The birth of James Stuart at Edinburgh Castle on June 19, 1566, came at a tumultuous time in Scotland’s history. His Catholic mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, ruled a kingdom in the grips of the Protestant Reformation; his English father, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was estranged from Mary, who was frustrating his political ambitions at court. Indeed, three months earlier Darnley had participated in the murder of Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, in the pregnant queen’s presence, a crime that she feared was part of a plot against her as well. Darnley refused to attend James’s baptism, a lavish ceremony held on December 17, 1566, in the chapel at Stirling Castle, but he and Mary seem to have reconciled enough to be living together again a few months later. On February 10, 1567, a gunpowder explosion destroyed Darnley’s lodgings at Kirk o’ Field; his strangled corpse lay in the back garden. Suspicion fell upon the queen and her close advisor, James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, whom Mary married on May 15, 1567. A fight for control of the kingdom ensued, and on July 24, 1567, Mary Stuart abdicated in favor of her son. Crowned King James VI in a Protestant service at Stirling on July 29, 1567, the thirteen-month-old James became, as he later said, “a cradle king.”
James never saw his mother again. Mary Stuart lost the battle with her Protestant government to reclaim her crown, and on May 16, 1568, she fled to England seeking military support from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. Instead, Mary remained a prisoner in England for nineteen years while James grew into his royal adulthood. In 1584, James declined his mother’s petition to return to Scotland and rule jointly with him, and he maintained cordial ties with Elizabeth even after she had his mother tried and executed in 1587.
While a series of regents governed for him from 1567 to 1584, young James received a rigorous education from his tutor George Buchanan. Reared a Calvinist, James studied Greek, Latin, and French. James was an enthusiastic scholar and produced a number of books during his lifetime, including Daemonologie (1597), about witchcraft; Basilikon Doron (1598), to advise his son; Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598), about the nature of kingship; and Counter-Blaste to Tobacco (1604), a treatise condemning‘s use. (As tobacco production developed in Virginia in the 1620s and added to England’s wealth, he ceased voicing his opposition.) On August 28, 1582, James had an unexpected lesson in the harsh realities of political survival: William Ruthven, earl of Gowrie, kidnapped the king and ruled through him until James escaped in June 1583. Within a year, James declared himself of age and began to rule independently.
On November 23, 1589, James married a Lutheran princess, Anne of Denmark, in Oslo, Norway. After the happy couple reached Edinburgh, Scotland, Anne had her coronation in Holyrood Abbey on May 17, 1590. She would give birth to three boys and four girls, of whom three lived to adulthood: Henry, born in 1594; Elizabeth, born in 1596; and Charles, born in 1600.
As the great-great-grandson of Henry VII of England, James kept his eyes on the prize that had eluded his mother: the English crown. Through correspondence, he cultivated a familial relationship with Queen Elizabeth, who paid him an annual pension from 1586 to 1602. James also relied upon the services of first Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, and then Sir Robert Cecil, principal secretary, in his maneuverings during the 1590s to have the queen name him her heir. She never did publicly, but on her deathbed the last Tudor ruler seemed to nod in acquiescence to the naming of her Scottish Stuart successor.
Ruler of England and Great Britain
As James made a stately progress from Edinburgh to London during April and May of 1603, scores of English elites rode to seek favors from their popular new king, a married man with children and an experienced Calvinist ruler known for his generosity. Notwithstanding the plot ofand a few others to supplant him with the English noblewoman Lady Arabella Stuart, to many people James represented a promising change. In the year following his joint coronation with Anne on July 25, 1603, in Westminster Abbey, James addressed his first Parliament, concluded a peace agreement that ended the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604), and convened a religious conference at Hampton Court, where he affirmed his support of the Church of England’s doctrines and structure and commissioned a translation of the Bible that would come to bear his name.
Less successful were his efforts in 1604 to unify his two kingdoms. James assumed the title of king of Great Britain and commissioned a new British flag, the Union Jack, but in reality all that England and Scotland shared politically was their monarch. On November 5, 1605, a group of disaffected Catholics, including Guy Fawkes, tried to assassinate James by blowing up Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot. Their failure led to an outpouring of support for the king and centuries of commemoration.
In 1606, James granted ato the Virginia Company of London giving permission for its investors to send ships and settlers to North America. In April 1607, three ships—the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery —reached the Chesapeake Bay. Captains , , and John Ratcliffe and the established the first permanent English colony in North America. In recognition of the king, they named their settlement Jamestown, and the main river the James. On a voyage to Jamestown in 1609, the sailed into a storm and wrecked on the island of Bermuda. News of the incident may have inspired Shakespeare’s , performed for the first time at the Jacobean court. (The word Jacobean comes from the Latin name Jacobus, or James.) King James sent to —paramount chief of , an alliance of Virginia Indians—and saw Powhatan’s daughter at court when she came to England in 1616. He also issued the so-called Great Charter of 1618—written in part by Virginia Company cofounder —which created a representative assembly in Virginia; early in the 1620s, after Sandys’s financial policies angered investors, the king intervened to prevent Sandys’s reelection as treasurer. An investigation was launched into his mismanagement of the colony, and James ultimately revoked the Virginia Company’s charter in July 1623.
In governing England, James relied most on the hard-working Lord Treasurer, Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, who tried to keep the profligate king solvent and free to indulge in his passion, hunting. Led by Salisbury, the king and Parliament in 1610 almost reached a historic agreement, known as the Great Contract, that would have reformed and stabilized royal finances and taxation policies; the collapse of these negotiations, however, meant that financial conflicts would dominate James’s relations with his Parliaments for the remainder of his reign.
The king spent large sums on maintaining an elaborate court, including masques in which the queen participated and plays by the King’s Men’s company. He also gave extravagant gifts of money and property to his royal favorites, a practice he began in Scotland with his older French cousin, Esme Stuart, who in 1581 was made the Duke of Lennox. Later in life, James’s favorites tended to be attractive younger men with whom he formed emotional, and probably sexual, bonds. The Scotsman Robert Carr received vast estates, fees, and titles, including the earl of Somerset, and he remained close to the king until he was convicted in 1616, with his wife, Lady Frances Howard, of murdering Sir Thomas Overbury. Carr’s replacement was George Villiers, who became duke of Buckingham and benefited politically and financially from his deep and lasting friendship with the king. An energetic building program that included a new palace at Whitehall, partly designed by Inigo Jones, and royal residences for James’s family siphoned off more royal funds. The one area in which James conserved money was in foreign policy: he kept England out of expensive wars and prided himself on his willingness to use diplomacy in resolving foreign disputes.
On November 6, 1612, James’s promising and popular heir, Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales, died at age eighteen of typhoid fever. The following year James’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Prince Frederick V, Elector Palatine; to balance this Protestant match, James began marriage negotiations for his younger son, Charles, now his heir, with Infanta Maria Ana of the Catholic Hapsburgs of Spain. When the process stalled in February 1623, the king reluctantly granted his son permission to travel with the duke of Buckingham to Madrid in the hope of winning the princess’s hand; they failed, and the king was much relieved by their safe return to England in October. Queen Anne, who in the 1590s had converted to Catholicism, died in 1619, and the widowed king never remarried.
After suffering a stroke, James died at his favorite hunting lodge, Theobalds, on March 27, 1625. He was fifty-eight. He was buried on May 5, 1625, under Westminster Abbey’s altar, a site from which he had earlier disinterred Queen Elizabeth, and his son succeeded him as King Charles I.