The Stuarts: James VI & I (part one)

25 July 2014 - 07:39pm
Edited by Chloe Howard - Spotted an Error?


In this new series, I will survey all of the Stuart Monarchs’ reigns chronologically, and hopefully display to you a dynasty with many a tale to tell, but that is often forgone by historians, in favour of their more popular ancestors and descendants with well-known stories.

We begin this series with the first Stuart monarch, James VI & I. He is probably best remembered for surviving the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, however there are other insightful and interesting stories from his life to share. These include being the first monarch to unify the crowns of Scotland and England, and the first King with a dream of formally uniting the Kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland into one nation.

3933017682_f4b44940f6_oBorn 19th June 1566 at Edinburgh Castle, James was the only child of Mary Stewart, and her second husband Lord Darnley. He was baptised ‘Charles James’ and became King at the tender age of 18 months old after his mother was forced to abdicate and flee the country. His mother, Mary, and her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell, were suspected of being implicated in the murder of Lord Darnley – an explosion was setup to cover his death, which was most probably by strangulation.

James’s education lay in the hands of George Buchanan, a renowned scholar and humanist, who regularly beat him, causing the young ruler to have nightmares about his tutor. However, Buchanan also instilled within the young King a desire to learn, becoming an accomplished writer, linguist and theologian under his tutor’s wing. James sadly had few friends during his childhood, as there were no other children at Court. He did, however, find a passion in hunting as a child, and was very broad-minded (for the time) when it came to other beliefs and ideas.

James abhorred violence, most probably owing to his recollection of the sight of his grandfather’s bleeding body being carried through the castle after being attacked when James was just five. The Earl of Lennox was supposedly James’s favourite regent, and this sight stayed with him forever. James banned duelling and any other forms of fighting at court, avoiding violence at any cost. At the age of 12, James’s last regent resigned, making him head of government.

Esmé Stewart, James’s cousin who had been living in France, then returned to Scotland and became a fast favourite of James, who took to him as something of a fatherly figure, aged 37. Despite being a Catholic, Esmé was willing to convert to Protestantism to please his cousin, and did so. James happily took Esmé’s advice and was garnered with favours and gifts.

Even from a young age, James did not feel comfortable in the presence of women, preferring male company, such as that of Esmé (some believe this was an early indicator of James’s sexuality and it has been suspected he had early sexual encounters with Esmé). His influence over James was envied, and in order to rid the country of Esmé, the Scottish lairds ‘kidnapped’ James and forced him to send Esmé back to France for his release in 1582. This came to be known as the ‘Raid of Ruthven’, being named after where he was forcefully held. Just five years later, James’s mother was beheaded in England for her involvement in the Babington Plot of 1586, and she was beheaded for her crimes against the Crown in 1587. James consequently had no close family left.

James married Anne of Denmark in 1589. Anne was a Protestant Princess and seen as an ideal partner for the King. Anne set sail for her new Kingdom shortly after the proxy ceremony, but storms meant she had to land in Norway, almost being killed by a loose canon. James then braved the storms and sailed to Norway himself in order to meet his future Queen for the first time and bring her to Scotland.

Claims were made that the storms the couple faced were cooked up by witches and four women were put on trial when the King returned. They were later found guilty and executed (it seems this was the beginning of witch hunting during James’s reign, which later spread with force to the Pilgrims’s new land of America, culminating in the Salem Witch Trials).

James was supposedly infatuated with Anne for the first few years of marriage and they had seven children between 1594 and 1607, but only three survived infancy: Henry, Elizabeth and Charles.

A lover of learning, James gave a charter to Edinburgh, allowing for a university to be established; under James’s reign, the city became richer and thrived. His tenure as King also came at a time of religious change, after the conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism for the Scottish Kirk; broad-minded, James helped keep many happy with his latitudinarian religious policies and there was no persecution. 3483779833_e6cc4f6232_o

His belief in the Divine Right of Kings saw James write a book on the the topic: ‘Trew [true] Law of Free Monarchies’. This meant he thought his powers came directly from God; all decisions, therefore were made by God but put into action by James as his representative on Earth. This, along with financial problems inherited from Elizabeth, caused friction with James’s Parliaments in England, as we shall see later.


1603 saw James unite the crowns of Scotland and England, having been nominated as Elizabeth I’s successor (without much consideration for the appointment of Arabella Stewart, Henry VII’s great-great granddaughter, strangely, but that is a whole other debate). Having ruled Scotland for twenty years, James was a smart choice for England’s new Monarch, and many had high expectations of him.

On the 3-week journey down to London, James was amazed at the wealth of his new subjects, with grand houses and hunting parks, rather dissimilar to those he had left in Scotland. Upon seeing Theobalds House in Hertfordshire, James promptly became its owner, which used to be Robert Cecil, Secretary of State. James had surely swapped a stony couch in Scotland for a deep feather bed in England, and he knew it. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ became popular at the Jacobean Court, with 10 courses at banquets purely for show – no one ate them. James was also frivolous with money, showering gifts and pensions upon his favourite courtiers.

His favourites began with a handful of young men that had followed him down from Scotland; James enjoyed familiar faces around him, and those faces tended to be young, attractive and sycophantic men who enjoyed hunting. James loved to be told how wonderful he looked, dressed, and how clever he was; intelligent though he was, he was a slob, who dribbled whilst talking, did not wash (bad even by these times!) and was uncouth with manners and habits. James Hay, Thomas Erskine, and John Murray were three of such favourites in the early years of James’s reign. They were used as his personal attendants, a great honour to be so close to the King, but many regarded them as parasites who had come to England for wealth at the expense of the English.

1607 saw the rise of Robert Carr, an Englishman who had spent time in France. He fell from his horse whilst jousting at Hampton Court, and the King rushed over to assist him. James instantly took a liking to the young man, and helped nurse him back to health; he also taught him Latin during his recuperation. The pair spent much time together and Carr became the first favourite with any political power, being made a Privy Councillor a few years later.

In 1604, James proved himself ‘Rex Pacificus’ or ‘King of Peace’, by signing the Treaty of London; this saw an end to the expensive and fruitless war against Catholic Spain, which Elizabeth I had began 19 years previous. She had also sold off large plots of Crown land to fund the war, leaving James with 20% less property to receive income from, and depleted coffers; this was to be a sticking point for James and his Parliaments, as he kept spending, when there was nothing in the Treasury.

Unlike Elizabeth, James did not manage factions well at Court, allowing one to become too dominant and powerful; the Stuart king (who changed the spelling of his name from Stewart to be more English) was well-known for his lazy attitude towards ruling, leaving it in the hands of his ministers. This allowed Robert Cecil to become the power at Court, as Secretary of State (equivalent to the Prime Minister today); James referred to him as his ‘little beagle’ – obedient and hard-working.

Cecil won the King’s thanks in 1605, when a group of Catholic plotters sought to blow up the Houses of Parliament while the Royal Family, minus Princess Elizabeth, were in attendance of its opening. The plan was to kidnap Elizabeth and use her to restore Catholicism to England, and was lead by Robert Catesby. Catesby recruited others that shared his wish for a Catholic Kingdom once more, and so Guy Fawkes was drawn into the plotting, a Catholic mercenary who had been fighting for Spain against the Dutch.

At the twelfth hour the plot was discovered, by a letter sent from Lord Monteagle to Cecil (James’s Spymaster General), warning him to stay away from the opening of Parliament. Cecil showed the letter, now known as the Monteagle letter, to the King, and James ‘figured out’ that the plot had something to do with an explosion or fire, due to the word ‘blow’ used in the letter. (Some think Cecil fabricated this letter somehow, and had known about the plot for some time, wanting to garner favour with the King for saving the lives of His Majesty and his family, though nothing has ever been proven.)

It is because of this attempted plot against James VI & I that England holds bonfires on 5th November each year, often burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes (penny for the Guy?); in some parts of the country, effigies of The Pope are still burnt, as the plot was that of Catholics.

James and his Parliaments did not get along well, and he only summoned four in his entire 23-year reign (there was no statute for Parliamentary regularity at this time – Parliament sat a the will of the King, in His Majesty’s Palace of Westminster)…

Photo credits: Lisby and Lisby via photopin cc

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