James VI of Scotland and I of England
||19 June 1566 - Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
||27 March 1625 - Theobalds, Hertfordshire
James, was the only son of Mary, queen of Scots (1542–1587), and her second husband, Henry Stewart,
Lord Darnley (1545/6–1567).
James's birth occurred three months after the conspiracy which led to the savage murder in Mary's
presence of her Italian favourite David Riccio, which she chose to believe was aimed at her own life, and
that of her unborn son. She was wrong about that; no one was stupid enough to endanger the succession.
But it produced the final breakdown of her marriage to the witless drunkard Darnley. Although she was
careful to proclaim the child's legitimacy publicly, in the summer and autumn of 1566 she distanced
herself further from his father. The last semblance of normality in a deepening political crisis was
James's magnificent baptism in the Chapel Royal of Stirling Castle on 17 December, a brilliant court
spectacle which showed that in at least one area of monarchy Mary did have considerable skill; but even
this was marred by Darnley's highly embarrassing refusal to attend, despite being resident in the castle.
Apparently when James was one day old the general assembly of the kirk had sent John Spottiswoode,
superintendent of Lothian, to congratulate the queen on the birth and request a protestant baptism for
the infant. Given James to hold, Spottiswoode had prayed over him, and asked him to say ‘amen’; some kind
of gurgling sound from the tactful child seems to have satisfied the godly minister. However, James was
baptized a Catholic, with the names Charles James—the first name after his godfather Charles IX, king of
France, the second the traditional name of Stewart kings. It showed the greater importance his mother
attached to the French than the Scottish monarchy, as did her adoption of the Frenchified version of the
family name, Stuart. No one, it appears, agreed with her; it was by the Scottish name James that he was
After the baptism there was no normality. On 14 January 1567 the queen removed herself and her son
from Stirling, considered too close to territory dominated by the affinity of James's ambitious grandfather,
Matthew Stewart, thirteenth or fourth earl of Lennox, to the relative safety of the palace of Holyrood in
Edinburgh. The ailing Darnley, persuaded to leave his father's protection, was also brought to the
outskirts of the city, but was murdered at Kirk o'Field on the night of 9–10 February. In March James was
taken back to Stirling under the care of his governor, John Erskine, earl of Mar; one last meeting with
his mother took place there on 21 April. On 15 May she made her fatal remarriage to the man widely
believed to have murdered Darnley, James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, an act which temporarily united the
political nation against her. Having surrendered to confederate lords (including Mar) on 15 June, Mary
was incarcerated at Lochleven Castle on the 16th. Under duress and prostrated by a miscarriage, she
signed a deed of abdication on 24 July, whereupon James became king. He was crowned as a protestant,
still only thirteen months old, on 29 July at Stirling parish church.
Every monarch since 1406 had come to the throne as a minor. James VI was the third successive monarch
to have acceded in infancy: his grandfather James V had been eighteen months old when he became king in
1513; his mother Mary only a week old in 1542. The Stewart kings had a lamentable habit of dying young;
the political nation had to cope with the consequences, and cope remarkably well it had done. During
minorities the magnates had controlled the affairs of the kingdom. An absence of any aggressive or
militant foreign policy meant that war was rare and thus that the Scottish crown did not bear down
heavily on its subjects with endless demands for men and money. Hence political tensions were fewer, and
at the beginning of James VI's reign the Scottish localities remained autonomous, to what was by then a
highly unusual degree. Ties of kinship were still fundamental, written bonds of lordship and allegiance
continued to be made, and the blood feud as a force for local stability and the resolution of crime, as
well as in its more literally bloody form, was still alive and flourishing.
Previous monarchs had inherited on the death of a king, but Mary remained alive to cause trouble and
present a grievous political problem for a further twenty years. This was compounded by the immense
problem of religious reformation, new in the minority of Mary but still evolving in that of her son. A
nobility, itself divided over religion, had to find a solution to religious crisis, and following the
success of the protestant party in 1559–60, increasingly had to do so in the context of a confusion of
traditional foreign policy. Many of the Scottish élite became less interested in ties to the ‘auld allie’,
France, as the cornerstone of that policy and began to develop at least a veneer of friendship with the
‘auld inemie’, England.
In his early years James was very much a background figure, secure in his nursery and schoolroom. The
choice of his principal tutor, appointed when he was four, was obvious: George Buchanan, noted European
humanist, exponent of resistance theory, and slanderer of his mother, to which attributes could be added
a fair degree of sadism; beating ‘the Lord's Anointed’ was not just a matter of discipline but of
satisfaction. At the end of his life the king still had nightmares about Buchanan, although by that time,
with Buchanan long dead, he could also express pride in having a tutor of great academic distinction, as
he did when complimented by an English courtier on his pronunciation of Latin and Greek. But his tuition
was leavened by the presence of his other tutor, the much gentler Peter Young, who later accompanied
James to England, and whose son Patrick Young, a leading Greek scholar, became keeper of the king's
library. By 1583 James already had a substantial library, based partly on the remnants of Mary's, and
partly on the books his tutors bought for him (though Buchanan was apparently too mean to contribute free
copies of his own works); it was heavily classical, but also included history, political theory, theology,
languages, geography, mathematics—and also, for lighter reading and for sport, romances, bows and arrows,
golf clubs, and hunting gloves. Not quite, then, all work and no play, although James's daily educational
routine was formidable, producing his famous remark that ‘they gar me speik Latin ar I could speik Scotis’
(G. F. Warner and J. P. Gilson, Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Old Royal and King's Collections,
1921, p. xxviii). It was an ordered existence, which despite all its harshness inculcated a love of
learning which marked him out in later life as a phenomenon who went well beyond the norm of highly
educated early modern kings. His passion for scholarship was utterly natural and deep-rooted.
That ordered existence was in stark contrast to the lack of order in the world outside. The united
front against Mary in summer 1567 had dissolved by the end of the year. She escaped from Lochleven in May
1568; but her defeat by her half-brother James Stewart, earl of Moray, at Langside and her lunatic flight
to England, which she apparently believed would inspire Elizabeth to restore her to her Scottish throne,
left her supporters leaderless. Moray had become regent in 1567; and initially both sides appealed to
Elizabeth, in two conferences, at York and Westminster in 1568–9. The astonishing outcome was that
although Moray, with great reluctance, produced the casket letters—those letters written, or alleged to
have been written, by Mary to Bothwell, making clear her involvement in the Darnley murder—Elizabeth
pronounced that nothing had been proved prejudicial to Mary's honour. But it was Moray who went back to
Scotland, with £5000 of English money. It was no doubt a realistic assessment of the Scottish political
situation, even if it meant Elizabeth paying for her own ambiguity. Moray himself was assassinated in
January 1570, and Scotland lurched into a slogging and low-key civil war which dragged on until 1573,
when Edinburgh Castle finally fell to the king's party. By then two more of James's regents, his
grandfather the earl of Lennox (elected in July 1570) and John Erskine, earl of Mar (elected in September
1571), were dead—Lennox, like Moray, by violence; the fourth regent, James Douglas, fourth earl of Morton,
came to office in November 1572.
The 1570s saw rather more political stability, and a switch away from the problem of Mary to the
growing division between those who favoured an episcopal reformed church and those who, led by Andrew
Melville, utterly rejected any notion of royal supremacy and episcopacy, which was to live on as the
major political as well as religious issue of the 1580s and 1590s. Melville himself returned from Geneva
in 1574 primarily as an educational reformer, transforming the three universities. But an educational
fighter can equally be a religious fighter, and that was what, by 1578, Melville had become, picking up
on the strongly anti-Erastian stance of John Knox and his fellow reformers of the 1560s, and going beyond
them with his championing of presbyterianism. The struggle was in its infancy under the pro-English Morton,
but it was there. Morton himself lost the regency in March 1578, in a messy coup d'état led by Colin
Campbell, sixth earl of Argyll, and John Stewart, fourth earl of Atholl, with the king as its figurehead,
although not in his own estimation; for James, three months short of his twelfth birthday, cheerfully
announced his capacity to rule, and followed this up with a spectacular entry into Edinburgh in 1579, in
which God and Bacchus both featured prominently, as they would throughout King James's life. It was in
September this year that his cousin Esmé Stuart came over from France, to become the king's first
‘favourite’. Elevated to the earldom of Lennox (the existing holder of the title, Robert Stewart, bishop
of Caithness, having yielded to royal pressure to resign it) in 1580 and then raised to a dukedom in
1581, Lennox was loathed as a pro-French Catholic who enjoyed all too much of the king's favour.
Much has been made of James as the lonely teenager desperate for affection, and no doubt this played a
part. But what we are seeing here is the start of a pattern which was repeated in the case of James's
other three great favourites: George Gordon, earl of Huntly; and, in England, Robert Carr, earl of
Somerset, and George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. James had asserted his kingship, not his loneliness;
his authority, not his dependence. Lennox, like his successors, appeared on the scene and demonstrated
his usefulness, in this case in the factional struggles surrounding the king, notably in his part in
Morton's final downfall. Young though James still was, there were those who were already becoming
worryingly aware that the Scottish king might well be an unpredictable force to be reckoned with. In 1578
Elizabeth had had her first unpalatable taste of James's refusal to be browbeaten by the middle-aged and
experienced monarch. His response to her furious support of Morton was a letter fulsome in its phraseology,
and determined in its refusal to do what she wished. He did promise the queen that the former regent
would not be executed, but he did nothing to prevent that eventuality when it occurred in June 1581. It
was not Lennox's supposed dominance which provoked Elizabeth's impassioned outburst against ‘that false
Scots urchin’ and his double-dealing (CSP Spain, 1580–86, 207–8), nor the comments of her ambassadors
Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, and Thomas Randolph about his perspicacity, fair speeches, and talent for
dissimulation, ‘wherein he is in his tender years more practised than others forty years older than he’
(CSP Scot., 1581–3, 26). No wonder. Earlier that year that Mary, queen of Scots, had once more made a bid
for a return to the political limelight with her proposal for an association where she should rule
Scotland as joint monarch with James. Nothing would have suited Elizabeth more than to have the scandalous
and discredited queen out of England with the additional advantage of re-creating political instability
in Scotland that the proposal for divided sovereignty seemed to promise. James, by contrast, saw no need
for guidance from his surrogate mother of England or his real mother of Scotland; he made some personal
statements of affection, and stopped decisively there. He interviewed secretly some of the Spanish agents
intriguing on Mary's behalf but gave neither help nor encouragement.
There was one final desperate effort to contain James's burgeoning assertion of kingship with the
Ruthven raid of 1582. On 28 August a group of hardline presbyterian nobles under William Ruthven, first
earl of Gowrie, kidnapped the king and placed him under house arrest in Ruthven Castle. Lennox fled to
France, where he died the following May, and for ten months power was exercised by the ‘raiders’, with
the approval of Elizabeth and support from the city of Edinburgh and the general assembly of the kirk.
But in June 1583 James escaped and declared his intention to be a ‘universal king’, above faction. With
conservatives and moderates at his back and with James Stewart, earl of Arran, emerging as the leader of
an administration committed to following an independent middle way, James then showed what that meant by
turning savagely on Gowrie, who was executed on 2 May 1584. There was nothing here of his mother's
inability to control those who rebelled against her nor the ditherings of Elizabeth over the execution
of Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, after the rising of the northern earls in 1569 and even the Ridolfi
plot of 1571. The circumstances of James's accession, the continuing existence of his mother, the
interference by Elizabeth, the religious and political tensions within Scotland: all these had posed
serious and novel threats to the prestige and authority of the Scottish crown. None seems seriously to
have worried King James. The minority ended on a high note of royal confidence. Arran became chancellor
on 15 May and three days later John Maitland of Thirlstane became secretary; important legislation to
enhance royal power soon followed. Although Arran fell from office in November 1585 with the return from
exile of some of Gowrie's supporters, much of his administration and its outlook survived.
It used to be thought that James's main problem lay in the need to restrain a nobility who for two
centuries had enjoyed an unusual level of political control and was far too powerful. But even the
peculiarly difficult minority of James VI did not alter the pattern of the minorities. In every case
factions such as the Ruthvens grabbed control of the king's person; in every case their efforts were
short-lived, and they came to grief. Moreover, the very nature of Scottish society meant that
faction-fighting was largely confined to the centre, and did not spill over into the localities. In
every reign there were individual aristocratic rogue elephants. James had four: William Ruthven, first
earl of Gowrie; his sons John Ruthven, the third earl, and Alexander Ruthven, master of Ruthven, who had
the starring parts in the mysterious Gowrie conspiracy of 1600 (see below); and the erratic and
unpredictable Francis Stewart, fifth earl of Bothwell, in some ways the equivalent of the second earl of
Essex in England, even to the extent of bursting in on his monarch when the latter was still undressed
in the bedchamber. But what the history of the Scottish monarchy in the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries shows is that strong nobles wanted strong kings with whom they could link their fortunes and
from whom they could receive the rewards obtainable from the greatest patron in the land. This is
evocatively manifest in the remarkable custom, which came into existence in the mid-fifteenth century in
the second of the minorities, that of James II, whereby kings when they reached majority issued acts of
revocation cancelling all minority grants on the ground that they should not be bound by such grants
made in their name but over which they had no control. James's own view of the matter is seen in the
extent of his appointments of aristocrats to major offices of state, such as John Graham, third earl of
Montrose, who became chancellor in 1599, after a period as treasurer beginning in 1584.
The major problems of the reign of James VI were very different. There was a rapid development in
Scottish central government. Scotland in 1603 was a very different place from the Scotland of 1580. What
is open to debate, though, is how far this was inspired by as well as presided over by the king. It may
be that James, with an eye to his English future, wanted a more ‘modern’, more centralized kingdom from
which to launch his English kingship. But that is probably to read back too much from that endlessly
misunderstood, decontextualized, and over-quoted phrase plucked from his speech to his English
parliament in 1607, ‘here I sit and governe it [Scotland] with my Pen, I write and it is done’ (James
VI and I: Political Writings, 173). This had some truth, in that inevitably absentee government involved
government by post, but as a claim to power it would have been nonsense even if made by the most mighty
of early modern kings, and it makes no sense at all as a description of how James had ruled his Scottish
kingdom before 1603.
There is only one area, indeed, where James's responsibility for the change cannot be doubted:
taxation. Scotland suffered as much as England would later do from his hopeless extravagance: any money
James had—and it must be admitted that, given the depleted revenues of the Scottish crown, that was not
much—he spent. Inevitably there was a sudden increase in expenditure as James emerged from the austere
confines of the schoolroom, but the reorganization of the royal household by Lennox (who like later
favourites was generously rewarded by the king) in 1580–81 entailed both a substantial increase in
staff (to twenty-four gentlemen of the chamber and a guard of sixty men-at-arms) and a pursuit of
recreation and pleasure that scandalized Lennox's enemies in the kirk. In the same period regular
taxation was introduced into Scotland for the first time: at a meeting of the convention of estates in
February 1581 it was resolved that £40,000 Scots be raised for the country's defence. Years of political
stability were in themselves expensive, but also encouraged a hand-to-mouth attitude to running the
royal household which was inimical to prudent budgeting. Once stability came the attitude proved
difficult to shed and new financial commitments appeared which easily swallowed up the annual pension of
£4000 advanced by Elizabeth from 1586. A royal marriage promised a useful dowry but provided the
occasion for conspicuous expenditure in the short and longer term.
The idea of a Danish match for James was being discussed from 1581, and a series of negotiations took
place between 1585 and 1589. Another possibility, introduced in 1587, was Henri of Navarre's sister
Catherine de Bourbon, but the future Henri IV wanted military support in his struggle for the French
throne, which James could not or would not give, especially as Henri could not afford a generous dowry.
The better choice remained a daughter of the Danish king Frederick II, and James married his younger
daughter Anne (Anna) of Denmark (1574–1619)—with a more acceptable dowry, if one cut down from the
outrageous Scottish demand for £1 million Scots to £150,000 Scots. However, this was counterbalanced by
the £100,000 Scots levied within Scotland to pay for attendant festivities. With a dash of real romance,
James emulated his grandfather James V, who had had a splendid nine-month holiday in France when
claiming his bride, François I's daughter Madeleine. When storms prevented Anne coming to Scotland in
1589 following her proxy marriage to him on 20 August, he sailed to Oslo, and had an equally enjoyable
if rather shorter holiday, between November 1589 and April 1590, celebrating the marriage ceremony in
church on 23 November, travelling about, having intellectual discussions with leading Scandinavian
theologians and scientists, and falling in love with his new wife.
Fifteen-year-old Anna, as she was known in Scotland, received a gilded welcome in her new country and
a splendid coronation at Holyrood Abbey on 17 May 1590. Subsequently her developed artistic, dramatic,
and musical tastes and her dynastic success—five royal children born in Scotland, of whom two sons and
a daughter survived to accompany their parents to England—contributed to continuing high expenditure.
The baptism of Prince Henry Frederick (1594–1612) was celebrated with banquets, masques, and tilts and
occasioned a levy of £100,000 Scots (an increase of 800 per cent on that levied for James's own baptism).
The prince's removal from his mother and placing in the care of the earl of Mar, though well precedented,
set a pattern of parallel royal households as well as causing unfortunate friction between Anne and
James. His younger sister Elizabeth (1596–1662) and younger brother Charles (1600–1649) were also
Attempts to increase income met with limited success. Debasement of the coinage between 1583 and 1596
through reduction of its silver content produced a paper profit but exacerbated the inflation which
depressed the real income of all European rulers at this period. Improved customs revenues and more
efficient collection of fines constituted a drop in the ocean. Various efforts were made by harassed
royal officials to control the king and thus address expenditure. Thus in December 1591 the response to
his bad-tempered suggestion that his exchequer officials had more care for themselves than for his
interests produced by return of post six furious pages in which his shortcomings were clearly laid out.
Their fury was entirely understandable: as they complained, for example, the answer to James's naïve
question about whether the royal palace of Linlithgow was his wife's or the lord justice clerk's was
that thanks to his muddling it was both. A gentler, but equally ineffective, attempt was made in 1596.
In a carefully stage-managed piece of play acting his queen (not a lightweight, as traditionally viewed,
but a significant player in the factional politics of the decade) presented him with a bag of gold
coins at new year. Asked by an astonished king how she had amassed it, she explained that it was a
matter of careful household management. James promptly took over her household officials, the eight
Octavians. They lasted for less than a year. As the earl of Salisbury and Lionel Cranfield later found,
the king had periods of genuine good intentions, but they did not last, caught as he was between the
necessity of fiscal control and the demands made on his patronage, for stinginess was a notably
unacceptable royal attribute. Hence his request for regular subsidies. The effect was that the
government was now pressing on the governed in a new way, and was thus beginning to alter the
traditional relationship between centre and locality.
Beyond this, however, factors other than King James were creating the pressures transforming Scottish
central government. One such pressure came from the increasingly literate and ambitious lairds, with
their demands for place in court and government, made all the more compelling when the kirk in 1584
pulled its ministers firmly out of state service. The demand was not new. One of James's greatest
officials from the lay élite was John Maitland of Thirlestane, secretary and then chancellor, son of
Richard Maitland of Lethington, poet and keeper of the privy seal, and brother of Mary's brilliant
secretary William Maitland of Lethington. It was a family which can be likened to the Cecils in England,
moving in from its local base to make its fortune in crown service, and being rewarded by a peerage and
a new level of prestige back in the locality. The Maitlands, Alexander Seton of Fyvie, George Home of
Spott, Thomas Hamilton of Binning: these and others like them became prominent in the king's government
before 1603, and after 1603 found that James's removal to England meant that an aristocratically minded
king now raised them to the peerage, giving them the dignity and status in the political nation
traditionally associated with the landed aristocracy, and in effect creating a noblesse de robe which
would govern Scotland in his name. Yet the king's attitude to such a change was not entirely clear-cut.
Thus after the death of Maitland on 3 October 1595 he removed himself firmly from his capital, going off
to Linlithgow to escape the demands of the ‘faccaneres’ or ‘faccioners’ at court (CSP Scot., 12.6), with
their intriguing and their incessant fascination with the subject of Maitland's successor; and at the
same time he was deeply concerned that the death of the earl of Atholl without heirs would leave
Perthshire without its natural means of control. This was a highly traditional view of how power in the
Scottish state should work. And his solution to the pressure of the factionists, which was to keep the
office of chancellor vacant until January 1599, hardly suggests a king primarily interested in the
institutional workings of central government. It was, after all, not so much the monarch as his new
nobles and the rising breed of professional lawyers whose view of the kingdom of Scotland no longer
regarded as acceptable the bonds of lordship and service—maintenance and manrent—and the justice of the
feud, in relation either to their Scottish aspirations or, after 1603, to their involvement with James's
new kingdom of England which had long rejected both.
Equally the major institutions of government in state and church, parliament and the new and
formidable national court of the kirk, the general assembly, forced on the crown a degree of management
never before necessary. Scottish parliaments had always been vocal and often highly critical. However,
James had to deal with protestants who might be of varying persuasions, but who could all remember the
heady days of 1560, when the Reformation Parliament, acting in defiance of the Catholic monarch, brought
down the old church. This memory was all the more menacing because of the parliament's astonishing
ability to concentrate on the essentials. By contrast with the seven years and numerous acts of Henry
VIII's Reformation Parliament, its Scottish equivalent took three weeks and three acts to achieve its
aims, leaving the details to be filled in later. As James was later to say, understandably, English
parliaments were too long, Scottish parliaments too short. But he undoubtedly understood the
significance of the institution. The idea that James I did not know how to manage parliaments makes
very little sense when James VI's record is considered. He had one considerable advantage. The Scottish
parliament, like European national assemblies, was a joint meeting of the three estates, and the king
could be present in person. Moreover, the detailed work on legislation was done by the lords of the
articles, an elected committee from the representatives of the three estates. The full parliament
assembled and elected the lords of the articles, who settled down to the donkey work; and then the full
parliament returned. It used to be thought that this made the Scottish parliament an easy body to
manipulate. This is not a mistake which King James ever made; the intrusion of the officers of state as
a fourth ‘estate’, begun in 1567 and increasingly imposed by the king, was a deliberate attempt to
impose control, however difficult to sustain in the face of parliamentary criticism and efforts at
curtailment. Moreover, the disappearance of the clerical estate, with the de facto disappearance of
the episcopate between 1592 and 1600, denied the crown much-needed allies in the face of parliamentary
support for presbyterian activists within the kirk.
Hence the 1580s and 1590s saw a series of acts which sought to strengthen royal control. The
Reformation Parliament of 1560 had seen an unprecedented rush of over 100 lairds to attend, claiming
their right under the wholly moribund Shire Election Act of 1428. After 1560 the unchallenged presence
of such lairds who chose to turn up, in unpredictable numbers, was an unacceptable headache for the
government; and in 1587 the Shire Election Act was duly re-enacted. In 1594 there was a determined
onslaught on parliamentary business. Four members of each estate were to meet twenty days before
parliament assembled, to receive articles and supplications and sift out frivolous material; only the
king was exempt from the twenty-days rule. A long day's work was imposed on them in time of parliament;
they were to sit each day from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. And in the same year, according to the highly
critical presbyterian minister David Calderwood, the king asserted his right to vote with the articles.
Moreover, while James might casually leave the office of chancellor vacant in the mid-1590s, he had
already empowered the chancellor in 1584 to use the sceptre for the ratification of acts, a measure
which would have its full relevance after 1603.
Yet this was by no means the whole story. Another indication of James's high sense of his own
kingship as early as 1581, when he was fifteen, is that it was in this year that parliament passed his
first, admittedly limited, revocations and followed this up with another limited act in 1584; the full
general act came in 1587, when he was twenty-one. The 1584 parliament thundered out its endorsement of
the king's authority over church and state, and its condemnation of slanderers of the king
and—significantly—his parents and progenitors, and specifically attacked the offensive works of
Buchanan. At the same time this future divine-right monarch, who was to tantalize and infuriate his
English parliament on the subject of king or king-in-parliament as law maker, cheerfully underwrote
‘the lawis and actis of parliament (be quhilkis all men ar governit)’ (APS, 3.293). And in 1587 the king
further emphasized the importance and dignity of parliament, in the acts which laid out the rules for
the ‘riding of parliament’ from the palace of Holyroodhouse to the parliament house, and empowered James
to design the appropriate robes for each estate. It is not to deny the tensions within the Scottish
kingdom to say that, while the records of parliament make them all too clear, they also reflect a
certain appealing rumbustiousness with which the king was undoubtedly relaxed, cheerful, and at ease
because he was in control without having to assert his royalty too aggressively.
Rumbustiousness is not, on the other hand, the most notable feature of James's dealings with his
kirk, and in particular with its most oppressively godly wing. Yet it is there that his dry, sardonic,
and sometimes crude humour is seen to the full, no doubt enhanced by the distinctly humourless approach
of his opponents. The extreme presbyterian wing of the kirk was anti-episcopal, hostile, outspoken, and
violently critical, using that excellent outlet for media propaganda, the pulpit, to the full; moreover,
it denied the king any authority over the kirk, for their king was Christ, and King James ‘but a member’
(Calderwood, 5.440). Indeed, the struggle with Andrew Melville and his supporters was the major
political as well as religious issue of the reign, as well as the main inspiration, even more than the
contractual theorizing of Buchanan, for James's own theory about kingship, developed in the late 1590s.
The situation was a good deal less clear-cut, however, than simply King James versus the godly. James
charged into lively battle with the extremists, those ‘vaine pharasaicall puritanes’. But there were
few who were consistently antagonistic to the king throughout the 1580s and 1590s; there were royal
servants, most notably John Maitland of Thirlestane, James's secretary and then chancellor, who could
rise to the top in government while being more sympathetic to the presbyterians than was the king
himself; there were points on which king and godly, including even Andrew Melville himself, agreed; and
above all, while the king might dislike the extremists, it was more because they were extremists—as he
said of himself in 1607, he was ‘ever for the Medium in every thing’ than because they were to be feared.
There was indeed a long-drawn-out struggle for control of the church; and there were times when the
king's position looked weak. But these times were few.
As with the state, so with the church. James's emergence from his minority had witnessed a highly
confident assertion of royal authority over the kirk. In February 1584 Andrew Melville, summoned before
the privy council because of a seditious sermon, denied its competence on the ground that only the
general assembly could hear the case; he was ordered into ward, and fled to England, to be followed over
the following months by some twenty ministers and academics—along with those nobles who tried
unsuccessfully in April to revive the power of the Ruthven faction. This cleared the way for the passing
by the parliament which met in May of the Black Acts, which denounced presbyteries; affirmed the
authority of bishops, making them in effect answerable to the king rather than the general assembly;
asserted the king's supremacy over all matters, secular and ecclesiastical; and—most crucially for the
future—insisted on his right to summon general assemblies. These acts have been ascribed to the regime
of James Stewart, earl of Arran, who became the leading figure in James's government following the
king's escape from the Ruthven raiders in 1583; but there is no reason to question the king's own role
in them. They were followed up by the enforcement of subscription to them by generally unwilling
ministers. For James Melville, Andrew's nephew, they meant that parliament had created a new pope, and
‘sa becum traitors to Chryst’ (Melville, 208). And off he went to Newcastle in 1584, to give spiritual
succour to the exiled Ruthven faction, invoking Old Testament language in appealing to them as ‘valiant
warriors and capteanes of the Lords army’ (ibid., 178), which no doubt he regarded as sufficient cover
for encouragement of armed rebellion.
Yet James's agenda was very far removed from English royal supremacy and from developing ideas of jure divino episcopacy. Probably the only person who had any such embryonic ideas was the unfortunate Patrick Adamson, archbishop of St Andrews, whose Declaration of the Kingis Majesties Intentioun and Meaning toward the Lait Actis of Parliament (1585) undoubtedly went much further than James's intentions and was, indeed, a considerable embarrassment to the king when the authorship of the tract was ascribed to him; hence the occasion when he toasted his hunting dogs, and especially Tell-true, to whom he would give ‘more credence nor either the bishop or Craig’ (John Craig, moderate presbyterian and king's minister, but opponent of the Black Acts) (Calderwood, 4.351). The faithful hound was clearly a good deal more acceptable than either excessive supporter or opponent of the acts.
This is hardly surprising. James was undoubtedly threatened as he began his personal rule by the existence of a powerful and vocal party in the kirk, supported by an aristocratic faction sitting just over the border in Newcastle. But the idea of the king and the presbyterians locked throughout his adult rule in perennial and knife-edge combat, which the king only just succeeded in winning, is far too simple. That picture emanates from the bitter and vitriolic invective of three of the extremists: James Melville's autobiography and diary, and the early seventeenth-century histories of David Calderwood (The True History of the Kirk of Scotland) and John Row (The Historie of the Kirk of Scotland), works all the more bitter and vitriolic because their authors were the losers. Theirs was a highly biased view, which had to depict an extremist king with his acolyte bishops pitted against militant kirkmen fighting for God's true cause, and could therefore give no hint of uncertainties or moderation within the kirk.
What happened, rather, was that James's emergence as an effective adult monarch posed both king and
kirk with a problem which had been uniquely absent from the kirk since the success of the reformers in
1560: the role of that king in a kirk hitherto free from effective and consistent royal interference,
let alone control. There was indeed a struggle, sometimes tense and sometimes bitter. The language used
by the extremists in the kirk was undoubtedly the language of Christian militancy rather than Christian
charity, in a particularly graceless form. The king could be equally graceless, but decidedly less
humourless; thus ‘I will not give a turd for thy preaching’ was his response to Robert Gibson, who in a
sermon in 1585 likened this persecuting king to Jeroboam, a view no doubt confirmed in Gibson's eyes
when he was sent off to ward in Edinburgh Castle (Calderwood, 4.487). Two years earlier the hectoring
lecture by John Davidson about the kirk's concern for his welfare included the dire warning that ‘nather
ought your Grace to mak light accompt of our threatenings; for there was never one yitt in this realme,
in cheef authoritie, that ever prospered after the ministers began to threaten him’. The maddening
response was that ‘the king smiled’ (Calderwood, 3.718). Sermons by the godly could certainly be
outspoken in the extreme. Gibson, the Melvilles, David Black, and their like were all too willing to
attack openly; thus in 1596 Black was brought to trial for announcing from the pulpit that the queen of
England was an atheist, and all kings were ‘the devils bairns’ (Spottiswoode, 3.21). Most famous was
the occasion at Falkland in September 1596 when Andrew Melville grabbed the king's sleeve, calling him
‘God's sillie [weak] vassal’, and telling him that ‘thair is twa Kings and twa Kingdomes … Thair is
Chryst Jesus the King, and his Kingdome the Kirk, whase subject King James the Saxt is, and of whase
kingdome nocht a king nor a lord, nor a heid, bot a member’ (Calderwood, 5.440). But while episodes like
this would undoubtedly have driven Elizabeth to hysterical fury, the much more pragmatic James could
afford to take a cooler line. For they demonstrated that in the struggle for control the king had the
upper hand; ministers who acted as spokesmen for the Lord in this way normally found themselves warded
James naturally wanted to control the extremists in the kirk; and he had the inestimable advantage that he was the king. Once he was there to challenge the independence which the kirk had enjoyed, it was only the very boldest spirits who would openly defy him; less brave critics muttered and sulked—but ultimately conformed. Yet king and kirkmen had more in common than has been supposed. Indeed, as theologian-king James had a vision of the kirk and a doctrinal belief which in many ways matched that of even the extremists. It has, for example, recently been shown that he was far less enthusiastic about episcopacy than used to be thought; between 1585 and 1600 he did nothing to fill vacant bishoprics. He himself struck a blow at the bishops when, in his act of annexation in 1587, he annexed their temporalities—that ‘vile act’ as he later, in a different frame of mind, called it (Basilikon Doron, 1.79). Moreover, efforts to improve the academic standing of the ministers, their university education reinforced by the dignity of reasonable stipends, stemmed from a shared view, which meant that before 1603 the Scottish ministers were a more respected and better paid breed than their English counterparts, an achievement which continued into the seventeenth century, if the English MP Sir Benjamin Rudyerd's comparison between them in 1628 is to be believed. The origin of the Authorized Version of the Bible lay in his proposal to the general assembly in 1601. It was not followed up; ‘yet did not the King let this intention fall to the ground, but after his happy coming to the Crown of England set the most learned Divines of that Church a work for the translation of the Bible’ (Spottiswoode, 3.99).
Shared scholarly aspirations are even echoed in the row between James and Melville in 1596 which, spectacular as it was, does have something of the flavour of impassioned academic debate between two fiery and highly able scholarly opponents. And even Melville himself, in a much less well known role, was prepared to extol Jacobean kingship. He had produced a Latin poem for the coronation of Anne of Denmark in 1590 and again for the baptism of Prince Henry in 1594; the latter specifically looked to James's and Henry's future, addressing James as ‘Scoto-Britanno Rege’ (Doleman, 61), and anticipating his three poems heralding James's succession to the English throne in 1603. These, along with his highly critical poems about the English church, surely suggest that for Melville, as for David Black, James might not be as godly a prince as they sought, but he and the Scottish kirk were infinitely preferable to the queen of England and her church.
James had his own problems with a monarch violently hostile to presbyterianism among her native subjects yet willing to offer the haven of London, and even its pulpits, to his presbyterian exiles who followed in the footsteps of the continental Reformed congregations of earlier immigrants; Elizabeth's enthusiasm for divinely ordained monarchy and the royal supremacy seems to have been firmly bounded by the English Channel and the Scottish border. But the astonishing rant by Richard Bancroft, chaplain to the lord chancellor and future archbishop of Canterbury, in his Paul's Cross sermon of 1589 against the Scottish presbyterians, and his hysterical outpourings on the same theme in two pamphlets of 1593, A Survay of the Pretended Holy Discipline and Daungerous Positions and Proceedings, all depicting a king browbeaten by intolerable ministers who appeared to be worse than Catholics, and exaggerating the king's desire for an episcopal church, certainly brought king and kirk together. ‘Let not his Majestie nor any prince looke for any better dealing at the handes of any of his [Bancroft's] coat’ said John Davidson, trouncing Bancroft for his lack of reverence to King James (D. Laing, ed., The Miscellany of the Wodrow Society, Volume First, Wodrow Society, 9, 1844, 508). And in the general assembly of 1590, despite a certain amount of the usual rhetoric in a sermon by James Melville, about ‘binding of kings in chains, and the most honourable princes in fetters of yron’, the king launched into a speech
praising God, that he was borne in such a tyme as the tyme of the light of the Gospell, to suche a
place as to be king in suche a kirk, the sincerest kirk in the world … As for our neighbour kirk in
England, it is an evill masse in English, wanting nothing but the liftings. I charge you … to stand to
your puritie … and I, forsuith, as long as I bruike my life and crowne, sall manteane the same.
This brought him the reward that ‘the Assemblie so rejoiced, that there was nothing but loud praising of God, and praying for the king for quarter of an houre’ (Calderwood, 5.102, 106).
The attack on the English church was not inspired, however, only by Bancroft and the need to please the assembly. Relations between the latter and the king were in any case good owing to a number of factors: James's marriage to the Lutheran princess Anne of Denmark in 1589; his willingness during his absence in Norway and Denmark to claim his bride to allow the godly Robert Bruce, a man whose theological views might have been expected to make him anathema to the king, a place in government; and his choice of him as the minister who crowned and anointed Anne. Moreover, the same hostility towards the English ecclesiastical model surfaced later in the decade. The assembly had by then come to agree with the king about the usefulness of restoring a clerical estate in parliament. Where they disagreed was on who should form that estate. For the assembly it would be ministers elected annually, but the king was moving towards the idea of parliamentary bishops. ‘We see him well enough’, said Davidson; ‘we see the horns of his mitre’. But in 1598 James stated unequivocally to the assembly that ‘I minde not … to bring in Papisticall or Anglican bishopping’ (Calderwood, 5.681, 694). This was true enough. The first three parliamentary bishops, appointed in 1600, were nominated by the king and his commissioners and the brethren of the kirk; and even after the restoration of diocesan episcopacy from 1610 the Scottish Jacobean bishop was always a much more low-key figure than his English counterpart.
This, then, is the context in which the two big dramas of 1592 and 1596 must be set. In 1592 parliament passed the Golden Act which gave legal ratification to presbyteries, and annulled several of the Black Acts of 1584. A great triumph for the Melvillians; or was it? It is certainly the case that James was in a comparatively weak position. In February 1592 the Catholic George Gordon, sixth earl (and later first marquess) of Huntly, at feud with the protestant James Stewart, second earl of Moray, in the north-east, caught up with him at Donibristle on the Forth, where he was murdered by Huntly or one of his followers. The kirk now had a lever against a king suspected of complicity, who undoubtedly treated Huntly with an offensive degree of leniency. Moreover, it chose to regard the unreliable Bothwell, who had threatened James in Holyrood in December 1591, as an ally. However, the Golden Act still falls very short of Melvillian victory. The Black Act which had asserted the crown's authority in matters spiritual and temporal was not annulled; and, crucially, the king retained his right to summon and decide on the meeting place of the general assemblies. The state was legislating for the kirk; and the ‘concessions’ to the crown were very far from minor, as the jubilant presbyterians of 1592 sadly came to realize in the following years when the king took full advantage of his ability to control the meetings of the assembly. The parliament which passed the Golden Act did something else undoubtedly pleasing to James: it forfeited the kirk's great protestant earl, Bothwell.
From the Melvillians' point of view 1596 was even worse; indeed, disastrous. The presbyterian writers, indulging in a good deal of wishful thinking but not much sense of reality, chose to portray 1596 as the year in which God's kirk reached its highest point of perfection, only to be defeated at the end of the year by the violent machinations of King James. But Melville's breathtaking assertions delivered to James in September at Falkland did not deflect the king one whit. Then in November David Black was summoned by the privy council for an undoubtedly seditious sermon preached in October. Like Melville before him, he refused to accept the jurisdiction of the council. Heavy backing from the Melvillians did him no good; he was warded in December. The king then cancelled the assembly due to meet in January 1597, and ordered the commissioners to leave Edinburgh, as they duly did. The Edinburgh ministers carried on the fight, with some lay backing. Rumours of a Catholic rising then produced on 17 December a near riot or, as James preferred, ‘the lait tressounable, shamefull and seditious uproare’ (Reg. PCS, 5.349). That was his excuse for his dramatic departure from Edinburgh with the privy council and the lawcourts. The burgh council of James's capital city promptly saw where its future lay: in a humble apology to the king, and a down payment. The ministers fled, and James returned to Edinburgh. This is supposed to have been the great turning point in James's struggle with the kirk. In fact the events of the year leading up to the spectacular royal gesture do not suggest weakness suddenly giving way to strength; and the gesture itself was the culmination of the policy of dividing the moderates from the extremists, leaving only a small minority—the Edinburgh ministers—to try to orchestrate resistance, with fatal results.
The final crisis of the period, the dark and confusing Gowrie conspiracy of August 1600, apparently
had no direct connection with the kirk. The protagonists, John Ruthven, earl of Gowrie, and his brother
Alexander were staunch aristocratic supporters of the presbyterians, but their supposed actions had
virtually no ministerial backing, before or after the event. It seems likelier than not that their
conspiracy was genuine, but because they perished in the course of it the exact truth of the affair is
hard to come by and there is much reliance on the account given by James himself, who perceived it as a
murder plot. In the early summer of 1600 Gowrie, to whom the king was in debt to the tune of £48,000
Scots, and Alexander, whom gossip had singled out as a favourite of the queen, quitted the court for
their country estates. It seems that while there they received correspondence from the king. According
to James, early in the morning of 5 August Alexander appeared at Falkland Palace and related to him a
story of a treasure trove found by the brothers and now locked up at Gowrie House in Perth. Ultimately
persuaded that he must investigate, James left for Perth with what became a large entourage of curious
courtiers. On arrival at Gowrie House they found the earl behaving strangely and the household
ill-prepared for so large a party. After a delayed and private meal with the brothers, James retired
with Alexander Ruthven and Gowrie's chamberlain Andrew Henderson to a small upper room. Both the king
and Henderson later testified that Ruthven then locked the door and seized a dagger, threatening James
with death in revenge for his part in the execution of William Ruthven sixteen years earlier. When
Alexander left the king in Henderson's keeping and went in search of Gowrie, James thrust his head out
of the turret's window, crying treason and murder. Courtiers, who were by this time milling in the
garden below in some confusion as to James's whereabouts, rushed up to his aid, and by the time Gowrie,
who had gone out into the town, followed them, he found Alexander dead on the stairs. Rampaging into the
chamber brandishing two swords, Gowrie stopped short of attacking the king himself and put down his
blades. He was then killed instantly, though by whom is unclear.
While it has been argued by some historians that the whole incident stemmed from an intention by James to rid himself of a family with a history of disaffection and treason, there is no evidence to implicate him in any plot. However, he proceeded against the dead brothers with unprecedented ferocity. Following a posthumous trial, they were declared guilty of treason by parliament on 15 November; their property was forfeited to the crown and their descendants disinherited; their bodies were hanged, drawn, quartered, and distributed to strategic locations in Edinburgh and Perth; and the very name of Ruthven was banned. An annual commemoration day on 5 August was also inaugurated, establishing itself sufficiently to be observed later in England too. In the immediate aftermath of the conspiracy only five Edinburgh ministers refused to give thanks to God, as the king commanded, for his safe deliverance; they were duly banished, and four rapidly gave way. This was the final reinforcement of the message delivered to defiant clergy in 1596 that their independent stance would get them nowhere.
There were, of course, other problems which rumbled on beneath the dramatic highlights, in an ongoing Greek chorus about witches and Catholics. Witch-hunting did not begin in the 1590s; there had been sporadic outbreaks since the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1563, and awareness of the demonic pact at least since 1572. James himself had met a notorious witch when he was in Aberdeen in 1589; but neither she nor the witches who were menacing Edinburgh and Haddingtonshire in 1590 seemed to hold much terror or even interest for him. That changed virtually overnight, with the spectacular discovery of a coven at North Berwick [see North Berwick witches] which was purportedly in league with the devil to destroy the king, his greatest enemy on earth. This piece of flattery, helpfully relayed by the witches to the king, was not itself the flashpoint; James remained surprisingly sceptical, to the utter indignation of the witches. Their spokeswoman, that stately midwife Agnes Sampson, insisted that they were indeed witches and that she would prove it, which she apparently did by telling James of his conversation with his wife, Anne, on their wedding night in Oslo. Scepticism turned to fear and credulity; and the most famous witch-hunt in Scottish history began.
The Scottish witch was a fearsome and compelling figure, far removed from the stereotypical old and impoverished crone. The North Berwick witches and warlocks ranged in social status from a maidservant and a ploughman to a schoolmaster, to the impressive and dignified Agnes Sampson, to members of the legal and gentry circles of Edinburgh, and even to an earl, Bothwell. James wrote, in his Daemonologie of 1597, about the inversion of the coven, the hideous parody by God's Ape of the service prescribed by God; he missed the ironic dimension of that inversion, that tough Scottish witches were no more prepared to put up with lengthy sermons from the devil than those who suffered from godly ministers. But it was not just the toughness of the witches that created the fever of persecution, which in 1591–2 and again in 1596–7 spread far beyond the North Berwick case. That was made possible by the creation of legal machinery. Standing commissions of the privy council were set up, the first in 1591 Edinburgh-based, the second in 1592 extended throughout the kingdom, enabling commissioners of the general assembly to choose the nobles, lairds, and burgesses who would serve in the localities. This new arrangement of 8 June 1592 was established at a time of comparative weakness for the crown and temporary ascendancy of the kirk, three days after the passing of the Golden Acts.
The North Berwick witches and his own book on the subject have turned King James into the royal demonologist. It is a much exaggerated reputation. By 1597 the king's scepticism had returned, despite the fact that he was once again plagued by witches, some of whom threatened his life. And because the standing commissions meant that ‘grite danger may ensew to honnest and famous personis’, James revoked them in August 1597 (Reg. PCS, 5.409). Thereafter an infuriated kirk, and disappointed English subjects who produced witches for his inspection, were faced with lack of belief. When Shakespeare used Macbeth's witches, as recounted by the early sixteenth-century scholar Hector Boece, to flatter the new English king, he wrote a magnificent play; but he mistook his target.
James's record as far as the Catholics were concerned was if anything even worse for many hot
protestants; his refusal to persecute Catholics permanently kept up the hackles of the kirk. It also
antagonized his sister monarch of England (for reasons of inculcating obedience if not of faith) and
her leading ministers, whose persecution of Catholics was intensified in the last twenty years of
Elizabeth's reign, but who would have to deal with a non-persecuting king after 1603. Jesuit
missionaries in the north-east faced nothing of the persecution suffered by their counterparts in
England. Indeed, towards the end of James's life, when the bishop of the Isles appealed to him to take
action against the Jesuits in the western highlands, his sardonic response was that if anyone could
civilize the highlanders, even if they were papists, they were welcome to get on with it. Beginning with
Esmé Stuart, duke of Lennox, Catholics had a presence in James's court and government which lasted
throughout his life. At least three of the Octavians appointed at the beginning of 1596 to manage the
ghastly tangle of his finances had Catholic sympathies. While the king had soon had enough of household
retrenchment and dispensed with their services, individually they survived in political life. Two of
their Catholic or crypto-Catholic members, Alexander Seton of Fyvie and the lord advocate Thomas
Hamilton, went on to become earls of Dunfermline and Melrose and, after the earl of Dunbar's death in
1611, the leading politicians in Scotland. Three exiled Catholic bishops were brought into James's
favour; one, James Beaton, archbishop of Glasgow, he used as his ambassador to France. It was the
Catholic poet Alexander Montgomerie who presided over the revival of court culture in the 1580s.
Catholicism reached the highest circles of court when, some time in 1601–2, the queen herself converted.
According to her confessor, when she tremblingly admitted this to the king, the response was not the
expected roar of rage, but a plea that she should not allow her new faith to become a political
embarrassment. It was James's good fortune that she had the sense not to do so, unlike his son's wife,
the overweening and highly embarrassing Henrietta Maria.
Worst of all to the Scottish kirk and the queen of England were the Scottish Catholic northern earls—Huntly, Francis Hay, ninth earl of Erroll, David Lindsay, eleventh earl of Crawford, and William Douglas, tenth earl of Angus—of whom the greatest, Huntly, was an undoubted favourite of the king; for their activities were on an international scale. In 1589 and again in 1592 they had been in contact with Philip II, offering aid for a renewed Spanish invasion first of England and then of the west coast of Scotland. Their intentions merit serious consideration; they were not just belated examples of the over-mighty aristocracy beloved of older generations of historians, but adherents of the Counter-Reformation seeking support from the mightiest Catholic power, even if with no more success than their counterparts in England, the English northern earls in 1569, or Roberto di Ridolfi. Twice, in 1589 and 1594, the king led his forces against them; on both occasions they refused to fight him. Catholic traitors in Scotland and, for that matter, Scottish witches and two hardline presbyterians, Gowrie and his brother, were, it seems, far less willing to kill their monarch than were Catholic traitors in England.
Under pressure the earls were prepared to trim. Huntly had made a very short-lived conversion to Catholicism in 1588, at the time of his marriage to Henrietta, daughter of Esmé Stuart. Exiled in 1595, Huntly and Erroll came back in 1596 with a promise to make their peace with king and kirk. This was the second of Huntly's four conversions in the course of a very long life; he died a Catholic in 1626. It was also by far the most enjoyable. In June 1597 he and Erroll were solemnly accepted by the kirk in Aberdeen. There then followed a riotous street party, which ended with broken glasses littering the pavements. It is pleasant to record, as an antidote to godly gloom, that some of these glasses had been in the hands of the ministers.
Another Jacobean myth is that James's desperation to succeed Elizabeth meant that he endlessly danced to her tune. It was very much otherwise. Unlike his mother, he was not obsessed by dreams of the English throne, but reverted to the earlier Stewart tradition of an inflated pride in kingship of Scotland, inflated because their kingdom was in fact remote and impoverished, but highly effective in that it encouraged their subjects to think likewise. It was a tradition sustained at the council tables rather than the battlefields of Europe. Given its lack of resources, in men and money, Scotland was fortunate in that none but England had tried to conquer it, and even more fortunate that all would-be conquerors had failed to do so; Scottish pride in successful resistance was reflected time and again in the literature of the period, from the late fourteenth century. That pride also enabled it to become a truly European nation. Its kings made their presence felt on the diplomatic stage; its scholars flocked to European universities; its merchants maintained profitable trade links with mainland Europe and with the Baltic, in which England played a minimal part; its art and culture were heavily influenced by Burgundy, France, and Italy. Jacobean diplomacy therefore involved contact with the Baltic—formalized by James's marriage to Anne of Denmark—the United Provinces, France, Spain, and the papacy; and, despite the howls of the kirk, trade was maintained with France and opened up with Spain. Confessional divisions within Europe now enabled this king, who believed himself to be the leading protestant prince of Europe but was also of a profoundly ecumenical cast of mind, to pursue a very catholic foreign policy, in which he combined friendship with the protestant powers with good relations with the Catholic ones, presenting himself as rex pacificus.
James's diplomacy was not always, of course, motivated by lofty ecumenical vision. James was a practising politician. In 1595–6 he engaged in some very shady diplomacy, sending John Ogilvy (Pourie Ogilvy) to Madrid and Rome. There Ogilvy gave out that James had an enthusiasm for the Catholic faith which circumstances made it impossible for him to acknowledge openly. In Rome he overplayed his hand by suggesting that a papal pension might make things easier; understandably the pope was not convinced. But the real intention was to discourage Spain from running a Catholic claimant on Elizabeth's death, and to that extent it succeeded. Rumours that he hoped to convert his Scottish and then his English kingdom lingered on for a decade, and contributed towards dissuading the infanta Isabella from making any move over the English succession.
This is the context into which James's relations with Elizabeth must be set. The child who had roused her rage when in 1578 he sent her a flattering letter which ended with his refusal to take her advice, the ‘false Scots urchin’ of 1581, did not change; throughout her life her efforts to play a maternal role, advising a young and inexperienced king, were a dismal failure. ‘Methink I do but dream’, she burst out in fury in 1592 over James's treatment of the northern earls (Calderwood, 5.8). The king did nothing to awaken her; he himself, like his northern earls, was weighing up the advantages of friendship with Spain in that year. Unlike his mother, with her constant nagging about the English succession, James after Mary's death in 1587 knew perfectly well that he was the obvious successor to the childless queen. The propensity of Tudor monarchs for playing around with the succession was the only conceivable threat from Elizabeth. Thus in 1588 James demanded an English dukedom as one of the prices for support against the Armada, in order to remove the taint of being an alien; no dukedom was forthcoming, but neither was the support. But although as late as 1600 Sir Thomas Wilson could record that no one dared mention the Scottish king as a possible successor, and even on her deathbed it is not entirely clear whether Elizabeth did recognize him as her heir, she came very close to admitting reality in 1587, referring to the ‘greater prize’ which James would get if he did nothing to react to his mother's execution. The king had no pressing need, therefore, to seek her goodwill. Hence in 1584 he could cheerfully turn down the proposed solution to the problem of Mary, that she should be restored to her Scottish throne as joint ruler with James; he enjoyed his kingship, and was far too confident in his own abilities to want to share it with a difficult and damaging woman.
Thus it is not surprising to find that James's interest in the English succession was directed not at Elizabeth but at foreign powers which might intervene, and after the earl of Essex's execution in 1601 at that leading politician Sir Robert Cecil, with whom he kept up a ‘secret’ correspondence from 1601. He was writing not as a suppliant but as a king, whether in attempting to hoodwink Philip II and the pope or—more worrying to Cecil—making his attitudes all too clear. For he was in contact not only with Cecil but with Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, and the crypto-Catholic Henry Howard, very much out of favour under Elizabeth. Northumberland's optimistic belief that ‘your majestie … will think that your honor in being reputed a king of England will be greater than to be king of scottes’ (Correspondence, 56), so that James would turn his back on his Scottish subjects, was unfounded, as events of the next few years would show. But Cecilian dominance was also clearly under threat. And not only dominance, for James left him in no doubt about his rejection of Elizabethan and Cecilian policy towards Catholics. Cecil's concern about his reluctance to persecute at least the Jesuits, ‘that generation of vipers’ (ibid., 33), provoked the response—chilling or magnificent, depending on one's point of view—that:
I will never allow in my conscience that the blood of any man shall be shed for the diversity of opinion in religion … No! I am so far from any intention of persecution, as I protest to God I reverence their Church as our Mother Church, though clogged with many infirmities and corruptions, besides that I ever did hold persecution as one of the infallible notes of a false church.
James might be irritated about Elizabeth's relentless longevity, but only because it postponed his English future. His confidence contrasts sharply with the increasing worries of his future English subjects. They, as the grim 1590s wore on, had to live with the knowledge that their ageing monarch might die at any time. At war with Spain and uncertain of what would have been the final irony of the Tudor age, a return to the Wars of the Roses with a dynastic challenge at home—they were far more fearful than King James of what might happen when she did die. The best option was the Scottish king, that king who had already emphatically demonstrated that he was the independent monarch of a separate and independent kingdom, who would be no mere English cipher. An even more striking symbol of his independence was the large and virtually annual pension which that notoriously parsimonious monarch Elizabeth paid to James between May 1586 and December 1602. The 1590s were also a grim decade for the Scots economically, though without the additional burden of war. But in terms of Anglo-Scottish politics all the advantages—and the future—lay with them.
Throughout his life James was a remarkable phenomenon: a king with an enormous literary output. In this he was unrivalled. Unlike Henry VIII he was his own polemicist; unlike Elizabeth, far more than a translator. His range is astonishing: the poet-king and writer of poetic theory; the new David, with his translation of the Psalms; the theologian; the political theorist as well as practising politician; the speech and letter writer on a huge scale. His harsh education failed to discourage his love of the things of the mind; the king famed to this day for his passion for hunting was, in his own time, equally famed for his passion for retiring into his study for solace and as an escape from relentless and importunate suitors. Several of his holograph manuscripts survive. Perhaps none gives so evocative a picture of the scholar-king as the manuscript of his Basilikon Doron. Though it is impressively bound in purple velvet, with the royal initials, the Scottish lion and the thistles stamped on the binding in gold leaf, the inside is a wonderful comedown, a mess such as no teacher or publisher would accept today; the opening of every section reflects graphically the problem of getting started, with the erasures, the inserted scrawls, before the words begin to flow, and all written on sheets which owe nothing to modern standardization of paper size.
Yet for James the disappearance from the bustling world into the study was not a retreat from kingship. Rather, it was an integral part of kingship. Kings impressed their stamp on the culture of their courts. This king made his mark in 1579 with his splendid entry into his capital, for him a symbol of his emergence from regency government. The royal court itself had effectively gone into abeyance during the regency; when he arrived at Holyroodhouse, there was one court poet, Patrick Hume of Polwarth, alone filling the bardic chair in the chimney nuik. That was to change dramatically; the early 1580s witnessed an astonishing flowering of poetry, with a group of poets, Alexander Montgomerie, Hume, William Fowler, John Stewart of Baldynneis, rivalling one another as they vied for the king's favour. But James was not only the royal patron; he was the royal poet—and more than that. In 1584 he produced the Reulis and Cautelis to be Observit and Eschewit in Scottish Poesie. This laid down the rules for Scottish poetry—specifically distinguished from English—which would form the basis of the impressive culture of James's court. He was therefore doing far more than patronizing and commissioning those who would produce that culture; he was himself creating it, and legislating for it. The first ‘law’ this king ever made was his law for Scottish poesie.
It was almost certainly James's most enjoyable piece of legislation. For what he was doing was both kingly and sheer fun. His own poetry showed a light-heartedness which would never really be repeated, teasing Montgomerie—‘belovit sandirs maister of oure airt’—for boring everyone by boasting about his horse, which came last in the race; laughing at himself for trying to write when under the influence of Bacchus. More seriously, he and his poets introduced the sonnet, which was much more wide-ranging in its subject matter than the English version; he and they exchanged translations; he wrote a long and moving poem, The Phoenix, on the death of Esmé Stuart, and a huge, fast-moving epic on the battle of Lepanto, which this lover of peace clearly greatly enjoyed. Probably in 1589–90, he composed an unfinished poem which beautifully demonstrates his confidence in his kingship:
As I being a King by birth …
& laiking parents, brethren, bairns or any neir of kinn
inkaice of death or absence to suplee my place thairin
& chieflie in so kittill a lande quhaire fue remember can
for to have seine governing thaire a king that vas a man.
Yet these misfortunes, the absence of effective adult rule since the death of his grandfather James V in 1542, were in no way a source of distress. James's belief in God's plan led him to assert that his destiny did not lie in perfidious fortune, and contrast himself with those who ‘wandered here and there by gess vith groaping stummelling oft’; ‘I may affirme that in my self I proved it to be true’ (Poems, 2.146–8).
By this time, however, James was writing far less poetry and turning instead to theology. His first biblical commentary, on Revelation, published in 1588, had a preface not by one of his poets, but a minister of the kirk. Its main theme was an attack on Antichrist: the pope, with his minions the Jesuits and his allies the Turks. This shows for the first time an apparent ambivalence in James's approach, which appeared again in his writings after 1603; for his attack hardly squares with his diplomacy and his refusal to persecute Catholics, even after the Gunpowder Plot. In Lepanto, published in 1591, he was careful not to award the victory to a Catholic hero over the infidel Turks; God had joined battle with Satan. In his commentary on Revelation he was associating the pope directly with the Turks. Yet this onslaught is perhaps not entirely inconsistent with his more conciliatory approach. He had already carved out his role as poet-king who inspired and presided over a distinguished court. Now he was creating a new image: the theologian-king who would enter directly, as the leading protestant prince of Europe, into the theological debates and divisions of his day. This did not affect his intense dislike of persecution, his growing ecumenism, his awareness of diplomatic considerations. It did enable him to establish the foundations of his approach.
James's next move took him into the area for which he is best known, the discussion of the nature of kingship itself. In 1598–9 he wrote what are probably his most famous works, and also probably the most misunderstood by later commentators. Basilikon Doron and The Trew Law of Free Monarchies are, to begin with, not written by James I; those who categorize them in this way make nonsense of them, first because they are the king's mature reflections on his Scottish kingship within a European context—as he himself emphatically stated in the preface to the 1603 edition of Basilikon Doron—and second because the author, even when he referred to his tracts after 1603, would never have limited himself or them to the smaller confines of English kingship. Moreover, the distinction between The Trew Law and Basilikon Doron has been persistently obscured. The first is the theoretic defence of kingship by divine right, with a dash of historical ‘fact’ to back it up; the second is a practical manual of kingship, written for James's son Henry, and therefore very much in the speculum principis genre, with a dash of divine-right theory.
Writing The Trew Law brought James straight into the European debate about kingship, a debate begun not by the divine-right theorists but by the Calvinist resistance theorists—the ‘monarchomachs’—who argued for contractual kingship and therefore the right of the people, defined either loosely or as the nobility or lesser magistracy, to remove the king if he broke his contract and, if necessary, kill him. The first explosion of this theory had come in the 1550s at the hands of the Marian exiles who included the Scot John Knox. The second, a refined and much more sophisticated version of the first, was produced in the 1570s after the massacre of St Bartholomew, mainly by the Huguenots, but also by Calvin's successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza, and by James's tutor, the Scot George Buchanan. This was answered by Jean Bodin in his République. He was followed by a number of writers justifying divine-right theory, including, in 1600, the exiled Catholic Scot William Barclay, who applied it to both king and pope. One of these writers was another Scot, and a king.
Reading the text of The Trew Law instantly disposes of the idea espoused by whig historians that James's theory was the product of autocratic, let alone absolutist tendencies. He rejected contractual theory partly on the grounds of history: kings came before parliaments, and therefore were the original law makers; ‘and so it follows of necessitie, that the Kinges were the authors & makers of the lawes, and not the laws of Kings’ (Minor Prose Works, 70). He also picks up on the caution of earlier political theorists, notably Thomas Aquinas, when he argues that even a tyrannical king will not be wholly lustful and lawless, and that removing him may well lead to more disorder as men struggle to find an alternative and set up new laws—an almost prophetic comment on what would happen in 1649—and moreover reiterated the theme that a tyrant is sent by God as punishment for the sins of his people. For that reason the penalty for resistance might be heavy indeed; for it could ‘please God to cast such scourges of princes and Instruments of his furie into the fire’. However, he ended his work with an awesome warning, to God-sent tyrants; they would not escape punishment, but
by the contrary, by remitting them to God (who is their only ordinary judge), I remit them to the sorest and sharpest Scoolemaister that can be devised for them. For the further a king is preferred by God above all other ranks and degrees of men, and the higher that his seate is above theirs: the greater is his obligation to his maker … The highest bench is the sliddriest to sit upon. (ibid., 81)
There are curious quirks in The Trew Law. Arguing against Knox and Melville, as well as Buchanan, meant invoking scripture; James chose to cite Samuel's reminder to the Israelites of the terrible fate that awaited them when God gave them the king they so strenuously desired, a somewhat negative justification of divine-right monarchy. Less grimly, the man waiting for Elizabeth to die could not resist contrasting Scotland favourably with England, one of those societies which had been ‘reft by conquest from one to another, as in our neighbour countrie in England (which was never in ours)’, so that William the Conqueror ‘changed the lawes [and] inverted the order of governement’ (Minor Prose Works, 71); the concept of the Norman yoke, developed in seventeenth-century England, had an early expression in The Trew Law. It was the same need to indulge Scottish humour at the expense of his future kingdom which was to prompt him in 1600 to point out that in changing the beginning of the year to 1 January instead of 25 March he was doing what other civilized countries did; manifestly these did not include England. Once again James's writings are a guide to his political attitudes.
Basilikon Doron is a work of wholly different flavour. It did give a nod to divine-right theory in
the first section, in the king's duty to God, when James reminded his son that God ‘made you a little
God to sitte on his throne, and rule over other men’ (Basilikon Doron, 1.25). In the second section,
however, came the fireworks, with a vitriolic and sardonic attack on the Melvillians, the main target of
attack in the book, with their cry for ‘paritie’ and ‘unitie’, which meant only division and disruption,
and their overweening pride: these puritans, who insisted that ‘wee are all but vile worms, & yet wil
judge and give law to their king, but will be judged nor controlled by none: surely there is more pride
under such a ones black-bonnet nor under great Alexander's Diademe’ (ibid., 1.142). Thereafter the book
is informed by wit, humour, and sheer common sense. There is very balanced advice on how to treat the
nobility, who must not be allowed to become too powerful, but equally must be relied on as ‘the armes
and executers of your lawes’, and as his principal advisers, whose service honours the king. His
passage on economic problems shows the layman's lack of understanding, concerning itself too much with
high prices and poor quality, and threats of strike action. But he has a well-considered section on the
choice of marriage partner, which might fall well short of modern feminist standards, but is
remarkably humane. Not surprisingly he advocated peace, but was also prepared to advise on unavoidable
war, and the need to be slow in making peace as well as war; but the effect of this is perhaps
undermined when his real priority showed up in the amazing recommendation that if the prince had to go
to war, he should wear light armour for easier ‘away-running’, singularly unheroic but also no doubt
highly practical (ibid., 1.175). This comes in the third section, ‘Indifferent things’, whose keynote
is archetypal Jacobean moderation, in food, language, and recreation. The prince must eschew pedantry;
he must keep himself fit, but not put himself at risk by aspiring to excel at any cost. Hence the
advantages of hunting (though hardly a sport without risk).
The first edition of Basilikon Doron was extremely private; it ran to seven copies, for specific individuals. But James's enjoyment of and pride in his book are very evident. It was revised in 1601; an English edition flooded the market in spring 1603; and it was a work to which he referred probably more than any of his others. He had every right to enjoy it; the Melvillians were furious. He could take pleasure in writing advice for his son in an affectionate and humorous way, far removed from the hectoring style adopted by Elizabeth when she tried to advise him. It is worth noting, when considering his approach to kingship, that it was the practical manual which he visibly preferred to the theoretic Trew Law. It is also worth noting that those modern scholars who have sought to shroud it, along with The Trew Law, in the mysteries of state, ignore James's own stated intention. Just as with the Daemonologie, so with Basilikon Doron; it was, he said, written to explain his kingship of Scotland, the kingdom of which he had experience, and explain it, to great effect, he did.
By the time he was writing these works James had moved beyond the preoccupations with the glories of Scottish poetry which had been so much a feature of the early 1580s. Now the interest had widened. He had inherited an English family of musicians, the Hudsons, from his mother, but they had been absorbed into Scottish court culture. For his marriage celebrations he had asked Elizabeth for six masquers and six torch-bearers, and for English actors, and English actors were invited again in 1594, presumably for the baptism of his son Henry. Then in 1599 Laurence Fletcher and his men arrived in Edinburgh, giving rise to a furious row between a theatre-hating ministry and a theatre-enthusiastic king, which the king won, and, possibly having stayed in Scotland in the interim, they turned up again in 1601, when they went on tour to Dundee and Aberdeen. Fletcher's name headed the list, with Shakespeare's second, in the letters patent to the new King's Men in May 1603; indeed, there is a tantalizing hint that Shakespeare may himself have gone to Scotland with Fletcher. The future king of Britain was already introducing a cross-fertilization of cultures.
On 24 March 1603 the long-awaited event finally happened: Elizabeth died. The English privy council immediately wrote to James offering him the crown. James's response was to accept it, to thank the English councillors on Elizabeth's behalf for their loyal service, to ask their thanks to God for the blessing about to come among them—a nice example of the mental world of kingship—but to point out that he could not simply rush off from Edinburgh, and therefore would ask them to keep the kingdom ordered and peaceful until his arrival. It was a reasonable enough request. But it produced a frantic response from the English council. For the king's letter had not contained the correct formula authorizing them to act; and so, strictly speaking, at this potentially very tense moment English government went into abeyance until the king wrote two further letters, sending ‘out of hand’ new commissions as a matter of urgency, and rather tetchily suggesting that they might now do as he had asked (Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 1729, fols. 51, 56). It was an immediate and deeply worrying clash of styles. A Scottish king, unaccustomed to the bureaucratic and civil service mentality and sophistication of England, was being told for the first time that his priority, which was to get things done, came up against an English insistence on getting them done in the right way. It was not a good omen.
Moreover, the abnormal circumstances of James's accession created their own abnormal problems; fixing one's interest with the new king was exceptionally difficult when the king was 400 miles away and would take time to reach his English capital. The unfortunate Robert Cecil, trapped in London with other privy councillors, could only watch as others flocked north to greet their monarch, and do his best to offset their advantage; in particular, strenuous efforts were made to keep Sir Walter Ralegh away from James. Cecil's quite unrealistic suggestion that James should travel south incognito until he reached Cecil's brother's seat, Burghley House in Northamptonshire, got the dusty answer that the new king had no intention of denying York, the second city in the kingdom, a celebration party. He could do nothing to stop James sending an order for the release of the earl of Southampton, imprisoned in the Tower for his part in the rising in 1601 of Cecil's major rival Essex. He could only do his best, pointing out his family's distinguished record of service to the crown, and trying to indicate that by remaining in London and denying himself the great joy of seeing his majesty's sweet face he was continuing that service, unlike those who were rushing out of London in the self-interested search for patronage. But Cecil's dominance in Elizabeth's last years had already been threatened by the warning note that James was no novice in the art of kingship; and it was now further undermined simply by the political events of spring 1603.
The underlying problem was how the union could be made to work. There was no shortage of exemplars: the Spanish monarchia, the Scandinavian composite kingdoms, the union of Poland and Lithuania, and the short-lived unions of Poland and France and Poland and Sweden. All were cited in the flood of tracts on union produced by English and Scots after 1603. It was not reassuring that the English view was that Scotland should be incorporated into England, the Scottish that the two kingdoms should be equal partners. The English approach had all the extra edge of bitterness that a Scottish king should do what great English kings had tried and failed to achieve, unite the kingdoms by annexing Scotland. The Scots had no intention of allowing their triumph to dissolve into the creation of precisely the situation which the English had failed to bring about. Moreover, the composite kingdoms of England and Wales and Ireland hardly provided a model to be followed with any enthusiasm; the Nine Years' War with Ireland just ended spoke for itself. All that could be said for 1603, therefore, was that for the present it averted an English succession crisis. For the future, fear rather than optimism was the dominant note.
In the short term, however, the atmosphere was intoxicating. In April and early May 1603 the new king of England travelled south to London, a journey in which, famously, the crowds flocked to meet him; in which, equally famously, he hanged a thief without due process of law and doled out knighthoods with a more than lavish hand; and in which as a prologue to controversies to come, he was presented with the millenary petition by ministers hopeful of reform of the church. There was wild enthusiasm for a king, after fifty years of female rule; as the lord keeper, Thomas Egerton, Lord Ellesmere, wrote in his notes for his speech at the opening of James's first parliament in 1604, ‘In sted of [Elizabeth's] age & orbitye [childlessness] … the Kinge of Masture yeres, Experienced in governments, & behould the Q[ueen]. A ladye … Descended of the moost Royall sept, & progenye etc. ordeyned to breede & bring fourth kings’ (Hunt. L., Bridgewater and Ellesmere MSS, EL 451, fol. 1). There was huge relief that the Stuart succession went unchallenged. Even the plague which hit London in April 1603 apparently failed to undermine the prevailing mood, although it killed nearly a quarter of the capital's population, halted the frenzied printing of the new best-seller, Basilikon Doron, led to a postponement of James's state entry into the city, and curtailed attendance at the coronation of the king and queen at Westminster Abbey on 25 July.
Two days after Elizabeth's death Sir Robert Cotton produced a treatise extolling the name of Britain; as in the past smaller kingdoms had joined to become the kingdoms of England, France, and Spain, so now the smaller kingdoms within the British Isles would come together under the ancient name of Britain; and Cotton rushed to demonstrate his prestigious Scottish connection with the house of Bruce, now styling himself Robert Cotton Bruceus. Poets such as Michael Drayton and Samuel Daniel in England and Alexander Craig and Robert Ayton in Scotland took up his theme; and the triumphal arches and pageantry designed by Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker reinforced it in James's ceremonial entry into London when the disappearance of plague allowed the court to return to the city in March 1604. The costly display funded by London and its guilds was all very heady, and it both impressed and alarmed the king.
The veneer of joy and excitement was dangerously thin, however. ‘Never people so happye, yf Wee have grace to see & feele our owne happiness’, said Ellesmere in his notes for his 1604 speech (Hunt. L., Bridgewater and Ellesmere MSS, EL 151, fol. 1). But public ceremonial of this order was never to be repeated and the people's grace was strictly limited. The English might rejoice in a king with three living children but they had long forgotten the cost of a royal family; and the purveyance carts which rumbled along ahead of James's progress through the southern counties in summer 1603 had their own heightened unpopularity. There were arguments about whether Scottish household officials should get the same fees as English ones. James's attempts on his journey south to appoint equal numbers of English and Scottish gentlemen of the bedchamber was a failure from the beginning, provoking the king, as early as May 1603, to create a bedchamber which would remain exclusively Scottish until 1615, to the understandable fury and resentment of his English subjects. At the same time, the success of Englishmen like Cecil and Henry Howard (created earl of Northampton in 1604) in obtaining formal office in government to the exclusion of rivals like Sir Walter Ralegh and Sir John Fortescue exacerbated tensions.
In summer 1603 there were two small and unsuccessful plots. In late June and early July it emerged that a number of Catholics, including William Watson, a mentally unstable priest, and Sir Griffin Markham, a country squire, had conspired to kidnap the king in order to secure concessions for the practice of their religion and the removal of government ministers identified with the persecution of their community during the last years of Elizabeth's reign. This so-called Bye plot failed to attract the high-placed supporters its protagonists had anticipated, and collapsed after internal recriminations and betrayals, but it was soon overshadowed by the Main plot. The latter was first disclosed by George Brooke, who while on trial in July for his involvement in the former, confessed that his elder brother Henry Brooke, eleventh Baron Cobham, had been conspiring with Charles de Ligne, count of Aremberg, to obtain 600,000 crowns from Spain to finance James's overthrow and his replacement with his cousin Lady Arabella Stuart. Cobham in turn implicated Sir Walter Ralegh, who did not subsequently deny he had been attentive to Cobham's schemes: Ralegh's recognition that Cecil was determined to deny him influence with James apparently led him at least to postulate treason. None the less, although found guilty at his trial in November, Ralegh, like Cobham, Markham, and Lord Grey, was ultimately reprieved by the king; lesser men like Watson and Brooke suffered death. More generally a host of small people—saddlers, weavers, and yeomen—were indicted in the southern counties for speaking against the accession of a king whom they regarded as foreign, and therefore no true king of England. In Scotland an already touchy council produced a Scottish translation of the English council's letter to James offering him the throne. And a surly Scotsman, disliking what he regarded as the excessive obsequiousness of the English crowds, muttered sourly that ‘this people will spoil a gud king’.
Throughout his reign James brought his Scottish experience to bear on his English rule; his desire for more than the personal union of the crowns dominated English politics for the first five years; and English hatred of the presence of the Scots lasted a good deal longer. In that sense, even when considering the subject from the perspective of London and the English localities, it was a matter of Anglo-Scottish kingship, in a way which it would never be again after 1625, when the dynamics of the ‘British problem’ changed fundamentally, under rulers who increasingly saw themselves as English. It is therefore impossible to discuss James's kingship of England in isolation; attempts in the past to do so have missed the crucial point about his rule after 1603.
James was a wily and confident king, long experienced in getting what he wanted by a mixture of high demands and negotiation; he did not suddenly lose his touch in 1603. Yet, while he valued the style of Scottish kingship, the English did not; while his political and rhetorical skills are often evident, his aims were too often frustrated. None the less, those aims might be complex and could be modified. He certainly began by trying to bring the English and the Scots together in court and government, but even his policy here had more than one facet. When he appointed his council in 1603 his main interest lay in expanding the far too narrow, Cecilian-dominated English council of Elizabeth's last years, so that it became more representative; thus he brought on to the council the earls of Cumberland and Northumberland, the former Essex supporter and lord deputy of Ireland Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, and the crypto-Catholic Henry Howard, created Lord Howard and then earl of Northampton. In all, his thirteen new councillors more than doubled the Elizabethan council; of these thirteen only five were Scots. And only three Scots held high office. George Home, lord treasurer of Scotland from 1601 and later earl of Dunbar, had a brief spell as chancellor of the exchequer, from 1603 to 1605, before taking up his highly effective and useful position as the politician who was James's link between his two kingdoms, travelling regularly between London and Edinburgh until his death in 1611. Edward Bruce, Lord Kinloss—the man described by Cecil when he arrived in London ahead of the king in 1603 as ‘already so good an Englishman’—became master of the rolls (PRO, SP 14/1/18, fol. 38). And Ludovic Stuart, duke of Lennox, son of Esmé Stuart, was steward of the household until his death in 1624.
Moreover, James learned fast. In November 1604 he wrote to Cecil setting out the problem clearly. The English did not welcome the Scots, for they feared loss of office for themselves; but the king could not forget his northern and ancient kingdom. He would no longer, therefore, give Scotsmen place in English government; but he must be allowed to reward them for their service, for he would not—could not—exclude them from his court. Reward meant money and that in itself caused trouble. And there is a vast discrepancy between reality, which was a total of 158 Scotsmen with any sort of position in government and household—indeed, three households, for Queen Anne and Henry, prince of Wales, of course had their separate households—and the despairing English perception of some kind of Scottish takeover, expressed in 1610 by Sir John Holles when he complained about the Scots standing ‘like mountains betwixt the beams of his grace and us’ (Portland MSS, 9.113). Yet the situation created by James was grudgingly accepted.
The four sessions of James's first parliament—March–July 1604, November 1605–May 1606, November 1606–July 1607, February–July/November 1610—were difficult not because of the first Stuart king's failure to control parliament as the last Tudor monarch had done, but because of the new situation created by the union of the crowns, and old problems brought down from Scotland and given a new twist in the English context. Parliament was the major arena in which debates over the nature of the union were fought out, and the issue dominated the sessions of 1604 and 1607. James set out his agenda in his opening speech to the first session. His preferred solution to the problem of multiple kingdoms—or so it appeared—was to unite them, to create, as he said, not just unus rex, but also una lex and unus grex: one king, one law, one people (James VI and I: Political Writings, 162). In theory it had the merit of simplicity. In practice it was a hopeless vision. The initial government request for a commission to investigate the union was accepted by MPs in June, but much less palatable was a proposal that James adopt the title of king of Great Britain, the term intended to distinguish Greater from Lesser Britain—Brittany. Despite all the British imagery of the early years of the reign, there was much mere lip-service paid to the idea by leading councillors like Cecil and the lord chancellor, Sir Thomas Egerton. The latter's thoughts were given away in his endorsement to a letter replying to Bacon's which suggested the need for a history of Britain which read ‘Sir Francis Bacon touching the story of England’ (Hunt. L., Bridgewater and Ellesmere MSS, EL MS 128). Papers arguing against the change were the stuff of parliamentary business, enlarging on the theme that to give up the ancient and glorious name of England would mean that England would lose its identity, at home and abroad. In the meantime, the Commons had their own preoccupations, and the manner in which these were handled did not induce in them an appreciation of Scottish ways of doing things. Time-consuming debate early in the session over the disputed
Buckinghamshire election between Sir Francis Goodwin and Sir John Fortescue produced only stalemate. Having
witnessed this, James stepped in, quashed the election, and ordered a new one; the Commons publicly praised his
wisdom, but behind closed doors complained about his indifference to English conventions. Like a leading privy
councillor, the earl of Northumberland, before them, they naïvely saw the solution in telling the new king what
English kingship was about. In the context also of disappointed hopes over redress of grievances arising from the
unpopular royal rights of wardship and purveyance, the Commons settled down to draft ‘The form of apology and
satisfaction’, a document which detailed relations between them and the crown, and pointed to what had gone wrong.
With an attempt at tact, they said that they had not produced such a document before, out of respect for the old
queen's age and sex. It purported to be a conservative statement, seeking maintenance of the perceived status quo,
but still their nerve failed. The apology was never approved by the whole house, and was never presented to the king.
This damp squib was not a constitutional milestone on the road to civil war; it was an immediate response to rule
by a Scot. But that Scot was not amenable to being told how to be an English king, for he was not an English king.
His problem was trying to shift his English subjects into a new perception of themselves. Hence his fury when he
heard about the apology. On 7 July he prorogued a parliament which had engendered much hot air but no money for the
government of the realm; his closing speech castigated the fools who could not make wise use of their privileges.
He showed, too, his frustration at being cut off from the centres of political debate, parliament and council, as
he had not been in Scotland, where he had attended regularly. Admittedly the bicameral English parliament made
Scottish practice impossible, for even James could not claim the gift of being in two places at once; but the set
speeches to parliament or to deputations of Lords and Commons were no exchange for embroiling himself directly in
debate and discussion. His wisdom was endlessly extolled; but to what purpose? As he said to the Commons:
in my government bypast in Scotland (where I ruled upon men not of the best temper) I was heard not only as a king
but as a counsellor. Contrary here nothing but curiosity from morn to night to find fault with my propositions.
On 20 October 1604 the king took a step which made him look much more autocratic than he actually was; he assumed
the title of king of Great Britain by proclamation. The text was a plea for recognition of the reality of Britain.
Shakespeare's ‘sceptred isle’ of England was now invoked in much more geographically acceptable terms, but not,
inevitably, in English ones; nor was the claim that two mighty nations, formerly at war but now at peace, with their
shared coastline, language, and religion, had clearly been intended by God to come together in unity. What counted
was the side-stepping of parliament. Worse was to come, moreover. On 16 November the king announced that a union
currency was to be issued: the first coin would be a twenty-shilling piece called the ‘unite’.
When parliament reconvened in late 1605, it was in the wake of events the fall-out from which eclipsed Anglo-Scottish tension but also produced a session dominated by issues other than the union. In the years immediately before Elizabeth's death there had been Catholic Englishmen in Spain desperately trying to persuade the Spanish government to run a Spanish candidate for the English throne, if necessary with military backing. These men included Guy Fawkes and Thomas Winter, two of the thirteen fanatics who were utterly opposed to a protestant succession, no matter whether the future King James would ease the burden of his Catholic subjects. When Spain failed to oblige, they turned to self-help. The plot was being planned in 1604; by the early summer of 1605 the preparations were complete, and the gunpowder stored and ready in the ‘cellar’ of the House of Lords. It was officially discovered not when William Parker, Lord Monteagle, showed Francis Tresham's anonymous warning letter to Cecil and others on 26 October—but on the night of 4–5 November, on the eve of parliament's reassembling when the lord chamberlain, Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk, was instructed by the king to have a second look in the Lords, having reported nothing suspicious after the first search. This time he searched properly; the man he had previously met in the cellar—Guy Fawkes—turned out to have a 9 inch match in his pocket; under a pile of coal were the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. It could hardly have been a more close-run thing. When interrogated, in a pathetic and ineffectual attempt to touch the English xenophobic nerve, Fawkes claimed that they intended to get rid of not only a protestant king but his hated Scots.
The English were, on the whole, relieved that the conspirators had failed. The anniversary of 5 November became an annual holiday, to be celebrated by jollification or sermons, depending on how puritanical was the area. Cecil, who had been created earl of Salisbury that May, harnessed the euphoria among MPs and obtained a vote of subsidies and other levies amounting to about £450,000. Parliamentarians eagerly followed the conspirators' trial on 27 January 1606 and their execution on 30 January, and their relations with the crown seemed set fair. However, in April harmony was threatened when James insisted on a British flag, again by proclamation. His ‘Union Jack (Jacobus)’ would be flown on British shipping, although English ships would continue to fly the St George's cross, Scottish ones that of St Andrew. The sop to national susceptibilities was not enough. He got his flag, but only after huge rows between the Scottish and English heralds, each trying to outdo the other in making their cross prominent.
By the time the third session of parliament opened in November 1606, the union commissioners had completed their report. The issue again dominated debates. James made a long and very moving speech, appealing to the English to recognize that Scotland was a civilized and governable nation, overplaying his hand in suggesting that it was actually more governable than England, although there was a certain truth in this from his point of view, but also carefully giving recognition to England's predominant place within the British Isles, unlike Scotland which would become as the northern shires, ‘seldome seene and saluted by their King’ (James VI and I: Political Writings, 164). It was a fine piece of rhetoric, careful to combine British kingship with English susceptibilities. But it was directed at the wrong audience. James's union was killed by this parliament. Sir Edwin Sandys damaged it beyond repair by taking up the king's idea of perfect union, and then declaring it impossible to achieve; others were more blunt in delivering the death blow.
Yet despite disquiet about the king's perceived squandering of taxation voted in the previous session, and even about his commitment to the English parliamentary system itself, MPs did make some concessions, accepting the naturalization of the king's Scottish subjects, which was reinforced by the judges' ruling in the carefully fixed Calvin's case of 1608, and accepting free trade between the two kingdoms. The latter was a major concession, achieved in the face of strenuous opposition from the English merchants. It was a messy outcome; it was ramshackle and confused—although that no doubt hardly worried James, a king with little interest in constitutional clarity. It was the best on offer, however, and as only James was really concerned to combine his roles as king of Scotland and king of England, it can hardly be argued that he failed. By pitching his initial demands far too high he was able to scale them down in order to ensure that in practice his Scottish subjects did reasonably well out of the union and his English ones were less unreasonably treated than they had feared. This did not stop Anglo-Scottish hostility.
By the time the final session of James's first parliament began in February 1610, mounting royal debts had become the main issue. The problems were deep rooted. Much has been made of the fact that Elizabeth died only £300,000 in debt; the royal debt then steadily escalated under James. The other way of looking at it is to question why the Virgin Queen, with far lighter expenditure than the married king, left so much debt; even though she was at war in the 1590s, it was hardly a ruinously expensive one. Elizabeth had in fact allowed royal revenue to decrease steadily in the course of her reign. Increase in customs revenue had been achieved in the last months of Mary's reign by the upward revision of the book of rates. Elizabeth got the immediate benefit, but did nothing to improve the situation in a period of inflation; customs income stagnated and fell. The same was true of income from land. Crown rents were grievously and sometimes ludicrously undervalued; the beneficiaries included no less a person than William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Moreover, during the war years of the 1590s the queen disposed of capital which was not hers to use in this way, being held in trust for the crown; rather than face up to the demand that parliament should be realistic in financing the war, she sold lands, plate, and jewellery. Cecil was already visibly frantic about the state of royal finance in the 1590s; by 1608, when as earl of Salisbury he succeeded Thomas Sackville, earl of Dorset, as lord treasurer, debt stood at over £1 million. Dorset had made a move towards uprating customs valuations in 1604; now Salisbury revised the book of rates, fifty years after it had last been done. It significantly improved crown revenue from commerce, but drew unpopularity.
Fall in revenue from customs and land had been matched by the falling value of parliamentary subsidy, which made the Commons' generosity of 1605–6 rather less than it seemed. The king therefore turned to ways of raising extra-parliamentary revenue, notably in his impositions on currants from the Levant brought in by the merchant John Bate in 1606, which he claimed to have the right to do on the grounds that trade was a matter of foreign policy, and therefore part of his prerogative. Testing this assertion in the courts with Bate's case brought victory for the king. But it was a very high-risk policy. It raised the spectre, in the worried minds of English MPs, of a king who might free himself of the fiscal restraints imposed by parliament, and follow the lead of contemporary European rulers, whose representative assemblies did not have the power to impose such restraints, and were therefore being the more easily dispensed with. It also brought the prerogative, and especially the extraordinary prerogative, into the open arena of political debate for the first time. Again the nightmare vision of an autocratic king appeared to have some reality. In 1610 it did not help when James ordered all his proclamations to be published in book form, thus appearing to give them more substantive authority than the law allowed.
When parliament assembled that February, Salisbury presented an utterly radical scheme, the great contract, by which the king's debts would be paid off and a regular income guaranteed (a lump sum of £600,000 together with an annual grant of £200,000 was initially suggested). Although the king offered in exchange to sacrifice some of his prerogative sources of income, including the deeply unpopular purveyance, the proposal fell ultimately before the same conservatism. Beneath the inevitable debate over how much money was involved, and the justified fear that whatever James was given would never be enough, lay the profound attachment to the old idea that the king was financed by a willing and loving people, and that he was not a salaried official of the state. The fact that the people were neither willing nor loving enough to meet the financial needs of an early seventeenth-century monarch passed them by. The conservative and conventional minds of English MPs, many of them lawyers, could only see as far as making the existing system work better, and telling the king not to spend so much. Thus in 1604 John Hare's bill on purveyances had done nothing to reform that tired, creaking, inadequate, and thoroughly unpopular way of providing for the royal households, but unrealistically relied on the belief that with the purge of abuses—which did not happen anyway—improvement would automatically follow.
In debates MPs harped on the king's extravagance and his generous grants of crown lands and money, especially to the Scots who had accompanied him south. John Haskyns made an inflammatory if inelegant speech in which he asserted that ‘the royal cistern had a leak which till it were stopped, all our consultation to bring money into it was Scots’ (Foster, 2.344). James, who by this time had indeed handed out about £90,000 in gifts and over £10,000 a year in pensions to his fellow countrymen, assured MPs that this degree of prodigality would cease, but he suggested that, since Englishmen had already benefited twice as much as Scots from his largesse, they should appreciate a grateful and generous king. Instead parliament turned to attacking impositions and to demanding the abolition, rather than simply the reform, of the court of wards. In the process it raised major legal and constitutional issues over freedom of speech and the extent of MPs' right to question the royal prerogative. Conflicting attitudes were revealed. When James made a speech on the running sore of monopolies which was informed not by English custom but by European examples, the common lawyer and MP Sir Nicholas Fuller came out with an astonishing definition of the role of the Commons: that ‘they must tell the king of England what by the laws of England he may do’ (Foster, 2.109). The fierily irascible lawyer Sir Edward Coke could not contain himself when James argued that the law was a matter of reason and common sense; no matter his majesty's reason and wisdom, no one could interpret English law without twenty years' training. There was another outburst of royal rage, and Coke apparently sank to his knees, grovelling; but it did not change his attitude.
With the contract now in jeopardy, a frustrated James was impelled to concede discussion of grievances and to promise an act against impositions. Ironically, a reaction to the appalling news of the assassination in May of Henri IV of France also helped belatedly to gain James the appreciation he had sought, and by the time parliament was prorogued in July, he was a fair way towards obtaining a substantial subsidy and £200,000 a year. However, during the recess MPs' enthusiasm waned and they returned in November to unproductive debate. Negotiations on the contract collapsed, and James first prorogued and then dissolved parliament, having gained a mere £100,000 advance and endured much humiliation.
For a time James tried to do without parliament. He survived with the assistance of a £100,000 loan from the city
of London and resort to well-worn royal expedients such as the sale of crown lands and monopolies, a rise in the
price of wardships, and (in 1611) the levy of a forced loan. A new, and equally unpopular, scheme introduced that
year was the sale of baronetcies. But with the death of Salisbury in 1612 the king lost his greatest administrator,
and his debts continued to rise. When in 1614 plans for a French marriage for Prince Charles fell through, taking
with them the prospect of acquiring a welcome dowry, James was persuaded to call another parliament. In its
two-month session, from 5 April to 7 June, the lamentable Addled Parliament passed no bills, but engendered much
acrimony. Another attack on Scots in the privy chamber proved the final straw, and James, realizing no money would
be forthcoming unless at the price of unacceptable concessions, dissolved a parliament which had achieved nothing.
In its aftermath the privy council, as usual deeply worried about the king's finances, debated whether to suggest
another. The problem was how to ensure that it would not be a rerun of its predecessor; and Lennox was asked to
request that the king should summon parliament in Scotland, for Scotland had never had an Addled Parliament, and
might therefore provide a role model. Lennox refused; there was about to be enough trouble in Scotland over the
king's new religious policy and he had no desire to allow tensions to be heightened by providing a forum for
opposition. Nevertheless, the unthinkable idea that a Scottish parliament might have something to offer an English
one had now been expressed; it had much to commend it. The English parliament, by James's reign, was indeed less
effective than its Scottish counterpart. Scottish parliaments still got things done. English parliaments
increasingly failed to do so, overburdened and overstretched as they were by ever growing pressure of business and
compounding the difficulties by their insistence on spending time on talking about custom, precedent, and privilege,
issues which hardly ever bothered the Scots except when the lords in parliament squabbled about precedence in order
In the meantime the king had to live, and thus he had to pursue alternative sources for income. The experiment, launched in December 1614, of allowing Sir William Cockayne to set up an English dyeing industry was supposed to provide the government with an extra £40,000 a year in customs revenues, but it collapsed in 1617 with little to show for it except stagnation in the cloth industry and resentment among its workers. More conventional money-raising expedients were tried, including from 1615 the sale of peerages, but in the end there was nothing for it but to concentrate instead on reducing expenditure. Late in 1617 Lionel Cranfield, a London merchant and surveyor-general of customs, was commissioned to supervise retrenchment. Initially his programme enjoyed some success: the outgoings of the royal household and several government departments were pruned, saving tens of thousands of pounds, and higher returns were realized through more ‘efficient’ exploitation of customs and of the court of wards. Ultimately, however, James's interest waned, and the plan failed to arrest his rising debts, which by 1620 amounted to nearly £900,000.
Like parliament, English government was now clearly overstretched, mainly because of the obsessive competition for place in the charmed world of court and government. Whatever the justification for English fears about James's extravagance, he was equally justified in attacking those who criticized that extravagance while demanding largesse for themselves. The attractions of retreat to the study were now enhanced by the welcome opportunity to close the door on importunate suitors; and Salisbury and Cranfield were as much the victims of their rapacity as of James's extravagance. Demand far outstripped supply; and as morally minded Englishmen refused to have any truck with the corrupt venality of the French crown, which staved off the problem with the sale of offices, the situation in England could only become increasingly chaotic. The pernicious practice of reversionary grants was already being adopted in the last years of Elizabeth; by the last years of James, grants were being given of reversions to reversions. Thus the English court presented the unedifying spectacle of containing, in effect, three groups: the fortunate, who held office; the circle of vultures round them waiting for them to resign or die; and a second circle of even more frustrated vultures, waiting for two lives to go. What made it all the worse was that offices were increasingly held for life. Moreover, there was something of an embryonic career structure coming into existence for a few, as able men served first in an office such as clerk of the council, went on to spend time in a foreign embassy, and came back to the pinnacle of success in a major office such as secretary of state. But the passion to gain entrance to Whitehall was not just a matter of major office. Anglo-Scottish tensions reared their head once again when the king preferred a Scotsman who had worked in his Scottish slaughterhouse to the position of keeper of the English slaughterhouse, ousting the English candidate, who was fobbed off with a reversion.
It is in this scrambling, hothouse environment that the notorious royal favourites must be set. Sir Walter Scott introduced the note of immorality; and some modern scholars—notably literary critics—still find the question of James's homosexuality a source of great fascination. There is almost the danger of forgetting that, even if homosexual activity as opposed to homoerotic feeling is ascribed to the king, at the very least, James was bisexual, and succeeded, where his three predecessors had failed, in providing heirs to the throne, which after the previous half-century came as a welcome relief. Moreover, even if seen under the guise of courtly love, the male favourite had had as much of a political role in Elizabeth's court as James's. Whatever the sexual attractions, the main point is that James never allowed his personal feelings to dictate his political ones.
It has already been suggested that Esmé Stuart has loomed too large in the early 1580s, being allowed to crowd out the other things—his poets, the beginnings of his political role—which brought the king out of his harsh childhood. In the late 1580s and 1590s Huntly was favoured when useful, attacked and (in 1596) exiled when not; equally, he had ignored factional pressure after the death of Lord Chancellor Maitland in 1595 and determined to fulfil the role himself. No amount of blandishments from the first great favourite of the English reign, the Scot Robert Carr, who rose to prominence in 1607, persuaded James to appoint one of his clients as secretary in succession to Salisbury in 1612. Carr did accumulate honours and acquire office: he was created Viscount Rochester in 1611 and earl of Somerset in 1613, and between 1612 and 1614 he exercised the functions of secretary of state. In 1613 he and his chosen bride, Lady Frances Howard, also had the all-important backing of the king in Lady Frances's efforts to get her first marriage to the earl of Essex annulled; having successfully forwarded the necessary legal proceedings and squashed the reservations of a discomforted archbishop of Canterbury, James even paid for their wedding that December. However, when in 1615 Somerset reacted to the arrival on the scene of George Villiers by behaving insolently, James put him firmly in his place. Later that year when the king heard rumours of the involvement of the earl and countess in the murder of Somerset's erstwhile adviser Sir Thomas Overbury, favour did not save them from investigation by a royal commission or from subsequent prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment in 1616, although it did save them from death.
Villiers, James's greatest favourite, was appointed cupbearer to the king in 1614 and gentleman of the
bedchamber in the following year; thereafter, following the downfall of Somerset, his rise was rapid: knighted and
created Viscount Villiers (1616) and successively earl (1617), marquess (1618), and duke (1623) of Buckingham.
Perhaps more attention should be paid to the fact that Villiers was brought to James's attention by his wife and by
George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury. Why? No doubt to undermine Somerset and his Howard allies, but this only
addresses their objections to a particular favourite. What were the positive advantages they saw to providing the
king with a new favourite? To amuse the king? To provide him with someone who, if necessary, would take the rap for
unpopular actions or simply take some of the pressure of endless demands for patronage from his shoulders? James
might give his favour initially to men of little prominence, but not to political nonentities: to retain favour they
had to demonstrate that they were politically useful. Buckingham undoubtedly did, as the patronage networks became
increasingly focused on him. That did not mean that the king gave up overall control. The royal chaplain and
religious controversialist George Carleton at last stopped being fobbed off with minor bishoprics and got a plum,
Chichester, not because his name was on Buckingham's lips, but because James had been impressed with his performance
as a delegate at the Synod of Dort. Buckingham's strength was that he knew how to please his royal master. He was,
of course, hated by those who failed to benefit from his patronage. There was a good deal less complaining from
those who benefited from it. But under the flexible James the patronage networks remained ideologically open. No
Jacobean parliament wanted to impeach Buckingham, as Charles I's first two did. It was after 1625, when Buckingham
adapted to the new king, Charles I, who had nothing of the flexibility of his father, and when, to compound his
increased unpopularity, disastrously went to war with both France and Spain in the same year—1627—that he was seen
as a real political menace. Having survived the threat of parliamentary attacks thanks to Charles's protection,
Buckingham finally died by the assassin's knife in 1628. James would never have allowed Buckingham the level of
power and influence which brought him down.
But the homosexual issue means that Buckingham has remained associated with James; and homosexuality has been a major factor in creating the idea of James's court as sleazy and corrupt. So it must be emphasized that neither in Scotland nor in England were the king's sexual proclivities of as much interest in his day as they later became. And the ‘corruption’ turns mainly on three episodes: the Overbury murder, which was not a homosexual scandal, and the accounts of two occasions when court entertainment went badly wrong, being swamped by drink; the first was in 1606, when James's brother-in-law Christian IV, king of Denmark—a notorious soak—came to visit, the second in 1618, when the king, grumpy and unwell, spoiled the performance of that year's court masque, and stumped off to bed, whereupon his courtiers, no doubt heartily glad to see the back of him, turned over-enthusiastically to the feasting and the drinking. It hardly amounts to ‘the’ corrupt court. There was, of course, corruption; how could there not have been? The councillors in prison in 1618–19 for financial corruption, chief among them the countess of Somerset's father, the disgraced lord treasurer Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk, the downfall of the monopolists and no less a person than Sir Francis Bacon in 1621, and even Lionel Cranfield in 1624, all testify to the problems inherent in the factional politics and the intense rivalry for advancement and advantage in the early modern court. But the very fact that men did come to grief in that court indicates that it was not wholly out of control. Nor was it a problem confined only to the English court. It was the additional dimension of the king's favourites, in England far more than in Scotland, which skewed the picture of that court, to a quite unwarranted extent.
Like James himself, all his favourites were married; all had children. The king showed a lot of affection for the wives and children, as he did for his own wife and children. Even if the love between James and Anne had worn thin, by the standards of early modern arranged royal marriages, relations between them remained remarkably good, at least well into the first decade of the seventeenth century and even to some extent in the years before her death in 1619. As for his ‘sweet boys’, Steenie and Baby Charles, at the end of his life James's letters to them took on a sugary sentimentality which reads unpleasantly by modern standards and, much more to the point, reads very differently from his earlier correspondence (Letters of James VI and I, 388–422). This did not mean that he had lost his political grip. But it does suggest, as do his late literary works, an ageing king becoming over-emotional as the confidence with which he had ruled his kingdoms began to fail him.
It is all too well known that, despite his promise in 1603 to return to Scotland every three years, James did so only once, in 1617; this has given rise to the idea that after 1603 he turned his back on Scotland, something which his English subjects hoped that he would do but were all too well aware that he did not. He had been, and remained, intensely interested in his Scottish kingdom, in manifest contrast to his mother, for whom Scotland came third on the list of priorities after England and France. In 1605 after the Gunpowder Plot James suggested sending Prince Henry back to Scotland for his safety; in 1607 he was toying with the idea of moving his capital to York. Neither idea found favour in England. Nor did his eventual visit in 1617, which raised considerable opposition; the king had to fight off Buckingham and other courtiers kneeling in his bedchamber and begging him not to go; one of those who accompanied him to Scotland, Sir Anthony Weldon, official of the board of the green cloth and master of the pun, loathed the experience and was probably the author of that vitriolic and witty attack on the northern kingdom, A Perfect Description of the People and Countrey of Scotland, finally published in 1659.
But there were compensations for James's personal absence, which eased the path of absentee kingship. The tradition of local autonomy, the repeated experience of minorities, had not entirely disappeared beneath the rapid developments in central government in the 1580s and 1590s. After 1603 James combined the old and the new. To the landed aristocracy who continued to exercise control he promoted a new group: the lairds and lawyers who had risen to prominence at the centre were now given earldoms to enhance their authority as those who would, in effect, govern Scotland—men like Sir George Home of Spott, who became earl of Dunbar, and Alexander Seton of Fyvie, created earl of Dunfermline. Personal contact was maintained for the first eight years after 1603 by Dunbar's regular journeys between Edinburgh and London. Particularly virulent anti-Scottish feeling in 1612 meant that there was no second Dunbar. But James and his Scottish politicians had one great piece of luck; apart from Dunbar, those with whom he had worked in the 1590s lived on until the 1620s, so that personal knowledge and shared political experience were maintained in a way in which they would never be again after 1625. They were reinforced by the new and effective postal system which the king set up when he went to England, cutting the round trip from London to Edinburgh and back to two weeks in winter, ten days in summer; and James's letters, in sharp contrast to Charles's peremptory commands, gave careful thought to the implementation of policy.
Nevertheless, there were evident strains. The Scottish reception of the English council's letter of invitation of
1603 showed an early awareness of the need to protect Scottish interests; but the union appeared to offer more
advantage to them than to the English, and if the bandwagon was there, they were delighted to jump on. The visible
hostility which greeted their arrival in London naturally soured the Scots; and matters became worse as hostility
to James's union policy, even in its scaled-down form, became equally visible. A letter appended to one of the
Scottish union tracts, ‘Ane wther treatise’, adjured James ‘to be nevir unmyndfyll of this your first and auldest
impyir of Scotland and of your gude subjectis heir’ (NL Scot., Advocates MS 31.4.7, fol. 27). The 1604 parliament,
discussing the appointment of Scottish commissioners to treat of union, was careful to insist that nothing should
be done to prejudice the laws, privileges, offices, and liberties of Scotland and the property rights of the Scots;
as the English were hardly likely to rush to acquire Scottish offices and lands, in the way they saw the Scots
doing to theirs, this suggests an unnecessary level of paranoia, but the underlying fear of losing out was real
enough. By 1607 parliament was writing to the king stating bluntly that James's ‘antient and native kingdome’
should not be turned into a province, to be governed by a deputy or viceroy as happened in the Spanish monarchia;
Spain was the explicit example, but the Irish situation can scarcely have passed the Scots by. It was also
demanding James's presence; this ‘sould alswele as your hairt be equalie divydit betuix us’ (Reg. PCS, 7.536).
They then demanded, in 1610, that copies of foreign treaties should be made available in Edinburgh. They may well
have had the king's sympathy over this potential source of neglect; certainly in 1614 Archbishop Abbot was
concerned that the idea of a French match had been raised by the Scots, and in the same year Sir Charles Cornwallis,
English ambassador to Spain, sought to please James by assuring him that he cared for the Scots ‘as he did those
of his owne countrey’ (PRO, PRO 31/3/47, fols. 245–6). The Scots could still take comfort from the fact that the
king of England was their king, be reassured by such things as the Scottish bedchamber that he retained his
affection for them and had no wish to lose their presence at his court; but there was no long-term guarantee that
this would continue after his death, and all they could do was to assert their position of equality with England as
best they could.
On James's side concern about retaining control of his northern kingdom began to topple over into heavy-handedness, certainly in his dealings with parliament and even with his council. In 1608 he demanded to see the voting lists of the council; this, for a king who before 1603 had witnessed the votes for himself, was not as autocratic as it looked, and indeed arguably made it more difficult for James to deal with dissenters than when he had been there in person, but it was a reminder of the greater formality imposed by absentee kingship. Efforts to control parliament, strenuous enough in the 1590s, were also increased. In 1609 he attempted to nominate the lords of the articles himself, but this was politely refused. In 1612, however, he did have some success in nominating the lords to be chosen by the bishops. The 1617 parliament at which he was present saw renewed resistance to nomination by the king, and an effort to control the number of the officers of state who sat on the committee of the articles. Then in 1621 came the high point of royal control. This is a parliament for which the sources are relatively full, and it is quite clear that Thomas Hamilton, at this date earl of Melrose and both secretary of state and president of the court of session, was working at full stretch, lobbying from six in the morning before the lords of the articles met to deliberate at eight. Election to the articles was achieved by the bishops choosing eight nobles, who then chose eight bishops, and together they selected the barons and burgesses. In addition two Englishmen were given Scottish titles so that they could attend and vote; and proxy voting was allowed. The reason for this strenuous management was that the king's religious policy, the five articles of Perth, and a new form of taxation, on annual rents, were coming before parliament. Both were passed, but only just; the combined total of opponents and abstainers outweighed the number who voted for them. James was well aware of just what a close-run matter it had been, turning furiously, and utterly unfairly, on the bishops, the one group who had given him unanimous support. Royal confidence in governing Scotland was not what it had been.
The five articles and the new taxation were not the only contentious issues. As far back as 1581 there had been the idea of introducing commissioners of the peace, in a highly limited form, and this was extended in 1587; but neither found favour among the lairds. After 1603 James tried again. The idea was revived in 1609, and lists of local commissioners were drawn up in 1610, reinforced by officers of state, councillors and senators of the college of justice, some of the great magnates, and the archbishops of St Andrews and Glasgow; clearly the intention was to keep close ties between centre and localities. An even more comprehensive act followed in 1617, extending the powers of the commissioners and bringing them into line with English JPs. ‘Anglicization’ was neither tactful nor acceptable. In 1611 George Gledstanes, archbishop of St Andrews, himself rejected the scheme, bursting out in fury at a meeting of the council, in a flaming row with Thomas Hamilton, at this date merely a lord of session and king's advocate, ‘that the realme had had many hundredth yeires bene weill governed withowt Justices of the Peace’ (Reg. PCS, 14.621–2). The new JPs tended to use their offices to settle old scores. And by 1625 less than a quarter of the shires had JPs. James was not only losing his confidence; there was an extent to which he was losing his touch. However much he might maintain his interest in his native kingdom, those who had served him before 1603 were now being pushed along new paths.
Paradoxically James had arguably an easier time in Ireland. The lamentable Nine Years' War came to an end in 1603; and royal policy towards Ireland took a very different direction from the experiments and attempts at control of the Tudor monarchs. James approached the problem as a king experienced in ruling a Gaelic area of Scotland and applying rather different methods from those of the lowlands. In 1587 he had relied on a very traditional style of lordship when he introduced the general band, whereby highland and border lords and chiefs of clans would be made responsible, under financial penalty, for the peaceful behaviour of their followers. In 1602 and again in 1605 he had sent Fife gentry west to the Isle of Lewis, to civilize the islesmen; it had been a bloody failure, but it was the beginnings of the policy which later led to the much more wide-ranging plantation of Ulster.
James never subscribed to the harsh and savage view propounded by the poet and administrator in Ireland Edmund Spenser and by the attorney-general of Ireland, Sir John Davies, that the only way to deal with the Irish was by the forcible imposition of English civility. There was no reason why he should do so. Scottish Gaeldom had worried him as king of Scots a great deal less than Gaelic Ireland had worried the Tudors. An English deputy of Ireland was an established official, unparalleled in Scotland, and there to stay. But kings of Scots habitually worked with the earls of Argyll to control the Scottish highlands; and there are some signs that James wanted a similar relationship with that former rebel Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone. The potential for such a working partnership was shattered in 1607 by the dramatic flight of Tyrone and Rury O'Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell. The success in Scotland of the efforts of Argyll and of Colin Mackenzie of Kintail, who became earl of Seaforth for his pains, may well have made the idea of plantation there less urgent than it would be in Ireland, where after 1607 there was no one to fulfil an equivalent role. But in essence the idea was the same, if on a far greater scale. The intention in Lewis had been the mix of lowland and highland Scots, whereas the plantation of Ulster, extensively implemented after 1610, and extended to Wicklow, Wexford, and Carlow in 1611, was a ‘British’ mix, of Irish, Scots, and English. It was by no means just a protestant mix imposed on Irish Catholics. Border and south-west Catholic Scottish undertakers from a still partially Gaelic area were very successful planters; the protestant Scots Sir George Hamilton of Greenlaw and the earl of Abercorn were very willing to plant Catholics in Strabane.
Another policy shared between the Irish and the Scottish highlanders was the attempt to integrate them more fully into ‘British’ society through the medium of language. Scottish Gaeldom became something of an embarrassment to King James after 1603; his Gaelic speakers hardly fitted the vision which he was trying to sell to the English of two equal kingdoms with a shared language and culture. In 1609, therefore, he and Andrew Knox, bishop of the Isles, produced the Statutes of Iona, which insisted that the heirs of the chiefs must be educated in the lowlands, and that the chiefs themselves must periodically attend the council; and in 1616 speaking, reading, and writing English became the prerequisite for inheriting land. Gaelic Ireland did not create the same embarrassment. But James had a tendency to reuse his good ideas; and so the eldest sons of the Old English peers were to go to England for their education.
James's one Irish parliament began in 1613 with roaring farce, with a disputed speakership; the Catholic John Everard sat tight in the chair, whereupon his rival Sir John Davies sat on top of him until Everard was removed. Also removed—by the king—was the contentious issue of religion, and as a result this was the easiest parliament which James ever held in any of his three kingdoms, even a subsidy being passed without much difficulty. It would be too much to say, more generally, that his rule of Ireland was either straightforward or wholly successful. But his obvious interest in his Irish kingdom, of which his close attention to the plantation project was a good example, and his refusal to treat it as a colony, as well as his greater understanding of Ireland than his English predecessors had had, combined with lack of fear of it, stood him in very good stead.
Unlike modern British monarchs, who in effect show a split personality over religion, belonging to one church in England and another in Scotland, early modern monarchs were expected to preside over religious conformity. This was difficult enough in one kingdom, especially when that kingdom was England, still bound by the ill-defined Elizabethan settlement of 1559; how much more so when there were three kingdoms involved.
James himself was seen in somewhat contradictory terms when he succeeded in 1603; he received both the millenary petition from the puritans, obviously hoping for better things from a more clearly Calvinist monarch than his predecessor and urging moderate reform, and letters from Catholics, looking to him as the son of the ‘sainted’ Mary, queen of Scots, for relief from their harsh treatment in the last two decades of Elizabeth's reign. Neither was wholly misguided. James had reason to be wary of the leading Elizabethan churchmen, especially Richard Bancroft, by this time bishop of London, whose paranoia about puritans matched that of his queen, and with whom James had crossed swords a decade and more before 1603. What neither John Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury, nor Bancroft, who succeeded him in 1604, understood was that, despite his battles with the Melvillians, James shared two of the aspirations of his Scottish puritans, decent stipends and a high level of education; by the time he went to England Scottish ministers were pouring out of the Scottish universities. Whitgift and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were therefore wholly taken aback by his attempt to extend Scottish practice to England, when in 1604 he proposed that the impropriated tithes of the universities should be ploughed back into the church and devoted to clerical education. Challenging three powerful vested interests head on was clearly too much; dons at Oxford and Cambridge were no doubt entirely unwilling to reduce their intake of claret at dinner; and nothing was done.
But there was another Scottish practice which could be introduced into England on a much grander scale than the occasional small debates of Elizabeth's reign: for now it was debate between king and churchmen, as a way forward in trying to resolve religious tensions. Hence in 1604 James summoned the Hampton Court conference. The old idea that this was a line-up by king and bishops against the puritans is not tenable. The reasons why the puritans got less than they had hoped from the conference lay elsewhere. It was held too early in the reign: James was challenging hardline Elizabethan attitudes too soon for success; and he had not yet fully realized how different from his Scottish presbyterians were the English puritans he met at Hampton Court. Hence his furious and famous outburst, ‘no bishop, no king’; in the heat of debate, he was surely seeing not John Rainolds and his associates, moderate men all, but in response to Rainolds's unlucky use of the word ‘presbytery’, seeing Andrew Melville and his extremist supporters. Hence his lack of opposition to Bancroft's extensive deprivations of puritan clerics in 1605–6; deprivation was a weapon he had used in Scotland himself. Nevertheless, Hampton Court was a landmark of importance, in the longer if not the immediate term. For James did come to accept that English puritans were not a continuation of the Scottish threat, not least because his enthusiasm for hunting took him regularly off to Royston in Cambridgeshire, where he met more puritans, and revised his view. Indeed, perhaps too much has been made of that famous outburst. James was a skilled debater, and proud of his skill. Debate, for him, was a matter of impassioned involvement; when he summoned the conference, he was not proposing to preside over a vicarage tea party. Moreover, out of the conference came one outstanding achievement which was undoubtedly of great moment for him. In 1601 he had proposed to the general assembly a new translation of the Bible. He began the process by personally translating the Psalms, but nothing else was done. Now, at Hampton Court, the dream of the new translation of the Bible became reality. The Authorized Version, published in 1611, stands as a lasting monument to Hampton Court, as a masterpiece of English prose which modern versions of the Bible do nothing to rival, and as a shared interest between the aspirations of the puritans and the aspirations of a ‘puritanical’ king.
The first years of the reign saw not just the theatre of Hampton Court; they also saw the drama of the Gunpowder Plot. James gave out conflicting signals in these years. Scottish Catholics had never troubled him as Scottish puritans had done; and he felt a distaste for persecution. Thus English Catholics did find relief under a king who drastically reduced the recusancy fines, to the deep concern of Cecil (which would give rise to the nonsensical belief that Cecil staged the plot in order to turn James into a persecuting king), the leading churchmen, and his exchequer officials. It was this last group who stopped the rot, when James failed in his attempt, as part of peace negotiations with Spain in 1604, to persuade Spain to pay the recusancy fines; the Spanish preferred to use their money for sweeteners for English protestants. The recusancy fines therefore began to creep up again, but not until after the plot was in being. For the Gunpowder Plot had nothing to do with Catholic hopes being frustrated by King James. Recognizing its real origins, James kept his head and refused to hold English Catholics in general responsible; as the contemporary Jesuit priest John Gerard acknowledged, it was the king who protected them from widespread reprisals. In the twenty-two years of James's English rule only twenty-five Catholics were executed, compared to 189 between 1570 and 1603.
These two events, Hampton Court and the Gunpowder Plot, were the big dramas in the English Jacobean church. James continued to give out what appeared to be conflicting signals: ‘puritans’ largely ceased to be an issue; Catholics who kept their heads down were left alone. Moreover, despite the king's own Calvinist belief, and the fact that his church was Calvinist in doctrine, his bench of bishops increasingly included Arminians, notably the impressive Lancelot Andrewes, successively bishop of Chichester, Ely, and Winchester. Small wonder that there were concerns about the king, who was seen to prefer theological debate to the imposition of theological conformity; hence the story that Richard Neile (who under James held four bishoprics in succession, culminating in Durham in 1617) orchestrated interruptions to sermons by new preachers, for if the king liked the preacher he would ask him to dinner, debate with him, and give him preferment in the church. But there was a consistency in James: his ecumenical approach, which had led him to propose an ecumenical council in May 1603, and which enabled him to recognize differing religious opinions with interest rather than fear. His court—that supposedly corrupt court—became home to distinguished foreign scholars and churchmen of like mind, most notably Isaac Casaubon. James was a genuinely international Calvinist, strenuously and successfully opposing the appointment of the Dutch Arminian theologian Conradus Vorstius as professor of theology at Leiden in 1612, and in 1618 strongly backing the Synod of Dort, which met in an attempt to resolve the Calvinist–Arminian battle in the Netherlands. However, he never insisted that only Calvinism was acceptable in his church. In the last year of his life he refused to suppress Richard Mountague's contentious anti-Calvinist A New Gagg for an Old Goose, instead inviting him to clarify his position, which Mountague did in his Appello Caesarem, and this has prompted the suggestion that by then James was departing from his Calvinist faith. It seems more likely that this man of flexible mind, never a hardline and exclusive Calvinist, was adapting to the new problems created by the international crisis of 1618. Thus in the tense world of foreign relations of 1624 the king was not opposed to a cleric who refused to label Catholics as the servants of Antichrist.
Being a member of King James's English church was therefore a great deal more relaxed than being a member of the church of Elizabeth or Charles I. The same was true in his Irish church. James never agreed with that peculiarly unpleasant strand of Calvinist logic which regarded Irish Catholicism as clear evidence of reprobation. The row in 1613 over the speakership came at a tense moment for Irish Catholics, then fearful of losing their place in parliament; they walked out and appealed to the king. James's initial reaction was less than favourable; in July he issued a proclamation stating that he would hear both sides of the argument, but would expect his arbitration, as a prerogative matter, to be final; and this was followed up in May 1614 with a proclamation against popery, which ordered all priests to leave Ireland. He did not pursue it. There was no religious legislation in parliament; the Catholic members returned in a wholly co-operative mood; and once again tension was entirely diffused.
It was a different matter in Scotland. For it was a Calvinist country, like James's English kingdom, but with a much tougher variety of Calvinism. In polity it was a hybrid, containing both bishops and the Calvinist courts, a compromise which existed reasonably successfully under James, for an able bench of bishops dressed like ordinary ministers and worked closely with the church courts. The Jacobean experience shows that the idea that the kirk hated bishops from the beginning is not true. What it hated was the powerful English model later encouraged by Charles I and imposed by him on Scotland; James himself had already spoken against that model. However, while shared Calvinist doctrine accommodated flexibility in polity, it encouraged a drive for greater conformity in worship. The king therefore embarked on the disastrous course of liturgical reform. After the general assembly of August 1616 had agreed to a basket of royal requests and dispersed, James dispatched five articles to be incorporated in the embryonic new canons and liturgy. The five articles of Perth restored, most offensively, the observation of the greater festivals of the Christian year and kneeling at communion. Even Calvin had proposed the abolition of the Christian festivals only until they were no longer associated with popery; yet how the kirk viewed the matter is seen in the fact that only in the mid-twentieth century did Christmas cease to be associated with popery and was adjudged rightly to be celebrated. And kneeling at communion was, of course, idolatry. It almost certainly did not help that James's one visit to Scotland, in 1617, could undoubtedly be seen as an effort to put his personal authority behind the articles, which were not formally presented to the synods until that July. His one concession, the withdrawing of his order to put statues of the apostles in his chapel in Holyroodhouse, did no good. The general assembly which met in November turned down the articles. Early in 1618 the privy council, acting on orders from a furious king, reinforced the article on the religious festivals; and in August a much more carefully managed assembly accepted them all, although with sizeable opposition. In October the privy council ratified the five articles and had them proclaimed publicly. Then came the hard-fought and narrow victory which saw the articles become law in the parliament of 1621, accompanied by James's promise—which he kept—to make no more innovations. He was no longer fighting the Melvillians; their leaders had been summoned to a ‘second’ Hampton Court conference, in 1606, and exiled. Perhaps he underestimated, therefore, the strength of feeling that Scottish Calvinist practice, unlike what they regarded as watered-down English, made the Scottish church ‘one of the most pure kirks under heaven this day’, as was claimed in the 1616 confession of faith (Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, 3.1139). The king threatened that purity. As in some of his secular policies, he appeared to be losing interest in the needs and aspirations of his Scottish kingdom. The man who had so successfully shaped the church that he wanted before 1603 was now losing his grip. Compared to his dealings with the churches of England and Ireland, this was a sad story.
As in so much else, James brought to his ‘British’ kingship his Scottish belief in the importance of Scottish kingship, now enhanced by his new status. Moreover the Stuart dynasty now acquired an importance in European affairs which could not have been attained by the Virgin Queen, simply because the king, having children, could play an important role in dynastic politics. It was the role which entirely suited rex pacificus. His first decisive action, in 1604, very much in agreement with Cecil, was to end the Anglo-Spanish war; diplomacy, not war, was to be the keynote of his foreign policy, and a diplomacy which was even-handed, reducing rather than hardening the religious divisions of Europe. His elder son, Henry, a much more militant protestant prince than his father, would have no truck with anything other than a protestant marriage alliance. In fact that suited James very well, and it was indeed realized by the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to Frederick V, elector palatine; for it could be balanced by an alliance with Catholic Spain, ultimately sealed by the marriage of Prince Charles, heir to the throne since the death of Henry in 1612.
Inevitably, in a kingdom which had been carefully building up for itself a much needed sense of identity based on the ideology of England as God's elect protestant nation, this pacific and balanced policy was hardly popular. Peace with Spain was itself deeply unpopular. Elizabeth, who could be seen as a dismal failure as a militant protestant princess, now became, in the hands of William Camden and that friend and admirer of Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, who should certainly have known better, the defender of embattled European protestants, compared to her spineless and dangerously pro-Catholic successor. The inglorious and half-hearted intervention in the Netherlands in the 1580s was forgotten; the queen making her nationalist speech in the face of the Armada, at Tilbury in Essex, was remembered. James, on the other hand, refused to act that imagined part of the English king as the military protector of the protestant faith. There was one exception in 1612, when he reluctantly joined the Evangelical Union of the German and Dutch in that brief era when the Catholic League of 1609, the assassination of Henri IV of France in 1610, and the Franco-Spanish alliance of 1611 raised protestant fears. His involvement with the Evangelical Union was short-lived, however: he was distinctly sceptical about the danger posed by the league, formed in reaction to the union's military intervention in Cleves-Jülich to enforce the claims of Lutheran princes to succeed to the duchy whose previous ruler had been a Catholic. What happened in 1613 was much more important than the involvement of 1612. For in that year sure instinct prompted Philip III to send as Spanish ambassador to England that noted bibliophile and scholar Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, count of Gondomar. He began a diplomatic and personal relationship with James which, until its tragic collapse in 1623–4, opened up far more avenues of policy than the king's identification solely with the protestants could ever have done. Spain might have been England's great enemy under Elizabeth, but it had not been Scotland's great enemy under James, who was, symbolically, the sixth of his line to bear the name of the saint associated with the great pilgrimage centre of Compostela. He had taken the novel line, from at least the early 1590s, of preferring Spain to the ‘auld ally’, France; and after 1603 English susceptibilities were not going to push him into undermining the opportunity of keeping a reasonable level of peace in Europe, which could be achieved by maintaining friendship with the greatest European power. That reasonable level was indeed maintained; only the assassination of Henri IV and the Cleves-Jülich dispute temporarily disturbed it before 1618.
It almost worked. But in 1618 came the Bohemian revolt, and in 1619 James's son-in-law committed the appalling folly of accepting the Bohemian crown, joining the Bohemians in mounting a direct challenge to the emperor Ferdinand II, only to be expelled by the latter's armies a year later. Europe was spiralling down into war; and James, on the grounds of both religion and kinship, was expected by European protestants and a faction of hardline English protestants to take up arms on behalf of the elector. More realistically than either, James regarded Frederick as a dangerous lunatic, writing to him in 1621 to tell him bluntly that if he threatened the stability of Europe and refused to co-operate in seeking a peaceful solution, then the king would disown him. Philip III had already offered a much more acceptable alternative, when he expressed himself willing in 1618 to allow James to arbitrate in the Bohemian problem. Co-operation with the Spanish Habsburgs, who could put pressure on the imperial Habsburgs to restore Frederick to his ancestral Rhineland territories of the Upper Palatinate, was the way forward.
By the end of 1621 there was indeed little alternative. The parliament which opened on 3 January in the context of popular fear of Catholicism whipped up by the crisis in Europe and of an ever-worsening trade depression had at first gone well. In a carefully balanced speech at its opening James had requested the wherewithal to help Frederick, declaring his preference for spending it in peaceful diplomacy, but his readiness to deploy it militarily if absolutely unavoidable. In a rush of enthusiasm the Commons voted two subsidies amounting to about £150,000, but then turned to contentious debate, attacking the privileges of the Merchant Adventurers and notorious monopolists like Sir Giles Mompesson and Sir Francis Mitchel. Next, with the connivance of Cranfield, among others, and the acquiescence of the king, MPs revived the device of impeachment and deployed it against the lord chancellor, Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban. None the less, the session ended on a note of optimism and during the recess James showed his goodwill, and his own inclinations, by issuing a proclamation cancelling a score of monopolies. He also showed a commitment to economy by promoting Cranfield, ennobled as earl of Middlesex, to the lord treasurership. But when parliament reassembled in November the mood had changed. Harvest failure, floods, and the depth of the trade slump had made MPs wary of voting more money. With the king absent at Newmarket his managers, unsure of their master's precise attitude to war, failed to steer debate in profitable channels. In appending to George Goring's war proposal a petition that Prince Charles marry a protestant the Commons trod on two areas of the king's prorogative. This was an inappropriate meddling in affairs of state, James told them in a letter that December. When on 18 December MPs retaliated by entering a protestation about their privileges in the Commons journal, the king adjourned and then dissolved parliament. In the process he lost a third subsidy, voted but not yet enacted.
Peacemaking now became a necessity, and a Spanish match for Charles the more desirable. In 1622 co-operation with the Habsburgs still looked possible as a conference proposed by James met in Brussels between May and September.
But in 1623 it collapsed. Gondomar now had a powerful rival, the Spanish chief minister Olivares, who was far less favourable to the Spanish match. His views were shared by the prospective bride, the infanta, who objected strongly to being married to a heretic, declaring her preference for a nunnery. Even Philip III, who in 1622 had agreed that Anglo-Spanish forces should fight the emperor if he refused to restore Frederick, lacked the enthusiasm of James and Gondomar for the marriage. In these circumstances Prince Charles made his pre-emptive strike: having left England in February as ‘Thomas and John Smith’, in March he and Buckingham turned up in Spain. This was a very different matter from the journeys which James V and James VI had made to claim their brides. It was silly and undignified for the prince of Wales and the duke of Buckingham to sneak into Madrid in disguise. It was also very awkward for the Spanish court when their presence became known; for it had just embarked on a period of retrenchment, which had hastily to be forgotten, as the court plunged into an extremely expensive six-month party in their efforts to entertain their English visitors, a party which makes James's own notorious extravagance look positively restrained.
Charles fell in love—and lost (this time at least metaphorically) his political head. In 1622 he had resisted the papal demand for legal toleration of English Catholics as the price for his agreement to issue a dispensation. Once in Spain, he appears to have indicated that James would be prepared to acknowledge the spiritual supremacy of the pope. The sentimentality of James's letters immediately stopped; he utterly repudiated the suggestion. The situation worsened when Gregory XV's dispensation arrived, making demands which were more extreme than those of the Spaniards themselves. The infanta was to have not just her priests but a bishop; and she should not go to England until toleration for English Catholics had been in place for a year. There was no loophole.
Diplomatic politeness was preserved, apart from the quarrels between Olivares and Buckingham. But James recognized defeat. In July 1623 he wrote to Charles, telling him to come home, and hope that the infanta would follow. By then he may well have feared that the Spaniards would keep Charles in Madrid, as a diplomatic weapon. With typical Jacobean hard-headedness, he also told Charles to bring the dowry with him; cash would make up for the lack of the bride. In October a humiliated Charles and Buckingham came back to England, to a rapturous welcome from all those loyal upholders of the protestant cause who could not see—as their feeble king and his devious Spanish ambassador could so clearly see—that upholding the protestant cause in their way would plunge Europe into full-scale and ruinous war. France was now to be the ally, and Charles and Buckingham, enjoying their one brief moment of popularity, cheerfully ignored James's prophetic warning that a parliament might howl for war, but would not be prepared to pay for it. It was they who urged the calling of the parliament which opened in February 1624, and they who led the war party in the Lords. With the council divided between hawks and doves, both played out their rivalries in parliament. James gave an apparently conciliatory inaugural speech soliciting advice on areas of policy he had hitherto guarded to himself—the continuation of negotiations with Spain and the fight against popery—but he later spelled out clearly that war would be possible only if substantial supply were voted. Ironically the session was relatively productive of legislation, although its outcome was inconclusive. Buckingham engineered the impeachment for corruption of Middlesex, now his rival and the leading advocate of peace, but James prorogued parliament on 29 May without the requisite money for a war as yet undeclared. Contrary to his probable intention at the time, it was not recalled.
Leaving aside the question of Spain, in June James made a defensive alliance with the United Provinces, while pursuing the possibility of an anti-Habsburg coalition and a French marriage for Charles. From 1625 fighting in Europe escalated into the major and bloody war which dragged on until 1648. With the departure that January of a mercenary force under Count Mansfeld, destined for the Palatinate, England now made its dismal and short-lived entry into it; as James had foreseen, his southern kingdom had neither the will nor the ability to meet the demands of early seventeenth-century warfare. Possibly James and Gondomar had aimed too high in making the Spanish marriage an essential part of the peaceful solution; it was not, strictly speaking, necessary, for it was the Anglo-Spanish alliance which was essential. But by insisting on the marriage they could be seen to be cutting through the diplomatic manoeuvrings and clarifying the issue. In any case, James and Gondomar had surely been right to resist the calls for war, to seek a diplomatic solution; it is a tribute to the bond between them that they came as close as they did to success. The fact that in the end they failed was a fatally missed opportunity. Many Europeans died because of that failure. And a king of European vision was to die politically bankrupt.
In the first years of his English rule James's Scottish analysis of divine-right kingship was expanded into direct confrontation with the papacy and its claims of the deposing power over secular rulers. He was now defending European kingship. He began in 1608 with Triplici nodo, triplex cuneus, or, An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance, directed against Pope Paul V and Cardinal Bellarmine. ‘Now let us heare the words of his [the pope's] thunder’, he wrote, and rushed to demolish them (James VI and I: Political Writings, 88). Attacked by Bellarmine for this work, he then raised the stakes and in 1609 addressed the monarchs of Europe in A Premonition to All Most Mightie Monarches, Kings, Free Princes and States in Christendom, arguing passionately against papal pretensions to superiority over kings. Finally in 1615 he produced his Remonstrance for the Right of Kings and the Independence of their Crownes, which was a broadside against Cardinal Perron and the French clergy for rejecting the oath proposed by the third estate in the uncertain period after Henri IV's assassination on similar lines to the English oath of allegiance introduced after the Gunpowder Plot; thanks to their clergy, the French remained bewitched ‘of this pernicious opinion; that Popes may tosse the French King his Throne like a tennis ball, and that killing of Kinges is an acte meritorious to the purchase of the crowne of Martyrdome’ (Political Works of James I, 170). The lively and effective political polemicist was still there in full measure.
So was the scholar-king, imposing his intellectual tastes on the English court. Pride of place in recognizing the genius of Ben Jonson goes to Anne of Denmark, who first gave him patronage. But James took over, and developed a relationship with the scholar-poet which underpinned the glories of the Jonsonian masque. In 1616, the year in which James's collected works were published, Jonson followed suit with his. James's enthusiasm for Oxford, first displayed in 1604 when he went to the Bodleian Library and declared that if he were not a king, there would be no greater pleasure than in being chained to the library, was now reinforced. When presented with the Workes, Oxford bore them in procession to the Bodleian; Cambridge simply accepted a gift to the library, and did not bother. Jonson, Horace and Virgil to James's Augustus, was rewarded in that year with an annual pension, and became poet laureate. But however personally satisfying, James's relationship with Jonson remained just that; there was no English re-creation of the circle of Scottish poets in whom James had taken so much pleasure in his earlier years. And while he had some success in expressing his theological interests with the foundation of a college of divinity in Chelsea, the Oxford and Cambridge monopoly was not broken; the college lasted only until the middle of the seventeenth century.
James never lost his ability to produce the effective phrase. Yet just as the writings before 1603 had reflected his confidence in his Scottish rule, so after 1603, and especially in the later years, they gave expression to something very different: increasing tiredness and disillusion. He wrote less in England, for recreation and enjoyment, and his works came to lack the force and certainty of touch which had characterized his Scottish writing. His ‘Epistle dedicatorie’ to his 1620 Meditation upon the 27, 28, 20 Verses of the xxvii Chapter of St Matthew quite explicitly paints the picture of a king ‘being growen in yeares … weary of controversies’, and tells us that ‘the croun of thornes went never out of my mind, remembring the thorny cares, which a King … must be subject unto’. In this work Buckingham appears in an unfamiliar light. For he offered to be the king's amanuensis, and James's acceptance ‘much eased my labour, considering the slownesse, ilnesse and uncorrectnes of my hand’ (James VI and I: Political Writings, 231–2). That sad self-portrait is very far removed from the active hand which wrote Basilikon Doron twenty years earlier, the hand of an author furiously impatient with the difficulty of finding the right words to express the ideas swarming in his brain. The insistent linking of Christ's suffering to the suffering of kings, brought together by the symbol of the crown of thorns, is not only tedious but on occasions comes close to toppling over into a kind of blasphemy. Moreover, James is frankly boring on the difficulty of plaiting a crown of thorns, the etymology of the Greek word diadema, the lost recipe for the purple dye of the ancients, and much else besides; and it comes as a shock to find King James a bore.
For some time James had suffered from kidney problems and arthritis, and in September 1624 the latter worsened. By March 1625 this had been compounded by a fever, to be followed by a stroke and severe dysentery. James died on 27 March 1625 at Theobalds, Hertfordshire, and was buried in the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey on 5 May. It was a loss keenly felt by his circle of Scottish friends and politicians, who could remember the days of his kingship in Scotland, and now had to face for the first time the heightened chill of absentee monarchy under a king with whom there was no such personal relationship. In England—as the earl of Mar and Kellie, who had grown up beside the king, sadly recorded—the world belonged to Charles and Buckingham. But the sombre magnificence of John Donne's funeral sermon was not just rhetoric; it conjures up the vibrant personality who had gone, and is a reminder that for his English subjects also there was a sense of loss. After his death men looked back on James as the king of scholarship and wit. Even the hostile Weldon described him as very witty; and his table talk was recorded and published, under the variant titles of the sixty Wittie Observations Gathered from our Late Soveraign King James (1643) and the 200 Flores regii, or, Proverbs and aphorisms, divine and morall … spoken by his most excellent majestie James of famous memory (1627).
But thereafter James's reputation declined. It was the railings of his presbyterian opponents, not the support of his archbishop of St Andrews, John Spottiswoode, in his more anodyne History of the Church of Scotland (published posthumously in 1655), which gained ground after 1690, when it began to chime with the inaccurate belief that the kirk had always set its face against bishops. His homosexuality became a moral issue. His writings were regarded as of little value, of note only because they were written by a king. He was divided sharply into James VI and James I, which meant that Scottish historians concentrated on his problems with his over-mighty aristocracy, and English historians with his failure to get on with his English parliaments and to understand the English constitution. Indeed his most extreme critics, the whig historians, detected in him an instinct for absolutism, even tyranny; and in their hands, paradoxically, James I, now separated from James VI, became indissolubly linked to the very different Charles I. In 1956 the critical view reached its final heights in the utterly hostile biography King James VI and I by D. H. Willson, that astonishing spectacle of a work whose every page proclaimed its author's increasing hatred for his subject. The Weldon portrait of the disgusting, cowardly pedant, with a conceit which far outweighed his real ability, underpinned it all. It was in fact Weldon who coined the famous phrase ‘the wisest fool’ in Christendom (wrongly attributed to Henri IV, who never said it), that phrase which has lingered on in popular memory and sadly may continue to do so, even if, as any serious study makes clear, it bears no relation to the reality that was King James.
Recent scholarship has done much to overturn these views; even literary critics have become less hostile, and modern historians see far greater ability in James. He was not a success in every area. He was a financial disaster. His dreams of closer union were not realized, and his efforts to keep his kingdoms out of war in Europe failed. But he was a remarkable man, with a high theoretic sense of his kingship, yet also an adept practical politician, casual, friendly, intellectual, and scholarly. Unlike many of the other multiple kingdoms of early modern Europe, Britain survived, cracks only beginning to show at the end of the twentieth century. That is not, of course, purely because of the particular and in some ways curious skills of the first king of Britain. Its establishment as a viable political entity, which paved the way for its future survival, undoubtedly is.
This biography is reproduced from the Oxford Online edition of the Dictionary of National Biography article by Jenny Wormald. The GPS acknowledges all copyrighted material and the use of this biography is not meant as a challenge to said copyrights.