King James and the Union

By Bevan, Bryan | Contemporary Review, February 1996 | Go to article overview

King James and the Union


Bevan, Bryan, Contemporary Review


King James I, an ardent advocate of complete union between England and Scotland, would hardly be tolerant of the excessive Scottish nationalism and talks of devolution so prevalent today. Indeed he would be antagonistic to discussions of a separate Scottish Parliament, to be revived after 288 years. Today there exists a separate Scottish heraldic household with its own Lord Lyon King of Arms, a Lord High Constable and a Hereditary Master of the Household. Our Queen's Scottish bodyguard, the Royal Company of Archers, is highly esteemed and honoured.

In England James would constantly remind the House of Commons that the first Tudor King Henry VII had united the Houses of York and Lancaster. Indeed he had acted as a symbol of union between England and Scotland, for his elder daughter Margaret had married James IV of Scotland, James VI's great-grandfather. Henry, proud of his Welsh blood, believed himself a descendant of King Arthur, proclaimed by legend the ruler of all Britain! So attracted to this notion was the King that he named his eldest son Arthur. When the Prince of Wales died early in 1502 in Ludlow Castle, it was a crushing blow for the King.

Elizabeth I would never openly acknowledge James as her successor, though before 1603 the King had considered himself a new Arthur about to unite the two kingdoms. However, it was unfortunate for James that a marked hostility existed between the English and the Scots, hardly surprising when we consider the constant warfare waged over several centuries. It was natural therefore for the English to complain about the many Scottish upstarts at his Court. They murmured against them, moaning that they were suffered like locusts to devour this kingdom, from whence they became so rich and insolent as nothing with any moderation, could either be given them or denied them.

In his views on a complete and lasting union between the two countries, James revealed an imaginative insight of no mean order, but he was opposed by many influential people. The resistance he encountered infuriated James, for he regarded himself as the instrument through which God was promoting the union of the two kingdoms. In his characteristic way James said 'What God hath conjoined let no man separate. I am the husband. All the whole realm is my lawful wife.'

Our first Stuart king was not only original, but visionary. He realized the advantages of reducing the laws of the two kingdoms to a single system, and he favoured a common coinage. During April 1604 the King asked the House of Commons to take two preliminary steps, firstly to allow him to assume the title of King of Great Britain and secondly, to appoint Commissioners to negotiate with politicians from Scotland on other matters. When opposed, James turned furiously on those who confronted him. Francis Bacon on first meeting the King at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, described James in a letter to Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland. 'Your Lordship shall find a Prince the farthest from the appearance of vain-glory that may be, and rather like a prince of the ancient form than of the latter time.' He thought of making his early archbishop, Bancroft, Primate of Great Britain.

A humourous play of Ben Jonson's named Eastward Ho, written in collaboration with two other playwrights, reflects the hostility the English bore the Scots' in 1604. A mariner, Captain Seagull, is discussing in a Thames tavern the wealth of Virginia - 'a land so rich that even the chamber-pots are made of solid gold. Since there are only a few hardworking Scots there, there is much space for Colonists, and for my part,' he declared, 'I would a hundred thousand of them were there, for we are one countrymen now, ye know, and we should find ten times more comfort by them there than we do here.'

When, during October 1604, James assumed the title of King of Great Britain, it was against the advice of his Council, for they considered the King's act as injudicious and provocative.

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