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Catholicism and the Making of Modern Britain

Post-Reformation Stuart monarchy is a turbulent period in British history, including the execution of two monarchs, civil wars, the union of the crowns, the establishing of parliamentary sovereignty, and the prohibiting of Catholics on the throne. In this series James Bundy will be analysing the role religion played in the tussle between Crown and Parliament and in particular, anti-Catholicism - in shaping the outcome of these events that created Modern Britain as we know it.

On 16 September 1701, the last Catholic king of Scotland, Ireland and England - King James VII & II - died. James did not die in any of the kingdoms where he had once reigned, but in France where he spent the last 10 years of his life in exile. The cause of his exile has been greatly debated by many generations. In 1689, Parliament declared that James endeavored “to subvert and extirpate the Protestant Religion and the Lawes and Liberties of this Kingdom”.[1] Historians such as John Miller, however, have argued that James’s main aim as king was “to secure religious liberty and civil equality for Catholics” but “his Protestant subjects, Tory and Whig, Anglican and Dissenter, feared that his primary aim was to establish ‘absolutism’.”[2]

The failure of James’s reign was an over ambitious policy agenda. Pursuing liberty of conscience for all, especially Catholics, sparked the fears that his Protestant subjects had about a Catholic monarch. James understood that a Catholic monarch was not popular amongst the English people due to various efforts to exclude him from the line of succession, and the assurances he gave his council at the start of his reign. By focusing on serving God and implementing His will, however, James forgot to take into account the concerns of his subjects and parliament into account when he was deciding policy. By doing so, James isolated himself and made Parliamentarians look for alternatives and when the opportunity arose, Parliament chose the alternative, William and Mary, before James.

King James VII & II was born on 14th October 1633 at St James’s Palace, London. James did not have your average childhood, seeing his first battle of the English Civil War at the age of nine[3] and escaping London for exile in Europe at the age of 14.

James remained in Europe until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Whilst living a hectic social life, James did reflect on the causes of civil war, a war which saw his father, King Charles I, executed. James concluded that his father showed weakness by caving into parliament’s demands from a position of weakness.[4] This conclusion stuck with James for the rest of his life.

The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 - with the crowning of James’s brother, King Charles II - was greeted with popular enthusiasm, even amongst parliamentarians who played a key role in the removal and execution of James’s father. Leanda de Lisle notes that “a strong king was seen as a protector against populist tyranny, ruling above faction and political interest”.[5] Judging that Charles I failed to do this, Parliament charged him with having ‘a wicked design to subvert the fundamental laws and liberties of this nation, and in their place, to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government.”[6] Their experience under Cromwell restored their confidence in the traditional structure, concluding that it was Charles I’s use of the powers - rather than the powers themselves - that caused the rift between parliament and the crown.

Parliament’s restoration of confidence in the monarchy was not an ending of their disapproval of “popery and arbitrary government”, but a recognition that the biggest threat to the authority of the established order came from below. If “popery and arbitrary government” was once again judged to be the main threat to the established order, Parliament would turn its attention to stopping its progression. This is what happened in the 1680’s, during the reign of James VII & II.

Having not thought about religion much in his youth, James converted to Catholicism in the late 1660’s.[7] James’s conversion was not because of his Catholic mother, Henrietta Maria, but due to the importance he placed on hierarchy and authority.[8] After deep thinking and reflection, James concluded that the authority of the Catholic church “could not be denied without overturning the very foundations of Christianity”.[9] The majority of England, however, had a very different opinion about Catholicism. Rather than being the source of authority, which James thought, they found it to be a violent and direct opposition to Protestantism, the true authority. Such fears can be seen in the following sermon preached by a cleric in 1681:

Popery, that silly, that foolish, that cruell Religion, a Religion which changes soe many of its professors into blood sucking leeches...a Religion that joys in murthers by retayle, but not satisfied without whole sale Massacres, a Religion that hopes at this day to turne the whole Christian world into an Aceldama, a field of blood, a Golgotha, a places of sculls etc. every where burying Protestants in heaps. If popery prevayle then stabbing, tearing out bowels will be every where practicd, then we shall be not only forsaken, turned out, but to be burnt, hangd, gibbets our portion, if popery prevayle the pavements sprinkled with children’s blood, and walls besmeared with enfant’s brain.”[10]

These anxieties about Catholicism arose from various sources. Historic events, such as the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58) and the Gunpowder Plot 1605, were seen as evidence of the violence pursued by Catholics to eradicate Protestantism. The actions of King Louis XIV[11] against the Huguenots in France was proof that the violent nature of Catholicism was not history, but a present danger. Rumours were also a source of fear, with events such as the Great Fire of London - which history shows to have been accidental - being blamed on Catholics.[12]

Motivated by these fears, and the fact that James was next in the line of succession, Whig parliamentarians brought forward legislation to reduce the power of the monarchy. Worryingly for James, King Charles II repeatedly declared that he was willing to agree to most measures to protect the Protestant religion.[13]

Allegations of the “Popish Plot”[14], however, changed the calculations of these politicians. Rather than reduce the power of the monarchy, they wanted to exclude James from the line of succession. Luckily for James, his brother’s belief in the line of succession was so central to his understanding of monarchy that he refused to alter it, dissolving three parliaments after they all introduced exclusion bills.[15] Charles did have to concede to some of Parliament’s demands though, including the removal of James, not only from his court, but from the country. As a result, between 1679 and 1682, James lived in Brussels and then Edinburgh.

Despite all these attempts to remove James from the line of succession, James ascended to the throne on 6th February 1685 after the death of his brother. As soon as he became king, James set out to dispel the rumours that he was a man of arbitrary government, telling his council:

“I shall make it my endeavor to preserve this government both in church and state as it is by law established. I know the principles of the Church of England are for monarchy and the members of it have shown themselves good and loyal subjects; therefore I shall always take care to defend and support it. I know too that the laws of England are sufficient to make the king as great a monarch as I wish: and as I shall never depart from the rights and prerogative of the crown, so I shall never invade any man’s property.”[16]

These remarks were a genuine attempt by James to ease the fears about a Catholic monarch, but they were also a diplomatic way of saying thank you to the Tory party for their vehement support during and after the exclusion crisis. Similarly to the restoration period, however, the loyalty of the Tories was not because of their enthusiasm for “popery and arbitrary government”, but because they viewed Dissenters as the greater threat to the Church of England.

Worryingly for the Tories, as time progressed, James’s actions moved further away from the assurances he gave. James believed in the Divine Right of Kings, a philosophy of kingship articulated by his grandfather, James VI & I, meaning that James regarded himself as accountable to God alone.[17] Accordingly, took action that he considered to meet God’s expectations. James was also notorious for being stubborn towards those who disagreed with him, along with being paranoid that civil servants would manipulate him.[18]

Combining this headstrong, but insecure, personality with a determination to satisfy God resulted in a bold policy agenda for the introduction of Catholic equality, and the appointing of advisers who believed in the agenda. James, therefore, set out to repeal the penal laws and Test Acts, which required those in public office to take various oaths of loyalty and to denounce transubstantiation.[19]

Such a move was bound to infuriate the Tories. These laws were designed to establish and protect the authority and uniformity of the Church of England so setting out to repeal them was deemed to be an attack to undermine it. Subsequently, the Tories were vigorous in their defence and managed to stop Parliamentary attempts to change the law.[20] Admitting defeat in the Parliamentary process, James issued The Declaration of Indulgence in April 1687, suspending the execution of the penal laws through his royal prerogative.

Catholics were not the only benefactors of this indulgence. Dissenters too were penalised by the penal laws, and the suspension restored their liberty. James’s decision to abandon uniformity in favour of freedom of conscience was a dramatic policy shift, yet one taken with the conviction that the state should not regulate religious worship. Many dissenters, though, distrusted James’s motives for the Indulgence, with a Presbyterian Minister remarking: “It cannot be believed that, though these addresses give thanks for their liberty, that they will ever do anything to the establishing of Popery.”[21]

Accountable to God and surrounded with advisers who told him what he wanted to hear, James ignored Protestant fears about his approach. If he did take them into account, it is likely he would have abandoned this approach, pursued a more gradual and pragmatic removal of the penal laws and Test Acts, and ultimately saved his reign.[22] On the other hand, if Protestants appreciated that James’s push for liberty of conscience for all was sincere, and not a pursuit for Catholic domination or an attack on the Church of England, they may have supported some of James’s measures, including the right to freedom of worship.[23]

Another reason for James to be cautious was the line of succession. Mary, his Protestant Daughter, was next in line and she was married to the Protestant Prince of Holland, William. With Holland being a victim of Catholic France’s aggression, many Protestants in England already had sympathy for William. Aware of the possibility that his wife may become Queen of England, William stayed on top of English affairs. It was this understanding that allowed him to pursue policies which would unite Protestants: he would maintain the Test Acts to protect the Protestant religion, but would permit freedom of Worship for Dissenters. The natural sympathy that English Protestants had turned into broad support, furthering opposition to James’s measures.

Recognizing this, one of James’s trusted advisers, advised James to soften his approach, arguing that Catholics would face tougher persecution under a Protestant monarch if he pushed too hard. James, however, ignored this advice and again only listened to those advisers who told him what he wanted to hear: keep pushing for Catholic equality. James decided to reissue the Declaration of Indulgence in April 1688, but this time, ordered that the Declaration be read in Church of England churches for two consecutive Sundays.[24]

Knowing the opposition that the Anglican clergy would have had to the Declaration, this was a bold move. As noted above, however, James concluded that his father lost the crown because of weakness. He was therefore determined to be firm and force the Church of England to accept the Declaration.

The majority of the Anglican clergy refused to read the Declaration, but seven bishops took it a step further by writing a petition declaring that the Declaration was illegal. They argued that a royal prerogative cannot be used to suspend an Act of Parliament.[25] James reacted with fury to the petition, and against the advice of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Jeffreys, sent the Bishops to the Tower of London and charged them with “seditious libel”.[26] PR wise, this was a disaster for James as it allowed the bishop to exult in their martyrdom and bless the crowds.[27] Politically, it was even worse as the Bishops were acquitted after successfully arguing that it was not seditious or libel to confirm a standing Act of Parliament.

The whole trial reminded the Protestant population about their apprehension towards a Catholic monarch. In their eyes, the verdict of the trial confirmed that James was trying to illegally overthrow the English constitution and undermine the authority of the Church of England in the hope of establishing Catholic dominance. The only thing that could be worse than a Catholic monarch was a Catholic dynasty. The birth of James’s son - James Francis Edward Stuart - threatened exactly that.

Being the eldest son of the monarch meant that James Francis was next in line to the throne, ending Mary and William’s claim to the throne. Seven English nobles - later known as the “immortal seven”[28] - were appalled at the prospect of a Catholic dynasty and took matters into their own hands by sending an invitation to William to invade England, writing:

“We have great reason to believe, we shall be every day in a worse condition than we are, and less able to defend ourselves, and therefore we do earnestly wish we might be so happy as to find a remedy before it be too late for us to contribute to our own deliverance ... the people are so generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government, in relation to their religion, liberties and properties (all which have been greatly invaded), and they are in such expectation of their prospects being daily worse, that your Highness may be assured, there are nineteen parts of twenty of the people throughout the kingdom, who are desirous of a change; and who, we believe, would willingly contribute to it, if they had such a protection to countenance their rising, as would secure them from being destroyed”.[29]

On the 5th November 1688, William arrived in England.[30] Within the month, James lost the support of key allies, including his second eldest daughter, Anne. This left James in an incredibly vulnerable situation. Some Tories pressed James to accept the demands of Parliament, but this James would not do. Citing his father and Richard II, James refused to negotiate from a weakened position, fearing his own life and the safety of his wife and son. James therefore only contemplated resisting William’s advance or fleeing the country, ultimately choosing the latter and arriving in France in December 1688.

With James deserting his kingdom, Parliament ruled James abdicated the throne. With the throne vacant, the crown should have gone to James’s son, but the English Parliament offered the crown to both William and Mary as joint sovereigns on 13th February 1689.[31] The offer was conditional on their support of the Bill of Rights, a piece of legislation which restricted the power of the monarch and established the sovereignty of Parliament.[32] Twelve years later, facing another Catholic monarch due to Mary and her sister, Anne, not producing any heirs, the Act of Settlement 1701 was passed by Parliament, prohibiting Catholics from the throne. As of writing, the act is still standing today.

After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, James spent the rest of his life in France, with his religious devotions occupying a greater part of his life. James attended Mass twice a day, read devotional works, and wrote spiritual meditations.[33] Having to keep the appearance of a king alive, James continuously talked about getting his throne back, but the reality was that he concluded that he had to accept he was no longer king because it was a punishment from God for the sins of his youth.[34] James approached death calmly, and when he died on 16th September 1701, there was an outpouring of grief amongst French people who saw his last years as holy. Many came to his grave to pray for his intercession, and an official move to secure his canonisation was opened by the Archbishop of Paris in 1734.[35]

The holiness and sanctity of James’s life is why I have great sympathy with his kingship. It is true that James was a poor leader. The way he exercised his powers and the policies he pursued sparked the exact fears his subjects had about a Catholic king. Yet, James’s policies have stood the test of time. Today, for example, the freedom of liberty of conscience is recognised by the United Nations as a fundamental human right. In the late 17th century, however, such a policy was never going to be a success, particularly if being pursued by a Catholic. James did recognise this, as proven by his first address to the council as king, but his focus on serving God and his will before the wishes of the people meant that his policies did not reflect this, and was doomed to fail from the start.

As Catholics, we have much to learn from James’s virtues but also his failures. In public life, it is entirely right to serve God’s will and live according to the Gospel. It is important, however, to recognise where society stands and not pursue an over ambitious policy agenda. This does not mean abandoning beliefs or principles, but adopting a pragmatic approach. Politics is a game of alternatives. If one goes for policies that are too ambitious, the alternatives are going to be preferred. This is what happened to James VII & II. He pursued freedom of conscience and Catholic equality, something that was too ambitious at the time due to the anti-Catholic sentiments that were prevalent at the time, and that is why his reign came to a premature end.

James Bundy

James has written for a variety of publications, including the Catholic Herald and Scottish Catholic Observer, and has appeared on various TV shows including Scotland Tonight and BBC Newsnight. He is currently the Director of Operations for Freedom Declared Foundation which promotes freedom of faith or belief in the UK and around the world.
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