So we ended just last week with the increasingly involvement of James in his government, and the first flowering of his policy to re-establish royal authority, and bring the kirk back into the ambit of that authority, with the execution of Morton in 1581, his political alliance with the Earl of Arran and the Black Acts of 1584. Just in general, what follows over the rest of James reign is reasonably consistent, though the stream of history definitely did not flow straight downhill, but was constantly disturbed by eddies and rapids and meanders. But his attitude was pretty consistent, and indeed traditional. Although he believed in the supreme power of the king and the need to establish the obedience of his aristocracy to the monarchy, he wrote that he would
Draw his nobility to unity and concord…as a universal king impartial to them all
He had a deep faith in the role and inherent value of aristocracy writing that ‘vertue followeth oftest noble blood’, so you know let’s banish that trendy idea that that nobility is defined by behaviour – nah, we are still in the time when such an attitude would earn you nobbut a snigger and clip round the earhole, despite what the lovely Heath Ledger says in a Knight’s Tale. Here from James is a restatement of that traditional central tenet of successful Scottish governance; the king let the magnates reign in the regions as long as they were loyal and obedient to his will, he sat above factionalism, and he travelled around the kingdom to see his people. So although we’ll spend a deal of time talking about how, in fact, aristocratic influence in central government does decline and change, and the magnates are affected by changes in the justice system, yet there is a very close limit to it – James’ objective was to partner with his nobility not belittle them – but the deal simply had to be reset to the likes of James IV and V rather than the chaos of Mary and the minorities. And actually in terms of this personal kingship, James became very good at this through his years in Scotland, very good indeed. In 1600, the English Ambassador to the Scottish court was one Henry Wootton – the man remembered for his bon mot that
An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent abroad to lie for the good of his country
He also reported though on James in his court; relaxed and personal and especially to the English eye, friendly and informal, talking to those about him
Listening to banter and merry jests in which he takes great delight
In addition, James’s mad passion for hunting although it drove his ministers potty when they needed decisions, would not only keep him fit and healthy but also kept him in sight of his people and personal contact with the lords of the land.
Now admittedly this lay ahead, and was James at his prime; in 1584 he was still but a nipper of 18. But even in 1585 in conversation reported by the French Ambassador it’s clear he was growing in confidence. He told Fontenay that there was nothing that went on he wasn’t aware of from his contacts and spies at court. He told him quite frankly that however great and powerful his ministers were – he could always ruin them as quickly as he had made them.
James was also one of those monarchs who had the benefit of some talented public servants, which brings us to John Maitland of Thirlstone, a man of central importance to James early reign and whose aims, within absolute loyalty to his king, were slightly firmer towards the nobility. He’s also a very interesting example of the trend towards the enhanced role for the laird in Scottish governance and politics.
As you might guess from his name, he was the younger brother of the William Maitland of Lethington. From obscurity, he was suddenly snatched by the good offices not of big brother, but of his patron the earl of Bothwell who got him the role of Commendator of the priory of Coldingham, for the greater glory of God as it were, and meant that John Maitland was now rich. Don’t get the wrong impression, although now also Keeper of the privy seal and therefore well, sort of in royal administration he’s a minor figure. He had a very varied civil war, essentially following big brother, and ended up in Morton’s dungeons at Tantallon – apparently too irrelevant to hang. The benefits of low poppy syndrome. But In the 1580s, through the good offices of those tall poppies the Duke of Lennox and then the Earl of Arran, Maitland became a proper player, part of the Privy Council in 1583. But for those themes I keep banging on about, here’s an example of another scion of the lairds making their way to central government and the highest governing body in the land, helped there by the wealth of appropriated church funds. He was also more acceptable in James’ eyes, incidentally, by dint of his loyalty to Mary – James always appreciated and valued those that supported his Mum, although, ahem, the evidence is he wasn’t terribly keen to see her back in the old country.
Maitland was cut from a slightly sharper edged cloth that his royal master, while agreeing with his broad aims. For him, the response to the factionalism he’d endured was that aristocratic involvement in the key instruments of state like the Privy Council needed to be severely curtailed; royal justice needed to be extended to reduce the regional supremacy of the magnates – while for James the aristocracy were an essential part of the solution, for Maitland they were an essential part of the problem. It’s a half full, half empty sort of thing. His attitude to the kirk though was a bit more ambivalent; though convinced it’s power needed to be contained, he was more willing than James to reach accommodation, and as a result often profited from the kirk’s support.
Maitland was quickly promoted to Secretary to the King, and then Chancellor; the English ambassador explained that his
‘greatness with the king did consist in this, that he had set down certain platts unto the king, how he might preserve his state in obedience’
Maitland therefore had initially at least a broad support; to some degree from the kirk, to a greater degree from lairds ambitious to gain government employment and local influence, and Burgh slooking to extend their privileges – and all these groups sharing Maitland’s strong protestant outlook. And of course critically – the support of the king. The magnates, however, recognised that Maitland was in fact a lizard from outer space in disguise, and their enemy. Many hated him, for what he was trying to do, and because he was NQOCD, a parvenu, who had taken a post as Chancellor that was the preserve of the nobility; ‘An occasioun to a puddock-stoole of a night to occupie the place of two ancient cedar’ spat one. A puddock stoole, by the way sounds redolent of the world of bodily functions, but is in fact a fungus. The Catholic lords hated him because he was a powerful protestant close to the king. Politics, eh. Sheesh. War by other means, just to misquote.
Ok, so back to the story. Although Arran had helped Maitland into the big time, Maitland wasn’t a fan, because he realised that Arran was greedy, and essentially an example of the old ways – more factionalised regional magnate who abused his position by rewarding his own followers and seizing the lands of his opponents, specifically the Hamiltons, than example of the new world of impartial, bureaucratic royal servant.
Arran’s position relied entirely on the king’s favour before he could build his network and power base, and Maitland managed to build a whispering campaign that destroyed the king’s trust in Arran, and, neatly confirming his boast to Fontenay that he could destroy his ministers as he wished, Arran was dismissed from power. He never stopped worming, trying to get back to political favour, but never made it. In the end he died in the fine tradition of blood feud, hacked to death by Douglas of Torthwald in 1596 for Arran’s involvement in the execution of Morton, Douglas’s uncle. Politics eh? Shesh. War and another means.
Here we are in 1585 then, and while I can’t see an official date where everyone agrees that James VI had officially parked his bum on the throne in his majority, I think we can safely say his dismissal of Arran marks the spot.
Which means before we go on that we should talk about one of James’s major concerns that comes to a head around this time – his possible succession to the English throne. Now there’s a bit of disagreement on the nuance of James’ attitude to his rights in England – some describe it as an obsession, other’s like Jenny Wormald point out that James mainly bent his concerns towards preventing alternative claimants, well aware that within England itself there really was no one credible, with the rather embarrassing exception of his Mum, Mary. And odd to relate, there was an alternative; Robert Preston, Jesuit and friend to the sowing of confusion in Protestant England had proposed that Isabella of Spain would be a suitable Catholic alternative.
James’ foreign policy through out his reign is not always successful, but his early years demonstrated a few things. The first was that he would as far as possible refuse to be constrained by religion from establishing relationships abroad; he tried hard to keep his options open, maintaining relations with France, Spain and even the Pope for example – though preventing Isabella’s feeble claims was of course a motivator in Spain’s case. The attitude of course derived from practical and sensible strategy of giving himself options to reduce England’s isolation, but also from some of his more attractive qualities – a sincere hatred of war and desire to keep peace, which he’ll show to over optimistic heights later in his reign; and a hatred of religious persecution. Although a convinced protestant, he accepted Catholicism as a true religion, which many in the kirk absolutely did not, and thought the recusancy laws in England to be barbaric – amd had them banished on the first opportunity.
However, such conversations with Catholic powers weren’t without domestic consequences – they definitively put the wind up the kirk. I know mildly rude joke about that expression, not going to tell you it though. Equally, it put the wind up lairds and protestant lords, because James showed a distressing, from their point of view, acceptance of Catholic lords such as Huntly, Crawford, Montrose and Errol and refused to banish them from court.
But the English succession did rather begin to push James into a more defined position. Because in England the diplomatic situation was changing. In 1584 an assassain decided it was time to collect Philip II’s money, and he made sure William the Silent, Prince of Orange would earn his nickname for the rest of time. Finally, Elizabeth was forced to remove the splinters from her backside, come down from the fence and complete a formal alliance with the Dutch, making war with Spain inevitable, if it hadn’t been already. Now there was an urgency to complete an alliance to secure the back door for the English. Still Elizabeth was pathologically unable to do what James really wanted and confirm his title – but it was an open secret now, though no one dared say it in the presence of the queen – it was James or nowt. Or of course abject suppression after defeat from Spain, and Isabella. James’ confidence was reflected in his agreement of the treaty of Berwick, although Maitland though he could squeeze a little more. But the result was a defensive alliance in 1586, which lead to some significant consequences. Firstly, England had its re-assurance; secondly James received a stipend of £30,000 Scots a year. Not bad given his total income was £120,000 Scots, and also an implicit recognition that yup, this bloke is the next in line. This implication may not have been quite enough for James but it helped; in a lesser sense than his mother but to some extent at least, James was keen for recognition because it would improve his prestige. There’s no getting away from it – England was a bigger richer country than Scotland, and being it’s recognized heir added great prestige. Don’t look at me like that, it’s true. Thirdly, the Auld Alliance with France was now comprehensively dead and consigned to history, and Scotland and England aligned.
One further consequence came in the Borders, with agreements to work across the Border between the Scottish and English authorities and try to bring the violence of daily life in the land of the Revivers to an end. As we know, borders create conflict, and it’s really not until the Dual Monarchy that dramatic change comes in the Borders, but James was focussed in his dislike of lawlessness in the what he would come to call the Middle Shires of Britain and genuinely tried to bring the inhabitants in from the misery of the almost daily and casual violence. Or, if you were something of a bandit, bring the inhabitants and their natural and historic way of life to an end.
The new treaty was to immediately face an almost terminal challenge with the discovery of the Babbington plot, the latest in a line of plots and foreign sponsored threats to put Mary on the English throne and Elizabeth in a box. This time Mary was put on trial. The Scots were, understandably enough outraged. James wrote to Elizabeth making quite clear what was at stake here – that the trial of a sovereign monarch was an abomination. He had a dig by saying that Henry VIII’s worst moment was when he’d executed his queen, and that was nowhere near as bad as this – a clear reference to Anne Boleyn of course, and sending Elizabeth into one of her rages. The whole circus he declared, had put Scotland in a fury – he could hard move ‘for the crying out of the people’ against the English queen.
Much of Europe of course was entirely with the Scots on this – absolutely agog with the prospect of the trial of an annointed monarchs, but deep down quite convinced that there was no way the English could follow through with the public trial of an anointed queen, and surely the English would back down and well execution – that was quite clearly utterly was unthinkable. Well they all should have known better and were forced to think again; the consistent threats and looming prospect of Spanish invasion had created a compelling logic in England, and they were merciless. It didn’t help the English or James that Mary her finest in death, similar to Charles I really, and died quite magnificently.
Suddenly the French forgot that they’d cut her loose and chucked her out and she became a popular saint. Who says the English are the hypcrites, eh? Phillip II was delighted since now he could add revenge for the Martyrdom of a brave and beautiful Catholic queen to his list of justifications for the invasion of England. But in Scotland the fury was deep felt and visceral. The religious angle wasn’t there because of course Mary was a Catholic, but the deep feeling of insult and injustice was; at the end of the parliament the entire assembly knelt and swore vengeance for the murder of their queen by the English tyrant. On the western Borders Lord Maxwell mobilised Borderers and demanded the Scots invade to avenge the national insult.
So as you can imagine for the young 21 king this was an intensely sensitive situation. ‘Excuse me, you cut off my mother’s what?’. What on earth was he to do – national pride demanded a raid for vengeance. Personal pride demanded he teach the English a sharp lesson, blood for blood. But to be honest, the removal of Mary, say it softly, was actually deeply helpful to James, if we are going to be cold hearted about it – it virtually confirmed his accession to the English throne, and though he clearly honoured his mother in a formal way, he would have had no memory of her. And if he satisfied national pride by visiting fire on the English and cancelling the treaty of Berwick what then? He’d be forced into the arms of Catholic powers where his people, though in a red rage at the moment, would very quickly see they didn’t want as an increasingly convinced protestant country.
James played what is known in the Historian’s lexicon as a bit of blinder. He refused to see the English Ambassador, and he wrote a short letter full of bitter irony for the Queen’s protestation that the warrant for Mary’s execution had been executed without her permission, and demanded full satisfaction. But then he moved on, and chose the path of his country’s longer term desires and best interests – the English throne and the survival of their protestant reformation.
Thereafter James allowed relationships to thaw, promising Elizabeth his full support for example as the Armada made its way towards the English Riviera. He cultivated relationships with influential English lords where he could, though sometimes choosing badly – the Earl of Essex for example. But he also established a relationship with Robert, William Cecil’s son and replacement power broker at the heart of English government. There were panics – about the revival of the Spanish Infanta’s claims, and at one stage James even asked for a tax to raise an army to invade England. His lairds and Burghs in parliament told him an invasion of England would be draft, get a grip, and he backed down. But despite these incidents, it was increasingly clear that he was a shoo in, and his relationship with Cecil exactly the right one to make sure that it was.
The parliament of 1587, with the king and his now right hand man Maitland firmly in control, felt like a new start, with members at the Tollbooth decked out in new style robes. It was an important occasion too with a number of innovations, the odd one of which would later worry James. One of these was the withdrawal of episcopal revenues to the crown. Now the Kirk whinged gently, as the kirk was wont to do, that it saw none of the resulting revenues; and James no doubt agreed to it because it gave a substantial additional income to the government. But its impact was sneakily wider than that; we’ve just seen the Black Acts, seeking to re-establish royal authority over the kirk through the vital intermediary of the Bishops. And now suddenly hey presto, said office was cut off at the knees by having its main source of its income removed. Many in the kirk saw this very well – and Maitland would be able to count on the support of the kirk, even of Andrew Melville – which was, politically speaking, most handy.
Maitland’s agenda was to focus on building a noblesse de Robe. Well, that might be a little grand – there’s no talk among historians of a Stuart Revolution in government, probably Maitland’s vision was a little more piecemeal and limited , to simply clip the wings of the problem as he saw it – the upper aristocracy, and to strengthen central government and administration. But it’s interesting to see this in the wider European context. Across Europe, notably France and Spain as I think we have mentioned before, but also in England, the New Monarchies as I think they are called had been focusing on nation building – seeking to remove odd franchises and minorities to create one coherent nation and set of values. The persecution of the Waldensians in France is a good example, but religious wars in France caused chaos to the policy; in Spain the persecution of the Moriscos under Phillip II effectively removed his fear that they could be a state within a state. In England, Cromwell’s reforms – the integration of Wales into a united kingdom, the removal of Marcher lords and Franchises, and the policy of surrender and regrant aimed at the creation of a unitary nation state.
Part of this lay in governance – the need for a new and efficient administration to gather the taxation needed for the constant continental wars between Valois and Hapsburg, and administration that must be loyal to crown and crown only. Herein lies the expression nobelesse de Robe. Obviously, it’s you know French innit, as 16th and 17th France saw a big increase in the sale of offices to ambitious members of the middling sort – lawyers, military men, landowners. Those offices might give political power and influence, including presence on one or other parlements, and quickly became hereditary. Now, the traditional great noble families hated this; nobility was conferred by ancient title not some grant of office by the crown surely, why was the crown insulting them so? Sacred Blue. So the traditional knightly class called themselves Noblesse de l’epee – nobles of the sword. Proper nobles, not oiks. And by the way, unlike in England, once a noble always a noble no matter whether or not you inherited the title, there was much less social flexibility in the Ancien Regime. So the noble class just grew, and grew.
Why am I telling you all this? Because to some degree now both Maitland and James wished to take the same path. The obvious route was to encourage a trend; the growing involvement in public life of the Lairdly class, substantial local landowners, though generally non noble. In 1428 there had been a law empowering Lairds to elect members to come to parliament; in 1587 that law was revived, in an attempt to bring lairds to the centre. Actually, it wasn’t a great success; James didn’t call many parliaments as we’ll hear later, but it was very successful in creating a connection and contact between crown and lairds, pulling more into the centre in search for government roles.
The other obvious route lay in encouraging an existing development, the growth of the professionalism and size of her legal profession because you know you can never have enough lawyers. The growing legal profession, driven particularly in the lowlands by the use of written title to land and the increasing use of law to establish rights rather than you know, calling out the clan for a barney. Maitland wished to extend the competence of royal justice, which for him had multiple whammies; it increased royal authority and reach, gave jobs for lairds who owed their job to king rather than by right of lineage, and encouraged centralisation of power and the power of the nation state.
This flew in the face of the traditional way of managing Scotland, which had often worked very well if done by an effective and active monarch who could command the loyalty of the magnates, and therefore have confidence they would rule their regions well, but do so in the name of the king. And James’ half full attitude was that this was the right role for his magnates, their traditional role and their right. So legal reform was limited bringing more aspects of criminal justice, namely murder, into the competence of the Kings Court; and to an extent, very few in the lowlands resisted the move – more, high quality royal justice was the cry, not get out of my face. But James was relaxed in generally allowing the aristocracy to continue to administer and rule on disputes in the traditional manner of feuding; albeit the tradition in the lowlands of feuding and manrent was dying fast in favour of shire courts, assizes and sessions. And in the latter, Lairdly power was growing too – Maitland authorised lairds to run the shire courts and quarter sessions, though this was in practice, only haltingly successful.
There is a bigger angle to this nation state thing though, the integration of the regions, and the reduction of regional differences Scotland – of which had its fair share – highlands and Western Isles, and Northern Isles in particular. James’ reign saw an uptick in the effort to reduce the autonomy of both – but I figure we’ll have an episode on that next time if that’s OK with you. In the meantime though, parliament issued a General Band for both Highlands and Borders which made landlords and Clan Chiefs responsible for the behaviour of their followers. In a way that emphasised traditional roles, and may not have made a big difference in the Highlands; in the Borders, as part of James’ crack down on Reiver violence, it began to have an impact. All of these changes, though imperfectly effective individually, encouraged and built a direct relationship between Crown and localities, communication routes, patronage and power that bypassed regional magnates.
By 1589 James appeared firmly established on the throne; the Ruthven raid was a receding memory, the fall of Arran had confirmed James’ personal control, and beyond his minority there was little incentive to use violence for political influence surely – seizing the body of an adult king was a very proposition to that of seizing the king as a minor. Otherwise known as you know, rebellion and treason. So, discussions and thoughts had been going on about another royal duty – the responsibility to produce lots of little heirs, which traditionally as you may know required a tango partner. And without being too functional, the choice ought to be someone that used the opportunity to marry well and help spread Scotland’s influence.
Now the debate about who took a bit of time, with everyone sticking their oar in – Elizabeth of course, as a professional full time oar sticker wanted James to marry a Huguenot candidate, Mary while still alive of course had an opinion and from 1586 to 1588 there was much dithering. But in the end it was the 24 year old Anne of Denmark, daughter of King Frederick III, that was selected for good solid reasons. Although the Orkneys and Shetland Islands had been transferred to Scotland from Denmark in the reign of James III, there was still something of a question mark about sovereignty that could be resolved; Denmark was important to Scottish traders who did a lot of business in Denmark and the Baltic, and Denmark was reliably Protestant, though Lutheran rather than Calvinist.
Once an embassy had agreed in principle, it all turned into a bit of a hooley; James legged it over to Denmark to woo his bride and ah, well you know get a bit of hunting in, and took his minsters such as John Maitland with him to do the work. A dowry of £150,000 Scots was agreed, possession of the Northern Isles confirmed, and many small animals successfully slaughtered. Anne’s trousseau filled 16 ships, and they set off for her new home on 5th September 1589. Anne and James had not actually met.
This they did in Oslo, funnily enough, on the way home. Anne was apparently a bit taken aback when James tried to kiss her on the first date ‘after the Scottish fashion’. History is silent as to what this involves in practice, so if you have any suggestions, clean ones that is, pop them on a postcard. Anyway, their church marriage took place in Oslo in November, and presumably the kissing after the Scottish and Danish fashions could begin.
The relationship was generally a strong and loving one, with its rocky moments. Anne objected to Maitland who had opposed the match, so they had a bit of a falling out – Anne fiddled essentially a bit in politics, including friendship with the Earl of Bothwell. But things didn’t really hit the rocks until the birth of their first child, Prince Henry in February 1594. Obviously everyone was thoroughly delighted at the prospect of an assured succession, but then Anne discovered that she wouldn’t be able to keep custody of her son – he was to be removed to Stirling castle and the guardianship of the Earl of Mar. Anne was gutted, bitter, and probably never quite forgave James. Still, Anne had 7 children in all, but tragically only two survived for a substantial time after Henry – one Charles, and Elizabeth. James and Anne were so distraught at their various childrens’ deaths that they refused to attend their funerals.
Anne was a real asset to James’ kingship. She shared his high view of kingship – and if you crossed her therefore you’d essentially had your chips, but she behaved with regal charm and dignity and supported the monarchy effectively; her royal lineage brough great prestige. The biggest problem was her religious backsliding – while a Lutheran when she arrived, by 1594 she’d converted effectively to Catholicism, and as you might expect this did not sit well with the kirk. Not one little bit.