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James VI of Scotland Inherits the English Throne

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The Stewarts:
The Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots
James VI of Scotland inherits the English Throne | The Children of James I
George Villiers - Duke of Buckingham | Charles Stuart at the Court of Spain

King James VI of Scotland had been awaiting the news from England for some time, and in April 1603 it finally arrived: Queen Elizabeth I had passed away at Richmond Palace on 24 March, 1603. King James VI of Scotland was now also King James I of England.

King James: His Path to the Throne of England

In 1502 King Henry VII gave his consent for his daughter Margaret Tudor to marry James Stewart, King James IV of Scotland. Henry may have suspected, but could not know for sure, that this was to secure the throne of England for a Scottish king a century later. Stewart's great-grandson, James VI of Scotland, would unite the two royal houses in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth died without an English heir to her throne. An uneasy union was created when James I of England and VI of Scotland became the first man to use the unofficial title of King of Great Britain to describe himself and his position, although this title was not recognised by Parliament1.

What complex web of family ties led to James VI becoming James I, the first Stuart king of England?

Henry VII of England and his wife Elizabeth of York

It all began with Henry Tudor, King Henry VII (1457-1509). Following his victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), Henry took for his wife and queen Elizabeth of York. The children of the marriage were:

  1. Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486-1502)
  2. Margaret, Queen of Scots (1489-1541)
  3. Henry VIII, King of England (1491-1547)
  4. Elizabeth, who died at the age of three years and two months (1492-1495)
  5. Mary, Queen of France and grandmother of Lady Jane Grey (1496-1533)
  6. Edmund, Duke of Somerset (1499-1500)
  7. Katherine, (February 1503), who died shortly after birth

Henry VII said when he agreed to Margaret's marriage into the royal family of Scotland:

There will be a Scottish king on the English throne one day.

Margaret was the mother of King James V and grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scots

King James V's sole heir was his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, who acceded to the throne at the age of six days. Henry VIII was her great uncle and Queen Elizabeth I was her cousin. She was raised in France to be the wife of the young Dauphin, who briefly became King Francis II of France (1559-1560) but died at the age of 16.

Returning to Scotland, Mary married her cousin Lord Darnley, Henry Stewart. Although 'Stewart' was the traditional Scottish spelling of her surname, Mary changed her surname to 'Stuart' when she was in France2.

James' Early Years in Scotland

James was born on 19 June, 1566, at Edinburgh Castle. As the child of Mary, Queen of Scots and her husband Lord Darnley, he was far from happy and was to fear assassination most of his early life. Scotland was filled with sectarian division, political intrigue and danger, with James exposed to the constant threat of sudden violent death since he was a boy. For his father, Lord Darnley, had met a very violent end when James was just eight months old.

Lord Darnley was assassinated on 9 February, 1567, at the Provost's House, Kirk o'Field, Edinburgh. On that evening Mary had visited Darnley; upon her departure, the household servants prepared for the night. Just after midnight on 10 February, part of house was destroyed by a massive explosion. The bodies of Darnley and his servant were found in the garden near the house, both strangled. It was never proved who killed Darnley; with the evidence of some very foul play and well-kept secrets, rumours continued to spread.

On 15 May, 1567, just four months after the death of Darnley, Mary Stuart married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. He had been her advisor while she was married to Darnley, which made it appear that Mary had had a hand in Darnley's murder. This was too much for her people, particularly many Protestant lords, who swiftly revolted. On 15 June, 1567, the armies met at Carberry Hill, located two miles outside of Musselburgh near the coast. Deserted by many of her supporters, Mary had no alternative but to surrender while Bothwell fled to Scandinavia. Captured by the Danes, Bothwell was imprisoned until his death in 1576, never to see Mary again. Mary was taken and imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle in Kinross-shire, where, on 24 July, 1567, she was forced to abdicate. Her 13-month-old son James was crowned King of Scotland in Stirling.

On 2 May, 1568, Mary fled from Loch Leven Castle and on 13 May, 1568, with the aid of the Hamilton faction, mustered a large army to oppose the force led by Moray, her illegitimate half-brother. The opposing forces clashed at Langside near Glasgow. Though both sides were numerically even, Moray's troops were better armed and led. Mary's forces were defeated, and she fled from Scotland when her son, the young James, was just over a year old. She landed in Workington in Cumbria and was taken to Carlisle Castle where she was held. Mary asked Queen Elizabeth I, her cousin, for asylum. At first Elizabeth welcomed Mary to England and refused to return her to the Scottish government, but realising that she could become a focus for a Catholic rebellion, she guarded Mary while she decided what to do.

After being implicated in various plots that aimed to kill Elizabeth and have Mary as the Catholic Queen of England, Elizabeth reluctantly signed Mary's execution order in 1587.


James was now king and a pawn in the power struggle for Scotland; whoever possessed his guardianship was the ruler of Scotland in his name. The list of James' guardians or regents who governed during his minority is simply a roll of the most powerful men in Scotland.

In his early life James was increasingly aware of violent unrest surrounding him, as powerful lords were despatched in rapid succession. It was later said of him that he was a coward and that he had a lifelong fear of intrigue and assassination, yet he can hardly be blamed for this.

James Stuart, Earl of Moray (Regent 1568 – 1570)

The first regent was his illegitimate uncle, James Stuart, Earl of Moray. James was a half-brother to Mary, Queen of Scots, as an illegitimate son of James V. Moray was a staunch member of the Protestant Church of Scotland and brought James up as a Protestant like most of Scottish gentry. Moray appointed the following men as James' preceptors3: Adam Erskine, Abbot of Cambuskenneth, and David Erskine, Abbot of Dryburghas, with tutors George Buchanan and Peter Young. It was George Buchanan who provided frequent beatings and made James a God-fearing, Protestant king. Moray was an excellent regent and earned the epithet The Gude Regent.

Moray's regency ended when he was assassinated in Linlithgow on 23 January, 1570. He was killed by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, a Catholic supporter of Mary. James Hamilton is now immortalised as the first man to use a firearm for assassination.

Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox (Regent 12 July, 1570 - 4 September, 1571)

James' next regent was his paternal grandfather, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lenox. Again this regency ended in violent death when a group of Mary's supporters attacked Stirling Castle; during this raid Matthew Stewart was killed.

John Erskine, Earl of Mar (Regent September 1571 - October 1572)

Another short-lived successor, who died when he took a vehement sickness, and passed away at Stirling on 28 October, 1572. Rumours consistently circulated suggesting he was the victim of foul play involving poison, with James Douglas, the Earl of Morton suspected.

James Douglas, Earl of Morton (Regent November 1572 – 1578)

The final regent was James Douglas Earl of Morton. He remained regent until James came of age in 1578. Morton was later accused of involvement in the death of Lord Darnley, and imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle. Morton was found guilty of taking part in Darnley's murder and executed on 2 June, 1581. He protested his innocence to the end.


In order to choose a suitable wife, in 1589 James paid an official visit to the court of Protestant King Frederick II of Denmark. His visit to find a bride was a matter of necessity. One of the duties of a monarch was to provide for an heir, and there were few Protestant Royal families in Europe with eligible daughters.

James chose Princess Anne of Denmark, younger daughter of the Protestant King Frederick II. They were married by proxy4 in Copenhagen during August 1589. Anne sailed for Scotland but the ship she was travelling on was forced by storms to put into a port in Norway. James and Anne were formally married in Oslo at the Bishop's Palace in November 1589. The couple stayed at Elsinore and Copenhagen and returned to Scotland on 1 May, 1590. The marriage seems to have been happy, particularly in the early years. The royal couple soon settled down to married life and raising a family.

Ascension of the First King of Great Britain

On 24 March, 1603, Queen Elizabeth I passed away at Richmond Palace. One of the Queen's courtiers, Sir Robert Carey, took the decision to make the 359-mile journey5 to inform King James VI of Scotland that he was now also King James I of England. Sir Robert found the Scottish king at his Palace of Holyroodhouse6 and became the first man to give James the news of the Queen's death.

James was delighted with the news; the woman who had ordered the execution of his mother Mary, Queen of Scots, was dead and James was the only heir. He prepared for the journey for London and within the week on 5 April was heading southward to take possession of his inheritance. His enthusiasm to travel to London may be explained by the following factors. He was a Protestant King of Scotland, a country riven by religious conflict and where assassination was a very real threat. England had vast wealth and was a much more sophisticated country. As the King of England, James had become one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe. James must have found the prospect of wealth, power and personal safety most appealing.

As a reward for his service in informing him, James appointed Sir Robert to the post of Gentleman of the King's Bedchamber. It was customary for monarchs to reward a service of this kind and Sir Robert would have known that. Yet by unofficially breaking the news to James in the hope of personal gain, Sir Robert had defied the orders of the Privy Council in London. Sir Robert's actions were condemned as contrary to all decency, good manners and respect. The Privy Council would persuade James to remove Carey from his new post when he reached London7. Carey's inappropriate behaviour was nothing in comparison to the first impression they had of their new king.

On his journey south to London, James sent a blunt demand from York for more money to continue his trip. This failed to improve the Privy Council's opinion of their new king. Upon his approach to the city of London on 7 May, the curious but harmless crowds fussed the coach, making James lose his courage. On being assured that all was well and that the crowd only wanted to see his face, he threatened to moon from the coach window, saying so they can see my arse as well.

The Privy Council was made up of the 13 most powerful men in the country and was responsible for the general administration of the country. The members of the Privy Council, who were used to Queen Elizabeth, assembled to welcome the new king and found this behaviour very odd. Contemporary reports tell us that their first impressions of the new King were not good. He lacked the regal dignity they had become used to. His physical appearance too was disappointing - long nosed, a sallow 'pox-marked' face with a thin and scratchy beard and pale, watery eyes. He was short with a plump body supported by thin weedy legs, and his voice and vocabulary were course and common. He looked untidy, unkempt and scruffy and the Privy Council were a little disappointed.

To be fair to James, his early life been hard and this produced the man who now accepted the homage due to him as king. During his time on the Scottish throne James had brought in line the Presbyterian Kirk. The rebellious Scottish nobility were forced into obedience to the crown. He assumed that he could duplicate his success in England. This was not to be the case.

However he was the king, and a Scottish king. Many must have breathed a deep sigh of relief as the common king united the old enemies. England had long been wary of a joint invasion from France and her ally Scotland, and this threat was at last removed.

James: King and Scholar

James' coronation took place on Monday, 25 July, 1603, by Archbishop John Whitgift of Canterbury. He held his first court at Hampton Court Palace.

James did have good points; he had a good mind and was very well informed and, if pushed, worked hard. Although it would not become an official royal title, he was the first monarch to use the 'King of Great Britain and Ireland'. This unofficial title was used in parliamentary records and official correspondence. Louis XIII of France often addressed James as the title King of Great Britain in court letters.

James promoted the idea of a single parliament for both England and Scotland. It was during his reign that Britain started the colonisation of Ulster8 and British colonisation of America. He was destined to spend little time in Scotland, with only one prolonged stay during 1617. Despite this, Scotland prospered and James managed to end the troubles of Mary's reign.

A Dutiful Son

When James came to the throne it gave him the opportunity to pay final homage to his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth realised that her death could be considered that of a martyr and ordered her body to be sealed in a lead coffin and enclosed in secret and without due ceremony within the walls of Fotheringhay Castle. Even artefacts Mary had left were burned at the Queen's order.

James ordered that Mary's remains were given a Christian burial. He ordered her to be laid to rest in an identical tomb and position of equal status to that of Elizabeth in the chapel of Westminster Abbey.

Patron of the Arts

James patronised and encouraged literature, the theatre and the arts. Authors such as William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, John Donne and Ben Jonson flourished. It is during this period that maps and globes first made an appearance in English schools. During his courtship and marriage to Anne of Denmark, James met with the Danish nobleman astronomer Tycho Ottesen Brahe. James had an enquiring mind and often sought the company of such men.

James led by example, writing works such as the Basilikon Doron9 and the Daemonologie. This was an exaltation to hunt and destroy witches. The fearful abounding at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters. Perhaps his most famous work was the essay A Counterblast to Tobacco, written in 1604. James was among the first to realise the dangers of smoking. Sir Anthony Weldon called him the wisest fool in Christendom, perhaps a harsh view in hindsight.

The King James Bible was named in his honour due to his patronage of its translation. The most interesting translation was that of Exodus 22:18. In the King James Bible version it reads:

Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.

The Witch Hunts

Before inheriting the English throne, during his visit to Denmark when courting Princess Anne, James had been impressed by the Danish witch-hunts and trials. This awakened an intense interest in James; he studied the available works on the subject. Upon his return to Berwick, James attended the North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590. A witch hunt had led to the arrest, and the subsequent trial, of Agnes Sampson. James personally examined Agnes at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. She was forced to wear a device called the witch's bridle. This fitted around the head and had a device with a mouthpiece with four spikes. Two spikes pierced the tongue and the other two pierced the cheeks. Agnes was allowed no sleep and was kept tethered by the head to keep her on her feet.

After this treatment it is no surprise that she admitted to 53 charges of witchcraft and implicated Lord Bothwell in her 'plot' to kill James by witchcraft. Found guilty, she was sentenced to be part-strangled and burned, the sentence carried out in public.

It was alleged that Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, had plotted with witches to kill James. They were accused of attempting to kill him by trying to sink a ship upon which he and Anne were returning to Scotland. It was alleged that witchcraft was used to create the storms suffered on the voyage in order to wreck his ship. Bothwell tried unsuccessfully to clear his name but was forced to flee. He escaped from Scotland and eventually settled in Naples in Italy where he died an exile in November 1612.

This led to wider persecution of witches throughout the kingdom, using existing powers granted by the acts of Elizabeth I in 1562 and 1563, and James' own Witchcraft Act of 1604. These laws and statutes were enforced with some relish by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General. He used the king's new Bible to give himself ultimate authority by decreeing Thou shall not suffer a witch to live, as this could not be argued with. This period of history provided the inspiration for William Shakespeare to write Macbeth.

The Big Bang in Theory

James was to open the Houses of Parliament in London on 5 November, 1605. However, a group of Catholic conspirators10 planned to take this opportunity to assassinate James in the same manner as his father, by gunpowder. The assassination was intended to trigger a revolt in the Midlands, complete with a plan to seize James' eldest daughter Elizabeth and proclaim the nine-year-old as Queen.

The plot went disastrously wrong; the plotters were betrayed and were all executed. Furious, James turned on the Catholics of England and passed anti-Catholic statutes that were to remain in force for over 300 years. These included a system of fines and the introduction of a sacramental test. However, James was tolerant of all the Catholic ministers and servants who had earned his trust. The main Act excluded Catholics from any high office or position of power. Tests have shown that if the gunpowder had been detonated, everyone in the hall would have been killed. The ruling elite would have been wiped out and England would have had a dramatically different future.

The Legacy of this Period

James had developed a strong belief in the divine right of kings, considering himself God's appointed and anointed leader. His belief in the absolute authority of the monarchy was passed onto his children with catastrophic results. The English Civil War, a struggle between Parliament and the monarchy, was also to some extent a religious war between Protestants and Catholics. The Catholic marriage of Charles, and resulting Catholic faith of his children, caused conflict that was only to end in England with the end of the Stuart dynasty. The Protestant Plantations established in Ulster created during James' reign forced Protestant landlords upon the Catholic Irish population. There had been earlier plantations around Dublin during Elizabeth I's reign, but the bloody consequences of James' plantations are still with us, and have yet to end in Ireland.

North America did not at first appear to suffer in the same way. Jamestown was one of the first successful British settlements and the Protestant faith remained pre-eminent in North America.

The Stewart story continues in The Children of James I.

1It is interesting to note that Great Britain was not an official term until 1707. James, a Scottish king, was proclaimed James the first, King of England, France, and Ireland in March 1603. Some have speculated that Scotland was not included in this title because of his unhappy early life there. The title 'King of France' was in name only.2In official documents the name Stuart is also spelt Stewart and is the spelling used on the UK government website.3A Preceptor is a teacher whose aim is to instil a particular tradition, law or concept in those he teaches.4A proxy marriage is one where the groom or bride and some cases both are not present at the wedding ceremony.5The journey took 35 hours and an average speed 10.2 miles per hour.6Holy rood or 'haly ruid' (old Scots) is normally believed to refer to the holy cross on which Jesus died, although another possibility is the old Scottish unit of land measurement, the rood. This would mean the site's name simply means something similar to The Holy Acre.7Carey would retain the king's favour and was later governor of James' second son, Prince Charles, who later appointed him Earl of Monmouth.8Also known as the Plantation of Ulster, as the settlements were conducted in the same manner as that of the West Indies and other colonies.9Meaning 'Royal Gift', this took the form of a three-volume letter to his son Henry about the art of kingship The True Law of Free Monarchies and the divine right of kings. This was to prove unfortunate advice for Charles.10Though Guy Fawkes is the best remembered, the others in the group were John Wright, Thomas Percy, Francis Tresham, Sir Everard Digby, Christopher Wright, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Catesby, Robert Keyes, John Grant, Thomas Bates and Robert and Thomas Wintour.

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