James was not born to be a King. He was the third, but second surviving son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, born on 14 October 1633. Though he was styled as Duke of York from birth, he was not formally created so until 1643. His father was executed on 30 January 1649 but by then James had already fled to The Hague. James later followed his brother Charles to France, where he served in the French army. However, he was expelled from France when his brother entered into an alliance with Spain, and he would later fight against his former French allies in the Spanish Army at the Battle of the Dunes.
James fell in love with the apparently very plain Anne Hyde, who served as a maid of honour to James’ sister Mary, Princess of Orange. Although he had promised to marry her, nobody assumed it would happen as Anne was a commoner and it was that following year that Charles was restored to the throne. Anne became pregnant in 1660, and the two married secretly, followed by an official marriage ceremony on 3 September 1660. The child was born two months later, but he lived for only six months. They would have a total of eight children, but only two daughters Mary and Anne survived to adulthood. Anne died of breast cancer on 31 March 1671.
James became a Catholic in 1670 though it was kept secret, and he continued to attend Anglican services until 1676. Tensions were high in England at the time, and English Parliament introduced the Test Act in 1673. By this act, all civil and military officials were required to take an oath and to receive the Eucharist under the auspices of the Church of England. As James refused to take the oath, his conversion was made public, and he had to relinquish his the post of Lord High Admiral.
That same year James married again, to Mary of Modena, who was only four years older than James’ eldest daughter Mary. They had a total of six children, of which only two lived past the age of five. James became King at the death of Charles on 6 February 1685. Charles had no legitimate children with his wife Catherine of Braganza though he had plenty of illegitimate ones.
Though the accession seemed to go smoothly, the eldest of Charles’ illegitimate sons landed at Lyme Regis in June as the Protestant champion, claiming that Charles had been secretly married to his mother, Lucy Walter. He was defeated by July and executed that same month. The event only gave James more motivation to bring England back to Roman Catholicism. At the time, James’ heirs were his Protestant daughters by Anne Hyde, Mary and Anne. However, Mary of Modena gave birth to a son who lived on 10 June 1688, though rumours soon circulated that a child had been smuggled into the Queen’s bed in a warming pan. Another Protestant champion seized the opportunity. William, Prince of Orange was not only married to James’s daughter Mary, he was also her first cousin as the son of Charles and James’ sister Mary, Princess of Orange and thus also in the line of succession.
James fled from the invading army, but he was captured in Kent. However, William let him escape to France, where Louis XIV offered him a pension. Though Parliament refused to depose James officially, they declared James had effectively abdicated by fleeing to France and that the throne had become vacant. The throne was then offered to Mary, William’s wife, who was to rule jointly with William. No ‘papal prince’ would be allowed to rule England again.
However, James wasn’t done. He landed in Ireland in March 1689 with the backing of French troops. The Irish Parliament did not follow the English. They declared James had remained King and passed a bill of attainder against anyone who rebelled against the rightful King. In the end, James was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690. His son-in-law had personally led the army against him. James was forced to flee to France again and this time he would not return.
In France, he lived at the Château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where his last child Louisa Maria Teresa was born in 1692. He would die of a brain haemorrhage on 16 September 1701. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines in Paris, but his tomb was raided during the French revolution. It is a sad end for someone who could have been a great King, but never got the chance due to the circumstances.
He was succeeded as titular King of England by his son, James III & VIII. His line would end with his grandson and the so-called Jacobite succession passed through Charles I’s daughter Henrietta, Duchess of Orléans and that line still exists today. Its representative is an elderly Bavarian Duke named Franz. After he and his brother the claim will pass to Sophie, Hereditary Princess of Liechtenstein, whose elder son Joseph Wenzel was the first Jacobite heir born in the British Isles since James’ son. He is also in an excellent position to become a head of state in the future as he is 2nd in line to the Liechtensteiner throne.
Photo credit: “James II, when Duke of York (1633-1701)” by Peter Lely – http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/ Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons