Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587. English observers, anxious about James VI of Scotland’s reaction to his mother’s execution, were alarmed to discover that the greatest of the Scottish Catholic peers, George Gordon, Sixth Earl of Huntly, was rapidly becoming his chief confidant. In 1588 James arranged Huntly’s marriage to Henrietta Stuart, daughter of his former favourite the Duke of Lennox, thus admitting him into the wider royal family. In the following decade, Huntly’s various escapades – the murder of the Earl of Moray; the ‘Spanish Blanks’ affair, an offer by Scottish Catholics to facilitate a Spanish invasion of England – caused James major political difficulties, but the King remained loyal to him. On the eve of his death in 1625, James recommended Huntly to his son Charles as ‘the most faithful servant that ever served a prince’.
The summer of 1587 also saw the visit to Scotland of Guillaume de Salluste, seigneur du Bartas, courtier of Henry, King of Navarre, and the leading exponent of Calvinist poetics. James had admired du Bartas’s poetry for several years and it strongly influenced his own verse. The visit was at his invitation, though it was also used by Navarre to advance James’s marriage to his sister, Catherine de Bourbon. Du Bartas returned to France in the autumn greatly impressed by James’s commitment to Calvinism – ‘he agrees with us not only in doctrine but also in discipline and ceremonies’ – and convinced that he would make an excellent husband for the Princess.
Which was the real James? The enigma has many aspects. At the end of the 1590s James published his celebrated treatises on kingship, The True Lawe of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599), in which he made the case for divine-right monarchy in uncompromising fashion. Yet these were also the years in which he defaulted on his main domestic creditor and bankrupted the Scottish Crown. He was now dependent for petty cash on his annual ‘gratuity’ from Elizabeth I, and his future was effectively mortgaged on his succession to the English throne.
James notoriously showed no interest in martial matters of any kind, with the exception of the few brief and almost bloodless campaigns against rebels in Scotland between 1589 and 1594. He preferred the role of Rex Pacificus, European peacemaker, which he adopted after 1603. In recent years his bookish pacificism has been treated with sympathy; at the time there were insinuations of physical cowardice. Yet the scholar prince was also a man who from boyhood was addicted to hunting: both in Scotland and in England this was how he preferred to spend his time, and he bitterly resented being dragged away from the chase to attend to more serious business. His favourite sport was pursuing deer on horseback, ‘with running hounds, which is the most honorable and most noblest sort thereof’, as he described it in Basilikon Doron. It was also particularly dangerous, but though he was a poor horseman, who fell off regularly, he was not deterred by the risk of injury or death.
The 1603 union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in itself makes James one of the most important British monarchs, but the multiple enigmas of his life have also made him one of the most difficult to assess. De facto King of Scots when his mother abdicated a month after his first birthday in 1567, and dying several months short of his 59th birthday, he reigned effectively for 57 years. The regal union was unusual in that it was not the direct product of a marriage between heirs, but involved the succession of a King then aged 37 to a virgin Queen who had reigned for almost half a century. There were also constitutional barriers to be overcome – the statute of 1351 against alien inheritances and the will of Henry VIII, which passed over the House of Stuart. So far as James was concerned, their irrelevance was a reflection of his indefeasible right of inheritance that no earthly power could abridge (this was the real subject of the True Lawe of Free Monarchies). On the political level, there were a number of explanations for James’s peaceful accession: Elizabeth’s refusal, despite her own distrust of James, to countenance any domestic challenge to the Stuart succession; the weakness of the domestic claimants; the threat posed by James’s main foreign rival, Philip II’s daughter the Infanta Clara Eugenia; and, last but not least, the new shared British identity that Protestantism had created.
Yet for all the smoothness of the union of the Crowns, it was little more than a decade after James’s death that the events which led to the Civil War began to unfold. As a result, James’s responsibility for the collapse of the monarchy has become the most debated aspect of his British reign. The classic approach – in recent years dubbed ‘Whig’ – has been that the high road to Civil War started in 1603. A deeply flawed man, and heir to an absolutist tradition of monarchy, James was unable to operate within the sophisticated English Parliamentary system. The fact that serious unrest occurred only after his death, however, has inspired the recent counter-argument that he actually possessed a secret to governing, especially where ecclesiastical matters were concerned, that Charles I lacked. By continuing the largely Calvinist episcopate he inherited from Elizabeth, James was able to marginalise Puritan discontent. Charles I’s abandoning of his father’s consensual approach was an error of disastrous proportions.
There are further variants. The revisionism of the 1980s questioned the traditional contrast between Elizabeth’s fiscal prudence and James’s prodigality, claiming that the English financial system was so run down by 1603 that, in the absence of major reform, the virtues and vices of individual monarchs made little difference. It has also been argued that whatever happened in England, James was a very successful King of Scots – this is the theme of The Reign of James VI (2000), a collection of essays edited by Julian Goodare and Michael Lynch. The most radical suggestion has been made by Jenny Wormald, who regards James’s reign overall as a ‘triumphant success’, and any problems after 1603 as a consequence of English xenophobia and the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War.
Given the difficulties James poses it isn’t surprising that only a few biographies have been published. The basic narrative of his reigns was established by two 19th-century historians: Patrick Fraser Tytler for the Scottish and Samuel Rawson Gardiner for the English. Both were sections of works of larger compass – History of Scotland from the Accession of Alexander III to the Union and History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1602-42 – but even so they were the first studies which relied on serious archival exploration. In 1956 the American Parliamentary historian D.H. Willson published a Life that gained scholarly respect at the time and which, as Goodare and Lynch rather regretfully admit, has not yet been superseded, despite numerous subsequent studies.
Alan Stewart is a lively writer, but heavily (and uncritically) reliant on the established published sources and liable to turn reported into direct speech to keep the narrative flowing. His bibliography is impressive, but appears to have been only partially used. He also makes a substantial number of errors, some quite serious. We are told that the trial in 1568 of James’s mother was presided over by a commission ‘headed by the Bishop of Ross’, who was in fact Mary’s representative. The ‘Castalian band’, the title given thirty years ago to the Scottish Court poets of the 1580s, appears as the ‘Castilian band’. (The name derives from a reference to ‘Castalia’s fountaine cleare’ in a sonnet James wrote in the 1590s.) We are told that the Earl of Essex had been ‘ordered out of Ireland by the Queen’ in 1599, something which, if true, would constitute a revolution in Elizabethan historiography. The English Parliamentary subsidy is described as a ‘one-off tax on the propertied classes’.
Even Stewart’s title is not original – Jenny Wormald used it for the essay she published in the Goodare and Lynch collection. The line ‘Tis true I am a cradle king’ appears in a blank verse poem James wrote late in life (about 1622-23) in answer to a hostile libel, ‘The Commons’ Tears’, that no one has yet been able to trace. What it means is anybody’s guess. The context suggests it was coined by the libeller, with James answering ‘Yet do remember every thing/That I have heretofore put out/And yet begin not for to doubt’. Wormald detects ‘a profound note of bitterness’ in the line, as James contemplated the destruction of his achievements by his son and the Duke of Buckingham. Stewart reads it as ‘a rare hint of self-knowledge’ in which the King recognised that he remained ‘an infant, an innocent for whom the harsh realities of kingship are still unimaginable’.
Stewart makes the interesting observation that ‘James was strangely aloof from many of the phenomena that we now see as peculiarly Jacobean,’ which is surely worth more than the shortish paragraph devoted to it. Other important aspects of James’s character receive equally cursory treatment, not least his complex sexuality. His marriage to Anne of Denmark produced seven children, though only three lived beyond infancy. Stewart’s portrait of Anne is the traditional one: a marginal figure, immature and self-indulgent. However, a new and more substantial Anne is beginning to emerge, thanks to the work of Leeds Barroll and Maureen Meikle. Her discreet conversion to Catholicism in the years before 1603, for example, was the basis of the Anglo-Spanish marriage diplomacy that dominated James’s English reign. Stewart accepts James’s homosexuality as given, but writes as though it did not become open until the appearance of Robert Kerr in 1607. Twenty years ago Roger Lockyer initiated a serious reappraisal of the homosexual ambience at James’s Court in his biography of Buckingham. One would have expected a fuller discussion of this important subject from the author of Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England. On the other hand, James’s addiction to hunting figures prominently, as does his alcoholism. There is a theory that he developed his taste for the bottle during a visit to the hard-drinking Danish Court in 1589-90, but his drinking was more commented on after 1603. This may reflect a cultural clash – Elizabeth I set an abstemious standard for her Court – but James may also have come to rely on drink more heavily in middle age.
The almost insurmountable obstacle for anyone seeking to rehabilitate James is his spendthrift behaviour, a subject that Stewart passes over lightly. James’s attitude towards money was the same throughout his life, and Goodare and Lynch make an excellent point when, commenting on the peace and prosperity Scotland enjoyed after James left for England in 1603, they suggest that ‘the new-found fiscal stability was more important than “absentee kingship”,’ because ‘the cost of the Court had been removed from the Scottish Treasury.’ In other words, after 1603 the English taxpayer picked up the bill.
Stewart’s James is a lonely, precocious little boy who grew up into a sad alcoholic. This does not do justice to his subject. What is striking about James’s life is the consistency of his behaviour, and the Scottish precedents of some of the more bizarre episodes of his British reign. By blowing up the Palace of Westminster in 1605, the Gunpowder Plotters intended to destroy the Protestant elite as well as the King, but their choice of means was an odd reminder of the explosion in which his father died in 1567. James’s adventurous decision to sail to Norway to marry his queen in 1589 may have been the ultimate inspiration for Charles’s celebrated journey to Madrid in 1623 to marry the Infanta Maria. James’s abandoning of his mother in 1584-87 was echoed by his abandoning of his son-in-law, the Winter King of Bohemia, in 1618-20.
James wasn’t the mere victim of circumstance Stewart portrays. His single most discreditable act as King of England occurred in 1613. To obtain an annulment for Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, so that she could marry her lover, Robert Kerr, James browbeat the Archbishop of Canterbury and flagrantly rigged the highest ecclesiastical court in the country. This, too, had a Scottish precedent. When he reached his nominal majority in Scotland at the age of 12 in 1578, one of his first acts was to revoke a grant of 1571 that made his cousin Arbella Stewart heiress to the Earldom of Lennox. To ensure her exclusion he then enfeoffed his elderly great-uncle Robert Stewart, Bishop of Caithness, as Earl of Lennox. Six months later he encouraged the former bishop to marry in the hope of engendering an heir. Six months further on another claimant to the earldom, Esmé Stuart, sieur d’Aubigny, arrived from France. In March 1580 James revoked the Bishop’s enfeoffment and granted the Earldom to Aubigny. Only 14 months later, however, the Bishop’s wife was granted an annulment on grounds of impotence, so that she could marry her lover, the rising Captain James Stewart, future Earl of Arran. These long-forgotten scandals lie at the heart of Stuart absolutism. For all the learned debates on constitutional theory, what absolutism amounted to in practice was the King’s willingness to bend, break or manipulate the law to obtain what he wanted. All too frequently what James wanted was very tacky indeed.