The Conduct of King James II. 1685-87

James II & VII, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. National Portrait Gallery, London
James II & VII, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. National Portrait Gallery, London

ON the day that his brother Charles II died, King James, as the French ambassador in London reported, wrote to his son-in-law, Prince William of Orange two lines with his hand merely informing him of the news, without adding any other testimony either of friendship or good will’. They read as follows:

I have only time to tell you that it has pleased God Almighty to take out of this world the King my brother. You will from others have an account of what distemper he died of, and that all the usual ceremonies were performed this day in proclaiming me King in the City and other parts. I must end, which I do, with assuring you, you shall find me as kind to you as you can expect.

That was the sour formula with which James usually concluded his letters to William when he was displeased with him. What he omitted to say was that on his death-bed Charles was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Also the late monarch left behind him two papers explaining why he became a Roman Catholic, which were a year later published on James’s orders. John Evelyn noted, not entirely correctly, that Charles II was ‘very obscurely buried . . . without any pomp and soon forgotten …’. Still the fact remained that the King received a private burial in Westminster Abbey, thus saving his soul from the rites of the Church of England.

A quarter of an hour after his brother’s death James entered the Privy Council chamber and made an impromptu and unscripted speech. In the course of the speech he said: ‘I shall make it my endeavour to preserve this government in Church and State as it is now by law established. I know the principles of the Church of England are for monarchy and the members of it have shewed themselves good and loyal subjects, therefore I shall always take care to defend and support it.’ The Privy Councillors, all of whom were at least nominally Anglicans, were delighted and pressed the King to publish his speech, which he did. But in retrospect James regretted what he had said. ‘Though His Majesty intended to promise both security to their religion and protection to their persons,’ explained his biographer,3 ‘he was afterwards convinced it had been better expressed by assuring them he never would endeavour to alter the established religion rather than that he should endeavour to protect it and that he would rather support it and defend the professions of it, rather than the religion itself.’ In other words, James’s policy was to tolerate the Church of England, not to maintain its exclusive place in the State.

James made his personal position clear enough when two days later he publicly went to Mass in St. James’s Palace. Later, on April 23, he attended Mass in St. James’s before going to Westminster Abbey for his coronation, from which some of the customary Anglican ceremonies were carefully omitted. But Anglican opinion was soothed by his promises to the Privy Council, promises which he appeared to repeat, though not in the same words, when he addressed his Parliament. For the time being he kept most of his brother’s Ministers including his brother-in-law Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester, who was promoted to be Lord Treasurer. Rochester was a leading Anglican. But the King’s senior Secretary of State, Robert Spencer, second Earl of Sunderland, was a clever, highly unprincipled statesman who made himself indispensable both at home and abroad. James decided to call a Parliament at once; it was Sunderland who wrote to the Lords Lieutenant ordering them to exert their influence on the counties, while the previous manipulation of the corporation charters by the Crown in Charles II’s reign gave the Government a persuasive power in determining the choice of members in the borough constituencies. Thus the House of Commons which met on May 19, 1685, was exuberantly royalist.

By the ruling classes James was welcomed as a sober, hardworking prince, quite unlike his frivolous brother. The Court, it was thought, had become solemn and moral without the profanity or buffoonery of its predecessor. That James should openly practise his own religion was deemed natural and even commendable. Yet to James it came as a surprise that his accession to the throne was passing off so peacefully, in view of the exclusionist crises and conspiracies that had occurred only three or four years back. ‘C’est tin coup décisf pour moi d’entrer en possession et en jouissance,’ he told the French ambassador. It is true that he was rather nervous at first, and if one may rely upon the French ambassador’s other reports, felt that he might have to call upon King Louis XIV for support. His Ministers even spoke of the Crown ‘as yet tottering on their master’s head’. But after his Parliament had been elected and proceeded to vote him generous revenues for life, his spirits rose, and with more confidence he began to consider bold policies for the future.

English historians have tended to depend largely on the voluminous dispatches of the French ambassadors in England for their descriptions of James’s policies. There were two of these ambassadors, Paul Barrillon d’Amoncourt, the resident ambassador, and François d’Usson de Bonrepaus, the French Intendant-General of Marine, who came to England on three special missions in the course of James’s short reign. Neither of these Frenchmen really understood English history or how the English political system worked. Barrillon was indolent and timorous and very much afraid of offending his master, Louis XIV, who was an assiduous reader of his dispatches: he preferred to tell the king what was likely to please him; for he was a born flatterer and, according to one French historian, he was cynical, unscrupulous, and an expert in the arts of corruption. Bonrepaus was an abler man and far less inspired by James II than his colleague was. We shall consider some of his opinions later. But the idea which has been derived from Barrillon’s dispatches at the beginning of the reign, that James and his Ministers were obsequious to the French King, in urgent need of his financial help, and ready to follow in his footsteps is not borne out by reading between the lines nor by the actual course of events.

In one of his many letters in the first half of 1685  Barrillon told Louis XIV that James’s aim was ‘to establish the Catholic religion with the French King’s assistance’. But what did he mean by ‘establish’? During his brother’s reign James had expressed his belief in liberty of conscience for all Christians, as indeed Charles II had done. According to one story, as early as 1669 James had told John Owen, a former chaplain of Oliver Cromwell, that he had no bitterness against the nonconformists; he was against ‘all persecution for conscience sake’, looking upon it as an unchristian thing and absolutely against his conscience. Writing in 1683, Dr. Burnet observed that though James was very firm in his religion and very much devoted to his priests, ‘yet when I knew him he seemed very positive in his opinion against all persecution for conscience sake’. In one of his reports home Barrillon asserted soon after the King’s accession that James did not intend to go so far as to favour nonconformists and Presbyterians since he regarded them as being really republicans, but at the same time he admitted that there was no question of his trying straightaway to make Roman Catholicism the State religion for ‘it was a project so difficult to carry out—not to say impossible to carry out—that sensible people do not fear it’.

In May the second Duke of Buckingham published a pamphlet entitled Reason and Religion in which he advocated liberty of conscience for all nonconformists. ‘The King of England,’ noted Barrillon, ‘could not prevent himself at first from praising this pamphlet,’ although it alarmed the Anglicans. A little earlier Barrillon had written that James ‘had thoroughly explained to him his intentions with regard to the Catholics, which are to grant them entire liberty of conscience and the free exercise of their religion; this is a work of time and it can be brought about only step by step’. What James in fact told him was that since he was aware of the aversion of the majority of the people of England to the Roman Catholic religion his aim was simply to ‘establish it in such a manner as it could not be ruined or destroyed’.’

There was no question then of James immediately asking his Parliament for far-reaching measures in favour of his co-religionists. His primary objective was to get rid of the penal laws that prevented Roman Catholics from worshipping freely in their own way or required them to attend Church of England services. These penal laws were already virtually dead letters anyway. Later his plan was to obtain the abolition of the Test Acts which had deprived the Roman Catholics of equal civic opportunities with their fellow citizens. And he was also attracted by the idea of extending such opportunities to the Protestant nonconformists.

When Parliament met on May 19, 1685, James adopted, unwisely from his point of view, a rather bullying tone. For however carefully chosen they might be, the nobility and gentry of England were unlikely to allow themselves to be browbeaten for long. Did not a tradition of independence of the Crown stretch back at least to the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign? Sir Edward Seymour remarked in the House of Commons that ‘the people of England were strong in their aversion to the Catholic religion and were attached to their laws’. Following past precedents, the Grand Committee on Religion asked the King to publish a proclamation ‘for putting the laws in execution against all dissenters whatsoever from the Church of England’. Extremely annoyed, James told the House its resolution was unacceptable to him. The Commons gave way. And in fact they proved cooperative over money matters if only because the royal government at that very moment was threatened with a double rebellion.

Even before Parliament met, the Earl of Argyll, the Scottish Whig leader, who in 1681 had been condemned to death for treason and had fled to Holland, came over from that country to Scotland with the aim of raising his Campbell clan and others against King James II. Three weeks later the Duke of Monmouth—’the Protestant Duke’—his sluggish spirit stirred by bright memories of his popularity in exclusionist days—landed at Lyme in Dorset and afterwards proclaimed himself King at Taunton.

On July 2 Parliament adjourned, having voted the King additional supplies to deal with these rebels. James had by then collected such regular soldiers as he had at his disposal and dispatched them to fight Monmouth in the west of England. Argyll had already been captured in Scotland on June iS, but Monmouth was a bigger threat. James asked William to send over from Holland the three English and three Scottish regiments serving there in Dutch pay. The States-General complied with the request, but before these regiments could perform any useful part Monmouth had been defeated at the night battle of Sedgemoor, and on July 15 was executed.

These rebellions were inadequately prepared and concerted; their suppression was comparatively swift. But the anti-popery spirit which had flared up seven years earlier was by no means quiescent. For example, in the middle of May Dr. Titus Oates, the inventor of the Popish Plot, who had been tried, convicted, and punished for perjury, was put in a pillory in front of the Royal Exchange in the City of London. After he was released the mob rioted, upset the pillory, and pulled it to pieces; several persons had to be taken into custody before the uproar subsided. When one of the Scottish regiments arrived from Holland nine of the soldiers defiantly drank the health of the Duke of Monmouth; one of them was shot and others flogged under the gallows. The Somerset militia proved unwilling to fight against Monmouth and many of them went over to his side, and though he had only 150 men when he landed his army had swollen to over 3,000 before he was defeated at Sedgemoor. Very severe measures were carried out in punishment of the rebels and their numerous sympathizers in the west of England.

James had received a shock. He realized that his army was so small and some of his subjects were so disloyal that he was actually dependent upon assistance from abroad to maintain himself on his throne. It may have been for this reason that he now showed himself more friendly towards the Dutch, and in August 1685 renewed treaties with them. For in spite of all his promises Barrillon had not handed over any large sums of money from the French King, and James was not so stupid as to fail to understand that it would be fatal for him to rely exclusively on French aid—even if this were really forthcoming—to ensure the safety of his own position.

But gradually he recovered his nerve. Even before Man-mouth’s defeat Barrillon had reported: ‘It seems to me that the King of England is very glad to have a pretext for raising troops, and he believes that the Duke of Monmouth’s enterprise will serve only to make him still more the master of his country.’ George Jeffreys, the Chief Justice who had presided over the trials of the English rebels, was promoted Lord Chancellor; the Marquis of Halifax, long suspected by James of disloyalty to the monarchy, was dismissed from his post of Lord President of the Council and replaced shortly afterwards by the Earl of Sunderland, who had no other ambition than to please the King. When on November 9 James recalled Parliament to regale it with his account of Monmouth’s overthrow he not only asked for a fresh supply of funds in order that he might strengthen his standing army, but insisted that, contrary to the Test Act of 1673, he intended to employ Roman Catholic officers in that army.

The House of Commons voted by a majority of one to postpone consideration of supply until the question of the Roman Catholic officers had been debated. Sir Thomas Clarges, brother-in-law of the famous General Monck, gave warning of the dangers of a popish king with a popish army. The House of Lords was even more outspoken. Viscount Mordaunt, who was to find fame as the conqueror of Barcelona in the reign of Queen Anne, said:

What we now see is not ambiguous. A standing army is on foot, filled with officers who cannot be allowed to serve without overthrowing the laws. To keep up a standing army when there is neither civil nor foreign war is to establish that arbitrary government which Englishmen hold in such abhorrence.

The Commons expressed its willingness to give the King more money, but tried to avoid a standing army either by granting it to the navy or by simultaneously passing a bill to remodel the citizens’ army or militia. James was enraged by these evasions of his wishes and the criticisms of his policies and preferred to do without any more money at all. On November 20, 1685, he prorogued Parliament; in fact it was never to meet again. Barrillon was surprised. He thought the prorogation would have no other effect than to increase the discontent of the English people who were already upset with the conduct from the throne.

The King was outwardly little concerned. His peaceful accession, the generous revenues that had been voted him for life by Parliament when it first met and the complete defeat of Monmouth inspired him to press forward during the year 1686 with a plan to secure religious liberty for and give civic equality to his fellow Roman Catholics. He could not fail to applaud the success of his fellow monarch, Louis XIV, in purging his own kingdom of heresy. Since the French King’s marriage to the pious Madame de Maintenon it had been his aim to have only the one religion throughout his kingdom. The Huguenots he regarded not merely as heretics but also as potential rebels. Every means was therefore used to enforce their conversion, culminating in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Protestant churches were henceforth closed; military pressure (‘dragonnades’) and even torture were employed to prevent backsliding; those who were caught trying to escape from the country were sent to the gallows. Yet an exodus of tens of thousands took place, of whom a large number arrived in England.

The English King at first admired all he heard of Louis XIV’s labours for his Church. But soon doubts assailed him. His subjects were worried whether their own sovereign, being such an enthusiastic convert, might not try to imitate his brother in the faith. Protestants feared he would go to extremes; Roman Catholics, or at least the wiser among them, were anxious, lest the French persecution might have adverse reactions on their own chances of freedom of worship. In fact it seems that it was more the strength of his own position at home that persuaded James to go forward with his policy of toleration; the more he heard about the events in France the less he liked them. Before Christmas he was giving instructions that the English ambassador in France should make sure that the English Protestants there who were not naturalized Frenchmen were entirely free from molestation, and he was also instructed to do everything in his power to help those who were naturalized and ‘to appear on their behalf’.

When the French special envoy, Bonrepaus, paid his first visit to England in January 1686, he was not impressed by King James. The King, he reported, ‘is not so much master of himself nor so great a man as I had been led to expect’.15 He was stubborn, fussy over small things, and dominated by his Queen. Bonrepaus reported that although both the Whigs and Tories feared the King would be encouraged by the repeal of the Edict of Nantes, James was perturbed by what he had heard about the brutality of French methods of conversion. The refugees arrived in England bringing tales of the dragonnades, of torture and rape. Bonrepaus in fact thought it wise to repudiate all these stories either as exaggerated or as the work of subordinates who had exceeded their instructions. James had agreed to a fund to help the refugees and had contributed C5 oo Out of his privy purse towards it. It is true that such refugees were expected to join the Church of England, but it was then of course the only official Protestant Church. In that same month there were rumours that Roman Catholic regulars (those who belonged to a religious order) were going to be prosecuted in the United Netherlands merely on account of their faith. James was assured by his son-in-law that this was not the case. In expressing his gladness at the news, James wrote that he was of the opinion that ‘it was the very hard usage the Huguenots had and still have in France which made that affair of the regulars talked of where you are’.

It is clear not only from the dispatches of Bonrepaus but also of Barrillon that James did not at all approve of the French Government’s treatment of the Huguenots. A good deal was made of the fact that James ordered the burning of a book by – a French Protestant minister named Claude, condemning the persecution, which had been distributed in London both in a French and an English version: the Lord Chancellor had advised against the burning of the French version. But James had explained that ‘dogs defend each other when attacked; so do kings’. What it did not mean—so Barrillon told his master—was, ‘as ill-intentioned people suggested’, that James approved the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. James also told the Dutch ambassador when explaining his own religious policy to him later in the year and commenting on that of the King of France that he ‘detested’ Louis XIV’s conduct ‘as not being politic, much less Christian’; he himself, he said, aimed at ‘nothing else but liberty of conscience’ and ‘that so many honest people should not remain slaves to laws introduced in a singular manner’.

James’s problem and its proposed solution were therefore different from those of the King of France. In fact James moved at first rather slowly and seems to have envisaged helping his fellow-reigionists in a broad context of a wider religious toleration. After Parliament was prorogued Presbyterians and other nonconformists began to hope that they might obtain liberty of conscience forthwith ‘since the Anglicans failed the King in the last session of parliament’. At the very beginning of 1686 the Dutch ambassador reported that it was being publicly said that the King as Head of the Church would grant a general freedom of conscience to all dissenters. As Easter approached, the King became conspicuously religious. ‘The busy time of devotion is now here,’ observed a newsletter on April 6, ‘His Majesty, God bless him! one of the zealousest. Ten hours a day sometimes.’ Father Edward Petre who was now generally known to be his Jesuit confessor, urged him to make some forward move. The King gave permission for the printing of Roman Catholic writings, and propaganda pamphlets were published. Henry Hills, the royal printer, was himself a Roman Catholic. In the summer a military camp of some 14,000 was established at Hounslow with a chapel where Roman Catholic officers might attend Mass every morning.

In the spring too a general pardon (with certain exceptions) had been issued and 1,200 Quakers were released from prison in England and Scotland. Anabaptists as well as Quakers made public their gratitude to the King. By July it was reported that ‘politics were on the gallop’ and that ‘the King seems determined to push on in religious matters as far as he possibly can’.19 In June a collusive case was tried in the Court of King’s Bench – Godden v. Hales – which decided by a majority of eleven judges to one that the King had the right to dispense with the Test Act of 1673 in individual cases, in this instance in order to allow a Roman Catholic to hold a commission in the army; on July i an Ecclesiastical Commission was set up (to which the King’s powers as Supreme Governor were delegated), which could suspend clergy or deprive them of their functions. One of the first things the Commission did in September was to suspend Henry Compton, the Bishop of London, because he in his turn had refused to suspend a London clergyman who had preached against Roman Catholicism. Earlier a special envoy had been sent to the Pope and a papal envoy was received in Whitehall. The Marquis of Queensberry was dismissed from his office as Royal Commissioner in Scotland when the Scottish Parliament failed to sanction the suspension of the Test Acts, and was himself replaced by an administration largely controlled by Roman Catholics. Although James thus carried out a twofold policy of relieving individual Roman Catholics of their disabilities and giving offices and commissions to Roman Catholics by suspending recent statutes (several Roman Catholic peers were now appointed to the Privy Council), he told the Spanish ambassador in August that ‘he would force no man’s conscience but only aimed at the Roman Catholics being no worse treated than the rest, instead of being deprived of their liberties like traitors’.

In the light of these measures it was natural that during the second half of 1686 the conviction should grow among the subjects of King James that their monarch was plotting to impose his own religious views upon all of them. In Ireland Lord Tyrconnel, since May the Lieutenant-General of the Irish Army, a Roman Catholic himself, was engaged in undermining the authority of the Earl of Clarendon, the Protestant Lord Lieutenant; in Scotland Queensberry was demoted; in England the recall of Parliament was postponed from time to time by a series of prorogations. That autumn the policy of trying to persuade Members of Parliament to do the King’s will by repealing the Penal and Test Acts—a policy known as ‘closeting’ was started. At the Court itself a struggle took place between Rochester, the King’s brother-in-law, who had resisted the setting up of the Ecclesiastical Commission, and Sunderland who was determined on the overthrow both of Rochester in England and of his brother, Henry Hyde, Earl of Clarendon in Ireland.

This struggle was drawn out. Rochester was pro-Dutch and Sunderland was pro-French; Sunderland in fact was the paid agent of the French King, from whom he received a pension of £7,000 a year. The rumour was rife that soon the Hydes would be dismissed. In fact they clung on to office until the end of the year. That autumn Sunderland made it pretty clear to his master that he was sympathetic towards his religion and available for conversion at any suitable moment. But Rochester and Clarendon, though ambitious men, refused to be tempted. ‘As poor as I am,’ Clarendon wrote when he heard of his brother’s dismissal,” ‘I hope God will give both you and me the grace to beg rather than that we should falter in the religion wherein we have been bred….’ Vainly James had begged Rochester to study again the papers that King Charles II had left for the edification of posterity. Though, according to Rochester, the King ‘wept almost all the time he spoke to me’, he told him, as he had told Halifax a year earlier, that ‘no man must be at the head of his affairs that was not of his own opinion [on religion]’.

The Hydes lost their offices at the end of 1686, though some Protestant Ministers were still retained in ministerial positions. Policy, however, was settled by Sunderland and the Roman Catholic group over which he regularly presided. Loyal Protestants became increasingly unhappy about the King’s favouritism. The Earl of Chesterfield, a staunch royalist, wrote that December: ‘Though we have now a prince, whose study is his country’s glory, whose courage would give him lustre without a throne, whose assiduity in business makes him his own chief minister, yet heaven, it seems, hath found a way to make all this more terrible than lovely. . . . Men are generally discontented, and dread being shown some other way to heaven.’ The Marquis of Halifax wrote to William of Orange on January 18, 1687, that the nation remained firm and averse to change: ‘so that conversions are so thin and those which are so little fit to be examples that the prevailing party is not a little discountenanced by making no quicker progress. Ten days later John Evelyn, who over twenty-five years earlier had rejoiced after the restoration of Charles II in seeing the Cromwellians’ corpses being hanged at Tyburn, wrote, ‘the Lord Jesus defend his little flock and preserve this threatened Church and nation’. In the course of 1686 the Dutch ambassador reported anti-popish riots in Oxford, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Bristol and Scotland; only the prompt action of the Lord Mayor had prevented demonstrations against the Mass in the City of London, though even he had been unable to suppress an outburst on Guy Fawkes Day. Even Barrillon admitted that the decision in the Godden v. Hales case (for which the way had been prepared by the dismissal of four judges) was much disliked, though there were no open protests.

Yet the resident French ambassador did not fancy that King James was moving fast enough. He thought that he was wasting time, was getting older, and that what he did might be reversed by his successor. The King’s efforts to induce Members of Parliament to commit themselves to legislating for religious equality were meeting with resistance; and it was felt that even if the House of Commons agreed to ‘liberty of conscience’ opposition would certainly be encountered in the House of Lords. James’s own aims were clear enough and common knowledge. For instance, he wrote to the Duke of Beaufort on February 12, 1687, saying that what he intended to have done when Parliament did meet next was to ‘have the two Tests and penal laws repealed that my Catholic subjects may be in the same condition as the rest of my subjects are’.

It was at the beginning of 1687 that King James finally made up his mind to issue a royal proclamation suspending the laws against Roman Catholics and nonconformists by the exercise of his royal prerogative. He had been contemplating this step for at least a year. On February 12 a proclamation was published in Scotland under powers granted to him by an Act of 1669; the declaration extended liberty of worship to all Christians except only the extreme Presbyterians who met in field conventides and had proved themselves to be unruly and rebellious. On April 5 a declaration of liberty of conscience was published in England; James had previously explained to his son-in.-law that in order that ‘all my subjects may be at ease and quiet and mind their trades and private concerns’ he had ‘resolved to give liberty of conscience to all dissenters whatsoever, having ever been against persecution for conscience sake’. That was also to be stressed in his published life: ‘it was always his settled opinion,’ wrote his biographer, ‘that men’s consciences ought not to be forced.’ Here too the argument that liberty of conscience was helpful to trade was repeated. ‘Trade he had much at heart,’ wrote the Earl of Ailesbury, ‘and his topic was, liberty of conscience and many hands at work.’

The declaration suspended all the penal laws and excluded office-holders from obeying the Test Acts. The King’s aim was also stated to be to obtain Parliament’s approval later, thus admitting by implication that his extensive use of the prerogative was exceptional. But he made it clear that he would prefer his subjects to be of his own religion. ‘We cannot but heartily wish,’ stated the declaration, ‘as it will easily be believed, that all the people of our Dominions were members of the Catholic Church, yet we humbly thank Almighty God that it is, and hath of long time been our constant sense and opinion (which upon divers occasions we have declared) that conscience ought not to be constrained nor people forced in matters of mere religion.’ A fair field, one might say, but plenty of favours.

Favours were also shown to nonconformists, many of whom presented addresses of thanks to the King. But at the same time efforts were exerted to soothe the Church of England. It was, however, less the two declarations than James’s attempts to persuade his ministers and leading officers in the army and navy to become Roman Catholics or to force Roman Catholics into posts from which they had been excluded by statute that frightened the Church. Every post, wrote Sir John Reresby in February 1687, ‘brought news of gentlemen laying down their appointments and papists for the most part being put in their places’. Only a week after the declaration was published in England the King tried to compel the Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford, to accept a worthless Roman Catholic as their president. There was precedent enough for the King making a nomination. And though James, with his belief in civic equality for all Christians, might understandably feel that the Anglican monopoly in Oxford and Cambridge ought to be broken, that indeed was to assault the Church of England where its heart beat most strongly.

Such was the point that had been reached when Prince William of Orange sent over a special envoy, Everard Van Weede, Lord of Dijkvelt, to see King James on his behalf and to explore the feelings of the English ruling class. Dijkvelt’s mission is generally considered to have been the first obvious step that led along the road to the Revolution of 1688.  But before we examine it, we shall first sketch the attitude of mind and conduct of William of Orange before he arranged the mission.