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Tudor Times talks about James I of England

This month’s joint episode with Tudor Times is about their Person of the Month, James I. Here are the resources mentioned.

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!


Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!

Heather Teysko: Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast. I’m your host Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe and our connection to our own humanity. This is episode 49. It’s another joint episode with Melita Thomas of Tudor Times. This is the fourth joint episode that we’ve done together, and I’m so excited to do a lot more original content with them.

Just a quick note that the Renaissance English History podcast is a proud member of the Agora Podcast Network. The Agora Podcast of the month this month is the History of China by Chris Stewart. You can check it out and learn more at the or look it up on iTunes, or Stitcher, or your listening service of choice.

As always, you can get show notes and more information about the Renaissance English History Podcast at where you can also sign up for my mailing list. Mailing list subscribers receive extra MiniCast each month as well as book giveaways, news and lots of other cool stuff. For this particular episode as well, you can also get lots more information on James I at

Moving on from the admin bit, let’s talk about James I now. Introducing Melita. Melita is a co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a website devoted to Tudor and Stuart history in the period from 1485 to 1625. You can find it at Melita who has always been fascinated by history ever since she saw the 1970 series Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson also contributes articles to BBC History Extra and Britain Magazine.

Melita, can you tell us a bit about James’s life? I know it was a very full life. Can you just give us the highlights?

Melita from TT: It certainly was a full life. He’s been rather neglected by historians in the past but his life was absolutely one Hollywood scene after another. The excitement started before he was born. When he was still in the womb, his mother’s apartments were broken into and her secretary was murdered in front of her eyes whilst one of the assassins held a gun to her pregnant belly, so James was already the center of excitement even while he was still a fetus. Fortunately for James and for Mary, he was born healthy although at a later stage in life it was noted that he didn’t walk terribly well, and he had possibly some sort of speech impediment which people have speculated may have been a birth problem related to the difficulties that Mary had when he was actually born.

Following even on from that early fracas, his mother was deposed when he was about a year old and James became King of Scotland at the age of 13 months. He was unsurprisingly subject to a good deal of controversy in his youth as to whether he ought to be king. Many people wanted his mother restored and there are a number of tussles over who was going to rule Scotland. There was the queen’s party who thought Mary should be restored and the king’s party that wanted James as king under the regency originally of his half-uncle Murray.

Of the four regents who ruled for James, two were assassinated including his aforementioned uncle, his grandfather. One died possibly of poison, the Earl of Mar who had been his guardian. And, the fourth was eventually executed by James himself. For the first 10 or 12 years of his life there was a civil war in Scotland that effectively the government won but there was always the possibility that it might go the other way.

James was largely protected from this and he was brought up in a very, very strict educational environment. He was hugely well-educated. He spoke several languages. He could write in Latin. He had a very academic type of education. His chief tutor was a chap called George Buchanan who was also the tutor to the French philosopher, de Montaigne, which is quite an interesting link, and James was encouraged to hone his skills in rhetoric. He also wrote poetry and he wrote a number of books in later life, not particularly long books, but there’s his famous book about witchcraft called Daemonologie. He wrote a book for his son on how a king should rule called the Basilikon Doron, which was later published in several languages, translated into French, Italian, also Welsh interestingly for his Welsh subjects.

Once he was about 13, James really started to take authority for himself, and he formulated a life plan that he never really deviated from in that he would, I suppose lies is the right word, but dissimulate. He would listen to both sides of the question. Each side thought he agreed with them and then he would just go ahead and do what he’d already planned to do, but he was very good at conciliation and compromise. He disliked violence intensely from this rather worrying youth that he’d had.

Having started to take power at 13, he was then kidnapped, held by the Earl of Gowrie and his colleagues for about 18 months while he was pretty much forced to rule the country as they required. But, then by rather clever strategians, he managed to escape from Gowrie’s influence and promised that he was going to be a universal king who would rule without faction which he tried to do, not always successfully.

He married in 1589 to a Danish princess, Anne, and he and Anne had seven children. They were reasonably happy together as arranged marriages go, but there was always a question about whether James certainly had homosexual leanings even if he didn’t actually have homosexual relationships. It’s a bit of a tricky subject that because his fondness for his male favorites was commented on at the time. He would kiss them and be physically affectionate and, yet, his actual statements on the topic of homosexual acts were very, very traditional Calvinist view you might say. He was very anti it. He believed that homosexual acts should be severely punished. Perhaps he didn’t see himself as a lover of men, but he had very warm emotional relationships and, to some extent, a physical relationship with them. It’s quite a conundrum really or perhaps he was just a man who was hugely physically affectionate which he couldn’t indulge in his childhood and it came out in a fondness for other men.

His overall ambition was always to be king of England. That was what he wanted. This sometimes put him in a bit of moral quandary particularly when his mother had been tried and was going to be executed by the English government. He had little power to actually change what the English government was going to do, but on the other hand he felt obliged to remonstrate and to ask that his mother’s life be spared. The Scots having deposed Mary thought that the English are going to execute her, which perhaps seems a little paradoxical. James was the recipient of a pension from England which was very useful which he didn’t want to lose and also he was a committed Protestant and his mother was a Catholic. He had all sorts of conflicting feelings about the matter.

He became King of England in 1603 and his view was that the two countries should unite, but he was the only person who had any interest in that idea at all. Even once he became King of England, the plots and the assassination attempts and so forth continued particularly of course the Gunpowder Plot, the most famous plot of all which he was fortunate to escape.

Was a reasonably successful King of England. He brought peace with Spain after 20 years of war. He had reopened relationships really with Europe. He was less divisive in the Protestant-Catholic divide in Europe than Elizabeth had been, and he established much friendlier relationships with the Catholic countries of Europe than she had done. Although he was in no way going to encourage Catholicism, he was personally inclined to toleration and did not want to get involved in religious persecution.

He was also successfully had … He left a son. He had an older son who died very sadly to James’s great grief, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, but he left a son. He left a daughter who was married to the king of Bohemia. And, of course, he is the ancestor of all subsequent kings and queens of Great Britain.

Heather Teysko: His early life was so tumultuous, like you said, even before he was born and he didn’t know his father or his mother really. How do you think that affected him later? I know you talked about it a little bit perhaps with his relationships with men. How else did that come out at all or how do you think it would have affected him just this early tumult that he had?

Melita from TT: I think it made him … Well, I think by nature he was probably a trusting man. But, I think the fear in his childhood, the constant plots, I think that made him untrusting against his nature. I think that explains why on a number of occasions when his friends betrayed him or let him down, he was endlessly forgiving. A lot of plots against him were … Perhaps it was weakness rather than virtue but he seemed always willing to accept that people did love him and did care about him. He’s very insecure emotionally so a good show of loving him or being fond of him was always very welcome.

He was attached to his wife although they weren’t temperamentally particularly well-suited, and he was very attached to his own children. I think it’s probably made him lonely I suppose and perhaps also encouraged him in his idea of the absolute power of kings which was very contrary to the formal education that he had. George Buchanan, a rather nice quote, when he was a little boy, James was probably eight or nine, Buchanan had beaten him for insubordination, or not doing his Latin homework, or whatever it was. And, the Countess of Mar, he was in the care of the Earl and Countess of Mar, the countess complained that Buchanan had beaten him and said that he should not put his hands on the Lord’s anointed to which Buchanan replied that he had whipped the king’s ass and Lady Mar could kiss it if she felt like it.

He was certainly not brought up with this idea of absolute power, but it was one he came by perhaps in the first relationship that he developed with somebody who hadn’t been appointed by his guardians. The Duke of Lennox, his cousin, was born and brought up in France, came to Scotland, was a good deal older than James but James completely hero-worshiped him and was very, very willing to listen to ideas about the power of kings perhaps as an antidote to the powerlessness of his childhood.

Heather Teysko: What would that have been like for him? He was Elizabeth’s presumptive heir, but he was never formally acknowledged as such. It’s a very odd position to be in, isn’t it?

Melita from TT: Elizabeth was an absolute genius at keeping people dangling, and James was no exemption. You think of all those men she almost married but never did. In a way, James was treated in exactly the same way. She would hint that he was her heir and then add that failure to do exactly what she wanted would mean him being struck off the list. They regularly corresponded. She always took a very dominant role, would criticize his actions, reprove them but then become absolutely enraged if he questioned anything that she did. She wouldn’t let him rest secure so she would toy with other possible options such as the Lady Arbella Stuart who was their mutual cousin, and she was being brought up in England, so every now and then Elizabeth would parade Arbella around just to keep James on his toes.

The risk for James was also that he became the subject of plotting by some of Elizabeth’s nobles and ministers who were perhaps looking to the future or particularly in the 1590s when Elizabeth was losing her grip on power in some ways because a younger generation didn’t necessarily approved of her foreign policy, particularly in relation to Spain, so men like the Earl of Essex and his sister Lady Penelope Devereux wrote ingratiating letters to James during 1590s assuring him of their loyalty, and that they would support him in his bid for the throne if necessary, all completely treasonous. James was a sensible chap and he didn’t get too involved in that sort of correspondence. He would just politely thank them for their letters and ignore the hint because he was in a difficult position.

When the plots that James’s mother Mary was accused of, the height in the early 1580s, a thing called the Active Association had been introduced by the English Parliament and that meant that anybody who profited or benefited from the assassination of the queen would be immediately struck out of the succession even if they had nothing to do with it. If James was in any way appearing to encourage anybody to think that Elizabeth should be got of the way, he would automatically be debarred from the throne so he had to be very circumspect.

Heather Teysko: He must have been so good at just treading around all these different, I don’t know, relationships and how to manage all these different relationships to people. I don’t envy him. Anyway, so tell me a little bit about what he believed, his religious beliefs. You talked about it earlier with his book on witchcraft and his views. It seems like he had some very, like you said, almost Calvinist beliefs, and he obviously was involved with the King James Bible, so can you tell me a little bit about what he believed religiously?

Melita from TT: James was brought up in the Reformed faith as it was instituted in Scotland by the Confession of Faith which was passed by the Scots Parliament in 1560. It was a Calvinist interpretation of Christianity, and he remained firmly in that form of Protestantism. He was a Calvinist. He defended it with his pen, if not necessarily with his sword. However, within the Church of Scotland, there was a more radical branch which believed that church government should be by presbyteries and superintendents. It’s all rather arcane but the principle was that the elders and ministers of the church should be chosen by the congregations whereas James wanted a very much more traditional type of church structure where the king chose the bishops, and it was imposed from the top, and there was control over the church by the state whereas the general assembly of the Church of Scotland believed that they ought to be effectively independent of the state.

And, not only that, but the king and the civil authorities should actually be guided, to put it mildly, by the kirk. No self-respecting king was going to be very keen on that idea. There was a longstanding battle between the kirk, as it was called in Scotland, and James as to who’s in charge. This was reflected in England as well towards the end of the 16th century as the puritan branch of the Church of England wanted to move to the model that the Scots Presbyterians had. This was a constant source of conflict.

He was pretty tolerant of other people’s religions. Catholicism was never prosecuted in Scotland or never persecuted in Scotland the way it was in England. In England, although a number of the nobles were still Catholic and everybody knew they were, they kept pretty quiet about it. In Scotland particularly in the north, in the highlands, Catholicism was stilly pretty widely practiced. But, it was a bone of contention throughout his reign.

When he became king in England, he had allowed the English Catholics to believe that he would be more tolerant than Elizabeth had been in his favorite trick of allowing people to pretty much believe that he agreed with them even if he didn’t. The fact that he didn’t immediately institute any kind of tolerance was really one of the motivating factors behind the Gunpowder Plot. The Catholics felt that they had been let down, lied to, betrayed and their idea was that James should be overthrown, replace with his daughter as a puppet queen. She was a toddler at the time. That was part of their motivation.

He always, as I say, wanted the traditional ecclesiastical hierarchy. He succinctly put it as no bishop, no king which of course became true in the days of his son Charles I when Scotland firmly rejected the Episcopalian model.

But, one of the ideas he had to bring together the various factions was the new translation of the Bible, the King James Authorized Version as we call it now. In 1604, he summoned what was called the Hampton Court Conference to make a new translation of the Bible. There were various different Bibles being used throughout the British Isles. There was the Geneva Bible which was strongly Calvinist in tone. I mentioned the bishops [inaudible 00:21:05]. That had been very popular since the 1560s. There was the Bishops’ Bible which was based on the 1539 Bible but was more or less a translation directly from the Latin without much reference to original sources. And, there was the Douai Bible that was smuggled in by Catholics.

In 1601, the Scottish General Assembly had moved to the idea of a new translation which they would have had a Presbyterian interpretation and James was eager to avoid that. The Hampton Court Conference was convened to undertake a new translation but to base it on the Bishops’ Bible. It was undertaken by committee and finally published in 1611. Although when I say finally, if you think seven years is not very long when you consider the huge scale of the task. The King James Authorized Version of the Bible is the bestselling book ever published in English and although there have been subsequent later translations and updates, it is still the cornerstone of the traditional Anglican church. So, a great contribution to literature whatever one’s religious views might be on it.

Heather Teysko: Okay. Well, you mentioned the Gunpowder Plot twice now. You talked about just now the motivations of the plotters. For people who don’t know what the Gunpowder Plot is, which might be people in America who don’t celebrate every November the fireworks, and bonfires, and things like that, can you give me the brief overview of what the Gunpowder Plot is?

Melita from TT: Yes. We still remember it.

Heather Teysko: I know we could do lots of episodes on this as well.

Melita from TT: Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. As I mentioned before, the Catholic party in England had hoped that with the succession of James there would be more tolerance to their religion. In particular, it was a capital offense to be a priest if you were ordained after the death of Queen Mary in 1558, and it was a capital offense to hear the mass said. There was a huge underground network of people who hid priests, who organized masses, who kept Catholicism alive during the years of Elizabeth’s reign. They hoped that they would be able to come out into the open but that was not James’s decision.

There was a plot that was developed in the summer of 1605, and if you want to read some detail about this, I can’t recommend highly enough Jessie Childs book God’s Traitors which goes into this in huge detail and explains the religious and political background. The idea was that the young prince has Elizabeth who, as I said, was a few years old at the time would be kidnapped and that the Houses of Parliament or the House of Parliament would be blown up by gunpowder. We shouldn’t imagine Parliament as it is today, the buildings in Westminster Square. Parliamentary meetings usually took place in the Great Hall in Westminster or in the Palace of Westminster itself which burnt in the 19th century.

The ringleaders were a chap … There was a chap called Robert Catesby. There was Thomas Percy who was a brother or cousin, I can’t remember which, of the Earl of Northumberland and a number of others. There are about eight or 10 of them in total. The most famous one is Guy Fawkes. Although he actually hadn’t been privy to the original plot. He got involved later. Anyway, these young men who were .. They were all cousins and closely related. They came up with this rather ludicrous plot really, and they rented a house next door to where the Parliament was due to sit, and they smuggled in loads and loads of barrels of gunpowder.

Now, why anybody could think that you could smuggle in loads of barrels of gunpowder and that was a practical proposition, I’m not quite sure. However, they did managed to get some in. And, then, the plan was that Guy Fawkes would hide in the cellars with the gunpowder and set light to it. So far is known, he wasn’t a suicide bomber. The plan was that he would actually get out in time although again with 16th century, 17th century gunpowder that might have been unlikely.

However, one of the plotters was concerned that this wouldn’t just blow up the king because in those days the king attended Parliament and probably the Prince of Wales. He was about 15 so he was likely to be in attendance in Parliament as well. But, would also blow up Catholic members of Parliament including this particular plotter’s own brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle. He wrote to Monteagle or sent him an anonymous letter so it’s not absolutely certain but this assumed that it was Monteagle’s brother-in-law. Sent him an anonymous letter saying, “Don’t attend Parliament. It’s not going to end well.”

Anyway, Monteagle, although he was Catholic himself suspected that something was afoot, and he went to James, and said he received this letter and a search was ordered of the cellars underneath Parliament and there was Guy Fawkes found with his barrels of gunpowder.

The other plotters got wind of the fact that he’d been found and they wrote [inaudible 00:27:28] for various places in the midlands that was safe houses. One of them is Coughton Court. But, they were eventually rounded up and executed. The downside of course was that whatever tolerance James might have been inclined to show was damaged because he then became much more anti-Catholic than he had previously been.

Heather Teysko: What was it like for him ruling both England and Scotland? I’d like to hear a little bit about what the relationships between the countries were like then and just how things changed under one ruler.

Melita from TT: From James’s point of view in some ways it was easier to rule England than to rule Scotland partly because England was a lot wealthier so finally he had some money in his pocket. He’d always been very poor and he was notoriously bad with money. Whenever he had it, he spent it. Not so much on himself as on his favorites. Queen Anne was ludicrously extravagant. He had more money and it was also easier in that the noble class which still very independent and Scotland had been more or less beaten into submission by the Tudors and didn’t give James a great deal of trouble.

The Puritan element in the church which I mentioned before was growing, but it didn’t control the church as it had in Scotland with its uncomfortable ideas about democracy. James himself very much wanted the two countries to be truly united, but he was the only person with any interest in that as a concept. He announced that he will be known as the King of Great Britain and following his succession all of the princely houses of Europe address their letters to the King of Great Britain. There was a good deal of continuity in government in both places. He didn’t try to bring Scottish ministers into office in England nor did he put English men into office in Scotland which would have been very unpopular on both sides.

He retained Elizabeth’s ministers, particularly Sir Robert Cecil. He instituted a council to govern Scotland and did promise that he would continually visit it although he only actually went back once in his 22 years in England. I think he was probably quite relieved that he had an easy life. The palaces of England were legion compared with the smallish number in Scotland. Many, many members of his court was Scottish and he did bring a whole entourage with him who remained with him so he still thought of himself as Scot in that sense.

But, at a lower level, the English and the Scottish people did not in any way feel united. They shared a king but that was that. Even the church was different, as I said. The ecclesiastical structure was different. There was a change in the borders where previously there’ve been pretty much permanent low level board of warfare. It changed in that it was no longer state sponsored, but there was still a good deal of lawlessness perpetrated by the reavers as they were called. Interesting book about that. George MacDonald Fraser’s book The Steel Bonnets all about this period of the life in the borders in the early days of James. They were a bloody lot. That’s for sure. But, there was no real meeting of minds that in fact the civil war in the 1640s England and Scotland were at loggerhead. It wasn’t until more than 80 years after James’s death in the days of his great granddaughter Queen Anne that the countries were united under a single parliament.

Heather Teysko: What about culture and the arts? He was a great fan of pageants, and pageantry, and everything like that, wasn’t he?

Melita from TT: He was. Particularly his wife Anne of Denmark. She was particularly interested in masquerades, in ballets and that kind of mixing of cultures between dance, and music, and so forth. She’s also very interested in architecture.

James enjoyed playgoing. Not long after he came to the throne, Shakespeare’s company, which had previously been sponsored by the Lord Chamberlain, became the king’s company and played in front of James on at least 150 occasions. He was also perhaps more interested in literature than he was in music. Unlike all of his Tudor and Stuart relatives, he had no ear for music at all and didn’t care a great deal for dancing although apparently when he was young, he wasn’t bad at it.

His interest was literature. I mentioned the Daemonologie. That he wrote his book about witchcraft. His book about how people should rule, how kings should rule. He also wrote a number of sonnets, not more than okay. They’re not great poetry but he wrote a number of other things. He wrote a diatribe against tobacco which is quite amusing.

Heather Teysko: Really?
Melita from TT: He refers to it as loathsome. Yes, in very disparaging terms.
Heather Teysko: My goodness.

Melita from TT: He wrote a number of religious works, interpretations of parts of the Bible and, well, semi-religious, semi-political work. After the Gunpowder Plot, a new oath of allegiance was implemented that James required his subjects to swear to, and this was an oath saying that the pope had no power to depose a secular ruler. This oath caused a good deal of controversy across Europe actually, and there were a number of theologians both Protestant and Catholic who wrote about this oath, and James himself took up the pen to defend it and to make clear that his interpretation of the oath, it wasn’t about the Catholic religion. It was about the power, the secular power of popes over temporal kings. In fact, there were many Catholic kings who were very happy with this philosophy that the pope should not have power to have them deposed. He was quite a nimble writer shall we say.

Heather Teysko: Interesting. Where else can we go to learn more about James? Obviously he’s the person of the month now so there’s your resources. What other resources can you recommend?

Melita from TT: He hasn’t been the subject of many biographies. There’s John Matusiak’s book James I: Scotland’s King of England. That’s fairly recent. Matusiak writes in quite an entertaining style. A chap called Robert Stedall has written two books The Challenge to the Crown – Volume I: The Struggle for Influence in the Reign of Mary Queen of Scots 1542-1567, and The Survival of the Crown – Volume II: The Return to Authority of the Scottish Crown following Mary Queen of Scots’ Deposition from the Throne 1567-1603, which look in detail at the period of James’s youth and how we transformed the turbulence in the four regencies of his childhood into a reasonably stable government. Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England that I mentioned before which deals with the Gunpowder Plot. Leanda de Lisle covers the English years in a lot of detail in After Elizabeth: The Rise of James of Scotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England. If you’re interested in the witchcraft angle, then Tracy Borman’s book The Witches is good. It looks at a particular witch hunt in England after James became king. Yes, those are all worth a look.

Heather Teysko: Is there anything else that we should know about James that you’d like to share with us?

Melita from TT: I think James had been very underrated. From a war-torn country, he created a stable Scottish state. He succeeded peacefully in England. He ended the war with Spain. He stopped the [inaudible 00:36:10]. He made alliances with both Protestant and Catholic countries. He sought compromise and negotiation wherever he could and, as before mentioned, he gave the English language the gift of the Authorized Version, regardless of one’s religious position, a great work of literature. Overall, I would say he had 56 or 57 years of pretty effective kingship.

Heather Teysko: That’s great. Thank you again so much to Melita Thomas for taking the time to tell us all about James. Please go to their website for their person of the month information all about James, everything you wanted to know about James and more.

You can also go to the resources available on the Englandcast site at Thank you so much for listening. Talk to you soon.

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!