The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

James III had a choice: to be king, or to be Catholic. He chose wisely.

Alexis Simon Belle, “Portrait of James Francis Edward Stuart”, ca. 1712
Alexis Simon Belle, “Portrait of James Francis Edward Stuart”, ca. 1712 (photo: Public Domain)

Did you know that one man had the choice to be Catholic or to be the King of England?

The amazing story of James III of England goes like this: Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth died without having married or had children. The next in line of succession was James I — the son of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots had been Catholic, but her son James was brought up by Protestants in Scotland and when he came to take the throne of England he continued the Protestant rule of his cousin Elizabeth.

James was succeeded by his son Charles I. Charles I married a French princess who was Catholic. He was very sympathetic to the Catholic cause and was eventually tried, convicted and executed by the Protestant Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell. The time under Protestant rule was called the Commonwealth. It lasted for just 11 years.

In 1660 Charles I’s son (who had escaped to France) was restored to the throne as Charles II. Charles II was married to a Catholic, and although he remained a Protestant to retain his throne, he was received into the Catholic church on his deathbed. 

Charles II died without a legitimate heir, so his brother James, who was a devout Catholic, inherited the throne as James II. The English nobility were not enthusiastic about having a Catholic monarch, but they were content because James II had two daughters—Mary and Anne— who were Protestant, and they were next in line of succession.

But when James remarried and had a son they were not happy. They therefore deposed the king and invited the Protestant Dutch monarch William III — who was married to James’ daughter Mary — to invade England. James II fled the country and William and Mary were crowned as Protestant monarchs of England. 

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. James II lived out the rest of his life in a court in exile claiming to be the rightful King of England. On his death, his son James claimed the crown as James III. Living in France, and later in Rome, James III continued to claim the throne of England. After the death of William and Mary, James’ other half-sister Anne was crowned as Queen. 

When she was about to die in 1714 Harley and Bolingbroke (leading politicians in England) corresponded with James III, offering him the throne of England on Anne’s death if he would only convert to Protestantism. James refused, thus choosing his Catholic faith over the throne of England — choosing, if you like, loyalty to the chair of Peter, steward of Christ the King, over being the monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland.

James III, the man who gave up the throne of England, was married to the daughter of another great Catholic hero: the Polish king Jan Sobieski. Jan Sobieski was the hero of the Battle of Vienna, who charged down with his cavalry—the famous Flying Hussars—to defeat the Muslim armies besieging the city.

James III and his wife Maria had two sons: Charles, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Henry Benedict. Charles continued to claim the English throne and tried unsuccessfully to invade England. 

His brother Henry Benedict became a Catholic priest, eventually a cardinal, and was even considered as a candidate for the papacy. If he had ever assumed the throne of England he would have been King Henry IX—and as a Catholic cardinal a stunning successor to his monstrous predecessor Henry VIII.

James III, his wife Maria Clementina and his sons Charles and Henry are all buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s basilica and a memorial to them can be found in the upper church on a pillar at the northwest corner of the basilica.