Peter Berresford Ellis reviews King in Exile: James II - warrior, king and saint, by John Callow, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 0750930829, £25 hbk
TO THE Irish, James II, the last Catholic King of England, Scotland and Ireland, will forever remain in history as Séamus an Chaca, or James the Shit. Crowned King on 23 April 1685, he was deposed in England in 1688 by his daughter Mary and her ambitious husband, William of Orange, who demanded that he rule jointly with her. James staked his future on Irish support.
However, with the first major set back at the Boyne, he fled to France leaving the Irish to fight on for a further year until the great defeat at Aughrim leaving to the siege of Limerick and the infamous treaty.
James, arrogant and petulant, blames the Irish for his defeat in order to `save face'. This vain and vicious monarch ignored the sacrifice of the Irish who had supported his cause. The French so believed the stories that Colonel O'Kelly reported that Irish merchants in Paris dared not walk the streets because the enraged public would attack them.
In spite of this, thousands of Irish followed James into his exile in France and there many provided the base for the famous Irish brigade of the French army which, for the next century, suffered and died for the cause of the French monarchs.
James II was provided with a chateau at St Germain-en-Laye near Paris where he established a court in exile. He was to died here in September, 1701, aged 67. Dr John Callow of Goldsmiths College, University of London, is a specialist in the Stuart period and among his books he has written The Making of King James II. But Dr Callow brings a refreshing left-wing perspective to his work.
This start starts with James II being deposed in England and follows him through the start of his campaign in Ireland and his infamous flight after William of Orange succeeded in crossing the Boyne. Had James not panicked, his army, of which only a small part were engaged in the crossing, could well have regrouped and made a further stand before Dublin as I have demonstrated in my own account The Boyne Water: The Battle of the Boyne, 1690. But that's one of the imponderables, the 'ifs' of history.
The fact is that James II did panic and flee to France where from 1690-1701 he lived in the sumptuous baroque palace of St. Germain-en-Laye. He sought a new role for himself by focussing on the political side of kingship presiding over his royal court which served as a focus for those who still believed in the Jacobite cause.
In 1697 he wrote:
"… there is little sign that I will ever be reinstated… I hope that one day God will re-establish me or my son in all our rights, well aware that when it pleases him, he can do it, when on expects it least, and if he does not wish to do it, then all the kings in the world could not thought they joined together for this result, they could not accomplish it.'
This did not prevent James II or his son or grandson continuing to urge their followers to shed their blood for the Stuart cause. Even during James II's period in exile there were several abortive attempts to rally the Jacobites and invade England until in 1697 James II's independent army was disbanded and his military followers were all merged into the French army.
Dr Callow, as his subtitle indicates, looks at the changing image of James II. Earlier he had a reputation, as Duke of York, for military genius and bravery. It is true that there were many eyewitness accounts of his personal courage and tenacity. That reputation, Dr Callow shows, disappeared by his ignominious flight at the Boyne.
In exile, James II developed a new image, that of a political leader running his court in exile. That image did not last long and, in his final years, he tried to reinvent himself as a saintly figure seeking a heavenly crown rather than an earthly one. Dr Callow points out that this was his most successful role.
This is an excellent and thoroughly researched work on a little known aspect of a period that greatly affected Ireland. Indeed, this should be a standard work for anyone who wants to understand the period which led to the vicious Penal Laws and the myths of the Boyne and subsequent warfare which ended with the notorious Treaty of Limerick, all of which still has resonance for modern Ireland. It is essential reading for the period.
For the Irish, whether James II's tried to paint himself as warrior, or King politician or saint, their image of him will still be Séamus an Chaca and his role reflected in a more recent folk song:
Two foreign monarchs met at the Boyne
Each wanting their heads on the back of a coin
If the Irish had sense, they should have thrown both in the Boyne
And Partition back into the ocean.
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Copyright © 2005 Peter Berresford Ellis