James VI

views updated May 29 2018

James VI (1566–1625), king of Scotland (1567–1625) and, as James I, king of England (1603–25), was the son of Mary, queen of Scots, whose enforced abdication brought him to the throne when he was not 2 years of age. A lonely but intelligent child, James was educated by a succession of formidable tutors, including George Buchanan, whose insistence that kings were servants of their people provoked his pupil into believing the opposite. Royal authority had been brought to a low ebb by Mary, and during James's minority the factious nobility lived in a state of civil war. James's assumption of power in 1585 marked a turning-point, for he brought the nobles to heel at the same time as he involved them in government. His main adversary was the presbyterian church, or kirk, which claimed that its authority, deriving directly from God, was superior to his own. James skilfully outflanked the kirk's leaders by encouraging the moderates and reviving the office of bishop. He also used his learning to buttress his position. The Trew Law and the Basilikon doron, both written in the 1590s, proclaimed that kings were the images of God upon earth and should be venerated as such.

James, deprived of female company during his formative years, found an outlet for his emotional needs in male favourites, of whom Esmé Stuart, created duke of Lennox by the boy king in 1581, was the first of a long line. But James was also capable of relations with the opposite sex, as he showed in 1589 when he crossed the seas to Norway to bring back Anne of Denmark as his wife. The marriage began well and produced a number of children, of whom two sons, Henry and Charles (later Charles I), and a daughter, Elizabeth, survived into adult life.

In 1586 James concluded a treaty with Elizabeth I which provided him with a substantial pension and acknowledged his right to succeed to the English throne. This enticing prospect may have kept James from protesting when his mother was executed by Elizabeth's government in 1587, but Mary was virtually a stranger to him, and her steadfast commitment to catholicism was at odds with his deeply held protestant convictions. When, in early 1603, news came of Elizabeth's death, James was impatient to quit his impoverished kingdom, but he was not ashamed of his Scottishness. On the contrary, his major objective once he was established in England was to complete the union of crowns by a union of states. This could only be done with the support of the two parliaments, but while he could ensure the co-operation of the Scottish assembly, the English one proved recalcitrant. Debates on the union, the principal business of the Parliament which James summoned in 1604, revealed the depth of English prejudice against the Scots. They also revealed that James's subjects were acutely suspicious of his intentions. In his writings and speeches, he used the language of absolutism, and he was not familiar with the very different English political tradition based on Magna Carta and the common law. James, who had worked harmoniously with the Scottish Parliament, found the larger and more formal English institution alien and intractable.

James's open-handed generosity, particularly towards his Scottish companions, won him few friends among the English. Nor did the spread of corruption in public life, including the sale of titles and offices, much of which was generated by royal favourites such as Carr and Buckingham. Conviction that James would squander any money grants, plus fear that without dependence upon parliamentary supply he would develop into an absolute monarch on the European pattern, brought about the collapse of the Great Contract. James's resort to non-parliamentary taxes like impositions made matters worse and led to the failure of the ‘Addled’ Parliament. It took time before James realized that, while he was much richer than he had been in Scotland, he still needed to exercise restraint. Matters improved considerably after 1620, when he appointed a merchant-financier, Lionel Cranfield, to the Treasury, but by then the damage was done.

In the sphere of religion James was more successful, not least because his protestantism was unquestionable. After the Hampton Court conference he came to realize that English puritans were far less dangerous than Scottish presbyterians, and in 1610 he pleased them by appointing the low-church George Abbot as archbishop. James also remained tolerant towards his catholic subjects, even after the Gunpowder plot, and drew up an oath of allegiance which enabled them to express their loyalty without offending their conscience. The problem for James was that religion and politics were inextricably intertwined. In hopes of acting as a European peacemaker, he married his daughter to a leading protestant prince and planned a match between his son and the daughter of the king of Spain, the archetypal catholic ruler. This ecumenical approach to international politics baffled and outraged his subjects, who believed that England's place was at the head of a protestant crusade. When, in 1621, James forbade the Commons to discuss the Spanish marriage on the grounds that such matters were his concern, they drew up a protestation asserting their right to debate all ‘urgent affairs’. James responded by sending for the Commons' journal and ripping out the offending protestation. The next Parliament, the last of the reign, which met in 1624, was more harmonious, but only because James was no longer in full control. A powerful alliance between his son and heir Charles, his favourite Buckingham, and the parliamentary leaders forced him to acknowledge, however reluctantly, the possibility not merely of breaking off relations with Spain but even of fighting her.

Fortunately for James, he died in March 1625, before war broke out. He was not deeply mourned in either England or Scotland; undignified and conceited, long-winded and short-tempered, he caused offence without realizing it. But he kept his kingdoms in peace at home and abroad, he preserved the powers of the crown, and he held the church firmly to a middle course. It was no accident that while James's mother and son both met violent ends, he died peacefully in his bed.

Roger Lockyer


Akrigg, G. P. V. (ed.), Letters of James VI & I (1984);
Lee, M. , Great Britain's Solomon: James VI & I in his Three Kingdoms (Urbana, Ill., 1990);
Peck, L. L. (ed.), The Mental World of the Jacobean Court (1991).

James I

views updated May 17 2018

James I (1566–1625) King of England (1603–25) and, as James VI, king of Scotland (1567–1625). Son of Mary, he acceded to the Scottish throne as an infant on his mother's abdication. In 1589, he married Anne of Denmark. James inherited the English throne on the death (1603) of Elizabeth I, and thereafter confined his attention to England. James supported the Anglican Church, at the cost of antagonizing the Puritans, and sponsored the publication (1611) of the Authorized, or King James, Version of the Bible. The Gunpowder Plot (1605) was foiled and James suppressed the Catholics. In 1607, the first English colony in America (Jamestown) was founded. James' insistence on the divine right of kings brought conflict with Parliament. In 1611 he dissolved Parliament, and (excluding the 1614 Addled Parliament) ruled without one until 1621. The death (1612) of Robert Cecil saw James' increasingly dependent on corrupt favourites such as Robert Carr and George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. He was succeeded by his son, Charles I. See also Jacobean

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James I (England)

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