James l 1603 -1625

Born: Edinburgh Castle, 19 June 1566.

Titles: Duke of Rothesay (from birth), Duke of Albany, Earl of Ross and Baron Ardmannoch.

Crowned: James I of England: Westminster Abbey, 25 July 1603.

Ruled: 24 July 1567-27 March 1625.

Married: 23 November 1589, at Oslo, Norway, Anne (1574-1619), dau. Frederick II of Denmark and Norway. 9 children.

Died: Theobalds Park Hertfordshire 27th March 1625 aged 58.

Buried: Westminster Abbey.

James I, king of England, was also James Vl of Scotland. We tend to overlook the fact that he had been king of Scotland already for thirty-six years, twenty-three of those since he had taken the reins of government. He was the first king to rule the whole of Britain (only the Isle of Man retained a separate kingship but was subject to the Crown).

James was the only son of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry, Lord Darnley. Through both his parents he was the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor, sister to Henry VIII of England, and he was thus heir to the English throne should Elizabeth, the queen of England, have no children. He was just thirteen months old when his mother was forced to abdicate and, as with most of the Stewart kings of Scotland, their reigns began under a regency amid intense rivalry. James's was complicated by two factors. First his mother was still alive and her supporters, the papists, led by John Hamilton, archbishop of St Andrews, were still powerful amongst the Scots. Second, accusations were still flying over the murder of his father, Lord Darnley. Both his mother and his uncle, the earl of Moray, were implicated. Although both were eventually cleared of the charges, Moray (who almost certainly was a party to it) succeeded in casting the blame on to William Maitland of Lethington, who had been Mary's secretary of state. Maitland was thrown into prison but was never tried and though released later died in prison. Moray became regent of Scotland. He was the head of the pro-Reformation faction that opposed Mary. Although he had his enemies, Moray was a strong and able governor. Had he been conceived on the right side of the sheets he would have been a good king. He succeeded in subduing rebels in the Borders like no previous monarch, and it was primarily through his guidance that Protestantism spread throughout Scotland and took too strong a hold to fail. Nevertheless his enemies eventually got the better of him, and in January 1570 Moray was murdered by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, nephew of Archbishop Hamilton. Although the younger Hamilton was not brought to book, his uncle was. Elizabeth of England knew that Hamilton was the power behind a series of border incidents. She took advantage of the divisions between the Scottish nobility to encourage Matthew Stewart, earl of Lennox and James's grandfather, to attack and devastate Hamilton's lands. Lennox was promoted to the regency. Although he was becoming old and weak, he was still a passionate supporter of the King and in the ensuing months he captured Archbishop Hamilton who was tried, found guilty of complicity in the murders of Darnley and Stewart, and hanged. Over the ensuing months Lennox pressed home his advantage. His Protestant faction eventually won the day, though Lennox himself was shot and killed in a skirmish in Stirling in September 1571.

The next regent was John Erskine, earl of Mar, who governed for just over a year, but the real power behind the throne, and the next regent, was James Douglas, earl of Morton. Morton had his enemies but he established a firm and stable government. He was the strongest champion of the Protestant cause, to the extent of passing legislation that enabled justiciars to levy fines for non-conformity to the new faith. Although he was briefly ousted from the regency by the earls of Argyll and Atholl in 1578, he regained control for a further two years. The young king did not like Morton, who was cold and ruthless. James had been starved of parental affection for all of his childhood, and this allowed him to warm to the ebullient and avuncular Esme Stuart, a cousin of his father's, who had been raised in France but who was also an heir to the throne. He came as an agent to Scotland in 1579 in the hope of converting the country back to Catholicism. Through his urbanity he soon won the affection of the young king and succeeded in overthrowing Morton who was charged with involvement in the murder of Darnley. Morton was arrested and executed in 1581. Stuart's true colours however now emerged and the threat of a popish plot caused the more extreme Protestant faction to react. William Ruthven seized James in August 1582 and refused to release him until James agreed to the banishment of Esme Stuart. Once this was accomplished James was freed in June 1583. The episode, known as the Ruthven Raid, demonstrated what a powerful force Protestantism had become by the late sixteenth century, and how much the king was perceived as the figurehead in determining the direction of the church.

James's relationship with Esme has caused some to regard James as homosexual, or at the least bisexuals it is quite likely as, starved of affection in his youth, James showered love and affection on anyone who showed him a personal interest. James had not been the most attractive of children. He was short and walked with a rolling gait that was suggestive of rickets. He had somewhat bulbous eyes and apparently had trouble swallowing so that he frequently drooled. This affliction also affected his speech which was, at times, slurred. How much of this picture of James was the product of his enemies is less easy to interpret, because much of it is recorded by later English chroniclers, some of whom found it difficult to understand James's broad Scottish accent. Other more dangerous rumours were spread about James. The most extreme was that he was a changeling child, swapped because Mary's had been stillborn. Some noticed a remarkable resemblance with John Erskine, earl of Mar. The remains of a newborn baby were found at Edinburgh Castle during renovations in the nineteenth century, but nothing was proved.

Although James had exercised some authority in government since 1578, by 1583, at the age of seventeen, he decided he would no longer be the pawn of factions within his aristocracy. All those who attempted to control him, such as James Stewart, the new earl of Arran (and cousin of the previous earl, James Hamilton, former suitor of Mary, Queen of Scots), found their power rapidly curtailed. By 1586 James had established a government of moderates who moved along with his own wishes towards a firm relationship with England and a strong control over Protestant affairs. This did not stop James being an eternally nervous king, in regular fear of assassination, a consequence of his upbringing rather than of his current state. It also made him cautious in his foreign affairs. By 1586 he had reached an informal agreement with Elizabeth of England whereby he became her successor, and James would do nothing to endanger that. For that reason he remained silent while his mother was tried and executed in February 1587, and remained neutral during England's war with Spain and the invasion of the Spanish Armada in July 1588.

The death of Mary, Queen of Scots, reduced the power of the Catholic faction who now had no figurehead. Most of the Catholics were in the north of Scotland where Protestantism had barely reached. The Highlanders professed Catholicism, but many still held true to the old Celtic church, whilst others often practiced pagan worship. (Claims of witchcraft amongst the Highlanders were rife in the 1590s. James compiled a volume railing against witchcraft and satanism called Daemonologie (1597) and in 1603 introduced an act with the aim of abolishing its practice, though with little effect.) It was these northern Scots who still held dialogue with the Spanish and were a threat to Scottish uniformity - not that that was new in Scottish history. The Highlands and the Lowlands had seldom been one kingdom, for all they might have purported to be one country. Nevertheless, James could not have the north siding with Spain and creating a Catholic kingdom north of the Clyde. In 1589 he quashed one potential rebellion when he discovered that the earls of Huntly and Errol had been in communication with Spain over an invasion. James treated the earls lightly. But in 1592 James became aware of similar plans again involving Huntly and Errol, this time in league with the earls of Angus and Bothwell. James bided his time, working matters to his own advantage until in 1594 he was able to surprise the earls and banish them from the kingdom.

At the same time he was increasingly nervous of the power of the Protestants, especially once Presbyterianism was introduced by Act of Parliament in 1592. These reformists regarded themselves as beholden only to God, not to the King. The King was as much a vassal of God as were they, and God's on Earth was spokesman the General Assembly. This meant that James VI effectively had no authority over the church, a matter of which Andrew Melville, the instigator of Presbyterianism, was prone to remind the king. James VI now worked one faction against another. In 1596 he recalled the northern earls and stated that these and other northern magnates should have their own equal representation on the General Assembly. Hitherto the Assembly had been composed almost entirely of earls from the south under the domination of Melville. Moreover, although Melville believed James could not abolish the General Assembly, James had statutory control over the holding of any assembly. He could thus control when the Assembly could meet and who was on it. In one quite masterful stroke he weakened the power of the Presbyterians and ensured the northern earls were no longer isolated. He was soon to remind Melville and his colleagues of his own belief in the authority of kingship. In 1599 he produced his book, Basilikon Doron, which espoused the divine right of kings. It was a direct challenge to Melville's Presbyterianism. Fifty years later it would lead to the death of James's son Charles.

After 1596 James was in complete control of his kingdom. Occasional skirmishes erupted, but nothing that seriously endangered his authority. The worst example was the Gowrie Conspiracy in August 1600 when it was alleged Alexander Ruthven, the brother of the earl of Gowrie, lured James to his house in Perth on some pretext only then to attack James. In the resultant fracas, Ruthven and the earl were killed. There has been some speculation over whether James fabricated this story to explain the death of Gowrie to whom James owed considerable sums of money, but the weight of opinion has settled in favour of James. Gowrie's primary opposition to James had been over his passion to unite England and Scotland, for which purpose James had planned to raise an army to ensure his succession.

James had used the authority of kingship to unite a kingdom more completely than any previous Scottish king. He still did not crack the inveterate obstinacy of the Highlanders who paid him mock allegiance but otherwise played by their own rules, but he had little interest in them anyway. By now Elizabeth of England was in her sixties, and her lack of an heir meant that it was only a matter of time before, barring accidents, James inherited the crown of England. He had married Anne of Denmark in 1589 and had a son and heir, Henry, born in February 1594, and a daughter, Elizabeth, in August 1596. Others would follow. No other king was so confident in his kingdom, and no other nation so expectant as Scotland. The news came on 26 March 1603 when a messenger arrived at Holyrood to inform the king that Elizabeth had died two days previously. Two days later another messenger arrived to say that the English Privy Council had decreed James was her successor.

On 5 April James left Scotland for England. Although he promised to revisit it often he only returned once in the next twenty-two years. Scotland may have gained a kingdom but it had lost its king.

James was full of the joys of spring when he arrived in Westminster in April 1603. He had grand schemes to unite England and Scotland and establish a Great Britain. Unfortunately these plans failed. Although the Scottish Parliament, which had been left under the control of Jamesís second cousin Louis Stuart, passed an Act of Union in 1607, the English Parliament would have nothing to do with it, so that England and Scotland remained two discrete kingdoms. Nevertheless, to have two kingdoms ruled by one king meant that the border disputes that had cost so many lives for so many centuries now become a thing of the past. James rapidly found that governing England was not like Scotland. They did things differently. Although the English statesmen welcomed him as their new king, and one with a considerable reputation, he was nevertheless a foreigner, and one who spoke in a strange accent and brought with him favourites of his court. After Elizabeth's final few years, which had become rather dour and constrained compared to the earlier glories, James was invigorating, but he was also pompous, full of considerable self-importance, and paranoid about his safety. The English found him difficult to understand, and James took a while to become accustomed to the English Parliament and way of life. In fact he and his Parliament usually disagreed so strongly after a while that he regularly dissolved it in order to find other ways to meet his needs, especially for money. James disliked having to acquire the approval of Parliament to raise money for foreign activities.

All this uncertainty about James added to his increasing unease, which was not helped by Robert Catesby's Gunpowder Plot of 1604/5, when extremist Catholics sought to destroy James and parliament. In this respect James was sorely misunderstood. Although he was not Catholic, he was not as fervent a Protestant as the members of the Scottish Kirk that he had left behind - even if the Gunpowder Plot made him appear a near martyr for Protestantism. James worked long and hard at moderating Presbyterianism. When he came south James delighted in the Church of England, which had retained an Episcopalian structure and gave James ultimate authority over it, whereas the Presbyterian Assembly treated James as an equal and denied him control. In England James had more opportunity to impose his will. In 1605 he outlawed the Assembly and those who objected he arrested on grounds of treason. Andrew Melville was summoned to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London for mocking the English church. He was not released until 1611, when he left England for France and did not return. James had broken the back of the General Assembly and was able to impose his own system of diocesan bishops over the Scottish church. He also imposed moderation on the English Puritans, whom he attempted to force to conform to the Anglican Church. As the final stroke in his reforms of the church, James introduced his own Authorised Edition of the Bible, usually known as the King James's Bible, in 1611.

In other English affairs James fared moderately well. Ruling Scotland from a distance enabled him to work through others to achieve ends he might never have done at home. In 1608, through the earl of Argyll, he arrested the leading clansmen in the Hebrides and forced them into submission. A subsequent rebellion by the MacDonaldís in 1614, hoping to revive the lordship of the Isles, was soon quashed, as was the rebellious lifestyle of Jamesís second cousin, Patrick Stewart, earl of Orkney, who was eventually executed in 1615. James also began the plantation of English and Scottish Protestants into Ulster from 1611 on.

In foreign affairs James had mixed fortunes. Scotland's original friendship with Spain allowed him to curtail England's war with Spain expeditiously, though relationships were never again the same. In 1607 the first English colony in North America was established by John Smith at Jamestown in Virginia. James's "kingdom" extended to Bermuda in 1609 and to New England in 1620 with the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower. James endeavoured, through the marriages of his children, to establish a strong Protestant alliance throughout Europe. His crowning achievement was the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine Frederick in February 1613 (from whom the Hanoverian kings of England were descended). He also hoped to marry his sons into the Spanish royal family. This was never likely, but even the possibility was thwarted when his son-in-law Frederick became king of Bohemia in 1618 and found himself at war with the Habsburg monarchy in Austria. Spain was the ally of Austria, and James came under pressure to support Bohemia against two of the greatest nations in Europe. He succeeded in maintaining his distance - mostly because the English Parliament would not vote him money for the enterprise - but his scheme of a Protestant alliance in Europe rapidly crumbled. By now premature senility was dulling his powers, and a series of poor decisions throughout the last fifteen years of his reign meant that this once ingenious and clever monarch became gradually more incompetent. It was not without good reason that he earned the reputation as "the wisest fool in Christendom", a phrase coined some years earlier by Henri IV of France. Some of the scandals in his later years included the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613 and the subsequent pardoning of the earl of Somerset and Lady Essex who were convicted of masterminding the poisoning; the execution in 1618 of Sir Walter Ralegh, whom James had long believed was conspiring against him; and the arrest and imprisonment of Sir Francis Bacon on the grounds of bribery and corruption. Despite these darker spots James showed himself to be forward looking. He became interested in scientific development, especially where it might aid the defence of the realm. He was the patron of several inventors including the remarkable Dutch scientist Cornelius Drebbel, who presented him with a purposted perpetual-motion machine. Drebbel is remembered for the development of the microscope and thermometer, but he should be better remembered for having developed the first submarine, which was really a submersible rowing boat. He demonstrated it in the Thames in 1620 and even took James I for a trip, making him the first king ever to travel underwater.

By the end of his reign, with his intellect fading, James found himself under the strong influence of George Villiers later Duke of Buckingham, with whom James had become acquainted in 1614 and who rose rapidly to power. Villiers's schemes were often ill advised but James came wholly under his spell. James's final years thus saw him as a weak and dispirited monarch, a shadow of his former self. Nevertheless he had been an active king for over forty years, and in name had been a king almost all of his life. He had, in fact, ruled longer than any other Scottish king and had left a greater impact upon his nation of birth than any preceding him. Although it was only an accident of birth that caused him to become king of England, he nevertheless succeeded in governing both countries despite considerable handicaps and opposition, his ability to survive such trials and tribulations marks him down as one of the most remarkable and cunning of kings.


By kind permission of "The Kings and Queens of England Website" (http://www.frhes.freeserve.co.uk/)