James II and VII (1633–1701), duke of York and king of England, Scotland and Ireland, was born at St James's Palace, London, on 14 October 1633, the son of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, daughter of King Henry IV of France and sister of Louis XIII. He was the second of three sons and in all had five sisters, two of whom died young. As a prince he was created duke of York and duke of Albany. His formal education was episodic and seriously disrupted by the outbreak of civil war in England in 1642. Among his tutors was the great medical scientist William Harvey. He learned, perhaps in exile, to speak fluent French, but much of his knowledge, of astronomy, church history, and theology, was acquired as an adult, through reading. After the royalists’ defeat, James escaped to the continent and he and his elder brother, Charles, joined their mother in Paris, where early in 1649 they received the grim news of their father's execution. While Charles sought to recover the throne, James learned the arts of war under the great French general Turenne. He remained in France until 1656, some two years after the French authorities had told Charles that he was no longer welcome there, and then moved to Brussels, where he saw service in the Spanish forces fighting against France.
Charles II returned to England in triumph in May 1660. James was granted his own substantial household, based at St James's Palace, although he also spent time at Whitehall and accompanied Charles on his journeys elsewhere. James's main office was that of lord admiral and he developed a great enthusiasm for ships, navigation, and the navy. He was a diligent administrator and commanded the fleet, with some success, against the Dutch in 1665 and 1672. In 1673 he was forced to resign, but he continued to advise his brother on naval matters and resumed formal control in 1684. Although there were attempts, from the 1650s, to set James up as a rival to his brother, or to make him the centre of an opposition interest, he remained doggedly loyal. Loyalty, for James, was a cardinal virtue, and he expected others to be as loyal to him as he had been to Charles.
James was brought up as a conventional rather than a convinced member of the Church of England. In about 1668 he converted to catholicism, giving as his reason that there could be only one true church and that was the one that Christ had instructed St Peter to found. Having located where religious authority lay, James was committed to obey it. He had a simple, military code of values, in which everything was true or false, right or wrong – there could be no such thing as conditional obedience. He became a committed catholic and was eager to worship openly. Charles, well aware of the strength of anti-catholicism in England, ordered him to be discreet. But his conversion became public knowledge in 1673, when he refused to make the declaration against transubstantiation required by the Test Act, and resigned as lord admiral. Between 1679 and 1681 the English House of Commons tried three times to exclude James from the throne because of his religion. All three attempts were defeated, and Charles (who had no legitimate children) refused to abandon his brother's right to the succession.
On 3 September 1660 James secretly married Anne Hyde, daughter of the first earl of Clarendon. They had a total of four sons and three daughters, of whom only the future queens Mary (b. 1662) and Anne (b. 1665) survived beyond the age of four. In 1671 the first duchess of York died, having recently converted to catholicism. Two years later James married Mary Beatrice d'Este, the daughter of the duchess of Modena, fifteen years old, and a catholic. She was to bear James several children, none of whom survived infancy apart from James Francis Edward (1688–1766), later known as James III or the Old Pretender, and Louise (1692–1712).
James succeeded his brother as king on 6 February 1685. His vigorous promotion of catholicism alienated his protestant subjects in England and Scotland. When his nephew William of Orange (qv), who was married to James's daughter Mary, invaded England in November 1688 the English put up little opposition, and James fled to France. In February 1689 the English parliament declared that James had ‘abdicated’ and offered the crown to William and Mary. The Scottish parliament declared him deposed a few weeks later.
Since the 1650s James had been seen as favouring Irish catholics, many of whom served under him first in France, then in Flanders. The most notable among them were the Talbot brothers. Peter Talbot (qv), who later became archbishop of Dublin, engaged in clandestine negotiations in England and Spain on James's behalf. Richard Talbot (qv) became an important member of his household, with the office of gentleman of the bedchamber, but more importantly was James's close friend. After 1660 both brothers lobbied and intrigued to improve the condition of catholics in Ireland and acted, with some success, as agents for catholics whose lands had been confiscated in the 1650s. James himself profited from the Irish Act of Settlement of 1662, which granted him the confiscated Irish lands of the regicides. Richard Talbot schemed to secure the dismissal of Ormond (qv), whom he hated and at one point threatened to kill. In 1672 Richard Talbot was seen as responsible for the relaxing of restrictions on catholics in Ireland, but these measures were reversed following protests from the English parliament in 1673. In the early 1680s, with the ultra-royalist ‘tory’ party in the ascendant at the English court, Talbot argued that the Irish army was unreliable, because most of its officers were what he called Cromwellians – in other words, protestants. In 1684 he engineered the recall of Ormond and the first commissions to catholic officers.
James clearly supported Talbot's activities, believing that Irish catholics were loyal to the crown and had been unjustly treated. He also, however, believed that English rule over Ireland (and control over its economy) should be maintained and feared that undue favour to catholics in Ireland would alarm English protestants and so jeopardise his plans to promote catholicism in England. Talbot (now created earl of Tyrconnell) continued to insist that only catholics were truly loyal and that James's position in Ireland could never be secure while military and civil power remained in protestant hands. In time Tyrconnell wore down James's resistance. James recalled the lord lieutenant, his own brother-in-law, the 2nd earl of Clarendon (qv), whom Tyrconnell treated with undisguised contempt, and appointed the latter lord deputy in his place. Once he had become lord deputy, Tyrconnell gradually overcame James's objections to placing all civil and military power in Ireland in catholic hands. When the two met at Chester in August 1687, Tyrconnell triumphantly rebutted the claims of his critics that his policies in Ireland were provoking a dangerous amount of opposition and damaging the revenue: indeed neither claim seems to have been true. He may also have persuaded the king to agree in principle that Ireland should seek the protection of France after his death. By the end of 1688 almost the entire Irish army and much of the administration were in catholic hands. The militia, in which protestant settlers armed to defend themselves, had been disbanded. When James fled from England, Tyrconnell's forces controlled almost all of Ireland, except for Derry and Enniskillen, and protestants left Ireland in their hundreds.
With James's flight and William's accession, England was drawn into a great European war against France. Louis XIV saw a conflict in Ireland as a useful way to divert English resources from the continent, and in March 1689 James landed at Kinsale with French arms and military advisers. His priority was to invade either England or Scotland and recover the English throne. He still wished to maintain English dominion over Ireland and to avoid antagonising his protestant subjects. The catholics of Ireland, whether Irish or Old English, wanted to reverse a century of expropriation and discrimination, recover their lands, and establish Ireland as an autonomous catholic kingdom. James's attitude to these aspirations was ambivalent. He called a parliament in Dublin in 1689, which passed an act expropriating most protestant landowners in Ireland, but he successfully resisted measures that would have repealed Poynings’ Law and the legislation subordinating Ireland's economic interests to England's. Neither goal could be achieved until protestant resistance had been crushed within Ireland, and this James failed to achieve. The ending of the siege of Derry saw the arrival in August 1689 of a Williamite army, followed by a much larger army in June 1690 commanded by William himself. William immediately set out to engage James's army. James had been psychologically traumatised by his expulsion from England, which he explained as God's punishment for his sins of the flesh. His conduct of the war was hampered by pessimism and lethargy, as well as by a chronic lack of resources and quarrels among his supporters. Nevertheless he went through the motions, drawing up his army on the banks of the Boyne. When William attacked, on 1 July (11 July new style), the terrain prevented many of James's troops from engaging the enemy, but the remainder, after stiff resistance, were driven back and put to flight. James fled faster than most. After a brief stop in Dublin, where he accused the Irish of having ‘basely’ fled the field, he rode as fast as he could to Duncannon on Waterford harbour and took a boat to Kinsale, from where he sailed for France.
James never returned to Ireland, although he and his descendants continued until 1766 to nominate to catholic bishoprics there, a right granted by the pope in 1685. His reputation among the catholics of Ireland was for a while abysmal. He was nicknamed ‘James the shite’, with one Irish and one English shoe, ‘infatuated with this rotten principle, provoke not your Protestant subjects’ (Gilbert, 63). In time, his less than glorious record as war leader came to be softened by sympathy for his sufferings and losses, and his exemplary piety led some to see him as a saint. As the Dublin parliament passed new penal laws against catholics and emasculated the treaty of Limerick, James and his son came to be seen as exemplars of ultimate justice, the godly princes over the water who would return to rescue the catholics of Ireland from protestant oppression. The exiled Stuarts were a potent symbol of the loss and alienation felt by catholic Ireland. He died on 5 September 1701, at St Germain en Laye, west of Paris, having recently suffered a stroke and two stomach ulcers. Various parts of his body were buried in the parish church of St Germain, the English college at St Omer, the Scots college in Paris, the church of the English Benedictines in Paris, and the nunnery at Chaillot. All traces of his remains disappeared during the French Revolution, although there is a more recent monument to him at St Germain en Laye. There are portraits of James in the National Maritime Museum (as a Roman general) and the National Portrait Gallery, London (nos. 366, 666, 5077 [with Anne Hyde], 5211), where there is also a bust (no. 5869).