Dec. 23, 2021

The Fall of King James II

The Fall of King James II

December 23, 1688. King James II of England abandons the throne and flees abroad after a coup forces him from power

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Cold Open

It’s January 30th, 1649.

Crowds fill the streets of central London. A group of teenage boys elbows their way through the packed bodies, searching for a better view. Leading them is a 15-year-old named Samuel Pepys. Samuel will later write one of the most famous diaries in history, chronicling his life and times in astonishing detail. But today, he’s just a schoolboy who has sneaked away to witness an execution.

The boys find a break in the crowd and huddle together to see. On a street outside the Palace of Whitehall, a platform has been erected. It's draped in black cloth and ringed with soldiers, more than young Samuel can count.

Vendors work the crowds, selling hot pies that steam in the cold January air. Many here have seen criminals and traitors die before - it’s always been a popular day out for Londoners. But today will be an execution like none other.

Charles I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland has been found guilty of trying to seize “unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people". His death sentence comes after seven years of Civil War. At the heart of the conflict was the question of how the country was governed - whether ultimate political power lay with the king, elected by God… or with parliament, elected by the people.

The King’s forces fought those of Parliament - and the King lost. Negotiations with the defeated Charles failed, so Parliament decided that the only way to get ahead was for the king to lose his. 

Just before 2 PM, Charles I steps onto the scaffold. Among the crowd, Samuel Pepys strains to see the King, who’s dressed in all black. The King tries to make a speech, but his voice does not carry beyond the Parliamentary soldiers that surround the platform. Samuel cannot hear the King’s last words.

Then Charles kneels. There is a flash of metal as the executioner raises his axe into the air. The crowd, as one, draws its breath.

The deed done. The executioner reaches down, then holds up the King’s head for the crowd to see, before tossing it into the ranks of soldiers. There is a scrum as men rush to secure souvenirs soaking their handkerchiefs in blood and ripping chunks of hair from the head.

The execution of Charles I will usher in a new era, but this Republic of England won't last long. The question of who rules the country, and the quarrels that sparked this Civil War, will fester for decades until they are finally settled on December 23rd, 1688, when another king, Charles’s son James, loses his crown as well.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 23 – the Fall of King James II.

Act One: Restoration

It’s May 23rd, 1660, 28 years before King James II is forced from power.

A fleet of English warships lies at anchor off the coast of Holland. From the beach, a rowing boat cuts through the waves, heading for the flagship. On board is 26-year-old James Stuart, the son of Charles I, the beheaded and former King. 

James himself is not king yet. He is in exile from England, having fled the country with his brothers and sisters after the defeat of his father in the Civil War. But his exile is about to come to an end.

The ships offshore have come to carry James and his family home. 11 years after the execution of his father, Charles I, the English Republic has collapsed. During that time, James and his siblings have lived in exile, scrabbling around Europe, relying on the charity of foreign monarchs to survive. Now, they have been invited back to rule England once more. James's older brother - named Charles after their father - is to be crowned the new king. James, the second son, is next in line to the throne behind Charles – he will be named Lord Admiral, in charge of the English Navy.

As they arrive at the flagship, a troupe of nobles and dignitaries welcomes James, and his brother - the new king. A day of feasting follows as the shores of Holland echo to the gunfire salute the English fleet fires off for its new monarch.

That afternoon, a brisk wind will carry the fleet away from Holland and take James and his family back to England. A week later, the new King, Charles II, will enter London in triumph. All the church bells will ring, and wine will flow through the fountains of the old city. But just as the execution of Charles I did not settle England’s division, the return of his heirs will also not heal the wounds of the past.


It’s six years later on Tuesday, September 4th, 1666. A fire, which began in a London bakery, has grown out of control, and the whole city is in danger.

It's evening in Westminster, and a young Swedish nobleman unwisely ventures out into the streets. The fire is further east, where the sky glows red, but even here he can taste the tang of smoke in the air and see embers carried by the wind. With a single bodyguard beside him, the nobleman hurries through the streets on his way to see his mistress.

But the fire is not the only danger in London tonight. When a group of men overhear the Swedish nobleman talking to his bodyguard, a cry goes up. And soon, a mob forms, and the nobleman is forced to flee for his life. The members of the mob want to protect the city from foreign spies they are sure must have started the fire. As they string up a rope on a street corner, they are convinced the Swedish nobleman is one of these spies.

Soon enough the nobleman is caught and brought back to the street corner, where the rope awaits him. The mob surges and rise around the nobleman, and before the Swede knows what's happening, the noose bites into his neck, he writhes on the end of the rope. He is just about to lose consciousness when there is a sudden shout, and a clatter of hoofs down the street. The mob scatters as the incoming riders draw swords.

With a swift swing of a blade, the rope is cut, and the Swedish nobleman collapses to the ground. He claws the noose away, gasping for air, then, finally, looks up at his savior.

Red-eyed and covered in ash and soot, James, the King’s brother, has been out on the streets for hours, arranging teams of firemen, trying to stop the flames of London from spreading – and now, rescuing foreign citizens from the mob.

That night the easterly gale which has spread the fire all over the city will at last die down, and so too will the flames. But the tales of James's heroism will grow. As one witness will write: “He has won the hearts of the people with his continual and indefatigable pains day and night in helping to quench the Fire”.

But James's popularity will not last.

In the years after the fire, he will convert from Protestantism and become a Catholic, falling prey to the deep suspicion that strung up the Swede, a fear that Catholics are part of some foreign conspiracy. James will try to keep his new beliefs a secret. But the word will get out, and the news will spark a constitutional crisis and threaten another civil war.

Act Two: Succession

It’s July 13th, 1683, in a room at the Tower of London, five years before the fall of James II.

A servant to the Earl of Essex has come to check on his master. The Earl should have risen by now – his trial is due to start.

The Earl of Essex was arrested three days ago and brought to the Tower of London, the dreaded ancient fortress in the heart of the city where those accused of treason are held. The Earl is alleged to have conspired against the life of King Charles II and his brother James.

The assassination plot failed, but it is the latest and most dramatic episode in the hysteria that has taken over the country since rumors began swirling about James's conversion to Catholicism. James's older brother, King Charles II, has no legitimate heirs – meaning James will become king if Charles dies. A Catholic on the throne of England is an intolerable prospect for many, especially in Parliament. There, new laws have been proposed to limit the influence of Catholics in government – and even prevent James from becoming King.

Such moves have bitterly divided Parliament and the country. In 1673, King Charles tried to quell discontent by arranging the marriage of James's daughter – and heir – Mary, to the Dutch Protestant Prince William of Orange. In the years since that match, however, the fear of a new Catholic dynasty in England has not faded. Some, it seems, are now willing to turn to more extreme measures to prevent it.

When the Earl of Essex’s servant steps into his room in the Tower of London to check on his master, the Earl is nowhere to be seen. Baffled, the servant searches the room. The closet door is stuck. The servant pushes hard against it and forces it open just enough to see the body of his master, the Earl, slumped on the ground, a razorblade in his hand, and his throat cut.

The death of the Earl of Essex will be deemed a suicide; it will be seen by many as a shameful act of confession to a horrific crime, a plot against the Royal family. These alleged misdeeds will spark a wave of patriotism, strengthening the position of James as heir to the throne.


It’s November 19th, 1688, near Salisbury, in the south of England, five years after the death of the Earl of Essex.

James II, now the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, holds a fine lace handkerchief to his bleeding nose. Ever since he left London two days ago, marching at the head of an army 40,000 strong, he’s been suffering from repeated nosebleeds. His doctors urge him to rest. But James is in a fight for his crown.

Following the death of his brother, Charles II, James became king and was crowned at Westminster in April 1685. But soon after, his opponents’ fears about his Catholicism were realized.

James believes he has been made King by God himself. He has packed his army with Catholics and tried to force the courts to rule that he can ignore Acts of Parliament. Those who opposed him were promptly removed, including judges and archbishops. And with each passing month, James seemed more and more like his father, a king who could not bear any restraint on his power.

Many in England were horrified. But most took comfort in the fact that James did not have any sons. His heirs were his daughters Mary and Anne - and they were Protestant. But in June 1688, James's wife gave birth to a boy. A boy who immediately outranked his sisters in the line of succession, and was to be raised a Catholic.

Just weeks after the birth of James's son, a group of seven Protestant nobles - among the most powerful and wealthy men in the land - sent word to William of Orange, a Dutch prince married to King James's eldest daughter. They formally invited him to invade England and take the throne.

So just a week and a half earlier, William of Orange landed in Devon, on the south coast of England with 15,000 soldiers. King James II marched west from London to meet him.

Now, at Salisbury, the King has an army twice the size of William’s. But James is unwell, plagued by nosebleeds that confine him to a sickbed. And with each passing day, his advantage dwindles. Troops rally to the invading Dutch as more and more men from the King’s army defect. James begins to panic. He fears that the enemy is about to attack him in his weakened state, so he orders a retreat to London.

It is a disastrous misstep. Whatever authority James had is struck a fatal blow by his loss of nerve. The pace of defections from his army increases. Anti-Catholic riots break out in London. And soon, James will realize that all hope is lost. His reign is collapsing around him. If he is to avoid sharing the same fate of his beheaded father, he will have to flee England and abandon the throne.

Act Three: The Last Stuart King

It’s December 23rd, 1688, about a month and a half since James II, the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland fled the field of battle. Now at Rochester - thirty miles east of London - James is heading into exile. The new rulers of the land make no attempt to stop him or kill him. They do not want to make a martyr of James. They just want him to leave. And now he is skulking out of his Kingdom and heading for France, a bitter and reduced man.

But James will not give up his claim to the throne. With the help of the French, he will raise another army in Ireland and try and take back what he thinks is his. But defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 will end his hope of ever reclaiming the throne.

In London, Parliament will declare that James has abandoned the crown, breaking the oaths he made when he became King. The seat of power, left vacant, will be offered to James's daughter Mary and her husband, the Dutch Prince - William of Orange. They will reign over the country together, Protestant monarchs for a Protestant nation. But they will also only do so with the consent of Parliament. No British King or Queen will ever again try to rule absolutely, as if ordained by God. And with James II’s ignominious abdication and exile, which happened today, December 23rd, 1688, the question of where ultimate power lies has been answered.


Next on History Daily. December 24th, 1914. In the trenches of World War One, British and German troops call a truce to celebrate Christmas together.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.