James Charles Stuart – who became James VI and I – was King of Scotland as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the Scottish and English crowns on 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625. The kingdoms of Scotland and England were individual sovereign states, with their own parliaments, judiciaries, and laws, though both were ruled by James in personal union.
James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and a great-great-grandson of Henry VII, King of England and Lord of Ireland, positioning him to eventually accede to all three thrones. James succeeded to the Scottish throne at the age of thirteen months, after his mother was compelled to abdicate in his favour. Four different regents governed during his minority, which ended officially in 1578, though he did not gain full control of his government until 1583. In 1603, he succeeded the last Tudor monarch of England and Ireland, Elizabeth I, who died childless. He continued to reign in all three kingdoms for 22 years, a period known after him as the Jacobean era, until his death. After the Union of the Crowns, he based himself in England (the largest of the three realms) from 1603, returning to Scotland only once, in 1617, and styled himself “King of Great Britain and Ireland”. He was a major advocate of a single parliament for England and Scotland. In his reign, the Plantation of Ulster and British colonisation of the Americas began.
At 57 years and 246 days, James’s reign in Scotland was the longest of any Scottish monarch. He achieved most of his aims in Scotland but faced great difficulties in England, including the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and repeated conflicts with the English Parliament.
Born in 1566, James was the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Both Mary and Darnley were great-grandchildren of Henry VII of England through Margaret Tudor, the older sister of Henry VIII. Mary’s rule over Scotland was insecure, and she and her husband, being Roman Catholics, faced a rebellion by Protestant noblemen.
James was born on 19 June 1566 at Edinburgh Castle, and as the eldest son and heir apparent of the monarch automatically became Duke of Rothesay and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland. He was baptised “Charles James” or “James Charles” on 17 December 1566 in a Catholic ceremony held at Stirling Castle. His godparents were Charles IX of France (represented by John, Count of Brienne), Elizabeth I of England (represented by the Earl of Bedford), and Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy (represented by ambassador Philibert du Croc).
James’s father, Darnley, was murdered on 10 February 1567 at Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh. James inherited his father’s titles of Duke of Albany and Earl of Ross. Mary was already unpopular, and her marriage on 15 May 1567 to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was widely suspected of murdering Darnley, heightened widespread bad feeling towards her. In June 1567, Protestant rebels arrested Mary and imprisoned her in Loch Leven Castle; she never saw her son again. She was forced to abdicate on 24 July 1567 in favour of the infant James and to appoint her illegitimate half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray, as regent.
The care of James was entrusted to the Earl and Countess of Mar, “to be conserved, nursed, and upbrought” in the security of Stirling Castle. James was anointed King of Scots at the age of thirteen months at the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling, by Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney, on 29 July 1567. The sermon at the coronation was preached by John Knox. In accordance with the religious beliefs of most of the Scottish ruling class, James was brought up as a member of the Protestant Church of Scotland, the Kirk. The Privy Council selected George Buchanan, Peter Young, Adam Erskine (lay abbot of Cambuskenneth), and David Erskine (lay abbot of Dryburgh) as James’s preceptors or tutors. As the young king’s senior tutor, Buchanan subjected James to regular beatings but also instilled in him a lifelong passion for literature and learning. Buchanan sought to turn James into a God-fearing, Protestant king who accepted the limitations of monarchy, as outlined in his treatise De Jure Regni apud Scotos.
In 1568, Mary escaped from her imprisonment at Loch Leven Castle, leading to several years of sporadic violence. The Earl of Moray defeated Mary’s troops at the Battle of Langside, forcing her to flee to England, where she was subsequently kept in confinement by Elizabeth. On 23 January 1570, Moray was assassinated by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh. The next regent was James’s paternal grandfather Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, who was carried fatally wounded into Stirling Castle a year later after a raid by Mary’s supporters. His successor, the Earl of Mar, “took a vehement sickness” and died on 28 October 1572 at Stirling. Mar’s illness, wrote James Melville, followed a banquet at Dalkeith Palace given by James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton.
Morton was elected to Mar’s office and proved in many ways the most effective of James’s regents, but he made enemies by his rapacity. He fell from favour when Frenchman Esmé Stewart, Sieur d’Aubigny, first cousin of James’s father Lord Darnley and future Earl of Lennox, arrived in Scotland and quickly established himself as the first of James’s powerful favourites. Morton was executed on 2 June 1581, belatedly charged with complicity in Darnley’s murder. On 8 August, James made Lennox the only duke in Scotland. The king, then fifteen years old, remained under the influence of Lennox for about one more year.
Rule in Scotland
Lennox was a Protestant convert, but he was distrusted by Scottish Calvinists who noticed the physical displays of affection between him and the king and alleged that Lennox “went about to draw the King to carnal lust”. In August 1582, in what became known as the Ruthven Raid, the Protestant earls of Gowrie and Angus lured James into Ruthven Castle, imprisoned him, and forced Lennox to leave Scotland. During James’s imprisonment (19 September 1582), John Craig, whom the king had personally appointed Royal Chaplain in 1579, rebuked him so sharply from the pulpit for having issued a proclamation so offensive to the clergy “that the king wept”.
After James was liberated in June 1583, he assumed increasing control of his kingdom. He pushed through the Black Acts to assert royal authority over the Kirk, and denounced the writings of his former tutor Buchanan. Between 1584 and 1603, he established effective royal government and relative peace among the lords, ably assisted by John Maitland of Thirlestane who led the government until 1592. An eight-man commission known as the Octavians brought some control over the ruinous state of James’s finances in 1596, but it drew opposition from vested interests. It was disbanded within a year after a riot in Edinburgh, which was stoked by anti-Catholicism and led the court to withdraw to Linlithgow temporarily.
One last Scottish attempt against the king’s person occurred in August 1600, when James was apparently assaulted by Alexander Ruthven, the Earl of Gowrie’s younger brother, at Gowrie House, the seat of the Ruthvens. Ruthven was run through by James’s page John Ramsay and the Earl of Gowrie was killed in the ensuing fracas; there were few surviving witnesses. Given James’s history with the Ruthvens and the fact that he owed them a great deal of money, his account of the circumstances was not universally believed.
In 1586, James signed the Treaty of Berwick with England. That and the execution of his mother in 1587, which he denounced as a “preposterous and strange procedure”, helped clear the way for his succession south of the border. Queen Elizabeth was unmarried and childless, and James was her most likely successor. Securing the English succession became a cornerstone of his policy. During the Spanish Armada crisis of 1588, he assured Elizabeth of his support as “your natural son and compatriot of your country”.
Throughout his youth, James was praised for his chastity, since he showed little interest in women. After the loss of Lennox, he continued to prefer male company. A suitable marriage, however, was necessary to reinforce his monarchy, and the choice fell on fourteen-year-old Anne of Denmark, younger daughter of Protestant Frederick II. Shortly after a proxy marriage in Copenhagen in August 1589, Anne sailed for Scotland but was forced by storms to the coast of Norway. On hearing that the crossing had been abandoned, James sailed from Leith with a 300-strong retinue to fetch Anne personally in what historian David Harris Willson called “the one romantic episode of his life”. The couple were married formally at the Bishop’s Palace in Oslo on 23 November and returned to Scotland on 1 May 1590, after stays at Elsinore and Copenhagen and a meeting with Tycho Brahe. By all accounts, James was at first infatuated with Anne and, in the early years of their marriage, seems always to have shown her patience and affection. The royal couple produced three children who survived to adulthood: Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, who died of typhoid fever in 1612, aged 18; Elizabeth, later queen of Bohemia; and Charles, his successor. Anne died before her husband in March 1619.
James’s visit to Denmark, a country familiar with witch-hunts, sparked an interest in the study of witchcraft, which he considered a branch of theology. He attended the North Berwick witch trials, the first major persecution of witches in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act 1563. Several people were convicted of using witchcraft to send storms against James’s ship, most notably Agnes Sampson.
James became concerned with the threat posed by witches and wrote Daemonologie in 1597, a tract inspired by his personal involvement that opposed the practice of witchcraft and that provided background material for Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. James personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches.
Highlands and Islands
The forcible dissolution of the Lordship of the Isles by James IV in 1493 had led to troubled times for the western seaboard. He had subdued the organised military might of the Hebrides, but he and his immediate successors lacked the will or ability to provide an alternative form of governance. As a result, the 16th century became known as linn nan creach, the time of raids. Furthermore, the effects of the Reformation were slow to affect the Gàidhealtachd, driving a religious wedge between this area and centres of political control in the Central Belt.
In 1540, James V had toured the Hebrides, forcing the clan chiefs to accompany him. There followed a period of peace, but the clans were soon at loggerheads with one another again. During James VI’s reign, the citizens of the Hebrides were portrayed as lawless barbarians rather than being the cradle of Scottish Christianity and nationhood. Official documents describe the peoples of the Highlands as “void of the knawledge and feir of God” who were prone to “all kynd of barbarous and bestile cruelteis”. The Gaelic language, spoken fluently by James IV and probably by James V, became known in the time of James VI as “Erse” or Irish, implying that it was foreign in nature. The Scottish Parliament decided that Gaelic had become a principal cause of the Highlanders’ shortcomings and sought to abolish it.
Scottish gold coin from 1609
It was against this background that James VI authorised the “Gentleman Adventurers of Fife” to civilise the “most barbarous Isle of Lewis” in 1598. James wrote that the colonists were to act “not by agreement” with the local inhabitants, but “by extirpation of thame”. Their landing at Stornoway began well, but the colonists were driven out by local forces commanded by Murdoch and Neil MacLeod. The colonists tried again in 1605 with the same result, although a third attempt in 1607 was more successful. The Statutes of Iona were enacted in 1609, which required clan chiefs to provide support for Protestant ministers to Highland parishes; to outlaw bards; to report regularly to Edinburgh to answer for their actions; and to send their heirs to Lowland Scotland, to be educated in English-speaking Protestant schools. So began a process “specifically aimed at the extirpation of the Gaelic language, the destruction of its traditional culture and the suppression of its bearers.”
In the Northern Isles, James’s cousin Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, resisted the Statutes of Iona and was consequently imprisoned. His natural son Robert led an unsuccessful rebellion against James, and the Earl and his son were hanged. Their estates were forfeited, and the Orkney and Shetland islands were annexed to the Crown.
Accession in England
Elizabeth I was the last of Henry VIII’s descendants, and James was seen as her most likely heir through his great-grandmother Margaret Tudor, who was Henry VIII’s elder sister. From 1601, in the last years of Elizabeth’s life, certain English politicians—notably her chief minister Sir Robert Cecil—maintained a secret correspondence with James to prepare in advance for a smooth succession. With the Queen clearly dying, Cecil sent James a draft proclamation of his accession to the English throne in March 1603. Elizabeth died in the early hours of 24 March, and James was proclaimed king in London later the same day.
On 5 April, James left Edinburgh for London, promising to return every three years (a promise that he did not keep), and progressed slowly southwards. Local lords received him with lavish hospitality along the route and James was amazed by the wealth of his new land and subjects, claiming that he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed”. At Cecil’s house, Theobalds in Hertfordshire, James was so in awe that he bought it there and then, arriving in the capital on 7 May, nine days after Elizabeth’s funeral. His new subjects flocked to see him, relieved that the succession had triggered neither unrest nor invasion. On arrival at London, he was mobbed by a crowd of spectators.
His English coronation took place on 25 July, with elaborate allegories provided by dramatic poets such as Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson. An outbreak of plague restricted festivities, but “the streets seemed paved with men,” wrote Dekker. “Stalls instead of rich wares were set out with children, open casements filled up with women.”
The kingdom to which James succeeded, however, had its problems. Monopolies and taxation had engendered a widespread sense of grievance, and the costs of war in Ireland had become a heavy burden on the government.
Early reign in England
James survived two conspiracies in the first year of his reign, despite the smoothness of the succession and the warmth of his welcome: the Bye Plot and Main Plot, which led to the arrest of Lord Cobham and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. Those hoping for a change in government from James were disappointed at first when he kept Elizabeth’s Privy Councillors in office, as secretly planned with Cecil, but James soon added long-time supporter Henry Howard and his nephew Thomas Howard to the Privy Council, as well as five Scottish nobles.
In the early years of James’s reign, the day-to-day running of the government was tightly managed by the shrewd Cecil, later Earl of Salisbury, ably assisted by the experienced Thomas Egerton, whom James made Baron Ellesmere and Lord Chancellor, and by Thomas Sackville, soon Earl of Dorset, who continued as Lord Treasurer. As a consequence, James was free to concentrate on bigger issues, such as a scheme for a closer union between England and Scotland and matters of foreign policy, as well as to enjoy his leisure pursuits, particularly hunting.
James was ambitious to build on the personal union of the Crowns of Scotland and England to establish a single country under one monarch, one parliament, and one law, a plan that met opposition in both realms. “Hath He not made us all in one island,” James told the English Parliament, “compassed with one sea and of itself by nature indivisible?” In April 1604, however, the Commons refused his request to be titled “King of Great Britain” on legal grounds. In October 1604, he assumed the title “King of Great Britain” instead of “King of England” and “King of Scotland”, though Sir Francis Bacon told him that he could not use the style in “any legal proceeding, instrument or assurance” and the title was not used on English statutes. James forced the Parliament of Scotland to use it, and it was used on proclamations, coinage, letters, and treaties in both realms.
James achieved more success in foreign policy. Never having been at war with Spain, he devoted his efforts to bringing the long Anglo–Spanish War to an end, and a peace treaty was signed between the two countries in August 1604, thanks to skilled diplomacy on the part of Robert Cecil and Henry Howard, now Earl of Northampton, which James celebrated by hosting a great banquet. Freedom of worship for Catholics in England, however, continued to be a major objective of Spanish policy, causing constant dilemmas for James, distrusted abroad for repression of Catholics while at home being encouraged by the Privy Council to show even less tolerance towards them.
A dissident Catholic, Guy Fawkes, was discovered in the cellars of the parliament buildings on the night of 4–5 November 1605, the eve of the state opening of the second session of James’s first English Parliament. He was guarding a pile of wood not far from 36 barrels of gunpowder with which Fawkes intended to blow up Parliament House the following day and cause the destruction, as James put it, “not only … of my person, nor of my wife and posterity also, but of the whole body of the State in general”. The sensational discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, as it quickly became known, aroused a mood of national relief at the delivery of the king and his sons. Salisbury exploited this to extract higher subsidies from the ensuing Parliament than any but one granted to Elizabeth. Fawkes and others implicated in the unsuccessful conspiracy were executed.
King and Church
After the Gunpowder Plot, James sanctioned harsh measures to control English Catholics. In May 1606, Parliament passed the Popish Recusants Act, which could require any citizen to take an Oath of Allegiance denying the Pope’s authority over the king.
As a result of the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, a new translation and compilation of approved books of the Bible was commissioned to resolve discrepancies among different translations then being used. The Authorised King James Version, as it came to be known, was completed in 1611 and is considered a masterpiece of Jacobean prose. It is still in widespread use.
James’s sexuality is a matter of dispute. Throughout his life James had close relationships with male courtiers, which has caused debate among historians about their exact nature.
Some of James’s biographers conclude that Esmé Stewart (later Duke of Lennox), Robert Carr (later Earl of Somerset), and George Villiers (later Duke of Buckingham) were his lovers. Sir John Oglander observed that he “never yet saw any fond husband make so much or so great dalliance over his beautiful spouse as I have seen King James over his favourites, especially the Duke of Buckingham” whom the King would, recalled Sir Edward Peyton, “tumble and kiss as a mistress.” Restoration of Apethorpe Palace undertaken in 2004–08 revealed a previously unknown passage linking the bedchambers of James and Villiers.
Contemporary Huguenot poet Théophile de Viau observed that “it is well known that the king of England / fucks the Duke of Buckingham”. Buckingham himself provides evidence that he slept in the same bed as the King, writing to James many years later that he had pondered “whether you loved me now … better than at the time which I shall never forget at Farnham, where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog”.
In his later years, James suffered from a range of health issues. He died in 1625.