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Issue 38 - A serious and thoughtful monarch

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Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


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A serious and thoughtful monarch

James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots was the first monarch to rule both Scotland and England. And he didn't do a bad job. James Irvine Robertson reports.

The Queen was dead. Next in line as sovereign was a remote cousin, James, king of a nation with which she and her predecessors had been at war for centuries; conflicts still grumbled on either side of the Border. Her father had sacked the enemy Capital and killed in the region of 20,000 and more.

She had executed her heir’s mother. Her people held their rivals in contempt. They were barbarians living in a poverty-stricken, cold, infertile backwater and they seemed to be licking their lips in anticipation of rich pickings when their monarch succeeded to the rival throne. Queen Elizabeth had once described her successor as ‘That false Scotch urchin.’ What is more, he did not seem to be taking his future responsibilities seriously. He had refused support in 1588 when the Spanish Armada tried to invade England, and was now dabbling in diplomacy with the Pope and with Spain, allegedly hinting that he might convert to the Catholic faith of his mother and, second only to her peoples’ hatred of the new King’s nation, was hatred and distrust of Catholicism.

Anxious to avoid what would otherwise be a catastrophic succession crisis, the English Privy Council invited King James of Scotland to London. He accepted and asked them to give ‘thanks to God for the blessing about to come among them.’ They were unhappy.

King James did not hurry south, instead delaying his departure to ensure affairs in Scotland were left in order. There was an immediate clash of styles. James believed in getting things done. For the English it was more important to get things done in the right way.

Financed by the Scottish goldsmith George Heriot, the new monarch progressed south during April and May of 1603, scattering knighthoods to all and sundry, with a great entourage of joyful fellow countrymen. The cheering crowds that watched his progress seemed to regard the procession as a comic spectacle. The King himself, with his weak legs, shambling walk, slobbering tongue, his penchant for beautiful young men and a horror of bloodshed, seemed a freak. Rex fuit Elizabeth: nunc est regina Jacobus ran a contemporary aphorism – ‘Elizabeth was King: now James is Queen.’ The auguries for the new reign were not good.

But this ignored the personality of James himself. He was 37 years old and had been King of Scots since his coronation at the age of 13 months when his mother, Queen Mary, was deposed. Surrounded by ambitious and ruthless nobles who were continually conspiring to attain power, he had survived both kidnap and assassination plots.

Throughout all the troubles of his reign, he had succeeded in securing his authority.

James VI of Scotland and I of England was a consummate politician, playing factions against each other and only committing himself, often ruthlessly, when he had no choice. He had promoted talent and reduced the nobility to order. He had even managed to impose his authority on the fractious and aggressively independent Presbyterian Church, largely through reserving for himself the power to summon the General Assembly. When attacked in a ferocious sermon by Robert Gibson in 1585, he cheerfully responded ‘I will not give a turdfor thy preaching.’ In an intolerant age he could say: ‘I will never allow in my conscience that the blood of any man shall be shed for the diversity of opinion in religion.’ And when the Bishop of the Isles complained of the activity of Jesuits in the western Highlands, he had replied: ‘if anyone could civilise the Highlanders, even if they were papists, they are welcome to get on with it.’ His pragmatism is illustrated by his advice to his eldest son Prince Henry. He told him that in battle he should wear light armour to facilitate ‘away-running.’ King James was the most intelligent and most cultivated of anyone who occupied the throne – before or since. He was a poet of considerable merit; a scholar of note, and an enthusiastic patron of the arts. It could be said that through his patronage of the Authorised (or King James) Version of the Bible, his contribution to English-speaking culture is second only to that of Shakespeare.

Indeed, within a month of his arrival in London, he had formed the King’s Men, a company of actors with William Shakespeare second on the list, whom he gave a position in his household as a groom of the bedchamber. Macbeth was written in the new King’s honour.

James VI and I’s reign in England had a shaky start. He believed in the Divine Right of Kings, and could thus do whatever he wanted. He made it clear that he was an experienced monarch, and did not require instruction from the English ruling classes.

They were appalled by his decision to style himself King of Great Britain which they saw as subordinating England into a union with their northern neighbour and refused to accept his vision of ‘one king, one law, one people,’ although he did manage to push through the Union Flag in place of the St George’s Cross, and to establish free trade across the Border. James, moreover, employed none but Scots as his most intimate advisers and companions, and he appointed the son of his first great love, Ludovic Stuart, 2nd Duke of Lennox, to the Privy Council and made him ambassador to Paris.

But James’s political antennae kicked in.

He soon tempered his style, soothing his English opponents and stayed within the limits of what was practicable. In Scotland he had sat in parliament and participated in debates. This was not possible in London, nor would it have been welcomed, and he found this deeply frustrating. He was aware of the resentment of the English to his fellow countrymen and added 13 new councillors, more than doubling the size of Elizabeth’s Council, to make it more representative and only five of its members were Scots. He agreed to add no more of them to the Government.

By the time of his death in 1625, the Union of the Crowns that had seemed so unnatural in 1603, was unquestioned. The tragedy was that his successors failed to build on the foundations that he established.