James II in Ireland

Eleanor Hull
James II in Ireland

The outstanding event of European history during the second half of the seventeenth century was the gradual decline of the power of Spain and the growth of French ascendency. French wealth and French supremacy, of which the foundations had been laid by Richelieu, increased rapidly under the rule of his successor Mazarin and during the long rule of Louis XIV, whose reign of seventy-two years began when Charles I was King of England and lasted until the accession of George I.

The great armies of France were constantly engaged in civil and foreign wars, while her growing navy and her aggressive diplomacy made her the most formidable state in Europe. The downfall of Spanish supremacy was sealed by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, and the only other Continental nation that could challenge the paramount position of France was that of the Dutch, whose fleets had shown themselves the equal of those of England on the seas and whose rapidly expanding trade threatened that of her great rival. This new balance of power which had been taking place during the Protectorate and the reigns of the later Stuarts profoundly affected affairs both in England and Ireland.

A contemporary author speaks contemptuously of the battle of the Boyne as “but a skirmish between nine regiments without cannon or entrenchment and an army of thirty-six thousand choice men, for the defending and gaining of a few passes upon a shallow river”;[1] but posterity has more justly judged it as one of the decisive battles of history. It was a European battle fought, almost by chance, on Irish soil, and on the decision there arrived at depended not only the fate of James and William as rivals for the throne in England and Ireland, but the question whether the influence of France was to be paramount in English politics, and whether England was to become again a Catholic power resting upon the alliance with France.

Its European character is shown by the varied bodies of troops that fought on both sides. William’s troops were a mixture of Dutch, Swedes, Germans, and Danes, along with his English and Scottish army. Their commander was Marshal Schomberg, a stout old Huguenot soldier still in arms at the age of eighty-two.[2] The forces of James, largely composed of French troops, were also officered by French commanders. De Rosen, De Lauzun, and St Ruth were at different times in command of bodies of the foreign forces that fought with James’s army, and even of his Irish troops.

It was clearly a battle between Catholic France and Protestant Holland as much as a battle between rival kings for an English throne. It is necessary to grasp the position clearly if we would understand the importance of the campaign of James and William in Ireland, and we must therefore look back to the causes which brought William over in 1690 to fight in Ireland for the crown of England.

During the whole of the Stuart period the ties between the Stuart princes and France had been growing closer. From the time of Mary of Guise, the French wife of James V of Scotland, the Stuarts were half French by birth and temperament, as well as more than half Catholic in religion.

Their daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was far more French than Scottish; her grace and brilliance and the voluptuous passions which brought about her ruin drew little from her father’s side. In her girlhood she had been married to the Dauphin of France, and French designs in England centred round her fortunes.

Charles I had for his wife the clever and intriguing Queen Henrietta Maria, whose Court during her exile at Saint Germain was the gathering place for refugees from England. She endeavoured to direct their affairs in her own and her husband’s interest, often to the confusion and despair of statesmen at home, whose plans did not always coincide with hers. She openly professed the Catholic faith, and she brought up her children with a strong leaning in that direction.

Though Charles II postponed the avowal of his faith until his deathbed, he was only withheld from an earlier confession by the invincible distaste of his English subjects and the fear of losing his newly regained crown.

James was always a Catholic at heart. His life in England had been a continuous struggle for the confirmation of his right to the succession against a Parliament and people bent on his exclusion. At times the feeling against him was so strong that he had to withdraw from Court and live privately in Scotland or abroad.

Even his marriage to a Protestant wife, Anne Hyde, daughter of that uncompromising churchman the Earl of Clarendon, and the marriage of one of his daughters, Mary, to William of Orange, did not suffice to allay the prejudice against the prospect of the reversion of the crown to a Catholic successor. But the Duchess of York, in spite of her Protestant upbringing, became a Catholic before she died, and the popular scare rose to a panic when, in 1673, James took as his second wife a niece of Cardinal Mazarin, Mary of Modena.

Though James had not at this time openly acknowledged himself to be a Catholic it was evident that English Protestant kings were continuing the Stuart practice of marrying Catholic wives, whose sons would have a tendency to adhere to the faith of their mothers; and when his wife presented him with a son shortly before his flight from England in 1688 it seemed that the fears of the country would be realized.

It was this final event which forced upon James the practical sacrifice of his crown. No effort was spared to spread the belief that the infant was not the son of James but a counterfeit boy palmed off as his child; but time proved the falsity of these ideas, and the babe survived to be known in later days as “the Old Pretender,” the centre of Jacobite and Irish affections until they were transferred to his more attractive son, Charles Edward, the “fresh young branch” of Irish tradition.

There is no reason to doubt that James II came to the throne with a sincere desire for a general toleration in religious matters. His first act on his accession in February 1685 was a pledge to preserve the laws inviolate and to protect the Church. He had experienced in his own life the miseries inflicted by religious intolerance and suspicion, and he had no wish to lay the same burdens upon his subjects.

Catholic at heart though he was, and determined that Catholics should in his time receive equal treatment with others, he showed no desire to force men’s minds. “’Tis by gentleness, instruction, and good example people are to be gained and not frightened into” the Catholic Church, “Our blessed Saviour whipt people out of the Temple, but I never heard He commanded any should be forced into it,” are the sentiments he endeavoured to impress upon his son in 1692.[3]

On one notable occasion he appealed to William Penn, the Quaker, who appears to have exercised a strong and wholesome influence over the King’s mind, for a recognition of his views. Penn was returning thanks for the Quakers after the Declaration of Indulgence, which relieved them from sufferings which “would have moved stones to compassion.” The King replied:

“Some of you know (I am sure you do, Mr. Penn) that it was always my principle that consciences ought not to be forced and that all men ought to have liberty of their consciences.”[4]

His firm adhesion to the tenets of his own Church made his desire to extend toleration to those of other ways of thought respected. In his own person the Sovereign was showing his disbelief in the maxim so long accepted that “it was impossible for a Dissenter not to be a rebel.”[5]

But if James was before his day in his views on religious toleration he was not always wise in his methods of giving them effect. His attitude was that of a Catholic prince tolerating other bodies rather than of a nominally Protestant prince freeing Catholics from disabilities.

In England the rapid admission of Catholics into offices of state and into the army, the swearing-in of four Catholic peers as members of the Privy Council, the large increase of troops, and even the gorgeous religious ceremonies at St James’s Chapel might have been forgiven, but the public reception of a Papal Nuncio, the attempt to dictate to the authorities of the Universities whom they should elect as their Provost and Fellows, the King’s tyrannical interference in Church matters, and, above all, his appointment of Tyrconnel, a strict and over-zealous Catholic, as Commander of the forces in Ireland, were too sudden and marked to be borne.

A storm of opposition arose, which culminated in a renewal of the correspondence with William of Orange, who had long been watching from the Hague the career of his father-in-law and the course of events in England. It had not helped to lighten the difficulties of James that in the very year of his accession (1685) the policy of toleration in France had been abandoned, and the dragonnades or butchery of the Protestants by dragoons let loose upon the province of Languedoc were at their height; nor that in the same year the Edict of Nantes, which afforded protection to the Huguenots, was revoked. In six weeks eighty thousand Protestants were “whipped back” into the Church of Rome, and Englishmen saw over four hundred thousand Huguenots, many of them peaceful and industrious citizens, driven to take refuge on her shores by French tyranny.[6]

Neither Charles II nor James II could be called bigots. Charles II had endeavoured to follow a path of reconciliation by publishing in 1672 his Declaration of Indulgence, ordering that “all manner of penal laws on matters ecclesiastical against whatever sort of Nonconformists or recusants” should be suspended.

Though the desire of Charles may have been to effect the relief of the Catholics, the Declaration permitted to them only the private exercise of their religion, while it permitted public worship to be held by Nonconformists.

Among the multitudes of persons who profited by this measure the Quakers were specially numerous. These quiet, peaceful, determined people, who refused to take oaths or bear arms, were a source of constant irritation to their rulers; they went to prison without a murmur, and held immovably to their tenets alike in times of toleration and of persecution.[7] In Ireland a Quaker was held to be “worse than a Papist.” Now they came back in thousands with the other Nonconformists from the gaols where they had lain since the Act of Uniformity was re-imposed in 1661.

But the liberal views of King Charles were not shared by his Commons. They suspected a new “Popish plot” and refused supplies until the Declaration of Indulgence was withdrawn. Not content with this, they forced the King to sign the Test Act of 1673, requiring the oaths of allegiance and supremacy from every one holding office, civil or military, with a declaration against transubstantiation and the reception of the Sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England.

The results were startling. James, the King’s brother, then Duke of York, resigned his post as Admiral of the Fleet, and the resignations of hundreds of others in high civil and military offices followed. The people took this as a confirmation of their fears. They saw their King and Queen, and their future king and queen, all open or secret members of the Church which they were determined should not rule in England and, moreover, in close alliance with Catholic France, from which source Charles was not ashamed to draw a pension to strengthen him in independence of his own Parliament.

During the ten years that followed the country gave itself up to one of those fits of uncontrollable panic that occasionally seize upon the populace of England. The panic was carefully engineered. Several supposed Popish plots, of which that of Oates in 1678 was the first, were invented to keep up the public terror. “The aversion to Popery had become in the English mind a sort of mania,”[8] and it was easy to impose upon it with the most absurd inventions.

One wild tale succeeded another, with the result of making the religion of the Duke of York execrated and the determination to exclude him from the throne more than ever fixed. But in the end the desire to preserve the dynasty so lately restored prevailed over even these panic fears, and when Charles died his brother succeeded to the throne without opposition.

The moment at which James II became King was eminently one for prudent and conciliatory action. But James was neither prudent nor conciliatory, and the risings in Scotland under Argyll and in the west of England under Monmouth were symptoms of the growing discontent.

James would make no concessions in what he believed to be matters of conscience, and on the day of the acquittal of the Seven Bishops from the Tower a formal invitation to come over and take the crown was sent to the Prince of Orange, James’s Protestant son-in-law.

The flight of James to France and the defection of his English supporters, even among the members of his own family, threw the King once more upon the hospitality of the French monarch, and the long exile at Saint Germain, though broken by attempts to regain his crown, began with the arrival of the flying King in December 1688.

To the English the flight of James brought his power to an end; but to the Irish Saint Germain became, for the next fifty years, the centre of their interests and the cradle of their hopes.

To James, on the other hand, Ireland was the one possible gateway through which he might return to England and recover his English throne. When the day of effort came he did not fail to utilize it. A Jacobean onlooker of the day remarks of James:

“The King feared the Deity so much that he sacrificed his crown, life, and all that he had in the world at the altar of that holy fear.”[9]

The cynical remark contains the secret of the revolution of 1688. He had so “forced some wheels that he found the whole machine stop.”[10]

It has been the great misfortune of English rule over Ireland that changes of dynasty and changes of government which have grown out of some necessity of state in England and are acceptable to the people of that country have been at times totally opposed to the needs and wishes of the people of the sister country.

In England, where the Catholic population was a small minority of the entire nation, the accession of a Protestant monarch seemed to the bulk of the nation a matter of paramount importance; the choice of William of Orange was, in fact, that of the people at large, however determined they were to put limits to his sovereign power.

In Ireland no such need was felt. In spite of confiscations and plantations the Catholics were still in a large majority. Out of a total population of about 1,100,000 at the Restoration, some 800,000 were Catholics, the remainder being Protestants of all denominations, including members of the Established Church, Presbyterians, and Nonconformists. All had suffered in turn under the various Acts for the regulation of religion which the reign of Charles had seen passed in England, the Catholics perhaps least of all, for Ormonde’s government had been, under Charles’s direction, a lenient one.

But during what may be called the years of the “Popish panic” in England, from 1678 to 1683, when imaginary plots were ascribed to the Papists of both countries, and wild, unfounded rumours were industriously spread and readily believed, measures of extraordinary severity were passed in quick succession.

The most distinguished victim was Dr. Oliver Plunket, the revered Primate of Armagh, whose exemplary life and scholarly character made him as respected among Protestants as Bishop Bedell had been among Catholics forty years before. He was accused of being implicated in the invented plot of Titus Oates, and was brought to London and executed at Tyburn in 1681.[11] Some renegade friars whom he had reprimanded were suborned to swear away his life, when no witness, Protestant or Catholic, would appear against him from his own diocese.

In the seventeenth century, Irish Catholicism stood with the bulk of the people for conservatism to the Throne, while England had passed rapidly from monarchy to republicanism, then through a military despotism and back to monarchy, only to overthrow the Stuart dynasty a second time in favour of a foreign king—all this in the course of less than half a century. A foreign observer remarked of the English of this period that they were a nation “dont la légèreté est connue; ils changent souvent d’idées.”[12]

The remark was equally true of the internal and external policies of the nation. But Ireland, through all these changes, stood unwaveringly behind the Stuarts, supplying money and troops as they were called for, following them into exile, suffering at their hands one disillusion and disappointment after another, but ready to welcome back James II when he fled forsaken by his friends and his nearest relatives on the arrival of William III. They welcomed him, indeed, with enthusiasm as the first of the kings that, as they believed, had visited their shores since Henry II; the brief visits of John and Richard II having faded in the course of centuries from the popular recollection.