WHO would have fancied, from Vandyck’s beautiful blue-and-gold portrait 1 of the Duke of York at the age of two, that this innocent, sensitive, diffident child would ruin the Stuart dynasty and finally complete, in the “Glorious Revolution,” that transfer of power from king to Parliament which his father had ingloriously begun? But in Riley’s portrait 2 of the same soul as James II the diffidence has become bewilderment, the sensitivity has changed into obstinacy, and the innocence has passed through compliant mistresses to an inflexible theology. That character determined a tragic fate in which, as in all great tragedies, every participant fought for what seemed to him right, and can claim a portion of our sympathy.
We have already noted some of his virtues. He repeatedly exposed himself to danger of death in his naval career. Men compared him favorably with his brother in administrative industry, in modesty of expenditure, in fidelity to his word. He observed Charles’s dying injunction to take care of Nell Gwyn: he paid her debts, and settled upon her an estate sufficient to maintain her in comfort. After his accession he continued for a while his relations with his latest mistress, Catherine Sedley; but on the remonstrances of Father Petre he rewarded her for her services and persuaded her to leave England; for he confessed that if he saw her again he would not be able to resist the hold she had over him. 3 Bishop Burnet, who helped to dethrone him, judged him to be “naturally candid and sincere, though sometimes eager and revengeful; a very firm friend, until his religion had corrupted his first principles and inclinations.” 4 He was frugal and thrifty, kept an honest coinage, and was easy on the people in taxation. 5 Macaulay, after writing eight hundred pages about James’s three-year rule, concluded that “with so many virtues he might, if he had been a Protestant, nay, if he had been a moderate Roman Catholic, have had a prosperous and glorious reign.” 6
His faults grew with his power. Proud and arrogant even before his accession, scornful of the many and accessible only to a few, he adopted to the letter his father’s theory that the king should have absolute authority; and he had not his brother’s realistic humor to see its practical limitations. We must pay respect to his fervor for his religion, and his desire to give his fellow Catholics in England freedom of worship and equality of political opportunity. He had been devoted to his Catholic mother and sister; he had, for the past fifteen years, been surrounded by Catholics in his own house; and he thought it strange that a religion that produced so many good men and women should be so checked and hated by Englishmen. He did not share the vivid memories that English Protestants transmitted of the Gunpowder Plot, or their fear that a Catholic ruler would be inclined, and be sooner or later persuaded, to adopt only such policies as would not displease an Italian pope. Protestant England felt that its religious, intellectual, and political independence would be imperiled by a Catholic king.
James’s first moves after his accession slightly relieved these fears. He made Halifax lord president of his Council, Sunderland secretary of state, and Henry Hyde (second Earl of Clarendon) lord privy seal—all Protestants. In his first speech to the Council he promised to maintain the existing institutions in Church and state; he expressed his appreciation of the support that the Church of England had given to his succession, and promised to cherish her with special care. At his coronation he took the usual oath of modern English sovereigns to preserve and protect the Established Church. For some months he enjoyed an unexpected popularity.
His first pro-Catholic measure carried no direct offense to Protestantism. He ordered the release of all persons imprisoned for refusal to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. Thousands of Catholics were thereby freed, but also twelve hundred Quakers and many other Dissenters. He forbade any further prosecutions in matters of religion. He liberated Danby, and the Catholic lords who had been sent to the Tower on charges by Titus Oates. In a new trial Oates was convicted of perjuries that had led to the execution of several innocent persons; the court, expressing regret that it could not condemn him to death, sentenced him to pay a fine of two thousand marks, to be tied to the back of a cart, to be twice publicly whipped—once from Aldgate to Newgate, and two days later from Newgate to Tyburn—and to stand in the pillory five times every year for the remainder of his life. He survived the ordeal, and was returned to jail (May, 1685). James, asked to remit the second whipping, refused.
The precarious truce of the faiths was broken by a double revolt. In May Archibald Campbell, ninth Earl of Argyll, landed in Scotland, and in June James, Duke of Monmouth, landed on the southwest coast of England, in a joint effort to overthrow the Catholic King. Monmouth’s proclamation denounced James as a usurper, tyrant, and murderer, charged him with the burning of London, the Popish Plot, and the poisoning of Charles, and pledged the invaders to make no peace until they had rescued the Protestant religion and the liberties of the nation and the Parliament. Argyll was overcome on June 17, and executed on June 30; the northern arm of the rebellion failed. But the people of Dorsetshire, strongly Puritan, hailed Monmouth as a savior, and so many men enlisted under his banner that he confidently and solemnly assumed the title of James II, King of England. The nobility and the moneyed classes offered him no support, and his undisciplined army was defeated by the royal forces at Sedgemoor (July 6, 1685)—the last battle fought on English soil before the Second World War. Monmouth fled, begged forgiveness of the King, was refused, and was beheaded.
The royal army, led by Colonel Percy Kirke, pursued the remainder of the rebels and hanged prisoners without trial. James appointed a commission, headed by Chief Justice Jeffreys, to go into the west country and try persons accused of joining or abetting the revolt. Jury trials were given them, but the juries were so terrorized by Jeffreys that very few of the accused found mercy in these “Bloody Assizes” (September, 1685).* Nearly four hundred were hanged, and eight hundred were condemned to forced labor in the plantations of the West Indies. 7 Elizabeth in 1569 and Cromwell in 1648 had been guilty of similar barbarities, but Jeffreys outdid them by browbeating witnesses and juries, cursing his victims, gloating over them, and giving guilt the benefit of every doubt except when a substantial bribe argued for innocence. 8 James made some modest efforts to check the brutality, but when the holocaust was over he raised Jeffreys to the peerage and made him lord chancellor (September 6, 1686).
This vengeful pursuit shared in alienating the country from the King. When he asked Parliament for repeal of the Test Act (excluding Catholics from office and Parliament), for modification of the Habeas Corpus Act, and for a standing army under royal command, it refused to comply. James prorogued it (November 20), and proceeded to appoint Catholics to office. When Halifax objected to this flouting of Parliament James dismissed him from the Council, and replaced him, as its lord president, with Sunderland, who presently announced his conversion to Catholicism (1687). When James commended Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, 9 England concluded that if James had power as absolute as that of the Bourbon, he would take similar measures against English Protestants. James made no concealment of his belief that his power was already absolute, and that Louis XIV was his ideal of a king. For a time he accepted subsidies from Louis, but he refused to let him dictate the policies of the English government, and the subsidies ended.
Louis was wiser about England than about his own country; while he weakened France by his persecution of the Huguenots, he cautioned James against haste in Catholicizing England. Pope Innocent XI gave him similar counsel. When James sent word to him promising England’s early submission to the Roman Church, 10 he advised the King to content himself with obtaining toleration for English Catholics; he warned these to abstain from political ambitions, and directed the general of the Jesuits to rebuke Father Petre for taking so prominent a part in the government. 11 Innocent had not abated his Catholic zeal, but he feared the encompassing strength of Louis XIV, and hoped that England could be turned from a servant of French designs to be a makeweight against them. The Pope sent a nuncio to England—the first since Mary Tudor’s reign—to make clear to James that a rupture between Parliament and the King would be injurious to the interests of the Roman Church. 12
James did not profit from this advice. He felt that, being fifty-two years old at his accession, he had not much time left to effect the religious changes that were dear to his heart. He had little hope of a son; a Protestant daughter would sucçeed him, and would overturn his work unless this should be solidly established before his death. Father Petre and the Queen overruled all counsels of deliberation. The King not only went in royal state to hear Mass, but he asked his councilors to attend him there. Priests in growing number moved about the court. He appointed Catholics to military posts, and persuaded the judges (who were appointed and removable by him) to confirm his right to dispense such appointees from the penalties imposed upon them by the Test Act. He built up, largely under such Catholic officers, an army of thirteen thousand men, subject only to his orders, and obviously threatening the independence of Parliament. He suspended the penalties attached by law to public attendance at Catholic worship. He issued a decree (June, 1686) forbidding clergymen to preach sermons of doctrinal controversy; and when Dr. John Sharp preached on the motives of converts, James, as legal head of the English Church, ordered Henry Compton, bishop of London, to suspend him from the Anglican ministry. Compton refused. James, overriding a law of 1673, appointed a new Ecclesiastical Commission Court, dominated by Sunderland and Jeffreys; it tried Compton for disobedience to the Crown, and removed him from office. The Anglican Church, which had preached absolute obedience, began to turn against the King.
He had hoped to win the Anglican Church to reconciliation with Rome, but his precipitate action now excluded that policy; instead, he took up the plan of uniting the Catholics and Dissenters against the Establishment. William Penn, who had found his way into the King’s confidence, advised him that he could bring to his ardent support all the English Protestants but the Anglicans if he should, by a few strokes of the pen, annul all laws forbidding the public worship of the Dissenting sects. On August 4, 1687, James issued his first Declaration of Indulgence. Whatever were his motives, the document holds a place in the history of toleration. It suspended all penal laws affecting religion, abrogated all religious tests, allowed freedom of worship to all, and forbade interference with peaceable religious assemblies. It released all persons who were imprisoned for religious nonconformity. It went beyond the similar declarations of Charles II, which had kept religious tests for office, and had allowed Catholic worship only in private homes. It assured the Established Church that the King would continue to protect it in all its legal rights. It was a pity that this measure had to be an implicit declaration of war against Parliament, which had decreed all the disabilities now annulled. If Parliament were to admit the authority of the King to cancel parliamentary legislation, the Civil War would have to be fought once more.
Halifax, who was at this time the most brilliant mind in England, entered the fray with an anonymous Letter to a Dissenter (August, 1687)—“the most successful pamphlet of the age.” 13 He urged Protestants to realize that the toleration now offered them came from a prince loyal to a Church that claimed infallibility and frankly repudiated toleration. Could there be any lasting harmony between liberty of conscience and an infallible Church? How could Dissenters trust their new friends, who till yesterday had branded them as heretics? “The other day you were sons of Belial, now you are angels of light.” 14 Unfortunately, the Anglican Church had agreed with Rome about the sons of Belial, and had in the last twenty-seven years subjected Dissenters to such persecution as might well have excused them from accepting freedom even at Catholic hands. The Anglican hierarchy made haste to seek peace with the Presbyterians, Puritans, and Quakers. It begged them to reject the present indulgence, and promised them soon a toleration that would have the sanction of both the Parliament and the Established Church. Some Dissenters sent letters of gratitude to the King; the majority stood aloof; and when the day of decision came, they rejected the King.
James proceeded. The universities of England, for many years past, had required of teachers and students submission to the Anglican Church. Exceptions had been made in conferring a degree upon a Lutheran candidate, and an honorary degree upon a Mohammedan diplomat; but the Anglican clergy thought of Oxford and Cambridge as institutions whose chief function was to prepare men for the Anglican ministry, and it was resolved that no Catholic should be admitted. To breach this barrier James sent a mandatory letter to the vice-chancellor at Cambridge, directing him to exempt from the Anglican oath a Benedictine monk who sought the master’s degree. The vice-chancellor refused; he was suspended by order of the Ecclesiastical Commission; the university sent a delegation, including Isaac Newton, to explain its position to the King; the monk quieted the situation by withdrawing (1687). In the same year the King recommended for the presidency of Magdalen College, Oxford, a man of indifferent learning but of Catholic leaning; the fellows refused to elect him. After a long dispute James suggested a less objectionable candidate, the Anglican Bishop Parker of Oxford. The electoral fellows rejected him; they were expelled by order of the King, and Bishop Parker was installed by force.
Resentment rose as James entrusted himself more and more to Catholic advisers. His admiration for Father Petre was so great that he importuned the Pope to make him a bishop, even a cardinal; Innocent refused. In July, 1687, James made the able but reckless Jesuit a member of the Privy Council. Many English Catholics protested that this was a foolish measure, but James was in haste to fight the issues out to a conclusion. There were now six Catholics in the Council, and the favor of the King made them predominant. 15In 1688 four Catholic bishops were appointed to govern the Catholic Church in England; James settled upon each of them an annual pension of a thousand pounds; in effect Catholics now shared with the Anglicans the position of a state-supported church.
On April 25, 1688, James republished his year-old Declaration of Indulgence, and added to it a reaffirmation of his resolve to secure to all Englishmen “freedom of conscience forever.” Henceforth promotion to and in office was to depend upon merit regardless of creed. The reduction of religious hostility, he predicted, would open new markets to English trade, and would add to the prosperity of the nation. He begged his subjects to lay aside all animosity, and elect the next Parliament without any distinctions of religious faith. To ensure the widest circulation of this enlarged Declaration his Council sent instructions to all bishops to arrange with their clergy that it should be read in every parish church in England on May 20 or 27. Such use of the clergy as a means of communicating with the people had several precedents, but none in which the message was so distasteful to the Established Church. On May 18 seven Anglican bishops presented to the King a petition explaining that they could not in conscience recommend to their clergy the reading of the Declaration, for it violated the edict of Parliament that parliamentary legislation could be suspended only by Parliament’s consent. James answered that their own theologians had persistently preached the necessity of obedience to the King as the head of their Church, and that there was nothing in the Declaration offensive to any conscience. He promised to consider their petition; but if they did not hear from him on the morrow, they were to obey the order.
The next morning thousands of copies of the petition were sold in the streets of London, while it was still under royal consideration. James felt that this was contrary to all protocol. He submitted the petition to the twelve judges of the royal court; they advised him that he had acted within his legal rights. He left the petition unanswered. On May 20 the petition was read in four London churches; it was ignored in the remaining ninety-six. The King felt that his authority had been flouted. He ordered the seven bishops to appear before the Council. When they came he told them that they would have to submit to trial on the charge of having published a seditious libel; however, to spare them imprisonment in the meantime, he would accept their written promise to appear when summoned. They replied that as peers of the realm they need not give any other security than their word. The Council committed them to the Tower. As they were rowed down the Thames they were cheered by people on the banks.
On June 29 and 30 the bishops were tried before the Court of King’s Bench—four judges and a jury. After two days of heated argument, in a hall surrounded by ten thousand excited Londoners, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. All Protestant England rejoiced; “Never within man’s memory,” said a Catholic peer, “have there been such shouts and such tears of joy as today.” 16 The streets blazed with bonfires; crowds paraded behind wax figures of the Pope, the cardinals, and the Jesuits, which were burned amid wild celebrations. To the simple people the verdict meant that Catholicism was not to be tolerated; to more complex minds it meant that the privilege of Parliament to make laws irrevocable by the king had been vindicated, and that England was in fact, even if not in theory, a constitutional, not an absolute, monarchy.
James, brooding in defeat, consoled himself with the infant to which the Queen had given birth on June 10, a month before her expected time. He would bring up this precious boy as a loyal and devoted Catholic. Day by day father and son, over every opposition and discouragement, would move a step nearer to the sacred goal—the old monarchy living in concord with the old Church, in an England pacified and reconciled, in a Europe repenting its apostasy, and united again in the one true, holy, universal faith.