Sunday, July 30, 2017

How Successful was James I?

King James I of England, formerly James VI of Scotland, was a successful monarch in most aspects during his 23-year rule. Like most kings he did have glaring shortcomings such as a streak of laziness, uncouthness, spendthrift habits, and poor adaptation to English politics. However, he successfully united the two kingdoms of England and Scotland under his rule, kept them at peace domestically as well as externally, artfully maneuvered the factionalism that was developing on the religious front, and patronized the arts. His reputation suffered from the fact that many English were not comfortable with having a Scottish monarch. He alienated a minor courtier named Anthony Weldon because he dismissed Weldon on account of the latter’s xenophobic writings toward his native Scotland. Weldon later turned his pen viciously against James and historians have mostly taken Weldon and other Englishmen’s accounts and concluded that James was well-meaning, but lacking the political competence and morality necessary to successfully rule the English.[1] A critical examination of his reign, however, reveals that when matched with the challenges he faced, in the end, he rose to the challenge fairly well.
            He inherited the Scottish throne as James VI at the age of one, but did not take the full responsibility of kingship until 1587 at age twenty-one. He was well-educated by the humanist scholars George Buchanan and Peter Young and became quite proficient in poetry and languages.[2] He acceded to the English throne after Elizabeth’s death in 1603 to great optimism from all classes in English society despite the English’ widespread xenophobia toward Scots. This optimism stemmed from patriachical desires for a male monarch, as well as the unpopularity that Elizabeth had gained during her last years in which the nation had become war-weary and she herself had become ill-tempered.[3] James achieved a great accomplishment in being able to wield the two very different nations of England and Scotland under his rule, especially considering the fact that the two nations had been at war often throughout their histories.
            In religious policy, much like Henry VIII, James sought to eliminate factionalism within the Protestant Church, which was the greatest threat to peace in a country with two nationalities at this time. One of his goals even as King of Scotland had been to make the Presbyterian Church more like the English Church. He succeeded in this partly with his Five Articles of Perth in 1618, which dealt with church practice such as kneeling.[4] 
           In 1604, James met with the quarreling factions within the Church of England. It was out of this meeting that the Authorized Version of the Bible bearing his name appeared seven years later. This began his ecumenical policy, which he perused for most of his reign in which he attempted to achieve Protestant unity. He was notably successful in this area and avoided the disputations from turning violent. This set England apart as the Thirty Years War broke out in the middle of his reign. In this way, he was able to provide assurance to the Protestants that England would remain Protestant under his reign, without threatening to wipe out the Catholics in his realm.[5]
            There was no lack of political astuteness on James’s part. His Presbyterian opponents complained of this ability that managed to sway opinion against their positions of church-state relations. Elizabeth’s ambassadors, Thomas Randolph and Henry Hudson claimed in 1581 that James was “in his tender years more practiced than others forty years older than he.”[6] But, James VI had been a Scottish politician. The English throne forced him into a political world that he was not familiar enough with to command the same respect and achieve the same level of success as in his home country. According to historian Wallace Notestein, “James had never understood the English way of threshing things out” and “the tedious debates in parliament seemed to him a waste of time.” As someone who believed strongly in the divine right of kings, he had been used to getting things done in Scotland by the simple stroke of his pen.[7]
            In foreign policy, James greatest accomplishment was in keeping England out of the costly Thirty Years War. His daughter Elizabeth had married the Elector of Palatine in 1612. James wanted Charles to marry the Spanish Maria, partly out of a sense of honor, as only France and Spain were capable of providing a bride of the same social status, and partly in the hope that it would bring peace to Europe. This angered the English who insisted that the prince marry a Protestant.[8], [9] The Duke of Buckingham and Charles went together to Spain to court the Spanish princess, but she was not interested in marrying a Protestant.[10] This soured both of them toward Spain with whom peace had been a major part of James’ foreign policy for more than a decade, and on their return, they encouraged the king to declare war on the Catholic nation. But even this change of policy Parliament indirectly blocked by not providing James the necessary funding to wage war against Spain.[11]
            The last years of James’ life were the most unsuccessful as far as finance and foreign policy went. His favoritism toward George Villiers and his continued generous gift giving provided the opportunity for those like Weldon who personally did not like him to cement his spendthrift reputation as fiscally irresponsible and immoral.[12] James’s compromise when it became evident that the English would never countenance a true union of equality between the two nations because of their xenophobia toward the Scots was to give his native countrymen money instead of land.[13]
            James I’s failures were primarily Parliamentary as he did not fully grasp how to deal with the English political culture or simply could not find a way to make Parliament bend to his ideal of government. He was neither able to gain a Spanish bride for his son, nor convince Parliament to go to war with Spain when that did not work. Parliament was ill-disposed toward his Spanish policy when he was on both sides of the issue, although in the end, neutrality benefitted England. His greatest achievement as king was keeping the peace domestically, which included keeping his throne. Protestant rule was maintained, and he managed to retain the loyalty of most of his subjects by pursuing an ecumenical policy among the various factions. It was thanks to this ecumenical spirit that his greatest legacy the King James Bible carried his fame for centuries to come. The union of England and Scotland was a testament to his ability to overcome the prejudice of the English and not appear as having shed his Scottishness, an art his Anglicized son Charles never possessed. The laziness that has been attributed to him, just as his failure to gain Parliamentary approval for a war with Spain, was possibly a source of James’ success. He tended to maintain a laissez-faire policy toward the localities and his subjects who had been used to the inconveniences of war were glad to have the lower taxation and less monarchical involvement. Charles I would prove himself a much more engaged monarch, which contributed to many of the problems of his reign.[14], [15] 
           In spite of his financial shortcomings, James enjoyed a mostly fruitful reign in which his nations remained at peace with one another and the continental powers, which provided for a period of economic growth and artistic prosperity.


Butler, John. “James I of England (1566-1625),”

Russell, Conrad. The Causes of the English Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Smith, Alan G. R. The Emergence of a Nation State: The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660.
           London: Longman, 1984.

Wormald, Jenny. “James VI and I: Two Kings or One?” History 68 (1983).

[1] Jenny Wormald, “James VI and I: Two Kings or One?” History 68 (1983), 191.
[2] John Butler, James I of England (1566-1625),,
[3] Alan G. R. Smith, The Emergence of a Nation State: The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660, (New York: Longman, 1984), 249-250.
[4] Conrad Russell, The Causes of the English Civil War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 44, 49.
[5][5] Russell, 45.
[6] Wormald, 188-189.
[7] Wormald, 187.
[8] Russell, 61.
[9] Smith, 226-227.
[10] Smith, 269.
[11] Russell, 182.
[12] Wormald, 191.
[13] Wormald, 207.
[14] Wormald, 200.
[15] Smith, 253.

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