After contracting an illness that historians believe to be smallpox, Mary Stuart, wife of the previously deceased Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange, died in prison after attempting to usurp her father, James II of England and VII of Scotland.
During Charles' reign, 1660 to 1685, much of the government's power rested in the hands of the increasingly Anglican Parliament. Puritanism fell out of favor, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer became the mandatory base for services. Charles and his brother James proved popular as the king granted licenses for theaters for the first time in decades and both served firsthand during the Great Fire of London in 1666. Still, James had converted to Catholicism while in exile in France, and the standing government worked to limit any Catholic power, even blaming the Great Fire and attempted assassinations on Catholics. The thought of another Catholic king made Parliament nervous enough to introduce an Exclusion Bill removing James from the line of succession. Charles reacted by dissolving Parliament time and again to stop such a bill from passing. The political chaos put stress on social tempers as well as the economy, which struggled under rapidly changing taxation laws.
In 1685, Charles died suddenly, and James proved a capable, if unyielding, king. His policies were strong, pro-French, and held remarkably modern ideals of religious tolerance, which endeared him with the disenfranchised religious minorities and those seeking a stable government. Others sought to dethrone him, and James had to put down two rebellions attempting to crown his illegitimate nephew, who, as Charles’ son, was considered a “rightful” heir to the throne. In 1688, James’ son James Francis Edward was born, assuring the continuance of Catholic kings. Opponents had been hopeful that James’ daughter Mary, Protestant and wife of the popular Dutch hero William of Orange, would succeed him and now became desperate.
William had fought for years alongside other European nations to stymie growing French power under Louis XIV. He saw no way to ensure a check over the French than by the English Royal Navy at sea. James had vowed neutrality in the Continental wars with France, and not even William’s many envoys could persuade him otherwise. He determined the only way to affect English policy was to control it himself.
With encouragement from English opposition to James’ forceful attempts to repeal the Test Act, William gathered strength in the Dutch Republic. When the French were distracted in Germany, William crossed the Channel with some 15,000 men. It was calculated that James’ army were over 30,000, but any sign of victory would prompt a wave of support to go to the Protestants. William advanced slowly, hoping to erode the peoples’ belief in James. The trick seemed to work as rioters in London targeted Catholics. Nobles such as Lord Churchill of Eyemouth and James’s own daughter Anne deserted.
Seeing the riot reminded James of the chaos of the Great Fire. The flames consumed houses regardless of religion, and men had come together to fight them. It was not until afterward that loud mouths had blamed Catholics, despite the truth being a poorly doused bakery oven. James had led Londoners then, and he determined to do it again even though his troops seemed unsure in their willingness. He gathered his most loyal men and charged after William. The Dutchman was caught seemingly by surprise and knew that retreat would lose him a great deal of public opinion even though drawing the war out over the winter would surely ruin James’s position. The two armies met outside Reading, both sides joined by supporters from the city. Despite relentless assaults, the Royal army did not seem able to break the Dutch until an errant cannonball crashed near William and killed him with shrapnel.
Without their paycheck, the Dutch mercenary army collapsed. James returned to London triumphant and forced the repeal of the Test Act, creating a new Parliament with a much wider base as anyone, not just Anglicans, could hold offices. James spent the next two years putting down minor revolts using loyal troops from Ireland and Scotland, whose nobles he rewarded handsomely. His daughters, Mary and Anne, were placed in the Tower of London, where both would live out the rest of their fairly short lives. English efforts continued against the Dutch abroad and gradually supported a French-led Continent.
James II died in 1701, giving the throne to the thirteen-year-old James III, who ruled until 1766. Early in his reign, the several crowns of Britain became the United Kingdom by order of Parliament, which had incorporated Ireland among its peers. His younger counterpart in France, Louis XV, ruled from 1715 until 1774. Gradually French and English relations cooled with the demise of the Dutch Empire at French hands and the later weakening of French power during the rise of Prussia. James’s son Charles, the “Bonnie Prince,” spent much of his adventurous youthful years abroad in the colonies, where he became very popular. As Charles III, ruling until 1788, he expanded Parliament to accept petitions and approve seats from the colonies after disputes over self-rule, largely settled by public letters written by his lifelong friend Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Four-year-old Charles IV succeeded his grandfather to the throne and ruled until 1854, overseeing the American and East Indian rebellions over the issue of slavery and the beginnings of nationalistic revolts in Europe. Britain’s history of tolerance made it immune to much of the early turmoil, but its humanism took an ugly turn as eugenics sought to manage scientifically the best people.
In reality, James chose to abandon England after Anne’s desertion. He attempted to stall William with proposals of peaceful decisions by Parliament, but when he was discovered trying to sneak out of London to France, William handily won full public support. Mary was placed on the throne alongside William, who demanded to be made co-ruler and ruled alone until succession by his sister-in-law Anne in 1702. Neither sister produced an heir, resulting in the British crown being handed to the vehemently Protestant German House of Hanover in 1714.