James I (also James VI)

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James I (also James VI)

June 19, 1566
Edinburgh, Scotland
March 27, 1625
Theobalds, England

King of Scotland and King of England

"A good king will not only delight to rule his subjects by the law, but even will conform himself in his own actions thereunto, always keeping that ground, that the health of the commonwealth be his chief law."

James VI quoted in King James VI and I, Political Writings, edited by J. P. Somerville.

King James I of England began his life as King James VI of Scotland, when he was merely an infant. As regents (interim rulers) ruled his kingdom, James was educated in the humanist tradition until he came of age. (Humanism was a movement to revive the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, which initiated the Renaissance.) His rather rough Scottish mannerisms and behavior were put to the test when he took over the throne of England after the death of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry) in 1603. His political life was plagued by disagreements with his advisers and family, especially in regard to his relationship with Spain. James wrote a number of books, supported the arts, and patronized one of the best-known editions of the Bible (the Christian holy book), called the King James Version. Often manipulated by unqualified, inept advisers, James lived amidst court intrigue and power struggles. His inconsistent relationship with Parliament (main ruling body of Great Britain) prevented England from developing a stable form of government and a strong internal policy. Nevertheless, the actions of James I had a strong influence on subsequent leaders of England.

Early life is turbulent

James was born on June 19, 1566, to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542–1587), and Lord Darnley (Henry Stewart; 1545–1565), an English nobleman, at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. Though he was called James, his full name was Charles James Stuart. His life was deeply affected by a series of events that took place during his early years. His father was murdered, apparently at the hands of Mary and her lover, James Hepburn (c. 1535–1578), earl of Bothwell. Mary was a Catholic, and during a revolt Protestant lords (noblemen) forced her to give up the throne to her infant son. (Protestants are followers of a Christian faith that was established in the sixteenth century by religious reformers who separated from the Roman Catholic Church.) In 1567 James was crowned king of Scotland. The infant king was placed in the care of the earl of Mar, a zealous Protestant who was a firm believer in the value of education and discipline. The king's tutors, George Buchanan and Peter Young, were stern taskmasters, but James proved an apt pupil (see accompanying box). By the age of eight he spoke fluent French and Latin and could converse fairly well in English. His sense of humor was always primitive, his language coarse and vulgar, and his manner did not fit his position as king. A series of regents, sometimes in open conflict, managed the government until 1585, when James's personal rule effectively began.

Rules Scotland amid turmoil

James loved conversation, and the Scottish court was the center of a competitive political environment. The king conferred with and took advice from a number of people, sometimes causing resentment among those who thought they should have more influence. James was strong-minded, however, and he jealously guarded his final authority in making policy. The two Catholic superpowers, France and Spain, both sought to influence developments in Scotland. From France came James's cousin, the corrupt Esmé Stuart (c.1542–1583), who attempted to win James to the side of the house of Guise (a French noble family) and the Catholic faith. The young king so smitten by this adventurer that he gave Esmé lands, income, and the title of earl before naming him duke of Lennox. In 1581 the new duke engineered the downfall and execution of regent James Douglas (c. 1516–1581), fourth earl of Morton. James's Protestant subjects were fearful of the influence of Lennox, a Catholic, on the king's moral and spiritual state. Lennox and his equally corrupt accomplices had the greatest impact in politics. James completely turned from the basically democratic ideas taught to him by his tutors and began to consider establishing an absolute monarchy (a government headed by one ruler who possesses all power). In 1582 James was taken into custody at Ruthven Castle and Lennox was driven from the country. Within a year the king had escaped from his captors, only to come under the control of Lennox's most aggressive companion, John Hamilton (c. 1532–1604), earl of Arran, who soon took over the actual running of the state.

The Education of a King

James received a Renaissance education. His studies were supervised by Peter Young and the renowned humanist George Buchanan (1506–1583), a favorite in English humanist circles. They set out to transform James into a godly Protestant ruler and surround him with the library of a virtuous prince. Young assembled Greek and Latin classics as well as histories, theological tracts, and works by Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. To these were added French and Italian poetry as well as books on logic (systematic thought based on reasoning), dialectics (philosophical argument), mathematics, natural history, geography, and cosmography (study of the world). Political works and humanist manuals for the education of princes were plentiful: The Scholemaster by the English scholar Roger Ascham (1515–1568), The Boke Named the Governour by English educator Thomas Elyot (c. 1490–1546), and Il cortegiano (Book of the Courtier) by the Italian author Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529). Buchanan was ill-tempered and intimidating, but James later valued his strict education, as it came in handy for languages and negotiation with other world leaders.

Led on by Arran, James declared himself head of the Presbyterian Church (a Protestant denomination), the main religion of Scotland, in 1584. James's ambition to be king of England was matched by his need for English money. He knew that Scotland must maintain an alliance with England no matter what. As a result of this thinking, when his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was drawn into a plot against Elizabeth I, James did little to prevent Elizabeth from executing her in 1587. A year earlier, in 1586, James had married Anne of Denmark (1574–1619), a Protestant, to the immense joy of his subjects.

By 1592, however, feuds between the earl of Bothwell (James Hepburn, the man who helped James's mother murder his father) and other Catholic lords had reduced James to a virtual fugitive. In 1593 Bothwell took James captive, but was unable to keep him imprisoned. With the aid of the Scottish middle classes James took action against Bothwell, whom he accused of using witchcraft (use of spells to control supernatural forces) and the black arts (evil magic). The desperate Bothwell allied himself with other influential Catholic lords, but they had no real power against James. By the end of 1594 the position of the monarchy seemed secure.

James's sense of security was heightened by another event of 1594: the birth of a son and heir, Henry Frederick. During the next four years James continued to consolidate his position. In 1598 he published The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, which contained his ideas on church-state relations, the proper attitude of subjects toward their king, and the nature of divine right (the concept that a monarch is directly chosen by God). Within two years James had further refined his ideas in his most important work, Basilikon Doron, which he wrote as a book of advice for young Henry. For the rest of his life James was a prolific writer (see accompanying box).

Sets stage for long reign

Elizabeth I died on March 24, 1603, and only eight hours after her death her nephew James was proclaimed king of England. While James succeeded Elizabeth peacefully, he inherited many of the problems that had been plaguing the nation for years: war with Spain, tensions within the church, a decline in patronage, domestic corruption, and the centuries-old bitterness between Scotland and England. James achieved success in several areas. In 1604 he signed a peace treaty with Spain, which soon created a boom in the British economy. That same year, at the Hampton Court Conference (a meeting called by James to discuss religious issues), James established the Church of England, or Anglicanism, as the country's official religion. He also approved a new translation of the Bible, which first appeared in 1611.

Author and patron

James was a prolific writer. As king of Scotland he wrote several works, including The Trew Law of Free Monarchies and Basilikon Doron. He continued writing after he took the English throne, producing political-theological texts, biblical interpretation, poetry, a discourse on the authority of judges, and parliamentary speeches and reflections. All of these works served James's sense of kingship.

He was also an active patron of the arts in England. Responding to his subjects' pent-up demands for patronage, he dispensed gifts, honors, titles, and positions within the church and state. The artistic efforts James supported were almost single-handedly responsible for the art collecting that came into vogue after 1604. Architecture, especially in the country, was widely supported and funded by James's court. The architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652) and the playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637) were favorites of James and his followers. While patronage of the arts was not unusual for kings and queens, James's support of the arts, especially during times of financial troubles, was not always popular. His passion for tapestries, jewels, and luxurious dress drained the royal accounts and was often met with opposition, even in the court itself.

In a sense, the events of the first two years of James's reign in England served to set the stage for the remainder of his twenty-two years on the throne. James had to make decisions on foreign policy, religion, finance, and governmental theory. He came into conflict with the English Parliament, especially with the House of Commons (lower branch of Parliament, which represents classes below the nobility), over England's relations with Scotland. In the first session of his first Parliament (1604) he gave speeches about his policies and about the privileges he had granted Parliament. This led Parliament to draft the "Apology of the Commons," in which the House of Commons equated their rights with those of all Englishmen. The Commons had suddenly assumed a new role. During this first Parliament, which lasted until 1610, opposition to the king focused mainly on his son, Henry, who was given his own household at the age of nine.

Struggles with stubborn Parliament

As a youth James had been subjected to rather harsh treatment by ministers of the Presbyterian Church. Consequently, he wanted to keep control of the church in his own hands. He also preferred a highly ritualized form of worship, which seemed to indicate that he would have a somewhat lenient position regarding Roman Catholicism. The discovery of the Catholic conspiracy called the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the royal family and Parliament made James unwilling to deal with Catholics as a group. He was then forced to accept harsh measures against Catholics adopted by Parliament. James's subsequent efforts to relieve the limitations imposed on Catholics only made Parliament suspect his motives. Suspicion clouded James's relations with Parliament over several other issues as well. His attempts to unite England and Scotland as one kingdom were unsuccessful. His meddling in the dealings of the courts led him to quarrel with his own chief justice, Edward Coke (1552–1634), and to adopt a more extreme concept of his own rule. James's arbitrary raising of customs duties (taxes on goods) further outraged the Commons. Finally, his favoritism toward worthless courtiers, or members of his court, (Scottish and English alike) annoyed Parliament, angered Prince Henry, and irritated Queen Anne.

Always a lover of wealth and splendor, James had ongoing financial problems. By 1610 James's first Parliament came to an end amidst a severe financial crisis. With Parliament in retirement, government rested in the hands of James's favorite man of the moment, Robert Carr (1590–1645), earl of Somerset, and Carr's in-laws, the pro-Spanish Howard family. The pro-Spanish faction was briefly dealt a severe blow when Carr was named in a scandalous murder trial, that of Henry Howard, leader of the Spanish faction. Soon the king had a new favorite, George Villiers (1592–1628), who was not sympathetic to Spain. Yet James continued to seek relations with Spain, alienating Parliament. For two months neither the House of Commons nor the king would concede a point to the other. Finally, despite his growing need for money, James dissolved his unruly legislature.

In desperation, James turned to Don Diego Sarmiento (1567–1626), the Spanish ambassador (official representative in England) for financial assistance. The king's poverty gave him no other choice, but his subjects saw this as further proof of his allegiance to Spain. James began to consider a Spanish bride for his son, Charles, Prince of Wales (1600–1649; later King Charles I, ruled 1625–49). James's first son, Henry, had died in 1612 and now Charles was in line for the throne. Although Sarmiento encouraged the king, they could not reach an agreement about a bride for Charles. Over the next decade James continued trying to arrange a Spanish marriage for Charles.

Thirty Years' War brings challenge

In 1616 Villiers, now the duke of Buckingham, secured his position at court and became the focus of royal government. By 1618 he had destroyed the Howard family, and his power seemed to be complete. Buckingham's arrogance and rapid rise led to a quarrel with Prince Charles. James reconciled the two young men, and they soon became the best of friends. At the same time, James's health was now failing. He was badly crippled by gout (painful inflammation of the joints) and kidney stones (calcium deposits in the kidney), and he was not so alert mentally. At this unfortunate moment he was called upon to meet the greatest challenge of his reign: the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War (1618–48). The conflict started with a dispute over whether Bohemia (present-day Czechoslovakia) should be Protestant or Catholic. Bohemia was part of the vast Habsburg Empire, territory in central Europe controlled by the Habsburg family, who were Catholics and had branches in Austria and Spain. Bohemia was a Catholic country, but Protestants were demanding religious freedom.

James was still pursuing a pro-Spanish foreign policy in hopes of finding a wife, and a large dowry (property a woman brings to her marriage), for Charles. He also had visions of a union between Protestant and Catholic powers. In 1619 Austrian-Habsburg forces drove James's Protestant daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596–1662), and her husband, Frederick V (1596–1632), from their homeland in the Rhenish Palatinate (a region on the Rhine River in Germany). James believed that English support of intervention by the Spanish Habsburgs was the only way to settle the matter. Yet his subjects feared domination by Catholic Spain. They were also alarmed that James seemed to be deserting his own Protestant daughter and son-in-law by turning to Spain—their Catholic enemies. Reluctantly, and against the advice of Buckingham (who had now become pro-Spanish), James summoned Parliament in 1621. Since Parliament considered Spain the enemy, James and Buckingham knew they would face opposition because of their pro-Spanish policies. However, James realized he needed to seek additional funds from Parliament so he called it into session. Relations between the king and the lawmakers soon deteriorated. James denied virtually all of Parliament's privileges, and when the Commons protested, he dissolved Parliament altogether.

Loses control in final years

The gulf between James and his subjects was now total. The king was bankrupt and dependent upon the goodwill of Spain, or so he thought. As he grew increasingly feeble, he lost control over Charles and Buckingham. The prince and the duke brought ridicule upon the king and the country by their hasty and unsuccessful attempt to arrange a marriage between Charles and the Spanish Infanta (daughter of the Spanish king). James's last Parliament was no more peaceful than his first had been. Again he and the House of Commons clashed over an alliance with Spain, but now the Commons was joined by the House of Lords (upper branch of Parliament, which represents the nobility). In the end, the king gave in and support for Spain was withdrawn. James died soon thereafter, on March 27, 1625. He left behind an empty treasury, a discontented Parliament, and a son who would succeed him peaceably, though only for a little while.

For More Information


Dwyer, Frank. James I. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Oliver, Isaac. Art at the Courts of Elizabeth I and James I. New York: Garland, 1981.

Sharpe, James. The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder, and the King of England. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Web Sites

"James I." Britannia. [Online] Available http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon46.html, April 5, 2002.

"James I." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/find/Concise.asp?ti=05A7D000, April 5, 2002.

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James I (also James VI)

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