Society launches fight for reputation of last Catholic King
THE LAST CATHOLIC king ever to rule over the British people has seldom been treated kindly by the historians who chronicled his fate.
King James II is generally depicted as an autocratic bigot, a religious zealot with contempt for freedom and a man whose arrogance and recklessness led to his own downfall in the so called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.
But historians attached to the Royal Stuart Society, an organisation set up to promote interest in the Royal House of Stuart, believe nothing could be further from the truth.
Last week, the Society commemorated the birthday of the Stuart king in a ceremony held in Trafalgar Square, London. The event formed part of a wider campaign by the Society for the “rehab” of James as an “enlightened ruler” who championed religious toleration not only for Catholics but also for Jews, Quakers and Nonconformists.
Fr Nicholas Schofield, the archivist of the Archdiocese of Westminster; addressed the group as it gathered around Grinling Gibbons’s 17th century statue of James as a Roman Caesar. “This noble square has been the focus of many celebrations this year, ranging from the bicentenary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar to the announcement of the winning Olympic bid,” said Fr Schofield, a priest at Our Lady of Willesden Church, north London.
“Today we add to this list of commemorations as we recall an event that took place at St James’s Palace 468 years ago. On that day, a third son was born to King Charles I and Henrietta Maria: Prince James, Duke of York and Albany.”
Fr Schofield said that James, during his lifetime, would go through such incarnations as “the rosycheeked infant surrounded by siblings and spaniels in the paintings of Van Dyck, the successful admiral; the unlucky king; the devout, saintly exile”.
But he said: “We think of him as an heroic figure we come here not only to remember the king and pray for the repose of his soul, but also to resurrect his reputation.”
He added: “We particularly think of King James today not as a bigot but as a champion of liberty.”
Fr Schofield also described the friendship between James and the younger William Penn.
He told how James, a Catholic convert, resigned as Lord High Admiral in 1673 as a result of the anti Catholic Test Act, and how Penn had been expelled from Oxford and imprisoned because of his Quake beliefs. James granted Penn territories in the American colonies where Quakers would be free from persecution. The two men also later formed a political alliance to introduce toleration and to abolish the Test Acts, he said.
In 1686, James released 1,200 Quaker prisoners and the following year Penn helped to draft the first Declaration of Indulgence suspending the Test Acts and other penal laws. The result was that toleration was extended to Protestant Dissenters, Catholics, Quakers and non Christians. “Even more surprising to the generations brought up under the old Whig history is King James’s treatment of the Jewish .community,” said Fr Schofield.
“James had an early positive encounter with them in the persons of David da Costa and Augustine Coronel-Chacon, Jews who had given financial aid to the Royal Family during their exile.
“In his colony of New York, James, as Duke of York, granted toleration to the Jews and, as recent research has shown, gave them their fast synagogue. Jews had previously been barred from settling in English colonies and, indeed, all English lands since the Expulsion of 1290.” He said that such a policy was especially progressive given that Jewish emancipation was not finally granted in Britain until 1830.
“So let us remember the king as a champion of toleration,” Fr Schofield concluded. “His ambitious and far-reaching policy was thwarted by prejudice and given the most sinister of interpretations, especially since it threatened the Anglican establishment and was seen to leave the door wide open ‘Popish’ domination.
“James was devout in his Catholic faith and hoped for the conversion of his kingdoms, but throughout his life he showed an impressive openness to those who held different religious beliefs. Even in exile, as hopes of restoration declined, he continued to employ Dissenters in his household. “On James’s 468th birthday, let us give thanks rather than apologise for this beleaguered King”.
David Sox paid tribute to James on behalf of the Quakers, saying the King and Penn had laid the cornerstone of religious freedom and tolerance, “so important in our own day”.
Mr Sox, an executive member of the Friends’ Historical Society, told the group that by honouring James they were celebrating one of the cornerstones of what it meant “to be British”.
After a series of short prayers, a bouquet of flowers was laid at the foot of the statue by Roger Dave, the secretary of the Society.
Afterwards, Society chairman Dr Eveline Cruikshanks, a distinguished historian of the Jacobite period, told The Catholic Herald that inquiries were being made with the Vatican to find out why James’s cause for sainthood, opened in 1702, a year after his death, was suspended in 1740.
“Not everyone in the Society would support taking the time to push the cause of beatification for James II but others would,” she said.
James II became the last British monarch to be overthrown by foreign invasion when he was driven out of England by a large Dutch army under William of Orange. The invasion force was brought to England by a fleet even larger than the Spanish Armada 100 years earlier and comprised twice as many soldiers as the Royal army.
William occupied London and insisted that Parliament accepted him as the new king on the grounds that he would reassert the Protestant ascendancy in Britain. It is widely accepted today, however, that William’s truer motive was to bring England into his war with Louis XIV of France.
After 1689, the new regime passed the Toleration Act which merely exempted Trinitarian Dissenters from penalties of the law without confer¬ring equal rights. For Jews, Catholics, Quakers and Unitarian Dissenters there was no toleration but renewed persecution.