James I (king of England)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

James I (king of England)

James I, 1566–1625, king of England (1603–25) and, as James VI, of Scotland (1567–1625). James's reign witnessed the beginnings of English colonization in North America (Jamestown was founded in 1607) and the plantation of Scottish settlers in Ulster.

Early Life

The son of Lord Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots, James succeeded to the Scottish throne on the forced abdication of his mother. He was placed in the care of John Erskine, 1st earl of Mar, and later of Mar's brother, Sir Alexander Erskine. The young king progressed in his studies under various teachers, notably George Buchanan, and acquired a taste for learning and theological debate. During James's minority, Scotland was ruled by a series of regents—the earls of Murray, Lennox, Mar, and Morton. The king was the creature of successive combinations of the nobility and clergy in a complicated struggle between the remnants of his mother's Catholic party, which favored an alliance with France, and the Protestant faction, which wished an alliance with England.

In 1582, James was seized by William Ruthven, earl of Gowrie (see Ruthven, family), and other Protestant adherents. He escaped in 1583 and began his personal rule, though influenced by his favorite, James Stuart, earl of Arran. James considered an alliance with his mother's French relatives, the Guise, but in 1586, to improve his prospects of succeeding to the English throne, he allied himself with Elizabeth I. This caused a break with his mother's party, and he accepted her execution in 1587 calmly.

James, by clever politics and armed force, succeeded in subduing the feudal Scottish baronage, in establishing royal authority, and in asserting the superiority of the state over the Presbyterian Church. In 1589, against the wishes of Elizabeth, James married Anne of Denmark. He succeeded in 1603 to the English crown by virtue of his descent from Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII.

King of England

Although at first welcomed in England, James brought to his new kingdom little understanding of its Parliament or its changing political, social, and religious conditions. James's reliance on favorites whose qualifications consisted more of personal charm than talent for government, the extravagance and moral looseness of the court, and the scandalous career of James's favorite Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, all furthered discontent.

Religious Controversies

On his arrival in England, the king was presented with the Millenary Petition, a plea for the accommodation of Puritans within the Established Church. However, at the Hampton Court Conference (1604), called to consider the petition, James displayed an uncompromising anti-Puritan attitude, which aroused great distrust. (This conference commissioned the translation of the Bible that resulted in the Authorized, or King James, Version.)

James's inconsistent policy toward English Roman Catholics angered both Catholic and Protestant alike. The Gunpowder Plot (1605), which sprang from Catholic anger at the reimposition of fines and penalties that James had earlier relaxed, led to greater harshness toward Catholics and prevented any cordial relations thereafter. Yet the suspicion arose that the king favored the Catholics, because he sought to conciliate Spain and attempted to arrange a marriage between the Spanish infanta and Prince Charles (later Charles I).

Conflicts with Parliament

James's relations with the English Parliament were strained from the beginning because of his insistence upon the concept of divine right of monarchy and his inability to recognize Parliament as representative of a large and important body of opinion. As it was, Parliament—and particularly the House of Commons, where Puritanism was strong—soon became the rallying point of the forces opposing the crown. The Commons blocked (1607) James's cherished project of a union with Scotland. They also complained bitterly about James's methods of raising revenue by imposing new customs duties and selling monopolies. The Great Contract of 1610, a compromise whereby James would relinquish some of his feudal rights in return for a yearly income, did not come to fruition.

In 1611, James dissolved Parliament and except for the Addled Parliament of 1614, which produced no legislation, ruled without one until 1621. After the death (1612) of his capable minister, Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, the king exercised the royal prerogative with even less restraint and entered into battle with the courts of common law, whose position was strongly defended by Sir Edward Coke. After the fall of Somerset, George Villiers, later 1st duke of Buckingham, rose to favor and by 1619 was in complete possession of the king's confidence.

At the Parliament of 1621, called in order to raise money for the cause of the German Protestants and James's son-in-law, Frederick the Winter King, in the Thirty Years War, James was forced to abolish certain monopolies that had been abused by their holders. This Parliament also impeached the lord chancellor, Francis Bacon. It was dissolved by James for asserting its right to debate foreign policy.

The unpopular Spanish policy was pursued until the 1623 expedition of Prince Charles and Buckingham to Spain to facilitate the marriage arrangements ended in failure. A marriage treaty with France was concluded in 1624, and James was unable to prevent Parliament from voting a subsidy for war against Spain. James left to his son, Charles I, a foreign war and events leading up to the English civil war.

Literary Works

James I was active as an author. He produced several youthful essays on literary theory, poetry, and numerous political works. Two other important writings are his True Law of Free Monarchy (1598), an assertion of the concept of divine right of kings, and Basilikon Doron (1599), a treatise on the art of government. His political works have been edited by C. H. McIlwain (1918, repr. 1965).


See biographies by D. H. Willson (1956, repr. 1967) and D. Mathew (1967); G. Davies, The Early Stuarts (2d ed. 1959); J. P. Kenyon, The Stuarts (1958); G. P. V. Akrigg, Jacobean Pageant (1962, repr. 1967).

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