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Religious Reforms that gave us Fireworks, Witches, Revolts, Rebellions, and

Pretenders: King James I, II, and arguably III, of England

The Jameses of England (and Scotland) will strike a chord of recognition for many scholars of English, but who they were, what they did, and how it is that they are hardly ever remembered is a different matter entirely. England had two King Jameses, and a third who claimed the title but never got the seat. What makes these Jameses interesting? And more, why are they important? This will be an incredibly short introduction to the two (sort of three) monarchs, and will by no means encompass all there is to say. In fact, I will gloss over quite a few things that should have been mentioned, and I will simplify a great deal more, but in the end I hope this article might impart a bit of knowledge about the three, and perhaps even inspire to read up on them. There are more boring monarchs to read about to be sure (George I, for example, who though king, had never visited the island, nor did he speak English).

We all know King James I (and simultaneously VI of Scotland), for who has not at least heard of the King James Bible? However, this man did a lot more than have an official bible installed for his countries. Born on 9 June 1566 at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, James was the son of the (arguably) traitor Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. At the knowledgeable age of 13 months, James was crowned king of Scotland, as his mother was forced to seek shelter in England (Mary was eventually executed on the orders of Elizabeth I in 1587). As might be expected when one assumes the throne barely a year old, his childhood and adolescence were abnormal and precarious. His guardians varied, he himself was short of temper, intelligent, vain, and shallow, and his tastes in lovers were... not reconcilable with court. Eventually, a suitable queen was found for him. In 1589, James was married to Anne, princess of Denmark and Norway. They had 8 children in total, but only Henry, Elizabeth and Charles survived infancy. Although James proves to be an interesting character when looking at his upbringing, his most remarkable achievement is yet to come. Elizabeth I died in 1603, having remained unmarried and therefore childless, there was nobody to succeed the throne of England. Yet, despite the fact that Elizabeth was responsible for his mother’s death, James got along quite well with his neighbour (and distant relation). So, upon her death, James ascended the throne of England and was the first monarch to reconcile both England and Scotland under the same crown.

To appease his Scotsmen, James promised to return to Edinburgh every three years. He did not, for he found the court in London much more to his extravagant taste. Besides his talent for holding masques and dances at court, he was also a capable ruler. He maintained most of Elizabeth’s system (to the disappointment of some) and set his mind to creating a united nation with one parliament and one crown (as can be seen today, he failed). His reasoning for claiming it was the most natural thing in the world to unite the two countries was quite simply expressed with: “Hath He not made us all in one island?”. Religiously, James was opposed less discreetly than Elizabeth. It was because of his religious reforms that Guy Fawkes (and associate conspirators) was moved to plan the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November 1605. His intent (to blow up the houses of Parliament when James held his second English session there) was discovered and consequently Fawkes was executed (by being hanged, quartered, beheaded and burned, lest he should not be deader than dead). Due to this incident, we now celebrate Bonfire Night on 5 November. Thanks to James’ oppressive religious agenda we get to have fireworks in the U.K. and a nice little bonfire in the square every year.

James was not only a cunning ruler, with aspirations to unite the countries; he was also an avid writer. To be more specific, James was the writer of the book known as the Daemonologie, which advocates how to recognize and deal with witches. It was his firm belief that the witches were after him, that his person was threatened by them, and that he was sent by God to liberate his nation from them. The witch-hunts were always more or less present in the seventeenth century (Catholics or Protestants were hunted at alternate occasions and the method to hunt witches did not vary that much), but it was James’ personal affiliation to the hunts that brought them to the foreground. Nowadays, we would frown upon a ruler who believed he was being personally targeted by witches, but at the time, James’ suspicions were treated as legit. Thankfully, James became relatively obsessed with ascertaining his power over his people, and he became less and less involved with the witch-hunts. After all, it does take a bit of time to start convincing people you are God’s anointed king and that there is certainly nobody who can tell you what to do... not even parliament. James clearly states “Kings are justly called gods for the exercise a manner of resemblance of divine power on earth”. This same attitude eventually led to his only surviving son’s (Charles I) execution in 1649. Although Charles is a fascinating figure in the British history, it is to his son James that we will now turn.

James II really was not fortunate to be born in the time he was born in. His older brother (Charles II) had died and in line with the law, he ascended the throne in April 1685, but he would not be there for long. Parliament did not like James II, simply because he was a Catholic (and not quite a closet one either). The Test Act of 1673 had been designed to prevent the succession of James, but even parliament could not deny he was next in line for the throne. In short, the Test Act prevented all Catholics from holding office and technically speaking the king holds office. Yet, James took the crown from his brother and settled in London. But, parliament had another plan on standby. England had become increasingly close buddies with the Netherlands, and therefore, they were very much aware of the fact that William of the House of Orange was as of yet unwed. Parliament arranged for William to marry James II’s daughter, Mary, and thereby inserted William into the line for the English throne. In 1688, their scheme paid off, as William landed on the shore of England with his alleged 14,000 men. James II soon found out that neither his family, nor his troops, were supportive of him and he lost his nerve. He fled to France, leaving the throne vacant for Mary, who was crowned Queen Mary II. Mary, however, insisted upon her joined ruling with her husband, and so it was that William became King William III of England. Quite the clever little plan of parliament, who much rejoiced in the devoutly Protestant king and queen.

James II did not die in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, and he attempted to regain the throne in 1690 with French troops in Ireland. He was, however, beaten by William near Londonderry, and lived the rest of his life in exile. James II’s son, James and his grandson Charles were less happy to settle in exile and made two attempts at regaining the throne. James obtained the nickname ‘the Old Pretender’. The name is relatively undeserved. When looking at the lineage, it should have been the son who laid claim to the throne, not the daughter. Therefore, James should have ascended the throne to become James III. His claim that he was the rightful king warranted him the title Pretender, though technically he was not. On behalf of James, there were two serious rebellions by the Jacobites (the supporters of the exiled, though (they believed) rightful king): the Fifteen Rebellion (in 1715) and the Forty-Five Rebellion (in 1745). Both times, armies were raised to march to London and take back the throne, and both times the armies were crushed even before they could leave their own county. By the end of the eighteenth century, the term Jacobite had lost its political meaning, and George III even gave the ‘last pretender’ (a descendant of James) a pension.

King James I and James II both made a big change in the history of England (even though they are usually overshadowed by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I right before James I, the reign and execution of Charles I and consequent Restoration in 1660 right after James I, and the Glorious Revolution that cut James II’s reign short). James I gave us a bible. It is this version that has also been used for the Dutch translation, and a guide to spot and deal with witches. He was also responsible for bringing two countries under the same crown, something that had been attempted many times over. His ideal, one parliament and one crown, never came true, but at least he tried. James II is fairly unknown, his reign was only three years, ten months and three days. Yet, it was he who instilled in some people the feeling that he was the rightful king. His son went on with that legacy, and though their attempts of regaining the throne were futile, they and their supporters did not let it go without a fight.

By Rena Bood



Works Cited


Crofton, Ian. The Kings and Queens of England. London: Quercus Publishing Plc., 2011.

Jenkins, Simon. A Short History of England. London: Profile Books Ltd., 2011.

Morrill, John S. ‘Jacobite’. Encyclopaedia Brittannica. Accessed through: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/299035/Jacobite

Royal Family History. King James the First. Accessed through: http://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=james1

Royal Family History. King James the Second. Accessed through: http://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=james2