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James II: Will the real King of England please stand up?


What is a king to do, when he no longer has a crown? The fall of James II was dramatic as it was unexpected. It changed everything; it ushered in a constitutional monarchy and a Bill of Rights, and set in train a series of radical new ideas about individual freedoms, and collective governance, that found their surest expression in the American Declaration of Independence.

Yet for James II and for all those who believed in ‘Divine Right’ kingship, it was an unthinkable disaster that raised as many questions as it answered. By 1700, save for James’s young son and daughters, the direct Stuart line seemed to have all-but exhausted itself. As far as Parliament was concerned, only the fifty-eighth in line to the throne – the 74-year-old Electress Sophia of Hanover – appeared fit to wear the crown, once the job description had been changed to exclude Catholics.

The loading of the dice in this way, in order to guarantee politically acceptable and largely quiescent rulers, appeared to many to be an abandonment of tradition and of all that was sacred in monarchy. It compelled part of Tory England to offer increasingly contorted justifications for the Hanoverian succession; while driving the remainder more firmly towards Jacobitism.

And Jacobitism, itself, was James II’s most enduring creation. In exile, he fashioned and honed the aura of “Jacobus” – the rightful, but wronged – king, about himself. Monarchy was once again holy, divinely inspired and ordained. It was alluring enough to compel his followers to give up estates and livelihoods in order to follow him into exile, or onto the battlefields of Killiekrankie and the Boyne. It sent the ‘Wild Geese’ in flight from the shores of Ireland to form the backbone of his new “Royal” army in France and, later, to provide veteran regiments for Louis XIV and his heirs. And, it saw Highlanders – whose pay could no longer be guaranteed – sent away to fight and die in Catalonia, with the “blessings of a king and a father” who regretted that so many of his former officers should be reduced to the ranks. In London coffee shops and drinking dens, King James’s name was still revered and Aphra Behn – the seminal Feminist writer of the Seventeenth Century – turned her hand to producing a stream of Jacobite verse, even as the king’s agents were struggling onto the Lancashire coast, laden with “a great Quantity of Arms … Kettle drums, Trumpets, Jack Boots and Saddles”.

James’s choice of imagery was not, therefore, unthinking or heavy-handed choice of imagery; and the King’s memoirs and works of religious devotion were not the products of an untutored, dull, or unimaginative mind. Not every man is possessed with charm or marked by political acumen. Indeed, James’s inability to dissemble to any great extent might even be thought laudable in another walk of life. In an age of trimmers, who prized personal advancement above all else and who would turn deception and greed into refined, almost gentlemanly arts, there may even be something strangely noble in James’s headlong – and sometimes brutally stark - adherence to what he saw as principle and to a religious conviction that, within the context of English politics at the Restoration could not possibly lead him to any other destination but his own, particular, Golgotha.

His tragedy was, therefore, rooted not so much in the loss of his power, hereditary rights and influence, but in the enormous human cost that resulted from his immense, misdirected self-belief.

Yet, there was another twist in the tail. Chivalric virtues and religious imperatives were no longer the defining qualities for European monarchs. Though as a young man, King James might have fought against Cromwell’s republican troops in the army of monarchical Spain; it was much harder for his heir – who charged the British lines at the battle of Malplaquet – to justify riding down his own supposed subjects as the client of a foreign king. In making Jacobitism synonymous in the popular mind with support for a proselytising Catholic monarchy and a military alliance with absolutist France, James hopelessly misread the guiding political and religious preoccupations of the majority of the people of the British Isles. However unwittingly, this former king had bequeathed to his heirs and to Jacobitism a legacy which – despite its short-term advantages – was no more than a poisoned chalice.

So what of the Stuarts, themselves? The last of his direct line – the titular ‘James III’ or the ‘Old Pretender’, and his sons Bonnie Prince Charlie and Cardinal Henry of York – were all eventually laid to rest, in Rome, in a mausoleum paid for by a Hanoverian king. In 1829, Sir Walter Scott would give short-shrift to the Sobieski-Stuart brothers (a couple of con-men) who claimed descent from James II and wrote a number of spurious histories in order to further their claims. In more recent times, the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign saw the 81-year-old Duke Franz of Bavaria being touted as a possible replacement king of Scotland: on account of him being the great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of James II.

Yet, a preoccupation with hereditary and legitimacy is a strange thing. The Duke of Berwick – James II’s illegitimate son – was intelligent, courageous, cultured and a man of the European Enlightenment. Possessed of a dry, self-deprecating, wit; he was far removed from both his half-brother; the luckless, melancholic ‘Old Pretender’, and the Hanoverian claimant to the throne; the bullying, boorish, George I. In some respects, Berwick is the best king that Great Britain never had: and it’s as well to reflect upon that when we consider the hereditary principle and call upon the ‘rightful’ king to stand up.

By John Callow

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