The Stuarts: James I (1603-1625)

The Elizabethan era came to a close in 1603 when the good queen gave up the ghost after a long and consequential reign. The twilight of the Tudors marked the end of the most transformative epoch in English history. The seed of Henry VIII was finally exhausted and there was no immediate heir to the crown. England was forced to look abroad for a stable political future. Queen Elizabeth’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge a successor befuddled her court and caused great consternation within her council. It was only thanks to the skillful and covert diplomacy of her greatest administrator, the hunchbacked Robert Cecil, that a peaceful transfer of power was secured. The new king of England was to be a Scotsman, James VI, the only son of Mary Queen of Scots.

When Elizabeth breathed her last, a messenger named Sir Robert Carey, was dispatched from Elizabeth’s deathbed at Richmond Palace. He made haste for Edinburgh -the smooth succession of the crown was his imperative. It took him a mere three days to travel some 330 miles to Holyrood Castle, carrying with him a sapphire ring as proof of his intentions. The news was clear: James VI of Scotland was invited to claim the throne of England.


The Early Life of James
The Stuarts (or “Stewarts”) were an old aristocratic Scottish family. Their surname was a patronym was derived from their historic administrative role as “Stewards.” The name “Stewart” was eventually rewritten into a more anglicized spelling of “Stuart” under James’s ancestor, John Stewart Lord of Dunley.

James was born at Edinburgh Castle in June of 1566. He was the only son of Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband, Lord Darnley (“Henry Stuart”). When James was a mere eight months old there occurred a sudden and devastating explosion at Lord Darnley’s home. Lord Darnley, James’s father, was found dead in his garden. The plot was widely believed to have been conducted by James Hepburn earl of Bothwell, and many suspected Mary Queen of Scots’s collusion. Mary then shocked everyone by promptly marrying Bothwell (after he had abducted and raped her). The scandal caused the Scottish nobles to rise up and depose Mary leaving her one year old child, James, to become the new King of Scotland. Mary was exiled and effectively imprisoned in England. She was infamously beheaded by Queen Elizabeth I in February of 1587.

Through inheritance James did, in fact, have a legitimate claim to the throne of England. He was the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor and the great-great-grandson of Henry VII. As a boy he was given a rigorous and rigid Calvinist education under the tutelage of the humanist scholar, George Buchanan. As time passed, James grew into a lanky and uncoordinated young man. He was liberal drinker of wine and an appreciator of all things extravagant. He was never a very popular man. His contemporaries paint a caricature of a cartoonish man -a coarse, corpulent, and clumsy buffoon. In his youth, a succession of regents ruled Scotland and James was regularly fearful for his life. When James finally claimed power for himself in Scotland 1583-1585 he managed to maintain a degree of stability over the unruly country.

Considerable speculation has been made about James’s sexuality. He was, at the very least, strongly inclined toward young and attractive men. As a cover, he was often praised for his Christian “chastity.” In the absence of his mother, James was raised primarily among the company of men. He developed a small clutch of favorite men that he appointed to prominent political positions, such as his former page boy, Robert Carr, or his young French cousin, the earl of Lennox. These appointments caused great resentment among both his Scottish and English nobles.

Despite his preference for men, James’s advisers thought it was prudent for him to marry a woman for the sake of the crown. A formal proposal of marriage was offered abroad and in 1589 his queen consort became Anne of Denmark, the daughter of Frederick II of Denmark. During her lifetime, she straddled the tenuous fissure between Catholics and Protestants -she infamously refused Anglican communion at James’s coronation in Westminster. In all, she caused little uproar for the king. She was a mostly complacent wife and queen who was happy to dote upon material things like clothes and jewelry. James was content to leave her alone. In later years she became a great patron of the arts. However, James and Anne completed their royal duty and produced a total of seven children, three of which survived into adulthood: Henry Prince of Wales, a boy with a warrior’s disposition who tragically died of typhoid fever in 1612, Elizabeth, who became Queen of Bohemia, and Prince Charles, a soft and ‘angelic’ boy who became the eventual successor to James’s crown after Henry died.

Portrait of James I in 1605

King of England
At any rate, after the arrival of Sir Robert Carey in Edinburgh on that foreboding morning in 1603, James took a little over a week to gather his belongings before he made way for London. He was glad to leave behind his poor kingdom for a wealthy one. While en route to London he held a lengthy procession that took over a month of traveling through the countryside -this was done largely to avoid any uncomfortable encounter with the funeral procession for Elizabeth I. By the time James reached York he had run out of funds and he was forced to write to London requesting funds from the royal Privy Council. It was the first of many moments of indebtedness during James’s reign, earning him the moniker “the beggarly Scotsman.”

Without properly understanding English customs, James began degrading honors bestowed by the king. On his way to London he knighted numerous individuals -in the first four months of his kingship alone he knighted no less than 906 men! For reference, during Elizabeth’s entire reign she knighted a total of 878 men. It was said that James was so liberal with his knighting that he often forgot the honoree’s name mid-ceremony, and that he once knighted a piece of beef saying “Arise, Sir Loin.” James also turned English honors into a cheap trade. He sold off various titles that were once distributed to the landed gentry with a greater sense of tradition during the Tudor era.

When James finally arrived in London the plague had struck. Remembering the devastation of the Black Death plague several hundred years earlier, the coronation festivities were kept to a minimum. For many the re-emergence of the plague was a bad omen for James’s reign. When he first arrived at the Tower in London his eyes were alight by his newfound wealth -he could not take his eyes off the crown jewels. He was crowned king on July 25th in 1603 and then he quickly departed London for cleaner air in the countryside.

While initially celebrated by the English people -many had never seen a male king in their lifetime- the popularity of James I quickly faded. He was not an impressive man like the Plantagenet war heroes or the Tudor imperialists. He was bow legged, awkward, and his gait was erratic perhaps owing to a bout of rickets as a child. One witness described him as nervously fidgeting with his codpiece. He did not have the manners of an English king. He had a Scottish accent and was said to have slobbered over his food in a noticeably uncouth manner. At his new court the king was known to be devoted to his pleasures rather than his duties. He was prone to lavish tastes and angry outbursts. He was averse to conducting business and was frequently sickly.

According to Winston Churchill: “James was much addicted to favourites, and his attention to handsome young men resulted in a noticeable lack of respect for the monarchy” (284). James would often embrace or kiss his favorite men of court, sometimes calling them affectionate pet-names. His lasciviousness in court was well-known among the common people, in fact an amusing refrain could Car be heard among the crowd: ‘Elizabeth was our king and James is our queen.’ In particular, after the death of Elizabeth’s industrious, capable, courteous, and efficient civil servant, the “crouchback” Robert Cecil, James foolishly appointed the young and inexperienced, Robert Carr, his former page boy. He once broke his leg in a jousting match and James gently nursed him back to health. The appointment of Carr sparked considerable resentment and bitterness. In contrast to his predecessor, Carr was a poor choice from the start. He was corrupt and ineffective. He brought scandal to the court when he had an affair with the daughter of the earl of Suffolk (Thomas Howard). Carr was eventually implicated and convicted in another scandal involving the poisoning of another courtier. The court of James I had lost any shred of its regal reputation. Carr’s successor was another young and handsome man, George Villiers (“sweet Steenie” as James called him). He was made the Duke of Buckingham but he quickly became a haughty opportunist who was just as unpopular in Parliament as Carr.

The accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England had ended centuries of ongoing warfare between the two countries. It was a symbolic and incidental victory during James’s kingship. He imagined himself as the rex pacifus -the peacemaker king. He persuaded himself that he could heal the divisions at home and abroad between Protestants and Catholics. He ordered three major conferences on peace, religion, and union, however they all devolved into petty squabbling and further discord ensued. In fact, greater divisions were cleaved rather than mended during James’s reign. His kingship also hailed deep bitterness between Parliamentary Privilege and Royal Prerogative as James frequently battled with Parliament over the issue of taxation and the need to fund his taste for luxury. By 1614 James was fed-up with the English model of shared governance and he dissolved Parliament.

Shortly after the dissolution of Parliament we are offered the image of a hapless king: on the day which the dissolution was announced James went out riding in the park of his palace at Theobalds when his horse stumbled and tossed the king into the New River. He landed on the ice which cracked beneath him as he plunged into the freezing water leaving only his boots visible. He was quickly rescued but it was one of many vignettes of a hapless king.

By all accounts James was a timid and scholarly man whose learning bordered on pedantry. When James came to England he brought with him a pretentious inclination for lecturing his peers, a habit that was despised in Parliament. As Winston Churchill notes, “he came to England with a closed mind, and a weakness for lecturing” (278). James held a lofty theoretical conception of kingship: “the divine right of kings.” He believed the king was special with regard to the law, not bound by Parliament, and that he possessed the sole right of taxation -some of his theories found an unlikely ally in Francis Bacon. Bacon was awarded with titles and a knighthood for his ingratiation. However, James was blinded to the political realities of his day and ultimately his reign sowed the seed for a future civil war. It was known as the Jacobean age (from the Latin for James, “Jacobus”). But because of his habit for long-winded discoursing and his desire to write treatises, he was sometimes sarcastically derided as the “British Solomon” -he carried a lofty view of his own literary prowess. He was also called “the wisest fool inn Christendom.” He was, in fact, quite a writerly king. He published Daemonologie in 1590, a text which analyzes witches, devilry, and the occult. He personally interviewed the so-called North-Berwick witches who were accused of trying to supernaturally assassinate him. In 1598 he published The True Lawe of Free Monarchies which opposes the new humanist view that a king bears any responsibility to his subjects. The following year in 1599 he published Basilikon Doron, a treatise on the art of kingship in the form of a letter to his son. And in 1608 he published A Counterblaste to Tobacco, a diatribe against the emerging fad of tobacco smoking in England. It was initially published anonymously but it did not garner any serious or scholarly interest which dismayed the king.

Regarding James’s theory of kingship he wrote:

‘Kings are justly called gods… for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth… For if you will consider the attributes of God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy; make or unmake at his pleasure; to give life or send death; to judge all and to be judged not accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure. And the like power have kings.’

This new breed of absolute monarchical rulership in England did not sit well. Parliament began asserting its ‘liberties and privileges’ to grant new taxes. Increasingly James attempted to rule without the consultation of Parliament to feed his unaffordable and extravagant lifestyle. Some examples of ways James maneuvered around Parliament include: the sale of monopolies and an imposition of special custom duties. He also sold peerages and created the new rank of baronet primarily as a means of raising revenue.

The Gunpowder Plot (1605)
Early into his reign James was given a petition from an emerging and zealous sect derisively known as the “Puritans.” The petition made a list of requests on the new king: that the sign of the cross not be made mandatory during baptism, that the marriage ring was unnecessary, that the rite of confirmation should be abolished, that the words ‘priest’ and ‘absolution’ should be corrected, and so on. The Puritans, unlike the clergy, were unconcerned with custom or tradition. They abhorred confession and preferred rigorous self-examination instead. They viewed Scripture as a source of all-encompassing divine truth. They saw themselves as purifiers of a depraved humanity. It was said that they loved God with all their soul, and hated their neighbor with all their heart. When James refused to grant the Puritans all their demands, their frustrations grew. James had attempted to uphold the Elizabethan settlement -his slogan became “No Bishop, no King.”

However, the status quo was unacceptable for both the Puritans and the Catholics. There were as many dissatisfied groups as there were plots against the king’s life. An early conspiracy (known as the “Main Plot”) supposedly involved Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Brooke Lord Cobham who were said to have attempted to overthrow the king in favor of his cousin, Arabella Stuart. Raleigh was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower where he made a failed attempt at suicide. Another plot (the so-called “Bye Plot”) was hatched by Roman Catholic priests to kidnap the king in the hopes that Spain might infiltrate England and prop up a Catholic king. The plot accomplished nothing save for the deaths of its perpetrators.

Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot;
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

At the time there was widespread unrest among much of the population. Resentments were brewing about high taxes, a newly emerging gentry class replaced the rural Tudor gentry, and rumors of James’s extravagant personal life only fueled the fire. Economically, it was a time of commodity price inflation and stagnated wages plus excessive bureaucracy. Immigrants were blamed along with a king who grew less and less popular each day. Keeping in mind the historic antagonism between English and Scotsmen, many Englishmen had a special distaste for a foreign Scottish king.

Religiously, James was a skeptic of the fervent Scottish Presbyterianism of the kind he found his own country. In England he attempted to navigate a path of tolerance between Catholics and Protestants. However being a Protestant, he was already hated by many Catholics. In 1605, a group of Catholic conspirators led by Robert Catesby nearly carried out an extraordinary plot to blow up the king during the opening of Parliament. It was only prevented when one of the plotters warned a relative who was a Catholic peer and word reached all the way to Robert Cecil. When the conspiracy was brought to James I it was decided to wait until the night before Parliament’s opening before searching the grounds. The cellars of Parliament were searched. On November 5th 1605 one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, a veteran of the Spanish wars against the Dutch, was discovered with a collection of gunpowder barrels deep in the vaults beneath the House of Lords. He was arrested and other perpetrators were tortured. The trail led to the Hollbreche House where a notorious shoot-out occurred. Those who died at the House were given a merciful death. Those who survived were gruesomely publicly tortured in London -they were hanged, drawn, and quartered. The conspiracy came to be known as the “Gunpowder Plot.” If it was carried out, the explosion would have been the most devastating act of terrorism in modern history. It would have killed most of the British royal family and the English political establishment. The perpetrators were executed (the case was tried by the Attorney General, the formidable Sir Edward Coke, who later became Chief Justice and a notable nemesis of Francis Bacon).

Shortly thereafter James came to Parliament and delivered a lengthy address declaring how honorable it would have been to die with his faithful Commons, however the House displayed remarkably calloused indifference toward their king. When James finished his speech Parliament merely carried on its mundane business of the day which included a discussion regarding a member’s petition to be removed due to an attack of gout.

The King James Bible
Undoubtedly the greatest thing to emerge from James’s Hampton Court conference was the request for an authoritative and new translation of the Bible.

Up until this time the Puritan demands had been rejected, however towards the end of the Hampton Court, Dr. John Reynolds, President of Oxford College of Corpus Christi, suggested that a new Bible should be produced. At this time there were varying editions: the Tyndale, the Coverdale, the Geneva, and the “Bishop’s Bible” of Queen Elizabeth. Each were filled with marginal notes and partisan interpretations of scripture as well as extremist theories or ecclesiastical theories. There was need for an authoritative text. Committees were established, two each in Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster comprising in all fifty scholars. Each was directed to translate a portion of text without adding marginal notes except to clarify the meaning of particular Greek or Hebrew words. It took several years to organize, and then from 1607-1609 the project was completed with remarkable swiftness. By 1611 the Authorized Version was produced by the King’s Printer. It could be purchased for as little as five shillings. no new edition was thought necessary for at least the next three hundred years.

Thus James approved a group of 54 revisers and translators for the new project (47 of which actually participated). The bible was divided among six companies, two of each working at Cambridge, Oxford, and Westminster. Three panels worked on the “Old Testament” and two panels worked on the “New Testament” (one panel also took on fourteen books of the Apocrypha). Richard Bancroft, the Archbishop of Canterbury, oversaw the whole process. By 1611 the project was complete. The King James Bible is one of the greatest pieces of theological literature to emerge within the modern era. For further information feel free to read my reflections on the history of the King James Bible.

Foreign Affairs
Jacobean England was an age of great economic upheaval. Prices greatly outpaced wages and many young tradesmen found it difficult to navigate the outdated medieval system of craftsmen’s guilds. Young men of the realm felt hopeless and without livelihood. There was an imbalance of trade, cheaper Dutch fabric replaced English production on the Continent, and it displaced many industrious young men. Many blamed the high taxes and the lavish court of James. The promise of a New World abroad, free from the religious and political constraints of Europe, gave hope to dreamers.

While Sir Walter Raleigh’s efforts yielded little (i.e. the ill-fated Roanoke Colony) a new method of jointly financed stock companies emerged. In 1606 a group of speculators formed the Virginia Company. It was a poorly devised organization from the start, but nevertheless several hundred people committed to the project and sailed across the Atlantic in 1607 and settled along the Virginia coast on the Chesapeake Bay. The settlement was called “Jamestown” in honor of the king. By the following spring half the population of Jamestown was dead due to malaria, cold, and famine. It was a harsh life but eventually the colony became self-sustaining. Profits were minimal much to the chagrin of its London financiers. The dictator of Jamestown was Captain John Smith, a military adventurer during the Turkish wars. He enforced a rigid and harsh discipline on the colonists. The marriage of his lieutenant John Rolfe to Pocahontas, the Indian daughter of the Powhatans, caused a sensation in England.

Some hoped that colonization could help reduce crime and poverty in England, while others hoped for new sources of fishing and raw materials. However, the true saving grace of Jamestown came from an unexpected source: tobacco. By chance, the tobacco plant proved successful in the Virginia soils and climate (it had been previously introduced to Europe by Spain and it was becoming a fashionable commodity). Tobacco proved a profitable source of production. Within the coming years, small business holders traveled to the region and established large estates for the production of tobacco.

Underneath the drab facade of Jacobean England, with its favoritism at court and its humiliation abroad, the burgeoning Puritan faction was becoming more fervent in their demands to remove any papist elements from the state religion. The Puritans were persecuted under Elizabeth and ignored under James, and so they began to seek religious freedom elsewhere. In 1607 the Puritans left England for the more tolerant and industrious shores of the Dutch. They were mainly agricultural workers but they struggled to find success in the maritime economy of the Netherlands -they could only find hard manual labor. They began to look elsewhere again and this time settled on The New World, which carried the promise of escape from a fallen and sinful generation. It promised utopia. However, without capital the Puritans lacked the ability to enact their plan. They sent emissaries to the Virginia Company in search of funding, and the Virginia Company was surprisingly enthusiastic. Here was a group of hard-working agricultural laborers who were stern and severe in their work ethic. They were an ideal band to weather the harsh conditions of the New World. King James approved the project and 35 members of the Dutch group of Puritans joined 66 West Country adventurers headed for Plymouth. In September of 1620 the group set sail in a 180 ton vessel called the “Mayflower.” After two and a half months of sailing the winter ocean they arrived at Plymouth on the Cape Cod Bay. The crew was an unruly and undisciplined bunch, they bickered constantly and there was trouble at sea. Thus they drew up an extraordinary legal document: The Mayflower Compact. It was the founding of New England but when Plymouth did not return profits, like tobacco in Jamestown, the Virginia Company sold out and the Plymouth settlement was left to its own devices.

Another notable venture was the new Massachusetts Bay Company which was modeled on the Virginia Company. It was led by John Winthrop who led a group and settled along a swampy stretch near the Charles River. This was the humble founding of the city of Boston -a city which would become the seat of resistance to British rule over the next century. Another was the Salem settlement (Reverend John White?) However, infighting was common as migration to the new colonies increased dramatically. Different factions demanded a rule of the godly, and none could agree on what that exactly constituted. Varying recalcitrant groups broke away from the main colonies. Some settled along the valley of the Connecticut River where they founded the town of Hartford, where a “Fundamental Order” constitution was created which remarkably granted equal rights and a popular government to all the freemen of the colony. It was a glimpse of a hopeful future in America. However, upon the return of the Stuart monarchy this colony was once again brought under the heel of the crown.

By the mid 17th century there were five main colonies: Virginia, which was under the direct rule of the Crown; the pilgrim settlement at Plymouth which did not expand due to lack of funds; the highly prosperous Massachusetts Bay Colony; and its two offshoots, Connecticut and Rhode Island. In the years to come, under Charles I, George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, a roman Catholic who longed for freedom from Protestant foibles in England, was granted a patent for his son to settle a region of the New World that was dubbed “Maryland” in honor of Charles’s Queen: Henrietta Maria. The colony was under the direct rule of the Baltimore family and, though it was Roman Catholic by design, it held a mostly tolerant nature.

On the Continent, the House of Hapsburg (the Holy Roman Empire) still dominated Europe from Vienna. Their spokesmen were the well-traveled, proselytizing Jesuits who moved across the empire from Spain and Portugal to Poland. The Hapsburgs led the growing Counter-Reformation. However, there was rebellion, most notably in Bohemia where the Czech nobility rejected the centralizing orthodoxies of Vienna. In the 14th century there was John Huss, and now in the 17th century there were many rebels. In 1618, the Czech noblemen captured the Hapsburg emissaries and simply flung the imperial envoys from open windows of the Royal Palace in Prague. It became known as the “Defenestration” and it was the start of the brutal Thirty Years War that would engulf Europe (the war became the final religious war which concluded the Protestant Reformation). Frederick of Palatinate (of the Rhineland) was offered the throne of Bohemia. When he accepted he became the leader of the Protestant Revolt against the Holy Roman Empire.

Even amidst the growing clamor for war, James had his own troubles brewing in Parliament along with mounting financial debts. Yet he still tried in vain to find a compromise abroad while utterly ignoring the outcry of Parliament. He continued to pursue a relationship with Spain by executing Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618 the Westminster Palace yard to please the Spanish monarchs, but tragically it accomplished next to nothing and it further inflamed Protestant anger in England.

His largest foreign policy blunder came when he married his daughter Elizabeth to the leading German Protestant Prince, Frederick of the Palatinate (their union would eventually produce the Hanoverian dynasty). Despite their rebellion against the Hapsburgs James tried desperately to remain neutral amidst the outbreak of war.

Portrait of James I in 1621

The Death of James I
In his later years, James quietly fell into early senility in his fifties. He also suffered from chronic inflammation of his kidneys, as well as gout, arthritis, ulceration, diarrhea, fainting spells, depression, and severe kidney stones. The power of the crown was effectively passed to his son, Charles, who was infatuated with and controlled by the Duke of Buckingham. The two concocted a quixotic romantic adventure wherein they traveled together to Spain to propose marriage to the Princess of Spain (the “infanta”) but it was resoundingly rejected when they made fools of themselves at the Spanish court. Charles returned home, dejected and joined the growing clamor for war with Spain. Meanwhile, James quietly died of a stroke in his bed on March 27, 1625. Unlike his mother and son, he lay dying in bed rather kneeling on the scaffold. James is buried at Westminster Abbey beside his wife Anne.

His death was mourned by some but it was also a relief and a deliverance from unnecessary turmoil. James’s foreign policy had been an utter failure, his relations with Parliament were acrimonious, his finances were in disrepair, and the sexual scandals of his court were common knowledge. Some greeted his passing with open arms. The great accomplishments of his reign were hardly of his own doing: the late works of Shakespeare, the creation of the King James Bible, the uniting of Scotland and England, and the establishment of colonies in the New World. His failures as king, however, were many.


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Peter Ackroyd’s Rebellion: The History of England From James I To The Glorious Revolution.

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