The Jacobites

The Jacobites were the supporters of the Catholic James II, whose brief reign as king of Britain was marred by religious conflict between the monarch and his largely Protestant subjects. In 1669, James converted to Catholicism while serving as Lord High Admiral. News of his conversion leaked out to the general public in 1673, and he was forced to resign from his post due to the ensuing controversy. Although the outraged aristocracy attempted to exclude him from the succession, they failed to do so and upon the death of James' elder brother Charles II in 1685, their fears of having a Catholic king became a reality.

King James II was immediately forced to ruthlessly suppress a rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth. This, together with the general opposition to Catholicism, caused James II to become paranoid of further opposition and led him to stack the government solidly in his favor by appointing Catholics to the most important posts and instituting an autocratic style of rule. During this time, James II's domestic and foreign relations began to deteriorate rapidly, particularly with his son-in-law, William of Orange, Prince of Holland, who was married to James II's daughter Mary.

On June 10, 1688, James II's wife, Queen Mary Beatrice, gave birth to a son, which proved to be the catalyst for the overthrow of James II as king. Upset by the probability of future Catholic monarchs, British dissidents sent a messenger to William of Orange and invited him to liberate and rule Britain with the support of the British people.

Fearing that England might otherwise become a republic and thus become a threat to Holland as it had in the days of Cromwell, William also considered that rulership of Britain would allow him to rally even more support for his military campaigns against France. Raising an army of British Protestant expatriates, French Huguenots, Dutch soldiers and his personal troops, he landed at Torbay in November of that year, and marched on London and encountered virtually no opposition. James II immediately fled to France and effectively abdicated his throne after only a three-year reign.

By 1689, the British parliament offered William and Mary a joint position as constitutional monarchs. They agreed to govern in accordance with parliament and to uphold Protestantism as the British religion. A Bill of Rights was passed later that year, and legally enshrined these oaths, limiting the power of the monarchy in many ways. Thus, the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary not only avoided a Catholic succession of the British throne, but also disposed of the idea of rule by 'divine right', and made the constitutional monarchy a reality in Britain.

However, the Glorious Revolution was not universally heralded as a positive change, nor was it completely bloodless, for within it lay the seed for religious conflicts that would last for the better part of the next century. Many followers of James II, who came to be known as 'Jacobites', continued to support the Stuart claim to the throne. After the death in exile of James II in 1701, they supported the claims of his son James Francis Edward Stuart, and his grandsons, Charles Edward Stuart and Cardinal Henry Stuart.

The Jacobite cause was strongest in Ireland, where a Catholic army was raised in support of James II. However, the rebellion was crushed by British forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Following the fall of the city of Limerick, a just arrangement known as the 'Treaty of Limerick' was established. However, its terms were not kept by the British, who soon enacted the harshly anti-Catholic Penal Laws. Many Irish, particularly those who had played pivotal roles in the rebellion, fled to continental Europe, particularly France, as Wild Geese.

Although the disastrous loss at the Battle of the Boyne had destroyed James II's hopes of regaining the English throne, the Jacobite cause endured. The center of Jacobite activity shifted to Scotland, where uprisings were crushed in 1708, 1715, 1719, and finally, in 1745, at the Battle of Culloden, which also marked the end of the Highland Clan system. The Jacobites then declined as a political force, although Jacobite sentiment continued to be prominent in cultural and literary movements.


  1. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials