|James II and VII, by Peter Lely|
In the Whig histories of the nineteenth century James II was vilified as a potential absolutist who wanted to rule without Parliament and to force Catholicism on the nation. However, most historians now believe that his aim was not to force Catholicism on the nation or to rule without Parliament. He was especially sensitive to the charge that he was a client of Louis XIV and was eager to assert England’s independence. His aim was to establish the rights of Catholics to worship without persecution and to take full part in the political life of the country: but to do this he would have to persuade Parliament to repeal the penal laws, the Corporation Act of 1661 and the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678. He believed that once this was done Catholicism would triumph without any compulsion from the state.
However, this belief shows his political naivety. He completely misunderstood the nature of English anti-Catholicism, failed to empathize with the profound anti-popery of the majority of his subjects, and was unable to realize that his actions were likely to be misinterpreted. In his attempts to alleviate the rigours of religious discrimination, he had to fall back on the royal prerogative at a time when the association of ‘popery’ and ‘arbitrary power’ was taken for granted. His naturally authoritarian temperament did not help.