James I of England (James VI of Scotland) was the founder of a truly “British” monarchy. Superficially, he is considered to be the monarch who asserted royal absolutism and set the stage for constitutional conflicts that culminated in the reigns of his son and grandsons. In fact, James had a complex personality, with complex relations with his subjects, and the serious student of history is well advised to read a reliable modern biography of this first Stuart monarch of England.
He began his life in Scotland in 1566 as the only offspring of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. His father was assassinated and his mother was forced to flee Scotland before he was a year old, however, and thus became an infant king of a turbulent country, raised by regents and tutors. His education, though harsh, was very thorough, and he knew classical languages and literature. He had a formidable knowledge of theology. He also learned a great respect for learning and writing, was an ambitious writer himself, although tended to be pedantic in his tone. He made friends among the Scottish nobility, but loathed Scottish unruliness and the Presbyterian Church that wanted no royal authority in Church affairs. Although the virgin queen, Elizabeth I, kept the issue of succession to the English throng uncertain until her death, James and many others knew that he had the strongest claim to the English throne. In 1603, when Elizabeth died, he did in fact become King James I of England, thus uniting the two thrones.
His twenty-two year reign as King of England saw a mixture of events and developments. England was more peaceful, more respectful of kings than Scotland, and, although he remained a staunch Protestant, he much favored the episcopal structure of the English Church, which deferred to the monarch as its head. He disliked radical Puritans, although suppression of religious dissent was very mild in England compared with continental states. The Pilgrim Fathers were probably more interested in establishing their own version of a Calvinist theocracy than they were escaping from religious persecution when they fled to Massachusetts Bay. Although James failed to establish the kind of controls in the House of Commons that probably benefited his Tudor predecessors, his relations with Parliaments is complex, and he most notable panegyrics about “the divine right of kings” were directed more at radical Catholics than the vast bulk of his own Protestant subjects. The greatest danger that ever threatened him was the Catholic Gunpowder Plot of 1604.
Arguably the most positive feature of his reign in England was securing peace with Spain, and his dogged insistence upon promoting peace, both with England’s traditional enemies and throughout Europe as a whole. Although the attempt of his Son-in-Law, Frederick, to become the King of Bohemia precipitated the Thirty Years’ War, James earnestly sought a peaceful resolution to this conflict, despite Parliamentary voices late in his reign that wanted to renew a naval war against the Spanish Hapsburgs.
His reign saw a perpetuation of the expansive prosperity of Elizabethan times and the beginnings of the Britishcolonial empire in America and India. Although expert in theology and biblical scholarship, he took only a detached supervisory role over the translation of the Bible that bears his name.
Family relations were largely solid, with the major tragedy being the untimely death of his much-respected son Henry in 1612, which left the more insecure Charles as his heir. He had somewhat detached relations with his wife, Anne of Denmark, who was born Protestant but became a private Catholic. Relations were close with his daughter, Elizabeth, although her misadventures as Queen of Bohemia created one of the greatest problems of his reign. There were a number of very capable men in government, such as Robert Cecil, who died in 1612, and Lionel Cranfield,, who came to manage the difficult finances of the reign.
Probably his greatest weaknesses, besides a few physical idiosyncrasies such a tendency to drool, were his extravagance and his fondness for attractive young men. Extravagance led to serious debt, which was difficult to remedy because difficult Parliaments refused to grant him sufficient taxes. Although not a practising homosexual as we would one, his handsome royal favorites tended to be placed in positions of patronage control and state power that proved very troublesome. The most famous was George Villiers, made first Duke of Buckingham, who dominated the closing of James’ life. Buckingham and Prince Charles together wrecked James’ project of a marriage alliance with Spain, which James hoped would continue peace for England. James died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son, Charles I.
Although a more recent biography of James was written by Antonia Fraser in 1974, Professor David Willson’s biography, first published in 1956 and with a second edition in 1965 is considered one of the most authoritative modern treatments of this monarch, whose legacy has created some scholarly controversy in recent decades. Although the “Whig” view, prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth century has left a notion of a king who initiated the descent of the British monarchy into rebellion, other aspects of his life suggest that he perhaps deserved to be called the ‘British Solomon,’ and the presiding figure of the Jacobean Age.