In this second part of our series exploring royal connections with London’s central square, we turn our focus to a figure shrouded in controversy: James II. As of August 2023, his statue, located in front of the National Gallery on the west side of the square, is encased in a box due to ongoing renovations. This has sparked a debate about whether it should ever be unveiled again. Let’s delve into the complex legacy of James II to understand why.
James II’s Statue and Its History
The statue of James II depicts him in a Roman Emperor’s uniform, a piece crafted in 1686. Initially positioned at the back of the Banqueting House, part of the
Whitehall Palace complex, it has seen various relocations. After being taken down by William III, it was finally placed in its current location in 1947.
The Monarch’s Reign and Exile
James II ascended the throne following the death of his brother, Charles II. He was also James VII of Scotland, a title he held due to the union of the crowns in 1603. His devout Roman Catholic faith led to his forced abdication, favouring his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. Following
the birth of his son in 1688, James II was exiled to France. His return in 1690 to reclaim the throne ended in defeat at the Battle of the Boyne.
James II also faced exile after the English Civil War and the execution of his uncle, Charles I. The Act of Settlement of 1701, barring Roman Catholics from the monarchy, affected his lineage, eventually leading to the ascension of George I in 1714.
The Darker Side: The Royal African Company
The most troubling aspect of James II’s legacy is his role as the head of the Royal African Company. Established in 1660, this company was responsible for trading more enslaved individuals across the Atlantic than any other institution of its time. It’s estimated that 212,000 men, women, and children were sold into slavery between 1662 and 1731, with approximately 44,000 dying during the transatlantic journey. The company branded some enslaved people with “RAC” (Royal African Company) or “DY” (Duke of York).
In 2021, the controversy surrounding James II’s involvement in the slave trade led to a review of his portrait at 11 Downing Street. King Charles III has since supported a study into the royal family’s historic links to the slave trade, set to report in 2025.
The Legacy Beyond England
James II’s influence extended beyond England. New York was named after him when he was the Duke of York, following England’s acquisition of Manhattan from the Dutch in 1664. Albany, the capital of New York State, also bears his title as Duke of Albany.
A Surprising Friendship
An intriguing aspect of James II’s life was his friendship with Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-Tsung, the first person of Chinese heritage to settle in England. Both devout Roman Catholics, they formed a bond, and James II had Shen’s portrait painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. This painting now resides at Windsor Castle.
The life and reign of James II present a complex tapestry of power, faith, and moral ambiguity. His involvement in the slave trade casts a long shadow over his legacy, raising important questions about how history remembers and commemorates such figures. As we continue to grapple with these aspects of our past, the debate over James II’s statue in London remains a poignant reminder of our ongoing journey to understand and reckon with history.