In this blog, the first in a series of posts by the History team looking at sites of historical interest in Portsmouth, David Andress, Professor in Modern History at Portsmouth, reveals the fascinating history of King James’s Gate, an almost-unique monument to a monarch who fled the country he ruled. Dave specialises in the history of the French Revolution, and of the social and cultural history of conflicts in Europe and the Atlantic world more generally in the period between the 1760s and 1840s. He teaches across the undergraduate degree, and currently delivers core teaching on methodologies, as well as contributing his specialist knowledge of eighteenth-century and revolutionary France to first- and third-year modules.
Around a hundred metres from the home of University of Portsmouth’s History team, there stands an intriguing marker of historical change.
King James’s Gate is now little more than an ornament on the boundary of the United Services Sports Ground, but when it was erected in 1687, it was one of the principal entrances to Portsmouth’s state-of-the-art fortifications, and a symbol of resurgent absolutist monarchy.
King James II had come to the throne in 1685, succeeding his brother Charles II, and seeing off a rebellion led by his illegitimate nephew the Duke of Monmouth. The fate of the rebels gave to English history the legend of the ‘Bloody Assizes‘ and the merciless ‘hanging judge’ Jeffreys, who was made Lord Chancellor after presiding over more than 300 executions and 800 deportations. Four years later, Jeffreys would die in the Tower of London, after King James had fled the country in the face of invading Dutch forces, invited by the Protestant political elite in what became known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’.
James’s short and catastrophic reign, marked by fear of the imposition of Catholicism, left Portsmouth’s gate as an almost-unique relic of his rule. Inscribed in Latin ‘Jacobus Secundus Rex A Reg III A Domi 1687’ – King James II in the third year of his reign, the year of our lord 1687 – it formed part of the modernisation of Portsmouth’s defences as England’s foremost naval port, and literal gateway to a global empire.
As Duke of York under his brother’s reign, James II had been a noted naval commander, serving as titular head of the navy as Lord High Admiral (and Governor of Portsmouth), and directing naval strategy through two Anglo-Dutch wars in the 1660s and 1670s. He was also a leading figure in the Royal African Company, a state-backed slave-trading enterprise.
Naval campaigning in these wars united control over such activities with expansion of territory in the Americas, where the colony of New York was named in James’s honour after being captured, as New Netherland, from the Dutch. Under Charles II and James II, English settlements in the region were united into Viceroyalties under authoritarian governors, with the clear aim of expanding them as tightly-controlled subsidiaries of royal rule. The Glorious Revolution saw local settlers regain autonomy that they would continue to fight for down to the American Revolution – while also, of course, continuing to expand their slaveholding practices.
The gate that now stands rather forlornly on Burnaby Road is thus an emblem of a different absolutist vision of British Empire, that would nonetheless have been held together by the strength of the Royal Navy just as the post-1689 one was. Its architecture became something of an embarrassment in the late nineteenth century, and it was dismantled in the 1860s and kept in storage for several decades before being re-erected on its current site.
For more information on the gate’s history follow this link