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James I: England’s first Stuart monarch


On 24 March 1603 the 69 year old Elizabeth I died, bringing to an end her ‘golden’ Elizabethan age and the Tudor dynasty. James VI of Scotland, the son of her former rival Mary, Queen of Scots, was named her heir, and the Stuart era began, bringing England and Scotland under the rule of the same monarch for the first time.

It was in January 1603 that Queen Elizabeth had first developed a bad cold and been advised by Dr Dee, her astrologer, to move from Whitehall to Richmond – the warmest of her palaces – on what would prove to be ‘a filthy rainy and windy day’. Once there, it seems, she refused all medicine and, as the Earl of Northumberland informed King James in Scotland, her physicians were soon concluding ‘that if this continue she must needs fall into a distemper, not a frenzy but rather into dullness and lethargy’. The death on 25 February of her cousin and close confidante the Countess of Nottingham had only served to compound her illness with grief, and while all Scotland stirred in happy anticipation of her demise, the queen merely reclined on floor cushions, refusing Robert Cecil’s instructions that she take to her bed. ‘Little man,’ she had told him, ‘the word must is not to be used to princes’. She was 69, plagued with fever, worn by worldly cares and frustrations, and dying – so that even she was forced at last to accede to her secretary’s pleas. Then, in the bedraggled early hours of 24 March, as the queen’s laboured breathing slackened further, Father Weston – a Catholic priest imprisoned at that time in the Tower – noted how ‘a strange silence descended on the whole City of London … not a bell rang out, not a bugle sounded’. Her council was in attendance and, at Cecil’s frantic request that she provide a sign of acceptance of James as her successor, she was said to have complied at last.

At Richmond Palace, on the eve of Lady Day, Elizabeth I had therefore finally put paid to her successor’s interminable agonising and on that same morning of her death Sir Robert Carey, who had once conveyed her pallid excuses for the demise of Mary Queen of Scots to King James, was now dispatched north with altogether more welcome tidings. Leaving at mid-morning and bearing at his breast a sapphire ring that was the prearranged proof of the queen’s demise, Carey had covered 162 miles before he slept that night at Doncaster. Next day, further relays of horses, all carefully prepared in advance, guaranteed that he covered another 136 miles along the ill-kept track known as the Great North Road linking the capitals of the two kingdoms. After a further night at Widdrington in Northumberland, which was his own home, the saddle-weary rider set out on the last leg of his journey, hoping to be with James by supper time, but receiving ‘a great fall by the way’ which resulted in both his delay and ‘a great blow on the head’ from one of his horse’s hoofs ‘that made me shed much blood’. Nevertheless, ‘be-blooded and bruised’, he was in Edinburgh that evening and though the ‘king was newly gone to bed’, the messenger was hurriedly conveyed to the royal bedchamber. There, said Carey, ‘I kneeled by him, and saluted him by his title of England, Scotland, France and Ireland’, in response to which ‘he gave me his hand to kiss and bade me welcome’.

James had dwelt upon the potential difficulties of the succession for so long, however, that he could scarcely credit the ease with which it appeared to be taking place and wasted no time in consolidating his position. To the very last, of course, Elizabeth had made no official acknowledgement of the King of Scotland as her heir, and until he had taken physical possession of his new realm, his fear of invasion or insurrection remained tangible. The day after Carey’s arrival, therefore, the Abbot of Holyrood was urgently dispatched to take possession of Berwick – the gateway to the south – and within a week, as his English councillors pressed him to make haste, plans for James’s transfer to London were complete. Summoning those nobles who could be contacted in the time available, he placed the government in the hands of his Scottish council and confirmed the custody of his children to those already entrusted with them. Likewise, his heir, Prince Henry, was offered words of wisdom upon his new status as successor to the throne of England. ‘Let not this news make you proud or insolent,’ James informed the boy, ‘for a king’s son and heir was ye before, and no more are ye yet. The augmentation that is hereby like to fall unto you is but in cares and heavy burdens; be therefore merry but not insolent.’ Queen Anne, meanwhile, being pregnant, was to follow the king when convenient, though this would not be long, for she miscarried soon afterwards in the wake of a violent quarrel with the Earl of Mar’s mother, once again involving the custody of her eldest son – whereupon James finally relented and allowed the boy to be handed over to her at Holyrood House prior to their joining him in London.

Before his own departure, however, James had certain other snippets of business to attend to. On Sunday 3 April, for instance, he attended the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh to deliver ‘a most learned, but more loving oration’, in which he exhorted his subjects to continue in ‘obedience to him, and agreement amongst themselves’. There was a public promise, too, that he would return to Scotland every three years – though he would ultimately do so only once, in 1617 – and a further suggestion that his subjects should take heart upon his departure, since he had already settled ‘both kirk and kingdom’. All that remained thereafter was a plea to the council for money, since he had barely sufficient funds to get him past the Border, and a series of meetings with both English officials on the one hand and a mounting flood of suitors already seeking lavish rewards and promises. In the first category, came Sir Thomas Lake, Cecil’s secretary, who was sent north to report the king’s first thoughts as he became acquainted with English affairs, and the Dean of Canterbury, who was hastily dispatched to ascertain James’s plans for the Church of England. To the second belonged a teeming, self-seeking throng. ‘There is much posting that way,’ wrote John Chamberlain, an eagle-eyed contemporary reporter of public and private gossip, ‘and many run thither of their own errand, as if it were nothing else but come first served, or that preferment were a goal to be got by footmanship’.

In the event, James’s progress south might well have dazzled many a more phlegmatic mind than his, since it was one unbroken tale of rejoicing, praise and adulation. Entering Berwick on 6 April in the company of a throng of Border chieftains, he was greeted by the loudest salute of cannon fire in any soldier’s memory and presented with a purse of gold by the town’s Recorder. His arrival, after all, represented nothing less than the end of an era on the Anglo-Scottish border. In effect, a frontier which had been the source of bitter and continual dispute over five centuries had been finally transformed by nothing more than an accident of birth, and no outcome of James’s kingship before or after would be of such long-term significance. That a King of Scotland, attended by the Wardens of the Marches from both sides of the border, should enter Berwick peacefully amid cries of approval was almost inconceivable – and yet it was now a reality for the onlookers whose forebears’ lives had been so disrupted and dominated by reprisal raids and outright warfare.

Nor did a sudden rainstorm the following day dampen the king’s spirits. The sun before the rain, he declared, represented his happy departure, the rain the grief of Scotland, and the subsequent fair weather the joy of England at his approach. Such, in fact, was his keenness to press forward into his new kingdom that his stop in Northumberland at Sir Robert Carey’s Widdrington Castle was deliberately cut short. For he departed, we are told, ‘upon the spur, scarce any of his train being able to keep him company’, and rode nearly forty miles in less than four hours. Pausing to slay two fat deer along the way – ‘the game being so fair before him, he could not forbear’ - he rested over Sunday at Newcastle, and heard a sermon by Tobie Mathew, Bishop of Durham, with whom he joked and jested in high humour. Indeed, the urbane, serene world of the Anglican episcopacy, which so happily combined theological soundness with a proper deference for royal authority could not have been more agreeable to James. Received at the bishop’s palace by a hundred gentlemen in tawny liveries, he was treated at dinner to a fine diet of delicious food and Mathew’s own unique brand of learning, humanity and worldly wisdom, which would bring the bishop considerable rewards three years later when he found himself Archbishop of York and Lord President of the Council of the North. Even before the king left next morning, moreover, Mathew’s bishopric had already recovered much alienated property, including Durham House in the Strand, which had been granted previously to Sir Walter Raleigh.

By the time that James entered York on 14 April, however, he had already found much else about his new kingdom to impress him. Above all, he was struck by the apparent richness of a land he was visiting for the first time and knew only by reputation. The abundance of the countryside, the splendour of the great mansions, the extensive parklands through which he travelled, even the quaintness of the villages scattered along his route all proclaimed the contrast with Scotland. Everything, indeed, seemed to lift James into a heady state of expectation after the rigours of his rule in Scotland. According to the eminent lawyer and Master of Requests Sir Roger Wilbraham, the king travelled onwards ‘all his way to London entertained with great solemnity and state, all men rejoicing that his lot and their lot had fallen in so good a ground. He was met with great troops of horse and waited on by the sheriff and gentlemen of each shire, in their limits; joyfully received in every city and town; presented with orations and gifts; entertained royally all the way by noblemen and gentlemen at their houses …’. But the same observer’s concerns about what might be awaiting England’s new king in the longer term were more revealing still. ‘I pray unfeignedly,’ wrote Wilbraham, ‘that his most gracious disposition and heroic mind be not depraved with ill-counsel, and that neither the wealth and peace of England make him forget God, nor the painted flattery of the court cause him to forget himself.’

Extracted from James I: Scotland’s King of England by John Matusiak

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