On 10 June 1688, St James’s Palace was the site of one of the most controversial births in British royal history. The infant was James Francis Edward Stuart, the only son of James II and his second wife, Mary of Modena. Mary (and King James) was Catholic, a fact that made people uneasy at the time of her marriage. But the birth of a male heir to the throne made the populace, which still remembered the Wars of Religion, very nervous indeed. Almost immediately rumours began to spread that the highly convenient infant (born 15 years after his parents’ marriage) wasn’t James’s and Mary’s son at all, but the child of a commoner, smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming pan. The rumblings go so loud that Mary took little James to France when he was just six months old, worried about his safety. He was raised there, along with his sister, Louisa Maria, and recognised by King Louis XIV as rightful heir to the British throne.
After James II’s death in 1701, James Francis declared himself King James III of England and VIII of Scotland and was officially recognised by France, Spain, the Papal States, and Modena. The English, however, attainted him for treason in 1702 and his titles were therefore forfeited.
Undeterred, James attempted to invade via the Firth of Forth in 1708. The attempt was unsuccessful; his French ships were intercepted by Admiral Sir George Byng, and the French Admiral retreated. Things got worse for him in 1713, when France and Britain made peace with each other and, as a condition of the Treaty of Utrecht, King Louis was forced to expel James from France.
The following year, the Jacobites in Scotland attempted ‘The Fifteen’ rising, which aimed to put James on the throne. James obligingly arrived in Scotland to take part but was disappointed by the weak support he found. His supporters, in turn, were disappointed by the timid leader they found.
James fell ill and tried to return from France, only to find the door slammed in his face. Instead, he retreated to Rome, where Pope Clement XI offered him palazzo Muti as a home, along with a life annuity of eight thousand Roman scudi. With that, he was able to establish a court in exile, but he became increasingly despondent and sneered at by the world at large, which mockingly called him ‘Roving Jamie.’
Despite the fact that he was probably pretty poor company by this point, James married the daughter of the King of Poland in 1719 and had two children: Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), and Henry Benedict Stuart. Like his father, Charles attempted to take the throne back, and his attempt was more successful than his father’s, but still a failure. Father and son, the Old and the Young Pretenders, were never to sit on the thrones of England and Scotland.
James died on 1 January 1766 and was buried in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. The papacy then turned its back on the Stuarts, refusing to recognise Charles and instead throwing its weight behind the Hanovarian dynasty.
If James had actually become king on his father’s death, he would have reigned 64 years, 3 months, 16 days, making him the longest-serving monarch in British history. So close, yet so far away!