James Stuart as Duke of York was the younger brother of Charles II who regained the throne 21 years after the execution of their father, Charles I. On the death of Charles II in 1685 and with no heir, James became King. As a Catholic, James II has traditionally been cast as a cruel absolutist who oversaw a level of tyranny representing an aberration in British history. More recent research, however, reveals a less callous side to this much misunderstood monarch.For example, he was a gifted publicist and showman ahead of his time, shaping his worldview by means of the greatest displays of military force ever assembled on British soil in peacetime. Having suppressed two rebellions following his coronation, James had his official portrait painted in the uniform of a General Officer. In the background is pictured the first of his Royal encampments on Hounslow Heath where the entire British Army was spread out for three miles across the parishes of Twickenham, Isleworth, and Heston.
A place of encampment
Of all the heathlands surrounding London, none better linked each of the primary royal power houses of London, Windsor and Hampton Court than Hounslow Heath. Framed by the River Crane, ancient roads from London to the west provided access at either end of Hounslow Heath in the parishes of Twickenham and Isleworth. A day's march from the Tower of London, James looked to build a citadel here where he could grow his new army. There were, however, strict rules in place governing the enclosure of the heath that even extended to the monarch. There were only two enclosures at this time, which James set about renting. One was Whitton Warren in Twickenham parish owned by Lord John Belasyse of Worlaby, a staunch ally of the King.
A Citadel Close to London
Unlike the grandeur of Charles II's Royal Hospital at Chelsea, founded as a retreat for veterans in 1682, James' Hospital on the banks of the River Crane was built to care for sick and wounded soldiers on active service. Also designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it represented the largest and most impressive building on the local landscape. Today, Hospital Bridge Road roundabout serving the A316 Great Chertsey Road marks the site. Nearby Twickenham School occupies the site of a huge hay and grain barn servicing the needs of the encampment and next to that an industrial bakehouse that produced 2000 loaves of bread a day.
The King's Quarters
The only other enclosure available to James on Hounslow Heath was seven fields off the Staines Road in the Parish of Heston. Today home to a recycling yard and an industrial estate, the site still carries the name of St Albans Farm named after James’ nephew, the Duke of St Albans, the illegitimate son of Nell Gwynne and Charles II. It was here that James established his head quarters within a corrall of re-planted mature trees embracing the grand tented pavilions of his close court, the Royal kitchen and the King's mobile tabernacle.
Prospect of the Royal Army
The Great Encampment of 1686 was advertised widely by means of early programmes outlining events or reporting on them. These Prospects as they were known were produced and distributed by several London printers. As a result, many thousands of spectators flocked to see the entire British army train and take part in mock battle on Hounslow Heath. Put to music, this concept was effectively the precursor to the Royal Tournament and military tattoo still popular the world over.
Mock Siege of Buda
Buda was the historic capital of the Kingdom of Hungary. It was conquered by theTurks in 1541 and lay under Ottoman rule for the next 145 years. With the assistance of Rome, an alliance against the Turks Known as The Holy League eventually returned the city to Christendom in 1686. James II took this demonstration of Papal power as the theme for his 1687 encampment, constructing Buda Hill and the River Danube out of the heathland complete with Castle that was systematically destroyed according to the script laid down by eyewitness accounts of the Great Siege itself.
An inglorious end
The so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended the briefest and one of the most perplexing passages in British royal history. In a mad rush to erase this uneasy chapter from the country’s collective memory, much of the historic record of James’ reign, including his encampments on Hounslow Heath either went missing or were misplaced. As a result, the identification and management of the historic record of Hounslow Heath has remained as obscure and often as inaccurate as the life and times of James II.