James, son of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was born on 19th June 1566 at Edinburgh Castle. The small room where his birth took place can still be seen today, with the initials of mother and baby on the ceiling. James's birth was surrounded by violence and intrigue. Mary had returned from France following the death of her first husband, Francis II King of France, and had chosen Darnley as a new husband. This was an unfortunate choice. Darnley was related to the ruling Tudor dynasty of England, and had ambitions of his own. When Mary refused to make him joint ruler the marriage turned hostile. There were rumours of an affair between Mary and her secretary David Riccio. This poor man was murdered in front of the pregnant queen at Holyrood in March 1566. Mary turned to the Earl of Bothwell for support against Darnley, while other Scottish nobles considered their loyalties.
James was born into this poisonous environment in June 1566. Darnley was murdered the following year, 1567, and Mary acted rashly in marrying the Earl of Bothwell, a prime suspect in Darnley's murder. The danger of retribution caused Mary to flee to England, after being forcibly separated from her third husband at Carberry Hill in June 1567. Mary's young son James was then crowned King of Scotland in the church just outside the gates of Stirling Castle. He spent his childhood and adolescence in the care of various regents, most of whom were killed in power struggles that swirled around the young, bright and sensitive boy. It was a tough childhood, brightened only by what seems to have been a homosexual affair with Esme Stuart, who arrived in Scotland as an emissary from the French branch of the family. This dalliance was soon brought to an end when powerful nobles around James began fearing Esme's influence. Esme was sent packing back to France, and James was left alone and distraught. The natural caution that these formative experiences bred in James is expressed in a poem he wrote at the age of fifteen:
Since thought is free, think what thou will
O troubled heart to ease they pain
Thought unrevealed can do no ill
But words past out turn not again
Be careful, aye, for to invent
The way to get thine own intent
with patience then see thou attend
And hope to vanquish in the end.
In June 1583, aged seventeen, James reached seniority. He was confirmed as King of Scotland, and married Anne of Denmark. The couple had seven children, and steered their way through treacherous Scottish politics. "I am for the medium in everything" James said "Between foolish rashness and extreme length there is a middle way." (Quoted in King James by Antonia Fraser)
Elizabeth I, famously unmarried, left no direct heir when she died in 1603. James was the preferred candidate to take the English throne, and was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in March 1603. King James wished to heal religious divides. He also wanted to bring England and Scotland closer together. In religion James had a policy of tolerance, and he promised catholics that as long as they caused no trouble their faith would not interfere with their advancement. As for England and Scotland, his proposal to merge the kingdoms and churches, and remove all discrepancies in legislation has never been achieved. Both kingdoms, however, now had one sovereign.
Union Flag flying over Windsor Castle
James proposed the name Great Britain for the combined kingdom. As pointed out by Norman Davies in The Isles, this name had been used a few times since the medieval period, to differentiate Great Britain from the little Britain of Brittany where so many celtic Britons had fled to during the fifth century Anglo Saxon invasions. In 1606 James ordered that all ships of England and Scotland should fly a common flag, the design of which he had recently approved. It was a combination of the cross of St George and the cross of St Andrew. Officially known as the Great Union it was soon known as the Union Jack, a name which might derive from Jacques, the French form of James. All this effort to heal divisions could not head off the crisis which occurred in November 1605. This crisis had been with James all his life. At his christening at Stirling Castle in 1566, a representative of his godfather, the catholic King of France carried James to the font, while a representative of his godmother, the protestant Queen Elizabeth of England sat outside. James had always tried to reconcile the religions of his godparents, but this did not stop a group of catholic plotters attempting to assassinate the king and his ministers by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. James had wanted to go further in making concessions to catholics, but had been talked out of this by his chief minister Robert Cecil. Perhaps it was the promise of better times ahead being snatched away that caused resentment to boil over. On top of this, peace had been agreed with Spain, which had taken away any hope of invasion by a catholic power. To some catholics the situation seemed desperate. This was a tragedy as catholics were attacking a man who wanted to help them. The plot to blow up Parliament went ahead, but was thwarted by Robert Cecil who ordered a search of Parliament's cellars on the night of November 4th. Guy Fawkes was arrested as he attempted to make final preparations for the explosion. Guy Fawkes Night is still celebrated every year in Britain on November 5th.
Bayard's Cove, Dartmouth - the Mayflower moored here in August 1620
For the rest of his reign James continued to try and steer his middle way. He made peace with catholic Spain, and allowed his daughter Elizabeth to marry protestant Frederick V, elector of Palatine, and King of Bohemia. He commissioned the translation of the Bible into everyday English, which pleased the protestants, but infuriated the catholics. It proved impossible to keep both sides of the religious divide happy. Attitudes became more extreme. A hard line group known as the puritans developed amongst protestants. James opposed the puritans' efforts to outlaw all sports and other enjoyable activities on the sabbath. As a result a group of puritans decided to board the Mayflower in 1620 and sail off to a place where they could have quiet Sundays if they wanted to. At least Britain managed to avoid the religious warfare that characterised much of what is known as the Thirty Years War which raged in Europe from 1618.
James also faced an increasing struggle with Parliament. James spent a lot of money on handsome young men who took his fancy, men such as George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham acquired significant authority over the king. Since Buckingham was vain and incompetent, his elevation to power lost James support in Parliament. Parliament was also unhappy about the amount of money James spent on building works. This was a puritanical age when ostentation was not as welcome as it might have been at other times. James described himself as an oyster living on his own moisture, but his spending was seen by many as wasteful. Towards the end of his life he had to put up with illness, opposition from Parliament, and from his son Charles who already thought he knew better how to run the country. After a long period of worsening health, James died on 27th March 1625.
Bodleian Library, Oxford, James's ideal prison
In many ways James was an interesting character. He was always a moderate, always seeking compromise and peaceful solutions. His thinking was sometimes ahead of its time. He hated tobacco smoking, for example, and marshaled arguments against it in his Counterblaste to Tobacco of 1604. He said that if he was ever imprisoned he would like it to be in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Today there is a statue of him there. The way he coped with his public is sometimes reminiscent of more modern royal anxieties. On being told his people wanted to see him James is once supposed to have said: "God's wounds I will pull down my breeches and they shall also see my arse." It was perhaps unfortunate that the moderate James would be succeeded by the earnest Charles I who was to be so much more principled, and would run into so much more trouble.