Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to Send a King Mad...and Steal his Crown at the Same Time

by P. L. Farrar


One of the best things about history is that we can always learn something from it. In this instance, we learn that it is in fact possible to drive someone crazy.

Whilst everyone remembers George III as being the Mad King there has been more than one mad king in English history. In this case James II, one of the unfortunate Stuart kings. Except he didn't have a rare blood disease. He was driven to madness.

From the early days of his reign in 1685, it had been felt that James II was attempting to return England to Catholicism, a thought which frightened the fiercely Protestant Parliament and a large proportion of the English nation. When his wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son, James Francis Edward Stuart, on 10th June 1688, that threat of Catholicism seemed even greater.

So, naturally Parliament did what any self-respecting Parliament would do in this position. They (or more specifically the Immortal Seven) invited William of Orange -- husband to James' Protestant daughter, Mary -- to come and save them, claiming that the people were 'desirous of a change' and would 'willingly contribute to it, if they had such protection to countenance their rising, as would secure them from being destroyed.'

How could William possibly refuse? A fellow Protestant country needed his help. Not only was he being offered his own kingdom, but it would also give him the means to stand up to Louis XIV. Two birds, one stone.  Ideal!

Quite frankly James' attempts to keep his kingdom were not the most effective. He attempted to call Parliament -- he was not exactly in their good books -- sent his wife and son over to France to get foreign help and threw the royal seal into the Thames, because there was no way that they would be able to make another one. 

James was already losing the plot, but really William pushed him that little bit further. 

William defied all expectations by sailing in the autumn. (It just wasn't invading season, old sport.) He landed in Torbay, Devon, on 5th November 1688 and proceeded to Exeter with his forces. He stayed in the city for three weeks as he tried to gauge local opinion. Both William's army and James' army then went to meet on Salisbury Plain where no doubt the deciding battle would occur!


There was just one slight hiccup.... James abandoned his troops before they even reached the battlefield and scarpered back to London. Whereupon, all the officers from his army went to join William.

James then tried to flee the country, but he was caught in Kent, because a local fisherman recognized his face from the coin. Oops.

James was imprisoned in Rochester Castle after his foiled escape (his first cousin five times removed, Louis XVI, suffered the same fate during the French Revolution when he was also recognized from a coin). And William, just to make certain that he stayed put, positioned Dutch guards outside the king's quarters.

None of them spoke English and so all James heard was these men jabbering in Dutch -- which he didn't understand. His obvious conclusion was that he was surrounded by devils and that he had gone mad. This was probably not William's intention. It is most likely that he wanted his father-in-law guarded by men he trusted who would not be open to bribery from the king. 

The final difficulty for William was deciding what to do with his father-in-law.  If he remained in England, he and his supporters would remain a threat. The most important thing was to avoid executing him like his father, Charles I, which would have erupted into another Civil War. William realized that he needed to make it seem as if James had abandoned the country and left the throne vacant.

Now, the one thing that James wanted more than anything was to escape, so if a boat happened to be waiting to take him across the Channel then he would surely take it. Such a boat was found on 23rd December 1688 and he was allowed to escape without his guards making any attempt to stop him.

It is debated by historians as to whether William planted the convenient boat there or not or whether James' followers did, but either way James was able to slip away to France. 

This left William able to consolidate his position as joint monarch with his wife. 

Whether or not James was already slightly mad is debatable. He certainly had little grasp on reality and believed that his people would welcome a conversion back to Catholicism. Really William's actions were just the tip of the iceberg that resulted in James' believing he had gone mad. 

James II never saw England again and after an attempt to regain his throne with Louis XIV's help, and coming face to face with William III when they fought each other at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, James returned to France where he spent the remainder of his life living off the charity of his cousin the Sun King.

As for England, William took it forward to the future, creating a compromise of power between Crown and Parliament through the Bill of Rights 1689, the Triennial Act 1694 and the Act of Settlement 1701, many of the articles of which are still in effect today.

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P.L. Farrar is a young writer, working on an historical novel set in early 19th century England, and currently studying the history of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.



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