James I — woodcut by Thomas Bewick. Click on image to enlarge it.

The only son of the executed Mary Queen of Scots and the murdered Lord Darnley, James became James Vl of Scotland upon his mother's forced abdication in 1567, and James I of Great Britain in 1603. During his reign as King of Scotland, James, by necessity a shrewd and flexible diplomat, showed great skill in balancing opposing and potentially dangerous political forces in Scotland. As King of Great Britain, however, though he succeeded in unifying the thrones, he was a failure, taking little trouble to understand English ways and customs, and inheriting from Elizabeth enormous financial problems with which he was ill equipped to deal.

According to the early Victorian Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, one could say of James I "that, if his adminstration had been able and splendid, it would probably have been fatal to our country, and that we owe more to his weakness and meanness than to the wisdom and courage of much better sovereigns" since he believed in the Divine Right of Kings and wished to make himself an absolute ruler. As Macaulay explains in his History of England from the Accession of James II :

James was always boasting of his skill in what he called kingcraft; and yet it is hardly possible even to imagine a course more directly opposed to all the rules of kingcraft than that which he followed. The policy of wise rulers has always been to disguise strong acts under popular forms. It was thus that Augustus and Napoleon established absolute monarchies, while the public regarded them merely as eminent citizens invested with temporarv magistracies. The policy of James was the direct reverse of theirs. He enraged and alarmed his Parliament by constantly telling them that they held their privileges merely during his pleasure, and that they had no more business to inquire what he might lawfully do than what the Deity might lawfully do. Yet he quailed before them, abandoned minister after minister to their vengeance, and suffered them to tease him into acts directly opposed to his strongest inclinations . . . His cowardice, his childishness, his pedantry, his ungainly person and manners, his provincial accent made him an object of derision.

Learned but pedantic — he was a patron of Ben Jonson — he became known as "The Wisest Fool in Christendom" and was the author of a number of works including the Basilikon Doron (1599), advice on the conduct of government and the anti-tobacco tract "A Counterblaste to Tobacco" (1604). There was a temporary public reaction in his favor when a group of Catholic gentleman plotted unsuccessfully to blow up James himself, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons on November 5, 1605 (he had promised Catholics in his native Scotland and in England greater religious freedom, but then reneged on those promises), but by the time of his death he had succeeded in alienating most segments of English society.

Sir Walter Scott portrayed him accurately in his Waverley Novel The Fortunes of Nigel. As he grew older he grew increasingly idle, financially irresponsible, ill-mannered, drunken, cowardly, imprudent and indiscreet, and succeeded by means of a variety of ill-chosen policies in alienating parliament, which he could neither get along with nor dispense with. When he died in 1625, his son Charles I inherited an unhappy legacy of rancorous relations between the monarchy and earliament which would lead to his own unhappy end.

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Last modified 14 September 2006

Link added 20 December 2020