Magazine article History Today

James VI &Amp; I: Jenny Wormald Reviews the Career of the Man Who Was King of Scotland for Fifty-Seven Years and King of England for Twenty-Two, and Whose Great Dream Was to Create a Unified Kingdom of Great Britain. (Cover Story)

Magazine article History Today

James VI &Amp; I: Jenny Wormald Reviews the Career of the Man Who Was King of Scotland for Fifty-Seven Years and King of England for Twenty-Two, and Whose Great Dream Was to Create a Unified Kingdom of Great Britain. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

THE UNION OF THE CROWNS of Scotland and England in 1603, which might be regarded as a defining moment in the history of the British Isles, could hardly have had a more inauspicious starting point. The future James VI of Scotland, who occupied his throne for almost fifty-eight years and who was also James I of England for twenty-two, was born in Edinburgh on June 19th, 1566. The happy event of the birth of a male heir to the Scottish throne was somewhat marred when his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, bitterly snarled at the father, Henry Lord Darnley, that `he is so much your son that I fear that it will be worse for him hereafter'. As events turned out, it would not be worse, but only because the baby in question had infinitely more ability than either parent. His mother was obsessed with the succession to the English crown, about which she continually nagged and whined despite the fact that Elizabeth was still a young woman of Child-bearing age and expected to marry; and she had been embroiled in scandal, when six months pregnant, with the murder of her Italian musician and secretary David Rizzio (who was not in fact the Queen's lover but certainly too much in her favour, as representative and ultimate victim of her predilection for the foreign servants who staffed her household).

James's father was an irresponsible lightweight who had captured Mary's devotion when, on his return from England to Scotland in 1565, she had nursed him through measles. The devotion had long-term political consequences but was personally shortlived, and as Scottish politics in Mary's brief reign were dominated by the Queen's emotions rather than any political intelligence, the first year of James's life saw a kingdom of remarkable strength and success spiral down into sexual scandal and political mayhem. In December 1566 Darnley failed to attend the splendid baptism of his son, preferring to spend his time writing to foreign powers about the failures of his wife. In February 1567, he was murdered, strangled or smothered as he tried to escape following the spectacular explosion of Kirk o' Field; quite a number of the political nation were involved but the man generally suspected of the murder was James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, who was also thought to be the Queen's lover and was certainly protected by the Queen, and subsequently became her husband.

Mary's marriage to Bothwell brought her to her final disaster: in July 1567 she was forced to abdicate, in favour of her son James. The future king of Britain, then a year old, thus became king of Scots.

This inevitably meant a long minority. The Scots had plenty of experience of minorities; this was the seventh since 1406. But it was complicated by the abnormal situation that the previous monarch was still alive, making a nuisance of herself in England and never giving up hope of coming back to rule in Scotland. The reign began with minor and dreary civil war between King's and Queen's men which dragged on until 1573, enlivened only by the presence of English troops helping the King's Men at the siege of Edinburgh castle, who were ordered by their notoriously parsimonious monarch to crawl round the foot of the castle rock collecting cannon balls for re-use. (The Scots also took part in this dangerous enterprise; but Elizabeth had to pay them.) But the English support for the young king also symbolised a shift in Scottish foreign relations, away from the Auld Alliance with France towards the `auld inemie', England; for Protestant Scotland now looked to her Protestant neighbour to the south. The most abiding legacy of the minority was religious problems within Scotland, for it gave the reformed kirk, with radical ideas about church and state that firmly rejected any notion of royal supremacy, more than twenty years headstart before the King could begin to impose his control--which he first attempted to do in the early 1580s, with increasing success after he had escaped in 1583 from the control of a presbyterian group of nobles, the Ruthven Raiders, who had seized him the previous year. …

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