King James VI and I: Scotland's absent king - Scotland Magazine
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King James VI and I: Scotland’s absent king

In the final part of our series, we examine the reign of King James VI, who reigned Scotland for many years before becoming King James I of England and Ireland…

In the final part of our series, we examine the reign of King James VI, who reigned Scotland for many years before becoming King James I of England and Ireland

Words by Kirsten Henton

Once referred to as “the wisest fool in Christendom”, King James VI, and would-be I, was arguably anything but. He ruled Scotland for just shy of 58 years, the longest of any Scottish monarch, and subsequently became the first Stuart to also rule England and Ireland – a role he held for over two decades. 

Founder of the post-Reformation Jacobean era, under James VI arts and literature flourished (the translated King James Bible dates from this time), as did peace, and a shared coinage and free trade with England under the union of the crowns. 

James walked a fine line between religious and political factions, believed in the divine right of king over kirk (to his detriment) and was the target of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot – an event now woven into our national psyche. Perceptions of his ability as a ruler have fluctuated through the centuries, but there’s now more positive consensus. In truth, it’s near impossible to find a monarch under whom so much occurred that still affects life in Scotland – and Britain – to this day.

The young King James VI

king james Vi
This portrait of King James VI and I as a boy (probably aged around 8) is kept at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Credit: National Trust

James was born to an auspicious start at Edinburgh Castle on 19 June 1566. The only child of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, he was baptised Catholic in December 1566, six years after the Protestant Reformation. 

Read more about Mary, Queen of Scots here.

Following accusations of his mother’s involvement in the 1567 murder of James’s father and her forced abdication and eventual escape to England, at just
13 months old James was anointed minority king in a ceremony at the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling. His mother’s nemesis, Protestant reformer John Knox, led the sermon.

For the third consecutive time, Scotland’s new monarch was a minor. The regency was initially headed by Mary’s half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray, while the young King James was placed under the tutelage of the Privy Council and moulded into a God-fearing, literature-loving Protestant king.

In true regency-government form, upheaval was brewing. In 1570, Moray was assassinated and numerous successive regents came to sticky ends before James was proclaimed king in his own right at the age of 15 on 19 October 1579. 

However, he remained seemingly spell-bound by Esmé Stewart, Seigneur d’Aubigny – later Earl of Lennox. Although claiming to have converted to Protestantism, Frenchman Lennox, with his pro-Catholic leanings, stoked distrust among Scotland’s Presbyterian nobility. 

This led to the 1582 Ruthven Raid during which James was kidnapped and imprisoned by nobles and forced to renounce Lennox, with the latter ushered out of Scotland. James eventually escaped in 1583 and took full control of Scotland.

The adult King James VI

Anne of Denmark, Queen Consort of King James VI and I. Credit: GL Archive / Alamy

One of James’s first moves as a newly free king was to push through the Black Acts of 1584, essentially decreeing that the king was all powerful, even over religion, something he later opined on in his tome, The True Law of Free Monarchies. Timothy Venning writes in The Kings & Queens of Scotland, that the acts helped with “restoring discipline and ending the threat of political defiance of the monarchy.”  

He continues that despite this, “struggles for influence on the impulsive, secretive and justifiably nervy young king continued,” notably from Catholic nobles’ ongoing attempts to restore Mary to the throne. 

The long shadow cast by his mother, whom he had not seen since he was a baby and refused to assist (unsurprising, given that he was, in Venning’s words, taught to hate her “as a Catholic adulteress who had murdered his father”), diminished with her execution at Fotheringhay Castle in England in 1587. 

In 1589, James married 14-year-old Princess Anne of Denmark. Initially happy, James and Anne had five children, three of whom survived into adulthood. In time, rumours circulated about James and his male courtiers, especially after he moved to London.

Viewers of the recent mini-series Mary & George should, however, dispel the notion that James was as openly homosexual as is portrayed. Speaking on the podcast Betwixt the Sheets, Dr Anthony Delaney said, “Intimacy, male touch and male love were certainly part of the culture in the Jacobean court.” He continued, although they were “not flouting it as flagrantly” as the series suggests, “eyebrows [were] being raised at the time.” 

george villiers
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was rumoured to be a lover of the king. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

Debate rages over whether James was intimately involved with his male favourites, including Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and George Villiers, or merely very affectionate. As Delaney states: “Sometimes the obvious thing is the answer.” 

Union of the Crowns 1603

Ruling for 45 years, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland was the last of the Tudors. Just before her death at the age of 69, she indicated her wish that King James VI of Scotland should take her throne. James was duly proclaimed king in London on 24 March 1603, the same day Elizabeth died. The transition proved uncharacteristically smooth and popular. 

On 5 April 1603, James left Scotland for London promising to return every three years. His journey south was a pleasant one, welcomed by his people and hosted by lords along the route; he soon stated that he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed.” 

James was crowned King of England and Ireland at Westminster Abbey on 25 July 1603. For James, he’d achieved his ambition and in the south, there was no immediate change in life at court or in the streets. However, according to The New Penguin History of Scotland, “For Scotland the world would never be the same again.”

king james VI
1st Earl of Lennox, was another of the king’s favourites. Credit: Mil image / Alamy

King James VI and I

Life in London was very different to the one James had left in Edinburgh, which is perhaps why James broke his departing promise; court was more lavish and eclectic, not to mention considerably larger.

James’s ability to effectively rule from afar and manage the union have long been criticised, but Dr Karin Bowie, Professor of Early Modern Scottish History at the University of Glasgow, says, “More recent work takes a much more positive view with consideration of James’s track record in Scotland and,” she continues, “after 1603, his management of the very real challenges of being the first king of the British composite monarchy and the complex religious and political context of European diplomacy at the time.

“An absent king did not make for a kingless kingdom but it certainly left a vacuum,” says The New Penguin History of Scotland. However, Dr Bowie also says: “James pursued stability through closer union in the British monarchy, but he underestimated the extent of resistance he would face in Scotland…he polarised Scotland into those willing to obey the king and those unwilling to obey for reasons of conscience.”

King James VI returns to Scotland

This posthumous portrait of King James I and VI by Jacob de Wet, painted between 1684 and 1686 is on display at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Credit: Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Fourteen years passed before James set foot in Scotland again, returning for three months in 1617. There were plausible practical reasons for this; moving the king’s court was a logistical headache. Dr Steven Reid, Professor of Early Modern Scottish History and Culture at the University of Glasgow, says: “the journey was very hard, not to mention riddled with security issues.” 

So what prompted his eventual return? One of his prevailing aims was to make this fledgling union easier to govern, so when he trotted back into Edinburgh it was in part to present a proposal, the Five Articles of Perth, to the General Assembly. He believed he could unite the nations by aligning Scottish and English worship practices, but he underestimated the resistance in Scotland. 

As Bowie states, “Both were Protestant churches, but the Scottish church had a stricter Reformation. James proposed to reinstate practices abolished at the Reformation, including the celebration of Holy days [outwith Sundays], private baptism and kneeling to take the sacrament at communion.” These articles were forced into law in 1621 despite being wildly unpopular.

James also used his time to travel around Central and Lowland Scotland where, according to Reid, he was “received with banquets, speeches and poems.” That was to be James’s final foray into his homeland.  

King James VI and I’s legacy

James died on 27 March 1625, aged 58. He left a fractious union and a Scottish church divided, both of which would plague his son and heir, Charles I. In Scotland, James was arguably most successful as its sole ruler. Reid states, “James was the most learned and literate king of his age… he knew how to deal with difficult pressure groups like the kirk and overly aggressive nobility.”

Reid continues, “He created a more centralised government in Scotland and quelled noble violence across the country,” although, as he says, “arguably the religious settlement he developed for Scotland after 1603 helped pave the way for the civil war of the later 1630s.”

What we do know is that Scotland remains (currently) within the union, and this is in no small part due to the colourful character of King James VI and I.

Read more in the July/August 2024 issue. Available to buy from Friday 14 June here. 

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