In Defence of King Jimmy

The merging of the English flag (1st) and the Scottish flag (last) to create the flag of Great Britain, the precursor of the modern Union Jack.

King James VI of Scotland, I of England (1566-1625), is a prominent figure in the history of Great Britain, and the Scottish king’s ascension to the English throne plays a key role in Mistaken Premise.

King James was the only child of Mary, Queen of Scots, with her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, a powerful Scottish nobleman. Removed from the care of his mother as an infant, James came of age against the backdrop of infighting and powerplays in the Scottish court. The staunchly Protestant faction led by John Knox and many of the Scottish earls forced the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, to abdicate to her but 13-month-old son, then into exile less than a year later.

1574 portrait of an eight-year-old King James VI of Scotland, future King James I of England, by Arnold Bronckorst

The young King James, the sixth of that name in Scotland, was a good scholar. After a series of four regents, he nominally took control of the government at age twelve, but soon found himself a pawn amongst competing earls and factions. One faction went so far as to kidnap the 16-year-old James, hoping to restore the Catholic Mary to the Scottish throne. King James escaped the Protestant faction controlling him but a year later, establishing his independent kingship at the tender age of 17.

Realising he was next in line for the English throne, he cultivated a relationship with his first cousin, twice removed Queen Elizabeth I, only mildly protesting the 1587 execution of the mother he had not seen since infancy. He married Anne of Denmark at the age of twenty-three, inspiring sighs amongst romantics as he travelled to Denmark to retrieve his bride after a series of setbacks delayed their nuptials.

King James proved adept at balancing the factions in Scotland, enjoying a successful rule there, even after he departed for London after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, dreaming of uniting Scotland and England and styling himself as the King of Great Britain as a result.

Unfortunately, our dear King Jimmy never saw his dream come to fruition.

King James VI/I is frequently dismissed only as a precursor to the English Civil Wars during the reigns of his son and grandson, Kings Charles I & II. As I began my research for Mistaken Premise, I knew very little of King James – besides his contribution to the King James Bible, still lauded as one of the greatest contributions to both literature and the standardisation of the English language. But I came out of it with a sympathetic view of this very human king.

1886 painting of Battle of Dunbar (1650) in the English Civil Wars

I cannot deny that after the death of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (whose descendants were the loose inspiration for my Marquess of Hatfield in Mistaken Premise), James proved easily influenced by those who did not hold Great Britain’s best interests to heart. He was ineffective at working with the British Parliament and incontinent in terms of fiscal responsibility.

However, a significant portion of the financial crisis James faced was the debt he had inherited from Queen Elizabeth I’s war with Spain. Elizabeth I was adept at kicking the can, never defining Protestant/Catholic policy nor updating the funding of the government. The latter left England trailing behind continental Europe as it held to the distinctly mediaeval British notion of Crown lands, of which little remained by the turn of the seventeenth century, paying for the king’s households and the government. The modern idea of regular taxes funding the government was foreign and suspicious to Englishmen; only in times of war would Parliament, specifically Commons where financial bills originated, supply money to the Crown.

There was also a substantial cultural divide between the new King James and the English Parliament. In contrast to the absolutism of the Tudor crown, the Scottish Stuarts had led as a chief amongst equals, building relationships with their nobles, debating and hashing out policy through meetings, meaning the Scottish Parliament convened only to rubber-stamp what had already been hashed out over divers dinners and social interactions.

Portrait of King James I of England in state robes, 1620, by Paul von Somer

My husband is something of a news junkie and loves the BBC, but he frequently complains over the contentious debates in the UK’s House of Commons. King James VI/I would have shared his lament. The raucous hammering out of ideas on the floor of Commons was alien and unheard of to the Scottish King James, and the English Parliament only viewed this Scottish king and all the Scottish nobles he brought with him – like my fictional duchy of Soloway in Mistaken Premise – with distrust. That his first Parliament made mincemeat over his dream of the unification of Scotland and England did not foster trust in the new king.

Having learned the evils of the Scottish factionalism in his youth, James adeptly removed England from the costly continental wars, balanced Protestant and Catholic foreign interests (though domestically, he favoured the former, but never alienated the latter), and encouraged literature, the arts, and education throughout Great Britain during his reign.

In all, I found I rather liked King Jimmy, even as I lamented his human failings which prevented him from reaching the potential I saw in him. For more information on King James, or English/Scottish history, I highly recommend the the History of England podcast, by David Crowther, the History of Scotland member’s feed podcasts, also by David Crowther, and the Early Stuart England podcast, by Greg Koabel.

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4 responses to “In Defence of King Jimmy”

  1. Riana Everly Avatar

    I love these glances into the real world and politics behind the glittering ballrooms and social niceties.
    Thanks for an interesting summary of King Jimmy.

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      The whys and wherefores have always interested me in political history, too, Riana Everly, and King James VI/I was a VERY interesting study in that regard. He truly had so much potential, but it never came to fruition through an intriguing combination of problems outside his control and his own human failings.
      Godspeed to you!

  2. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Interesting post on King Jimmy!

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      I am so glad you liked it, cindie snyder. Godspeed to you!

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