James VI and I was a hugely significant Stewart king, but has been overshadowed by his notorious relations: his predecessor in Scotland, his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots; in England, his cousin, Elizabeth I; and his successor in both kingdoms, Charles I.
James VI and I was a hugely significant Stewart king, but has been overshadowed by his notorious relations: his predecessor in Scotland, his mother, Mary Queen of Scots; in England, his cousin, Elizabeth I; and his successor in both kingdoms, Charles I.
Born in 1566, he was the product of Mary’s ill-fated marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley. Darnley’s assassination in early 1567, and Mary’s subsequent over-hasty marriage to one of its perpetrators, Lord Bothwell, triggered events that led to Mary’s downfall.
James VI became king of Scotland in 1567 when Mary was forced to abdicate. On the death of Elizabeth in 1603, he became James I of England. He is thus known as James VI and I.
In 1590 he married Anna, the sister of the Danish king, Christian IV. They had numerous children, three of whom survived infancy: Henry, who died after a short illness in 1612, Charles who was to succeed James, and Elizabeth, who married Frederick, elector of Palatine, and the swiftly deposed King of Bohemia. Romantically she has become known as the Winter Queen.
Unlike his mother or his son Charles, James died of natural causes in his own bed in 1625.
James was one of the most long-standing monarchs of Scotland, king for 58 years from the age of one. Of the Scottish monarchs before the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707, only William the Lion (1165–1214) comes close in longevity.
But he is notable not just for the length of his reign, but for the amount that he managed to achieve within it.
Of these achievements, perhaps the most significant of all was his careful management of his peaceful succession to the English throne in 1603. In doing so, he brought the ‘auld enemies’, the kingdoms of Scotland and England, together under the kingship of one monarch. This dynastic or regnal union became known as the ‘Union of the Crowns’, which included that of Ireland too. In 1604, James proclaimed himself King of Great Britain. So James’s reign produced the first Anglo-Scottish union (though this was not full political union) which helped to form the background to the formal union of 1707.
In 1567, at the age of one, James was placed in Stirling Castle for his care and safety. Following a visit to see him, Mary was ‘abducted’ by James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell (whether or not she was a willing participant is unknown) and forced into marriage to him. This visit proved to be the last time James ever saw his mother.
Over the next twenty years they had a difficult relationship – hampered by the physical distance between them, the problems of communication by letter or word of mouth, and dependent on who had custody of the young king – and most importantly, tensions over Mary’s attempts to regain her Scottish throne during her English captivity. Mary’s return would have compromised James’s own kingship. Famously, James did little other than protest to Elizabeth over Mary’s execution in 1587.
James ordered a splendid tomb to be made for Mary in Westminster Abbey when he became king of England. Mary’s marble tomb with its elaborate canopy outshines the one he created for his predecessor on the English throne, Elizabeth I. In death you could say that Mary triumphed over the queen that had signed her death warrant, and in memorialising Mary in such a way, James perhaps assuaged any guilt he may have felt. Given her claim to the English throne (as a great-granddaughter of Henry VII), Mary would have thought it fitting to be laid to rest alongside other English monarchs.
Plaster cast of the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots.
As an infant, James had councillors ruling in his name, but he took up his personal reign in his mid-teens, in the early 1580s. His childhood was spent at Stirling castle in the care of Annabella, Countess of Mar, whose son became a lifelong friend of the king. He was tutored by the stern Presbyterian and humanist George Buchanan.
James was a clever boy, very well educated, who learnt the art of argument early. In 1579, aged, 12, he made a formal entry as king into Edinburgh. But in the years following he suffered from political and religious factionalism at court, and in 1582 was abducted in the Ruthven Raid by several nobles, including the earl of Gowrie, who wanted to ensure a Presbyterian-inclined government of Scotland.
By 1585, however, James was old enough to begin to impose his own will on the feuding factions.
James had strong views on the rights of kings. His tutor Buchanan’s book De Jure Regni had called for a contractual monarchy in which kings can be held to account for their actions. This was an attempt to legitimise the overthrow of James’s mother Mary. James was subsequently to publish a rebuttal, The True Law of Free Monarchies, which set out an opposing opinion on the duties of the subject to the king, and vice versa. He saw himself as one of God’s lieutenants on earth, and thus his power was the result of divine will, and not to be argued with.
James was also renowned for having favourites at court. Because these men exerted significant power they stimulated resentment amongst those less favoured.
These close relationships have led to speculation that James was gay, although it would be difficult to prove this conclusively.
The Protestant Reformation in Scotland created a more Calvinist version of Protestantism, known in Scotland as Presbyterianism, in which all participants were said to be equal. James’s relationship with the kirk was somewhat fractious. Although he was a committed Protestant, he believed in a less extreme, Episcopalian version of Protestantism, in which the king was the head of the church, and ruled it through bishops. His idea of the church’s role more closely resembled that of the English Anglican church. An infamous incident occurred in 1596 when a Presbyterian minister, Andrew Melville, shook the king by the sleeve calling him but ‘God’s silly vassal’ in the religious sphere.
James’s ecclesiastical legacy endures in the King James Bible of 1611, which he commissioned.
In 1590, James married Anna, the sister of the Danish king, Christian IV. After a rough crossing of the North Sea, she received a grand formal entry into Edinburgh. She was a powerful figure in her own right, and maintained good relations for Scotland with the rich Protestant Danish king.
In 1590, as James was attempting to bring home his new Danish wife Anna, a storm blew his ship off-course near the coast of East Lothian. Subsequently, several alleged witches from North Berwick were arrested, tortured and executed, a process in which James took an active part. For a time, he was obsessed with uncovering witches, and in 1597 published a tract on them, Daemonologie.
James was determined to assert his power as king, and to crack down on the ancient custom of bloodfeud. These violent disputes between families, and their large armed retinues, were often very long-running. Bloodfeud was seen as especially prevalent in the Borders (though it happened throughout Scotland), and James was to target the feud there. This was also part of his suppression of violence and cross-border raiding in the late 1590s, when it looked likely that he would succeed Elizabeth on the English throne.
The most famous of the Borders’ feuds was that between the families of the Scotts and the Kers.
In 1603, James VI succeeded to the English throne on the death of his cousin Elizabeth I with no direct heirs. As the new James I of England, he rode south and was to spend almost the entire rest of his life in England, based at Whitehall. He is thus known to us as James VI and I. James was very keen to promote the idea of union and friendship between the previously hostile England and Scotland. He called it a ‘blessed union’, one of ‘hearts and minds’.
Despite promising on his departure to return every three years, James was only to return to Scotland once in 1617. Having professed a ‘salmon-like’ desire to return to the land of his birth, he came with a multitude of English and Scottish courtiers and councillors, and spent around three months touring his castles and palaces, and those of the great lords and lairds.
During this period, he presided over a meeting of the Scottish parliament, which famously rejected his attempt to get them to pass his ecclesiastical reforms, which became known as the Five Articles of Perth. Elite Scottish households prepared for the king's visit and there are several examples of objects and decoration made in case the king came to visit.
James died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son, Charles. You can read more about Charles here.