetto Gennari II, Wikimedia Commons

34. The Truth Came Out

In the years that followed James’s conversion, paranoia about Catholic influence in England reached a fever pitch. In 1673, Parliament introduced a new Test Act, which required all officials to take an oath disavowing Catholic principles and to receive the Anglican Eucharist.

The jig was up. James refused and relinquished his post as Lord High Admiral. Suddenly, all of England knew that the king’s brother was a hated Catholic. And it was only going to get worse.

Portrait of King James II looking at front - 1680sGodfrey Kneller, Wikimedia Commons

35. A Disturbing Rumor Circulated

James’s conversion ignited Anglicans’ long-simmering paranoia that Catholics were trying to take over England. Soon, a controversial clergyman named Titus Oates announced that he had uncovered a plot by Catholics to assassinate Charles and put James on the throne.

Tensions in the kingdom were already high—and Oates’s “Popish Plot” made them explode.

Mary of Modena FactsGetty Images

36. Madness Reigned

Eventually, authorities proved that Oates had completely fabricated the Popish Plot—but by then, it was too late. Anti-Catholic hysteria had swept England, and at least 22 people had been frivolously executed in the madness. 

James escaped the controversy relatively unscathed, but his faith still meant there was a target on his back, and that wasn’t going to change any time soon.

James II of England, then Duke of York looking at side - circa 1672Henri Gascar, Wikimedia Commons

37. They Tried To Block Him From The Throne

People hated James’s Catholicism so much that one minister tried to pass an Exclusion Bill that would cut him out of the line of succession. Lucky for James, that bill didn’t pass—and wouldn’t you know it, his brother, King Charles II, wasn’t looking so good…

Portrait of King Charles II of England - 1653Philippe de Champaigne, Wikimedia Commons

38. The Last Voyage Of The Gloucester

By 1680, James was the Lord High Commissioner of Scotland—but with his brother looking more and more ill with each passing day, James prepared to move back to London to await…whatever might happen. After a trip to England, he set sail for Scotland on the HMS Gloucester.

The plan was to settle his affairs, collect his wife and child, then return to London. It should have been a simple trip—but the Gloucester never saw the shore again.

The Wreck Of HMS 'Gloucester' Off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682Monamy Swaine, Wikimedia Commons

39. He Thought He Knew Best

James spent the entire trip arguing with the ship’s officers about the proper route to take. That included the ship’s pilot, James Ayres, who knew the waters like the back of his hand. In the end, it was James who decided to ship’s course. And it led them straight to disaster.

Portrait painting of James II of England looking at front - between 1685 and 1688School of Godfrey Kneller, Wikimedia Commons

40. They Ran Into A Sandbank

The HMS Gloucester ran into a sandbank so forcefully that it ripped the ship’s rudder clean off, tearing a gaping hole in the stern. The frigid waters of the North Sea flooded in and the Gloucester sunk within an hour. It was a grim scenario—and somehow, James managed to make it so much worse.

The Wreck Of The 'Gloucester' Off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682Johan Danckerts, Wikimedia Commons

41. He Made It So Much Worse

Official protocol insisted that no one could abandon a ship while a member of the royal family was aboard. At first, James was sure that the ship wouldn’t sink, so he refused to evacuate. Then, when he finally admitted defeat, he insisted that his armored strongbox be loaded onto his boat before he did.

All of this meant no one aboard the Gloucester could evacuate until the last possible minute. The results were devastating.

Portrait painting of James II of England in armor - between 1660 and 1665John Michael Wright, Wikimedia Commons

42. All His Servants Perished

James eventually made it to Scotland, but around 250 souls aboard the Gloucester did not. According to one source, James abandoned his entire retinue of servants to their deaths in the cold waters. But James didn’t have any time to fret about the past. 

Against all odds, he was about to become the King of England.

Portrait painting of James Ii, When Duke Of York  - circa 1665Peter Lely, Wikimedia Commons

43. He Became The King

King Charles II suffered a sudden apoplectic fit in February 1685 and died soon after. With no children of his own, the crown passed to his brother, the Duke of York, who became King James II of England and Ireland and King James VII of Scotland. 

Although the people hated James’s Catholicism, they were tired of messy successions, so they readily accepted him as their King. But if James thought it was going to be easy, he had another thing coming.

Portrait painting of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland - first half of 17th centuryAfter Jan van den Hoecke, Wikimedia Commons

44. Rebellions Started Immediately

The first rebellions against James sprang up almost immediately. But if there's one thing James was pretty good at, it was warfare. He swiftly and brutally put down uprisings in both Southern England and Scotland in the first months of his reign. 

Now that he was king, James was ready to throw his weight around. Let's see if it would work out for him... 

Portrait painting of James II of England looking at side in armor - 1684Godfrey Kneller, Wikimedia Commons

45. He Pushed Them Too Far

Most people in England were already nervous about their new Catholic king. Then James forced the Declaration of Indulgence upon the Anglican Clergy. The Declaration was an early stab at the concept of “religious freedom” in England—and the Clergy HATED it. 

When seven Bishops, including the Big Cheese himself, the Archbishop of Canterbury, refused to issue the Declaration, James had them arrested. If the Anglicans hated him before, they despised him now—and then their worst fear came true.

Portrait painting of James II of England looking at front - circa 1690National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

46. He Had A Baby

The Anglicans were uncomfortable with James on the throne, but at least they knew that his two daughters were good, Protestant girls. Hopefully, they would take the throne soon, reverse all of James’s pro-Catholic policies, and everything could go back to normal.

Then James had a baby with his new, very Catholic wife Mary of Modena. For the Anglicans, a Catholic heir to the throne was the final straw.

Queen Anne factsWikipedia

47. They Started Scandalous Rumors

Influential Anglicans quickly tried to spread the rumor that the child wasn’t really the King's, but rather that he’d been smuggled into the queen’s bed-chamber. When that didn’t work, they kicked things up a notch.

Portrait of James II of England. Oil on canvas - 1685Anne Killigrew, Wikimedia Commons

48. They Wanted Him Gone

England had toppled one king just a few decades prior, why not do it again? But, instead of going the whole “blood on your hands” execution route, a cadre of powerful Anglicans did something arguably even more shocking: They invited a foreign prince to come take the country by force.

Portrait of James II of England with Garter Collar - circa 1650 - 1675School of Peter Lely, Wikimedia Commons

49. His Own Son-In-Law Usurped His Throne

As if it wasn’t messy enough already, that “foreign prince” was William of Orange…James’s own son-in-law. William invaded England with an army, and immediately several of James’s key officers defected to his side. 

But the worst betrayal came from one of his own: James’s own daughter Anne abandoned him and joined her sister on William's side. James must have been heartbroken—at least, that would explain his shocking next move.

Queen Anne factsWikipedia

50. He Didn't Fight For It

While there was a foreign army gathering on his shores, James still had the numerical advantage. All he needed to do was attack—but at the last minute, he lost his nerve. Maybe it was because those close to him and abandoned ship, but for whatever reason, James II of England simply…gave up.

Portrait of James II of England looking at front - 17th centuryPeter Lely, Wikimedia Commons

51. He Ran For His Life

James had an opportunity to cement his rule with a decisive victory. Instead, he turned his tail and fled to France. As he left London, he symbolically threw the Great Seal of the Realm into the Thames. William’s forces captured him before he could escape Great Britain, but by then, James was a shell of who he once was.

Portrait painting of James II of England looking at front wearing armor - 18th centuryEnglish School, Wikimedia Commons

52. They Let Him Go

Soon after his forces captured James, William made a shocking decision: In one final humiliation, he had his men let James go. No strings, no questions. He must have realized that killing James would only have made him a martyr for rebels to rally around. 

Clearly, William didn't consider James to be a threat. And he was right.

Scandalous Historical FactsWikipedia

53. He Ended The Stuart Line

William and his wife, James’s daughter Mary, jointly ruled England following the Glorious Revolution. After them, the throne passed to Mary’s sister, Anne, who ruled as Queen Anne of Great Britain. With no children of her own, after Anne, the throne passed to a distantly related German cousin, George of Hanover, ending nearly a century of rule by the House of Stuart.

Queen Anne wearing red dress - 1685Willem Wissing, Wikimedia Commons

54. He Faded Away Into Nothing

James was forced to watch from afar as everything he’d ever done for England was picked apart bit by bit. His father was executed by his own people, but in a way, James’s ultimate fate was even more painful. He spent his final years as a forgotten penitent, with nothing to do but ruminate on a life of failures. 

After seeing the dawn of a new century, James passed suddenly from a brain hemorrhage in 1701. Years later, as if he hadn’t been humiliated enough in life, his tomb was desecrated during the French Revolution.

Portrait painting of James II of England looking at front - circa 1686Nicolas de Largillière, Wikimedia Commons

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