Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Making of King James II: The Formative Years of a Fallen King

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Making of King James II: The Formative Years of a Fallen King

Article excerpt

John Callow, The Making of King James II: The Formative Years of a Fallen King, Stroud, Sutton Publishing, 2001, pp. xi + 373, hb. £20, ISBN: 0750923989

Before his accession in 1685, James II lived for fifty-two years in his brother's shadow. Energetic as Charles was indolent, James as Duke of York carved out for himself not just a role, but also a career. He gained a taste for soldiering in Flanders in the 1650s; he exploited his honorific appointment as Lord Admiral to become the principal administrator and commander of a newly powerful navy; and he supported a variety of commercial ventures. According to John Callow's study of James before he became King, conventional wisdom would have it that in all of these activities the Duke was something of a success, and would square this with his disastrous record as king by ascribing it to mental and physical degeneration brought on by syphilis. Dismissing the degeneration thesis, Callow points out that the Duke's successes owed more to the efforts of others but the failures were often his own. The fact that the former just outweighed the latter in the eyes of posterity was owing as much to James's construction of his own elaborate, if confused, memoir as to their real value.

Callow's judgement on James is a severe one, although he relents a little to accept that the navy did derive some benefit from the political attention it gained through James's advocacy. It is not an unreasonable judgement, for it would take a lot to redeem James from the low regard in which his intellectual ability was held by a large number of his contemporaries. …

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