James II

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James II [1633-1701] was James II as king of England and Ireland and James VII as king of Scotland, 1685-1688. A member of the Stuart dynasty, he was the second son of King Charles I and became Duke of York.[1] He succeeded his late brother Charles II to the throne. He antagonized all the leading sectors of Britain by his plans to make Britain a Roman Catholic nation and form an alliance with the France of King Louis XIV. The leaders called on William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands to overthrow James, which happened in 1688. James went into exile in France and schemed to organize his supporters (called "Jacobites") to invade Britain and restore him to the throne. He failed.


Early life and career

He was born to Charles I and Henrietta Maria on October 14, 1633. From birth, he was designated as the Duke of York. After years of disputes, he spent many years in exile in France. When his brother Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, James was appointed to the position of Governor of the Royal African Company.


The Duke of Monmouth (1649–85) was very popular illegitimate son of Charles II of England and third in line for the throne. Monmouth was banished to the Netherlands after the revelation of a plot by Whig politicians to kill King Charles II and his brother, the Catholic Duke of York, in 1683. After Charles's death, Monmouth staged an uprising against James II, but he was defeated and executed.

James came to the throne with a full treasury and no economic crises. His revenues grew thanks to the growth of a centrally controlled, salaried royal bureaucracy, which increased the efficiency of tax collection in the 1680s. James was by far the most solvent of the Stuart monarchs of the seventeenth century. The new money allowed James to greatly increase the standing army, from 8500 men to about 40,000. He ordered local innkeepers to house and feed soldiers or lose their licenses.[2] The creation of an independent legal system for the army, combined with the garrisoning of troops across the country, alarmed men who feared he planned to impose arbitrary rule by force. The king's systematic promotion of Catholic to higher ranks was another worrisome sign, and alienated him from the traditional officer corps. When Parliament protested, he prorogued (disbanded) Parliament in November 1685.When William of Orange invaded in 1688, the army refused to defend the king.

Royal despotism?

James realized that local elites were unfriendly, so he tried to strip away their political power. He tried to seize control of county governments by appointing friends who would his religious policies. In many counties, James replaced between 75% and 90% of the justices of the peace (JP) who controlled local affairs. James sent parliament home and had plans to control the next Parliament; he took royal control of many cities by canceling their charters. The most famous case came when he revoked the charter of the City of London and put his men in the top local offices. He tried to set up new courts to handle clergy of the Church of England, but the bishops fought him to a standstill. James tried to force Catholic officials on Oxford University. At Cambridge University, Professor Isaac Newton led the resistance. James issued many dispensations to release Catholic supporters from legal disabilities.

Under James, the open pursuit of his Catholic programme proved unacceptable to Britain's ruling classes, confirmed latent fears of a design to establish a royal despotism. James' blunder was to underestimate the real vulnerability of the monarchy that his brother Charles II had restored in 1660. For all its outward strength and independence, it rested upon the tacit acceptance and co-operation of the nation's local elites. Early modern British government was in practice a collaborative affair, and this made the James' goal of an absolutist system impossible in practical terms. James may have wanted to emulate Louis XIV but it was quite impossible in Britain.[3]

Catholic issue

James was an active Catholic who surrounded himself with Catholic advisors and dreamed of restoring Catholicism as the state religion, to the dismay of the Anglicans in the Church of England, as well as the Dissenters (other Protestants). He greatly underestimated the depth of anti-Catholic hatreds and fears in Britain. James had a long-term goal: he believed that by relaxing the harsh rules against Catholics that Britain would eventually become a Catholic Country—vastly underestimating the strength of anti-Catholicism among all ranks of the British people. The Anglican bishops opposed his plans so he tried to form an alliance with the Protestant Dissenters against the Church of England, but the Dissenters realized his goal was to build up Catholicism. With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by French King Louis XIV in 1784, a wave of persecuted Huguenots arrived in Britain, telling more horror stories about Catholic rule.

Most serious of all, James tried to emulate and form an alliance with the powerful Catholic king of France, Louis XIV. This brought William of Orange into the picture, the ruler of the Netherlands. William was trying to organize a European coalition against France, and needed Britain to join. British leaders in 1688 told William they were through with James and asked him to invade and take the throne. He did so, James fled, and William (now called William III) became king jointly with his wife Mary II. As the Protestant daughter of James II, Mary had a good claim to the throne.

Glorious Revolution

The overthrow of James was hailed at the time, and ever since, as the "Glorious Revolution." Edmund Burke set the tone for over two centuries of historiographical analysis when he proclaimed that:

The Revolution was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.

Many historians have endorsed Burke's view, including Macaulay (1848) and more recently John Morrill, who captured the consensus of contemporary historiography well when he declared that "the Sensible Revolution of 1688—89 was a conservative Revolution." On the contrary, argues Pincus (2009), it was momentous, especially when looking at the alternative that James was trying to enact of a powerful centralized autocratic state. England's role in Europe and the country's political economy in the 17th century refutes the view of many late-20th century historians that nothing revolutionary occurred during the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Pincus says it was not a placid turn of events. In diplomacy and economics James II transformed the English state's ideology and policies. This occurred not because James II was an outsider who inflicted foreign notions on England but because foreign affairs and political economy were at the core of the English revolutionaries' agenda. The revolution of 1688-89 cannot be fathomed in isolation. It would have been inconceivable without the transformations resulting from the events of the 1640s and 1650s. Indeed, the ideas accompanying the Glorious Revolution were rooted in the mid-century upheavals. Thus, the 17th century was a century of revolution in England, deserving of the same scholarly attention that 'modern' revolutions attract.

James II was building a powerful militarized state on the assumption that the world's wealth was necessarily finite, and empires were created by taking land from another state. The East India Company was thus an ideal tool to create a vast new English imperial dominion by warring with the Dutch and the Mogul Empire in India. After 1689 came an alternative understanding of economics, which saw Britain as a commercial rather than an agrarian society. The proponents of this view, most famously Adam Smith in 1776, realized that wealth was created by human endeavor and thus potentially infinite.


James II escaped to France, where Louis XIV protected him and helped him foment a rebellion in Britain that would put James on the throne. James invaded Ireland and at the head of an army of 55,000 men was defeated by King William III at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, ending any realistic hopes of returning to power. After the defeat James created a culturally spectacular and politically active court-in-exile in France where he unsuccessfully planned his return to power. James ruled his exiled court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Much of his military strength came from loyal Irish Catholics. Irish Jacobite regiments were called "Wild Geese." James II died in exile in 1701.

See also

Further reading

  • Dekrey, Gary S. "Between Revolutions: Re-appraising the Restoration in Britain," History Compass 2008 6(3): 738-773,
  • Glassey, Lionel, ed. The Reigns of Charles II and James VII and II (1997)
  • Goodlad, Graham. " Before the Glorious Revolution: The Making of Absolute Monarchy?," History Review. Issue: 58; 2007. pp 10+. Examines the Controversies Surrounding the Development of Royal Power under Charles II and James II. in Questia
  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England from the Accession of James II, 5 vols. (1848) vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4, vol. 5, the greatest of the narrative histories; makes James a terrible villain.
  • Miller, John. James II (2000) excerpt and text search, solid scholarly biography; Miller sees James as more interested in his own survival and tolerance for Catholics and suggests he did not have a grand plan to Catholicize England
  • Miller, John. The Stuarts (2004), 320pp; standard scholarly survey
  • Miller, John. The Glorious Revolution, (2nd ed. 1997) excerpt and text search
  • Mullett, M. James II and English Politics 1678-1688 (1993) excerpt and text search
  • Pincus, Steve. 1688: The First Modern Revolution (2009) excerpt and text search, influential new interpretation
  • Speck, W.A. James II (2002), solid scholarly biography; argues James did not seek to impose Catholicism, but his ambitions went far beyond equal treatment for Catholics.
  • Speck, W.A. "James II and VII (1633–1701)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,(2004), online at academic libraries


  1. New York is named after him.
  2. A grievance later echoed in the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  3. See Goodlad (2007)