Review: The Last Royal Rebel by Anna Keay

In 1648, when future British king Charles II was a teenager living in exile in Europe, he had a fling with a young Welsh adventuress named Lucy Walter. Nine months later she gave birth to their son, James.

From the start, James was a center of controversy. Twice his father tried and failed to have him kidnapped from his disreputable mother. Finally, when the child was nine, Charles succeeded in abducting him. The endearing boy won his father’s affection and a firm place in the royal family and at the Restoration court. Before he was 15, his father had made him the first Duke of Monmouth and married him to a wealthy heiress who brought him the additional title Duke of Buccleuch.

James was a very lucky and well-loved young man. But it all went wrong due to his own unwise choices. The Last Royal Rebel by Anna Keay reveals how this royal darling ended up on an executioner’s block.

I was sent a free copy of this biography to review. Before I read it I knew virtually nothing about Monmouth. The book is an excellent introduction to his life and times.

His personality seems harder to pin down. In his teens, Keay writes, he earned a reputation for being “vicious and idle” due to his extravagant spending, womanizing, and carousing, but then military life caught his fancy and the selfish wastrel was transformed into a heroic soldier and efficient leader. Despite his repeated claims that he had no designs on the throne, he became estranged from his father’s brother and heir, the Duke of York (later James II), and participated in efforts to exclude him from the succession. This brought Monmouth into open conflict with his father, who sent him into exile for a time.

Yet King Charles’s love for Monmouth remained deep and unshakable. After an order was issued for Monmouth’s arrest for allegedly plotting to murder the king and the Duke of York (which Monmouth denied), Monmouth made little effort to hide. His father knew where he was — staying at his mistress’s home, 30 miles from London — but pretended ignorance.

Although one of Monmouth’s co-conspirators committed suicide and another was executed, Monmouth, amazingly, was eventually reconciled with his father. He agreed to sign a statement acknowledging his participation in part of the conspiracy, but soon regretted it because it might hurt others involved in the plot. He begged his father to return the letter he had signed:

With Monmouth utterly adamant, the king was confronted with the prospect not just of losing Monmouth again, but of all he had risked to enable his son to return, and ‘pressed him vehemently to comply’. But there was no moving him. Charles cried, ‘If you do not yield in this you will ruin me,’ but still his son knelt before him, tears tumbling from his eyes in despair and desperation, begging him ‘as the greatest favour he could beg’.

The personal humiliation and political danger that Charles would bring upon himself if he agreed was almost unthinkable… But even in these extreme circumstances, when the king’s fury and frustration were almost overwhelming, his sense of pity and loyalty to his son were unfathomable. Slowly he put the letter into Monmouth’s hand. It was a more profound statement of his love than any other single act of either of their lives.

After his father suddenly died, Monmouth tried to overthrow the new king, James II, and he found his uncle less forgiving than Charles had been. Despite his denials, it is hard to read Monmouth’s life story without suspecting that he did, indeed, hope to become king himself. But Keay believes he was instead motivated by honor, loyalty, justice, and empathy for the persecuted. As she points out, his failed rebellion against James II paved the way for the success of his friend and cousin William III’s Glorious Revolution three years later.

The Last Royal Rebel is as descriptive and dramatic as a good novel, giving both the facts and the flavor of the Duke of Monmouth’s role in Restoration England. If you’re a fan of historical biographies or even historical fiction, I think you’ll enjoy this book as much as I did.

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