The Top Ten Real-Life Characters from the Mercia Blakewood Novels: 6. James, Duke of York

This time in my series looking into the real-life characters from the Mercia Blakewood novels, we turn to the reviled Duke of York, who as James II was one of the shortest reigning monarchs in British history.

6: James, Duke of York, later James II (1633 – 1701; r. 1685 – 1688)

‘I knew this idea was folly.’ He scoffed. ‘Setting any woman on the task was dubious, but a woman whose father was an enemy of the Court, even more so.’”

The Duke of York, Traitor, Chapter Nine

Charles I, the King who sparked the civil war, had two sons: Charles and James. Charles, who was restored to the throne in 1660 as Charles II, was pragmatic, sometimes ruthless, but mindful of the needs of his people as much as the instability of his position. James, who after his brother’s death was crowned James II (VII in Scotland), has in contrast been portrayed as an inflexible bigot who craved absolute rule while caring little to disguise his views. And while in my novels, Mercia Blakewood feels a certain respect for Charles II, she has none for his brother James.

James was born, fittingly, at St James’s Palace in London in 1633, one of the principal royal households and which is still in use today. Named for his grandfather James I (and VI), he was titled Duke of York from birth, although he was not officially created as such until 1644. At the age of three, he was also made honorary Lord High Admiral.

Soldier in Exile

St James Palace, where James was born and later imprisoned

Civil war broke out when James was just a child, and shortly after his ninth birthday, he was present at the Battle of Edgehill near Banbury. Between then and 1646 he lived in the Royalist stronghold of Oxford, until he was captured by Parliamentary forces and imprisoned in St. James’s Palace. In 1648 he managed to escape disguised as a woman and fled England to reside in the Netherlands – somewhat ironic given his later belligerence against the Dutch. After the execution of his father some months later and the subsequent defeat of his elder brother at the Battle of Worcester, both James and Charles set up home in France, where the young James accepted a command in the French army under General Turenne. Charles however ultimately sided with France’s enemy Spain in seeking support to regain his throne, and against his will James was obliged to change sides, leading a company of British volunteers at the 1658 Battle of the Dunes (Dunkirk), where the Spanish with the British Royalists were defeated by the French and Cromwellian armies and Dunkirk was granted to England.

After Dunkirk, with little hope of returning home James was deciding on his future when news suddenly came that Oliver Cromwell had died, and by 1660, the monarchy’s fortunes had so drastically changed that Charles was invited to reclaim his throne. James returned to England with his brother where he was reinstated as the Duke of York and took up his place at the heart of the royal council (Charles sold Dunkirk back to the French). Still only in his late 20s, James was officially appointed as Lord High Admiral and quickly gained a reputation for being outspoken on all manner of subjects.

Slavery and Conquest

James’s Great Seal as Lord High Admiral (Thomas Simon, 1665: National Portrait Gallery)

As Lord High Admiral, James was one of the foremost proponents of British expansion overseas and of the consequent wars with the Dutch, Britain’s great seventeenth century rival. One of his principal targets was to take over the Dutch outposts on the West African coast, the hub of the horrific slave trade as referenced in Traitor that was already beginning to take its insidious root: indeed he was the principal patron of the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa (later the Royal African Company), set up to oversee the British Court’s involvement. His eye was also turned to America, and when the King approved the 1664 expedition to seize control of the Dutch territory of New Netherland and its principal settlement New Amsterdam, once the mission was over both territory and city were renamed New York after the Duke, as seen in Birthright (one of his other titles was Earl of Albany, from which the New York state capital gets its name). James subsequently led the fleet in the Anglo-Dutch wars, including taking command at the Battle of Lowestoft that features at the end of Traitor. Although James won the battle, he returned to port rather than pursue the vanquished Dutch, having narrowly escaped death when the men directly beside him on deck were struck down by a Dutch cannonball that showered him with the blood and gore of his less fortunate companions.

The Most Unguarded Ogler

In 1660, James secretly married his lover Anne Hyde, daughter of the Earl of Clarendon. As Anne was a commoner the marriage was frowned upon, but there was an official ceremony later and the pair were apparently close, even if James was described as ‘the most unguarded ogler of his time’, taking more than one mistress. Anne was almost always pregnant, but the only children who survived their early years were their daughters Mary and Anne (see number eight in this series for the story of their son James).

James, Duke of York and his wife, Anne Hyde
c. 1662 (Sir Peter Lely: National Portrait Gallery)

Come the late 1660s, it was clear that the King and Queen were not going to produce a child of their own, making James and his daughters the assumed heirs. There was just one problem, for by now James had become an earnest Catholic, having converted in around 1669, which at the time was extremely contentious. That Mary and Anne had both been raised Protestant negated this somewhat, but concerns grew when, after the death of his first wife, in 1673 James married the Catholic Mary of Modena (a 15 year old princess) and stopped attending Anglican services later that decade. Nonetheless, when James did become King on the death of his brother in 1685, the reaction was initially one of acceptance.

This did not last. When James and his wife had a son, thus knocking Mary and Anne back in the succession, the thought of a Catholic dynasty succeeding to the throne created uncommon hysteria. Additionally, James had prorogued Parliament as it had set itself in opposition to many of his policies, and he now attempted to force though a series of reforms favourable to Catholics (and to other non-conformist beliefs). This religious tolerance proved too much.

Glorious Revolution

In 1688, James’s daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange (a senior Dutch noble who was also her cousin) were invited to overthrow James and become joint monarchs, thus restoring the Protestant hegemony. Mary duly turned on her father, and William on his uncle, and the latter landed in England to stake his claim. Unable to raise a sufficient army in response, James fled London as a result of the so-called Glorious Revolution and went into exile once more in France, leaving William and Mary on the throne.

James in exile in 1690 by an unknown artist (National Portrait Gallery)

Despite efforts to restore him, including an attempt he led himself in Ireland that was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne, James never subsequently came back to Britain, living in France until he died in 1701. Over the following decades, his son and grandson (the Old and Young Pretenders) both failed in their bids to regain the throne, and so the crown passed from James’s line forever. When Mary and William died childless, James’s other daughter, Anne, became Queen, until she too died with no surviving heir, and the throne passed to George I, a German prince who did not speak English, the 1689 Bill of Rights having debarred Catholics from succession as well as prohibiting the monarch from marrying a Catholic in response to the Jacobite crisis.

It is still illegal for a Catholic to accede to the throne today (without conversion to Anglicanism), although the bar on marriage to a Catholic was removed in 2013.

Next: Pieter Stuyvesant, Dutch war hero and peg-legged Governor of New Amsterdam

Photograph by David Hingley

Portraits of James and image of the Great Seal are licensed from the National Portrait Gallery under the Creative Commons licence scheme

Share this post