The Last Catholic King
Penguin Monarchs Series
London: Allen Lane, 2015
Hardcover. vii+115 p. ISBN 978-0141977072. £10.99
Reviewed by Jean-Pierre Moreau
Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Paris III
This is both a clear, concise portrait of James II, whose short reign proved such a dramatic turning point in British history, and a reliable overview of a fateful period (1685-1689). It is a feat to tell the story of the Duke of York, later King of England and Scotland‘s whole life in less than a hundred pages without neglecting some of the problems of interpretation that have raged among historians ever since his abdication. Everything that an undergraduate or an open-minded general reader would like to know about England’s last Catholic King is here, couched in a precise, lively language. Not for nothing is the author an Oxford professor of English literature.
James II’s reign is interesting for many reasons. First his personality raises problems: how could a man not devoid of great qualities, whose accession had been welcomed, fail so completely to the point of having to flee his country less than four years later. A second problem concerns the nature of the rejection he sustained at the hand of his subjects: how far did his Catholicism account for the constitutional revolution of 1689-1690. Lastly, as said above, the interpretation of this revolution has never ceased to remain “a battle-ground in English historiography” .
Adequately enough, the book begins (and ends) with this question, in particular with the “Whig interpretation of history“, the teleological view of a constant progress of the British nation towards more liberty and more democracy in which 1689-1690 is seen as the key to all future developments. Not only is this view rejected by David Womersley – as it is by historians to-day – but, in a more specific way, he broadly distinguishes two strands of Whig historiography: one, represented by T.B. Macaulay in the 19th century saw James II as foolish, wicked and ridiculous, the other, which appeared earlier, at the very end of the 18th century, pictured a really dangerous ruler who nearly managed, in contemporary terms, to destroy “the Ancient Constitution” by introducing “his Innovations of Popery and Slavery”. What were then the king’s aims and the possibilities for him to achieve them?
One half of the book [9-56] is an account of James’s life as Duke of York (1633-1685) when he was not supposed to become king (his elder brother, Charles, was crowned in 1660). According to the author, the Civil War, his father’s execution in 1649 and his exile on the Continent where he served as a soldier provided James with experiences which largely fashioned his future political attitudes in particular towards opponents: all opposition to, or even simple discussion of, a leader’s choices had to be quashed.
The most portentous decision of his life was of course his conversion to Roman Catholicism, a gradual change, under different influences, analysed here in neutral terms, far from the polemics launched by the radical Whigs and answered by the Jesuits. As Charles had no legitimate children, James became heir to the throne, a threat of future “Popery and tyranny” in the eyes of many Englishmen including some of the traditional (Tory) supporters of the monarchy among the Church of England gentry. The climate of general resentment against James which came to prevail in the late 1670s is closely described, a climate which led to a large public acceptance of a so-called Popish plot meant to assassinate Charles (and to benefit the Duke of York). More than the supposed “plot” itself, it is made clear that its mere possibility was exploited by such men as the Marquis of Halifax, with the result that Charles forced his brother to leave the country (1679).
Away in Brussels, then in Scotland where he was High Commissioner, James remained the centre of English political life as the question of his exclusion from the succession agitated the kingdom. David Womersley shows the ebullient role played by the House of Commons or popular leaders like Shaftesbury together with the theoretical principles at stake: origin, nature and extent of civil government. He also points out that if the Exclusionists failed in their main design, they realised that a better organisation was necessary and the Whigs began to form something like a modern political party in Parliament and in the country at large, a lesson which was not lost on James either, as he understood how necessary an extremely strict control of Parliamentary elections was vital even to a divine right monarch.
His return to Court in March 1682, a return to favour when his brother’s strength was waning, went hand in hand with a “Tory revenge” on the Whigs especially through a rather brutal rewriting of borough charters, hence of electoral rules, to ensure future “safe” majorities in the House of Commons.
Charles II’s death in 1685 leads to the second main chapter [57-93]: James as king of England, Scotland and Ireland. His official promise to “preserve this government both in church and state as it is by law established” assuaged fears of an autocratic régime and of tampering with religious doctrine. The well-known story of how this promise was broken in the three following years is shown by the author to have been due to a series of blunders. The new king first managed to antagonise and then dissolve an entirely submissive (clearly packed) Parliament by trying to impose the creation of a standing army and the appointment of Catholic officers in defiance of the 1673 Test Act (which, at the time, had forced James himself to renounce the office of Lord Admiral). Another clash – with the Bishop of London – led some people to see their monarch as flouting the law. To extend the royal prerogative – certainly the King’s aim – was possible if dispensation with a law was due to exceptional circumstances, short-lived and not related to religious matters, but James’s actions were just the contrary; in many quarters they were interpreted as attempts “to subvert the constitution”. Other clumsy steps irritated the Universities, and more importantly the whole Church of England through the Declaration of Indulgence giving equality of religious practice to all Christians, dissenters and Catholics alike, but toleration of the latter was bitterly resented.
This was a major bone of contention. All the more so as the Declaration had to be read out in all the churches of the kingdom. When seven bishops resisted the order and were committed to the Tower but acquitted in the Court of King’s Bench, popular support of the verdict proved the Crown’s mistake. If the legal defeat was made less excruciating to James by the rather surprising birth a son in June 1688, the prospect of a Catholic heir and a Catholic dynasty apt to deal with the Church of England in the way James had just exemplified enraged most of his subjects. As a result, William of Orange, married to James’s daughter, Mary, both of them staunchly Protestant, was called for an invasion of England.
Although he stresses the mistakes made by James, David Womersley is also careful not to underestimate an anointed king’s assets; his prerogative remained extensive, his régime was entrenched by ancient traditions and he was no nonentity contrarily to Macaulay’s picture of him. Nothing was easy for his opponents but they acted with decision, William lost no time to accept their “invitation”. Even if James’s army outnumbered the troops which had landed in the South West, its morale was very low and massive desertions prevented any real fighting. In spite of some vague promises to change his policy, the King found no way to turn the tide of events and left the country in December 1688. The only explanation given is that “under the strain of these repeated blows [his] nerve eventually broke” .
The six pages of chapter 4 entitled “Exile and Death” are partly devoted to the ensuing constitutional turmoil in England [94-97]. A brief relation follows of James‘s military failure in Ireland (1689-90), the only kingdom which still recognised him as King after England’s and Scotland‘s allegiance to William, and that he had hoped to use “as a springboard from which to attack England”. The ten last years of his life (in France) are not considered to deserve more than half a page.
On the whole there is much to recommend in this portrait of the last Catholic king, an essentially psychological portrait, set against a sound political background, but professional historians will have to look elsewhere for a detailed discussion of this monarch’s real intention: did he want to promote Catholicism or religious toleration? How (under whose influence – the Jesuits’?) and why were some baffling decisions reached? How far did England’s economic and social state – not to mention Scotland and Ireland – bear on their ruler’s political choices? In a few cases problems of interpretation are left pending: the long-term significance of the revolution of 1688-1689 is hardly touched upon, the Bill of Rights is said to create “a new political landscape”  but no sketch of this landscape is provided except the impossibility for Catholics (or persons married to a Catholic) to ascend the throne. Nor are the theoretical questions thrashed out at the time examined (Locke’s name never appears) if we exclude one paragraph on the notion of contract .
Professional historians will also regret the lack of original research; most of the sources used (frankly set out in a short “Bibliographical Essay“ [107-109]) are traditional: Pepys’s and Evelyn’s diaries, Clarendon’s chronicle of the Interregnum and most of all Burnet’s History of His Own Time. But David Womersley also quotes some rarely used documents like the Jesuit Francis Brettonneau’s An Abridgment of the Life of James II (1704); he is also well aware of the latest prominent publications in this field.
This book (and the whole collection of “Penguin Monarchs”) does not aim at breaking new ground but at making history easier and attractive (twelve coloured illustrations are included) for a large public while maintaining a good level of critical expertise. This undertaking – a reliable synthesis and not a scholarly assessment of recent research – is clearly fulfilled.
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