Jenny Wormald reviews the career of the man who was King of Scotland for fifty-seven years and King of England for twenty-two, and whose great dream was to create a unified kingdom of Great Britain.
THE UNION OF THE CROWNS of Scotland and England in 1603, which might be regarded as a defining moment in the history of the British Isles, could hardly have had a more inauspicious starting point. The future James VI of Scotland, who occupied his throne for almost fifty-eight years and who was also James I of England for twenty-two, was born in Edinburgh on June 19th, 1566. The happy event of the birth of a male heir to the Scottish throne was somewhat marred when his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, bitterly snarled at the father, Henry Lord Darnley, that 'he is so much your son that I fear that it will be worse for him hereafter'. As events turned out, it would not be worse, but only because the baby in question had infinitely more ability than either parent. His mother was obsessed with the succession to the English crown, about which she continually nagged and whined despite the fact that Elizabeth was still a young woman of child-bearing age and expected to marry; and she had been embroiled in scandal, when six months pregnant, with the murder of her Italian musician and secretary David Rizzio (who was not in fact the Queen's lover but certainly too much in her favour, as representative and ultimate victim of her predilection for the foreign servants who staffed her household).
James's father was an irresponsible lightweight who had captured Mary's devotion when, on his return from England to Scotland in 1565, she had nursed him through measles. The devotion had long-term political consequences but was personally shortlived, and as Scottish politics in Mary's brief reign were dominated by the Queen's emotions rather than any political intelligence, the first year of James's life saw a kingdom of remarkable strength and success spiral down into sexual scandal and political mayhem. In December 1566 Darnley failed to attend the splendid baptism of his son, preferring to spend his time writing to foreign powers about the failures of his wife. In February 1567, he was murdered, strangled or smothered as he tried to escape following the spectacular explosion of Kirk o' Field; quite a number of the political nation were involved but the man generally suspected of the murder was James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, who was also thought to be the Queen's lover and was certainly protected by the Queen, and subsequently became her husband.
Mary's marriage to Bothwell brought her to her final disaster: in July 1567 she was forced to abdicate, in favour of her son James. The future king of Britain, then a year old, thus became king of Scots.
This inevitably meant a long minority. The Scots had plenty of experience of minorities; this was the seventh since 1406. But it was complicated by the abnormal situation that the previous monarch was still alive, making a nuisance of herself in England and never giving up hope of coming back to rule in Scotland. The reign began with minor and dreary civil war between King's and Queen's men which dragged on until 1573, enlivened only by the presence of English troops helping the King's Men at the siege of Edinburgh castle, who were ordered by their notoriously parsimonious monarch to crawl round the foot of the castle rock collecting cannon balls for re-use. (The Scots also took part in this dangerous enterprise; but Elizabeth had to pay them.) But the English support for the young king also symbolised a shift in Scottish foreign relations, away from the Auld Alliance with France towards the 'auld inemie', England; for Protestant Scotland now looked to her Protestant neighbour to the south. The most abiding legacy of the minority was religious problems within Scotland, for it gave the reformed kirk, with radical ideas about church and state that firmly rejected any notion of royal supremacy, more than twenty years headstart before the King could begin to impose his control -- which he first attempted to do in the early 1580s, with increasing success after he had escaped in 1583 from the control of a presbyterian group of nobles, the Ruthven Raiders, who had seized him the previous year.
From the King's point of view, therefore, in the 1580s and 1590s 'kingcraft' meant primarily establishing his authority over Andrew Melville (1545-1622) and his followers on the extreme presbyterian wing of the kirk, who were far more threatening to him than any aristocrat, however powerful. It also meant careful management of Parliament -- necessary anyway but particularly so because of those within it who supported the Melvillians. He also had to re-establish the prestige of monarchy, which had been sadly dented by the antics of his mother. He was a towering success in all these areas. The fight with the Melvillians was prolonged and bitter, and made all the more difficult by the kirk's use of its great propaganda weapon, the pulpit, to attack the King openly, and the fact that for most of the 1590s Melvillian strength meant that there were no bishops appointed in the church, on whose support he could have drawn in both Parliament and the general assembly of the kirk. Moreover in England, Elizabeth, for all her increasingly paranoid hatred of her own Puritans, was willing to add to James's problems by allowing his Puritans haven and even a voice in the London pulpits. But James carefully manipulated the General Assembly and cultivated the moderates in the kirk, taking an increasingly tough line against the presbyterians whom he warded, argued ferociously with, and even dared to laugh at; and when the kirk inspired a riot in Edinburgh at the end of 1596, he threatened to move his government from his capital city. All this made his victory inevitable. In 1600, three parliamentary bishops were appointed, and full diocesan episcopacy was restored in 1610, while in 1606 Melville and his associates were summoned south to a second 'Hampton Court Conference', and then packed off into exile.
Parliament was used from 1584 to enhance his royal standing; the attacks of his erstwhile tutor, George Buchanan, on his mother and his dangerous contractual views of kingship, were banned, as was speaking against the King and his predecessors; meanwhile, to add to the dignity of Parliament and therefore that of the crown, the King designed robes for its Riding, the ceremonial procession through Edinburgh which marked the beginning of a parliamentary session. Throughout the 1590s, a series of acts imposed increasingly tight control of business; and the King took part personally in Parliament's deliberations.
Also from the early 1580s, James's instinct for lofty kingship, allied to his passion for being a poet- and scholar-king, brought his court back to a level that could impress fellow monarchs. Impoverished though Scotland was, James had nothing to learn about the game of kings, the rivalry in cutting a dash. His court became the centre for a dazzling circle of poets whose leading figure was the King, writing his own poetry as well as a treatise on the rules for Scottish poetry. In the same period he began his theological writings, which in the future were to mark him out as a theological scholar of note, who could attract to his court after 1603 such noted figures as the Frenchman Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), and in Scotland would give him additional clout in his battle with the Melvillians. By the late 1590s, he was engaged in the European debate about the nature of kingship, with The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599) making a contribution to the argument for divine right kingship that was all the more compelling for being written by a king. Meanwhile, after witches had claimed to threaten his life in 1591, James wrote Daemonologie (1597), the royal expert's final statement of his belief in witchcraft with undertones of scepticism about individual women accused of witchcraft. And although, as king of England, he never acted in the glorious masques written for his court by Ben Jonson, in Scotland in 1588 he wrote and performed in one of his own, for the wedding of his then favourite, George Earl of Huntly. He also invited to his Edinburgh court English actors, musicians and masquers, thus creating a British court culture in Scotland; in 1603, he recreated this in England when his Scottish court poets accompanied him south.
James's interest in British culture led him, after 1603, to become a much more generous patron than Elizabeth had been, but it was in no sense a matter of subduing Scotland to the subservient place in his vision of becoming king of England. Unlike his mother, James was a genuine king of Scotland. He endlessly infuriated Elizabeth by his refusal to dance to her tune because of his hopes of the English succession. It was no subservient king who persuaded the English Queen to pay him a virtually annual pension amounting to £58,000; and while she refused until the end of her life to name her successor, she came very close to it in 1587 when she executed Mary, and she was certainly prepared to pay heavily in 1588 when James was less than co-operative about the threat from the Armada. His Scottish kingship was not in any way a trial run for kingship of England; modern scholars of Anglocentric persuasion may make the mistake of thinking that it was, but his English subjects never made that mistake. James was king of Scotland for almost fifty-seven years. For the last twenty-two years of his life he was, as he saw it, king not of England but of Britain.
It is, therefore, important to assess his Scottish kingship in its own right. As king of Scots, a casual, laid-back, scholarly, politically able and witty monarch, ruling a small kingdom but one which, in terms of its religious problems and government institutions, posed as many problems for its ruler as the greater kingdoms of Europe, James had been astonishingly effective. He succeeded not least because he had to establish his kingship after (as he himself said) a lack of effective rule since the death of his grandfather James V in 1542, and after the disasters of his mother's reign. His success in Scotland however, was to create huge problems for him when he went south in 1603. On the one hand, after fifty years of petticoat government in England and mounting uncertainty over the succession to the throne, there was enthusiasm south of the Border for the fact that there was at last an adult male king, Protestant and with heirs. On the other, his English subjects, including the Earl of Northumberland (who clearly expressed his views in a letter to the King before 1603), the leading Elizabethan politician Robert Cecil and his counterpart in the church Richard Bancroft, assumed that James would allow Scotland to sink into the background while he learned his trade as king of England. They were horribly wrong. It was a terrible though understandable misjudgement, based in part on an unwillingness to acknowledge the unpalatable fact that England's sporadic attempts to annex Scotland since the late thirteenth century had resulted in the uniting of the kingdoms under a Scottish, not an English, king. The English also found it hard to accept the high confidence of sixteenth-century Scotland, with its determinedly European perception of itself, compared to the low morale of England that had been reduced, after the final defeat in the Hundred Years' War in 1453, to being an offshore island rather than a major European power. Sixteenth-century England had resorted to a desperate pride in being English: in 1559, John Aylmer, future bishop of London, even claimed that God himself was English. The contrast between the jubilant Scots of 1603 and their worried English counterparts could hardly have been more stark.
The English were right to worry. The accession itself might have been a great relief because it went through without challenge, from within England or abroad. But it was also wholly abnormal. The new King of England was in Edinburgh, and it would be some weeks before he reached London. Cecil and his supporters, dominant in Elizabeth's last years, were therefore forced to wait impotently in London while rivals intent on fixing their interest with the King were free to stream north to meet him; hence Cecil's farcical suggestion that the new King could sneak south to his brother Lord Burghley's seat at Burghley in Northamptonshire, to be welcomed and ushered into his capital. James's dusty reply, that he was not going to deny York, the second city of the kingdom, its chance of a party, was the warning note that the new King had no intention of being treated as an apprentice in need of training. Yet seven years later, in the Parliament of 1610, the MP and common lawyer Nicholas Fuller was claiming that it was the duty of the Commons to tell the King of England what, by the laws of England, he could do.
Already, before he arrived in London, James had made it clear that it was his style of kingship that would now be imposed on England. He broke the narrow Cecilian monopoly by extending the number of the very small Elizabethan Privy Council, releasing a principal supporter of the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Southampton, from the Tower, and going on in 1603 to create Henry Lord Howard, out of favour under Elizabeth, Earl of Northampton, a year before he made Cecil Earl of Salisbury. He gave Scotsmen place on the Council and in household offices. And within a month of his arrival in London, his response to English hostility to his efforts to create a genuinely Anglo-Scottish household was to make his Bedchamber, the inner sanctum where that great prize, access to the King, was at its most available, entirely Scottish. He was, though, in an impossible position. Naturally he could not turn his back on his Scottish servants. But these servants only added to the frenzied search for place and office in court and government, when demand already outran supply. By the end of 1604, he had accepted that giving Scotsmen offices was too offensive to the English; but his solution, to give them money instead, was equally offensive, especially in the light of his own hopeless extravagance born of his inability to say no to importunate suitors. As the royal debt mounted, it was all too easy for the English (other than Cecil) to blind themselves to the underlying fiscal weakness of the crown, and ascribe it simply to James's generosity to the Scots; and as he retained his Scottish Bedchamber, grousing about Scots favoured at court at the expense of the English continued.
The English resentment was made worse not only through James's insistence in remaining King of Scotland, but his insistence in refusing to be king of England; he was king of Britain. In 1604 his first English Parliament denied him that title, and he assumed it by proclamation. This looked like an all-too-arbitrary act by a king already known as an exponent of divine-right theory. Worried MPs produced impassioned papers against the name, on the theme that the ancient and glorious name of England would be forgotten, and foreigners would not know who they were. What the English wanted was to absorb Scotland into the English hegemony; neither the King nor the Scots agreed. In the teeth of intense opposition, the King pressed on with his demand for an incorporating union, which dominated the political scene until 1607.
Or did he? This divine-right King was in fact a man of remarkably flexible political mind, a negotiator of considerable skill. He began with huge demands -- and then scaled them down. What he got was not full union of the two kingdoms, but free trade, naturalisation and the repeal of all hostile laws; and then he began to speak tactfully of England as the more powerful nation. What did not happen in his reign was that Scotland was reduced to provincial status. It was a notable achievement.
James's rule of Scotland as an absentee king was also remarkably successful, Until his death in 1611, George Earl of Dunbar acted as his link-man, a genuinely Anglo-Scottish politician moving between Edinburgh and London. There was no successor to Dunbar. But James kept up a regular and detailed correspondence with his Scottish government; and, to his good luck, all its members other than Dunbar had served him in the 1590s and lived on until the 1620s, so that the problems of absentee kingship were substantially reduced by personal knowledge.
The King had promised to return to Scotland every three years. He returned only once, in 1617. The reason was not neglect or indifference, but the difficulty of persuading the English that such a journey was necessary; in 1617 he managed it, despite his favourite Buckingham and other English courtiers kneeling before him in his bedchamber pleading with him not to go. It was in no small measure his continued and genuine interest in his northern kingdom which was responsible for ensuring that the Union of the Crowns would last.
Anglo-Scottish relations within the new composite kingship of Britain were inevitably strained. In other ways, notably in the church, tensions were reduced after 1603. James had none of Elizabeth's fearful paranoia about Catholics and Puritans. Theological debate, not the imposition of conformity, was what interested him; he was never afraid of differences of religious opinion. He had already written to a horrified Cecil before 1603 that he regarded persecution as the sign of a false church, and that Rome was their mother-church, however 'clogged with many infirmities'. That attitude was the basis of the wholly erroneous idea, put forward by some Catholics from the seventeenth century to the present day, that Cecil staged the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in order to force James into taking a tougher line with the Catholics. Remarkably, despite the fact that this attempted destruction of the royal family, Parliament and various foreign dignitaries came close to success, James consistently refused to blame the English Catholics as a whole for a plot dreamed up by thirteen fanatics; and the number of Catholics executed in his reign was less than one-sixth of those who died in the last two decades of Elizabeth's. At the other end of the religious spectrum, Puritans had a far easier time under James than under Elizabeth; they were accommodated into his church. The encounter with the English Puritans at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 showed James that he was dealing with men of a very different complexion from the Melvillians of Scotland. His famous outburst, 'no bishop, no king', had no real relevance to the English situation; it was a sudden explosion, in the heat of debate, which referred back to his Scottish experience. The followers of the Dutch anti-Calvinist theologian Arminius were also accommodated. Arminians as well as Calvinists got bishoprics, for the King's priority was an effective bench of bishops rather than conformity to one theology. Such a casual approach by a confident king, so different from Elizabeth's or Charles I's, had a great deal to be said for it. James himself was a Calvinist; but the structure of the English church was more acceptable to him than the hybrid episcopal-presbyterian polity of the Scottish kirk, with whom he clashed again in 1617 when he tried to introduce what were regarded as Anglican practices that undermined the purity of hardline Scottish Calvinism. Yet James brought from Scotland two ideas which he had shared with his Scottish Puritans: an insistence on a well-educated and well-paid clergy, and a new translation of the Bible. Perhaps the most fitting monument for King James, and the one he himself would have wanted, is the glorious prose of the Authorised Version.
What, sadly, was not a monument was the Thirty Years' War. James -- Rex Pacificus, with his motto 'blesseed are the peacemakers' -- inherited from his Stewart ancestors a high sense of his European importance, combined with the awareness that this was better demonstrated through diplomacy than through war. And as a king with a family, he could enter, as Elizabeth could not, into the dynastic politics of Europe. In 1604 he ended the Anglo-Spanish war which had dragged on ingloriously after the Armada. Thereafter, he made friendship with Spain the cornerstone of his policy; his daughter Elizabeth was married to the Calvinist Frederick Elector Palatine, but for Charles he wanted a Spanish match. When, in 1618, Frederick's hare-brained acceptance of the crown of Bohemia lost him both the Palatinate and Bohemia and plunged Europe into war, James refused military help. It brought him intense criticism, as Protestant king and kinsman, but his efforts to negotiate a settlement by bringing Spanish Hapsburg influence to bear on the Holy Roman Emperor were far more intelligent than the rush to war. He failed: in 1623 the Spanish match collapsed, the King had nothing else to offer, and the war-party in England got its way. The result was England's short-lived and dismal involvement and, much more importantly, a prolonged and extremely bloody war.
James is, of course, most famous for his favourites. In fact modern historians and particularly literary critics have made much more of this than contemporaries did. Like James, Elizabeth had male favourites, who played a prominent part in factional politics. Unlike Elizabeth, James had children, thus fulfilling as she had not one of the fundamental duties of kingship. Bisexuality was not a problem; the King might have male favourites, but what really mattered was that he had male heirs. There were four main favourites, two in Scotland, two in England, of which the last was the notorious Buckingham. But James's favourites were not simply pretty boys; to have the King's favour, they had to be men of political stature and usefulness.
James reigned at a time when multiple kingdoms were repeatedly coming into existence. The list of those which did not last is far longer than those which did. Of the successes, the union of Castile and Aragon was one; the kingdoms of Britain were another. His reign saw the creation of a union which is still with us today, even if recently its form has changed. After 1625, there was never any serious effort to dismantle it. In 1603, centuries of hostility ensured that the English and the Scots disliked one another intensely. By 1625, they were learning that it was possible to live together. Successful, flexible and effective kingship had ensured that. James's Scottish subjects had never doubted his ability. His English ones came more and more to appreciate it, curious and profoundly different though it was from his long-lived predecessor's. Even if, in life, he was James King of England, Scotland, Ireland and France, he was in fact what he wanted to be: James the creator of Britain.
The memorial to Darnley, father of James VI and I, and showing the young King in prayer. The motto beseeches the Lord to 'avenge the innocent blood of the King'. The original was painted by Lieven de Vogeleer in 1568.
James VI, aged twenty, in 1586 and perhaps exhibiting the determination with which he asserted royal authority in his previously insubordinate kingdom.
A group of women accused of witchcraft brought in front of James. The King was intensely interested in witchcraft in the 1590s, but after 1597, he became very much more sceptical.
A book of sonnets and verses composed by James VI and written in his own hand during the 1580s or early 1590s.
The Parliament House in Edinburgh built in the 1630s. Before that date Parliament met in a variety of locations, particulary in the Tollbooth near St Giles Cathedral, and in Hollywood.
One of a series of triumphal arches designed for the entry of the new James I into London in 1604.
A English genealogy showing James and Anne of Denmark at the top, and Henry VII with Elizabeth of York at the base.
James VI and I, painted in c.1620 by Paul van Somer. In the background is the Banqueting House, Whitehall, which James commissioned from Inigo Jones.
The gunpowder plot, showing James in Parliament with the plotters beneath the Chamber, on a 17th-century diptych from the church at Gaywood, Norfolk.
James with his son Charles after the failure of his trip to Spain in 1623 when Charles and Buckingham hoped to secure marriage with the Infanta.
The kingdom of Great Britain from John Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (1612). James's dream of a unified island reached far beyond the aspirations of his subjects in this regard.
The opening of the first edition of the 'King James Authorised Version' of the Bible, arguably his greatest legacy.
Maurice Lee Jr., Great Britain's Solomon (University of Illinois Press, 1990); J. Goodare and M. Lynch, eds, The Reign of James VI (Tuckwell Press, 2000); B.R. Galloway, The Union of England and Scotland, 1603-1608 (John Donald, 1986); R. Mason, ed., Scots and Britons (Cambridge UP, 1994); B.P. Levack, The Formation of the British State (Oxford UP, 1987); B. Bradsahw and J. Morrill, eds., The British Problem, c. 1534-1707 (MacMillan, 1996); W.B. Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom (Cambridge UP, 1997); K.M. Brown, Kingdom or province? Scotland and the Regal Union, 1603-1715 (MacMillan, 1992).
By Jenny Wormald
Jenny Wormald is C.E. Hodge Fellow & Tutor in Modern History, St Hilda's College, Oxford.