Last month, it was revealed that the wreck of the royal ship The Gloucester (pictured above) was discovered 15 years ago off the coast of Norfolk, England. The ship struck Leman Bank off Yarmouth on May 6, 1682. Among the passengers was James, Duke of York and future king of England. If he had not survived, as this and other articles suggest, it could have changed the course of European history. Let us consider the Duke of York’s situation in 1682 and speculate on what might have happened if James had met an untimely demise in this royal ship-Rex.
James was the second son of Charles I, the successor to the first Stuart king, James I. Like his father, Charles espoused the doctrine of the divine right of kings, but was less capable than James I. By 1629, Charles ruled without parliament while supporting the high Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, under the influence of his French Catholic wife Henrietta Maria. Such crypto-Catholic leanings made him unpopular as well as unLaudable, and along with various political blunders led to parliamentary forces openly opposing the king’s party. In the course of the ensuing civil wars, Charles was captured, tried, and executed in 1648-49. The king and queen influenced both their sons Charles and James: they too espoused Stuart absolutist doctrine and were sympathetic to Roman Catholicism. The princes admired the papacy’s Vatican-do attitude.
While Britain was under parliamentary government followed by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, James and his older brother were in exile on the continent of Europe. By 1660, two years after the death of Cromwell, the English people were tired of Puritan rule and supported the restoration of the crown under James’s brother Charles. Charles was initially popular, though the Restoration court became infamous for its sensual and artistic excesses. Charles II embroiled England in two wars against the Dutch, in 1665-67 and 1672-74: despite being fellow Protestant powers, the English and the Dutch were rivals for maritime dominion. James, now the Duke of York, was appointed Lord High Admiral during these conflicts. In the second war, the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam fell to the English and was renamed New York in James’s honour. By the 1660s and 70s, then, James was a maritime war hero. His admirers contemplated James in a form of naval gazing.
Unlike his brother, who only converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, James converted in 1673 while marrying the Roman Catholic Mary of Moderna. According to the Test Act, holding public office was conditional on subscribing to the established religion of the Church of England. James thus resigned as admiral. Given that Charles had no legitimate heirs, parliament was alarmed that the future king of England was Catholic and might try to reimpose Papism on the realm. England would receive a Catho-licking from a Catholic-king.
In 1679, the Anglican priest Titus Oates alleged that there was a conspiracy brewing to kill Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother, while Protestants would be massacred and London burned down. This ‘Popish plot’ was soon discredited, but led to the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81: three attempts by the Whigs in parliament to exclude James from the succession. The Whig exclusion bills were defeated. James, then, was unsuccessfully opposed as a man of the Papal.
In 1682, James and other royals, as well as hundreds of other passengers, sailed on The Gloucester toward Scotland. The ship wrecked on shoals near Norfolk. At the time, English ships sailing out of sight of land would often be mistaken about their positions and run aground. Estimates of victims run from 130 to 250, but James survived. Three years later, his brother passed away, and James acceded to the throne unopposed in 1685. As a Catholic king, his reign would prove deeply un-Pope-ular.
The first year of his reign saw Monmouth’s Rebellion: an insurrection led by Charles’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth, in southwest England. The uprising had limited support and was poorly planned: Monmouth was captured and executed. The perpetrators were sentenced after a series of trials known as the Bloody Assizes. 1400 prisoners were presented before Lord Jeffreys, the Chief Justice; 300 were hanged and 800 were sold as slaves in the colonies, with profits going to courtiers and even the queen and her ladies. This increased opposition to James: for Whig parliamentarians in particular, such severe punishment was an Assize-too-large.
In addition to the Bloody Assizes, James swiftly appointed Roman Catholics to important positions in the army, church, universities, and government, and suspended penal laws against Roman Catholics and other religious dissenters in two Declarations of Indulgence. His administration also arrested seven bishops for objecting to the second Declaration, but were found not guilty–furthering popular dislike of the new king. In 1688, his wife gave birth to a son: to prevent a permanent Catholic succession, both Whigs and Tories invited James’s Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange to take the throne. James’s army deserted his Catholic officers and he escaped. William and Mary became co-regents but consented to the Bill of Rights which enshrined the rights of parliament and established constitutional monarchy. James, armed with French troops, besieged Londonderry in Ireland in 1690, but was defeated that year in the Battle of the Boyne; he returned to exile in France. William’s decisive victory in this ‘Glorious Revolution’ was, for the exiled James, a Dutchy subject.
What would have happened had James perished in the shipwreck of 1682? Upon Charles’s death, Mary might still have acceded to the throne, but in 1685 instead of 1688. There would have been no Monmouth’s Rebellion, Bloody Assizes, Declarations of Indulgence, or Glorious Revolution and ensuing Nine Years War with France. Mary’s accession might not have included the Bill of Rights, which would have delayed or halted Britain’s transition to constitutional monarchy. James’s survival was therefore parlia-meant to be, in order to prevent absolutist disaster.
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Early Modern ‘divine right of King’s’ Studies Program