Life in the time of James II
by Trisha Hughes
The jury is still out on James. Was he an egotistical bigot and a tyrant who rode roughshod over the will of the vast majority of his subjects? Was he simply naïve? Was he perhaps just plain stupid? Perhaps he was only doing what he thought was best and he was actually an intelligent, clear-thinking strategically motivated monarch? No one will ever know the truth.
After his brother’s death, James ascended the throne with the announcement that he would not be vindictive or arbitrary. He would be fair, he would not push Catholicism on the country and he would make no changes to the ministry. Everything looked rosy. No one had any idea that in three years, he would be fleeing for his life across the channel to his cousin Louis in France.
It all started just four months in to his reign in the early days of July when a mysterious ship appeared off the coast of Dorset. Aboard was the young, ambitious Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son, ready to take on his uncle and remove him from the throne. With him was a small arsenal of weapons, 82 companions and in his pocket was £230.
|Duke of Monmouth by Willem Wissing
Now we all know Charles II had his shortcomings. Heaven knows he had proved time and again that he was no angel. In his fifteen years on the throne, he was always in conflict with someone. First the Dutch, then the Spanish, and always with Parliament. He was constantly in need of money and there was a long line of women queuing up outside his bedchamber with their hands out for money. Most times, he did whatever he had to do to get it, whether it was the right way or the wrong way.
But for all his blunders there was always one thing he was consistent in: his belief in the Divine Right of Kings. And that was the one point that let Monmouth down. You see, Monmouth was illegitimate.
At the time of Charles’ death, Monmouth was living it up, dancing and enjoying life with a mistress in Holland, waiting to step back into the limelight in England at the right moment. Looking at the mess his father had made of things, it was no wonder the Duke of Monmouth was feeling exasperated. In history, it had taken a lot less than this to infuriate ambitious relatives to make them finally take a stand.
His landing at Lyme Regis had been chosen carefully and when he stepped ashore, most of the 3,000 residents cheered. He stepped off the boat and like many usurpers before him; he kissed the ground before marching joyously into the town. Inside those pretty country cottages, a blood lust was brewing against the hated Catholic king.
It only took three days for the locals to flock to him, more than ready to join his army and fight. The 82 men soon grew to 1500.
James was in the first glow of a successful Parliament when a messenger arrived at full gallop at Whitehall with news that Monmouth was proclaiming James a usurper who had murdered his brother in order to get to the throne. The messenger handed James a letter stating that 1500 men had signed up to join his army and James was to stand down. Immediately.
The numbers on both sides were incredible. By then, Monmouth’s army had swollen to around 7,000 passionate men following behind him. As for James, he had the backing of every regiment Parliament could put together and thousands of troops from royal supporters and earls. As promised, even his son-in-law William of Orange sent three regiments of infantry to help as well.
|William of Orange
To say William had an ulterior motive goes without saying. On one hand, if James lost, there would be a young, arrogant, Protestant king on the throne who would be easy to remove at a later date. But if Monmouth lost, William planned to take the throne from James anyway. England did owe him money after all and he had the rabbit in the hat with his Protestant wife, James’ eldest daughter Mary, by his side. Either way, he came out a winner.
With his mind fixed on the big prize, William settled back patiently and waited.
As Monmouth’s army resolutely marched south, dark thunderclouds started to mass in the sky above them. By the time his army had reached Somerset, the heavens had opened up and it was bucketing down. The men who had been filled with confidence only hours before were soon a miserable dripping group, up to their ankles in mud and soaked through by the downpour. Still they continued.
James and Monmouth’s armies finally met near Bridgwater in Somerset three weeks later. But by then, Monmouth’s men were thoroughly exhausted and thousands had already deserted him. Along the way, their patriotism had dwindled and the enormity of what they were about to do suddenly hit them.
Perhaps they’d had a glimpse of the future because this last battle of the Monmouth Rebellion, named the Battle of Sedgemoor, was the climax of one of the bloodiest events in English history as the beautiful Somerset countryside was soaked with the blood of thousands of men.
|Battle of Sedgemoor memorial
Needless to say, Monmouth’s men were slaughtered and when news came of the victory, James sent supporters out to Bridgwater to bring Monmouth back to London. He had plans for Monmouth and he could barely wait to see the young man crushed before him.
James waited for days. When his men finally arrived back empty handed, it was with news that Monmouth had escaped the battle field, disguised as a peasant hoping to hightail it to the nearest port and escape back to the continent. James desperately sent every available man out to scour the southeast looking for him and two days later, only a couple of hours from reaching the coast, Monmouth was arrested, lying asleep in a ditch.
James must have been anticipating the moment when Monmouth was finally brought before him. He would have lived and relived the moment in his head, memorising what he would say and predicting Monmouth’s total submission. By the time he was told Monmouth was in the castle, he could barely contain himself. But when he finally set sight on the young man, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Standing in front of him, beaten and humiliated, was someone he barely recognised. Only a couple of years ago, Monmouth had been a dapper young man full of life and vitality with the world at his feet. The man standing before him was thin, unshaven and shabbily dressed, begging and sobbing, for mercy. James had to look hard beneath the filth to see the face of his frightened nephew.
Perhaps most of us would have remembered the child, not the adult. We would have remembered the laughter and the playful romps of a cherished tiny boy without a care in the world. Perhaps we would have been lenient.
James was not that person. He resolutely sent Monmouth to the Tower of London, his fate sealed. He was charged and convicted of high treason and sentenced to death by beheading.
It was all done in somewhat of a rush. From capture to death, barely five days had passed. The night before his execution, Monmouth would have heard the crowds gathering beyond the tower walls and he would have known what was happening. The execution of a royal duke was a massive event. People would be getting up early to get a good seat on the wooden stands and with food and drinks available, it had the makings of being a great family day outing.
After Monmouth’s execution, James’ revenge was methodical and meticulous. Monmouth’s men were ruthlessly hunted down and in the end, the punishments rivalled anything the Tudors had ever done. In just four weeks, England had lost the best part of a generation.
It was a colossal mistake on James’ part to execute Monmouth. He would have been much better off showing leniency by simply keeping him locked away in the Tower indefinitely. The result of Monmouth’s death was that the Whigs gained strength and popularity and ultimately, it was the Whigs who were responsible for overthrowing James later on.
That’s when James made his fateful mistake. Flush with success, he walked into a meeting in the House of Lords and informed them that instead of disbanding his army, he would be keeping it operational.
Warning bells must have been clanging madly in their heads. Not only was keeping an army active an expense they could not afford, but it was against every tradition they held. You just did not keep an army active during peacetime – unless you had an ulterior motive in mind, that is. The thought had barely taken shape when James told them he would be making his Catholic friend Richard Talbot, the Lord Deputy in Ireland his viceroy. That’s when they knew they were in trouble.
By then, James was on a roll and nothing was going to stand in his way, much less a bunch of pompous nobles who thought he would do what they told him to do. Their objections fell on deaf ears and arguments became more heated until James did what every member of his family had done before him. He dissolved Parliament.
In hindsight, this was probably the worst thing he could have done. English people still had memories of Charles I doing the exact same thing after he couldn’t get his own way. Cromwell had stepped into the picture and things had gone from bad to worse. They had seen Charles II dissolve Parliament on many occasions but they had grudgingly forgiven him because life had become a bit more tolerable after the Cromwell debacle. But this was something else entirely. Their worst nightmare was becoming a reality as Catholic after Catholic stepped into prominent positions of power and judges in the Common law courts were dismissed.
Things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse for England. Until James’ Italian wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy two years later and they knew their nightmare was only just beginning. This new birth opened up the possibility of a permanent Catholic dynasty.
It was the final straw. They wanted James out and the most likely candidate was James’ eldest daughter Mary, married to William of Orange.
|Mary II ~ Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller
It was all working out exactly as William had planned.
Parliament didn’t have to ask him twice. Unbeknownst to the English, William had already begun assembling an army. It was perfect timing really. France was occupied with campaigns in both Germany and Italy, which meant it would be impossible for Louis to drop everything and rush to James’ aid and with nobody available to try and stop him, William fully intended to take advantage of the situation. They actually hadn’t needed to ask him at all.
By November, James finally realised what was happening but by then it was way too late. As expected, his first thought was to ask his cousin Louis for help but Louis was already overextended with problems of his own in Germany. As James received the refusal for help from Louis, William was already landing in Brixham, in southeast England, with an army of 11,000 foot soldiers and 4,000 cavalry.
In reality, James’ army should have been adequate to keep the invaders out. He had the numbers and he had the advantage of the home ground. What he didn’t have was support from his most trusted officers. Officer after officer left James’ side and defected to William but when James’ daughter Anne declared her support for William as well, he lost his nerve and fled.
It was a feeble attempt at escape and within days he was caught by local fisherman and returned to London. Fortunately for James, William had no desire to make a martyr of his father-in-law. He had what he wanted. Two days before Christmas, William allowed James to escape the country and of course, he went straight to Louis in France.
As William and Mary settled themselves in, James was plotting his revenge. He wasn’t finished yet. Not by a long shot.
But that’s another story.
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I was born in a little outback town called Blackall in Central Queensland, Australia. From there my parents moved to the Brisbane suburb of Fortitude Valley where I grew up to be a tiny, self-reliant little girl.
My first book, ‘Daughters of Nazareth’ is my story, written eighteen years ago, fuelled on by the discovery of a family I never knew I had. It’s full of family secrets, tremendous heartache but proves the human spirit’s amazing ability to triumph over adversity. Nineteen years ago, after just one phone call, my life changed abruptly. With that change came a passion for writing and I have been writing ever since.
I love writing crime novels but my passion is with the history of the British Monarchy. The first in my ‘V2V’trilogy is ‘Vikings to Virgin – The Hazards of being King’ published in 2017. The second in the series is due for release on 28th April this year and is called ‘Virgin to Victoria – The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen.’ The final book, ‘Victoria to Vikings – The Circle of Blood’ will be released early 2019.
Virgin to Victoria
The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen
After the death of Elizabeth I’s sister, ‘Bloody Mary’, England had high hopes for their new queen when she came to the throne. 25-year-old Elizabeth I attended her first council exuding an air of quiet confidence, even though she was inheriting a bankrupt nation torn apart by religious discord. It was chaotic.
Despite her amazing legacy and despite what her father, Henry VIII, had desired above all else, Elizabeth failed England in one vital point. She never married and did not leave an heir to the Tudor dynasty. By making that one fateful decision, she left the path open for the Stuarts in Scotland to take over and life would never be the same.
‘Virgin to Victoria’ travels in time through Elizabeth I’s amazing life, through the confusion of the Stuart dynasty, through the devastation of a Civil War led by Oliver Cromwell, through horrific battles for the throne and through the turbulent and discordant Hanover dynasty with its intricate family squabbles.
Queen Victoria did not ask to be Queen. It was thrust upon her by the accident of birth and then by a succession of accidents that removed all others who stood between her and the throne. She assumed it reluctantly and, at first, incompetently. Parliament was sure the 18-year-old could be relied upon to leave the job of running the country to the professionals.