James Crofts was the eldest and most beloved of Charles II’s horde of illegitimate children but his dramatic life was destined to end in tragedy.
Charles II began an affair with a young English refugee, Lucy Walters, whilst in exile in 1658—his first serious liaison. James was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands on 9 April 1649 which Charles acknowledged the boy as his son.
John Evelyn described Lucy as a “brown, beautiful, bold but insipid creature”.
The appealing dark-eyed Lucy came from a respectable Welsh Family in Haverfordwest, and her mother was a niece of the Earl of Carberry, but she was considered unsuitable for Charles.
The infant became known as James Crofts after his guardian, Lord Crofts.
Lucy proved an unfit mother as she took numerous lovers and even accused of murder. Charles refused to have anything more to do with Lucy.
However, Charles was concerned about his son’s welfare and made several attempts to remove James from her care. He eventually succeeded so James lived with his grandmother Henrietta Maria in 1658.
Lucy died impoverished and unmourned in Paris later that year.
Duke of Monmouth
James was renamed Fitzroy, when Charles was restored to the English throne in 1660. He was welcomed at court where he was showered with titles, including the Duke of Monmouth, and commands.
Monmouth married the wealthy Anne Scott 4th Countess of Buccleuch on 20 April 1663, when he was fourteen, and took his wife’s name. They produced seven children.
He grew into a handsome, charming and popular young man but Charles proved to be an indulgent parent. Monmouth was involved in scandals but he had a dark side. He was spoiled, badly educated with an ugly violent streak. He was personally involved in a murder so Charles was obliged to grant his son a pardon of all murders, homicides and felonies.
An Alternative Heir
Monmouth was indisputably Protestant despite his faults. He became a popular alternative to Charles’ heir, James Duke of York.
He chose a career in the army as he acquired a great military reputation, so by 1678 he was promoted to Oliver Cromwell’s old office of Captain General, or Commander-in-Chief.
Monmouth was successful in crushing a revolt of Scottish Coventanters at Bothwell Bridge on 22 June 1679.
His illegitimacy remained a sensitive issue, but persistent rumours circulated that Charles had secretly married Lucy Walter. There were supposed to be witnesses and a black box allegedly containing irrefutable written evidence.
This was never produced so the King finally ended mounting speculation by issuing a denial which was published in the London Gazette (8 June 1679).
Anti-Catholic sentiment increased after the Duke of York’s marriage to Mary Beatrice of Modena in 1673, the Popish Plot in 1678 and several politicians pushing for the passing of the Exclusion Bill in 1680 to prevent James from the succession.
Charles firmly opposed the Exclusion Bill because he could not set aside his brother’s rightful claims, even for a beloved son.
Monmouth was deprived of his commands and exiled to Holland. Charles was angry when Monmouth was back in London weeks later where a celebration held in his honour, fit for the heir to the throne.
The Exclusion Bill was defeated in October after a fierce and lengthy debate. It was a considerable triumph for Charles, but the Earl of Shaftesbury demanded Monmouth should be legitimised, but Charles refused because it was against divine justice and the law of the land.
Rye House Plot
The Rye House Plot in 1683 involved the assassination of Charles and James, and to proclaim Monmouth as King. An ambush was planned as the royal party returned from Newmarket, but the King’s travel plans changed unexpectedly so the conspiracy collapsed. Some turned informers and the story was exposed. Many great Whig lords (and Monmouth’s supporters) were incriminated. Some were executed, including William Lord Russell and Algernon Sidney, but the Earl of Essex committed suicide in his cell. Monmouth went into hiding, with a bounty of £500 for his capture. Charles did not make an effort to bring his son to justice, but he offered reconciliation.
Monmouth agreed to sign a document admitting his guilt, and Charles agreed to pardon him. He surrendered on 24 November, but his friends persuaded Monmouth to change his mind, much to Charles’ fury. Monmouth again fled into exile.
Charles was no doubt saddened by the rift in their relationship so he again sought reconciliation. Monmouth was allegedly seen at Whitehall in November 1684 but no one knows what was said.
Monmouth received a letter saying he was welcome to return to court in February.
Charles died on 6 February 1685 before he returned.
Monmouth was executed for his reckless attempt to seize the throne by force.
Duchess Anne was allowed to retain her own Scottish Buccleuch title, although her husband’s were swallowed up in his disgrace.
Falkus, Christopher, The Life and Times of Charles II, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, London, 1972 (Reprinted 1984)
Fraser, Antonia, Charles II: His Life and Times (Abridged, illustrated format), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1993
Starkey, David, Monarchy: From the Middle Ages To Modernity, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006
Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776, Volume 2, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001
Weir, Alison, Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy, Vintage Books, London, 2008
© 2010 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 16 April 2010.