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The Illegitimate Royals: James, Duke of Monmouth

By Unidentified painter - [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Many royal illegitimate children are kept out of sight in a quiet country house. However, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth was quite opposite – he was a popular and well-known royal offspring who stayed in the spotlight for much of his life. 

Born to King Charles II and Lucy Walter on 9 April 1649 in Rotterdam, he was originally called James Fitzroy (Fitz being a common surname for illegitimate children). There were questions for centuries on whether or not he was actually Charles’s child, but DNA testing in 2012 proved his parentage. He lived in Rotterdam until March 1658 when he was kidnapped and taken to Paris to live under the care of the Crofts Baronetcy. 

Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and James arrived in England in February 1663. Upon his arrival, he was created Duke of Monmouth (along with the subsidiary titles of Earl of Doncaster and Baron Scott of Tynedale). As a 13-year-old, it was quite an improvement in life. He was also made a Knight of the Garter in March of the same year, clearly being recognised for his important status at court. 

Shortly after turning 14 in April 1663, James married the Scottish heiress Anne Scott, 4th Countess of Buccleuch. Interestingly, he took his wife’s name after the marriage. On the day of their wedding, they were made the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, meaning that he was also now a peer in Scotland. 

At the age of 16, Monmouth (as he would be known) began serving in the English navy under his uncle, the Duke of York (the future James II). After a year, he became the captain of a cavalry troop, and just over two years after that, he was made a colonel of His Majesty’s Own Troop of Horse Guards. Monmouth was a commander of a brigade of 6,000 English and Scottish troops in the Third Anglo-Dutch War (in 1672). It was a particularly successful campaign and he was lauded for his leadership. In 1674, Monmouth was made Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and was given the authority to examine all military orders. In practice, this meant that he had effective control of the army. 

Throughout his life, supporters claimed that he had a right to the British throne. Although Charles swore that his only wife was the Queen (Catherine of Braganza), many thought that Charles had secretly married Monmouth’s mother. Monmouth was quite popular, as he was a staunch Protestant, and the heir to the throne, the future James II, was a Roman Catholic. In the early 1680s, he was forced to go into exile after plots to assassinate the King and his heir were discovered. 

Upon Charles II’s death in February 1685, Monmouth declared himself the rightful heir to the throne. He led a rebellion and landed at Lyme Regis with three ships. He continued to declare himself king as he and his troops progressed. They met the King’s troops at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685 and soundly lost. Monmouth was captured shortly after the battle.

Parliament passed an Act of Attainder, and James II prepared to execute his nephew. He did allow Monmouth to have a final audience but knew he wouldn’t reverse the execution plans. Monmouth was executed on Tower Hill on 15 July 1685. It took several blows to actually sever his head (witnesses cite anywhere from five to eight), and his body was buried in the Church of St. Peter Ad Vincula.  

Although he met a brutal end, Monmouth led a rather full life. Some illegitimate royal children are kept hidden and lived quiet lives. However, Monmouth was a public and beloved figure for much of his life and maintained a power base for much of his adult life. 

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