James VI and I

by John Butler

James VI and IJames I of England and VI of Scotland was born in 1566, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry, Lord Darnley. James had to face difficulties from his earliest years—his mother was an incompetent ruler who quarrelled with politicians and churchmen such as John Knox, and she may have been involved in the murder of her husband Darnley, himself a worthless character. The murder was carried out partly to avenge the slaying of Mary's secretary and possible lover, David Rizzio or Riccio, in which Darnley played a part (before James's birth), and it also enabled Mary to marry her current lover, the Earl of Bothwell. Mary was deposed by the Scottish lords in 1567, and fled to England, where she sought the protective custody of Elizabeth I, who clapped her in prison and had her beheaded twenty years later.

James grew up under various regencies and a couple of notable tutors, the poet, dramatist and humanist George Buchanan, and Peter Young, whose good nature and enthusiasm for lighter reading somewhat offset the formidable learning and sometimes overbearingly serious teaching methods of Buchanan. James chafed against Buchanan and disliked him, but in later years would boast that he had been the great man's pupil. Buchanan instilled in James political theories which included the idea that the king is beholden to the people for his power, a belief which James later came to reject in favour of Divine Right kingship. From Young he learned to appreciate poetry (Buchanan wrote Latin poetry of a largely didactic nature, and encouraged James to read mostly Latin and Greek books) and delved deeply into his mother's library of French verse and romances. James developed a genuine love of learning (he was not, as many authors have claimed, a mere pedant), some skill in writing poetry, and a lively prose style. He also showed an interest in plays, including those of Shakespeare and Jonson, and was particularly fond of the masque, which would become the leading form of court entertainment when James became King of England in 1603. His marriage to Anne of Denmark, herself a great patron of masques and a connoisseur of literature, may have piqued his interest in this particularly royal form of entertainment, with its music, dancing, singing and elaborate sets designed by Inigo Jones. Of the children of King James and Queen Anne, only three survived to adulthood: Henry, Prince of Wales, who died untimely in 1612, possibly of typhoid fever, Charles, who succeeded his father as king, and Princess Elizabeth, who married Frederick V, Elector Palatine.

James published his first book in 1584, entitled The Essays of a Prentice in the Divine Art of Poesy, which he followed up in 1591 with His Majesties Poetical Exercises at Vacant Hours. In the first book James included some translations he had made from du Bartas, whose Uranie takes the muse Urania and transforms her into a Christian figure representing the Holy Spirit, an idea which appealed to James at the time, because he thought he could employ poetry for the dissemination of his religious and political beliefs. As a King, James had a special relationship with God and could therefore write religious poetry from a special viewpoint. James's poetry is competent, and sometimes he manages a striking line or two; one of his best poems is the sonnet he wrote prefacing his book Basilikon Doron (1599).

The majority of James's written works are concerned with theology and the justification of the theory of Divine Right, and for those reasons he must be considered as a major writer of political philosophy. In lively style and with considerable learning he defended the Oath of Allegiance which Catholics were required to take, disputed it with the great Cardinal Bellarmine, wrote two books on Divine Right, one, Basilikon Doron, for the edification of his son Prince Henry (1594-1612) and the other, The True Law of Free Monarchies, was a simple explanation of his theories for the general literate public. D.H. Willson, one of James's biographers, calls the first book "entertaining and quotable" (133) and also cites Francis Bacon as finding that it "filled the whole realm as with a good perfume or incense, being excellently written and having nothing of affectation" (166). James's comment on Bacon's Advancement of Learning was "it was like the peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Ashton 142). James also wrote some rather moving "Meditations on the Lord's Prayer" and a justly famous essay, "A Counterblast to Tobacco" (1604), one of the first, and surely one of the best attacks on smoking ever written. Smoking, James tells us, is "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless."

James's interest in literature was tied in with a shrewd sense of propaganda. He realised that books, masques, sermons, and plays could all be employed in the service of the king, that they were the media which could best disseminate his views of kingship and impress upon a large number of people its power and majesty. The court masque, expensive and elaborate, baroque and ritualistic, symbolised that power and majesty, and the king's physical place as the focal point of the entertainment reinforced it further. Thus James and Queen Anne patronised Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, the great architect and designer of the sets for Jonson's masques. The publication of sermons, also, was of particular interest to the theologically-minded king, and his personal encouragement of the church career of John Donne, whom James appointed Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, was no accident, for Donne was a staunch supporter of kingly power and majesty, and often preached before the King himself, as did his eminent colleague Lancelot Andrewes, another of James's favourite divines.

James's political accomplishments (or lack thereof) as King do not concern us here, but suffice it to say that he has had a mixed reception from historians. Most agree that he was a success in Scotland but a partial failure in England, although recently his English kingship has undergone massive studies by Conrad Russell and others which have tended to show James in a much more favourable light. For example, he consistently strove for peace both at home and abroad, with varying success, but was determined never to go to war if it could be helped.

James I's impact on English literature is considerable, not least because of his encouragement of and participation in the translation of the Bible into English (1611), the translation that many people still consider the best, and which bears his name, the King James Bible. That, above everything he wrote, is James's monument, but his literary works deserve some credit, and he is always a pleasure to read.


1. Editions of James's works

  • King James VI and I. Political Writings. Johann P. Sommerville, Ed.
    Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Craigie, James, Ed. The Poems of James VI of Scotland.
    Edinburgh: Scottish Early Text Society, Vols. 22 and 26, 1955 and 1958.
  • Craigie, James. "Last Poems of James VI."
    Scottish Historical Review 29 (1950), 134-42.
  • McIlwain, C.H., Ed. The Political Works of James I.
    Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1918.

2. Biographies

  • Fraser, Antonia. King James VI of Scotland and James I of England.
    London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.
  • Lee, Maurice. England's Solomon: James VI and I in his Three Kingdoms.
    Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  • Mathew, David. King James I. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.
  • Willson, D.H. King James VI and I. London: Jonathan Cape, 1958.

3. Studies


To cite this resource:

Butler, John. "The Life of King James I of England."  Luminarium.
      22 Mar 2003. [Date you accessed the resource].

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