With Tudor Times we profile a different figure every month. Here, Melita Thomas explores the first king of England and Scotland, King James VI and I, a lover of peace and a hater of tobacco.
James, son of Mary Queen of Scots, was the first monarch crowned both King of Scots and England, the beginning of the long process of union between the two countries. Despite his importance to our history, he is not widely remembered, or, if he is, it is a half-memory of a man who ‘slobbered’, washed less frequently than he might have done, fawned on young men and railed against the ‘loathsome’ practice of tobacco-smoking.
Yet James, one of the most highly educated princes of the Renaissance age, was a wily and subtle politician – King of Scots in his cradle, he overcame abductions, assassination attempts, religious turmoil and unruly subjects to leave a Scotland vastly more prosperous than he found it, and both countries at peace after hundreds of years of war and 30 years of English conflict with Spain.
Threats to James’s life began in the womb, when his mother’s secretary, David Riccio, was dragged screaming from the pregnant Queen’s presence to be butchered, while James’ father, Lord Darnley, held her captive and a fellow conspirator pointed a loaded pistol at her. The intrepid Queen persuaded Darnley to betray his allies and the two escaped, riding hard through the night, despite her pregnancy. As soon as Mary was back in control of events, she retired to Edinburgh Castle for James’s birth in June 1566. Seven months later, he became fatherless, when Darnley was assassinated.
In July 1567, just over a year old, James was crowned as King of Scots, his mother having been deposed, and later, forced into exile and imprisonment in England, accused (controversially) of complicity in Darnley’s murder.
James was tutored by George Buchanan, a leading light of 16th-century learning. Buchanan, who had radically democratic ideas, was a harsh taskmaster. Rebuked by Lady Murray, for beating the little boy, he replied: “Madam, I have whipped the King’s arse, you may kiss it if you choose.” Despite this severity, James was well taught in languages, history, rhetoric and most importantly in newly Calvinist Scotland, Bible studies.
Four regents guarded Scotland during James’ youth – two assassinated, one dying rather mysteriously, and the fourth, the Earl of Morton, so resented by James that, when he managed to assert his own power as king, the former Regent was swiftly executed as an accessory to Darnley’s assassination. Despite this bid for freedom, James was abducted and held as a puppet king for nearly two years by the Ruthven family. He bided his time until escaping their control in 1584, aged 17, he became king in fact as well as name.
James might have imbibed his learning from Buchanan, but he refused to have any truck with ideas that kings ruled by consent, and that he ought to be subject to the authority of the Kirk. The next 15 years were a tussle as the Kirk sought to enforce a Presbyterian model of governance (based on selection and approval of leaders by congregations) while James wanted bishops, appointed by the King.
In a deeply religious age, even educated men believed in witchcraft, and to its malevolent force were attributed the storms which prevented James’ Danish bride, Anne, from sailing to Scotland. James, fired up with romantic ardour, crossed the sea to rescue her. Denmark had had a number of witch-hunts, and on James’ return a fever for hunting out the familiars of the devil was instituted, leading to the witch trials in North Berwick which involved several hundred people. Even a nobleman, Francis, Earl of Bothwell, was accused of being a warlock, and after a series of escapades in which he managed to break into James’ and Anne’s bedroom, was exiled.
James’ mother, Mary, was the lineal heir of Elizabeth I of England. The prospect of her inheriting the throne was anathema to many English people, who wished for a Protestant heir (although a sizeable minority would have welcomed a Catholic queen). As the years passed, and James’ Protestant credentials became established, Elizabeth hinted that he would be chosen as her successor. This, together with a pension, and the relative military weakness of Scotland, led James to accept the beheading of Mary with little more than vociferous protests. With Mary executed, there was nothing to stand in the way of his succession, and accordingly, in 1603, when Elizabeth died, James was proclaimed king of England.
By nature and experience, James sought compromise and peace although his vision of uniting his kingdoms in a single state of Great Britain met with resistance from both countries. He pursued peace in Europe, marrying his daughter to a leading Protestant, and his heir, Charles, to a Catholic princess. In the English church, he tried to reconcile conservatives and Puritans, commissioning the King James’ Authorised Version of the Bible, which echoed through the ecclesiastical and literary culture of England for four hundred years.
As James got older, he and Anne drifted apart, and he became enamoured first of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and then George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, creating factions at court which he struggled to control. When he died in 1625, although peace and prosperity seemed to reign, the seeds of conflict between crown and parliament, conservatives and puritans, and the colonising Scots and English in Ulster with the Irish had already been planted – his son, Charles I, would reap a bitter harvest.
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