Thursday, December 01, 2005

The accession of James II

In the 19th century James II was vilified as a potential absolutist who wanted to rule without Parliament and to force Catholicism on the nation. However, it is now clear that his aim was not to eradicate Protestantism or to rule without Parliament. He was especially sensitive to the charge that he was a client of Louis XIV and was eager to assert England’s independence. His aim was to establish the rights of Catholics to worship without persecution and to take full part in the political life of the country: but 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 completely misunderstood the nature of English anti-Catholicism, failed to empathize with 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 the association of ‘popery’ and ‘arbitrary power’ was taken for granted. His naturally authoritarian temperament did not help.

James was 52 at the time of his accession, the last surviving child of Charles I. His childhood had been uncertain and frightening. The Civil War started when he was nine; at thirteen he was handed over to the parliamentary forces and imprisoned in London, and two years later he escaped in disguise. The happiest years of his life were those in which he was a professional soldier, serving with the French and then the Spaniards. After the Restoration he became Lord High Admiral. In spite of his devout Catholicism (probably post 1669) he had as many mistresses as his brother. By 1685 he was the last surviving child of Charles I. He did not expect to live long and his actions were those of an old man in a hurry. In his policy he could expect no help from his ministers who were staunch Anglicans: his brothers-in-law, Lawrence Hyde, earl of Rochester and Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon; Lord Halifax, president of the council. But he had an ally in his secretary of state, Robert Spencer, 2nd earl of Sunderland , who however was entirely opportunistic. He had supported Exclusion, but had wheedled his way back through the graces of the queen. In April John Churchill was appointed gentleman of the bedchamber, and in May he was made Baron Churchill.

James’s accession was greeted quietly. In a statement to the privy council he made a promise which he later repeated to Parliament that he would always defend it. But from the start there were signs of anew royal style: more formality in official behaviour, more bluntness and directness in royal statements. He insisted on attending mass in full state.

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