Spectacle case of King James II, unknown maker, 1685-8
A fascinating late-18th-century letter accompanied these spectacles when they were acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, claiming the case had once belonged to James II (1633-1701). It tells us how the object was passed as a gift from person to person, ending with the writer of the letter.
The letter explains that the case had been in the possession of James II's son, but it does not say how he got it. Catholic James II was on the throne of England for only three years before he was forced to abdicate in favour of Protestant William of Orange in 1688. His son, also called James, consequently lived from infancy in exile in Europe. Known as the Pretender, James tried to seize the English crown in 1715 but failed. He spent most of the rest of his life in Rome where he died in 1766.
One of his followers and part of his court in Rome, Colonel John Hay of Cromling, was married to a Mrs Margery Murray. According to the letter, the Pretender gave the case to her, 'with whom he lived upon the most intimate of terms', implying she was his mistress. For his loyalty the Pretender gave Colonel Hay the title of Earl of Inverness.
The letter tells us that after Colonel Hay’s death 'Mrs Murray, alias Mrs Hay, alias Lady Inverness' lived in Avignon in the south of France, where she was visited in 1756 by Viscountess Dow Primrose. Mrs Hay gave the case to the Viscountess, who in 1770 gave it to her 'Faithful and Dutyful Servant' William Walker, the writer of the letter.
The letter is written in an 18th-century style of handwriting, and the piece of paper has a watermark we can date between 1780 and 1809. William Walker takes the story of the case up to 1770, so he could have written the letter. However, it is more difficult to prove the contents of the letter, leaving us with the tantalising question, ‘were these really James II spectacles?'
Stylistically it is possible James II could have owned the case, but this style of spectacles, known as 'pince nez', is not known before the middle of the 18th century. Notably, William Walker only refers to the case, not the spectacles inside them. It is probable, therefore, that the spectacles were added to the case sometime after he wrote his letter, and were never worn by a king.