Key Facts & Summary
- James Stuart ascended to the thrones of Scotland and England with the names of James VI of Scotland and James I of England.
- He was born in Edinburgh on June 19, 1566, and died in London on March 27, 1625.
- He was the first king to reign over Scotland, England, Ireland, and the British islands.
- He reigned in Scotland from when he was one year old until his death. Several regents took charge of the reign until he was old enough (until 1578). However, he took full control of his government in 1581.
- On March 24, 1603, he succeeded Elizabeth I, the last representative of the Tudor dynasty, who died without children.
- James was a popular monarch in Scotland but he faced many difficulties in England: he was, above all, incapable of dealing with Parliament, which immediately presented itself as hostile to him.
- His political absolutism, his irresponsibility in the kingdom’s management of finances, and his unpopular favouritism exacerbated the tension between the monarchy and Parliament.
- During his reign, the extraordinary cultural flourishing of the Elizabethan Age continued in literature, the arts and the sciences (historians refer to it as the Jacobite Age to distinguish it from the Elizabethan Age).
- James himself was a talented scholar, author of works on the occult arts, as well as a promoter of the most important English translation of the Bible, known as the King James Bible, still the only official version of the Holy Scriptures of the Anglican Church.
When James I was born, the situation in Scotland was not tranquil. Mary Stuart and her husband (whose authority was precarious) were both Catholic and faced discontent and rebellions from Scottish nobles, mostly Calvinists. Moreover, the marriage of the royal couple itself was full of difficulties, both politically and privately. While Mary was pregnant, Henry allied with rebels and gave the order to assassinate David Rizzio, the queen’s personal secretary and close friend.
James was born into this climate on June 19, 1566, in Edinburgh Castle and, as a firstborn son, he automatically became Duke of Rothesay, Prince, and Grand Lieutenant of Scotland. He was baptised in a Catholic ceremony and received the name of Charles James. Elizabeth I, as godmother in absentia, sent a significant amount of gold to Edinburgh as a gift for the newborn’s baptism.
When James was only eight months old, Henry, his father, was assassinated at Kirk o‘ Field on February 10, 1567, likely over the death of David Rizzio. After the death of her husband, Mary married for a third time with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who was suspected of being the architect of Lord Darnley’s assassination. This made the queen even more unpopular. In June 1567, Protestant rebels arrested Mary and imprisoned her in the castle of Loch Leven. Here, the queen was forced to abdicate the throne on June 24 in favour of her son James, who was only a year old. His uncle, James Stuart, count of Moray, ruled in his stead and became regent of the kingdom.
James was formally crowned king in the Church of the Holy Rude, in Stirling, on July 29, 1567.
Following the religious faith of the majority of the Scottish ruling class, he was educated as a member of the Church of Scotland. During his early years, power was held by a series of regents, the first of which was James Stuart, Count of Moray, and Mary’s illegitimate brother. He escaped from prison in 1568, beginning a brief period of violence. The Count of Moray defeated Mary’s troops at the Battle of Langside, forcing the queen to flee to England where she was imprisoned (and subsequently, executed) by Elizabeth.
James Stuart was assassinated by one of Mary’s supporters in 1570 and was succeeded by James’ paternal grandfather, Matthew Steward, 4th Earl of Lennox, who was assassinated the following year. The king’s third regent, John Erskine, 1st Earl of Mar, was also assassinated. Finally, the regency passed to James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, who during the two previous regencies had been the most powerful Scottish nobleman (even more powerful than the regents themselves). The historian and poet George Buchanan was responsible for James’ education.
Lord Morton succeeded in defeating the families that continued to support Mary. However, Morton’s fall was not caused by the queen’s supporters but by the courtiers that were close to the king. In fact, they made the young king aware of his regent’s power and encouraged him to reclaim his authority and sovereignty. The courtiers accused Morton of being involved in the assassination of James’ father: he was tried, sentenced, and executed in 1581. From that moment onwards, the power, at least in theory, was held by the king himself rather than by a regent.
Nonetheless, James VI of Scotland did not reign directly: he relied on the advice of his closest courtiers, such as his cousin Esmé Steward, Duke of Lennox, and James Stuart, who received the title of Earl of Arran for his testimony against Morton. Since Lennox was Catholic, and Arran favoured episcopalism, the Scottish Presbyterian lords did not like the government. During the Ruthven Raid of 1582, some Presbyterian nobles, led by William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, captured James and held him captive for almost a year in Ruthven Castle (now known as Huntingtower Castle), in Perthshire. Arran was also held captive while Lennox was forced into exile in France. In 1583, the king and Arran managed to escape: Gowrie was executed whilst the rebels were forced to flee to England. The Scottish Parliament, which was loyal to the king, promulgated the Black Acts, which placed the Church of Scotland under the king’s control. The acts were extremely popular but the clergy was opposed to them and denounced the king. In fact, the church was trying to keep James’ influence under control before he became powerful and bold enough to attack Presbyterianism.
Succession to the English throne
In 1586, thanks to the Treaty of Berwick, James VI and Elizabeth I became allies. James decided to continue to support the virgin queen of England, since, as a descendant of Margaret Tudor, he was a potential successor to her crown. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, feared that the English crown would fall under the sovereignty of the Stuarts. To prevent this, he excluded Margaret and her descendants from the line of succession in his will. Nonetheless, since they were Elizabeth’s closest relatives, both Mary and James were both serious contenders for the Crown of England.
Following Mary’s execution for her involvement in a plot against Elizabeth, James became the queen of England’s heir.
After her execution, the Scottish supporters of Mary became weak and James could act to reduce the influence of Catholic nobles in Scotland. He became even more pleasing to the Protestants by marrying Anne of Denmark, daughter of Frederick II of Denmark and the princess of a Protestant nation. The marriage was celebrated by proxy in 1589 and in 1590 in person, when James visited Denmark.
When he returned home, he attended the North Berwick witch trial, in which some people were convicted of using witchcraft in an attempt to cause a storm and wreck the ship that the king and queen were travelling on. Witches and witchcraft worried James and he even wrote a treatise on demonology. As a result, hundreds of women were sentenced to death for witchcraft.
Initially, James and Anne of Denmark were very close but the two gradually became estranged. The couple had eight children and three survived infancy. The two separated after the death of their daughter Sofia.
In 1588, James faced a Catholic rebellion and was forced to reconcile with the Church of Scotland, agreeing to abolish the Black Acts in 1592. Fearing that he would provoke excessive hostility of English and rebel Catholics, James reconciled with his opponents (causing ire with the Protestants). In 1600, James faced a conspiracy headed by John Ruthven, 3rd Count of Gowrie (son of the Count executed in 1584), who was executed along with his accomplices after the failure of the conspiracy. Thereafter, Protestant nobles restrained themselves before the king.
After the death of Elizabeth I, the crown should have passed to Lady Anne Stanley, according to Henry VIII’s will. However, James was the only suitor powerful enough to defend his claim to the throne. In fact, since 1601, the most influential politicians of the English court had contacted James to prepare him for his ascent. In 1601, he was initiated by John Mylne into Freemasonry in the lodge of Scone and Perthe; and in 1603, a few hours after Elizabeth’s death, a succession council proclaimed James the King of England and Ireland. He was crowned on 25 July in Westminster Abbey. However, Scotland and England did not become a single kingdom (which happened with the Act of Union of 1707).
James I’s government
James’ chief advisor was Robert Cecil (the younger son of Elizabeth I’s favourite minister Cecil I, Baron Burghley), who became Earl of Salisbury in 1605. James loved extravagant expenses: only Cecil’s skill prevented financial disaster. The king also created new titles of nobility to reward his courtiers: in total, there were sixty-two compared to fifty in the reign of Elizabeth I. James also became embroiled in a series of conflicts with Parliament. Before succeeding to the throne, he had written The True Law of Free Monarchies in which he argued that the divine right of kings was sanctioned by apostolic succession. Accustomed to the reserved Scottish Parliament, James did not like working with the aggressive English Parliament. In both Scotland and England, his mother had always considered herself the absolute monarch: she believed that her actions could only be judged by God and that she was not obliged to consult with anyone. James adopted the same attitude until his death.
By signing the Treaty of London in 1604, James sought to put an end to the British involvement in the eight-year war. Moreover, he was almost immediately confronted with the religious conflicts of England: after his ascension to the throne, a petition was presented asking to tolerate the Puritans. In 1604, during the Hampton Court conference, James decided not to tolerate them. Instead, he granted them an official translation of the Bible, known as the King James Bible. He also extended penalties against witches with the Witchcraft Act.
James also provoked the Catholics’ anger. Although he was fair to Catholics, his Protestant subjects made sure that Catholics were not granted equal rights. Thus, in the first years of his reign, when his subjects ignored his tolerance policies towards Catholicism, there were several plots to remove him from power, the most famous of which was the Conspiracy of Powders of 1605. The Catholic conspirators, led by Robert Catesby, planned an explosion in the House of Lords at a time when the king and the members of both Houses would be present. James’ daughter, Elizabeth, whom they hoped could be converted to Catholicism, would then be placed on the throne as an absolute monarch. However, the conspiracy was discovered. Yet, James’ international policy, which continued to repress Catholics mercilessly, guaranteed the end of the plots.
[1.] Croft, P. (2003). King James. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
[2.] Goodare, J. (2009). The debts of James VI of Scotland. The Economic History Review. 62 (4). Pp.926-952.
[3.] Wormald, J. (2011). James VI and I (1566-1625). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.