For a moment, the crown tottered upon the king’s head. Made for another, it slipped across his brow and threatened to fall. Years afterwards, it was this accident that remained crystal clear in Mary of Modena’s mind when all other impressions of the grandeur of her husband’s coronation – the cheering clouds, the smell of wafted incense, the colours of the bursting fireworks and the soaring harmonies of Henry Purcell’s new choral score – had faded away. This, she felt with a considerable degree of hindsight, was a presage of the disaster that was to engulf them both and to tip James II, a king who seemed to possess all the advantages, from his throne after little more than three years.
But what of his life after this? What becomes of ‘God’s anointed’ when divine providence appears to turn, decisively, away from him, and temporal authority slips through his fingers? In the case of James II, the last 12 years of his life – spent in exile in France and Ireland – have often been overlooked or treated as a disagreeable, and largely inexplicable, coda to his career as soldier, administrator and king. Even his seminal 20th century biographer, FC Turner, dismissed them as “the useless fag-end of his life… devoted to God”, stripped of all hope and rationality, and even of the desire “to try to reclaim his throne”.
Yet, this is to force James within a modern paradigm, where the sacredness of monarchy is downplayed. It overlooks his record as a king in exile who was capable of successive, dramatic reinventions: the grim, inflexible warlord turned ascetic; the maladroit politician exalted by religious principle; and – at the end – the towering wig, the silks and satins were abandoned for the sack-cloth and spiked-belt of the penitent, while his beard was permitted to grow long, like that of a Capuchin monk. Denied his earthly kingdoms, he finally settled upon attaining a heavenly crown and was venerated by the Jacobites as a saint.
The Jacobite movement was his own, powerful, creation. It was one that played upon the heart as much as the head. It commanded the devotion of an influential minority within British and Irish society to give up their estates and riches in order to follow him, to immortalise his name in art works, print and song – and to shed their blood for him at the battles of the Boyne and Dunkeld and at the massacre of Glencoe.
The King of Poland?
If there was to be no ‘Second Restoration’ to match that of 1660, and if the coffin of James II remained above ground in the parish church of St. Germain-en-Laye, France, in the hope of being transferred to Westminster Abbey for burial, then it was not for the lack of his trying to recover his crown through more than a decade of war, diplomacy, assassination and subterfuge. At times, such as in the winter of 1689–90 when he sat in state at Dublin, or in the spring of 1692 when his great invasion fleet assembled along the Normandy coast, it looked as if he was within an ace of returning to power. Many of the leading Tory grandees – not least of whom was John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough – began to hedge their bets and seek an accommodation with their former master.
However, the signing of the Peace of Ryswick in 1697 effectively stripped him of his independent army and small squadron of privateers, and compelled Louis XIV to recognise William of Orange as king of Great Britain and Ireland. This was, perhaps, the bitterest of pills to swallow. Louis XIV certainly sought to ameliorate it through offering James the vacant throne of Poland.
James II of England, and VII of Scotland being received by Louis XIV of France at St Germains, 7 January 1689. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
This was far from a pipe-dream or an act of folly on the part of the Sun King. At first glance, the stratagem had much to recommend it. James would be rewarded with a crown in place of the one that was lost, and at the same time, would have to remove himself from France. This permitted Louis XIV to discharge his duty to a brother monarch while also demonstrating his good faith to Britain and Holland. It additionally guaranteed Louis a new and unshakeably loyal ally in the east and permitted the Polish aristocracy an agreeable, Catholic figurehead, capable of re-establishing order in an increasingly fragmenting state.
The only stumbling block was James himself. He could not conceive of laying claim to a crown that was not his by hereditary right. He would not dispossess a legitimate sovereign – in this case, Jakub Sobieski – in pursuit of his own private gain. After all, this had been the entire basis of his critique of William of Orange. The acceptance of the throne of Poland appeared to entail the acceptance of his abdication of the thrones of Great Britain and Ireland and, as a consequence, James felt compelled to decline the offer of the crown. The vision of James as king of Poland is so exotic, so intriguing and exciting, that it is a wonder that it has never gripped the imagination of an historical novelist as a ‘what if?’ scenario in alternative history.
Finding expression in religious devotion
As it was, James II had more and more time on his hands. Stripped of his military and diplomatic duties, and progressively less able to hunt as his sixth decade wore on, his need for rewarding activity and a set routine found a fresh expression in religious devotions, pilgrimages, and patronage. Yet this often took him away from the mainstream of Louis XIV’s increasingly intolerant vision of French Catholicism. He was enraptured by the starkly brutal form of monasticism practised by Trappist monks, who rejected the world – in all its forms – and actively desired death as a release from sin.
James also, probably unwittingly, came close to condoning heresy through his contacts among the Jansenists. Jansenism was a new movement within Catholicism that laid a greater stress upon original sin, as a cause of damnation, and the role of God’s grace and predestination in securing salvation. As such, it appeared to bring together what James had learned of Protestantism as a youth in England, and his experience of Catholicism on the Continent, as a soldier in the armies of France and Spain.
James knew, respected and sought to assist Antoine Arnauld, the intellectual powerhouse of the movement, whose unorthodox religious ideals and polemics aimed against William III as the “new Absalom, new Herod, new Nero” and the “new Cromwell”, had managed to render him a fugitive from both the French and Dutch authorities. To the horror of Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s wife and an increasing power behind the throne, King James read books by Jansenist authors that were otherwise banned by the bishop of Paris. His protection and patronage of disgraced Jansenists stood in stark opposition to the policies of both the Gallican church under Louis XIV, and his wife’s court at St Germain after his death in 1701. Whereas James had promoted the career of Dr John Betham – a noted Jansenist sympathiser among the émigré community – engaging him as the tutor to his young son, his widowed queen moved quickly to strip him of his offices. In 1703, the titular James III (who has gone down in history as the ‘Old Pretender’) was made to write a letter denouncing his teacher for his heretical opinions, while Mary of Modena presented Betham with a lettre de cachet [letter signed by the king of France] which forced him to flee from St Germain and seek sanctuary within the walls of a secluded monastery.
Seen from this perspective, King James II appears as a far more interesting and, in some ways, sympathetic and heterodox figure than might otherwise have been the case.
Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, c. 17th century, (1909), who has gone down in history as the 'Old Pretender'. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
Ironically, given that James seems not to have been original, or even terribly effective in his deployment of artistic and intellectual patronage, the most powerful and original expression of Jacobite exile was to come from the nib of the king’s own pen. This may seem surprising, given that James’s apparent stupidity has become a standard characterisation among his modern biographers. Yet, the fact remains that he was capable of fashioning the most dramatic, elegant and gripping of all 17th-century military memoirs that, even if dictated to a secretary, seems not to have been ‘improved’ or reshaped by the editorship of either John Caryll or the Cardinal de Bouillon. These men sought to promote the king’s self-image and to make political and dynastic capital out of his writings.
Through these memoirs, we see the young James riding to war on a borrowed horse, buckling on his armour before a surprise attack, and meeting with fortune-tellers and wandering priests on clay-churned roads and in tattered army camps. When he writes about soldiers, they are real people, rather than faceless masses; they grumble about their lack of rations, long to return home to their families and fight over looted goods as readily as they do for the sake of honour or ideology.
Viewed from this angle, the final exile actually provided James with an unprecedented freedom for an early modern head of state, to reflect upon the trajectory and the wider meaning of his political career. It was not by chance that, in a court dominated by middle-aged and elderly adherents, the supreme form of expression chosen by the king should be the memoir. In this manner, James refashioned himself as a new ‘King David’, to be remembered “in all his afflictions”, while his image-makers displayed him, after the collapse of his military hopes at the sea battle of La Hogue, as a disinterested and wronged man of letters. Lost in his thoughts, one engraver pictured him poring over his books, oblivious to the pet dog jumping up at his arm chair, desperate to gain his attention. The crown of England is set aside on the table beside him and a new crown of thorns fastened by his ungrateful subjects to his care-worn brow.
This is not an unthinking or heavy-handed choice of imagery, and the king’s memoirs and works of religious devotion are not the products of an untutored, dull or unimaginative mind. Not every man is possessed with charm or marked by political acumen, and 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 actions. Within the context of English politics at the Restoration, his headlong – and sometimes brutally stark – adherence to a religious conviction could not possibly have led him to any other destination but his own ‘Golgotha’ [a hill near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have been crucified].
The deposed King James II of England at the battle of the Boyne, which he and the Jacobite forces lost to William III. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
James II’s 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. Among his own supporters there were few winners and a vast number of losers. Jacobite exiles from all three of his kingdoms would be forced into penury, becoming lonely old men and women scratching livings on street corners, inhabiting attic rooms in far-flung tenements that stretched from Lisbon to Rome, and from Vienna to Warsaw, rehearsing tired arguments and standing upon former honours and titles that were meaningless to their neighbours and new masters. Such ‘glory’ came at an extremely high price and was measured in ruined lives and maimed bodies, churned-up by the grapeshot at Landen and Cremona, and levelled by the less remarked – but equally deadly – camp fevers that inevitably accompanied the passage of Jacobite battalions to the theatres of successive European wars.
Yet, James commands the attention of historians because – when all was said and done – he understood that history is not necessarily written by the winners, or the losers, but simply by those who are literate, know the value of the art, and have a care.
John Callow is the author of King in Exile: James II, Warrior King & Saint (The History Press, 2016).