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James was the son of the deposed King James II. 'Pretender' in this context means 'claimant', to the thrones of England and Scotland which his father had fled in 1688. The birth of James on 10 June 1688 precipitated the invasion of England by William, Prince of Orange, because he was the heir to the throne and would have been brought up as a Catholic. Conspiracists claimed that the true Prince had died soon after birth and was substituted by a 'warming-pan infant', smuggled into the queen's bed.
James II left England on 23 December 1688 and never returned. James was brought up at the chateau of St-Germain-en-Laye in France. He was declared King James III of England and VIII of Scotland on his father's death in 1701, and was recognized as the rightful monarch by France, Spain and the Pope.
In 1708 James made an attempt to invade Scotland and recapture the throne, but his army was prevented from landing by the British fleet. He spent some time fighting in the French army, but in 1713 was expelled from France as a condition of the country's peace treaty with Great Britain.
Queen Anne, James's half-sister, died in 1714. James refused to convert from Catholicism in order to claim the throne, and it passed to a distant relative, the Protestant Elector of Hanover, who succeeded as King George I. Jacobite supporters used the occasion to attempt a rebellion in 1715. The Scots had been defeated at Sherrifmuir and an English Jacobite rising already defeated at Preston before James landed in Scotland. He made his way to Scone Palace where he set up a court in January 1716, but with government forces approaching, he left Scotland secretly in February. His abandonment of his rebel allies caused ill-feeling against him in Scotland.
After a brief stay in Avignon, the Pope offered James refuge in Rome in 1717. He remained there for the rest of his life. James was involved in an attempted Spanish invasion of Scotland in 1719, but the next (and last) serious Jacobite uprising was led by his son Charles Stuart (1720-1788) in 1745. Charles's defeat at Culloden in 1745 effectively ended Jacobite hopes for the restoration of the throne.