On Monday I led some prayers on Trafalgar Square for the repose of the soul of our last Catholic king, James II. This happens every year, around the time of the King's birthday (14 October), and is organised by the Royal Stuart Society. At the end of the service a wreath was laid on the splendid statue outside the National Gallery by the Society's Chairman, Lord Aylmer.
I chose as my theme the final years of the exiled King's life. By the time of his death in 1701, James had gained a reputation for sanctity and the cause for his beatification was even launched. He had kept an almost monastic daily routine of morning prayer, meditation, two Masses, vespers and rosary. He also received Holy Communion twice a week (which was, at the time, very unusual), made a monthly day of recollection, said prayers for the Conversion of England every third Wednesday and undertook bodily penances. He was a living example of the teachings of St Francis de Sales, whose works he read every day and who taught that the pursuit of holiness was possible amidst the distractions and trials of the world.
The King came under a number of spiritual influences during his second period of exile. He had a Jesuit confessor and read many books of piety written by members of the Society – making it rather appropriate that he was mistaken as a Jesuit priest when he was captured at Faversham. He had a great affection for the English Benedictines in Paris, at whose church his mortal remains were eventually buried. He also visited with his wife the Visitation Convent at Chaillot, where his mother’s heart was enshrined. Mary of Modena was a frequent guest at this house and made her annual retreats there; James, on the other hand, from 1690 onwards made his retreats at the reformed Cistercian Abbey of La Trappe. He enjoyed a close relationship with the influential Abbot which, according to the historian John Callow, was ‘possibly the only lasting and entirely satisfying attachment that James made outside his family circle during his last exile.’ James admitted that it took his first visit to the austere monastery ‘to give me knowledge of myself and make me despise all that seems great in the world.’ The Abbot, likewise, was impressed by the King’s ‘tranquillity and evenness of mind’ and ‘his disengagement from worldly things and a resignation to the will of God.’
In his exile, James learnt to trust in the plan that God had for him, even though to human eyes it often seemed harsh and confusing. In his view, the loss of his Kingdom would allow him to save his soul. He came to see his own sufferings as expiation for past sins and in particular regretted his relationships with various mistresses: Lady Denham, the Countess of Dorchester, Arabella Churchill and Goditha Price. Perhaps he saw further reparation for these sins when, in 1690, his daughter by Arabella Churchill was professed as Dame Ignatia at the English Benedictine convent at Pontoise – a ceremony at which Mary of Modena was present.
Though he continued to promote his cause, the King was humble enough to walk the way of Calvary. Indeed, he had a great devotion to the cross – it was, after all, on the Feast of the Finding of the Cross that he had been crowned at Westminster Abbey; it was on Good Friday 1701 that he suffered the beginning of his final illness, and it was on a Friday at three in the afternoon – the very hour of the Lord’s death – that James passed away.
Labels: History, Jacobites