This King of England was also King of Scotland. He had a French wife, seven children, a mother who was beheaded, a father murdered, a son executed and several favourites, all male and famous for one reason or other.
James’s mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, who came from France to Scotland, then famously escaped from Scotland to England seeking protection and friendship with Queen Elizabeth I. Sadly, she was a natural plotter, and much used by other plotters of lesser rank. One of the things no Tudor could allow was plotting. James was young when they cut off his mother’s head.
His father was of Scottish royal blood too. He was Lord Darnley and no-one in Scotland much liked him. He was eliminated by blowing him up. It is not surprising that James grew up deluded.
He was King (of Scotland) from birth in 1567, and King of the Union of England and Scotland from 1603. He succeeded Elizabeth, who had just managed to agree to the succession when she too died – a long and agonizing process. Elizabeth never married as is known, and therefore had no heirs of the body. She had had many admirers – some of whom possibly slept with her – though there is no evidence to support this theory except a few self-laudatory poems written by the lucky chaps.
James had admirers too though his roving eye had to be caught first; his favourites were exclusively male; James was bisexual at a time when this was not seen as abnormal, nor did it preclude normal marriage, and nor did it preclude the begetting of issue.
James was a survivor. He was well educated in the classic and sciences, and in fact was probably one of the very best read and cultured kings Britain had. He kept a special loathing for the recently introduced habit of smoking, managed with pipe and cheroot. While still king of Scotland he survived several attempts on his life, and habitually wore hard protective padding. This was not at all unusual in a time of repeated attempts at assassination.
One of his first companions of the royal badchamber was a page of 19 called John Ramsey. He was a clever young man fiercely jealous of his royal relationship. He was with James when he was kidnapped in 1600 by the young Earl of Gowrie, who sent his personable younger brother Alexander to attract the King to Gowrie House – with the worst of intentions. The plan was to use Alexander as bait, and then smuggle the captured king off to another Gowrie castle, where he would presumably be used for ransom or done away with
James was thirty-three. He fell into Alexander’s trap (q.v.), disappearing upstairs with him to a private chamber. Only John Ramsey noticed that the couple had disappeared. The page rushed upstairs by another staircase, and surprised the King struggling with Alexander. Ramsey killed the Earl’s brother with a long hunting knife, and then killed the Earl for good measure. Far from being arrested or charged with murder, John Ramsey was showered with honours by the King. It should bge noted that James was a noted miser, and that he had owed the Earl of Gowrie the sum of eighty thousand pounds.
The next dangerous man to catch the royal eye was Robert Kerr or Carr. He was a member of one of the famous fighting border families, not too bright, but astute enough to see that the King had fallen for him. James was now in his forties, when many men make fools of themselves, and young Kerr or Carr found himself promoted to ‘gentleman of the bedchamber’ before you could say ‘knife’. The King was by now well married and with several children, but his poor Queen bored him stiff, and the Council knew that this unhappy condition could only be relieved by favourites. Kerr or Carr became Viscount Rochester and then Earl of Somerset. Even when his good looks faded the King kept him as a friend.
The next chief favourite was the most spectacular. He was called George Villiers and was a student at the University when James spotted him from from the carriage window. Villiers was invited to meet the King, who did the usual thing and fell in love. His pet name for Villiers was ‘Steenie’. Young George was clever enough to make himself agreeable with the Queen, and became a Knight of the Garter, Viscount Villiers, then Earl, then Duke of Buckingham.
The greatest difference between Buckingham and his predecessors was that he understood politics. James wrote in a journal: ‘Christ had his John, and I have my George’.
Buckingham stayed, and stayed. Somerset and the others faded, but Buckingham built a Jacobean manor house outside London, which eventually had its façade changed and became Buckingham Palace. He even survived the survivor, and went with his successor as a young Prince of Wales to Madrid in a vain attempt to marry a Spanish princess.
But the George, Duke of Buckingham was murdered too, in 1628, probably at the order of Cardinal Richelieu of France, who did not like the King’s favourite and understood his powerful influence over James (see the Musketeer books by Alexandre Dumas).
In politics, James strengthened the power of the crown over the Kirk of Scotland, and always maintained a good relation between England and Scotland. He made several errors of judgment in his English policies, infuriating the Puritans by refusing to listen at the Hampton Court Conference. He used to say ‘no Bishop, no King’, which was a counter to the Kirk’s wish to ban bishops altogether. His Court was tainted by scandal and corruption, and it was the beloved Buckingham who encouraged him in extravagant schemes that alienated Parliament.
James was as tactless when he handled the Commons as his son Charles I would be later, but James in contrast never lost his head. Most of his reign was peaceful. Only four of his seven children died, which is an achievement for the seventeenth century.