James I 1566–1625 King of Scotland and England

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James I 1566–1625 King of Scotland and England

James I, the first monarch of the Stuart dynasty of England, ruled the country from 1603 to 1625. Educated in the humanist* tradition, James was a scholar and a generous patron* of the arts. Though he proved to be an able ruler and administrator, he failed to solve the most difficult problems facing England.


Scottish Upbringing. James was the son of the Scottish queen Mary Stuart and her husband, Lord Darnley. When Darnley was murdered in 1567, suspicion for the crime fell on Mary and her lover James Hepburn. Scotland's Protestant lords rose up and deposed* Mary, crowning the infant James as king. Several regents* ran the kingdom until 1585, when James took control. Four years later he married Anne of Denmark. Their son Charles later succeeded James as king of Scotland and England.

The humanist education James received prepared him well for debates on the leading issues of the day. His studies included Greek and Latin, theology* (with a strong Protestant focus), poetry, mathematics, natural sciences, geography, and political theory. James's Scottish court was a lively place where courtiers competed for the king's ear. He accepted advice from a wide variety of sources, offending some advisers who felt they deserved more influence.


King of England. When Elizabeth I of England died in 1603, James succeeded to the throne peacefully. However, along with the throne he inherited a number of severe problems, including war with Spain, religious tensions at home, corruption in government, and financial difficulties at the court. James made peace with Spain in 1604 and then turned his attention to the troubles in the English church. He held a conference to lay out his plan for creating unity within the church, and throughout his reign he worked to bridge differences between conservatives and reformers in the church. He also sponsored a new English translation of the Bible, still known today as the King James Version.

As a Scotsman, James faced a certain amount of prejudice in England. To attract and reward supporters, he offered many titles of nobility and gifts, which strained the kingdom's finances. His English subjects particularly resented his gifts to Scots and his efforts to unify England and Scotland politically and socially. His original English court and council contained several Scots, but over time the king filled the most important positions with Englishmen.

James's foreign policy, especially toward Spain, caused problems as well. The king believed that Protestant and Catholic rulers could resolve their differences, and he sought alliances with Spain and other Catholic states. He also tried to arrange a marriage between his son Charles and a Spanish princess. His foreign policy became more complicated after the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War in 1618. The Austrian Habsburgs drove his daughter and her husband Frederick, Protestant ruler of the German principality of the Palatinate and king of Bohemia, from their homeland. James called for the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family to step in and settle the matter. However, the English people were suspicious of Spanish Catholic influence, and the king's plan to marry Charles into Spain's royal family collapsed in 1623. James died two years later. His son took the throne as Charles I.

Although James dealt with the problems he had inherited from Elizabeth, he ultimately failed to solve them. He never achieved his major goals of improving the crown's finances—though the nation's wealth increased during his reign—or of unifying Scotland and England. In addition, while ruling England, the Stuart dynasty lost touch with conditions and sentiments in Scotland. This distancing would later prove disastrous for Charles.


James and the Renaissance. James saw himself as a Renaissance ruler. Patronage of the arts played a major role at his court, where material wealth and display were regarded as a sign of England's power and glory. This attitude led to a wave of art collecting after 1604.

English style reflected a mixture of late Renaissance influences from all over Europe. It blended the designs of the ancient world with those of the Middle Ages and the newly developing Baroque* style. One of the great artists of the period was the architect Inigo Jones, who created magnificent homes that reflected the traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. Jones also composed court masques, a form of entertainment distinct to James's reign. These elaborate spectacles combined music, drama, and dance, and costumed nobles (including royalty) performed for their peers. The celebrated playwright Ben Jonson wrote many masques for James's court.

The king himself contributed to Renaissance culture by writing several books. In his Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598), he supported the principle of the divine right of kings, declaring that the king answers to no one but God. However, James also believed that the king should rule justly and put the welfare of the kingdom before all other considerations. His other works deal with theology, poetry, and political matters, including a book of advice for princes*.

(See alsoArt in Britain; Drama; England; Monarchy; Scotland. )

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* depose

to remove from high office, often by force

* regent

person who acts on behalf of a monarch who is too young or unable to rule

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* Baroque

artistic style of the 1600s characterized by movement, drama, and grandness of scale

* prince

Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state