James II And The End Of The Stuarts

James II And The End Of The Stuarts


Professor Kate Williams reflects on the reign of King James II, who ruled for only three years. Learn how this last Stuart king was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

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James II And The End Of The Stuarts

Union of Scottish and English Crowns

The Stuarts were the first kings of the United Kingdom.

Scotland provided England with a new line of kings, the Stuarts. They were to bring disaster to the nation for, coming from Scotland where royal power had not been curbed by Parliament, they had no understanding of the more democratic ways that had developed in England.

James I 1603 - 1625

James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. During his reign the Gunpowder Plot failed and the Pilgrim fathers set sail for America in the Mayflower.

  • Age 36-59
  • Great-great-grandson of Henry VII
  • Born: 19 June1566 at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
  • Parents: Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley
  • Ascended to the throne: 24 March 1603 aged 36 years
  • Crowned: 25 July 1603 at Westminster Abbey, also as James VI of Scotland at Stirling Castle
  • Married: Anne, Daughter of Frederick II of Denmark and Norway
  • Children: Three sons and five daughters, of whom three survived infancy Henry, Elizabeth and Charles
  • Died: 27 March 1625 at Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire, aged 58 years
  • Buried at: Westminster
  • Succeeded by: his son Charles

King of England from 1603 and Scotland (as James VI) from 1567.

When James became King of England, he was already a king - King James VI of Scotland. He was the first monarch to rule both countries and the first to call himself 'King of Great Britain'. However it was not until 1707 that an act of Parliament formally brought the two countries together.

James had been King of Scotland for twenty-nine years when he acceded to the English throne.

In 1605 the Gunpowder Plot was hatched: Guy Fawkes and his friends, Catholics, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but were captured before they could do so.

The Gun Powder Plot

James authorised the translation of the King James Bible. He also had Sir Walter Raleigh executed

Charles I 1625 - 1649

Charles tried to rule without Parliament. In the Civil War between his party and Parliament, he was captured and was executed in 1649.

  • Age 24-49
  • Born: 19 November 1600 at Dunfermline Palace, Scotland
  • Parents: James I (VI of Scots) and Anne of Denmark
  • Ascended to the throne: March 27, 1625 aged 24 years
  • Crowned: 2 February 1626 at Westminster Abbey
  • Married: Henrietta Maria, Daughter of Henri IV of France
  • Children: Four sons and five daughters
  • Died: 30 January 1649 at Whitehall, London (executed), aged 48 years
  • Buried at: Windsor
  • Succeeded by: his son Charles II

Charles was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, and became heir to the throne on the death of his elder brother Henry in 1612.

King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1625,

Fought against the Parliament leading to civil war.
Was executed as a result on 30 January 1649.

The English Civil War (1642 - 51)

The war began in 1642 when, after seeing his rights as king slashed by Parliament, Charles miscalculated by swarming into the Palace of Westminster with several hundred soldiers to arrest five Members of Parliament and a peer he accused of treason. They all escaped, but London was scandalized and the king was forced to flee the city.

The war between the Roundheads (supporters of parliament) and the Cavaliers (supporters of the King) began.

The Civil War led to the trial and execution of Charles I, the exile of his son Charles II, and the replacement of the English monarchy with first the Commonwealth of England (1649&ndash1653) and then with a Protectorate (1653&ndash1659), under the personal rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector.

England became a Republic for eleven years from 1649 - 1660.

At first England was ruled by Parliament, but in 1653, Oliver Cromwell, commander of the army, became Lord Protector of England. He held his post until his death in 1658 (when his son briefly took over). Cromwell did not want to be king and refused the crown when it was offered to him.

The Commonwealth - declared 19 May 1649

The Stuarts line Restored (The Restoration)

Charles II 1660 - 1685

Charles was called the Merry Monarch. In his reign occurred the Plague, The Fire of London, and the Dutch Wars. Having suffered a stroke, Charles converted to Catholicism on his death-bed and passed away a few hours later.

  • Age 30-55
  • Born: 29 May 1630 at St. James Palace
  • Parents: Charles I and Henrietta Maria
  • Ascended to the throne: 29 May 1660 aged 30 years
  • Crowned: 23 April 1661 at Westminster Abbey, and at Scone as King of Scots, 1 January 1651, aged 20
  • Married: Catherine of Braganza
  • Children: Three children who died in infancy, and about 17 illegitimate children by at least 8 different mistresses
  • Died: 6 February 1685 at Whitehall Palace, London, aged 54 years
  • Buried at: Westminster
  • Succeeded by: his brother James II

He was crowned King of Scotland in 1651. When Richard Cromwell lost the confidence of Parliament and abdicated, Charles returned to London in time for his thirtieth birthday and to rule Great Britain (Scotland, England and Wales).

Charles saw London recover from the Plague (1665) and Great Fire (1666). Many new buildings were built at this time. St. Paul's Cathedral was built by Sir Christopher Wren and also many churches still to be seen today.

James II 1685 - 1688

James tried to make England a Roman Catholic country. He was not popular nd he soon lost his throne.

  • Age 51-55
  • Younger brother of Charles II
  • Born: 14 October 1633 at St. James Palace
  • Parents: Charles I and Henrietta Maria
  • Ascended to the throne: February 6, 1685 aged 51 years
  • Crowned: 23 April 1685 at Westminster Abbey
  • Married: (1) Anne Hyde, (2) Mary, Daughter of Duke of Modena
  • Children: Eight by his first wife Anne, of whom only Mary and Anne survived,and Five by his 2nd wife Mary of whom only a son James (Old Pretender) and Louise Maria survived.
  • Died: 6 September 1701 at St Germain-en-Laye, France, aged 67 years, 10 months, and 21 days
  • Buried at: Chateau de Saint Germain-en-Laye, Near Paris,
  • Succeeded by: his daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange

King of England and Scotland (as James VII) from 1685.

James was 15 when his father was executed. He escaped to France in 1648, disguised as a girl.

As his brother, Charles II, had no children James succeeded him.

Whilst king, James tried to force people to follow his Roman Catholic faith. He was very unpopular because of his persecution of the Protestants, and he was hated by the people.

He was forced to give up the crown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Parliament asked William of Orange, who was married to James' daughter Mary, to take the throne. She was a Protestant.

William III 1688 - 1702 and Queen Mary II 1688 - 1694

Mary, daughter of James II, was married to William of Orange. His aim was to save Holland (Netherlands) by defeating Louis XIV of France.

  • Age:
    William 39-52
    Mary 27-32,
  • Born:
    William: The Hague, Netherlands
    Mary: St James Palace, London
    William: William II of Orange and Mary Stuart
    Mary: James II and Anne Hyde
  • Ascended to the throne: 13 February 1689
  • Crowned: 11 April 1689 at Westminster Abbey, when William was 38 and Mary was 26
  • Married: William married Mary, daughter of James II
  • Children: Three stillborn
  • Died: 8 March 1702 at Kensington Palace (William), aged 51 years. Mary died 1694,
  • Buried at: Westminster (both)
  • Succeeded by: Mary's sister Anne

Mary, daughter of James II and her Dutch husband were invited to be King and Queen following James abdication.

King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1688, the son of William II of Orange and Mary, daughter of Charles I. He was offered the English crown by the parliamentary opposition to James II. He invaded England in 1688 and in 1689 became joint sovereign with his wife, Mary II.

Queen Anne 1702 - 1714

Ann was the last of the Stewart monarchs. She was the sister of Mary.

  • Age 37-49
  • Sister of Mary II
  • Second daughter of James II
  • Born: February 6, 1665 at St. James Palace, London
  • Parents: James II and Anne Hyde
  • Ascended to the throne: March 8, 1702 aged 37 years
  • Crowned: April 23, 1702 at Westminster Abbey
  • Married: George, son of Frederick III of Denmark
  • Children: Eighteen, including miscarriages and still-born, of whom only one William survived to age of 12
  • Died: August 1, 1714 at Kensington Palace , aged 49 years
  • Buried at: Westminster
  • Succeeded by: her 3rd cousin George of Hanover

Queen of Great Britain and Ireland 1702–14.

Her nickname was Brandy Nan because of her alleged taste for fine French brandy. She was also known as Mrs Bull and Mrs Morely.

All of her 18 children died.

Anne, the last Stuart monarch, died at Kensington Palace in London aged 49. As none of her children survived her, under the terms of the Act of Succession of 1701 she was succeeded by George, Elector of Hanover, who was proclaimed as George I. He was the first of the Hanoverian monarchs.

1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England formed Great Britain.

1710 - St Paul's Cathderal, London, completed by Sir Christopher Wren

1711 - First race meeting held at Ascot

After Anne's death the succession went to the nearest Protestant relative of the Stuart line. This was George of Hanover, grandson of James I.

1154 - 1216 The Angevins (The first Plantagenet kings)

1603 - 1649 and 1660 - 1714 The Stuarts

1901 -1910 and 1910 - Today Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and The Windsors

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King James II

King James II took the throne in England in 1685, during a time when relations between Catholics and Protestants were tense. There was also considerable friction between the monarchy and the British Parliament.

James, who was Catholic, supported the freedom of worship for Catholics and appointed Catholic officers to the army. He also had close ties with France𠅊 relationship that concerned many of the English people.

In 1687, King James II issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which suspended penal laws against Catholics and granted acceptance of some Protestant dissenters. Later that year, the king formally dissolved his Parliament and attempted to create a new Parliament that would support him unconditionally.

James’s daughter Mary, a Protestant, was the rightful heir to the throne until 1688 when James had a son, James Francis Edward Stuart, whom he announced would be raised Catholic.

The birth of James’s son changed the line of succession, and many feared a Catholic dynasty in England was imminent. The Whigs, the main group that opposed Catholic succession, were especially outraged.

The king’s elevation of Catholicism, his close relationship with France, his conflict with Parliament and uncertainty over who would succeed James on the English throne led to whispers of a revolt𠅊nd ultimately the fall of James II.

Stuart England - the later Stuarts

James II
Charles II was succeeded by his brother James II (1685-88). James was a Catholic, and he made several awkward attempts to re-establish the rights of Catholics, which succeeded only in allying the Whigs and Tories against him.

In 1685 Charles' illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, launched a rebellion with the support of the farmers and labourers of Somerset. The Pitchfork Rebellion ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor, often called the last battle fought upon British soil. The aftermath to the Monmouth's Rebellion was a speedy and savage series of trials of those who had supported him.

These were the Bloody Assizes, presided over by the infamous Judge Jeffreys, who condemned hundreds of men to death.Popular opinion grew against James after a son was born to him, raising the prospect of a Catholic dynasty. Parliament extended an invitation to the firmly Protestant William and Mary of Orange (modern Holland) to take the English throne. James fled to France, where Louis XIV set him up with a Stuart 'court'.

William and Mary (1689-1702) ruled England jointly. Parliament ensured that they would never again have to deal with the like of James, by passing the 1689 Bill of Rights, which prohibited Catholics from ruling. In 1694 another watershed was reached when a group of merchants willing to loan the government money banded together to form the Bank of England.

Queen Anne
William outlived Mary, and he was followed by the second daughter of James II, Queen Anne (1702-14). For the first part of her reign Anne was under the influence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and her husband, John Churchill, ancestors of Sir Winston Churchill. John Churchill was head of England's forces in the War of the Spanish Succession on the continent.

His spectacular successes, notably at the Battle of Blenheim, prompted Anne to provide the land and the funds for the erection of the magnificent (or grotesquely gaudy, depending on your architectural sensibilities) Blenheim Palace at Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

The Creation of Great Britain
In 1707 the Act of Union brought together Scotland and England to form Great Britain. The Union Jack was adopted as the new national flag, incorporating the crosses of St.George (England) and St.Andrew (Scotland). In 1713 hostilities in Europe took a short break, and the Treaty of Utrecht gave England a host of new territories, including Newfoundland, Acadia, St.Kitts, Minorca, and Gibraltar.

The end of the Stuarts
Anne had seventeen children, all of whom predeceased her, so on her death, the throne went to the Bavarian, George of Hanover.

The Stuarts: James II & The Glorious Revolution (1685-1689)

Whig historians would have us remember James II as a Catholic despot whose deposition was vital to the preservation of the British monarchy. His short but fractious reign was rife with tensions between Whig and Tory, Catholic and Protestant, and most importantly King and Parliament. The tumult only subsided when the Catholic king fled into exile, leaving his kingdom in the hands of a Protestant Dutchman, William of Orange.

As a young boy James was known to all as the Duke of York. He was concealed from the Parliamentarians during the Civil War while studying at Oxford, one of the last remaining Royalist strongholds. When the city of Oxford was under siege James fled, disguised as a woman, to the safer shores of the Hague and then to France to be with his mother. There he became an able soldier fighting alongside the French and the Spanish armies. He also served as a naval leader in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars.

When Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth period ended and James’s brother Charles II was restored as king, James returned to England. In 1660 he caused great controversy by marrying a commoner, Anne Hyde, daughter of Charles II’s chief minister. It was widely panned by the nobility but at that time few expected James to succeed his brother. Anne gave birth to several children, and James was a closely involved father which was uncommon for royals at the time. He also maintained several mistresses. He was as much a libertine as his brother, Charles II, in fathering several illegitimate children by two different mistresses. The diarist Samuel Pepys noted, “the duke of York, in all things but in his codpiece, is led by the nose of his wife.” Tragically, most of the children Anne Hyde gave birth to died in infancy. The chief issue associated with James was his Catholicism. Influenced by his time in French exile, both James and his wife converted to Roman Catholicism which very nearly caused a civil war in England as it grew more apparent that James was to set to become king -Parliament passed the Test Act in 1673 which ordered all civil servants to take an oath against transubstantiation and other Catholic doctrines. It was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the successorship of James. Anne Hyde died in 1671 before James became king and he remarried a fifteen year old Italian Catholic princess Mary of Modena.

James was appointed Lord High Admiral after the Restoration and he maintained close involvement with the military throughout his reign. He also became the namesake for a variety of locales in the New World: the region between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers captured from the Dutch became known as “New York” inn honor of his title as Duke of York, Fort Orange was renamed Albany in honor of James’s Scottish title “Duke of Albany,” and he was appointed Governor of the Hudson Bay Company though he was never actively involved.

The path to James’s crown was fraught with peril. When it became clear that Charles II would have no legitimate heir to succeed him, Protestant England nervously looked upon James Duke of York with suspicion. The Earl of Shaftesbury led the opposition to Catholicism in Parliament (the “Crisis of Exclusion”) coupled with the conspiracy theory of an odd Anglican clergyman, Titus Oakes, which spawned the Popish Plot. A real plot was planned in 1683 to assassinate Charles II and his brother James in order to instate a Protestant monarchy. The plan was discovered and perpetrators fled into Dutch exile. It was known as the “Rye House Plot.” At any rate, outright mania against Catholicism had taken root among the English nobility.

Nevertheless James was crowned as King James II on April 23, 1685 (Saint George’s Day) at Westminster Abbey. His magnificent coronation injunction was to do ‘All that art, Ornament and Expense could do to the making of the Spectacle Dazzling and Stupendous.’ James’s early reign was marked by great celebration. Even Parliament, which sought to preserve the Restoration, was remarkably friendly and generous to the new Catholic king. In fact it became known as the “Loyal Parliament.” However, James had a somewhat alienating disposition about him. The Scots called him “dismal Jimmy” for his publicly stiff affect. One contemporary politician, the earl of Lauderdale, wrote that James has “all the weakness of his father without his strength”. In Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Time (1723) he writes, “He [James] had no true judgment, and was soon determined by those whom he trusted, but he was obstinate against all other advices.”

James had several early challenges to his rule, the most notable of which was the invasion of James Scott Duke of Monmouth, the eldest illegitimate son of the late Charles II. The Duke of Monmouth had been gaily spending his days in Holland with his mistress Lady Wentworth where he was persuaded of his chance to become king of England. He surrounded himself with fellow exiles and members of the Rye House conspirators as well as followers of Shaftesbury in exile who convinced the lad to invade England and reclaim his Protestant birthright. Monmouth approached William of Orange for military support from the Protestant Dutch and the situation revealed the superior statecraft of William of Orange. He offered to aid Monmouth, seeing the advantage of either outcome. If Monmouth succeeded, a Protestant king of England would assuredly help William against the Dutch conflict against Catholic France under Louis XIV. If Monmouth failed, the last barrier between William and the throne of England would be removed. William saw the kingship of England as a key strategic alliance due to its wealth, Protestantism, and powerful navy. Of the two alternatives William would be privately pleased with the eventual outcome.

The rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth was launched at Sedgemoor in July 1685, but Monmouth had failed to muster the forces for which he had hoped, and he also failed to sway any nobles after he orchestrated a frivolous self-coronation ceremony. Amidst a small rebellion in Scotland by another Protestant champion (the earl of Argyll), James II sent a small band of trained military men to Sedgemoor where they fought back the Monmouth rebellion. Monmouth attempted a bold night surprise attack but it rapidly backfired. His pathetic forces were easily overwhelmed by the king’s trained forces: 500 men were killed and 1,500 were taken prisoner. Monmouth escaped during the onslaught, disguised as a shepherd, but he was later found hiding in a ditch. Monmouth was brought to London where he was surprisingly granted an audience with the king. He begged on his knees for his life but the king was implacable. Monmouth was brought to the Tower to be executed. When he arrived on the scaffold he bribed his executioner to ensure a quick death, but when the time came the executioner took many blows which hideously hacked away at the head of Monmouth. His body continued to move about and had to be repositioned more than once as blow after blow from the axe failed to sever his head (some say it took five five slices, others say seven). Monmouth’s head was eventually removed with a knife. It was a gruesome end for the Duke of Monmouth and many of his supporters met a similar fate. Several hundred were sent to work as laborers in the West Indies.

Once the battle ended James refused to disband the military. He maintained a standing army, the first since the Cromwellian era, and he began appointing loyal Roman Catholics to high military positions. It was shocking and disconcerting for Parliament. He also expanded “tolerance” for Catholicism more broadly throughout the kingdom. He eroded the authority of the Test Act, and decreed certain changes to the Church of England dogma. Up until this point the Tories had fully supported James all through the Exclusion Crisis and naturally they expected their support to be reciprocated with full royal respect paid to the Church of England. However they were sadly mistaken. The king had no interest in paying false deference to the Anglican Church, and herein lies his greatest failure: a pig-headed rebuke of a loyal Parliament which thus united both the Whigs and the Tories against him. Nevertheless, James pressed forward with religious reforms. He believed himself to be ordained by God in finishing the Counter-Reformation of Mary I that had failed many years prior. He felt himself filled with divine Providence to reconvert England to the true faith: Catholicism. Meanwhile Englishmen learned of the horrors abroad when France revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which yielded fresh hostilities to French Huguenots. People were reminded of the Protestant persecutions under “Bloody Mary” which were so graphically documented in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as well as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris. Following the revoke of the Edict of Nantes, Protestant refugees fled by the thousands to England seeking shelter from the storm. This did not bode well for James II. He was compelled to prorogue Parliament twice. In 1687 he decreed the Declaration of Indulgence which negated laws punishing Catholics and other Protestant Dissenters (one of his strongest allies in this effort was the Quaker leader of the new Pennsylvania colony, William Penn). The Declaration of Indulgence, which was ordered to be read aloud in churches throughout the country, caused an open conflict with leading bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury.

However, James’s growing enemies were content for a while to simply watch the king continue his rule, patiently awaiting the crown’s succession. James had no male heir, and instead he had two Protestant daughters: Mary (wife of William of Orange) and Anne (married to Prince George of Denmark). Either way a Protestant successorship seemed all but assured. Mary of Modena had given birth to five girls who died in infancy. Then in late 1687 the Queen announced she was pregnant and in June 1688 she gave birth to a boy: James Francis Edward. The boy became known as “Old Pretender” among the Whigs who immediately began peddling rumors that the boy was illegitimate or that Mary was never actually pregnant and a child had simply been smuggled into the king’s chamber. The king’s daughter Anne, who was no fan of her young step-mother, echoed some of these rapidly expanding theories. Per Winston Churchill: “The birth of the baby prince struck so cruel a blow to the hopes of the nation that was it was received with general incredulity, sincere or studiously afflicted” (377). The existence of a decidedly Catholic male heir to the crown threatened England’s Protestant future and it promised a Papist dynasty for years to come. This was unacceptable to many and within a matter of months rebellion was once again in the air. Parliament passed the “Bill of Rights Act” which sought to restrain the king’s power (it later became a model for the American Bill of Rights).

The Glorious Revolution (1688)
Per Winston Churchill: “The national fear and hatred of Catholicism were inflamed by the daily landing on the British shores of miserable victims of Catholic ‘toleration’ as practised in France by the most powerful sovereign in the world. All classes and parties knew the close sympathy and co-operation of the French and English courts. They saw all they cared for in this world and the next threatened. They therefore entered, not without many scruples and hesitations, but with inexorable resolve, upon the paths of conspiracy and rebellion. In England during the Autumn of 1688 everything pointed, as in 1642, to the outbreak of civil war… Never did the aristocracy or the Established Church face a sterner test or serve the nation better than in 1688” (375).

It has been called a “Bloodless Revolution.” A group of nobles known as the “immortal seven” wrote to William of Orange requesting his presence in England to inspect James’s heir but also to ostensibly grant military support to Parliament and possibly usurp the crown. It was the start of the Glorious Revolution. William mustered some 15,000 men and sailed across the Channel with the benefit of the “Protestant wind” before landing at Torbay, Devon on November 5, 1688 (an auspicious date). He carried a banner that read “The Liberties of England and the Protestant Religion I will maintain.” It hearkened back to another William’s invasion of the isles, only now it was a dutchman and not a Norman. William slowly made way for London gathering ever greater supporters everywhere he went, forcing James to make the first move. Meanwhile, while attempting to rouse his soldiers in Salisbury, James underwent some sort of psychosomatic crisis that yielded a severe bloody nose. Incapacitated and depressed he retreated to London. That night his rising star general John Lord Churchill fled to join the forces of William. Churchill was soon followed by the king’s son-in-law, George Prince of Denmark (husband of the Princess Anne). Anne joined the rebels as well. In a state of despair, believing himself abandoned by both his God and his children, James felt he saw the demise of his father Charles I repeating itself. He felt his only option was escape. The Queen escaped from WhiteHall in disguise as a laundry woman. And the next day James fled the capital in a boat. He pompously hurled the Great Seal into the Thames, thinking this would prevent Parliament from convening, but James was soon humiliated when captured by fishermen in Kent. James was hustled back to London by the military. William delivered the king an ultimatum and, in order to prevent the king from becoming martyr, William allowed the him to escape to France. Within six weeks, and without a shot being fired, England had been taken by William of Orange.

Parliament declared James had abdicated the throne and they ushered in a return to Protestantism under William and Mary, but not before James made one final attempt at regaining his crown. James roused those loyal to him -“Jacobites”- in Ireland and Scotland in 1689 along with mercenary troops provided by Louis XIV of France. Despite his efforts James was finally defeated in July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne (so-named for the Boyne River) wherein William personally led his troops against the former king. Again, fearing the worst, James fled the battle scene. His courage had ultimately failed, earning him the ire of both sides. He was known to the Irish as “Séamus an Chaca” (“James the shite”). He fled to become a French pensioner where the french people found him pompous and boring.

James II died abroad in French exile in 1701. Unto his last days he was convinced that his predicament was God’s punishment for his infidelities. In future years there were several Jacobite attempts to reclaim the Stuart heritage of James II: The “Old Pretender” attempted an uprising that failed, another Spanish attempt was made in 1719 but it too failed, and James II’s grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie made one final shot at the crown but by then the country had moved on. The remains and memoirs of James were later destroyed in the French Revolution.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Samuel Pepys’s memoirs, Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Time (1723), and Peter Ackroyd’s Rebellion: The History of England From James I To The Glorious Revolution.

Royal African Company: How the Stuarts Birthed Britain’s Slave Trade

Let us start in West Africa for, after all, that was the land destined to be most affected by the development of commercial links with Europe. For thousands of years, some agricultural communities living on the southern fringes of the Sahara had supplemented their income by exploiting deposits of an easily accessible mineral highly prized by the merchants who visited them from across the desert – gold. The trade was dominated by Berber and Arab entrepreneurs. Stories of wealthy African rulers (similar to those of El Dorado) spread by trans-Saharan traders, amazed those in Europe:

The king adorns himself like a woman with gold round his neck and forearms and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold. He sits in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered material. Behind him stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold.

It was the lure of gold that drew the Portuguese and later other merchants to open up direct maritime links with the people of what they called the ‘Gold Coast’ from the late 15th century onwards. They established trading posts at places like El Mina and Cape Coast Castle.

The impact of new markets opening up for their produce (gold, ivory, dyewoods, hides and pepper) had complex results for the various chiefdoms it drew competition, promoted war and it encouraged slave-raiding. These states had always been slave-based (though slaves traditionally had better lives and more rights than those who ended up in Muslim towns or Christian plantations) but now they discovered that prisoners of war were valuable ‘trade goods’. Some Europeans would pay for them with guns, which bolstered the power of the chiefs and so fuelled yet more inter-state war. Rulers also discovered that selling human beings to foreigners was a lucrative way of getting rid of criminals and other undesirables. What did not happen (until centuries later) was imperial expansion in West Africa. The local rulers remained in control of inter-continental commerce and European agents had no power beyond their trading posts. One reason for this was the prevalence of diseases to which the visitors were prone, and as a result the Guinea Coast was known as the ‘white man’s graveyard’.

View of the market place in Cape Coast, with Dutch traders marked by the letter ‘O’. Print by Johann Theodor de Bry, 1602. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Apart from three slaving voyages led by John Hawkins in the 1560s, the English showed little interest in West Africa. Slaving was resumed by the Guinea Company (founded in 1618) after about 1640 to provide cheap labour for the new Barbados sugar plantations, but this venture always struggled and its assets were acquired in 1657 by the East India Company, which had little interest in the Gold Coast. There were two disincentives to trade in this area – piracy and the Dutch. As well as major commercial concerns backed by groups of merchants having written constitutions, the Atlantic was open to private traders from various nations. These shipmasters were not noted for recognising any ‘rules of the sea’. Profit was their only concern and they did not hesitate to attack coastal depots, engage in African wars, capture prizes at sea or remove cargo from seized vessels before setting them on fire.
By 1650, the Dutch had come to dominate Atlantic and North Sea trade. They had the biggest mercantile fleet of any European power and the Dutch West India Company established several trading posts on the Gold Coast and, further east, the Slave Coast. Mercantile competition led to the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), which was fought entirely at sea, was immensely costly in lives and ships and resolved nothing. The situation was still in a state of turbulence in 1660 when the English monarchy was restored by Charles II. Within months, it was decided to put trade with West Africa on a surer footing by forming a chartered company.

Part of the impetus for this initiative came from two swashbuckling royalist adventurers during the British Civil War, Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Sir Robert Holmes. The former was a cousin of Charles II, the latter came from an Anglo-Irish family. Both were mercenaries who thrived on military action. During their colourful military and naval careers they had served as royalist captains, seeking to bolster the funds of the king in exile by privateering raids. During a voyage to Gambia, Rupert had become enthralled by stories of the gold-rich kings of the interior and he used his influence with James, Duke of York, Charles’s brother and future James II of England, to establish a company with the power and resources necessary to drive out the Dutch and establish favourable trading relations with the local rulers. Holmes was despatched with a naval expedition to clear the way for the company. When he arrived at Gorée, close to Cape Verde, he calmly informed the Dutch governor that the entire coast from there to the Cape of Good Hope was the preserve of the King of England. He then proceeded to establish his own posts on the Gambia and make trade connections. His return, ostentatiously flashing his wealth (much to the disgust of Samuel Pepys, who took objection to his ‘gold laced suit’), gave the green light to merchants eager to participate in the new company. Thus in 1660, the Company Of Royal Adventurers Of England Trading Into Africa came into being. Its principal sponsors were Prince Rupert and James, Duke of York, who soon became the governor.

e Portrait of King James II and VII in armour as Duke of York (1633-1701). Painted by John Michael Wright between 1660 and 1665.

Three years later, a fresh charter was issued further defining the RAC’s (Royal African Company) remit. The new concern was a joint stock company – i.e. investors purchased shares and enjoyed returns based on the value of those shares, which was established by the profits of each trading expedition. Several courtiers and merchants invested in the Royal African Company, which possessed three main attractions: it had the king’s backing (Charles was a major shareholder) the company’s ships and trading posts enjoyed the protection of the royal navy and the stories of ‘mountains’ of Guinea gold promised spectacular returns.

The acquisition of gold was the company’s principal concern and, in 1665, £200,000 of its annual revenue came from precious metal. By contrast, £100,000 was derived from trade in ivory, hides, dyewoods and pepper. However, the 1663 charter added slaves to the company’s list of commodities, thus, as well as taking over the forts on the Gold Coast, the RAC extended its interests eastwards to the Slave Coast. There were both supply and demand reasons for this development. On the one hand, the rulers of expanding African states had an ongoing supply of war captives to dispose of. On the other, the West Indian plantations, and particularly Barbados, had an insatiable need for workers. In 1665, a quarter of the company’s income (about £100,000) came from the slave trade but this proportion gradually increased. By 1690, the RAC was the main supplier of slaves to the New World, while Dutch merchants had the largest share of the gold trade.

Trade rivalry with the Dutch was both a cause and a result of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67). Despite the king’s reluctance, the Duke of York and his friends, frustrated by Dutch competition, were eager to gain a monopoly for the English company. At the end of 1663, a naval expedition was sent to West Africa led by none other than Sir Robert Holmes. He has been accused of starting the war and, though hostilities would have broken out anyway, he certainly threw petrol on the flames. He rampaged along the coast from the Gambia to the Volta estuaries, sinking some ships, taking others as prizes and capturing trading posts.

The ‘Triangle Trade’ in slaves explained

The Second Anglo-Dutch War was a total disaster for England, made worse by the plague visitation of 1665 and the Great Fire of London the following year. Most of the fighting took place in the North Sea, where a series of bruising naval battles proved immensely costly in ships and men to both sides, but culminated in a humiliating Dutch raid on the naval base at Chatham in June 1667. In the Caribbean, France joined with Holland in wresting prosperous tropical colonies from English control and, though the Dutch ceded New York to the English, at the time this was not regarded as an important concession.

Meanwhile, in West Africa, Holmes’s audacious attack was revenged in spades. Admiral Michiel de Ruyter recaptured all the lost trading posts with the exception of Cape Coast Castle (which now became the Royal African Company’s headquarters). The losses and the disruption of its mercantile activities bankrupted the company which, to all intents and purposes, ceased trading after 1665. The RAC maintained its technical rights but could only protect them by granting licences to private traders. In 1669, it relinquished its interest in the Gambia to a newly formed Company of Gambia Adventurers. By this time, the steady development of plantation agriculture in the West Indies had made the slave trade the most lucrative form of commercial activity. Ships from many nations jostled with each other for a slice of the action. The principal countries involved were England, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden and Brandenburg. By the end of the century, on the Gold Coast alone there were 100 or so foreign depots within a 400-kilometre stretch of coast.

By 1672, the Royal African Company had sufficiently recovered to resume its place as a major commercial entity in the region. Recapitalised and with merchants, rather than courtiers taking up most of the stock, the RAC entered into a contract to supply 5,600 slaves per year to the Caribbean mainland and island plantations, and to Virginia.

The coat of arms of the Royal African Company, courtesy of the Museum of London

However, the company’s troubles were far from over and they were numerous. The very nature of the trade created problems. Slaves were a fragile cargo, and in the appallingly cramped and unsanitary shipboard conditions in which they were transported across the world, many got sick and died. At journey’s end, captains found themselves dealing in a buyers’ market. Plantation owners haggled over prices and were often slow in paying up, knowing that the traders could do nothing else with unused goods. Back on the African coast, vigorous, sometimes violent, competition was an irritant. A swarm of private vessels visited the coast, trading directly with the African suppliers or even striking deals with the company’s own local agents. By increasing the supply to the plantations, these interlopers frequently spoiled the market. In the rough and tumble of maritime commerce, company ships were often beset by foreign privateers.

To add to these problems, the 1680s brought revolution and war. In 1685, James, Duke of York, succeeded his brother as king. His attempt to reintroduce Catholicism as the state religion provoked the ‘Glorious Revolution’, which saw his daughter, Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, eventually placed on the throne. Independent merchants claimed that the company’s royal charter was no longer valid and that they should have free access to the West African market. While this argument was going on, England went to war again, this time with France (1689-1697). During the hostilities, a quarter of the RAC’s ships were captured by the French. The company also continued to suffer at the hands of the Dutch who, in this fresh conflict, were ostensibly England’s allies.

The position of the RAC as a monopoly concern under royal charter was no longer viable. In 1698, the protection of its charter was removed and free trade was established for all English merchants. Private merchants rushed to share in the transatlantic trade and, by 1708, they were shipping four times as many slaves as the company. By 1730 the Royal African Company had ceased trading altogether and it existed only to maintain west coast depots for the benefit of English merchants.

As for the iniquitous slave trade, it outlived the Royal African Company by 77 years.

Derek Wilson has written widely on the subject of Medieval and Early Modern Europe. His most recent books are Superstition and Science, 1450-1750: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-seekers and Charlatans and Mrs Luther and Her Sisters: Women in the Reformation. For more on history’s darker chapters, subscribe to All About History for as little as £26.


Vividly chronicled in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, Charles II’s reign (1660–85) is remembered for its racy court, the revival of theatres, and new developments in art, daily life and architecture, exemplified by Sir Christopher Wren’s London churches. It also saw notable scientific advances, fostered by the Royal Society.

Following the serial disasters of the Great Plague (1665), the Great Fire of London (1666) and the humiliating Dutch raid on the Medway (1667), the latter years of Charles’s reign were dominated by attempts to exclude his openly Catholic brother James from the succession.

James II (r.1685–8) did succeed, however. His army easily defeated the rebellion (1685) of Charles’s illegitimate Protestant son, the Duke of Monmouth. But Judge Jeffreys’s brutal Bloody Assizes – the trials of the rebels – and James’s Catholicising policies made the king increasingly unpopular.

The birth of James II’s male heir made a continuation of Catholic rule more likely. A group of prominent Protestants invited James’s Dutch Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange – who was married to James’s eldest daughter, Mary – to intervene. William duly invaded in 1688, James fled, and William and Mary were crowned the following year.

James II and VII

At some point in the 1660s James secretly converted to Catholicism, but maintained his outward conformity to the Church of England. After the introduction of the Test Act in 1673, which prohibited Catholics from holding public office, James resigned as Lord High Admiral and thus made his conversion public. On 30 September 1673 he married a new Catholic bride, Mary of Modena (1658-1718), and, in 1676, the pope acknowledged his conversion. This alarmed the protestant parliament, particularly in the midst of the anti-Catholic hysteria conjured by the Whigs and their cronies, most notably rogues such as Titus Oates who manufactured the hoax Popish Plot between 1678 and 1681.

The prospect of a Catholic monarch was unpalatable to much of the protestant English population, who were fearful of absolute rule akin to the that of Louis XIV (1638-1715) in France. In the words of the English MP, Sir Henry Capel, ‘From popery came the notion of a standing army and arbitrary power […] Formerly the crown of Spain, and now France, supports this root of popery amongst us but lay popery flat, and there’s an end of arbitrary government and power.’ Thus a faction led by Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683), introduced a bill in the Commons to exclude James from the lines of succession. A fringe group within the faction instead supported the claim of Charles’s illegitimate Protestant son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685). When it seemed likely that the Commons would pass the bill, the king dissolved parliament. And when successive parliaments tried to pass the bill again, they were likewise dissolved. In 1683 a group centred on the radical Algernon Sidney plotted to assassinate both Charles and James as they travelled from Newmarket to London. The royal party left early and the attack never took place, but the Tory government discovered the plans, arrested the conspirators, and executed the major players.

Despite the efforts of exclusionists, James acceded upon his brother’s death on 5 February 1685. He was plunged into political crisis. On 11 June 1685, Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset, rallied a rebel army, and marched on London. Monmouth’s army was defeated at Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685, and was executed for treason on 15 July. But discontent with James’s Catholic rule and his programme of centralized government remained widespread.

Historians have disagreed about whether James’s policies of religious toleration or his attempts to centralize the state caused more discontent. Either way, Whig circles had been plotting for some time with James’s heirs apparent, his eldest daughter Mary and her husband, the Dutch stadtholder and James’s nephew William of Orange (1650-1702), to overthrow the regime. When Mary of Modena bore James a son on 10 June 1688, James Francis Edward Stuart (1688-1766), and when James baptised his son as a Catholic, the crisis came to a head. A cabal of Whig politicians known as the Immortal Seven formally invited William to invade. The Dutch fleet landed at Torbay in Devon on 5 November 1688, and James fled to France on 23 December, meeting his wife and new born son, whom he had sent in advance. In exile, James was granted the palace of Saint-Germain by Louis XIV. In March 1689 James attempted an invasion via Ireland, but was routed by William’s army at the Boyne on 1 July. James died on 16 September 1701, without another attempt to regain his kingdom.

Unknown artist, oil on canvas, James II and VII (c. 1690). © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The Stuarts, a dynasty brought down by religion

Of the world’s failed causes, one of the most enduring is the romantic tale of the House of Stuart. Who hasn’t heard of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his tragic-heroic attempt to recover the three crowns lost by his grandfather?

The Stuarts were originally French, having crossed over from Brittany in the wake of the 11th century Norman Conquest. Going under the family name Fitzalan, they became established as a noble house in England and a branch subsequently extended its presence to Scotland.

There, they morphed into Stuarts (or Stewarts) and an alliance with the royal house solidified their position. Then, thanks to a fortuitous marriage, a Stuart inherited the Scottish throne in 1371. So far, so good.

The seeds of the family’s downfall were sewn in 1603, although it didn’t seem that way at the time. In fact, they appeared to have won the lottery.

When Elizabeth I died heirless, James Stuart – James VI of Scotland – was offered her thrones, thus also becoming James I of England and Ireland. England was much richer than Scotland and James relished his prize.

But the English were developing a fancy for domesticating their monarchs, which clashed with the Stuart view on the divine right of kings. That view was simple: if a king’s power came directly from God, it shouldn’t be circumscribed by mortal entities such as parliaments. Unfortunately, burgeoning sentiment in England was shifting in a different direction.

The situation came to a head with the next Stuart, Charles I. After a confrontation with parliament descended into civil war, Charles was beheaded in January 1649 and the monarchy abolished. However, the republican experiment didn’t quite suit the English temperament, so the monarchy was restored in 1660.

Mindful of his father’s fate, Charles II was shrewdly devious and flexible. But his brother and successor – James II – was principled and stubborn. It didn’t end well.

In addition to displaying the Stuart propensity for absolutism, James publicly converted to Catholicism. And when a male heir was born in 1688, the die was cast.

Putting up with a one-off Catholic king was tolerable, but the prospect of a Catholic dynasty was an entirely different matter. By Christmas, James was in exile in France, replaced by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange.

James had two fundamental weaknesses: a tendency to lose his nerve at critical moments and an inability to manage the relationship between church and state.

The first loss of nerve occurred in 1688, following William’s invasion and the transfer of allegiance by a number of key English players. James fled, ending the year in France under the protection of the French king.

The second occasion happened in 1690. Intending to recover his kingdoms via Ireland, James was defeated by William at the Battle of the Boyne, after which he returned to France to regroup. Effectively, he abandoned his Irish Catholic allies, thus inspiring one Gaelic poet to dub him Seamas an Chaca (translation: James the Shit).

On the matter of religion, some historians frame James as an admirable man ahead of his time. By openly practising Catholicism and promoting Catholics to key positions, he was paving the way for non-sectarian toleration. A person’s faith wouldn’t be an impediment to full participation in public life.

Others are more skeptical. Perhaps the ostensible toleration was merely a tactic, informed by the fact that English Catholics were a distinct minority, numbering perhaps two per cent of the population and 20 per cent of the aristocracy. Maybe it was the thin end of the wedge, the first step in rolling back the Reformation and returning England to official Catholic status.

Whatever the truth of his aspirations, James was out of step with European political reality. Europe was a place where religion was taken very seriously and religious alignment between sovereign and people was the norm. It wasn’t an English idiosyncrasy.

James might have been better advised to follow the precedent of Henry of Navarre, who clinched his claim to the French throne by renouncing Calvinism in favour of Catholicism. Reputedly observing that “Paris is well worth a mass,” Henry was able to pacify his overwhelmingly Catholic country, end a civil war and enact a degree of religious toleration via the Edict of Nantes.

James, however, lacked the requisite flexibility. So the Stuarts were effectively consigned to history and Bonnie Prince Charlie couldn’t bring them back.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

The Stuarts, a dynasty brought down by religion added by Pat Murphy on January 9, 2020
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The Royal African Company - Supplying Slaves to Jamestown

As early as 1618, King James I had granted a patent to a company that wanted to trade for gold and precious woods in Africa. Other groups also received rights to trade in Africa, but never dealt with slaves in any major way. English involvement in the slave trade would intensify after 1663, when a new patent was issued to the Company of Royal Adventurers. England had realized the money to be made trading slaves to the West Indies and Virginia. By 1668, over a quarter of the new company’s profits was derived from the slave trade.

Volunteer-in-Park Jerome Bridges portrays Anthony Johnson, an African who arrived at Jamestown in the first quarter of the seventeenth century.

Africans in Virginia’s Early Years

The first documented arrival of Africans to Virginia was in 1619, when an English warship, White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort in present-day Hampton. The African captives had been forcibly removed from a Portuguese slave ship subsequent to being attacked by the White Lion and another English warship, Treasurer, while sailing in the Bay of Campeche. The White Lion's English captain, John Jope, carried letters of marque from the Dutch Prince Maurice making it legal for his ship to sail as a privateer and attack any Spanish or Portuguese ships it encountered. The "20 and odd" Africans on the White Lion were traded to colony officials for food. These Africans were much-needed workers to cultivate tobacco, the new cash crop of Virginia. The institution of slavery slowly crept into Virginia legislation. By 1660, slavery as we think of it today was established in Virginia. Tobacco was extremely labor-intensive, and more and more workers were needed. The sale of Africans to Virginia planters promised to be a profitable endeavor.

In a detail from NPS artist Keith Rocco's painting of a Jamestown waterside scene in the 1660s, enslaved African load hogshead barrels of tobacco aboard a ship bound for England.

The Company’s Beginnings

At first, trading directly with other European countries was common in Virginia. But the Navigation Act of 1660 brought such relations to a close. Only English-owned ships could enter colonial ports. The Crown had realized the wealth that could be achieved through trade and wanted that wealth for England. Once the Navigation Act was passed, Virginia planters were forced to rely on the Mother Country to supply them with their labor force. To address this dearth, the Royal African Company was formed in 1672.

In a detail from NPS artist Keith Rocco's painting of a Jamestown waterside scene in the 1660s, newly-arrrived Africans are inspected by an English settler.

Agents in Jamestown

Merchants in London associated with residents of Jamestown were also heavily involved in the slave trade. John Jeffreys, one of these merchants, owned part of a rowhouse in New Towne, and historians speculate that slaves were sold in front of the building on a wharf. The Royal African Company also had agents in Virginia to whom slaves were delivered. These agents received a seven-percent commission on sales. John Page, Colonel Nathaniel Bacon and William Sherwood were all prominent Virginians who served as factors, agents or representatives for the Company.

The Company’s Decline

Many factors contributed to the loss of the Royal African Company’s monopoly in 1689. First and foremost, the Company was not achieving a profit as a matter of fact, it resorted to borrowing money to pay dividends. Then there were the complaints from the planters. The demand for slaves was always too high for the Company alone to supply, and the planters urged that the monopoly be abolished so that more slaves could be imported. Finally, the Company, which was always heavily patronized by the Stuart monarchs, fell out of favor when James II was deposed and William and Mary came to the throne.

Sources Consulted:

Donnan, Elizabeth. Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume I (1441 – 1700). Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1930.

Kingsbury, Susan Myra. The Records of the Virginia Company of London (in four volumes). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office: 1906.

McCartney, Martha W. A Study of the Africans and African Americans on Jamestown Island and at Green Spring, 1619 – 1803. Williamsburg, Virginia: National Park Service and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2003. (This reference is available on-line through this link. Please note this is a PDF document and requires Adobe Reader to open. It is a 4.5 MB file consisting of 262 pages)

12 facts about the Stuarts

The Stuart dynasty immediately succeeded the Tudors, and the period witnessed some of the most monumentally changeable times in British history – civil war, rebellion, the beheading of a king, plague outbreaks, the Great Fire of London and a successful foreign invasion – and seven monarchs of Britain. But how much do you know about the Stuarts?

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Published: December 13, 2019 at 6:05 am

When was the Stuart period?

The Stuart period in Britain was between 1603 to 1714, and witnessed some of the most monumentally changeable times in British history – civil war, rebellion, the beheading of a king, plague outbreaks, the Great Fire of London and a successful foreign invasion. There were seven Stuart monarchs of Britain: James VI and I (1566–1625) Charles I (1600–1649) Charles II (1630–1685) James II and VII (1633–1701) William III and II (1650–1702) Mary II (1662–1694) and Anne (1665–1714). Two lord protectors interrupted this dynastic line in the middle of the 17th century: Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), followed by his son, Richard (1626–1712).

But how much do you know about the Stuarts? Here, writing for History Extra, Andrea Zuvich shares 12 lesser-known facts about the Stuart dynasty…

The Stuarts had a nasty habit of losing their heads

Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, in 1587. She was Queen Elizabeth I’s cousin, and when Mary was found guilty of treason [after being accused of involvement in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth], the English queen agonised over the signing of the execution warrant.

Mary was not the only Stuart to lose her head. Her grandson, Charles I, lost his to the executioner’s axe in the winter of 1649 after two devastating civil wars. Charles I’s grandson, the dashing but doomed Duke of Monmouth, was the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II. In 1685, he led an invasion of England, seeking to overthrow his uncle King James II, in order to take the throne for himself.

Monmouth’s rag-tag army suffered a substantial defeat in early July, when their leader was captured, brought to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Monmouth’s grisly execution was botched, and remains one of the ghastliest in British history: the executioner’s axe was said to have struck several times before Monmouth’s head was severed.

And it wasn’t just the executioner’s axe that cost leading Stuarts their heads – Monmouth’s cousin, James FitzJames, Duke of Berwick, was decapitated by a cannonball at the Siege of Philipsburg (aka Philippsburg) in 1734.

Witchcraft was a serious matter, but science and reason began to take hold

In the 17th century, a substantial portion of the population believed that witchcraft was real and dangerous. The hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials in 1692 Massachusetts is undoubtedly the best-known example of this, but there were many other notable events. King James I, whom historian Tracy Borman refers to in her book Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts as “one of the most famous witch hunters in history”, was indeed very much concerned with witchcraft and demonology.

It was during James I’s reign, in 1612, that two important witch trials took place: that of the Samlesbury Witches and the Pendle Witches. Throughout the chaos of the Civil Wars in the 1640s, Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed ‘witchfinder general’, terrorised East Anglia with the cruel methods he used to ‘find’ witches: according to some sources he would fling the accused bound into water to see if they would float or sink (a witch, having denied his or her baptism, would be repelled by the water so that he or she would float). Another test was to “force the accused to walk about all night, because only when at rest could a witch summon his or her familiars, who would terrify the accusers away”.

Yet at around the same time, science was progressing to amazing new heights. William Harvey discovered that blood circulated around the body – an astonishing leap for medical science – and later in the period mathematicians and scientists such as Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and other gifted men formed the Royal Society.

The extremes of both superstition and scientific endeavour during the Stuart age made for a remarkable dichotomy.

The Stuarts knew how to have fun

The Stuart era coincided with a period of global cooling known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. As such, winters were incredibly cold, and the river Thames sometimes became so frozen solid that people were able to go out onto the ice and take part in frost fairs. These must have been magnificent, for there would have been ice-skating, music playing and hot food being sold and eaten on the ice.

Theatres were very popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, but were done away with under Oliver Cromwell. At the restoration of the monarchy, however, theatres were re-opened, and then something even more remarkable happened – women were allowed to act on stage, and the first actresses (Elizabeth Barry, Peg Hughes, Nell Gwynn, Moll Davis etc) stole the show.

Executions were another popular entertainment of the day: vast crowds of people would gather to see a nobleman beheaded or a common thief hanged from the Tyburn tree. Akin to, say, a football match today, street vendors would sell food, and people would cheer.

The monarchy was abolished, but then restored

In 2015, Britain saw Queen Elizabeth II break the record set by her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to become the longest-serving monarch in British history. Although we have a constitutional monarchy (in which the sovereign is mostly a ceremonial figurehead), the fact that Britain has a monarchy at all was something that might not have been possible had the ‘Roundheads’ continued to have their way.

By 1649, Parliament had won: Charles I was executed, and the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished. It transpired, however, that living under a Cromwellian Protectorate was less than ideal. After Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard became the second lord protector, and to cut a long story short, he was not very good at the job.

Soon after, General Monck invaded London at the head of the army, and it was decided that England would welcome King Charles II from his exile. Upon the Restoration in 1660, and then much more substantially at the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when William of Orange invaded and seized James II’s throne, monarchy became rather more constitutional.

There were three Mary Stuarts you should know about

From the late 16th century to the end of the Stuart dynasty in 1714, there were three royal ladies with the name of Mary Stuart. The most famous of these was, of course, Mary, Queen of Scots, who lived from 1542 until her execution in 1587 (after nearly 20 years of imprisonment). Mary’s son would be the sixth King James of Scotland, but the first of England.

Next, there was Mary Stuart, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of King Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria of France. At a very young age, Mary was betrothed and married to Prince Willem II of Orange, with whom she had a son (who became King William III of England/II of Scotland). Sadly for the young family, Willem II contracted smallpox and died about a week before his son’s birth. Mary herself followed her husband to the grave 10 years later, again from smallpox.

Finally, there was Mary Stuart, daughter of James II, then Duke of York, and his first wife, Anne Hyde. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, it was this Mary who became Queen Mary II and ruled together with her husband, the aforementioned William III.

Britain was successfully invaded by a foreign power, again

The best-known successful invasion by a foreign power was the Norman Conquest of 1066, which saw William the Conqueror seize power. Fast-forward to 1688, and Britain was once again successfully invaded – this time by the Dutch, and by invitation.

Prince William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, had a reputation for being one of the great heroes of Protestant Europe. He was always battling it out with his arch nemesis, King Louis XIV of France, whose megalomaniacal attempts to conquer more territories made him a constant force to be reckoned with.

When Louis’ cousin, King James II of England (James VII of Scotland), became king following the death of his elder brother Charles II, concern spread that the new king would return his kingdoms to Roman Catholicism. When his wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a healthy son in the summer of 1688, rumours and fears of a Catholic succession pushed the kingdom to the verge of rebellion.

The so-called ‘Immortal Seven’ – seven of the most powerful men in the kingdom – invited William of Orange to invade England. Why? William had royal blood connections (his mother was a Stuart) and he was married to James’s eldest daughter, Mary. William landed in Torbay in November 1688 (pictured below), James II fled, and in early 1689, William and Mary became the first diarchy [a form of government in which two individuals – diarchs – are joint heads of state] in British history.

We tend to forget about the consorts

With the exception of Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s strong-willed consort (who remains a controversial figure), many tend to forget about the other royal consorts.

Anne of Denmark, James I’s wife, was a stylish Catholic woman whose tastes influenced pastimes such as masques – the formal entertainments so beloved by the Stuarts. Meanwhile, Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s wife, a Portuguese princess famed for putting up with her husband’s public adulteries, is often credited with making tea fashionable.

Mary of Modena, James II’s wife, was a highly educated Italian princess who was, if her Catholic religion could be overlooked, the perfect queen consort. When James went into exile, she followed, and under the patronage of Louis XIV, they retained an exiled court at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Although all of the aforementioned consorts were women, there was one male consort: Queen Anne’s husband was Prince George of Denmark. George was devoted to his wife, but has retained a somewhat boorish reputation. Charles II is believed to have said of him: “I’ve tried him drunk and I’ve tried him sober and there’s nothing in him.”

The Stuart monarchs were rarely faithful

King James I is known for his male favourites (rumoured to have been his lovers), especially Robert Carr and, most infamously, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. James’s son, Charles I, although having been the soul of fidelity for the many years of his marriage to Henrietta Maria, ended up seeking physical solace in the arms of Jane Whorwood, a loyalist conspirator, during his imprisonment.

Charles II, meanwhile, is better known for his bevy of mistresses (Nell Gwynn, Barbara Villiers, Louise de Kerouaille etc) than any of his actual policies – with perhaps the exception of the 1670 Treaty of Dover [a pact by which Charles promised to support French policy in Europe in return for a French subsidy that would free him from financial dependence on parliament].

James II, Charles’s brother, engaged in adultery but then was saddled by a guilty conscience. This, however, did not stop him from carrying on long-term affairs with several women, most notably Arabella Churchill and Catherine Sedley.

James’s nephew and son-in-law, William III, had a mistress as well, though he was much more private about it than his uncles. His wife, Mary II, was considered to be one of the most beautiful women of her time, but William sought the stimulating intellectual companionship (and perhaps more) of his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Villiers. William only broke up with Betty after Mary’s death, for that was what the latter had asked of him on her deathbed.

Samuel Pepys published one thing in his life, and it wasn’t his diary

While his diary is the work with which Samuel Pepys is most associated, it was not published during his lifetime. Of course, being a diary, it was intensely private – so much so it was written in what at first appears to be undecipherable code. In reality, this code was actually shorthand (created by Thomas Shelton in the early 1600s). Shorthand not only kept things private, but also made writing faster – once you got the hang of how to use it.

Pepys did, however, publish what we know as the Memoires Relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England. This was because there had been accusations of negligence in relation to ships during his time as secretary of the Admiralty. The Memoires, published in 1690 during the reign of William and Mary, was Pepys’ way of fighting back against his accusers.

Historian JD Davies, writing in the introduction to a 2010 publication of this work, states that the Memoires provide not only “a vivid insight into the state of the navy in the 1680s, but…(is) one of the best memorials to the ingenuity and sheer political cunning” of Pepys.

The Stuarts knew the value of propaganda

Several days after Charles I was executed on a bitterly cold January morning in 1649, a royalist work was printed. Eikon Basilike was an extremely popular piece, and the deceased king became seen by some as a martyr. This work, however, was countered by parliamentarian propaganda from the very able hand of John Milton in the form of Eikonoklastes.

During the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, William III sent his propaganda printers ahead of him, and they printed his manifesto and circulated it widely. Propaganda wasn’t just limited to the printed word, though. William gave due consideration to his image as well. Although he was physically rather puny and sickly, most of the images depicting him have a strong, martial air about them. In William III’s state apartments in Hampton Court Palace, William chose to identify with the mythological hero Hercules, and the glorious staircase that leads to his apartments, painted by Antonio Verrio, powerfully convey this imagery.

Is it Stewart or Stuart?

Often a source of some very heated debate in online history groups, the spelling of this surname is rather contentious, to say the least. There are some who swear it must be spelled Stewart, as it comes from the word “steward”, while others insist it must be spelled Stuart. So, which is correct?

Truth be told, they are both acceptable, but it makes it easier to stick to the Gallicised (French) version to help differentiate between the Stewart line in Scotland, and those Stewarts who became monarchs over both England and Scotland, beginning in 1603.

Mary, Queen of Scots used Stuart, and she was both a queen of Scotland and a queen of France, so using the Gallicised spelling makes sense because the letter ‘W’ is rarely found in French. Since it was her son, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, this continued usage of this spelling is appropriate.

That being said, on the death warrant for James’s son, King Charles I, in 1649, his name was written “Charles Stewart”. The early modern period, in which the Stuart era firmly lies, was significantly more relaxed when it came to spelling than it is in the present day.

It wasn’t always safe to be the ‘favourite’

Throughout British history, the royal favourite was lavished with titles, estates, money and above all, power. These things would, unsurprisingly, arouse envy and hostility in those who were not the favourite.

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, did just that when he was initially King James I’s favourite, and then the favourite of King Charles I. He became so hated a public figure that when he was eventually assassinated by John Felton in 1628, the general population seemed to have been very well pleased, and they spat and cheered as his coffin was wheeled to Westminster Abbey.

English courtiers at William III’s court became resentful when the Dutch-born Arnold Joost van Keppel became the king’s favourite. Van Keppel, although a blatant womaniser, was the subject of rumours involving him with the king. During the reign of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, had become used to treating Anne badly. Sarah thought her position of power would last, but Anne rightly put her in her place after Sarah publicly told her to “be quiet!”, leading to a row at Kensington Palace and an end to a lifelong friendship.

Andrea Zuvich is the author of The Stuarts in 100 Facts. You can follow Andrea on Twitter @17thCenturyLady or visit her website www.andreazuvich.com.

This article was first published by History Extra in December 2015

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