Interview with Justine Brown, author of ‘The Private Life of James II’

An Interview with Justine Brown, author of The Private Life of James II, which was published by Pen & Sword History at the end of May 2024.

Hello Justine, welcome to The Seventeenth Century Lady! Congratulations on the release of your book, The Private Life of James II (published May 2024 by Pen & Sword History). James II & VII (1633-1701) had a remarkably full life and I think you did a great job at bringing his story to life. It was a life of high drama, political intrigue, bloodshed, turmoil, lust, and religion – there was enough to fill several lifetimes! Could you tell us what personally inspired you to want to focus on James II?

JB: Hello Andrea, thanks so much! I’m excited to be here. I noticed that there were three English monarchs who modern history books tended to dismiss as awkward or “stubborn”: Mary I, Charles I, and James II. I remember James being skipped over with “Oh, and there was this James II guy. He turned Catholic and that couldn’t stand.” He was a footnote. That made me curious. But when I studied him I found that much of his life as Duke of York read like a swashbuckling romance. He was very handsome and had been incredibly popular for winning a war against the Dutch and leading the fight against the Great Fire of London, and many other things. I also found out that James’s solution to the religious problem in the Three Kingdoms was quite inventive and remarkably tolerant. Unfortunately, a lot of people weren’t ready for it. James wanted to attract people–not force them– to the Catholic faith, but he respected conscience. He wanted to allow everyone to practise their religion as long as they didn’t try to overturn the government.

AZ: During your research for your book, did you come across anything that altered your view of James? If so, could you share that with us?

JB: He had a remarkable friendship with the famous Quaker, William Penn, at a time when Quakers were seen as oddballs and troublemakers. James was the one who gave Penn the title to what became Pennsylvania. When James was king the two toured the country promoting his proposal for a religious toleration that would include Protestant dissenters as well as Catholics– and in principle other religions as well. Penn remained loyal to James after the 1688 revolution. This made me see that James truly respected conscience; he wasn’t blinkered at all.

AZ: That’s really interesting to me, especially as I was born in Pennsylvania! You take your readers through James’s childhood and adolescence, his escape from England, and his relationship with his first wife, Anne Hyde, who became the Duchess of York. You explain why Anne was an unpopular choice for him to make, not only within his family but in terms of politics. What are your thoughts on Anne?

JB: James’s family and friends–even Anne’s father– were opposed to the marriage with Anne Hyde because she wasn’t a princess or even a noblewoman. She was the daughter of the Chancellor, Edward Hyde, and she served James’s sister Mary as a maid of honour. She couldn’t bring anything in the way of riches or alliances. And she was already pregnant. But she had a strong character– a lot of wit and resourcefulness, and that eventually won over James’s brother, Charles II. He thought she would be good for James, and he was right. She really rose to the occasion when she became Duchess of York.

Anne and James, the Duke and Duchess of York. © National Portrait Gallery, London

AZ: Given that he lost his throne and historians have largely gone along with a pro-Williamite angle, it is understandable that James hasn’t always been given a very fair treatment. I’ve personally found it difficult to mention him at all in some situations because he, like quite a few figures from the Stuart period, inspires a passionate reaction: either wholly for or against him. What are your thoughts about this?

JB: Our present political settlement is based on the 1688 “Glorious Revolution”, so there’s a strong ideological investment in it. The revolution had long-term effects on England’s relationship to Scotland and Ireland. In the 17th century, it was no small thing to dethrone an anointed king, so you need a lot of forceful propaganda to justify it and try to de-legitimise him. Also, James put the Jacobus in Jacobitism– Jacobus is James in Latin– so his overthrow kicked off a series of Jacobite uprisings led by his son, Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, and his grandson, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. It didn’t end until 1746, with the brutal Battle of Culloden. These things have led to strong emotions on both sides.

AZ:  One part that I found particularly touching was how you showed the tenderness between Charles I and his children. Readers, whatever they may personally think of Charles I (still often a controversial figure) can’t disregard the fact that he was a loving and dutiful father and husband. What are your thoughts on Charles I?

JB: Indeed Charles I was a wonderful husband and father. His marriage started out a bit turbulent, but it flowered into something truly loving. He was remarkable among princes for his marriage, which was of course arranged but became a real love-match. Ironically, that was turned against him during the English Civil War. The Parliamentarians seized his private letters and published some of them. His enemies argued that Henrietta Maria was calling the shots. 

Oliver Cromwell of all people remarked that the sight of Charles playing with three of his children–James, Elizabeth and Henry were imprisoned, as was he– was the most affecting thing imaginable. James absolutely adored his father and he never recovered from his execution. In fact, I believe his life was dedicated to restoring the world that vanished in 1649– though he brought a fresh new formula as well. Also, James learned to be a tender father from his own dad. Samuel Pepys, who worked with James at the Admiralty, remarked on it.

AZ: You and I are both from ‘the New World’ and moved to the UK. For me, I had always been drawn to British history from a young age. Would you say that was the same for you?

JB: Absolutely. In the English-speaking world, it’s our history too, and I think a lot of people from the former British Empire keep in touch with their cultural roots by studying the past. Also there’s a sense of enchantment that many of us want to recover.  And the more I study the 16th and 17th centuries, the more I realise that America was born out of the Tudor and Stuart eras in particular. For example, the Puritan colonies supported the Parliamentarians, while places like Virginia and Maryland supported the Royalists. I think there’s a lot of room for pre-revolutionary American history, which seems neglected. (I made a video series about this!)

AZ: Cool, I’ll have to watch those. Who are some of the historical figures from the Stuart period that first attracted you? Why?

JB: It’s such a rich and rollicking period, and I think the reading public have many treats in store. I was first drawn to Queen Henrietta Maria as well as Charles I. Their daughter, Princess Henrietta of England, is another figure who intrigues me. She married Louis XIV’s brother and is actually the ancestress of the current Jacobite line, since James II’s line died out with Cardinal Prince Henry Benedict Stuart. Also I love Elizabeth Stuart’s children, especially Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Louise Hollandine of the Palatinate, who was a talented painter and abbess.

AZ: Fantastic historical figures, thank you. What’s your writing routine? Do you listen to music when writing?

JB: I can only seem to write between certain hours– 11 am to 4pm – so I have to make sure I’m in place and ready. I think of it as a portal opening, and then the inspiration can occur. I think it’s important to have rituals so that your mind knows it’s time to generate ideas. I do love to listen to music from the era, and luckily the 17th century is so rich in great music. I like to hear William Lawes, Henry Purcell, and Jean-Baptiste Lully. Also, James II played Spanish guitar, so I listen to his favourite sarabande music! Also sometimes I burn certain scented candles, because the sense of smell is so linked to memory and imagination. Anything to trigger the process.

AZ: I love those composers – I’ll have to try the candles sometime, though, I’ve never done that. OK…Fantasy Stuart dinner party time. Who would you invite? What would you serve?

JB: Prince Rupert of the Rhine is my pinup and he was also very creative and knowledgeable, so he would get an invitation. I think Samuel Pepys and his fellow diarist  John Evelyn as well. Maybe I would add in the beautiful Hortense Mancini, who came to England in 1675 after she bolted from her marriage. Officially she was in town to visit her cousin Mary of Modena, James’s second wife. Charles II took Hortense under his wing and she joined his seraglio, but she was famous for her London salon, where she popularised champagne. So there would be loads of that. We would eat pheasant and then strawberries and cream.

Mary of Modena, James’s second wife. © National Portrait Gallery, London

AZ: Sounds tasty! I love who you’ve chosen to invite, as well. Are there any other book projects in the works at the moment? Anything Stuart-related?

JB: Yes indeed, I am working on a book about Mary of Modena (also for Pen & Sword). She is England’s only Italian queen, a member of the d’Este family.  I visited Modena recently and toured the Ducal Palace where she grew up. It will be a real companion piece! It will be called “Mary of Modena: James II’s Dazzling Queen.” James and Mary of Modena eventually fell in love, just as his parents had, and she was a huge support to him. She became the beacon of the Jacobite movement, known as “The Queen over the Water.”

AZ: Oooh! I think she’s a wonderful subject for a book. Good luck with your research and writing, I do hope you’ll come back as one of my guests when that’s out. Thanks so much for spending your time with us today, Justine. I wish you great success with your book. You can buy Justine’s book from any good bookseller or straight from Pen & Sword. Keep it Stuart!

You can follow Justine on the following social media channels:

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Justine’s YouTube channel: Justine Brown’s Bookshelf

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