Despite his Catholicism, when James became king in 1685 his position seemed secure, as demonstrated by the rapid defeat of the Argyll and Monmouth Rebellions; less than four years later, he was forced into exile. Often portrayed as an exclusively English event, modern historians argue it was the result of events in all three kingdoms. It is also suggested hostility to James was partly due to Charles II, whose policies were seen as being pro-France, pro-Catholic and absolutist.
Context: England, Scotland, and Ireland
Prior to the 1638-1651 Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the vast majority of the English supported monarchy and belonged to the Church of England, even if they disagreed with aspects of doctrine. In 1649, Charles I was executed and replaced with the Commonwealth, a republic dominated by religious Independents like Oliver Cromwell, who opposed any state-ordered religion. After the church was restored in 1660, the 1662 Act of Uniformity enforced greater consistency and expelled over 2,000 Dissenting clergy. Radicals like Algernon Sidney and Henry Neville ensured republican ideas retained visibility out of proportion to their numbers and increased fears of 'disorder'.
The 1679-1681 Exclusion Crisis broadly split the English political class into those who wanted to 'exclude' James from the throne, or Whigs, and their opponents, or Tories. Many Whigs feared the consequences of bypassing James, while Tory support was conditional on preserving the primacy of the Church of England. Both saw it as a short-term issue; his second marriage remained childless and the heirs were his Protestant daughters, Mary and Anne.
Political radical Algernon Sidney
, whose 1683 execution ensured visibility for his ideas and increased fears of potential disorder
These distinctions were largely absent in Scotland where support was more broadly based. In 1681, the Parliament of Scotland passed the Succession Act, which confirmed the duty of all to support the natural heir 'regardless of religion.' The Act explicitly stated one aim was to make James' exclusion from the English throne impossible without '...the fatall and dreadfull consequences of a civil war.'
Over 95% of Scots belonged to the Church of Scotland or kirk and apart from 1653-1660, other Protestant sects like Congregationalists were barred. 'Episcopalian' and 'Presbyterian' now implies differences in doctrine but in the 17th century, it related to structure. 'Episcopalian' meant governance by bishops, usually appointed by the monarch, while Presbyterian meant rule by Elders, nominated by congregations. Conflict concerned the exercise of authority but doctrine remained broadly similar, regardless of changes in governance. Unlike the Church of England, the kirk was Calvinist in doctrine; even its bishops viewed many English practices as essentially Catholic.
His Catholicism made James more popular in Ireland but religion was only one issue; the Church of Ireland was a minority even among Irish Protestants and the penal laws loosely enforced. A bigger concern was the percentage of Irish lands owned by Catholics, which fell from 90% in 1600 to 22% by 1685. The 1662 Settlement only benefited a few large landowners, including James and his Lord Deputy Tyrconnell, who had little interest in changing them. Catholic and Protestant merchants alike objected to the reimposition of commercial restrictions, which prevented them from trading direct with North America and imposed tariffs on Irish exports.
These issues and his response gradually destabilised each of James' kingdoms. Many supported him in 1685 for fear of civil war if he were bypassed; by 1688, it seemed only his removal could prevent one.
The political background in England
The first Stuart monarch, James VI and I, created a vision of a centralised state, run by a monarch whose authority came from God and where the function of Parliament, bishops or elders was to obey. His successors ruled without Parliament for long periods, using the Royal Prerogative instead; legislation passed in this way could be withdrawn as and when the king decided.
17th century society was extremely structured and most Tories viewed James' Catholicism as less important than the principle of hereditary succession. In addition, he had sworn to uphold the supremacy of the Church of England, in an age when such things mattered. Five of the seven bishops prosecuted in 1688 refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary, because they felt bound by their previous oath. Tolerance was viewed as undermining this principle and Parliament refused to pass them, despite being "the most Loyal Parliament a Stuart ever had".
Catholicism in general was associated with the absolutist policies of Louis XIV, while the Edict of Fontainebleau in October 1685 revoked tolerance for French Protestants. Over the next four years, an estimated 200,000 – 400,000 French Huguenots went into exile, 40,000 of whom settled in London. Combined with the killing of 2,000 Vaudois Protestants in 1686, it led to fears Protestant Europe was threatened by a Catholic counter-reformation.
These concerns were reinforced by events in Ireland. Talbot wanted to create a Catholic establishment able to survive James' death, which meant replacing Protestant officials, but at a pace which was inherently destabilising. For many, land reform was as important as religion; it divided the Catholic Old English elite like Talbot, who benefitted from the 1662 Land Settlement, and the Gaelic Irish, who largely did not. These tensions resurfaced in the 1689 Patriot Parliament, which many Jacobites criticised as failing to meet the needs of all Irish Catholics.
Historians generally accept James wished to promote Catholicism, not establish an absolutist state but his stubborn and inflexible reaction to opposition had the same result. When the English and Scottish Parliaments refused to repeal the 1678 and 1681 Test Acts, he dismissed them and ruled by decree. His attempts to form a 'King's party' of Catholics, English Dissenters and dissident Scottish Presbyterians rewarded those who backed the 1685 rebellions, while undermining those who had supported him.
Timeline of events; 1686 to 1688
His supporters wanted stability and the rule of law, but James often appeared to undermine them. After suspending Parliament in November 1685, he sought to rule by decree or 'dispense'; judges who disagreed were dismissed and his right confirmed in April 1686. The principle was well-established, the scope and approach caused considerable concern.
This was followed by actions viewed as attacks on the Church of England; Henry Compton, Bishop of London, was suspended for refusing to ban John Sharp from preaching after he gave an anti-Catholic sermon. The Commission for Ecclesiastical Causes, set up to regulate the church included suspected Catholics, like the Earl of Huntingdon.
In addition, James frequently made things worse by an inability to accept opposition. In April 1687, he ordered the fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford to elect Anthony Farmer as President. His right to do so was not challenged but Farmer was ineligible under the college statutes and John Hough was elected instead. Farmer withdrew and Hough replaced by the Bishop of Oxford but James also demanded the fellows apologise for 'defying' him; when they refused, they were replaced by Catholics.
Creating a 'Kings Party' of Catholics and Dissenters ignored the fact neither was significant in numbers; by 1680, Catholics formed 1.1% of the English population, Dissenters 4.4%. In Scotland, the numbers were even lower; combined with 'occasional conformity', this meant in practice private worship was already tolerated. Both were also divided; moderate Catholics feared a potential backlash, particularly when thousands of French Huguenot refugees arrived in London. Among the Dissenters, Quakers and Congregationalists supported repeal of the Test Acts; others wanted to amend the 1662 Act of Uniformity and re-enter the Church of England.
Even those who benefitted did not trust James; in 1687, he nominated the Dissenter Sir John Shorter as Lord Mayor of London. Before taking office, Sir John insisted on complying with the Test Act, even taking Anglican communion; he reportedly did so due to a 'distrust of the King's favour...thus encouraging that which His Majesties whole Endeavours were intended to disannull.'
To ensure a Parliament that would vote for his Declaration of Indulgence, James made sweeping changes to local government, the power base for many Tories. Candidates for Members of Parliament had to be approved by their local Lord Lieutenant; eligibility for both offices required positive answers to the 'Three Questions', including a commitment to repeal the Test Act and those giving negative answers dismissed. James relied on an increasingly narrow support base; government positions and town corporations were purged to create an electoral machine that would return only supporters of Royal authority. Finally, on 24 August 1688, James ordered writs issued for a general election.
The expansion of the military in all three kingdoms caused great concern, particularly in England and Scotland, where the civil war left huge resistance to standing armies. In Ireland, Talbot replaced Protestant officers with Catholics; James did the same in England, while basing the troops at Hounslow appeared a deliberate attempt to overawe Parliament. By 1688, the army numbered over 34,000 men; for comparison, the Tory-dominated Parliament of 1698 approved one of 7,000.
In April 1688, James re-issued the Declaration of Indulgence and ordered it read in every church; when the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, and six other bishops asked him to reconsider, they were arrested on charges of seditious libel and confined in the Tower of London. Two events turned dissent into a crisis; the birth of James Francis Edward on 10 June created the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, while the acquittal of the Seven Bishops on 30th destroyed James' political authority.