From the Gunroom #7 James II: The Last Medieval Prince
Two weeks ago, on Trafalgar Night, I precociously suggested to several of the staff from the National Maritime Museum that there should be a major exhibit on King James II. My ambitions were quickly shot down when I was unable to name a single person in addition to myself who would be interested in attending. I think that as a person and a monarch, James II has received a raw deal from historians and the general public. He has a terrible reputation, and at very best the man was damned with faint praise. I would wager that James II’s reputation as England’s worst monarch is in a pretty dead heat with King John (Lackland), King Richard III, and Queen Mary I. I would argue that these are not fair comparisons.
I’ve said a few times that James was a man totally incapable of nuance. He had his father’s inflexibility and was essentially unable to compromise on his rights and prerogatives. As Lord High Admiral, this was not such a failing and James imprinted some aspects of his personality on the nascent Royal Navy. As monarch it was a significant contribution to his downfall. James had his father’s intransigence, and an apparently honest conviction that his rule was divinely ordained. James didn’t plot, didn’t scheme. He wasn’t Doctor Claw, sitting behind a desk cloaked in shadow while stroking his cat. He was open and forthright with his intentions, and expected that his clients – those people he had chosen personally, and whose careers he had furthered- would be loyal to him and follow his instructions. I don’t think James II was so much an example of how good military leaders often make poor heads of government despite both halves of that statement being true. I think that a better description is that James II was England’s last medieval Prince. His religious convictions, his personal courage as Lord High Admiral and Captain General, his centralized view of the state and the monarchy, and his extreme, essentially feudal conceptions of patronage all indicate to me that his mindset was not Early Modern, but Medieval. To put it another way, he was so convinced of his concept of the world that he was unable to to recognize how it actually worked. That he was successful as Lord High Admiral implies that in many ways the Royal Navy was even after the Restoration still largely a latent medieval organization both in terms of the creation and control of forces. James II didn’t so much innovate the Royal Navy as take an existing system and provide protocols and processes for new phenomena. But as that’s what I’m currently writing about in my PhD, I digress. The Navy was exactly what James expected as an institution, and so he was able to work with it. Within the Royal Navy environment, his expectations for subordinates was in line with how his subordinates expected to related to him as Lord High Admiral. As monarch, not so much.
I would like to thank those who have written about James, such as Professor Andrew Lambert and Dr David Davies for their contributions to this discussion. I also thank them for their subsequent discussions with me on this subject.
One of the major reasons for my initial involvement with this website was a desire to find a place to host a series of podcasted panel discussions which would examine the practice of history itself. Finally, I have been able to get this project off the ground as this past weekend I have purchased the digital recording unit that will allow me to actually get the discussions done. In the next two months, I will be recording as many of these podcasted discussions as I can, and will feature topics including individual and collective interdisciplinary study, complexity in the study of history, the future of archives and primary source research, history as celebration or commemoration, the use of practical experience in the study of history, the changing structure of academic society and social media, as well as what can historians do besides become academia. The goal of this project is to air these important discussions so that those students who are considering a career in academia, whether history or not, can actually hear about how academia is changing. Despite some issues with finding equipment and a recording space I have to admit that there has been a great response when I sought people to participate in these podcasts. I am in the process of confirming the panellists and I will announce them in advance of each release. Hopefully within a month I will have the first podcast ready and available on this very site.
This blog may be taking a bit of a back seat in the next two months, I’m in the run up to the end of my second year of my PhD. To ensure that I can begin my writing-up period next January I need to essentially rewrite everything I have so far, and add twelve thousand words (the equivalent of one new chapter). On the other hand, my writing process may also likely create some interesting short discussions which I will share. In the next few weeks I have trips to Oxford (for the Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture) and to Exeter on the 27th of November for a seminar by my supervisor Dr Alan James and Dr Elaine Murphy on Revolutionary Navies. It’s going to be absolutely fascinating and I strongly encourage people to go if you can make it.
Next time you’re at the NMM tell them the interest in a James II and VII exhibition has doubled – I’d definitely go!
Interesting stuff, plenty to think about. Good luck with the writing and rewriting.
Thank you for sharing your insight on James II. I am working my way through NAM Rodger’s The Command of the Ocean and was perplexed by the seeming disconnect between the Duke of York’s naval valor, as described by Capt. Narbrough (pg. 81) and widespread public opinion during his life and his legacy. I would be interested in reviewing your dissertation when published.