The would-be Catholic monarch of Britain

While visiting Britain, Pope Benedict XVI itinerary included meetingQueen Elizabeth II in Holyroodhouse Palace, her official residence in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

If things had been different, no less than a Catholic cardinal might long ago have reigned in this palace as the British king. 

He would have been “King Henry IX of England and I of Scotland. ” Of course, he never came to the throne. 

In 1688, the British king was James II and VII, of England and Scotland, of the Stuart dynasty, great-grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth I of England had executed. In an interesting turn of events, Mary’s son, James I and VI, succeeded Elizabeth, and it was then that England and Scotland were united as one nation. 

James I was never a Catholic, but his wife, Anne, born a Danish princess, according to some, converted to Catholicism. When James died, his eldest surviving son became Charles I, whose wife was a lifelong Catholic, Henrietta Marie, daughter, sister and aunt of successive French kings. Charles I, however, was not a Catholic. 

Catholic or not, he was a controversial ruler, finally being overthrown and then beheaded. (The Church of England regards him as a saint.) Britain was without a king for a while, although not exactly a republic. After about 10 years the monarchy was reinstated. The elder son of Charles I and Henrietta Marie was called to the throne as Charles II

Charles II, married to Catherine, a Catholic princess from Portugal, ruled for a quarter-century, leaving no legitimate descendants. He converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. His brother, a Catholic, followed as James II and VII. James’ wife, an Italian Catholic, gave birth to a son, who under British law, would be his heir. 

Disgusted at James’ attempts to bring back Catholicism, as it was assumed, and fearing such certainly might happen were his son eventually to become king, a movement rose and overthrew James. After the reigns of the Protestants William and Mary of Orange and Queen Anne, a distant Protestant cousin was brought from Germany to be King George I. Elizabeth II descends from George I. 

All this began a very troubled time in Britain and especially so in Ireland. British law forbade a Catholic monarch, thanks to the 1701 Act of Settlement, which is still in effect. James II and VII always insisted that he was the legal king. After his death, his son declared himself to be “James III and VIII. ” When he died, his son demanded to be recognized as “Charles III. ” 

Surprisingly, since the claimants were Catholics, the Scots rallied around the Stuarts. Twice, bloody civil wars were fought, primarily in Scotland, in 1715, which the Scots call “The ’15, ” and in 1745, “The ’45. ” 

“Charles III” died without legitimate descendants. His brother then became, in theory, “Henry IX and I. ” However, Henry as a young man had chosen to be a priest. He became a bishop and then a cardinal. He never asserted any claim to be king, other than to use a royal coat of arms. He called himself “Cardinal York, ” because as the second son of the king, he said he was the duke of York. 

Time passed. Support for the Stuarts faded. “James III, ” “Charles III” and “Henry IX and I” are entombed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

“James III” and “Charles III,” denied the British throne because of their Catholicity, each made it as far as Edinburgh in their attempts to gain the kingship, and in Edinburgh each in turn occupied Holyroodhouse. 

Had “Henry IX and I” been willing to forsake his vocation, and had he support, he too might have been at Holyroodhouse, and Britain would have had a Catholic cardinal as its king. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.