Who was James VI? How did he escape the Gunpowder Plot?

King James I (James VI of Scotland)
James I (James VI of Scotland) became king at just 13 months old. Credit: National Trust Images

King James oversaw a relatively peaceful reign, despite Guy Fawkes trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament. He was King of Scotland as James VI from 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from 1603 to 1625

King James VI succeeded the Scottish throne at an age when a highchair would have been more suitable. His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, abdicated on 24 July 1567 when James was barely 13 months old. This made him Scotland’s longest ruling monarch so far when he died 57 years later. 

The Edinburgh-born monarch’s key role in British history came about on 24 March 1603 with the Union of the Crowns. Following the death of the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty, Queen Elizabeth I, James was identified as the closest acceptable heir to the English and Irish thrones. While England and Scotland remained individual sovereign states for a further century, this was the first time that one monarch had ruled the three realms simultaneously, which proved a major step towards the establishment of Great Britain. 

While James suffered the ignominy of Guy Fawkes and friends attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament with him in it, His Majesty nevertheless oversaw a relatively peaceful reign, avoiding being drawn into the disastrous Thirty Years’ War in Europe and seeing great developments in the arts, particularly through playwright William Shakespeare and architect Inigo Jones. 

Key dates

  • 1605 – The Gunpowder Plot is foiled
  • 1611 – The King James Bible is first published
  • 1620 – The Pilgrim fathers set sail for the New World on The Mayflower ship