History has treated James roughly – helped by a 17th century hatchet job. But over the last 50 years, there has been much more appreciation of the challenges he faced, and his skill in meeting them.
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Well, we’ve been through a lot together you and I, especially recently, through multiple horrors – Cossack invasions and murder of 100s of thousands, wars, deluges, religious conflict and expulsions, the death of millions in Germany, the persecution of witches – I mean phew! Such good news to be able to return to the green and pleasant lands of the north Atlantic archipelago, where the weather is never too hot, never too cold, the rain falls and the flowers bloom and soft breezes waft you to paradise at the end of the day. To where, with James VI of Scotland becoming the Ist of England, Ireland and Wales, at last the peoples of said archipelago could live together in the same blessed peace, mutual love and respect in which they have remained to this very day.
I’m being slightly ironic of course, you won’t find a lot of peace and harmony in these pages let me tell you, this is history we are talking here not Mills & Boon or Michael Buble. But if we ever do reach that place of peace, harmony and so on, you’ll be the first to know, promise. Anyway, despite my golden rule to never apologise and never explain, some apologies and explanations do none the less now follow. By the way I have attributed the never apologise and never explain advice to my Grandmother, and a debate on FB led me to apologise and explain, which I think is almost Kafkaesque; it was not my Granny, whose advice generally was along the don’t speak with your mouth full variety, and I was being ironic – I don’t really think it’s good advice, although there are extreme circumstances where it might be I guess. Pop suggestions for such circumstances into the post, if you like.
Anyway, apologies and explanations. Firstly, if you are members, there will be a deal of duplication, since we are ahead now in the History of Scotland and so have spoken of Jimmy VI; and this first episode will inevitably be about Jimmy’s historiography and earlier career in the Land of the Free. So – sorry. Secondly also I must repeat the same excuses I offered in the History of Scotland. This is that we are heading very close to the United Kingdom now; just for the moment there’ll be no union, just a dual monarchy, 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 Archipelago, 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 so ma y years ago because
- I’m English, a narrow-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.
That out of the way, let me introduce you not to the Ladybird history of 1066 and all that just yet – though courage mes braves, I will not ignore those august speakers of history, but on this occasion we are going to start with a Kentish gentleman whose family had held minor offices in the royal household for some generations, and like Henry Higgins, had therefore grown accustomed to her face. In 1617, the latest member of the family who shall remain nameless but is in fact Anthony Weldon of 22 Acacia Avenue, accompanied his boss king James back to Scotland. The story goes that Mr Weldon was not impressed with the Scots, wrote some thoroughly scurrilous notes which would be published as a ‘Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland’. It 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. The story goes that in revenge he then wrote treatises on the court and characters of James and his son Charles, which form the most effective hatchet job in the history of hatchet jobs, a reputation which has lived for hundreds of years.
I think you will know some of them. My favourite is the one about the size of his tongue – apparently too big for his mouth, so he slobbered. There was also this one which Weldon suggested probably should be attributed to Henry IV of France
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
Which is quite clever. Elsewhere, our Tony was less subtle; James apparently was uncouth, cursed and blasphemed constantly, and get this, fiddled constantly with his codpiece. Honestly, if that did happen to be true, I suspect he’s not alone in the history of blokes’ personal habits. James was painted as a coward, who would not go to war for Protestantism as was his duty. He was extravagant in gifts to his countrymen who swarmed over him like bees round a honeypot and ruined the finances of plucky little England thereby. He had sticky legs so had to hang on his courtiers shoulders to keep himself upright, and drank way too much. Plus he had male favourites with whom he was way too familiar matron to the level which offended many sexual mores of the 17th century Kentish gent. All of this, it has to be said, made great copy, in fact if you listen carefully you can hear the editor at the Sun breathing fast and heavily such is their pleasure and delight and professional admiration. So compelling was his copy that much of the mud has stuck firmly to James’ codpiece and been repeated through the ages, and taken as gospel by more than one solemn and poe-faced historian. Including, I might say, the considerably less than poe faced Sellar and Yeatman. But look – how could they have resisted such comedy?
Well, there are a couple of odd things about this story. Firstly the offending treatise wasn’t published until after his death – Weldon died in 1648 and the work was published in 1650. Also, in actual fact he continued on happily in the King’s employ for 6 years after the supposed discovery and enjoyed other marks of royal favour. The concept of a courtier seeking revenge therefore through the writing therefore seems very questionable. It might just be that this image owes more to the later historiography of the Stuarts, and rather more to the misfortunes of his son, Charles I under whom, I don’t think I am spoiling the plot by revealing the Stuart dynasty suffers something of a blow. It might well be that all of this was written by political satirists seeking to explain why the dynasty came to grief – and it would help if James was a loser.
Either way it stuck, and part of the reason for it’s stickiness was the same reason as for all effective political satire – it had more than a kernel of truth to it, and bits of it at least are attested to by other observers, some of them ambassadors and therefore presumably above tawdry court politics when they reported home. James was 37 when he arrived in blighty. He was described as a man
Rather tall than low, well set and somewhat plump of ruddy complexion
And with light brown hair and a ‘very thin’ beard. But he may have had rickets when he was young, and always walked rather slowly and uncertainly
His carriage ungainly his steps erratic and vagabond
He was indeed often seen to lean on his courtiers’ shoulders, and James himself claimed to be of ‘feeble body’ and that he could ‘not labour long at business. Even his supporter Francis Bacon found his accent difficult to deal with and described his speech as
Swift and cursory, and in the full dialect of his country
Plus, the court from which James came was very different to the English court, and James’ Scottish courtiers would struggle with it too – England was much richer, the court much grander and more formal; the Tudors after all had been masters of the Public Image and not in a limited way. In Scotland, court was smaller and more informal – and actually James had a talent for it – he was friendly, good at the banter, ready and willing to sink a few with his lords and ladies and it worked a treat. The thing about walking with his hands up on the courtiers’ shoulder was seen as a mark of royal favour rather than a sign that he needed a human walking stick or else he’d fall over. And it has to be said that James was an absolute sucker for hunting, he was always at it – drove his ministers bonkers, often having to trail around after the man to get papers signed and decisions made and all that – so, the point I am making is that he got some exercise and that magic formula that drove my mother’s entire medical cabinet, fresh air. Nothing a bit of fresh air can’t solve. Feeling sick – get a bit of Fresh air. Worried about exams? Go for a walk? Emotionally devastated because, Julie, the love of your life, is now going out with Gordon? Get a bit of fresh air, take deep breaths, you’ll soon feel better. But, in the more formal atmosphere in London, James’ down to earth bonhommie all jarred a bit. And there’s no doubt he burned the candle at both end, and didn’t run the most glittering court; I’m told he didn’t masticate his food properly and drank like a fish, and things could get out of hand; when his wife’s relatives visited from Denmark in 1606 to the country house at Theobalds, which he’d swapped out from the Cecils, the reception degenerated into a drunken shambles. A French observer at the Scottish court called Fontenay found James’ manners
Rude and very uncivil both in speaking, eating, clothes, games and conversation in the company of women
Which is a reasonably comprehensive list. All of this did have a positive side in personal relationships with some courtiers – but James did not have the Tudor gift of emanating magnificence and power; the Venetian ambassador noted that he did
Not caress the people nor make them that good cheer the late Queen did, whereby she won their love
Instead, he seemed to regard them, according to said ambassador, with ‘contempt and dislike’. When James went hunting, obviously the locals turned out to see God’s anointed pass by, and James absolutely hated it, and wished they’d all just buzz off, wishing that he could
Make an inhibition that while hee hunted his Deere the people should not hunt him
I hate to sound like a suck up, but you can imagine how differently Queen Liz would have dealt with the flocks of admirers. So it’s an odd contrast really – James had the hail fellow well met touch with his courtiers; but did not have the common touch. It also gives an insight into James’ attitude to the nobility – with whom he obviously felt more comfortable. As we’ll hear, James had a turbulent upbringing as a lad with factional infighting and of course the small matter of his Mum being deposed, and therefore had a determination to bring his nobility strictly under the control of the monarch, to make sure everyone knew who was at the top of the divinely ordained pyramid. But don’t for a moment misconstrue that hatred of political chaos and disorder for a dislike of his nobility; he saw them very much as the natural rulers of society, and was at pains to maintain them in their proper dignity – often at very considerable financial cost to the state.
Anthony Weldon’s accusation that James was the wisest fool in Christendom’ was clever. Because it undermined James’ very obvious love of learning and his exceptional knowledge, and even his considerable writing talent. He is one of very few monarchs with a series of publications to his name, including poetry. Once upon a time his writings were sneered at, but the very highly regarded historian Jenny Wormald comprehensively saved him from that fate. Many of his writings give a fascinating insight into his politics; the Basilikon Doron for example, a manual on kingship for his heir Henry; and the Trew Law of Free Monarchie. He had a fascination for witchcraft, and wrote a book on the topic called Daemonology, and then left a collection of poems. There is no doubt that he was a scholar, and intelligent with it; Fontenay again, remarked that as a younger man james
Grasps and understands quickly…judges carefully and with reasonable discourses
Learned in many languages, sciences and affairs of state
As to whether or not all this intelligence and learning made him wise – well, I shall let you be in the judge in the fullness of time. Though I would like to pass on the eternal truth told to me by Brummie’s favourite artist and philosopher Rob Halford of Judas Priest, at some volume I have to say, that you don’t have to be old to be wise. Great insight, I have never forgotten it.
As to his oratorical skills – well the jury is out a bit. Clearly James liked communicating his knowledge and philosophy; at parliaments for example he would speak frequently for an hour or more, and picked up some compliments. Equally others rather preferred his son Charles, who struggled with a stammer as a youth and therefore kept things short, and Brevity is the soul of wit according to the bard.
So I have a couple more observations to make on the king’s character. One very startling one was his absolute passion for favourites, for male favourites in particular – his career is strewn with them from an early age, starting with Esme Stuart the Earl of Lennox in his youth, to Robert Carr the Earl of Somerset in the early 17th century, and the magnificent peacock that was George Villiers, aka the Duke of Buckingham. The impact this has on politics is a thing, which I will let unfold, but just as a super summary, far from a good thing, but not as bad as Piers Gaveston or the Despensers, if you remember the impact they made. But James was similarly absolutely unreserved about his admiration and love for them. When Esme Stuart fell foul of the Scottish concerns about his religion, and was despatched back to France, the young James was gutted, and wrote a poem about a Phoenix, as lovers do. His language and letters to his favourites were unreserved and this all did not pass unnoticed. One commentator in England noted that James chose his favourites on the basis of their looks and that
The love the king shewed was as amorously conveyed as if he had mistaken their sex, and thought them ladies
Another, John Oglander wrote that James
Loved young men, his favourites, better than women, loving them beyond the love of men to women
And that he’d never seen
Any fond husband make so much or so great dalliance over his beautiful spouse
Well, the more fault husbands, eh? James caressed his favourites in public, kissed them, wrote love letters, shared hid bed with them. And so he come to the same question we’ve had for a few of England’s monarchs – was James homosexual, and if so were these relationships physically realised? And yet again, we are short of definitive evidence. On the one hand James would have publicly agreed that sodomy was an offence – indeed he described it in Basilikon Doron that it was a crime ‘ye are bound in conscience never to forgive’; and his wife Anne of Denmark conceived 7 children, and for a good period of his life, James was perfectly uxorious, though less so in later years. On the other hand there is no doubt that the emotions James felt towards Esme, Carr and Villiers were deep, powerful and physical, and it is a very short step to imagine that the relationships became fully physical. But it is of course impossible to be definitive.
The last point before coming to the historiography of the reign is the accusation by Weldon that James was a coward. Now once again it’s a clever accusation, because on the surface it has a sheen of believability; there comes a stage when James’ kingdoms are hot for him to pick up the musket as a protestant champion. But James deserves great credit I think in being genuinely concerned to avoid violence if at all possible; he would cast himself in the role of peacemaker at the start of the Thirty Years War; he also clearly thought that the idea of killing people for their religion was a sign of failure and barbaric – he said that persecution could never lead to conviction, and only 19-25 priests were to be executed in his reign. Now James is distressingly inconsistent; so this is the man who transplanted the Borders Graham clan to Ireland, who established the Ulster Plantations, he allows the almost indiscriminate use of Martial law in Ireland; he’s quite capable of violence and conflict. But he rather stands out on the right side of the line at a time of quite outstanding levels of violence in Europe at the time.
Right well it’s time to talk about the historiography of James – how has history treated the lad? As do all scholars of renown we must turn first of all to Sellar and Yeatman, who have certainly swallowed the Weldon line. In their judicious and carefully considered view, 1066 and all That records that
James I slobbered at the mouth and had favourites; he was therefore a Bad King. He had, however and very logical and tidy mind, and one of the first things he did was to have Sir Walter Ralegh executed for being left over from the previous reign
The other notable things the sacred text considers worth mentioning from the reign were the planting of Scots back into Ireland, the Gunpowder Plot, since the loyal Guy Fawkes wanted to help James achieve his formula of 0 Bishops and 0 king, so he tried to blow up both. And then it mentions a ship called the Mayfly. Which I think just about covers it.
Then there’s the Ladybird kings and Queens, and I have to say that – oops, there’s old Weldon again:
James was never a popular king. He was ungainly and slovenly in appearance, and untrustworthy and deceitful. He believed that a king could do no wrong and his persecution of the Catholics resulted in many plots being formed against him
Well good golly Miss Molly, that is a hatchet job and a half no wonder the children of 1968 kept trying to re-enact the Gunpowder plot in Chemistry lessons. Lawrence du Garde Peach would very clearly have been right alongside V for Vendetta trying to blow up parliament if he could.
Then let’s have Jane Austen shall we, who was much more positive
Yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him
Which is nice. Followed though by something of a severe criticism of Catholicism
As I am myself partial to the roman catholic religion, it is with infinite regret that I am obliged…to say that in this reign the roman catholics of England did not behave like gentlemen to the protestants
Strong words indeed, Mr Darcy, strong words indeed; possibly a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but don’t quote me on that, and maybe Jane’s tongue was firmly in her cheek, where it was often wont t be. Among less serious commentators, there is a general theme to which we will return; that James VI was a super successful monarch, and James I was rubbish, a dichotomy which Jenny Wormald put down to English anti Scottish prejudice – tsk, those English eh, such a bad lot – and Whig historians put down to James’ inability to deal with the English parliament. I suppose in essence it’s a selection problem; do you pick for form, or for current performance? However, the Scottish/English dichotomy has become a little less severe in historical thinking, the Scots seeing in James the seeds of later trouble, and the English recognising the intractable problems he faced.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, the reviews were initially positive – James’ wit and repartee were gathered into a text of his sayings, the Archbishop of St Andrews John Spotiswoode wrote positively of his bishop loving king. But quite soon, traditions both side of the border began to apply a corrosive to the gleaming metal posts of the edifice that was James’ reputation. In Scotland, the Presbyterians rapidly had to re-invent history in their own image, which required that the most perfect Scottish kirk had never liked or wanted bishops, it was only James that had forced them on the poor groaning Scottish people. In England, an explanation had to be sought as to why everything had gone pear shaped and led to civil war, and having a lazy and degenerate king helped; though an alternative tradition survived in England too – Clarendon instead pointed for a cause to the civil wars as a ‘heedless younger generation, bored with tranquility’ which as a reason for plunging all three kingdoms into civil war would seem, well shallow. For Clarendon James reign and indeed Charles’ had brought ‘uninterrupted pleasures and plenty’. But from there Scottish historians tended to concentrate on James’ struggles with his aristocracy, and in England his struggles with parliament, and for both James’ sexuality became a moral problem.
The Whig historians got involved in the 19th century, and in 1863 S R Gardiner gave James some Brownie points as an able and intelligent man, shrewd, often exercising good judgement; but making a series of howlers – misjudging Spain’s diplomacy, his infatuation with his favourites, his financial failings and his shortcomings in understanding and managing the English parliament. James had an exalted view of royal supremacy which flew in the face of history’s inevitable march, as far as the Whigs were concerned, towards British parliamentary democracy, where perfection was to be achieved.
In the 20th century, in 1956 came the first modern biography by D. H. Wilson, and it’s a study that seems itself to astonish other historians rather than its subject James; ODNB remarks that ‘every page proclaimed its author’s increasing hatred for his subject.’ It is Weldon once more who rules, a portrait of the disgusting, cowardly pedant, with a conceit which far outweighed his real ability.
That was however, the low tide mark; after that we hit a bit more of the flood tide with a resurgence of respect for the man and his talents. Historians noted a few things about James’ reign; they noted that although James had all the financial rectitude of a trader on the London Stock exchange or Wall Street – or maybe of Del Boy on the Peckham market, his failure to raise sufficient taxation meant that his subjects were considerably more prosperous; they also pointed out that possibly it was a good thing that unlike most other western European powers and despite pressure from his subjects, James did not embroil his country in a ruinous war that resulted in vast expense and the death of millions. Possibly, just possibly, that was a good decision. Also, on James’s exalted view of monarchical powers which the Whigs had scorned so much – well, it was recognised that many of James’ contemporaries shared his views, they were by no means so novel as the Whigs claimed. Meanwhile Scottish historians such as Gordon Donaldson made the point that James had become king at the princely age of 1, and after years of factional infighting could have become a cipher – and yet in fact re-established the prestige and effectiveness of the monarchy, so much so that he was able to become an absentee and rule Scotland, as James himself boasted, by the pen alone.
Meanwhile James the writer was rescued by Jenny Wormald who unpicked the quality of his works, and pointed out that the problems of dealing with an English parliament way more ponderous than the nimble Scottish version would have given anyone problems.
There then came a series of works to the current day which looked at James reign in a rather different way – as an interrelated and interacting history of 3 kingdoms – England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the Atlantic Archipelago. This certainly brought a lot of light to the civil war era, but equally, although James failed in his attempt to create one united Britain, he set in train a process that would lead to a unified British kingdom that would last until the end of the end of the 19th century, and again to the start of the 21st century. The most recent works by Pauline Crofts and Tim Harris take a sort of janus like approach. On the one hand, they praise James for his skilful handling of very difficult and intractable problems – keeping the lid on the boiling pot of English religion, avoiding any serious rebellions in Ireland, ruling Scotland through some talented managers, keeping us all out of the 30 Years War. But while giving with the Janus face of pleasure, they turn to the Janus face of terror, and note that although he managed to sit on the pot and keep the lid on, he really didn’t resolve these problems. They don’t quite say that the civil wars were the result, but the implication is that unless there was an equally or more skilled successor – the pot would definitely boil over eventually – and therefore he passed something of a hospital ball to his lad. Michael Lynch took a similar approach in Scotland – while continuing the general praise for the way that James managed the first half of this reign in Scotland, points out that in the Five Articles of Perth and James’ religious policy, he failed primed the gun which would go off in Charles’ face.
Now look, this is a slightly short episode, but this seems far too good a place to stop, so although this is not at the bottom and it’s not at the top, yet this is the step where we just must stop. On our way up the stairs there is an absolute blinder of a topic we’ve not covered – which is of course James’ view of kingship, and we’ll cover that next time through James’ kingly education and achievements in Scotland from 1567 to 1603, and what that meant for the king that would pick up Elizabeth’s crown.