The Last Catholic King of Ireland


Recently, whilst traveling through Ireland, I passed over a small bridge. The river was easily crossed but I was conscious that the waters below were those of the River Boyne, and that upon its banks had been fought a battle that was to prove calamitous for the Catholic faith in these islands. And yet, for one of the chief protagonists of that fateful encounter there was to follow an unexpected coda, one that began shortly afterwards at a monastery in France, and that now caused me to view these events in an altogether different light.

The battle took place as part of a wider conflict that threatened to engulf the whole of Europe just as it had the whole of the British Isles. However, the genesis of these events was to start five years previously and many miles away in London, on a cold dank February day in 1685, as the then monarch, King Charles II, lay dying.

The Stuarts had, by then, been restored and the unpopular puritanism of the Commonwealth ended. From the start, this restoration had been popular, partly on account of the fact that its king had political skills of the first order—and was thus a man of little integrity. This lack of integrity extended to matters of religion. He had to be Anglican as head of the Church of England but he secretly despised the institution, drawing more and more toward Catholicism. Indeed a paradox, for this was the same man who looked the other way when the last Catholic martyr, the then Archbishop of Armagh, Oliver Plunkett, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn barely four years earlier. Nevertheless, when the end did come, and as his court stood and watched, his brother, the Duke of York (later King James II) leaned over the dying monarch and whispered if he should send for a priest. The reply was vigorous: “For God’s sake do!”

All were ordered from the chamber, except for a privileged few, as a familiar face returned: Dom John Huddlestone. Many years previously, this Benedictine monk had helped save the younger King’s life after the Battle of Worcester, and so the Duke informed his brother: “Sire, this good man once saved your life. He comes now to save your soul.” The King whispered faintly: “He is welcome.” Thereafter, the dying monarch was received into the Faith. Having repented for delaying so long, he was anointed and absolved. And then as the Blessed Sacrament was held aloft, the convert made what is described as a “pathetic” attempt at one public act of adoration, but his body failed him. As life itself was ebbing away, and with his head now sunk back, a Crucifix was held before his eyes as the soothing words of the priest told him to depend solely on the sufferings of Christ. Minutes later, the monk was led away through the same passage he had arrived from, and, soon after, none the wiser, the court was reassembled in the bedchamber.

As dawn broke, Charles asked for the curtains to be drawn back so he could see the morning light for the last time; and, now having at last seen the Light, as the bell rang for noon, he quietly passed away.

The King’s brother, the Duke of York, was now King James II of England and of Ireland, and James VII of Scotland. This passing of throne from one brother to another was not met with universal rejoicing, however, for James was Catholic. And one who had come to the Faith in adulthood through a path of reason and, of course, grace—a path that was as unpopular as it was to prove dangerous for him. But that was not the whole story. Whereas Charles had placated the oligarchy that since his return from exile had effectively ruled, James was made of different stuff. His was a character as straight as his brother’s had been strategic, it was this that was to be his undoing. As he ascended the throne, it is fair to say that traitors encircled him, a virtual vipers nest, who were ready to sell him to the highest bidder. Conveniently, and to that end, they did not have far to look.

Across the sea in Holland lived one of the oddest pairs ever to sit upon any throne in Europe: their names, William, Prince of Orange, and his spouse, the daughter of James, Mary. A strange woman who cried bitter tears on her wedding day, her husband’s manner and reputation were odder still. It was towards these that the whole treacherous cabal now crept. At the time its members were in the employ of James, no doubt with endless assertions of loyalty, whilst all the while searching for an opportunity to betray him. Despite protestations of fears about religion, this circle was really only ever interested in one thing: its own ambitions. It didn’t take long before it found the basis on which to rally the mob and produce the coup d’état it longed for, ironically, wrapped in the guise of “Religious Liberty.”

Talk of such “liberty” did not include Catholics, though, and only some years previously, in 1678, the same party had had the Test Act extended. Part of what came to be known as the Penal Laws. This piece of legislation was to be expanded to include all nobles. In reality, however, it had but one target: the then Duke of York. All Catholics were to be excluded from public office unless, amongst other things, they were to make a declaration refuting the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Of course, for a Catholic this was impossible, for to do so one would cease to belong to the Old Faith and have given in instead to the New Religion propagated by Henry VIII and his subsequent disciples. The Duke was a man of integrity, if nothing else, and could no more play games with what he believed than betray his country. He resigned all public office. From then on, it was to be a waiting game; but on that dank February morning the wait had all but ended and a game called treason was now about to commence.

It is not necessary to retell the story of the landing at Torbay, and the ensuing march on London by European mercenaries with but one aim: to install a Dutch Prince on a British throne. By all accounts the “turning of coats” from the Somerset coast to the capital was a sight to behold. In any event, soon after King James fled, bound for France. And, it was to be from there that he would plan his return, and yet another Stuart Restoration, if, this time, his own.

He implemented his plan a year after arriving in Paris. Having orchestrated his removal, reports came through that the clique that had done so was now riven—so often the case when men are motivated by nothing more than vanity and greed. Ireland still held for James, and so sensing his chance, it was to there he headed next. It was to prove a mistake. At Paris, the logic of his advisers could not be faulted but, as he was to find out, the reality on the ground was very different. He had the support of the Irish populace and could easily raise an army there, but it was to be one with little by way of cannon and musket. The adventure looked doomed; nevertheless, soon after he was under sail.

On the March 12, 1689, accompanied by a small army, King James arrived from Brest at the southern Irish port of Kinsale. The campaign that followed faltered from the start. There was an inflexibility about the character of the king, some times producing great moral courage, but at other times, in more practical political and military matters, a lack of strategy, and, as we shall see, in battle: folly.

Over a year later, with setbacks and defeats too numerous to recount, the result of the decisive battle about to be fought at the Boyne was by then all but a forgone conclusion. Regardless of how valiantly they fought that day, surrounded by a much greater force, and outgunned, the Jacobite armies were defeated. On that July day, the Protestant Usurper was there to spectate, and as the outcome became apparent to all present, remained to watch as the rightful Catholic King retreated back to Ireland’s south coast, and a waiting vessel. In the end, that day was to prove not just the ruin of the House of Stuart in these lands, but also, for centuries to come was to sink the hopes of Catholic Ireland.

Later, as his ship sailed from Kinsale bound for France, James knew how he had been betrayed by those closest to him, but he also knew that his threefold crowns of Ireland, England & Scotland had been lost forever. He was right of course. Aged 57, he was never again to see his ancestral lands, and instead for the next 11 years would be forced to live in exile. Those years, with his Court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris, were to prove the most curious of any British monarch, and also some of the most edifying.

By 1690, his libertine youth long since behind him, he turned inward. Soon after, in November of that same year, he was to be seen making pilgrimage to the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe, one of the most austere of all religious houses. There he sought out a hermit—a former soldier and man of the world who had shunned all for a life of solitude and silence in a forest near the monastery. The conversation that passed between the two left an indelible mark. When asked if there was anything the man missed of the world the reply was as blunt as it was thought provoking. And, needless to say, it was the king who left their brief exchange the more thoughtful. Later this was to be compounded by his stay at the monastery where the first chant he heard intoned was Psalm 118, its words of lament for this changing world and all its woes struck a chord for the Royal who sat listening. When he left the monks some days later, to those around him he was a changed man; one determined to live his Catholic faith in as heroic a fashion as he had observed in the cloisters of La Trappe.

Thereafter, this desire for sanctity was now to be lived out in the world as his prayer and reception of the Sacraments intensified. In addition, he took to the mortification of the flesh with a zeal (and an iron chain) that raised ironic smiles among the more worldly courtiers of Versailles, for this deposed King had become a penitent. Suddenly all his life, both the intensely personal vices he had struggled with since youth through to the very public calamity sealed at the Boyne, appeared to at last make sense. And as it did so, he understood that the loss of his realm was mysteriously the Will of God and with this knowledge, he resolved to spend what time was left him in prayer and penance.

Usurper William and King James Meet Their End
In contrast the Dutch William and his wife Mary were perched precariously upon the throne they had seized. No more than puppets for others, their misery was compounded by an unhappy marriage as the Prince of Orange pursued his vices. Often in later iconography concerning the Battle of the Boyne, he was depicted in triumph sat upon a white charger. No doubt more myth than real, but what is all too solid fact is that in the year 1702 another horse stumbled and threw its mount to injury that resulted in later death, and so ended the life of one of the principals of the charade that has come down to us as the Glorious Revolution: the ‘gloriousness’ of which, to Catholics at least—soon after subject to the full wrath of vengeful Penal Laws—has never been fully explained. In any event, by all accounts, on the streets of London and further afield the death of this particular monarch, and with it the end of the House of Orange, met with few tears.

Months earlier, still further away in France, death had also come, if more slowly, to another monarch. As time ran out for King James, and after a general confession, his son and heir, James, was brought to him. He blessed him, and gave these parting words: “Keep the Faith against all things and all men.” In saying this he could have been writing his own epitaph.

Finally, as the king began to slip from this “mortal realm,” a priest stood before him holding the Blessed Sacrament and asked the dying man:

Do you believe Jesus Christ to be really and substantially present in this Host?

As the King’s eyes closed upon that for which he had forsaken three Crowns and all his house, and with as much strength as he could muster, he was heard to gasp:

I do believe it. I believe it with all my heart.

Many centuries later, passing by the now quiet waters of the Boyne, I could only but reflect on what gain it was to lose the passing kingdoms of this world and, in so doing, win forever a place in the heavenly one.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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