There’s no denying that the Stuart era was a turbulent time in British history. This was never more obvious than during the reign of James II - who is also known as the king who fled. Read on to discover more about King James II’s disastrous reign.
After the death of Oliver Cromwell and the succession of his son Richard (1658–1659), King Charles II (James II’s brother) was brought back from exile to restore the monarchy. He was a popular if slightly hedonistic king and kept England a Protestant country, although he did convert to Catholicism on his deathbed. As the second son, James had not expected to succeed to the throne. James II had spent most of his life in Europe and sought exile in France following his fathers beheading.
When Cromwell’s reign failed and James II’s brother ascended the throne, James came back to England and was proclaimed Lord High Admiral of the Navy. During the Great Fire of London in 1666, James was praised for his firefighting efforts.
James’s wife, Anna Hyde, had converted to Roman Catholicism soon after returning to London. In the late 1660s, James had converted as well and was privately attending catholic mass.
While the eldest son born into the British Royal Family usually takes the throne, this wasn’t a possibility for Charles II as, while he had plenty of illegitimate children from mistresses, there were no legitimate children born out of his marriages. This meant that the now Catholic James was next in line to the throne, which the Protestants were not very happy about. In 1673, James II married Mary of Modena, who was another Catholic.
In 1673, the Test Act, a series of penal laws came in requiring all military and civil officials to declare allegiance to the Anglican Church. James refused, thus effectively proving the long standing rumours over his Catholic faith. With a known Catholic next in line to the throne, anti-Catholic sentiment and numerous conspiracy theories arose. To appease these concerns, Charles II arranged for James’s daughter, Mary, to marry the Protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange. James reluctantly agreed. The Test Act was only repealed in 1828.
In 1678, three bills known as the exclusion bills were debated by parliament. These bills sought to stop James succeeding the throne, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. In 1683, a failed assassination plot strengthened James’s position as heir.
In 1685, King Charles II died and King James II took the throne. The impossible had happened: for the first time in a century, England had a Catholic monarch. Many people were not happy, and King James was immediately faced with a rebellion.
The Monmouth Rebellion was led by King Charles II’s eldest illegitimate child, James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth. The rebellion failed, but it shook the new king and encouraged him to establish a large army, which was mostly made up of Catholics. James II was following in his father’s footsteps in trying to be an ‘absolute monarch’. He wanted the country to be Catholic and tried to get involved in the fellow elections at Magdalen College, Oxford, and imprisoned those who disagreed with him.
In 1688, King James II had a son. His elder daughters had been raised Protestant, but under the laws of primogeniture any male child would leap to the front of the succession line. (N.B. this law has now changed so somebody like Lady Louise Windsor, the daughter of Prince Edward is closer in line to the throne than her younger brother James.) who is The prospect of another Catholic king was too much, and rumours that the child was an imposter, smuggled in when the real son had been stillborn, were spread to try and weaken his claim. That year, seven Protestant nobles invited William of Orange, James’s eldest daughter Mary’s husband, to invade. This came to be known as the Glorious Revolution.
King James II had a larger army, but he did not have the support of the people and many of his soldiers began to defect to William’s side. Faced with certain defeat, James fled with his son to France. He was found by British fishermen and was briefly imprisoned, but managed to flee successfully with the King of France providing safe haven at his court. James II’s three year reign had come to an end. He had effectively abdicated with no plan for the next heir, so his daughter and William of Orange took the throne. King James made an attempt to take back the throne, but was defeated by his son in law. He was allowed to flee, never to return to England again. The Stuart reign was officially over.
James II died in exile in 1701. His remains would later be destroyed during the French Revolution.