THIS PAST SATURDAY was the anniversary of the birth of King James II and VII of England and Scotland. The third son of Charles I, he was baptised into the Anglican church six weeks after his birth and was created Duke of York at eleven years of age. In 1660, James married Anne Hyde, the daughter of the Earl of Clarendon, by whom he fathered eight children, though only two survived past childhood. In 1664 the Duke of York equipped an expedition to relieve the Dutch of responsibility for their colonies in North America, and henceforth New Amsterdam and New Netherland were known as New York after their new Lord Proprietor.
A miniature of James, Duke of York, c. 1660.
Sometime during the year 1670 both the Duke and Duchess of York were received into the Catholic Church and stopped attending Anglican services, though the conversion did not become public knowledge until the Test Act (requiring officeholders to receive communion in a Church of England service and take an oath against Transubstantiation) was passed three years later. James was forced to renounce his offices, such as Lord High Admiral of England, though not his titles. At any rate, Anne, the Duchess of York had died in 1671 only a year after her conversion. He married Princess Maria of Modena in 1673.
The Protestant oligarchs felt threatened by the prospect of a Catholic king and thrice tried to pass laws barring James from succeeding to the throne. However his elder brother Charles II, the reigning king, dissolved parliament each time before the bill was to be passed. King Charles II died in February 1685, (having reconciled himself to the Catholic faith before his end) and thus the Duke of York was proclaimed James II of England and VII of Scotland. A private Catholic coronation was held at Whitehall Palace on April 22 before the public coronation the following day on the feast of Saint George, which was performed according to the rites of the Church of England.
James II’s seal for use in New York, in which a colonist and a native show their loyalty to the King. James had appointed the Catholic Thomas Dongan, 2nd Earl of Limerick, Governor of New York in 1682.
The Protestant oligarchs’ fears that James would end their hegemonic grip on Scotland and England proved well-founded as in 1687 he issued a Declaration of Toleration as King of Scotland, allowing Catholics, Episcopalians, and other non-Presbyterians to hold public office and the right of public worship, and a Declaration of Indulgence as King of England removing the laws penalizing non-attendance or non-communion at Church of England services, permitting non-Anglican worship in private homes or chapels, and abolishing religious oaths for public offices. Furthermore, James had allowed Catholics to hold positions at the University of Oxford for the first time since the Protestant Revolution. More provocatively, he tried to transform Magdalen College Oxford into a Catholic seminary. He had already reckoned with the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth who proclaimed himself king two years earlier but had been captured, tried, and executed for treason. With the birth of a Catholic son and heir, Prince James Francis Edward, in 1688 a cabal of seven Protestant nobles issued an invitation to William of Orange, the Protestant Stadtholder of the Netherlands. A few months later, William of Orange duly arrived and usurped the throne, having already married James’ daughter Mary from his first marriage. The two ruled jointly as William and Mary.
Unwilling to create a popular martyr as had happened with the executed Charles I, William allowed James to escape and fled to France where Louis XIV gave the exiled monarch the use of a palace and an ample pension. James was intent on returning to his birthright, however, and took advantage of the Irish parliament’s refusal to recognise William’s usurpation of the throne. The King landed in Ireland in March of 1689 at the head of a Franco-Irish army but was defeated by William in the famous Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, and returned to his place of exile in France.
There, Louis allowed him to live in the château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and offered to get James elected King of Poland but James felt this would prevent any chance of a Stuart again holding the throne of England. From that time onwards, James led a simple life of penance in reparation for his sins (he had had a number of mistresses in his younger days) and finally died in 1701. He was entombed in the Chapel of St. Edmund within the English Benedictine church on the Rue St. Jacques in Paris, while his brain was sent to the Scots College in Rome, his heart to the Visitandine Convent at Chaillot, and his bowels divided between the College of St. Omer (the exiled English Catholic school, now Stonyhurst in Lancashire), and the nearby parish church of St. Germain where they remained until they were desecrated by a Revolutionary mob and lost forever. His monument at Saint-Germain, however, was rediscovered in 1824 and is proudly displayed there to this day. There is also a monument to James and the Stuarts in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (c.f. Roma – Caput Mundi).
While I am told that Padre Pio asserted that either Edward VII or George V had a deathbed reception into the Church, so far as it historically verifiable James II was the last Catholic king (and as neither Edward nor George reigned over New York, James is even more certifiably so for us). There is a lovely coronation ode to James which I just might bring to your attention someday. But for now, reflect and remember our monarchs of old and pray that God in His mercy might grant us good Catholic rulers in stead of the shabby lot we elect today.