The death of a beloved and long-reigning monarch left the country in a deep state of mourning. “Every eye was ready to drop a tear and every heart to breathe a sigh,” wrote a contemporary. “I think I may truly say, never was a King of England so generally and heartily lamented.” By contrast, his successor had, to put it mildly, divided the country in his long, tedious wait to inherit; there were those who had wanted to exclude him from the throne and skip a generation.

Yet despite years of misgiving, the new King was greeted by a tidal wave of goodwill and loyalty. Amid fanfares of trumpets, thousands of Londoners cheered the King’s proclamation. The man who now sat on the throne promised moral seriousness, a cheaper monarchy and rigorous attention to detail. Throughout the country the proclamation was met by “great acclamations of joy”; by bells, bonfires and beer. It was decreed that nothing of “Art, Ornament and Expense” should be spared in making the spectacle of the coronation “Dazzling and Stupendous”. And so it was, an event of unparalleled majesty in Westminster Abbey accompanied by the rousing anthem “My Heart is Indicting” by Henry Purcell, the director of music, and culminating in processions of worthies, calvary and infantry. As we’ve seen in 2022, the magic of monarchy is an intoxicating brew.

The enchanted potion wore off all too quickly: just three years later it was all over. Despised by his subjects, James II was chased into ignominious exile in 1688 by his son-in-law Prince William of Orange, his two daughters, his closest allies, and just about everyone else. His legacy was the Glorious Revolution, the event that shaped modern Britain not least by fixing the primacy of parliament over the monarchy.

James is surely one of our least-known monarchs. If he’s remembered for anything, it is that he was the Catholic king of a deeply Protestant nation, a Stuart tyrant who paid the price for riding roughshod over parliament and the law. For generations, he was the villain of English history; seen as an inept bungler who needlessly threw it all away. The personality of this most enigmatic of monarchs remains mysterious.

But personality – the character of the King – is central to the story. By the time he succeeded his charismatic brother Charles II, James was a deeply embittered and crankish man. His upbringing and early life were turbulent by any standards. The second surviving son of Charles I, he was born in 1633. His childhood was scarred by the political chaos and bloodshed of the Civil War. The defining moment of his life came when he was fifteen, with the execution of his father in January 1649.

Living as an impoverished, peripatetic exile in the Netherlands and France, his adolescence and early adulthood were overshadowed by that trauma and bedevilled by the bitchiness of court life. He found a role, and fulfilment, as an officer in first the French and then the Spanish armies. Like the fate of many royals, that vocation was stifled. After the Restoration of 1660, when the Commonwealth collapsed and his brother returned to England as King, James did get the chance to fight again – at the blood-soaked naval battles of Lowestoft in 1665 and Southwold Bay in 1673. But being close to the action was too risky for the heir to the crown and he was forbidden by his brother to serve any longer.

“Weary of having so little to do” but sit and wait to inherit the throne at some distant point (Charles was a young and healthy man), James’ life became one of boredom and frustration. The fun-loving prince fashioned himself by dint of will into a detail-obsessed administrator, focusing on naval matters. His written accounts of his own military career are pedantic, and delight in minute detail, revealing a man who could not ever be made to see the wood for the trees. And like many a bored prince, James became a stickler for ceremony and court etiquette. He also developed a sharp, unattractive, explosive temper.

But more than that, he turned in on his own mind. He fixated on divine judgement and the state of his soul. A man addicted, like Charles II, to the pleasures of sex and seduction (no aristocrat’s wife was safe when the brothers were around), he felt he had a lot of sins for which he had to atone. As he matured into middle age, James rejected the vanities and materialism of the modern world, becoming ever more ascetic and austere, seeking redemption for the misdeeds that hung heavy on his soul. He admired the Quakers for their self-discipline and simple way of life.

Ultimately, he found a spiritual home in the structures of authority and the certainties of Catholicism, rejecting what he saw as the wooliness of Protestantism. He also saw Protestantism as the religion of rebels and malcontents – exactly the people who’d murdered his father. As James II’s biographer John Miller put it: “James’ mind was not equipped to grasp subtle distinctions. He thought in simple black and white terms: good and evil, obedience and disobedience, loyalty and rebellion.”

What it reveals, more clearly, is an emotional wreck of a man, scarred by his unhappy childhood, haunted by his past mistakes and bored out of his wits. Those who knew him well found James a pleasant and interesting person, but to most he came across as haughty, inflexible and peevish. To be sure, he lacked the charm, warmth and likeability of his brother.

By the time he succeeded his charismatic brother Charles II, James was a deeply embittered and crankish man

When he came to the throne in 1685, the English, Scots and Welsh did not reject him because he was a Catholic. Rather they welcomed him with conspicuous enthusiasm. Certainly, their adherence to the hereditary principle and their instinctive love of monarchy trumped their religious bigotry. People were as scarred by recent history as James himself, and in a divisive, turbulent age the monarchy represented stability and continuity. If they were dubious about James, they were prepared to tolerate him because his reign would be only a short interlude before the accession of his much more glamorous and popular heir, Princess Mary and her husband Prince William.

James unkinged himself. By the time he ascended the throne, he was driven by a sense of divine mission. He had survived the Civil Wars, exile, the battlefield, attempts to exclude him from the succession and various plots. God was on his side: his duty was now the spiritual salvation of his subjects. James was not a crusty traditionalist; his Stuart hauteur and stuffy regard for ritual belied a radical moderniser. He set about freeing religious minorities – his fellow Catholics, as well as Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians and Jews – from legal and political disabilities. He wanted to be, to put it in modern terms, defender of faiths rather than defender of the (Anglican) faith. James was ahead of his times. “Suppose”, he said at a speech in Chester that has only recently been discovered by the historian Scott Sowerby, “…there should be a law made that all black men should be imprisoned, it would be unreasonable and we had as little reason to quarrel with other men for being of different [religious] opinions as for being of different complexions.”

If his intentions were good, his means were deeply offensive. And with James it was all about ends: the means be damned.

Charles II had predicted that his brother would sacrifice his throne for his principles. William of Orange believed James would last just four years before his “turbulent and excessive temperament” undid him. Certain that his principles were pure and just, James attempted to force them through by autocratic means. In short, he wanted to remodel and modernise England and Scotland, using absolutist France as his model. In attempting to get liberty of conscience, he fatally undermined civil liberty. The country was united against him; the result was revolution.

What stands out from the story of James is the power of the monarchy over the minds of the British, the instinctive reverence and love of pageantry that in all probability addles our judgement. That’s the Firm’s stock in trade. But it’s also a warning about how suddenly that love can evaporate. The royal mob is fickle. Above all, James’ life is a reminder of the souring effects of a long wait for the top job. With his unhappy life, his tortured spiritual introspection, high principles, hot temper, beloved predecessor and his troublesome relations, James II has more than a passing resemblance to Charles III.

Is it an unflattering comparison? For centuries it would have been the worst indictment. However, James’ reputation is gradually being rehabilitated. The problem of being a monarch with high ideals, however, remains. The ability to do good without undermining the very basis of monarchy is only gifted to the most skilful of political operators.

Ben Wilson is the author of three books and was named in 2005 as one of Waterstone’s 25 Authors of the Future. He has consulted on scripts for various TV history progammes, and has appeared on TV and on radio, here and abroad. His most recent book “HEYDAY: The Victorian Discovery of the World 1851-1867” is published by Orion

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October 2022, People, reputations

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