The Queen of England was on her deathbed without an heir. Exiled to France, the twenty-six-year-old prince was the rightful king. The English courtiers wrote to offer him the throne, but he turned them down.
The story of King James III is a romantic tale of a man who refused to give up his Catholic faith for the throne of England. James’ uncle was King Charles II. After Charles I was beheaded by the parliamentarians, England was without a monarch for twelve years. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne. Under the influence of his Catholic brother and wife, Charles II converted to the Catholic faith on his deathbed. His brother James then became King James II. James II was a Catholic. He assured his Protestant subjects that all he wished to do was to establish religious freedom, but at the birth of a male heir the Protestant powers, fearful that James would establish a Catholic succession, undermined him and installed his Protestant daughter Mary (from his first marriage) and her husband William of Orange on his throne. James fled to France where he established a court in exile.
On his death in 1701 James’ II’s oldest son became the rightful claimant of the throne of England. James Francis Edward Stuart, Prince of Wales was recognized as King James III by France, Spain and the Papal States, but he was accused of treason at home and known by his enemies as “The King Over the Water” or “The Old Pretender.” In 1708 James attempted an invasion of England through Scotland but was intercepted by the English. The French admiral in charge of James’ fleet retreated. By 1710 James’ other half-sister Anne was on the throne of England. She offered for James to be restored to the throne if he converted to the Protestant faith. He refused.
Three years later Queen Anne was close to death. In 1714 her agents were in secret correspondence with James III. They told him the queen was dying and indicated that if he converted to the Protestant faith the way would be open for him to ascend the throne. He wrote, “I have chosen my own course, therefore it is for others to change their sentiments.” Because of James’ refusal to give up his Catholic faith, the English looked for another monarch. More than fifty members of the royal houses of Europe were a closer blood relation to Queen Anne, but they were barred from the throne by their Catholic religion. Therefore at the Queen’s death, a German prince from the House of Hanover was offered the throne of England and became George I.
Pope Clement XI offered the disappointed King the Palazzo Muti in Rome and James set up his court in exile. His attempts to regain the throne failed and he suffered from melancholy and depression. He became known as “Old Mr. Misfortunate” and grew increasingly frail and despondent.
In the meantime his son Charles III (Bonnie Prince Charlie) became the hope of the Jacobites—those who strove for the Stuart Catholic kings to reclaim the throne of England. By 1745 Charles’ attempts at rebellion had also failed and the hopes of the Stuarts were ended. As a fascinating side note, Charles III’s brother Henry became a cardinal in the Catholic Church with the grand title of Henry Benedict Thomas Edward Maria Clement Francis Xavier Stuart, Cardinal Duke of York. On Charles’ death in 1788, the aging Cardinal’s supporters hailed him as King Henry IX. In a strange twist of history the next King Henry after the tyrant who tore England from the Catholic fold was a priest and prince of the Catholic Church.
King James III, who refused to give up his Catholic faith for the throne which was rightly his, is buried in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica along with his sons, King Charles III and King Henry IX, Cardinal Duke of York. You can see their tomb to this day, and as you enter the basilica, if you go down the aisle to the left, high on the first pier to your right you will see the monument to the Stuart Kings of England which reads, “To James III, son of James II, King of Great Britain, to Charles Edward, and to Henry, Dean of the Cardinal Fathers, sons of James III, the last of the Royal House of Stuart, 1819.”
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