James Francis Edward Stuart was born on 10 June 1688 to James II of England (James VII of Scotland) and his second wife Mary of Modena. He had eight half brothers and sisters, by his father’s first wife, Anne Hyde of whom only two survived infancy and reached adulthood, his older sisters Mary and Anne. He had six siblings from his parents, only one of whom survived to aged 20, his younger sister Louisa. His father also had two mistresses who between them supplied young James with seven further illegitimate half-siblings, two of whom died young, the rest surviving to adulthood.
As James Edward, as he became known, was the only surviving legitimate male, his position was somewhat interesting as it placed him in direct line to succeed the throne. His uncle Charles II had no surviving legitimate children when he passed away in 1685, as a result Charles’ younger brother, James had succeeded him as King. It was for this reason that, supported by Parliament, James was forced to accept the provision that his daughters would be raised as Protestants. James himself had caused an uproar with his conversion to Catholicism, during his exile in France prior to the Restoration of the throne, after the execution of his father. His conversion was kept a secret from the public until around 1676.
As a result of James’ Catholicism, and that of his new wife, Mary of Modena, each time it became apparent that she was pregnant, Parliament watched with trepidation. Any son born would automatically precede any claim Mary and Anne had to the succession, and being Catholic would potentially throw the country into turmoil. So when Mary safely delivered of a healthy thriving baby boy, following so many losses, many rumours were put about that James Edward was not in fact their child, but had been switched into the birthing chamber in a bed-pan, the real heir having been still-born. James and Mary were forced to produce more than seventy sworn witness reports to testify that James was their rightful son and heir.
Parliament had by this time already taken steps to ensure that James II would not only forfeit the crown, but would not be succeeded by another Catholic generation. A group of nobles had instigated secret discussions with James II’s Protestant nephew, William of Orange, son of his sister, Mary, who also happened to be his son-in law, married to his older daughter, also Mary, in an attempt to persuade William to invade England. James caught wind of the plan, and was offered assistance by his cousin Louis XIV of France, to put off the invasion. James declined, believing it would turn the English against him, if the French were to get involved. Just a few weeks after his birth James Edward was taken by his mother, worried about their safety, to France.
In November 1688 William arrived in England. James’ supporters switched sides, including his younger daughter Anne even though James had the larger army. James refused to be drawn into battle, and instead tried to escape. He threw his Great Seal into the Thames and made for Kent, however he was captured. Following a few weeks of imprisonment, William, not wanting to make a martyr of his father in law, allowed him to escape to France to join his family. Parliament declared that James had deserted his throne, therefore had abdicated and due to their pretty much equal claim to the throne, declared William and Mary joint monarchs.
James Edward grew up in the fold of Louis XIV, and was declared as the rightful King James III of England, James VIII of Scotland following his father’s death in 1701, by which time Mary II had passed away, and William III was frail. Sophia was declared rightful heir succeeding his older sister Anne, and the line to pass into the Hanover line through her. Parliament retaliated by issuing a Bill of Attainder against him, to prevent any claim to the throne.
In 1708, following the Act of Union between England and Scotland, James Edward set forth to Scotland with hopes of invasion armed with French troops and ships. The British met him head on and prevented him even reaching British soil. He returned to France.
In 1714 it was suggested to James, now named as The Pretender, to reject his Catholicism and convert to Protestantism, which would facilitate being named as Anne’s heir. He refused. A final rebellion in his name was raised in 1715 by the Earl of Mar. James landed in Aberdeen, to join forces, but again this attempt failed. James gave up his claim at this point, and retired to Rome where in 1719, he married Maria Sobieski of Poland and had two sons. Charles, later Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, and Henry, who went on to be a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
James Francis Edward Stuart, The Old Pretender, died on January 1st 1766 aged 78 years old, in Rome, where he was subsequently buried in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. In a bizarre twist of irony, his “reign” as a pretender to the throne at 64 years, three months and 16 days, is actually LONGER than that of any recognised reigning monarch of England, Scotland or Wales.