Wednesday, June 03, 2009

King James I of England

Unverified documents suggest that I descend from King James I of England, the first ruler of what is today the United Kingdom. His life ran like an old-time Hollywood flick.

James Charles Stuart (19 June 1566 – 27 March 1625) was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Duke of Albany, commonly known as Lord Darnley. Both parents were descended from Margaret, elder sister of Henry Tudor, father of Henry VIII. Mary has been accused of participating in the murder of Lord Darnley.

He acceded to the Scottish throne as James VI upon the forced abdication of his mother, known to history as Mary, Queen of Scots, by Elizabeth, Queen of England and his godmother. He was thirteen months old at the time, and his father had been murdered the previous February. Therefore on 29 July 1567 he was crowned with his illegitimate uncle, James Stewart, Earl of Moray, as regent. That wasn't the end of it, as murder was a prevalent form of politics.

In August 1582 a direct attempt on his life left the Earl of Gowrie's younger brother dead, run through by a sword, supposedly by the king's page. Since we have only the king's testimony in this event, I smell definite movie material.

His first of many "favorites" was the Frenchman Esme Stewart, Sieur d'Aubigny. James made him Earl of Lennox on 2 June 1581. By now James was fifteen. Lennox was criticized by Calvinist Scotland for his public displays of physical affection for the young king. In August 1582 James was lured to Ruthven Castle where he was imprisoned by Protestant earls of Gowrie and Angus while Lennox was removed from the country. He was freed the following year and proceeded to assume control of his country with a heavy hand. He had a lot to say about divine right.

As a king he needed a proper queen. He had been praised for his chastity until twenty-three, since he had only male friends. He was married by proxy to fourteen-year-old Anne of Denmark in August 1589. Great movie scenes: Anne embarks for England and is blown off course to Norway. James rallies 300 pals and sails to save her. They have an idyllic honeymoon on the fjords, not to return until the following May.

James and Anne got along well enough to produce seven (some say nine) babes. Of their three surviving children: Henry, Prince of Wales, died of disease in 1612, aged 18, Elizabeth became Queen of Bohemia, and Charles, the future King Charles I of England, lost his head over religious issues. Anne died in March 1619.

Elizabeth I of England died on 24 March, 1603, and James was proclaimed king in London later the same day. His English coronation on 25 July was a fantastic event even during a plague. He wanted to be crowned King of Britain, but the English wouldn't have it. At his death he was officially His Majesty, James VI, by the Grace of God King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Of course there were two attempts on his life during that first year - one now commemorated as Guy Fawkes Day. More movie stuff.

He wrote, and wrote, and wrote. He presented Prince Henry with a handbook on how to rule a country, heavy on the divine right of kings, not friendly at all to parliaments. His reign continued the "Golden Age" of literature and theater. He adored the hunt. He was frivolous in spending to the point of at least two major arguments with Parliament resulting in his closing that institution for years at a time. (On one of these occasions - specifically 1620 - a group of dissenters requested to settle in what is now Massachusetts, whence one branch of my family tree.) He managed to end the Armada War and avoid the Thirty Years War. His people generally loved him because he gave them peace and prosperity. High society generally found him paranoid and rough due to his upbringing.

Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, died in 1612. He had disagreed with James on just about everything, but he had managed to manage both king and country well. Now James decided he'd run his own country, thank you. He did it badly with the help of "favorites" in factions, manipulating things to their personal advantage. A poisoning scandal left George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628) in the prized position in 1618. Resoration of Apethorpe Hall from 2004 to 2008 revealed a passage linking the bedchambers of James and the Duke.

His greatest legacy was the Hampton Court Conference, bringing together religious factions with the intent of unifying the English church. The result, in 1608, was what today we call the King James Version, the most used English translation of the Bible. That was, to put it mildly, a Big Deal.

Was he bisexual? Hard to avoid concluding so. Also the stuff of film.

For deeper study: Alan Stewart. The Cradle King: A Life of James VI & I. London: Chatto and Windus, 2003.