James II: The Last Catholic King

Written by David Womersley
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

The shortness of the reign of James II would seem to fit this short book perfectly but there are a lot of events to pack in. Womersley doesn’t just cover James’s reign however, his time as heir to Charles II in fact takes up most of the book’s pages. After a period of intense political instability, the author shows that it was actually a surprise when James succeeded to the throne without major political upset. However, as the author argues rightly, the political misjudgements by James and suspicion of both his Catholicism and his absolutist tendencies soon put an end to that calm beginning. James ended his life in exile in France having lost out to his daughter Mary and her husband William, bemoaning the disloyalty of his former subjects.

While perhaps the biographer should be a little in love with his subject, Womersley can actually find very little positive to say about James and this is very much a Whig history in that regard. The author plainly and solely takes his cue from James’s political enemy Gilbert Burnet and while his thesis is argued cogently, Womersley cannot hide his disdain for his subject.