On 10th June, 1688 after a decade of marriage James II of England and Ireland and VII of Scotland and his wife Mary of Modena welcomed a son into the world.
Normally a son would be a cause for celebration, but because James and Mary were Catholics, there were those at court and in the Three Kingdoms they ruled over who were less than pleased.
Almost immediately whispers started -led by the King’s own daughter Princess Anne-that the new Prince of Wales was not actually the Royal Couple’s son, but a changeling brought into replace a stillborn child. Many feared that the birth of the boy would lead to the establishment of a Catholic dynasty in the British Isles.
These fears were a contributing factor to the Glorious Revolution which deposed James and replaced him with his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.
The deposition of his father would shape James’ life going forward.
His family fled to France, first meeting King Louis in Versailles and then settling permanently in Saint Germain, where a court in exile developed.
James’ education was shaped by his father with the expectation that he would eventually rule the Kingdoms that his father had been removed from. He was taught about the Kingdoms, their cultures, their laws, and their traditions, and was given a solid basis in languages.
And though he was raised a devout Catholic-sworn to uphold the faith by his dying father-he was not an intolerant bigot unlike what some Whig and modern histories portray him as.
Indeed, if one reads up declarations made by James during his time in exile, he seems to have been a very early advocate for religious toleration. He also appears to have been willing to adopt a relatively liberal stance in regards to the constitution, unlike what others have portrayed him as.
Unfortunately, James’ life was plagued by tragedy. His father died when he was thirteen, his first attempt to reclaim the throne in 1708 was hit by delays and illness. His sister died in 1712, from an illness he himself had caught-and for many years James would worry that he had given the illness to her-then his second attempt to regain the throne ended in disaster with a retreat from Scotland, after delays once again prevented him from picking up momentum.
James dealt with these disappointments by becoming more religious, indeed, records that survive suggest he found great comfort in Catholicism, and that his exile from France, first in Lorraine and then to Avignon and then finally to Rome, was eased by his religiosity. Throughout all this though, he never lost sight of his final task.
Whilst not being a schemer, James would be involved in his fair share of plots, at first, with youth, taking part in them eagerly, and relying on people who with hindsight it was perhaps unwise to trust. As he aged though, he became more cautious, as demonstrated by his reluctance to commit to anything following the failure of the Atterbury Plot in 1721.
Of course, James knew how to do his duty, and though there were rumours that he would have liked to marry his cousin Benedetta d’Este, he settled down with Maria Clementina Sobieska, the granddaughter of the famous Jan III, and had two sons with her: Charles and Henry.
Whilst James was a doting father, and a caring husband, the strains of exile eventually took a toll on his marriage. In particular his preference for favouring John Hay and his wife and the man’s brother in law led to tensions with Maria, who despised the Hays and their hangers on. Such was the tension between the King and his wife that at one point Maria Clementina entered a convent.
The dispute was only resolved with the help of the Pope, and the brief exile of the Hays. Maria Clementina emerged from the convent but swore that if the Hays ever got as much influence as they’d previously had, she’d return. They never did quite reach their peak of power again.
The dispute with his wife did taint James’ image with his followers back in Britain, but only briefly, as soon, the Hanoverian feuding took over, and people started looking at James and his supposedly ideal family with envy.
Of course, James didn’t pay much attention to the various half-baked plots that followed in the years after the Atterbury Plot, instead he dedicated his time to ensuring his sons were educated and that they got as much attention as they needed. He regularly took them hunting, fishing, riding and shooting. And of course he took them to the opera. He also ensured that they were well educated about their homeland, ensuring they got education on constitutional and historical affairs, and were raised in the company of Catholics and Protestants. As such as they reached adulthood, they were seen as reasonably well-rounded men, albeit a tad naive about the wider world.
When the final Jacobite Rebellion, otherwise known as the 45’ came around, James was reluctant to let his sons go. He had been burned by the French too many times to trust them, but his eldest son Charles had other ideas and set off. And for a time it did seem as though the cause might succeed, but when it ended, it ended with a crash.
James may have been heartbroken but his main concern was for his son. Charles had almost been caught fleeing the British Isles, and then upon arriving in France descended into a drunken stupor. Despite James’ repeated pleas for him to come home, Charles never did venture back.
James would never see his son again.
Outside of this, James was a patron of the arts and music, indeed, his court in Rome was the scene for a great deal of Enlightenment entertainment, and he was a regular attendee to the Opera in the Papal Capital. His patronage gave rise to several artists who would go onto shape the Italian art industry and music scene in the decades to come-even influencing Britain at turns.
At the time of his death in 1766, James had outlived almost everyone who had effectively challenged and denied him his throne. He’d seen the balance of power in Europe shift toward Britain and he’d seen numerous Popes come and go.
He died in Rome, far from the land of his birth, but still remembered.
He was a man who had much promise, but never had the chance to deliver on it due to circumstances that were often beyond his control.
He was the King who never was.