James was born on October 14th 1633, at St James Palace, the second surviving son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France. He received his initial education with older brother Charles, and the Duke of Buckingham’s sons George and Francis Villiers through tutors. At age three he was appointed Lord High Admiral of the Navy, an honorary title, to be followed by the Order of the Garter in 1642 and his title the Duke of York in 1644. As his father’s dispute with Parliament grew and civil war broke out, James remained in Oxford, a Royalist stronghold. However in 1646, following the successful Parliamentarian siege of Oxford and the surrender of the city by Royalist forces, he was ordered to remain confined to St James Palace. He escaped in 1648 with the help of Joseph Bampfield, a notable soldier in the Duke of Somerset’s forces and later spy for Charles, who enlisted the help of his future mistress Anne Murray, and disguised James as a woman before assisting his passage to Holland.
James remained exiled as did his brother Charles following their father’s execution for treason in 1649, and the subsequent rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. His younger brother Henry remained in England with his sister Elizabeth, who after being placed under house arrest, died as a hostage in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, following her father’s execution and the subsequent question of what to do with her. Following Cromwell’s death in 1659, and his son’s short-lived assumption of the role, Charles II was recalled to England and given his throne. His mother, who had escaped to France with her then infant daughter Henrietta, returned that year. Henry sadly died of smallpox as his older brother took up their father’s crown.
As nobody could have guaranteed a return to the monarchy for the Stuarts, and given Charles’ age upon the restoration, it was considered unlikely that James would ever be needed to take his brother’s place. Nonetheless he was named heir presumptive, until such times as his brother produced an heir of his own. Which never happened. Charles acknowledged 12 illegitimate children from his several mistresses, but his four children with his wife, Catherine of Braganza, were either miscarried or stillborn.
Following Charles’ death on her twentieth birthday, her father succeeded the throne as James II of England and Ireland and James VII of Scotland. He was however an unpopular choice for monarch due to his overt conversion to Catholicism shortly after Anne’s birth. Charles too had retained some Catholic sympathy, his wife was Catholic and he later received a Catholic funeral, allegedly having been converted on his deathbed. Parliament worried that the throne was becoming too Catholic as a result. Because Charles had been expected to produce an heir, James had married his brother’s minister Edward Hyde’s daughter, Anne secretly following an affair which left her pregnant. James had agreed to marry Anne, but the decision was an unpopular one, and was refused. James married her anyway. Their son, Charles was born two months later in November 1660, but died days later. The couple had seven further children, all of whom also died by age four, except for Mary and Anne. Their mother died in 1671.
Mary and Anne had a close relationship with their father as children, unlike other nobility of the time, he was a normal father, raised them for the most part in his own household, although some sources state they did have their own houses, and played with them daily. Following their mother’s death, Charles had insisted they be raised Protestant, if they were to be heirs to the throne, James protested somewhat but agreed. In return Charles arranged James’ second marriage in 1673 to the fifteen year old Italian Mary of Modena despite her obvious Catholicism.
Four years later, despite his reluctance James agreed his daughter Mary’s marriage to her cousin William of Orange. William was the son of James’ sister Mary (I know, pick a different name, right?). This pleased Parliament greatly as not only did William have his own claim to the throne of England, through his mother, but he was Protestant so reduced the Catholic strength of the throne. Should James’ second marriage fail to produce any sons, Mary, William and Parliament, fully anticipated their succession. Despite their misgivings following Charles’ death, James started out with his “Loyal Parliament” and appeared to be a good strong monarch. He was less willing than Charles had been to bend to the will of his advisors if they disagreed, but he initiated some changes that seemed to be popular, the main one being an issue of tolerance to all denominations, with an extension of forgiveness to all but the hardest exclusionists.
Unfortunately for James, his peaceful rule was not to last. Just months following his accession, Charles’ eldest illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouth, instigated a rebellion in an effort to usurp his uncle and take the throne for himself, claiming he was the rightful heir. It was a rash move, as Parliament would never agree to replace one Catholic monarch with another, who was born out of wedlock to boot. James condemned his son in law, for not putting down the rebellion, which started in the Netherlands. James swiftly and successfully ended the uprising, when his army defeated that of his nephew at the Battle of Sedgemoor and Monmouth was taken prisoner and executed; his commanders were imprisoned or transported as indentured servants to the West Indies. But as a result of the threat, he made moves to increase the standing army which alarmed the population immensely. England had a tradition of no standing army in peacetime.
Parliament, ever increasingly concerned, spoke quietly to Orange to engineer the removal of his father in law and agreed that William and Mary would take his place. The plot gained speed and urgency when Mary gave birth to a son, Prince James Francis Edward in June 1688. Allegedly James’ younger daughter Anne was requested to attend the birth. She was unable to attend due to her claims that she too was pregnant, this was of course untrue. She did however begin the rumour of the baby being smuggled into the birthing chamber in a bed-pan, which James hotly denied and produced witness statements by forty attendants that Mary had birthed the child herself. Anne declined to read the testimonies. The birth of a legitimate Catholic male heir meant the race was now on to oust James II from his throne.
Looking back from a modern perspective it doesn’t seem all that unlikely that a surviving heir was possible. Far from being a huge sudden shock that after so many years of marriage Mary of Modena suddenly produces a miracle son, young James was in fact the couple’s ELEVENTH child. Two prior pregnancies had ended in miscarriage, three stillbirths – sex of children unrecorded, one daughter, Elizabeth died not too long after birth, two daughters, Catherine and Charlotte, died of convulsions, one aged almost two years, the other two months, another daughter Isabel, died of ‘natural causes’ aged three, and her younger brother Charles died of smallpox aged one month.
Just days after his son’s birth, a group of seven English Protestant nobles invited William of Orange to come to England with his forces. On hearing the news that an army was on their way to contest the throne, James felt that his own army was enough to repel the threat, and so refused offers of help from French King Louis XIV. It was an unwise move. James lost his nerve when his son in law’s forces arrived in November, and refused to engage them. Many of his officials switched their allegiance to William, as did Anne. James tried to escape but was captured and imprisoned briefly, before being allowed to escape to France with his wife and baby son. William felt that by ordering his death, he would make James a martyr, something he wanted to avoid. William ordered a Convention Parliament to decide the best course of action, his advisors deciding that instead of having to depose James, his casting away of the Great Seal, signified his abdication. The throne was now William and Mary’s. James rule had lasted three short tumultuous years and ended with the estrangement of both his daughters which distressed him severely.
James lived in the court of King Louis XIV until his death from a brain haemorrhage on September 1st 1701. During that time he was never able to repair his relationship with his daughters. Mary pre-deceased him by five years. Anne and he exchanged letters on a few occasions generally in an attempt to gain promises regarding the succession. On his death, Mary of Modena wrote to Anne telling her that her father forgave her and to remind her of the assurance she had given him regarding the succession of her half-siblings, James and Louisa. Anne ignored the letter, she had already made a deal with William for her own right to the throne.
James was laid to rest in a side chapel of The Church of the English Benedictines in Rue St Jacques, Paris. Various parts of his body were removed and distributed to other religious establishments as relics. However his wife Mary died in 1718 desolate and in poverty at a convent she was forced to retire to, to escape the stress of continued exile. Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1712, Louis had agreed to rescind his recognition of young James’ claim to the throne. The young man was subsequently expelled from France. Still reeling from the separation caused by the eviction of her son, she suffered further devastation when her daughter Louisa died aged 20 from smallpox just a few weeks later. She was buried with her father. During the French Revolution, their tomb was raided and desecrated, however in 1844 Jules Janin claimed that their bodies had been safely removed at that point to the Military Hospital at Val-de-Grace. Mary never really recovered. She died of cancer and was buried at the convent.
James II also had four children, two sons and two daughters who survived to adulthood with his mistress Arabella Churchill and three children with his mistress Catherine Sedley, two sons who died as infants and a daughter Catherine, who also survived to adulthood. Their lines continue.