Religious Persecution and Glorious Revolution

First published on English Historical Fiction Authors blog, March 25 2015

In 1685, Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, thereby indirectly laying the foundation to what would become the so called Glorious Revolution in England.
“Eh, what?” I hear some of you say, brows rising as you consider just how the revocation of the Edict of Nantes could lead to the events that ousted England’s rightful king. Well, dear people, as so many events in the 17th century, it comes down to religion – or rather, to religion as a political instrument.

Louis XIV was, as we all know, French. King since childhood, he was a firm believer in the divine right of kings and in his own capacity to rule. He was equally determined to expand French interests and territories and therefore promoted an expansive – aggressive – foreign policy. Plus there was the ever present issue of religion, a hot potato that had temporarily been set on a back-burner by Henri IVs 1598 Edict whereby all Frenchmen were allowed to worship according to their own conscience.

Louis was no big fan of this tolerant approach to heretics. It irked him that there should be close to a million such heretics living in his France, a country that should in its entirety belong to the Holy Church. (Here dear Louis was being somewhat hypocritical, turning a blind eye to the fact that France, this oh so Catholic nation, had happily bankrolled the Swedish Protestant Army under Gustav II Adolf as it laid waste to the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years' War. Bygones, he probably said, waving a perfumed handkerchief...)

To Louis, his Protestant subjects were a personal affront – they should take heed, listen to their King and convert. And when milder forms of coercion didn’t help, Louis launched the dragonnades in the early 1680’s whereby dragoons were forcibly billed with Protestant families, there to constantly persecute them and hound them until the poor people either converted or fled. Many of them fled, and the surrounding European nations saw a huge influx of Huguenot refugees.

And yet, Louis was not satisfied. Egged on by his pious wife, Madame de Maintenon, he took the drastic step of revoking the Edict of Nantes, thereby making it illegal to adhere to any other faith than the Catholic one. Over the coming months, France suffered a major brain drain as an entire generation of Protestant tradesmen, merchants, and skilled labourers left – no doubt to Louis’ personal joy. By early 1686, less than 2 000 Protestants remained in France. 

For Protestants in the surrounding countries, Louis XIV’s measures just went to prove the point that Catholic rulers were dangerous, intolerant creatures. In countries such as England, the anti-papist sentiments that were a constant presence throughout the 17th century were further strengthened by the terrifying stories told by the Huguenot refugees. Unfortunately – at least in the eyes of some of the more bigoted Englishmen – the English king was a Catholic. Even worse, James II was Louis XIV’s cousin, and as we all know, blood will tell…

James II didn’t begin his life as a Catholic. His father, Charles I, was raised an Anglican, remained an Anglican, and ensured his children were raised as Anglicans, no matter their Catholic mother, Henriette Marie of France. As we all know, Charles I hit the dust in 1649 – in his case almost in the literal sense, given that he was beheaded. At the time, James II was not quite sixteen, and he was to spend the coming decade in either the French or the Spanish army where he served with distinction - and came into contact with various men of Catholic faith.

Like his older brother, James had an eye for pretty women. In 1659 he seduced Anne Hyde by promising to marry her, and to his credit he followed through on his promise, even if no one expected a prince to do so. Sometime during his marriage to Anne, James and his wife converted to Catholicism, even if he kept this secret. His surviving daughters by Anne, however, were raised as Anglicans as ordered by their royal uncle, Charles II.

When the English Parliament introduced a new Test Act in 1673, it became impossible for James to keep his conversion a secret. The Test Act was one in a series of laws put in place to stop Catholics from holding higher office, either in government or the military, by requiring all such officers to take an oath by which they disavowed certain central tenets of Catholic faith, and also to take communion under Anglican rites. James refused to do so, stepping down from his post as Lord High Admiral. He didn’t exactly improve his popularity ratings when he then went on to marry Mary of Modena, a fifteen-year-old Catholic Italian princess.

Over the coming years, Parliament and King were locked in a constant power struggle, with Charles II adamantly refusing to sign anything that would potentially exclude his brother from the line of succession, the so called Exclusion Crisis. When tensions were at their highest, James was recommended to leave the country, which he did, spending a number of years in Scotland.

In 1685, Charles II died – and a pretty awful death it was. On his deathbed, he converted to Catholicism, allowing himself the privilege to die professing the faith he must have held to in secret for years. With no legitimate heirs of his body, Charles was succeeded by James, and the powers that were in England were not pleased – at all.

It was unfortunate that in this self-same year Louis XIV upped the persecution of the Huguenots by revoking the Edict. It was also unfortunate that James II lacked that streak of pragmatism that had always guided his older brother. Had James but taken the time to stop and think he would have realised that for a newly crowned Catholic king in a country so mistrustful of Catholics, it made sense to take things slow. Instead, the man immediately set off on his own personal crusade to revoke all legislation that made it impossible for Catholics to hold office. Not, to put it mildly, a popular move.

At the time, James was accused of wanting to return England in its entirety to the Catholic Church. These days, historians agree that James’ purpose was to create a more tolerant approach to his co-religionists. They also agree that James was somewhat inept – call it heavy-handed – in his attempts, thereby alienating former supporters. Whatever the case, while Parliament may have grumbled and Protestant Peers protested, there were never any plans to depose James. Deposing kings was simply not done, and the English public did not want a repeat on the royal execution not quite forty years ago.

So, what have we here? On the one side, a disgruntled English populace, angry with their king for promoting his Catholic friends, even angrier when he initiated a massive conversion campaign. On the other, a bewildered monarch, who didn't understand why everyone misinterpreted him so. (A simplification, of course. And I haven’t even touched upon James’ attempts at fiscal reform, but seeing as most people find taxes boring, let’s not go there…)

On the other side of the Channel, Louis XIV was more than thrilled to see his Catholic cousin on the English throne, while further north William III and his wife Mary, James’ oldest daughter, bided their time. Unless James had a son, the English crown would revert to their staunchly Protestant hands upon his death. The probability of James ever having a son was deemed as low. So far, Mary of Modena and James had been singularly unfortunate when it came to children. She’d been pregnant close to ten times, but as yet there was not one surviving child. And yes, I do feel this is a good moment to feel sorry for poor Mary – and her husband.

It was indicative of how out of touch James was with his people that throughout 1686 he tried very hard to influence the Anglican faction into accepting his more lenient approach to Catholics. England was a hotbed of anti-papist emotions, nurtured over several decades, first by the Parliamentarian forces, then by the Restoration government and their anti-Catholic legislation. Well, if we’re going to be quite correct, the anti-papist sentiments went back further than that, to the reign of Elizabeth I and onwards. No, in England of the 17th century a good Catholic was a dead Catholic – or at least a Catholic who had the sense to stay well away from the green fields of fair England.

In 1687, a frustrated James decided he needed new allies to pursue his political ambitions, and so he started flirting with the Protestant Dissenters so as to undermine the Anglican Church. To win their support, in April of 1687 he announced a Declaration of Indulgence whereby all penal laws and the Test and Corporation Acts were suspended. Suddenly, religious freedom raised its head in England. Suddenly, one could openly be a Quaker, or a Baptist, or a Presbyterian – hang on, even a Presbyterian? Hmm. James was no major fan of the Scottish Kirk, but yes, they were also included, albeit after some pressure – or a Catholic. We rarely give James II the credit he deserves for this attempt at creating a society where people could worship as they pleased. Was it self-serving? Of course it was, but for the thousands upon thousands that had been oppressed by the Anglican Church, the Declaration of Indulgence provided quite a breath of fresh air.

This innovative piece of legislation was not greeted with spontaneous outbursts of joy. Most people were sceptical of the King’s motives, and besides, there was a bigger concern. The Queen was pregnant, and should she be delivered of a healthy boy child, England would face a succession of Catholic kings. The Protestant nobility gulped. Combining a potentially healthy baby boy with the King’s recent legislation would, over time, erode their power base. No, this needed to be stopped before it went too far, and where else to go for support than to William of Orange in the United Provinces? After all, should the Queen be delivered of a boy child that would not be good for William’s aspirations.

It was a boy. Delirious with joy, James wanted to embrace the entire world. A son, he had a son, and even the cruel stories whereby it was insinuated that the boy was a changeling, smuggled into the royal apartments in a warming pan, could not quench his joy – even if it must have hurt that his elder daughters were implicated in this gossip-mongering. James Frances Edward Stuart was born on June 10th of 1688 – less than six months later, the baby would begin his lifelong exile.

On June 30th, seven protestant grandees sent a letter to William III, inviting him to invade – not to depose James, but to curb his policies. All the same, the letter signed by Edward Russel, the earls of Shrewsbury, Devonshire and Danby, Bishop Compton, Lord Lumley and Henry Sidney cannot be described as anything but high treason. However, the large majority of the political establishment in England did not support this move. Yes, they wanted to restrain James, but far too many had far too recent memories of the consequences of plunging England into a civil war to risk taking up arms against their king.

This is where we have to return to Louis XIV and his revocation of the Edict of Nantes, this in an attempt to understand William’s motivations in invading England. If we’re going to be honest, no one does know the man’s motivations – William was a man who mostly kept his own counsel. One thing that is very apparent, however, is that William’s lifelong ambition was to halt France’s expansion, especially into his own territories. He found little support at home for his bellicose activities – the Dutch states depended on trade with France and saw no reason to antagonise this huge market, no matter that it was nibbling at the borders of the United Provinces.

Spain was no help at all, the Holy Roman Empire had its hands full with the Turks, and William all on his own was no match for Louis XIV. However, should one combine England with the United Provinces, well then…Whatever the case, as long as the pacifists remained in power in the United Provinces, William was without the funds required to do more than gnash his teeth when the French took Strasbourg (1681) and Luxembourg (1684) And then came the revocation.

Horrified Dutch Protestants opened their homes to the refugees from Louis XIV’s France. They listened, aghast, to stories of bloodshed, to being forced to leave all their wealth behind (with which the wealthy Dutch traders could more than relate), to being beaten and whipped, murdered even, by angry Catholic mobs. Which is when William coughed and said “ahem”. Now he was given funds – plenty of funds. Even more fortuitously, the Holy Roman Emperor beat off the Turks and was more than happy to join the coalition against France. Only England, ruled by Louis XIVs cousin, remained loyal to France. The invitation from the seven grandees therefore came at an opportune time. By invading, William hoped to strong-arm his father-in-law into supporting his efforts to contain France. Whether his initial ambitions extended beyond that, we don't know.

William landed in Torbay on November 5, 1688. William was hailed as a liberator. James dithered, uncertain as to what to do – William was family, and James was more than aware of how much his eldest daughter loved her husband. Besides, he was unnerved by the last year’s outbreak of violent anti-Catholic riots throughout the north of England, and he definitely did not want to be the one who started a new Civil War – he was as beset by spectres as his peers.

On November 23, James took the decision to retire to London rather than meet William on the field. A capable military leader, an experienced battle commander, James could probably have held his own – and his was the larger force. So why did he retreat? Why did he attempt to flee to France rather than defend his crown? We will never know – but chances are that had he stayed and fought, he would have carried the day, thereby rewriting history as we know it. But then, history is full of ‘what if’s’, isn’t it?

Captured by William's troops in December of 1688 while making for France, James then managed to escape - and one suspects he was allowed to escape - and fled to his powerful French cousin. In 1689, William and Mary were confirmed by Parliament as the new King and Queen.

James made one serious attempt to regain his throne that ended at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. His son would go on to make his own attempts, as would his son, the famous Bonnie Prince Charlie who for a short while in 1745-46 actually seemed to be carrying the day. Until the disaster at Culloden, that is.

These days, James II is often considered a parenthesis, a king who is remembered mainly because he lost it all. I do believe the man deserves a somewhat grander epitaph than that, however ineptly he handled the single most momentous event in his life. James Stuart was a loyal son, a loyal brother. He was brave and honourable, served his country as well as he could and was allowed to. He was a loving father – doting, even – a caring husband and a man who stood by his friends and his word. He was also a Catholic, and somehow the matter of his faith overshadows all his qualities. After all, it is because of his faith and his pig-headed efforts to make life easier for his co-religionists that he lost his throne. A high price to pay for his faith, although personally I think James considered his daughter’s betrayal and defection the far heavier price. The lesser me must admit to hoping Mary suffered endless sleepless nights as a consequence, but on the other hand, her life was not exactly a bed of roses either, and who are we to sit in the comfort of hindsight and judge those that went before?