Tuesday, 27 January 2015

James II

James II and VII
Sir Godfrey Kneller
Public domain

A Catholic accession

James came to the throne with a clear aim: to establish the rights of Catholics to worship without persecution and to take full part in the political life of the country. However, to do this,  he would have to persuade Parliament to repeal the penal laws -  the Corporation Act of 1661 and the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678. He believed that once this was done, Catholicism would triumph without any compulsion from the state. However, this belief shows his political naivety. He failed to understand the profound anti-popery of the majority of his subjects, and was unable to realize that his actions were likely to be misinterpreted. In his attempts to alleviate the rigours of religious discrimination, he had to fall back on the royal prerogative at a time when, thanks in part to the policies of Louis XIV in France, the association of ‘popery’ and ‘arbitrary power’ was taken for granted. His naturally authoritarian temperament did not help.

James’s accession was greeted quietly - he was, after all the rightful successor to Charles II and the Church of England was busy preaching obedience to divinely-appointed rulers. But from the start there were signs of a new royal style: more formality in official behaviour, more bluntness and directness in royal statements. He insisted on attending mass in full state.

Monmouth's rebellion

In June, the crown was confronted by a two-pronged rebellion, engineered by Whig exiles in Holland. The one in Scotland was led by the earl of Argyll. It was a clan rebellion in which the Campbells followed their chief. It was quickly crushed and his followers were treated with leniency though Argyll himself was executed.

The second was in the west of England when the duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis on 11 June with eighty-two men and a quantity of arms. Trading on his Protestant credentials, he assembled about 3,000 men - farmers, clothworkers, artisans and miners - as he marched through Dorset and Somerset in June. He was finally defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor on 5 July and was found hiding in a ditch near Ringwood. He was executed on 15 July (no trial was necessary because he had been attainted).

At the end of August a special commission of oyer and terminer, known as the ‘Bloody Assizes’ was set up under Lord Chief Justice
Jeffreys to try some 1300 suspected rebels. Some 250 were executed, hundreds more were transported to the West Indies.

The defeat of the rebellion greatly strengthened James’s position but it also made him aware of his military weakness. He decided to keep most of the forces he had raised for the emergency, thus doubling the size of his standing army, which increased to almost 19,000 officers and men. While enlarging his army he commissioned nearly 100 Catholic officers though this was contrary to the law.

The French refugees

It was unfortunate for James that his policy coincided with Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in October which revoked the toleration previously granted to the Huguenots (the French Protestants). This led to a flood of French refugees - eventually totalling between 30,000 and 40,000 - who settled in places like Spitalfields and Rochester. They brought with them horror stories about their sufferings from the dragonnades. James's lukewarm welcome made it more difficult for many of his subjects to believe his protestations that his aim was toleration rather than the setting up of an absolutist Catholic monarchy.

Parliament v. prerogative

James's attempts to repeal the Test Acts were fiercely opposed by Parliament. He prorogued his first parliament in November 1685 and dissolved it in July 1687.

Unable to work through parliament  he fell back on the dispensing power - the right to dispense individuals from the operations of acts of parliament. He then proceeded to appoint Catholics to high positions.

The Declaration of Indulgence and the seven bishops

Early in 1688 the queen's pregnancy was announced. If a boy, the child would become heir to the throne, displacing James's Protestant daughters, Mary, Princess of Orange and Anne, Princess of Denmark.

On 27 April 1688, using the royal prerogative, James issued a Declaration of Indulgence, and on 4 May he issued an order to the Anglican clergy to read it from their pulpits first in London and then in the rest of the country. On 17 May William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops signed a petition to the king claiming that they refused to publish the Declaration because it 
‘is founded upon such a dispensing power as hath often been declared illegal in Parliament’. 
On 8 June they were sent to the Tower. James had turned them into martyrs.

The birth of the Prince of Wales

Mary of Modena,
James' Italian Catholic wife
Public domain
On 10 June Queen Mary of Modena gave birth (very publicly and a month earlier than expected) to a son, christened James Francis Edward, opening up the prospect of a Catholic dynasty. Mary and Anne were displaced, as was Mary’s husband, William of Orange. Mary and Anne were both firmly convinced that the pregnancy was false and the child spurious. James was thought to be unhealthy and the queen’s medical history seemed to make pregnancy unlikely. Anne, who was in Bath and therefore did not witness the birth, believed she had been duped over the dates. Mary was therefore very ready to believe that she had been cheated of her inheritance and that the Church of England was in grave danger. Her belief was reinforced a series of scurrilous Dutch pamphlets.

The story that an infant had been smuggled into the queen's bed in a warming pan is, of course, without foundation. The interesting question is why so many people believed - or, more accurately, needed to believe - such an absurd fabrication!

On 29 June the seven bishops were brought from the Tower to Westminster Hall to be tried in front of a large and partisan crowd, who hissed Sunderland (who had just become a Catholic) when he gave evidence. Two of the four judges condemned the dispensing power: ‘If this once be allowed of, there will need no Parliament’ all the legislature will be in the King’. On 30 June the jury acquitted them of seditious libel. When informed, James said, ‘So much the worse for them’. But that night there were bonfires in London.

The invitation to William

On 30 June seven leading Protestants representing Whig and Tory opinion (Edward Russell, Henry Sidney, Lord Lumley, Bishop Compton of London, and the earls of Shrewsbury, Devonshire and Danby) wrote to William of Orange pledging their support if he brought a force to England against James. They told William that he had been wrong to compliment James on the birth of his son and that 
‘nineteen parts of twenty of the people … are desirous of a change.’ 
But William’s decision had already been made. The letter from the ‘Immortal Seven’ had come as no surprise.

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