Right everyone, now that Mary is gone, we can move on emotionally and chronologically. Although I feel the need to take a step back to help us move forward, to set the scene for the reign of a much-maligned king. I give you another James, ladies and gentlemen – James VI.
He has not had a good press Jimmy VI. And he presents a problem for me in a podcasting sense, because in the fullness, he will become also Jimmy I of England. There will be no union, just a dual monarchy for the moment, but the lives of monarchs of England and Scotland will be the same. You might well ask why I do not then go for a history of the British Isles, or the Atlantic Archipeligo, or even Great Britain, the same question you may have asked back in 1284? If you were asking that – which possibly you were not – I will give the same answer as I have before, which is that I specifically embarked on the history of England podcast because
- I’m English, a small horizoned, parochial hobbit like creature, the English are my tribe and English history is my love
- Histories of Great Britain tend to end up being either Anglocentric, fearsomely complicated, or leave too much out. So each of the nations deserves their own history in my view.
It’ll mean some oddnesses, but it’s been done before so I’m sure we’ll cope.
So Jimmy VI and I – the reason I mention the throne of England at this point is so that when I will launch into the customary historiography thing, and I can refer to 1066 and All That in a History of Scotland. This is the verdict of that august volume of scholarly excellence:
James slobbered at the mouth and had favourites; he was thus a Bad King
Apparently, by the way, he also fiddled with his codpiece. I have discovered that this assessment does not owe much to historical accuracy, but it does, as always, beautifully summarise the received history; because James was the victim, very early, of a hatchet job by – well by someone. We’ll come to that. But it should be noted that his death was not received with great joy, but with a sense of great loss, certainly in both Scotland and England. But unfortunately a treatise, ‘The Court and Character of King James’, published in 1650 has coloured history with extraordinary effect.
Who wrote the treatise and why is quite interesting. I mean not the sort of thing that will get you invited out to supper for a second night, but you know, quite interesting. Traditionally the work has been ascribed to an English courtier – one Anthony Weldon. It is a vicious satire of the king, which paints him as drunken, timid and duplicitous; cowardly in foreign policy, a homosexual at a time when that was a bad thing, with a tongue too large for his mouth so that he slobbered, and a codpiece fiddler to boot as I say. And this line:
Insomuch as a very wise man was wont to say he beleeved him the wisest fool in Christendom, meaning him wise in small things but a fool in weighty affairs
The wisest fool in Christendom is a great line, wrongly attributed to Henry IV of France as being possibly the ‘Wise man’, and it has influenced historians down the ages. Weldon has been also linked to writing a horror story called a ‘Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland’, which portrayed the Scots as people with ‘foul houses, foul sheets, foul linen, foul dishes and pots’. The story goes that this was a letter was written secretly by Weldon, then discovered at which point he was fired from the royal household. That may well be the case; but doubt is cast on the publications dates which are after Weldon’s death in 1648, and that as far as we can see Weldon actually stayed in post for 6 years after the Perfect Description was supposedly written, and enjoyed other marks of royal favour. The concept of a courtier seeking revenge therefore through the writing therefore seems very questionable.
It is possible, maybe perhaps, that the series of vicious satires in the 1650s were seeking for an explanation for the disastrous fall of the Stuart monarchy in 1649 with the execution of Charles, a man who, as has been noted by detailed analysis, was 5 foot Six inches tall at the start of his reign, and only 4 foot 8 inches at the end of it. It seemed only sensible that the seeds of the Civil Wars of the three kingdoms of Scotland, Ireland and England of the mid 17th century had been sown by Charles’s father, hence these writings purporting to be contemporary with James. I will leave that with you all.
James had his defenders; his archbishop of St Andrews, John Spottiswoode for example, and in England the Bishop of Gloucester; and then the Earl of Clarendon described his reign as bringing ‘uninterrupted pleasures and plenty’. According to Professor Pauline Croft, for the ills of the reign and subsequent, Clarendon instead pointed to a ‘heedless younger generation, bored with tranquility’  which as a reason for plunging all three kingdoms into civil war would seem, well disappointing. In the satire there were some accusations which struck a cord; James’s wild spending, his extraordinarily affectionate behaviour to his favourites for example. But there were also political reasons for dismissing his talents; in Scotland in particular, one of the triggers for later civil war would be James’ support for Bishops, and of course for later Presbyterian writers this was anathema, and they railed against the king, and tried to present the idea that the kirk had always been against bishops. Which wasn’t necessarily true, but wouldn’t be the first attempt to rewrite history. Or I suspect, the last. In England, Whig historians presented James as an absolutist in the face of the righteous march of the glorious power of parliament. In modern times, James’ reputation reached its nadir when D H Wilson in 1956 absolutely roasted him, ending with the slightly judgemental and subjective
The king’s portraits in his last years are those of a broken, debauched and repulsive old man
Since then, things have got a little better. It’s argued that James had great success in establishing his authority in Scotland against a chaotic background and the violent factionalism of his aristocracy. That he worked effectively to both support the kirk but bend it towards his view of the world. And then as a writer; Wilson had unsurprisingly been unimpressed, but Jenny Wormald emphasised the intelligence and vigour of his work, and his output for a monarch is truly exceptional, and contrasted the confidence of his earlier writings with more staid and pedestrian work as he grew older and more disillusioned. Though when writing in 1623 he was still capable of a striking phrase with the memorable verse in response to a libel published against him
‘Tis true I am a cradle king
yet doe remember every thinge
That I have heretofore put out
and yet begin not for to doubt.
Jenny Wormald accepts that James was a financial disaster, but concludes that
he was a remarkable man, with a high theoretic sense of his kingship, yet also an adept practical politician, casual, friendly, intellectual, and scholarly
Which is a bit more complimentary than, yeah, he slobbers and fiddles with his codpiece. James isn’t entirely free and clear; Michael Lynch points to the later actions of James as creating the basis to the religious dispute that would lead to rebellion in 1637, and of weakening the authority of the king of Scots – as the kirk began to be seen as a better protector of Scottish Protestantism than the king, and James began to demand a new, novel form of loyalty to a king of Great Britain – a concept which demanded a pretty smart turnaround in attitudes between Scot and English; while losing much contact with Scotland after his accession to the English throne in 1603. He concludes
James was one of Scotland’s most successful feudal kings, but also the first failure amongst Stuart absolute monarchs of the 17th century
Highlighting that while James had managed his aristocracy with great skill, nonetheless he failed in his attempts to establish a new, British monarchy based on his exalted view of kingship.
Despite these rather different views, I have learned without doubt that James VI and his reign are fascinating subjects. Here are some of the themes we have to look forward to.
James was crowned in extraordinary circumstances – just 1 year old in a barely attended ceremony at Stirling Parish church rather than at Scone, with his mother having been forced to abdicate and incarcerated in Loch Leven Castle, his father having been blown up by magnate infighting. The situation rather neatly emblazoned James’ challenge – how to re-establish the authority of the crown after a period of factional political violence stretching back to the death of James Vth? In this he faced similar challenges to James IV and James V – but he’d have to get through his minority first.
James also inherited a precarious religious settlement; the Reformation had been enshrined in law only in 1560, and not by the king, but by parliament. Many if not most of his subjects at his coronation were Catholic, and James’ start in life had been equally ambivalent – baptised as a Catholic, but to be brought up as a protestant. This presented a further challenge to James – the kirk had made little provision for the idea of Bishops and certainly there was no question of the king being Supreme Governor or any such halfway housing. So – what did that say about royal authority then if the kirk was a sort of nation within a nation? And how was the king to regain control over kirk reform, and more importantly, patronage.
The governance of highlands and islands remained problematic – how to bring the Western Isles and Highlands into greater control by the centre, with a now long standing tradition of mutual cultural misunderstanding and mistrust? And after 1603, James would become the first ruler to combine the Principality of Wales, and the kingdoms of Ireland, Scotland and England under one hat; and was to discover that these entities all differed widely; Ireland remained Catholic, and the Scots were keen to emphasise that their Calvinist church was by far the superior model to the one down south. How then for James to manage these three kingdoms, and bring them together, as he hoped, into one combined Great Britain?
While regents followed one upon another – Moray, Lennox, Mar and then Morton – James was being brought up along with the family of the Earl and Countess of Mar, including their son John, seven years senior to James, who duly became Earl of Mar in 1572. The job of the Mar family was to train the king in the physical and sportly side of kingship, archery, riding and, last but by no means least, hunting. And boy did they succeed with the hunting thing; James VI developed a love of hunting that would last his whole life, often to the exasperation of his ministers looking for a word in his shell-like. The relationship with the Mar family seems warm, and his friendship with the younger John life-long.
He then had two Tutors. One was the Calvinist theologian Peter Young with whom again James seemed to have a good relationship; which he categorically did not have with the other, the redoubtable George Buchanan. I have mentioned George before, a distinguished humanist and scholar of European renown, but something of a ‘spare the rod spoil the child’ kind of teacher. He terrorised James, with regular beatings, and James never forgot his brutality.
Despite that, the two tutors managed to inculcate a love of classical learning in their young charge. In addition to his knowledge of biblical and classical texts, which even the author of the ‘wisest fool’ insult implicitly acknowledges, he was taught history, political theory, theology, languages, geography, mathematics. Languages figured highly – Latin first so that James would proudly declare that he was taught to speak Latin before he could speak Scots. But he also grew up to speak fluent Greek, French, and English. It also meant that there’s the prospect of a king who wrote things down – a series of publications such as the Basilkon Doran, a book of advice for his son, but other writings and also much poetry. His passion for scholarship was deeply rooted.
Some things, though did not stick, for all of Buchanan’s beatings. Buchanan fiercely and shamelessly denounced James’ mother as a tyrant, murderer and witch. That can’t have been a positive experience for the young lad, and I doubt appears as an approach in the social workers training programmes these days. But also, Buchanan tried very hard to convince James of his theories of kingship; in his view, king and subject were part of a social contract, in which the people were well within their rights to depose a tyrant – particularly one that chose the wrong religion. This is not the way that James would come to view the monarch’s role and rights. From an early age he was given continual evidence of the violence of political infighting – at the age of 5 he watched the Earl of Lennox bleeding his last at Stirling castle from a gunshot wound. It wouldn’t be the last example before he took over the reins. In his view, the authority of the king was paramount, and central to political peace. He would also show an attractive bent towards religious toleration, though never quite prepared to give as much as his catholic subjects would have liked.
As he grew older, the young king started developing his own court life; given his love of matters cultural, it drew people of both political and literary ambitions, a sort of drinking club for young men a bit like the Drones Club, but with brains. Meanwhile, James was gradually introduced to his people; in June 1579 the 13 year old prince rode out publicly from Stirling Castle, with a symbolic resonance of the young king leading his followers. That same autumn he made a grand royal entry into Edinburgh, the established process for raising the monarch’s profile with his people. The atmosphere at court became steadily more hot housy and political as the prospect of the king’s majority approached.
Through the 1570s, as the queen’s party essentially came to terms in 1573, and Morton’s regency re-established some stability – if not re-establishing any real concept of a regency rising above political faction – Morton rather obviously filled up his and the Douglas boots. Morton’s greatest political mistake though lay in not cultivating the friendship of the young king, of not actively bringing him forward and building a strong relationship. It would work him woe. He faced more pressing challenges to his authority, or rather to the authority delegated to him by the king as regent; and this came from the kirk.
Back in the day, the Reformation had started but not finished the process of working ou kirk governance; but for some of the more activist, the road ahead was clear enough, in the form of a full blooded Calvinist, Presbyterian system. Presbyter came from the same Latin word meaning elder, and Presbyterians saw a system of Parish Elders managing the religious business of each Parish in the kirk session or court, wherein each minister was essentially of equal level. Each Parish would send a minister as required to the General Assembly of the kirk, though in practice many more remote parishes did not attend usually. Fair enough; but the episcopy, the Bishops had never been abolished and sat slightly uncomfortably in the General Assembly, with a role of oversight over the parishes in their diocese. For the more active Minister, the bishops were an anachronism and unscriptural; the second book of discipline in 1578 called for the end of episcopal power.
Into this system stepped a character called Andrew Melville, a graduate of St Andrews university who had studied and taught in Paris, Poitiers and Geneva, returning to Scotland in 1574. Melville built a party in the kirk around him to establish a full Presbyterian model in the church, and effectively managed to make himself the spokesperson for the kirk for 30 years. Melville and his supporters had a vision of society which brought believers in royal authority out in spots. In 1596 there’s a very famous exchange at Falkland Palace in Fife between Melville and James when Melville famously declared
Their is twa kings and twa kingdoms in Scotland. There is Christ Jesus the King, and his kingdom, the kirk, whose subject King James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member!
Wild. Well that’s sticking it to royal authority, and make no mistake, and was a position no early modern king was likely to accept without large internal eruptions. As far as Regent Morton was concerned, and as his king would be, the king absolutely had authority over the kirk, and Bishops were integral to that authority; because Bishops could represent the royal authority in the General Assembly, and crucially in the parishes – without them, their would indeed be two kingdoms, of the kirk and state.
This is a battlefield that will be fought over throughout James’ reign. But while later histories of the kirk tended to assert that the kirk never wanted bishops, the truth was more complicated. In the struggle over royal authority, the general body ministers was much more uncertain, or even disinterested in the role of the state – their interest lay in spreading the word and the ministry; one of the strengths of the kirk lay in its disciplinary system of court sessions which effectively spread a consistent doctrine, and combined social control with religious, that was where their focus lay. So the strength of Melville’s following was geographically limited – in Lothian, Edinburgh and Fife, further afield opinions were much more sympathetic to state involvement. This ambivalence would be exploited by the crown, which would instead prove focused and relentless in pursuit of its aims.
But, back to where we were, during James’ minority it was largely one way; though Morton favoured Bishops and explicitly an English model, some of the Bishops he appointed were clearly ill equipped for the job and the regent’s placemen in the old tradition of court patronage, and that hardly helped their authority. But it was not until 1580 that the general assembly unequivocally declared the office of bishop unscriptural. However, in 1581 13 presbyteries were indeed set up ‘to be exemplars to the rest which may be established thereafter’, mainly in the lowlands, and as the movement grew, supporters of royal authority viewed the Presbytery as essentially a work of sedition against the state.
The kirk faced other challenges too; namely from the Catholic church. After Mary’s fall, the church had defined Scotland as a mission field, turning to the regular orders to lead the mission; and although not convinced of the role of the Jesuits, a group of influential scots did join the Jesuits and lead the mission into Scotland, among them one William Crichton. Their strategy was to target the king and court rather than to support the survival of Catholicism in the regions, which in the end would not turn out to be effective. But their efforts and the survival of Catholicism clearly worried the kirk; one of the more effective of Melville’s achievements was therefore establishment of St Mary’s college in St Andrews as the seminary of Calvinist ministers, which were well trained to combat the challenge of the counter reformation.
Let me now take you away from all of this, to France and to Aubigny, where there was to be found a descendent of James II, the seigneur of Aubigny, Esme Stuart. More immediately, he had a claim to the Earldom of Lennox, and was in dispute with the other claimant, Arabella Stuart. In the end the earldom was given to the elderly Robert of Caithness; not only elderly but also childless, and Esme would be the next in line if he died without a child. And then Esme received an invitation from James to come and visit Scotland – well, in the desire to further his opportunities in life, who could refuse such an offer? So in September 1579 Esme Stuart kissed his wife and 5 children, and packed his hopes inside a matchbox because he knew it was time to fly.
Esme was, it would be fair to say, a big success as far as James was concerned. The 37 year old, urbane and cultured appealed to James’ love of grandeur and sophistication; it is also an episode which rather illustrates some recurring themes – favourites, factionalism, religion, wild royal gift giving. Esme’s immediate and solicitous attention to his young king probably fed a need for affection and James responded with enthusiasm. Esme’s arrival was electrifying; George Buchanan’s rule over his pupil was at an end. James’s enthusiasm for his new friend knew few bounds, and the word favourite wobbles over our story like a large pink blanchmange, there to remain as an idee fixe for the rest of his reign. James was given to PDA’s, throwing his arms around Esme and kissing him, in a way that set the chins of the Calvinist clergy wobbling furiously. Nothing daunted, James showered Esme with gifts; commendator of Arbroath in November 1579, Earl of Lennox in March 1580, and keeper of Dumbarton castle, Chamberlain and first gentleman of the royal chamber.
With favourites came invited into the garden of politics the snake of faction again, so long a central feature of Scottish politics, flared into life afresh. James Stewart, Earl of Arran, was able to use his friendship with Lennox, as we will now call Esme, to bring down the Regent Morton. The regent had never been very good at cultivating his relationship with James, and on the last day of December 1580 Stewart dramatically accused Morton of being involved in the murder of Lord Darnley, a reasonably elastic accusation. Morton was arrested and imprisoned, tried and in June 1581 executed by the hand of the Maiden. The Maiden in this instance traditionally taken to have been an early form of guillotine. Sic transit gloria Mortonis.
The goodies kept showering on the head of Lennox – now made Duke of Lennox as well as other grants of land. But Arran and Lennox were now rivals, so badly divided that the PC was split in two; Arran and his sympathizers met at Holyrood, Lennox and his supporters at Dalkeith. To overcome his opponent, Arran fanned the flames of religious panic – of Lennox’s Catholicism.
As with most effective smoke screens, there was something of a small blaze behind the rumours; after all, Lennox had arrived as a fair dinkum Catholic. But the unease this caused had been pretty clear for all to see, and James was clever enough to see the danger. Lennox had converted to Protestantism, but James still realised more was needed. So James asked the Edinburgh minister John Craig to create the King’s Confession, a covenant to which people should sign to promise they would accept the true religion and oppose Roman Catholicism, and defend the king, the gospel and the country. And then he signed it. As such, it forms the part of a continuing tradition in Scottish history of the Covenant, since it would be used as the basis for the National Covenant in 1638. And here is another thread for us to follow here; James had been brought up a firm Protestant, and that conviction seems to have stayed with him throughout his reign, and yet he will prove hearteningly resistant to the persecution of Catholics, and rumours about his possible willingness to convert stayed around him all the way through.
Lennox was very probably sincere in his conversation, and utterly loyal to James; he created new spectacles at court implementing the approaches of the French court, and encouraged a circle of court poets known as the Castilian Band, which inspired James also to write. But at the same time Lennox continued to correspond with the Guise in France, and the hotter sort of protestant mistrusted him deeply.
You might well ask what the Catholic church meanwhile was doing about the reformation in Scotland? In 1562 a Jesuit Father de Gouda went on a mission that was an open secret – not officially endorsed by Mary QoS – and filed a depressed report about the state of affairs; and when Mary’s party collapsed, the catholic hierarchy in Rome designated Scotland as a mission field and turned to the regular orders; but for the Jesuits, Scotland was never one of the priorities. But as I have mentioned, a group of Scottish noblemen, including one William Crichton, joined the Jesuits and spearheaded the mission, with the strategy of targeting the court for high profile conversions, rather than beating door to door. And so it was that early in 1582 William Crichton and another Jesuit William Holt visited Lennox, and invited him to take command of an army to be raised by Philip II for the invasion of England, with the aim of freeing Queen Mary and placing her on the Scottish and English thrones.
Well, whatever Lennox’s response, word got out, Rumours were rife and James was forced to denounce allegations that Lennox was a ‘deviser’ of ‘the erecting of papistrie’. The General Assembly of the kirk were at the forefront, accusing Lennox of seeking to erect ‘a new Paidome’
The camel’s back gave a sharp crack. A group of ultra protestant lords decided that the only course of action now was the traditional one – to seize the body of the monarch. And so that is what they did, in 1582, while James was out hunting, in what became known as the Ruthven Raid since he was imprisoned in Ruthven Castle by protestant lords Athol and Gowrie.
Lennox was distraught. But there was nothing he could do as the Protestant lords took power into their hands and ordered him to leave the country. He wrote despairing letters – but James could not reply. Eventually, he was forced to flee, but died in Paris by February of 1583, declaring himself protestant and asking for his embalmed heart to be sent to James. James was gutted and did what lovers do and wrote a poem about a Phoenix.
The Ruthven raid deeply affected James. Once again here was the central issue he needed to tackle – the political lawlessness and factionalism, which must be brought to the royal heel. But not just that; the kirk had also done their level best to make hay in the sun that was sunny, not just in attacking Lennox, but in also attacking the bishops while the Ruthven crew were driving the bus.
James’ response was quick, through the offices now also of the liberated rival of Lennox, the Earl of Arran. They struck at the 1584 parliament. Security was tight – well known supporters of Andrew Melville were excluded from the Tollbooth, others run out of town. The aim for James was to make it clear that this two kingdoms nonsense was just that, nonsense, he was king and had authority over both. And to give the secular nobility due notice that the whip was now to be cracked. The acts passed by parliament became known, by the kirk at least, as the Black Acts. They asserted royal authority over ‘all estates temporal and spiritual’. Presbytery meetings were made more difficult and restricted and all ministers were to subscribe in writing, to their submission to the king’s majesty and his bishops. The kirk, in brief, would be subordinate to royal power resting on a regime of bishops – all very similar to the English settlement in fact. In later times, James reportedly declared of the concept that bishops be abolished
“I know what would become of my supremacy,” James objected. “No bishop, no King. When I mean to live under a presbytery I will go to Scotland again.
Meanwhile Arran worked ruthlessly to ensure the subscription of nobles as well as kirk, and indeed on the burghs, appointing provosts sympathetic to royal power and thereby eroding the burghs’ cherished independence and, by another angle, the nobility that ran them. Lord Gowrie, the author of the Ruthven raid, was executed. During the parliament, some ministers formally declared their protest and then abdured the realm, and some nobles did the same. So there was fury and resistance, but like resistance to a vogon highway, largely useless. Arran and James had re-started a campaign to re-invigorate royal authority the balked Morton had struggled to implement, and James would prove to be relentless in its pursuit. As James eyed his majority, though, Aran meanwhile would have been well advised to be feeling a little itchy under his collar. Or you know, ruff.
 Joseph Marshall and Sean Kelsey ‘Anthony Weldon’ in ODNB
 Croft, P King James p5
 Jenny Wormald James VI in ODNB
 Lynch, M Scotland: A New History p230
 Lynch, M Scotland 233