James I (1566-1625) reigned as king of England from 1603 to 1625. As James VI, he was king of Scotland from 1567 to 1625.
The son of Mary Stuart, reigning queen of Scotland, and (presumably) her husband, Lord Darnley, James I was born in Edinburgh Castle on June 19, 1566. His mother's subsequent indiscretions forced her to renounce her title in her son's favor in 1567.
The infant king was placed in the trust 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. By the age of 8 he was fluent in French, Latin, and reasonably conversant in English. But he received no instruction in the "courtly arts." James's sense of humor never outgrew the primitive, his language was coarse and vulgar, and his manner was most distinctly unregal.
In 1571 the regent, Lennox (James's paternal grandfather), was killed by the Marians, and he was then succeeded by the harsh Earl of Morton. In 1578 James was kidnaped by two of the Marians, Atholl and Argyle, only to be rescued within the month.
The two Catholic superpowers, France and Spain, both sought to influence developments in Scotland. From France came James's cousin, the corrupt Esmé Stuart, ostensibly to win James to the side of the house of Guise and the Catholic faith. The young king was completely smitten by this adventurer, and he gave him lands, income, and the title of Earl and then Duke of Lennox.
The new duke soon encompassed the downfall and execution of the regent, Morton. His influence over the King seemed paramount, and James's Protestant subjects vented their fears for the King's moral and religious state. In fact, the influence of Lennox and his equally corrupt accomplices seems to have been greatest in the field of politics—James completely turned from the basically democratic ideas espoused by his early tutors and began to think in terms of absolute monarchy.
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 new captors, but he succeeded merely in placing himself under the tutelage of Lennox's most aggressive companion, the Earl of Arran, who soon took over the actual running of the state.
Egged on by Arran, James attacked the Presbyterian Church, and in 1584 he forced himself to be recognized as head of the Church. James's ambition to be king of England was matched by his need for English money; despite the attack on his favorite, Arran, the alliance with England was maintained. When his mother let herself be drawn into outright treason, James did little to prevent her execution in 1587.
James then turned his attention to dynastic (and romantic) matters, and he began his courtship of Anne of Denmark. The King, newly come of age, sailed after his bride, to the joy of his subjects. He married her in Norway, where severe weather had compelled her to remain. Six months later the royal couple returned to Scotland.
By 1592 the feuds between Lord Bothwell and the Catholic lords had reduced James to a virtual fugitive, pursued by one side and then the other. By 1593 Bothwell had made James his captive—to the praise of the Presbyterians and Elizabeth, who both feared the influence of the Catholic Earl of Huntly. Bothwell, however, had overplayed his hand—James talked his way to freedom, and with the aid of the middle classes he proceeded against the man who had not merely held him a prisoner but had also sought his life through witchcraft and the black arts.
Bothwell, now desperate, allied himself with Huntly, Errol, and Angus. The result was the destruction of the Catholic earls as well as Bothwell. By the end of 1594 the position of the monarchy seemed exceptionally secure.
James's sense of security was heightened by another event of 1594—the birth of a son and heir, Henry Frederick. Entrusted to the care of the Dowager Countess of Mar, the young prince symbolized James's coming of age.
During the next 4 years James continued to consolidate his position. His finances were restored by the efforts of the "Octavians," and when the Catholic earls returned to Scotland they seemed a much chastened lot. Their return led to an excess of emotion on the part of the most zealous of the Presbyterians, and this in turn allowed the King to proceed against them and to further advance the episcopal form of ecclesiastical polity. His ideas on church-state relations, on the attitude of subjects toward their king, and on the nature of divine right appeared in print in 1598 in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies. Within 2 years James had further refined his ideas in his most important work, Basilikon Doron (written for the edification of the young Henry).
James also accepted the advice offered by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth's most astute minister, to abandon his harebrained plots with Catholics and Protestants alike and to adopt a respectful and calm tone toward the aging queen. On Mar. 24, 1603, only 8 hours after Elizabeth's death, James was proclaimed king in London.
In a sense, the events of the first 2 years of James's reign in England serve to "set the stage" for the growing conflicts that marked the remainder of his 22 years on the throne. James had decisions to make in the areas of foreign policy, domestic religion, finance, and, in the broadest sense, in the field of governmental theory. In each of these areas, and in the matter of his northern kingdom and his royal favorites, he came into conflict with the English Parliament— especially with the House of Commons. James's great failure as an English king stemmed from his inability at first to perceive wherein the English assembly differed from the Scottish Parliament, and from his unwillingness to accept the differences when at last he became aware of them.
Especially in matters of secular domestic policies, James's first year on the English throne led to his asserting what he considered to be his "rightful" role in the government and in the constitution. Thus, in the first session of his first Parliament (1604), the King's speeches about his prerogative and the privileges that he had granted Parliament led that body to draft the "Apology of the Commons," in which the Commons equated their rights with those of all Englishmen. The Commons had suddenly assumed a new role. During James's first Parliament, which lasted until 1610, the opposition to him was sporadic and relatively uncoordinated. It tended to center on the figure of James's heir, Henry, who was given his own household at the age of 9.
The harsh treatment to which he had been subjected by some of his ministers of the Presbyterian Church as a youth, and the disruptive, highly antimonarchical bias of the Church, led James to support an episcopal church—a church that moreover acknowledged him as its head. Indeed, James's instincts seemed to incline him toward a very highly ritualized form of worship, and he seemed at first disposed to move toward a more lenient position regarding Roman Catholicism. Whatever his real feelings on this issue might have been, the discovery of a Catholic conspiracy led by Guy Fawkes to blow up the royal family—and Parliament as well—robbed him of any initiative in dealing with the Catholics as a group. He was forced to bow to the harsh measures adopted by Parliament; his subsequent efforts to relieve the disabilities 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 thwarted; his meddling in the dealings of his common-law courts led him to quarrel with his own chief justice, Sir Edward Coke, and to espouse a more extreme view of his own prerogative; his arbitrary raising of customs duties further outraged the Commons; finally, his untoward fondness for a succession of worthless favorites (Scottish and English alike) annoyed Parliament, irked Prince Henry, and irritated Queen Anne.
Always impecunious, and without a trace of thrift, James maintained finances that were a source of embarrassment and of weakness. By 1610, amidst mutual recriminations and with the financial crisis unabated, James's first Parliament came to an end.
With Parliament in abeyance, government rested in the hands of James's favorite of the moment, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, and Carr's pro-Spanish in-laws, the Howards. Carr's implication in a scandalous murder trial, the death of Henry Howard, leader of the Spanish faction, and the emergence of a new favorite, George Villiers, seemed to under-cut the Spanish party, but this eclipse was only temporary; the more the King seemed to incline toward Spain, the more he alienated his more substantial subjects. This mutual mistrust found expression in the "Addled Parliament" of 1614. For 2 months neither Commons nor King would concede a point to the other, and finally, despite his growing need for money, James dissolved his unruly legislature.
In his desperation, James now turned for help to Don Diego Sarmiento, the Spanish ambassador. His poverty really afforded him no choice, but his subjects saw this as further proof of duplicity. James began to consider a Spanish bride for Prince Charles, who had succeeded his late brother as Prince of Wales—a most unpopular project, but one which endured for more than a decade. Sarmiento encouraged the King but demanded substantial concessions that would have been impossible for James to meet.
The year 1616 saw the new favorite, Villiers (raised to the peerage as Baron, Viscount, Earl, Marquis, and finally, Duke of Buckingham), secure his position at court and become the focus of royal government. By 1618 he had destroyed the Howard family, and his power seemed to be complete. Buckingham's rise and his arrogance led to a quarrel with Prince Charles. James reconciled the two young men, and they soon became the best of friends.
By 1618, too, James's health was failing. He was badly crippled by gout and by attacks of kidney stones, and he clearly was no longer as alert mentally as he had been. It was precisely at this unfortunate moment that he was called upon to meet the greatest challenge of his reign: the outbreak of the Thirty Years War.
James's potential reasons for action were immediate, urgent, personal, and obvious—the conflict revolved around his son-in-law, daughter, and grandchildren. On a broader level, the very existence of the reformed faith was in danger. Despite the virtually unanimous urging of his subjects, favorite, and son for an aggressive foreign policy, James vacillated, hesitated, and ultimately to his disgrace appeared to abandon his own family and to attempt an alliance with their enemies. That James sought to use Spanish friendship to aid his son-in-law's cause was neither apparent nor sensible to his subjects. When, in 1620, Spain invaded the Palatinate itself, even James was roused to anger.
Royal anger, to be effective, needed money, and money could only come from a Parliament. Reluctantly, against the advice of Buckingham (who had become pro-Spanish), James summoned Parliament in 1621. At first, despite James's habitual sermonizing to the Commons, things seemed to go well. Money was voted, and while the King refused to allow Parliament to discuss matters of foreign policy, he made no overt move to keep them from overhauling domestic affairs. By the end of the first session, Commons and King were closer together than they had been for years.
Spanish blandishments dissipated this goodwill, and when, during November and December 1620, the Commons refused to vote supplies blindly but insisted on presenting their views on foreign policy, the King was furious. He denied virtually all of Parliament's privileges, and when the Commons responded with a mild protestation, he dissolved Parliament.
The gulf between James and his subjects, indeed between the Crown and the nation, was now total. Morally as well as financially, James was bankrupt. He was also wholly dependent upon the goodwill of Spain, or so he thought.
As James grew senile, he lost control not only over his country but over his son and his favorite as well. Charles and Buckingham exposed themselves, their King, and their country to ridicule by their hasty and futile pursuit of the Spanish Infanta.
James's last Parliament was no more peaceful than his first had been. Again King and Commons clashed over prerogative and privilege, but now the Commons was joined by the Lords, and the King's harsh strictures were explained away by his own chief minister and his heir. In the end, the King, and not Parliament, gave way, and England's long flirtation with Spain was at an end.
James's end came soon after; always in poor health, he died on March 27, 1625. He left behind an empty treasury, a malcontented Parliament, and a son who would succeed him peaceably—for a while.
The best modern biography of James is David Harris Willson, King James VI and I (1956), which provides a lucid and balanced picture of the age as well as an insightful study of the King. David Mathew, James I (1967), is episodic and far less satisfactory. James's early life is recounted in Caroline Bingham, The Making of a King: The Early Years of James VI and I (1968). Other biographical works include Thomas Finlayson Henderson, James I and VI (1904), and William Lloyd McElwee, The Wisest Fool in Christendom: The Reign of King James I and VI (1958). James figures prominently in Godfrey Davies, The Early Stuarts (1937; corrected repr. 1952), and G. P. V. Akrigg, Jacobean Pageant (1962). Documents dealing with James's view of the monarchy and with his clashes with the courts and Parliament are in J. P. Kenyon, The Stuart Constitution, 1603-1688: Documents and Commentary (1966). Wallace Notestein, The English People on the Eve of Colonization (1954), is a readable and scholarly study of the period.
Bergeron, David Moore, Royal family, royal lovers: King James of England and Scotland, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
Bingham, Caroline, James I of England, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.
Durston, Christopher, James I, London; New York: Routledge, 1993.
Finsten, Jill, Isaac Oliver, art at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I, New York: Garland Pub., 1981.
Fraser, Antonia, King James, VI of Scotland, I of England, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994.
Houston, S. J., James I, London; New York: Longman, 1995.
Lee, Maurice, Great Britain's Solomon: James VI and I in his three kingdoms, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
McElwee, William Lloyd, The wisest fool in Christendom; the reign of King James I and V, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press 1974, 1958.