James II of England

James II

Following the death of Charles II, his brother, Duke of York, ascended the throne under the title of James II. In 1672, James had publicly professed his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith; and in the following year, the English Parliament had passed the Test Act disqualifying Catholics from holding office. Nevertheless, when the time arrived, James' accession took place with a minimal amount of dissent. Knowing the distrust in which he was viewed by the nation as a whole and fearing that it might break out in civil unrest, James met with his Council the same day his brother died and voluntarily made the following declaration: "I shall make it my endeavor to preserve this government, both in Church and State, as it is now by law established. I know, too, that the laws of England are sufficient to make the king as great a monarch as I can wish; and as I shall never depart from the just rights and prerogatives of the crown, so I shall never invade any man's property." Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 3, 603

These words, which were printed and spread throughout the nation, greatly quieted the fears of the people. The common understanding of these vague words was that James would not seek to change the religion of the nation, nor would he tax the people without the consent of Parliament. The nation persuaded itself that they had received a solid and sure guarantee, and the joy of the people was unbounded. The common phrase that could be heard repeated everywhere was, "We have the word of the King."

These words that excited such joy on the part of the people were those of a man whose creed permitted him to promise everything but required him to fulfill nothing, if it was inimical to the interests of the Catholic Church. His assurances having eased the minds of his subjects, James was allowed to mount the throne without being required to give a legal pledge that he would govern according to law.

Meanwhile, the king gave orders to prepare for his coronation. The ceremony itself was marred by several occurrences, which the people interpreted as bad omens. There were, however, even more certain omens of impending evil for those who could correctly read them.

James, deeming it perhaps unnecessary work to preserve an appearance before those who were so willingly deceived, began to drop his mask a little too soon. The first Sunday following his brother’s death, he openly attended a mass. His next indiscretion was to publish certain papers found in his brother’s possession, showing that during his lifetime, he had reconciled himself to Rome. And, lastly, he ventured upon the bold step of imposing a tax for which he had no authority from Parliament. By these acts, he had broken the two pledges he had given the nation. It was a dangerous course on which he had now entered. The scaffold of his father stood as a mute warning, but of these dangers, James took no heed.

With an avowed papist on the throne and a corrupt Parliament that was subservient to his every wish, the more perceptive saw that a crisis was approaching. Many, both in England and Scotland, fled to Holland where an invasion of England was planned.

The immediate result of their planning was an invasion of England in 1685 by Monmouth, the natural son of Charles II, who was a favorite of the English people, and another in Scotland led by Archibald Campbell, ninth Earl of Argyll. Insufficient planning had gone into the project; and both groups, being poorly lead, were utterly defeated and their leaders executed.

Judge Jeffreys

The failure of these two attempts had the effect of strengthening the government which they hoped to overthrow; and James sent Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys, along with General Kirk, to wreck his vengeance on those counties which had been the seat of Monmouth's support. The cruelties inflicted by these ministers was appalling. Jeffreys hanged men and women by the thirties at a time, and Kirk had the gallows erected before the windows of his banqueting room so that he might enjoy the sight of his struggling victims as he dined. There was no appeal or escape from the decision of these judges but by buying liberty with a great sum of money; and when the Lord Chief Justice returned to London, laden with wealth and blood, he was able to boast that he had hanged more men than all the judges of England since William the Conqueror.

It was in the kingdom of Ireland that the king most openly pursued his policy of converting the nation to popery. Within less than two months after ascending the throne, James removed the Duke of Ormandy, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a man of sterling integrity, who was also a Protestant. He then moved to replace nearly all the Protestant members of the Privy Council with papists. The army was next remodeled by the removal of 7,000 Protestants, their places being filled with Catholics.

On the July 2, 1687, the king dissolved Parliament. This was but one of the calamities that was darkening the skies of Europe. Just five weeks before James II dismissed his Parliament, the Edict of Nantes, the only security of the Huguenots, and been revoked in France. The moment was perhaps the gloomiest that had occurred in the annals of Protestantism since 1572, the era of the St. Bartholomew Massacre. In fact, the gloom was more universal now than it had been then. Everywhere, Protestantism was meeting with disaster and defeat. The schemes of the Jesuits were prospering and their hopes were high. But a few more Protestant defeats and Rome might yet gain all that had been lost. They dared to believe that their designs were so well laid that they could not miscarry.

The groundwork having been laid, the civil rights of Protestants were now largely confiscated. If a Catholic tenant owed his Protestant landlord his rent, he relieved himself of the burden by swearing his landlord's involvement in a plot. A counterfeit deed would transfer a Protestant estate to a Roman Catholic owner. The Protestant schools throughout Ireland were closed or converted to Catholic seminaries. Protestant churches were seized by the government. Accompanied by a priest, the mayor would then go to the church, where upon their arrival, the sexton was sent to request the keys. If they were refused, the door was broken down, the pews torn up, the floor cleared, and mass would be said. The church would then be declared consecrated, not to be given back to Protestants under pain of sacrilege.

Though death was not yet decreed against the Protestants, they were called to endure every violence short of it. In many cases, this last penalty was actually meted out to them, though not ostensibly, for their Protestantism.

James next attempted, by the removal and replacement of judges, to accomplish his purposes in England. It was while the king was pursuing this course of trampling down the laws, subjecting some of the most eminent of his subjects to barbarous indignities, and preparing the army to deal the final coup to the Protestant religion that he published his "Gracious Declaration of Liberty of Conscience." In this edict, his Majesty declared that it was his opinion "conscience ought not to be constrained." Accordingly, he suspended all oaths and tests for office and all penal laws for nonconformity to the established religion and, in general, removed all disabilities from everyone in order that all who were fit to serve him might be eligible to public employment. All this he granted solely by virtue of his royal prerogative.

Collage of The Seven Bishops

To the nonconformists, this Indulgence was the opening of the prison doors. They had been grievously harassed and could not walk the streets without fear of the pillory. The gift, however, was not honestly intended. It rested solely on the royal prerogative and did not truly establish liberty of conscience but rather established the precedent of arbitrary royal authority and control. James had given England a brief period of liberty in order to attain the power to establish an eternity of servitude.

The more tyrannical his measures, the louder James protested that he would uphold the Church of England as by law established. The next step which caused the people greater alarm than any move to that point was the imprisoning of seven bishops in the Tower. This move grew out of the refusal of a number of the bishops and vast numbers of the clergy to read the new Declaration of Liberty of Conscience in their services, as ordered by the king. It was not that these men were opposed to liberty of conscience, but they saw under the disguise a dispensing power which the king was using for the destruction of laws and institutions of the kingdom. They believed, and rightly so, that for them to read this paper was to make the Church of England accessory, indirectly, to her own ruin.

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