Catholicism & Stuart England


The Stuarts’ relationship with Catholicism is fascinating, but not wholly surprising. The founder of the royal House in England was James I, who succeeded the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, in 1603. He originated in Scotland, the great-great-grandson of Henry VII and son of Elizabeth’s bested rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s Catholicism – alongside her poor marital choices, gender and foreignness – lost her her crown and James’s Protestantism, even if sincere, was hardly a choice.

His faith ensured his place in the English succession, a point he reinforced by marrying the Protestant princess, Anne of Denmark, thus ensuring a Protestant heir. It spoke to anti-Catholic feeling in England – and Scotland, for that matter – but it’s worth noting the larger power balance in Europe. France and Spain, England’s true peers on the continental stage, remained Catholic. England was continually in and out of war with Spain, wounds which were very much wrapped up in the Reformation, from Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, to the earnest desire of their daughter, Mary I, to marry King Philip II and deliver England back to Rome. Elizabeth I began her reign with tolerance, but as the decades wore on, she moved further and further away from appeasement, religion the source of nearly every plot and rebellion against her.


James I

Foreign diplomacy, which is to say healthy relations with Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and France, meant pressure on the English monarch to ensure freedom of religious expression for Catholics. Domestically, the opposite pressure was felt, with deepening calls to eradicate papists from public life and keep them far away from the halls of Westminster and the Stuarts.

And then there is money, a reliable source for which could be found in marriage alliances via brides’ dowries. In the last years of James’s reign, a Spanish match was proposed for his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, in the form of King Philip III’s daughter, Infanta Maria Anne of Spain, later the Holy Roman Empress by marriage. Such a match came with Catholic strings attached, not least of which was the ensured freedom of the bride in question to practice her faith without persecution.

Infanta Maria Anne of Spain

For the Stuarts, the match was motivated by yet another religious clash on the continent, during which James’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband were ousted from Bohemia in the midst of a struggle between the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant Palatinate. Needing funds to assist them, a Spanish bride meant wealth, a proposed move that was wildly unpopular with the English.

When the Prince of Wales went to Spain in 1623 and returned without a bride (Maria Anne was against the match on religious grounds), England rejoiced. Less thrilling for them was James’s death in 1625, the Prince’s accession as Charles I and his swift marriage to another very Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France, sister to King Louis XIII. Publicly, while Henrietta Maria was allowed freedom to worship as she pleased, their children were to be raised Protestant and the marriage would have no bearing on domestic religious policy, which included restrictions on the rights of Catholics, Privately, Charles pledged to Louis that Catholics would be granted greater tolerance.

Charles I in 1628

A combination of Charles’s wife, his touchy relationship with Parliament, his continued support for relations with Spain and France, his desire to steer the Church of England away from outright Puritanism and his failure to provide military assistance for Protestants abroad led to an overall suspicion of Charles’s motives and belief that he might, God forbid, be a private Catholic. Charles’s complete unwillingness to work with Parliament, coupled with the split among Protestants – Puritans v. Anglicans – directly led to the English Civil War of the 1640s. Charles’s execution in 1649 and his family’s flee to exile in Holland and France might have temporarily ended the issue for 11 years, but when the Stuarts returned, it was only with more religious dysfunction.

When Charles I’s son, Charles II, was summoned home from the continent he arrived a 30-year-old bachelor with a Catholic mother, a handful of bastards and a third of his life spent abroad. Needing legitimate heirs, he quickly married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who offered little by way of fortune, save Tangier and Bombay. Once again, an English king had taken a Catholic wife, only this time the bridegroom had his own Catholic background by way of Henrietta Maria and his close ties to the royal family of France. The couple were married privately in a Catholic ceremony and later in a public Anglican ceremony in 1662.

Not only did Catherine face ridicule and unpopularity for her faith, but she also proved barren save a handful of miscarriages – her husband proving his fertility time and time again with a plethora of bastards. With that came the rising importance of Charles’s younger brother, James, Duke of York. James married a Protestant Englishwoman, Anne Hyde, in 1660 shortly after the Restoration. At the time, there was little fear James would become king and while the marriage outraged the rest of the Royal Family and Charles’s court, Charles was in favor of the match, believing Anne would be a good influence and holding James to his word that he would marry her – particularly urgent once she became pregnant.

Catherine of Braganza

From eight births came two children who lived until adulthood, Princesses Mary and Anne. But the Yorks were even more pivotal in that Anne Hyde had shared exile with the Stuarts, her family staunch Royalists and Anne beginning her career in service to James’s sister, Mary, Princess of Orange. Time abroad had exposed both to Catholicism, particularly in France, and shortly after her marriage, Anne converted. Her presence as the wife to the heir of the throne made her the highest-ranking Catholic in the RF after Queen Catherine, and her influence – which Charles had been so confident in as a source for good – proved considerable. By the dawn of the 1670s, James also converted, creating a crisis of succession.

Anne died on March 31, 1671, leaving James a widower with two daughters, both of whom were raised Protestant. Even so, the possibility that James would remarry and beget sons while privately practicing Catholicism caused considerable angst. Against Charles’s wishes, Parliament passed a Test Act in 1673 which forced those filling public offices to take an oath of supremacy and denounce transubstantiation, pledging:

“I, [Name], do declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of the bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.”

James and Anne Hyde with her daughters, Mary and Anne

In effect, it meant to eradicate Catholics from government and it came on a wave of renewed anti-Catholic sentiment. In the midst of this, James decided to remarry, choosing Mary Beatrice of Modena. The young woman a Catholic and Modena within the sphere of influence of King Louis XIV, the marriage was exactly what James was looking for and exactly what the English had been afraid of.

And in the background of this was actual politics. France and Holland were at each other’s throats, England caught in the middle thanks to Charles’s sister marriage to Prince William of Orange and the fact that Louis XIV was Charles’s first cousin. England aligned itself against France with Holland and Sweden, bringing France to heel. The result was the 1670 Treaty of Dover in which France provided England with much-needed annual funds and Charles promised Louis military assistance and the announcement of his conversion to Catholicism as soon as he could. The latter never came to pass.

The last bit begs the question: what was Charles’s true faith? Publicly he was a Protestant, but a Catholic mother, brother and wife indicates that his personal beliefs went in an entirely different direction. In actuality, Charles likely just wasn’t that religious. He was a pragmatist and a realist, qualities borne out of his years in exile and witnessing his father’s deposition and execution. Religious tolerance didn’t mean much to him, because he didn’t really see what all the fuss was about and his closeness to Catholics made them people not papists. In 1672 he was behind a Declaration of Indulgences that granted Catholics greater freedom, but a result of that was significant public backlash, from the Test Act to the exile of Catholic priests from England in 1675 to the Popish Plot that dawned in 1678.

James, Duke of York

The Popish Plot was rather extraordinary given that it was complete fiction. Two rabidly anti-Catholic clergymen issued a long manifesto claiming Rome had ordered Charles’s assassination, meant to be carried out by English Jesuits. The document made its way to court and leveraged the height of public hysteria, prompting the untrue gossip that Catherine was working with her physicians to poison her husband. Charles never believed the claims, but bent to public will and ordered an investigation. It resulted in the arrest of five innocent men, the forced exile of Catholics from London and legislation banning Catholics from serving in either house of Parliament – the last part wasn’t reversed until 1829.

For the Stuarts, the measure that most directly affected them was something known as the Exclusion crisis, in which there were calls for James, Duke of York to be cut from the line of succession, the crown passing from Charles to his niece, Princess Mary. Certainly James was an unpopular figure, particularly given that with the passage of the first Test Act in 1673 he had resigned as Lord High Admiral of the Navy instead of taking the oath, however the proposed legislation meant the import of foreign interest into England which should underline the burning fear the public had of Catholicism. By 1678, Princess Mary had already married her first cousin, Prince William of Orange, and was living in The Hague. Her Protestantism might not have been in doubt, but she brought with her a husband who had little intention of staying in the background.

Three separate pieces of legislation were proposed to exclude James – in 1678, 1680 and 1681 – and each time Charles dissolved Parliament to keep them from passing. To appease the public he did order his brother to leave England, prompting James and Mary Beatrice to leave for Belgium and then Scotland, occasionally accompanied by James’s younger, unmarried daughter, Princess Anne. The entire affair crystallized two parties – Tories and Whigs.

Charles II

The height of conflict had subsided by the dawn of 1685, just in time for Charles to pass away on February 6th. On his deathbed he converted to Catholicism, though it’s debatable the extent to which he was aware of what he is doing. Either way, it was a historical moment that simultaneously paved the way for James II and created even more suspicion of the Stuarts.

James and Mary Beatrice were crowned on April 23rd, James’s daughter, Mary, still his heir. Mary Beatrice had gone through 10 pregnancies in her first decade of marriage, all of which had resulted in miscarriage, stillbirth or childhood death. Whatever tragedy that caused for the couple personally, it inspired public relief. So long as James didn’t interfere with the law, his faith could theoretically be tolerated with the promise of a brief reign due to his age and the passage of the crown back into Protestant hands.

But James did interfere with the law, promoting another Declaration of Indulgences to alleviate restrictions on Catholics and expanding his standing army, which alarmed his subjects. The latter move was in response to genuine fear James had of assassination, as well as the outbreak of two rebellions. But it wasn’t until the autumn of 1687 that all hell broke loose – Mary Beatrice was pregnant again.

Mary of Modena and her son, James

On June 10, 1688 Mary Beatrice gave birth to a healthy son, baptized James after his father. Immediately rumors circulated that the baby had been smuggled into St. James’s Palace after the actual royal child had died. While unlikely given the scrutiny royal births received, it’s easy to understand the incredulity. After so many failed efforts to produce an heir, once on the throne, a healthy son appeared as if by magic.

Even before the child’s birth, English nobles started negotiating with James’s son-in-law, William of Orange. On June 30th, seven lords – now known as the Immortal Seven – sent William a formal invitation to invade England and take the throne. By September both the invitation and William’s acceptance of it were public knowledge, but even when Louis XIV offered James’s military help, James declined, believing the English would choose an Englishman over a foreigner, and their true king over a usurper.

James II

He was wrong: Not only did a significant portion of the nobility defect to William when he arrived in England in November, but so did his younger daughter, Anne. Despite still maintaining a larger army, James lost his nerve and tried to leave for France. He was captured in Kent and held captive, but William and his wife, James’s daughter, let him escape late in December. For Mary the motive was likely personal, and while William might have also blanched at executing his own father-in-law, politically it ensured his own reign didn’t begin in the bloodbath of a regicide.

On February 13, 1689 Parliament passed the Declaration of Rights, stating that James had effectively abdicated by exiting England, leaving the country to his daughter. The question then became, how does one handle the daughter’s Dutch husband? There were many who called for Mary to rule solo, along the lines of another Elizabeth I. But Elizabeth had chosen not to marry for a reason, not least of which were the ones William evidenced by his response. Firmly believing it was impossible for a husband to be subject to his wife, he, with Mary’s support, successfully advocated for a joint rule. And Mary, having no desire to reign and also believing it was not her place to question her husband, played the role of a consort more than a regnant. In reality, the five years of the dual reign were simply the first five years of William’s reign.

William III and Mary II

William III and Mary II were jointly crowned on April 23rd in Westminster Abbey, with Princess Anne their acknowledged heir. Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark and while they had no living children at the time, she was six months pregnant at the coronation. That July she successfully gave birth to a son, named William for the new king, thus ensuring a Protestant succession.

Mary died in December 1694, leaving William to rule alone until his own death in 1702. Anne then ascended the throne alone, her husband serving as consort, not king. For the next 12 years she oversaw the last strains of true religious strife in England as the country calmed itself for the dawn of a new era of political and cultural thinking. The succession, however, was once again insecure, Prince William having died at the age of 11 in 1700. Throughout Anne’s reign, her heir was a distant cousin, Princess Sophia of Palatine, Dowager Electress of Hanover.

Anne and her son, William

While James II died abroad in 1701, the Prince who started the Glorious Revolution still lived – a legitimate male heir of a crowned king. Even so, he was a Catholic and there was little chance of England extending an invitation to return home. Sophia was the daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, only daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark. She was Charles II and James II’s first cousin, thus by the time Anne’s reign was drawing to a close she was considerably older. Unfortunately for Sophia – and her ambition, she died less than two months before Anne.

The throne then passed to Sophia’s eldest son, George. He came to Britain as its king in 1714, never having been to England and speaking only German. Thus began the House of Hanover, a secure Protestant line of succession.

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