James II of England (1633-1701): Family, Reign, Deposition, & Death

James II of England and VII of Scotland

King James II, the brother and successor to Charles II, reigned as the king of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1685 to 1688. He was also the last Catholic monarch of the three kingdoms. Throughout his brief reign, he tried to get his parliaments to pass laws that promoted tolerance of other Christian denominations in his kingdoms. The king was deposed after a short reign as a result of his largely frowned-upon religious policies as well as his desire not to have his power diminished by Parliament.

Early Years

Born in 1633 at Saint James Palace in London, James was the second surviving son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France. He was bestowed the title Duke of York shortly after his birth. Together with his brother, Charles (later King Charles II), he was given one of the best private tuitions, studying under renowned scholars and tutors. James was only three years old when he was appointed Lord High Admiral.

English Civil War

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, it set the monarchy and its supporters (i.e. Royalists) against Parliament (the Roundheads). The young James and his brother Charles witnessed the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642. In that inconclusive battle, the two princess were fortunate to escape capture by the Parliamentarian forces.

After Parliamentarian forces laid siege to Oxford in June 1646, James and his siblings, excluding Charles, were taken prisoners and held at St James’s Palace. As Parliament and Charles I could not reach any amicable agreement, there were some parliamentarians that even suggested that James be crowned king.

Exile in France and Spain

In 1648, James managed to flee St James’s Palace to The Hague in the Low Countries. Following his brother’s disastrous invasion at Worcester in September 1651, James and his siblings took refuge in France. While there, he enlisted in the French army and served under French general Turenne.

The English royal exiles’ stay in France was revoked as Charles began courting the support of Spain, which at the time was one of France’s foes. Charles’s decision to seek support from Spain was necessitated by France’s alliance with Oliver Cromwell, the leading parliamentarian and general who had taken control of the British Isles as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.

After their exile from France, James and his brother Charles went on to serve in the Spanish army.

The Restoration and Return to England

About two years after the death of Cromwell and the subsequent demise of the Commonwealth, Charles was welcomed back to England and proclaimed King Charles II.

During the reign of Charles II, James was honored with the title Duke of York. He rose through the ranks in the military to become Lord High Admiral and was put in charge of the Royal Navy during the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars.

When the Great Fire of London broke out in 1666, his brother appointed him to head the firefighting efforts. He distinguished himself brilliantly on the job and won many admirers in London.

James’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade

During the reign of his brother, James was also appointed the head of the Royal African Company (RAC). He also served as the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Both of those companies were involved in facilitating the capture of territories along the West African coast, allowing England to boost its slave, gold and silver trade.

It’s even said that during James’s tenure as head of the RAC, more than 4,500 slaves were shipped from those African coasts to the Caribbean on a yearly basis. Those human cargo were branded with the mark “DY”, which stood for Duke of York, James’s title.

Some historians maintain that James’s time as the head of the RAC witnessed increased shipment of slaves, making the company the largest trader of slaves in the history of the transatlantic slave trade.

Marriages and Children

James II and Anne Hyde. Painting by Sir Peter Lely

James tied the knot with Anne Hyde, one of the daughters of Edward Hyde, Charles II’s chief minister. His marriage to Anne did not sit too well with political establishment at the time as Anne was a commoner. It was for this reason the marriage ceremony had to be conducted secretly at first before an official ceremony took place on September 3, 1660.

James and Anne went on to have eight children: Charles, Mary (later Mary II), James, Anne (later Queen Anne), Charles, Edgar, Henrietta, and Catherine. Of those eight children, only two made it beyond childhood. The two were Mary and Anne.

Although a committed father and husband, James did indeed have his fair share of mistresses, a practice not uncommon among royals at the time.

On March 31, 1671, James and his two daughters were heartbroken by the death of Anne Hyde. The Duchess of York and Albany had died of breast cancer. She was 34 at the time of her death.

Two years after Anne’s death, James tied the knot with Mary of Modena, a devout Roman Catholic princess. By Mary, James fathered a number of children; however, only three survived. They were Isabel, Charles, James, and Louisa Maria Teresa. Only James survived to adulthood.


Upon the death of his older brother Charles II in 1685, James inherited the three kingdoms. He had the unenviable honor of reigning in an era when the relationship  between the Protestants and Catholics was very strained. This period was further marked by some level of animosity between the monarchy and the English Parliament.

James II’s frosty relationship with Parliament

King James II, who had converted to Catholicism in 1669, protected the rights and freedom of worship for the Catholics. There was also civic equality of Catholics and Protestants. These developments made Parliament unhappy and resulted in a series of disputes with the monarchy.

James further advanced the cause of the Catholics by making it possible for some to be recruited into the army. He dismissed Lord Lieutenants who failed to support the termination of the penal laws that discriminated against Protestant dissenters. The parliamentarians feared that James was in the process of raising a Catholic standing army. This fear fuel more protests in Parliament.

Tired of their incessant opposition to his pro-Catholic policies, James eventually suspended Parliament in 1685 and reigned independently of them. Two years later, he introduced the Declaration of Indulgence, which granted religious freedom to minority religious groups such as the Catholics, the Jews and the Protestant dissenters.

The Declaration of Indulgence

Declaration of Indulgence, also known as the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience, was a proclamation made by James in 1687. The declaration came as part of James’s effort to promote freedom of religion in a country that was heavily swayed towards Protestantism. The declaration ended the penal laws that required people to conform to the Church of England.

Under the declaration, people could worship as and when they saw fit, in their homes or the church. And new recruits into public sector weren’t required to take religious oaths.

The Church of England saw the declaration as an attack on its establishment. For many years the Church worked very hard to place Protestantism above Catholicism. The penal laws were some of the most effective tools the Church of England used in its fight against Catholicism. Therefore, James’s efforts to remove those laws using the Declaration of Indulgence did not go down well with members of the Church of England.

Trial of the Seven Bishops

When a group of seven bishops refused to read out the declaration in churches across England, James proceeded to put them on trial for seditious libel in June 1688. The bishops had pleaded with the king for him to excuse them from the order as the declaration flew against the penal laws passed by Parliament.

Throughout their trial, the seven bishops were held in the Tower of London. In the end, they were exonerated of the charges and released on June 30. This event further dealt a huge blow to the political power of the king.

A couple of years before that, James had dismissed the Parliament of England, citing parliamentarians’ refusal to remove some legal restrictions on Catholics and Protestant nonconformists in the kingdom. The king also dissolved  the Scottish Parliament in August 1686 for similar reasons. Neither Parliaments would meet again until 1689.

The political and religious Protestant establishment in England were completely fine with King James II’s personal inclinations toward Catholicism. This was because they believed that king would not produce another heir, who would most likely be Catholic. The king’s heir at the time was his Protestant daughter Mary. However, that all changed following the birth of the king’s son, James Francis, on June 10, 1688. The prince’s birth sparked anti-Catholic protests all across Scotland and England.

In 1688, James’ Catholic second wife, Mary, gave birth to a son named James Francis Edward Stuart. The arrival of the baby, the king’s seeming favoritism over Catholicism, his alliance with the French and tensions with Parliaments pointed to an emerging Roman Catholic dynasty. This led to whispers of an uprising and the eventual fall of James II. To the Jacobites, James’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart, was known as James III and VIII

The Glorious Revolution that removed James II from power

With the possibility of having another Catholic English monarch, the religious establishment and leading politicians sent out an invitation to James’s son-in-law and nephew, William, Prince of Orange. The Dutch monarch was invited to invade England and remove James from power.

James was confident that his army was competent enough to halt the Prince of Orange in his tracks. As a result, he turned down assistance from France’s Louis XIV.

Upon the arrival of the Prince of Orange, many top Protestant officers in the king’s court defected and supported the cause to have James deposed. Not even his other daughter, Princess Anne (later Queen Anne), supported him.

James’s nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, was invited to remove James from power. William and his wife Mary were later crowned joint rulers of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The embattled king avoided any confrontation with the invading army of the Dutch prince and simply fled. However, he was captured and placed under house arrest. As William did not want to shed family blood, he intentionally paved the way for James’s escape in late December 1688.

James and his few loyal officers made their way to France, where they were received by Louis XIV.

According to the official account from the English Parliament, James was not deposed; instead, it was said that the king had abandoned his crown. James was said to have simply abdicated in favor of his daughter Mary and her husband Prince of Orange. The parliament in Scotland came out with a similar statement.

Owing to the fact that there was relatively little bloodshed and violence during the revolution, historians refer to it as the Bloodless or Glorious Revolution. There may have been minimal destruction, but there was no doubt considerable number of people died in Ireland and Scotland as James tried to forge his way back to the throne.

James’s attempt to take back his kingdoms

James spent his later years in exile in France. Upon the advice of Louis XIV, he attempted to take back his throne. On March 14, 1689, the deposed king, with a few French troops, landed in Ireland in a last ditch effort to recover his kingdoms.

Unlike the lawmakers in Scotland and England, the Irish Parliament remained loyal to James, even providing him with some troops. James forces would go on to face William’s forces of Scots and English at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. James was defeated. He returned to France, never to step foot in Britain for the rest of his life.

In 1690, during the Battle of the Boyne, James and his men were defeated. Sensing defeat, James fled for the third time to France. Image: Battle of the Boyne between James II and William III, 11 July 1690

Later years

The Irish were disappointed by James’s lack of effort to fight to the bitter end. They therefore called him Séamus an Chaca or “James the shit”.

While in exile in France, he took up residence at the royal château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in north-central France. In time, his host, Louis XIV, would seal a peace treaty with King William. As a result, the support that he received from Louis diminished.

How did James II die?

James passed away on September 16, 1701. The cause of death was said to be a brain hemorrhage. He was 67 years old.

Upon the death of James, his son and heir, James Francis Edward, was hailed as king of England and Scotland by Louis XIV. To the Jacobites, a group of loyalists to James and the Stuart family, the young prince was known as “James III and VIII”. In 1715, he tried to claim the English throne but was defeated by his cousin George I.

The decades that followed witnessed Edward’s son, Charles Edward Stuart (i.e. James IV), make unsuccessful attempt to get the Stuarts back on the throne. The last Stuart claimant was James II’s grandson, Henry Benedict Stuart, who was a top scholar at the College of Cardinals in Rome.

He lived at the chateau in Saint-Germain-en-Laye for thirteen years, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1701.


Though the reign of James II had been short, its events were pivotal as far as history is concerned. It has been asserted by many historians that the Glorious Revolution led to England’s transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Following the Glorious Revolution, England’s monarchy did not possess absolute power again.

The passage of the Bill of Rights allowed for some specificity in the ruler’s power for the first time. The role and influence of Parliament underwent a drastic change in the ensuing years.

James II of England: Fast Facts

Birth Day and Place: October 14, 1633; St James’s Palace, London, England

Died: September 16, 1701; Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

Reign: 1685-1688

House: Stuart

Coronation Date: April 23, 1685

Title: King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith

Successor: Mary II and William III & II

Predecessor: Charles II

Mother: Henrietta Maria of France

Father: King Charles I of England

Spouses: Anne Hyde, Mary of Modena

Siblings: Charles II; Mary, Princess of Orange; Elizabeth, Anne, Henry, Henrietta

Children: Mary (later Mary II), Anne (later Queen Anne), Isabel Stuart, Charles, James, Louisa

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