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JAMES II - Saint or Sinner?

For some reason I received a tweet from The Society for the Canonisation of King James II and VII. Clearly the members of such a society are ultra Catholics. It had never occurred to me that anyone would wish to have James declared a saint.


Their argument appears to be that James (1685-88) was expelled from the country and removed from the throne because of his Catholicism. That he was a catholic and a highly religious man is not in doubt, as is the fact that he was brought up as a member of The Church of England and had lived a rather dissolute life in his younger days. He converted to Roman Catholicism shortly after The Restoration of his brother, Charles II - probably in either 1668 or in 1669. His brother was not best pleased.


However, James' two daughters by his first wife (Anne Hyde), Mary and Anne, were brought up in The Church of England. When his elder brother died in 1685, James assumed the throne without dissent. His Catholicism wasn't in itself a ban on his becoming King, it was his subsequent actions on being King that alienated wide sections of, at least, English opinion. Indeed, in 1685 James' illegitimate nephew, James Duke of Monmouth, led a Protestant Rebellion against his uncle. It was a total failure as Monmouth was unable to attract to his cause anyone of real note. The reason being that the English valued legitimate succession over anything else. You only have to remember that in a heavily Protestant England in 1553, they had rejected Protestant Lady Jane Grey and supported Catholic Mary Tudor as Queen.


However, the way James and his lieutenant, George Jeffreys, dealt with the Monmouth rebels after their defeat at Sedgemoor, was in hindsight the beginning of the end for James. Jeffreys' Bloody Assizes had nearly 300 executed, including Monmouth himself, and a further aprrox 850 sent as indentured servants to The West Indies. The folk memory of those Assizes is still strong in Somerset.


The case against James began to build. For the first time since the reign of Mary I James welcomed a Papal Nuncio to London. He had prorogued Parliament in 1685, and showed no signs of recalling it. He kept a Standing Army, against all precedent in time of peace, and used his 'Dispensing Power' to thwart the rule of Parliament and appointed Catholics to command a number of the regiments. James tried to get judicial approval for the use of a dispensing power (to dispense with the laws of the land), but when a number of judges objected they were sacked, and a compliant High Court then accepted his request. Very much like Trump attempting to fill the Supreme Court with his supporters, and to use the President's power of decree to thwart Congress and the Courts, as in the recent case of Roger Stone. Some might wish to say the wide powers taken by the present British Government under the pandemic legislation to dispense with normal practices in relation to granting of government contract is somewhat similar. I couldn't possibly comment.


James issued a Declaration of Indulgence which would grant Nonconformists and Catholics civic rights. Seven Bishops of the Church of England refused to have the document read in their dioceses. They were tried for seditious libel but the courts, standing up to James, acquitted them. He attempted to appoint to top posts at Christ Church and University Colleges, Oxford, two Roman Catholics. He attempted to interfere with the election of a President of Magdalen College, Oxford, and put forward a candidate who was both of 'ill repute' and almost certainly catholic. The last year of his short reign, 1688, saw him dismiss JPs who refused to agree to The Declaration of Indulgence. Hundreds were arbitrarily removed from office.


To many it now looked as though James had inherited the stubborn streak of his father, Charles I, rather than the pragmatic one of his brother Charles II. There began to arise a fear of a further bout of civil war. No one wanted that, and so secret discussions were opened with James' daughter Mary and her husband, the Protestant William of Orange. It was, I would argue, not James' Catholicism per se that led to his forced abdication but his own actions. He appeared to have forgotten the lessons of the 1640s, as well as failing to acknowledge a widespread fear in the nation that his closeness to Louis XIV's France would lead to Absolutism, on a French model, being introduced here. The common thought was that we had not fought a bitter civil war, cut off a King's head, only to find ourselves back to square one.


When William landed at Brixham in Devon, unlike Monmouth, he arrived with a full Dutch Army and a number of significant English supporters. Moreover when James' Army was sent to apprehend him, under their senior officers, including John Churchill they simply turned round and marched under William's banner to London. When William finally reached London, and James had finally left for the continent to join his wife (Mary of Modena) and his baby son, James, Londoners decorated their houses and streets in orange to welcome the Dutch Prince. In hindsight 1688 and The Bloodless Revolution, at least in England, set Britain on a path to the modern democracy it has followed ever since. The resistance to William in Scotland and, more significantly under James himself, in Ireland had ended by 1691. Never again would arbitrary government and absolutism rear its head in Britain.


Saint or Sinner? Neither; just a man out of his time who could not accept that England had changed since at the age of nine he had sheltered with his elder brother and William Harvey, (discoverer of the circulation of blood), under a Warwickshire hedge on the battlefield of Edgehill (1642).


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