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How Far Were James I’s Problems Inherited, How Far of His Own Making?

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The position which James VI of Scotland inherited when he became James I of England was not one of imminent or inevitable danger but it was one for clear-sighted and realistic statesmanship. There is no doubt that James possessed some major shortcomings as a ruler, the most damaging of which were his over-reliance on favourites such as Buckingham, his complete neglect of his public image and his inability to live within his financial means. It would however be folly to presume that James’s statecraft was completely without redeeming features. His experience gleamed from rule in Scotland did prepare him, though not completely, for rule in England. As Alan Smith has said “James VI was one of the most successful Scottish monarchs but James I was a ‘relative failure’ as a ruler of England”. This statement however is over harsh and exemplifies a negative image of James pioneered by Anthony Weldon in the early seventeenth century. It is clear that James’s problems were on the whole of his own making.

It has been argued by many in the ‘Weldon school’ that amongst other things James I was “stammering, slobbering…trembling at a drawn sword and talking in a style alternately of a buffoon and a pedagogue.” More recently however historians have begun to emancipate themselves and present a ‘more balanced’ picture of James. This re-assessment was launched by historians of James’s rule in Scotland such as Gordon Donaldson and Jenny Wormald. The conclusion which they reached was that James was a ruler of ‘very remarkable political ability and sagacity in deciding on policy, and of conspicuous tenacity in having it carried out’. Given this assessment of his rule in Scotland it is hard to believe that he suffered serious deterioration in his powers of kingship in the journey several hundred miles south to his new kingdom. A further complicating factor in assessing James I’s rule is his son Charles. Inevitably those who have studied James I’s reign have been unable to put aside the cataclysmic events which followed and have felt compelled to comment on the extent to which James should be held responsible. However one must remember that Charles I was a very different ruler than James I, and whilst James’s problems did in some senses aid the build up to catastrophe, the civil war and national turmoil were in no sense James’s fault.

In assessing to what extent James I’s problems were inherited and to what extent they were of his own making one must first look at the climate of the time. In inheriting the throne from Elizabeth, James had gained what he had actively sought for many years. Having been king of Scotland for thirty-five years he had achieved some considerable successes and had made substantial progress in asserting his authority in Scotland both in ecclesiastical and secular spheres all through “skilful diplomacy”. He managed, though not seamlessly, to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland under one ruler and indeed boasted in 1607 in the English Parliament “…here I sit and govern Scotland with my pen: I write and it is done: and by a clerk of the council I govern Scotland now which others could not do with the sword”1. It is worth noting however that 1600-1620, arguably the ‘high water mark’ of his Scottish reign, was a period of good harvests and thus the people were generally satisfied. This reliable and steady food supply inevitably had some bearing on his ability to govern Scotland from the English throne. Jenny Wormald argues that whilst James VI was a successful ruler, the considerable political finesse and ability to deal with complex and threatening political and religious issues in Scotland did not mean that he would necessarily be so successful in England.

One of the key problems in James’s reign in England was his relationship with Parliament and the aristocracy. It is however difficult to define this as a problem ‘of his own making’ or an ‘inherited’ problem. Indeed James is quoted as saying in 1610 of Parliament “…I am a stranger and found it here when I arrived, so that I am obliged to put up with what I cannot get rid of”2. The idea that James moved from a sluggish Parliament in Scotland to an active one in England is ‘hardly supported by the evidence’3. Indeed in dome areas it was the other way around.

The Scottish Parliament was ‘far more effective’ at getting things done and in England the very sophistication of Parliament and the quantity of demands laid on it combined especially in this period to make it unwieldy. James could rightly complain about a Parliament which took 23 years to pass a bill on such a contentious issue as monopolies! There was also occasionally very poor attendance in the house. For example, in 1621 James famously and dramatically tore the protestation on the freedom of speech from the Journal on the grounds that less than a third of the house had been present to pass it. It was clear from the very start that James could expect problems from Parliament – in 1604 when it was first called, Parliament told his that it had only put up with the majority of Elizabeth’s policies because of her age and sex and that it therefore expected a much better deal from him4. Right from the beginning Parliament’s aims and the kings aims clashed which let to an atmosphere of “distrust and suspicion”. It is again difficult to assess whether this jarring of styles was an inherited problem of one of James’s own making.

In a sense one could see James’s inability to ‘get along’ with Parliament as being due to his Scottish roots. The Parliament in Scotland was much easier to deal with and were more deferential in terms of passing laws which the king wanted. In England James was always seen as being unable to grasp the “English way of threshing things out, which many English gentlemen had learned in their long experience with local government”. Could a king from Scotland never understand his English Parliament? Or did his Scottish experience allow his to see its problems all too clearly? The problem was essentially that he did not understand his aristocracy. The cult of adoration which Elizabeth had cultivated and even demanded was not ‘enforced’ under James but his head was turned by the practiced flattery and adulation with which Englishmen had learned to treat their rulers. Before 1603 James VI was to his Scottish subjects ‘our soverane lord’; after 1603 he was known as ‘his sacred majesty’.

Behind this flattery however lay distrust and sometimes scorn. One of the key problems in James’s reign was the effective ‘alienation’ of the king. Much attention has been given by historians to the ‘growth of distrust’ amongst the king’s English subjects. The jarring of styles between James and his subjects raises acutely the neglected theme of alienation of the king. In England he found it more difficult to indulge in his genuine love of learning and debate and was scorned for his intellectual efforts – for example Coke who irritatedly reminded his that the law was a technical subject which required long and rigorous training. Indeed it has been said that the ‘alienated intellectuals’ of Jacobean England were not confined to the universities; one of them sat on the throne. This was more than merely a personal consideration – a great political asset was now effectively denied him as he was cut off from the centres of debate and forced to act through intermediaries. In essence therefore one must consider James’s problems with Parliament to be a combination of an inherited problem due to Parliament’s nature, and also a problem of his own making due to his personality, style and inability to ‘get along’ with the house.

James inherited from Elizabeth I both a substantial debt of around �420,000 and a crown suffering from the effects of serous long-term under-funding9.It would be folly not to include James’s financial worries in a list of his problems, however, despite the relatively dismal circumstance he was left by Elizabeth it cannot be seen as the crushing millstone around the new king’s neck. Indeed if one takes into account the fact that the 300,000 that Parliament had recently voted Elizabeth had not yet been received at the time of her death, and that another 100,000 of the money owed had been collected in the late 1590s as forced loans which nobody realistically expected the crown to repay, it could be argued that Elizabeth died relatively solvent10.

It was unfortunate however that James had come after Elizabeth who had learned from experience that the crown was “under-endowed”11. The fact remained that James I was a “spendthrift”. He liked to please his suitors and favourites with cash endowments and gifts of land and titles. The king who had been bad at refusing suitors in Scotland was not better in England, but had much more to give. James I did view England as ‘the promised land’ and indeed Durston argues that even whilst journeying down in 1603 he believed that after years of toiling in a Scottish wilderness he would now be able to relax and enjoy the “abundant milk and honey available in England”12. He even described himself as “like a poor man wandering about for 40 years in a wilderness and barren soil who has now arrived in the land of promise”13. His frivolous attitude to money however did land the country with new and more grievous financial problems.

It is clear that James did not adapt to the financial situation in England and that his preconceptions of his new realm as a ‘land of bounty’ clearly influenced his actions and beliefs. Although the economy was not in great stead at the start of his reign with the tax system being in tatters and the crown being chronically under-endowed, this in itself would not have posed a serious problem to the economic security of the realm. The problem lay in James’s inability to control his extravagant spending and outrageous generosity. For example in 1607 James, rather than paying off the Crown debts, paid off those of his previous favourites Viscount Haddington, Lord Hay and the Earl of Montgomery which amassed to over 44,00014. Another key financial problem which was prevalent under James I was the fact that the English tax paying classes has manoeuvred themselves into the enviable position where they gave only sporadic and relatively meagre financial support to a monarchy which was expected to meet all its own peacetime expenses. The practice of selling off royal lands for quick injections of capital was a crucial part of Elizabethan financial balancing and continued on into James’s reign. However the country’s financial problems were of James I’s making. It was his inability to adapt to the problem, the ease with which he wasted crown money and the difficulty he found in practicing self restraint which caused his financial problems.

Whilst we have looked at James’s relationship with Parliament and his financial ineptitude as problems we have not examined the area for which he is famous: the over-reliance on favourites. Jenny Wormald argued that James was a “visibly weak” monarch due to his blatant over reliance on intermediaries and favourites. To paraphrase Professor Elton, it almost seems as if only James I ever had favourites and the fact that there were only two major favourites, Somerset and Buckingham, is often obscured. James I’s personality argues Alan Smith was an extraordinary combination of strengths and weaknesses. He was warm-hearted, affectionate and generous, had a genuine love of peace and dislike of violence which was seen not only by his foreign policy but also in his concerted effort to ban duelling in England15. He had considerable intellectual abilities and could be shrewd and wily in political judgement.

However he was also insecure and lonely. His wife – Anne of Denmark – was a “stupid woman” who was not up to his intellectual abilities and after the initial ardour passed there was nothing to hold them together and the lived virtually estranged by the end of his reign. He found no affection from his wife, his daughter Elizabeth left home to marry the Elector Palatine, his eldest son Henry died in 1612 and Charles was too shy and withdrawn to offer any real affection. Smith argues that this alienation from his family and those he loved, combined with an alienation from Parliament and the aristocracy led to his falling under the domination of male favourites especially Robert Carr (created Earl of Somerset) and George Villiers (made Duke of Buckingham).

Many historians have placed great emphasis on this over-reliance on favourites, Loades argues that it was this which caused much of the alienation with the aristocracy die to them beginning to question his ‘good lordship’. His domination by Buckingham and Somerset clearly had a negative effect on his rule, and the fact that he put so much faith in them, by the 1620s meant that it had a unfortunate effect upon his personality ‘colouring and limiting his judgement’ and opposing anybody who opposed ‘the favourites’ will.

James I’s over-reliance on Somerset and Buckingham, and his domination generally by his favourites was clearly not an inherited problem. Elizabeth had managed to skilfully play the aristocracy off against themselves, and whilst being ruled by circumstance was not dominated by suitors. This was a character flaw of James which has led him to be over criticised by some historians of the more ‘Weldon’ school who failed to account for the flagrant and scurrilous bias of Sir Anthony Weldon’s The Court and Character of King James. Here James was presented as an unpleasant, unsavoury clown – the infamous ‘wisest fool in Christendom’. It is here that one first encounters the vision of James as cowardly, awkward, physically repulsive and rampantly homosexual which has tainted so many more recent studies of early Stuart England. However one cannot discount James’s domination by his favourites, it was clearly a problem, clearly one of his own making and clearly visible by the nation which did his reputation and image little good.

We have examined three of James I’s problems: his relationship with Parliament and the aristocracy, his financial incompetence and over-generosity and his over-reliance on his favourites. Whilst his problems with Parliament and the economy could in a vague sense be seen to be inherited, on the whole the problems so far tend to be of his own making. However that is not to say that James I was necessarily a ‘bad monarch’. In political and ecclesiastical terms James’s Scottish experience has long been “seriously undervalued”, the reason for this can be seen very clearly in the apparent xenophobia of Weldon and his ‘followers’. Distrust and alienation, which James undoubtedly felt, have an emotional reality which cannot be dispelled by the cool light of historical objectivity. One must bear in mind that the popular image of “James the buffoon” might more accurately be described as “James the homely and casual”16 with a style of kingship profoundly different from that of Elizabeth I. Her common touch was a dazzling display of the majesty and mystique of monarchy and in that sense evidence of the remoteness of the late sixteenth English monarchy. Herein lies another problem of James’s own making – the mismanagement of his public image.

James’s new subjects were almost immediately disenchanted because of his intense dislike of the crowds which thronged to see him. The Scottish monarchy was neither so remote or visually impressive as the English and so James’s intention to be portrayed ‘warts and all’ was anathema to the public image of and desire for the monarchy. He has been called a ‘coward’ due to the fact that he hated appearing in front of crowds unlike Elizabeth I. In 1607 the Venetian ambassador went as far as to note that as a result he was “despised and almost hated” by the common people17. This was undoubtedly therefore a problem. However although we have defined it as one of his own making, it could conversely be seen as an inherited problem. Given that the public perception of monarchy was almost certainly shaped by Elizabeth, surely James’s failure to live up to this perception is an inherited rather than a personal problem. This is not to say that James was not at fault, but merely to try and absolve him from a portion of the blame purely because he was ‘not Elizabeth’.

James’s foreign policy was evidently a problem and evidently one of his own making. The ending of the Spanish war in 1604 was undoubtedly a very wise move, however by about 1610 he was much less sensibly pursuing a project of European pacification through alliance with that country. This was far too abrupt a change for English opinion to accept and naturally awakened the fear that the papists were going to attempt by diplomacy and infiltration what they had failed to achieve by conquest. Unpopular foreign policy, combined with the growing political corruption which he had inherited from Elizabeth’s reign and his alienation from Parliament can be seen as James’s political problems which were for the most part of his own making.

In conclusion therefore one can see that for the most part the problems in the country during James’s rule were of his own making: his inability to understand the ‘English way of doing things’ in Parliament, his alienation and isolation from the centres of debate because of his different style and inability to change and fit in more easily, his financial ineptitude and chronic generosity and his over-reliance on favourites and his unpopular foreign policy. However as always there is a balance between the extent to which these problems can be seen as his fault, and the extent to which James simply failed to live up to the role expected of him in England. His style of kingship was so profoundly different to that of Elizabeth that there was bound to be elements of his character which would be very difficult to merge into the English crown. However to argue this point would mean ignoring the obvious. James was essentially a weak monarch. He was a spendthrift, keen on favourites and an intellectual. Whilst he did undoubtedly inherit some problems, mainly that of inheriting Elizabeth’s legacy and shoes to fill, the majority of James I’s problems were of his own making.


1 C.V. Wedgwood – “Anglo-Scottish Relations, 1603-1640” – TRHS 4th Ser. XXXII (1950) p.31

2 M. Lee – “Great Britain’s Solomon” (1990) p.93

3 Jenny Wormald – “James VI and I: two kings or one?” [in History 68 (1983)] p.201

4 Alan Smith (ed.) – “The Reign of James VI and I” (1973) p.7

5 D.M. Loades – “Politics and the Nation 1450-1660” (1974) p.16

6 Jenny Wormald – “James VI and I: two kings or one?” [in. History 68 (1983)] p.202

7 R.C. Munden – “James I and the growth of mutual distrust” [in. Faction and Parliament (1978)]

8 M.H. Curtis – “The Alienated Intellectuals of Early Stuart England” [in. Crisis in Europe – ed. T. Aston (1970)] pp.295-316

9 C. Durston – “James I” (1993) p.24

10 ibid p.24

11 R. Lockyer – “The Early Stuarts – a political history of England 1603-1642” [2nd edition (1999)] p.31

12 C. Durston – “James I” (1993) p.1

13 R. Lockyer – “The Early Stuarts – a political history of England 1603-1642” [2nd edition (1999)] p.32

14 ibid p.31

15 L. Stone – “The Crisis of the Aristocracy” (1965) p.247

16 Jenny Wormald – “James VI and I: two kings or one?” [in. History 68 (1983)] p. 204

17 R. Ashton – “James I by his contemporaries” (1969) p.10

James Loat (SPC) 04/05/2007

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