James was the product of the disastrous marriage between Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Following his father’s murder, and his mother’s enforced abdication, James was crowned as King of Scots at the tender age of thirteen months.
For the first years of his life, whilst he was being carefully brought up at Stirling Castle, by his guardians, the Earl and Countess of Mar, Scotland was engulfed in civil strife that was little less than open war. The four Regents that governed for the first years of James’ life were constantly hoping to suppress attempts by the Queen’s Party, as his mother’s adherents were known, to reinstate her.
It was a thankless task. The first Regent, James’ half-uncle, Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray, was assassinated by gunshot. The second, the King’s own grandfather, Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, was killed in an attempt to abduct James from Stirling. With Lennox’ replacement by the Earl of Mar, who was widely respected, things might have calmed down. Unfortunately, Mar died, possibly helped on his way by the new Regent, James Douglas, 4 th Earl of Morton – another of James’ relatives, via his grandmother, Lady Margaret Douglas.
Morton, the most ruthless Regent of all, was nevertheless the most successful. He managed the submission of the Queen’s Party, and brought some semblance of order to the country, although he incurred the young King’s enmity.
James was given the best possible Humanist education by George Buchanan, one of the most noted scholars in Europe, and Peter Young. He became an extremely accomplished speaker, writer and thinker, although common sense seems to have been somewhat lacking. He was brought up strictly in the Calvinist faith, but, whether through natural inclination, or his tutors’ precept, was never bigoted in religious matters, although uniformity in religion was, for him, an important political principle.
At the age of twelve, James became involved in politics for the first time, when the Earls of Atholl and Argyll, who resented the ascendancy of Morton, requested James to arbitrate a dispute. The outraged Morton threatened to resign, a promise which James swiftly accepted. Nevertheless, he was too young to control affairs, and Morton was soon back in control, with minor sops to his critics. Morton’s resumption of power had resulted in the death of one of James’ friends in a skirmish, and the King took this to heart.
By 1580, aged fourteen, James had a new friend, who supported his efforts to impose his own authority. Esme Stuart, Sieur d’Aubigny, was the thirty-seven year old cousin of the late Lord Darnley. Educated in France, he came to Scotland in 1579, and James, whose life had not been one of unbounded affection, became completely entranced by the older man. The exact nature of their relationship has been debated, but hero-worship definitely played a part. D’Aubigny was given the dukedom of Lennox and declared his conversion to Calvinism, a change treated with deep suspicion by many of James’ other nobles, who were envious of the Frenchman’s hold over James.
Lennox, and his friend Captain Stewart (yet another of the vast Stewart tribe), contrived to rid James of Morton by Stewart denouncing Morton for being ‘ art and part’ of the murder of Darnley. Morton admitted foreknowledge, but placed the blame firmly upon the Earl of Bothwell. Morton was found guilty and executed.
Under Lennox’ influence, James began a certain rapprochement with his mother, considering the advantages of Mary being released, and them becoming joint sovereigns. This notion was less attractive than becoming King in fact as well as name, so he tempered his enthusiasm with the suggestion that Mary should remain in England, but rather as a guest than in her current guise of prisoner.
James might now have believed he was King in truth, but resentment of Lennox and the desire to control the government caused a group of nobles, led by the Earl of Gowrie, to abduct him in what became known as the Ruthven Raid. Lennox was forced to leave the country, and James remained in Gowrie’s control for the best part of three years, only managing to escape by means of a carefully laid plan in 1583. Once he was King in fact, as well as name, although he maintained overall control, he ceded much of the day to day business to Captain Stewart, whom he created Earl of Arran.
One area where James was determined to stamp his personal authority was in the control of the Kirk (as the Protestant Scottish Church was named). The Kirk was governed by the General Assembly, and it was the view of the Assembly that Kirk government should be free of bishops, who were seen as relics of ‘papism’. Instead, the Kirk should be governed by presbyteries (hence Presbyterian), comprised of ministers and elders approved by the congregations.
James set himself vehemently against Presbyterianism his whole life long – he saw its democratic principles as inherently inimical to monarchs – ‘no bishop, no king’ was his prophetic summary. Throughout his reign, James maintained the old ecclesiastical hierarchy, although bishops were now to be appointed by the King, rather than the Pope. The strength of the General Assembly ebbed and flowed during James’ reign.
In 1589, James married. His bride was the Lutheran princess, Anne of Denmark. Anne had attempted to sail for Scotland, but her fleet had been repeatedly driven back by storms, attributed to witchcraft. James went to fetch her himself, and spent several months in Denmark, after which he took a much greater interest in witchcraft.
Derided by the mediaeval church, by the late sixteenth century, belief in witches and witchcraft was widespread, and in the 1590s a major witch hunt took place in North Berwick, which involved a wide range of individuals, including the Earl of Bothwell, and members of his family.
Bothwell, whether or not he actually indulged in ‘ witchcraft’ (just because we don’t believe in it nowadays, does not mean that people in the sixteenth century did not undertake practices that they believed to be witchcraft) certainly indulged in treason, and was eventually exiled.
As it became apparent that James’ relative, Queen Elizabeth of England, was unlikely to have an heir of her body, James became eager to ingratiate himself in the hopes of being named as her heir. Under English common law, he was undoubtedly the individual with the best right to succeed, but the waters had been muddied by Henry VIII’s will, and, possibly, by an act of Edward III that excluded foreign-born individuals from inheritance.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth, whilst never giving in to James’ importunings to name him her heir, allowed him to believe that, unless he seriously displeased her, he would inherit her throne. He was paid a pension of £4,000 per annum, although not with any great regularity, to keep him sweet and away from alliances with France and Spain.
Throughout the 1580s and 1590s, James courted Elizabeth, and was in his turn, courted by many of her nobility, including the Earl of Essex, his sister Lady Penelope Rich (nee Devereux), and after Essex’ execution in 1601, by Elizabeth’s chief minister, Sir Robert Cecil.
In 1603, Elizabeth died, and her Privy Councillors proclaimed James as King, in preference to the next-most-likely candidate, James’ cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart. He succeeded to the English throne with little or no opposition, and travelled south slowly, courting public opinion as he went. His heart’s desire was to unite England and Scotland as a single country, but neither country’s Parliament would countenance the idea. The most he could do was to change his title to ‘King of Great Britain’, introduce a new flag and persuade both Parliaments to set up a commission to consider the matter.
James, who always sought to please everyone, and had a reputation for dissembling, had allowed both the Puritans in the established Anglican Church, and the Catholics, who had been repressed for forty-five years, to believe that he would support their aims.
In reality, although averse to religious persecution, James had no intention of doing anything but upholding the Elizabethan religious settlement, which, loosely speaking, was Calvinist in theology and Catholic in Church government and ritual.
He soon had two disgruntled factions on his hands. He sought to reconcile the Puritans (who were not really analogous to the Scottish Presbyterians, although he always feared they were) via the Hampton Court conference, which was implemented to review the abuses the Puritans had complained of in their ‘ Millenary’ petition. Whilst some of the more moderate demands were dealt with, and most importantly of all, a new translation of the Bible confirmed, the more radical Puritans felt excluded and overlooked.
The Catholics, meanwhile, felt even more let down. Although James was perfectly prepared to accept Catholics in government, he was not prepared to remove the laws against recusancy (refusal to attend Anglican services) or against the presence of Catholic priests from the statute book.
Catholic resentment resulted in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which sought to dispatch James and his two sons by blowing up Parliament. Warned in advance, the authorities found gunpowder and one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, in tunnels below the palace. James responded by requiring Catholics to swear the Oath of Allegiance, which denied the Pope any right to depose a monarch.
Part of James’ eagerness to conciliation towards Catholics was his desire to promote peace with Spain. England and Spain had been at war for the best part of twenty years and James, who always extolled the virtues of peace, wanted to end hostilities. In order to do this, he negotiated with Spain to a degree that made the more stiff Protestants nervous that he was contemplating conversion. James would continue to seek peace almost until the end of his reign, when events in Europe forced him to consider war, after his son-in-law, Frederick, Elector Palatine’s actions in accepting the crown of Bohemia precipitated the Thirty Years’ War.
James had always had male favourites, to whom he was extremely close. There has been debate over the exact nature of his relationships – he was vehemently against homosexuality and had seven children by his wife, yet he was openly physically and emotionally affectionate to young men.
As his relationship with his wife became more distant – Anne had converted to Catholicism, and, after the loss of two children seems to have ceased sexual relations with James – he became more openly attached to men. During the last fifteen years of his life, James’ affections and government were dominated by two men: Robert Carr, whom he created Earl of Somerset, and George Villiers, who was given the dukedom of Buckingham.
Somerset reigned supreme until 1615, when he became embroiled in the most spectacular scandal of the age – he and his wife were tried and convicted for the murder of his friend, Sir Thomas Overbury. Whilst his Countess admitted guilt, Somerset continued to protest his innocence. He was confined to the Tower until 1622. Buckingham’s influence prevailed from 1615 until the King’s death in 1625.
James strove all his life for reconciliation and peace, but, although he was intelligent and academically clever, he lacked the skills essential in a monarch of resolution and, more elusively, charisma.