On 24th March 1603 a 69 year old woman lay dying; she is not just any woman but Elizabeth I, Queen of England and had ruled as Queen for 45 years. What she did not know as she lay there breathing her last breath was that one of her courtiers, Robert Carey, a distant cousin was racing on horseback from Richmond Palace to Holyrood Palace in Scotland, where another of her distant cousins was King of Scots.
He arrived two days later on 26th March and was the first to inform the King of the death of Queen Elizabeth, his kinswoman. Also that he was now not just King James VI of Scots but now King James I of England as well. James was a descendant of King Henry VII and therefore was closest in line to the Tudor English throne as Elizabeth had produced no children.
Being King was nothing new for King James for he had been King of Scots since the age of 13 months after the forced abdication of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. He was now 36 years old and married to Anne of Denmark.
As James was a child King his country was ruled by Regents, many of these meeting violent ends for the fight to control the young King of Scots. One of the regents was his grandfather, Matthew Stewart who was fatefully stabbed and his bloody corpse was brought into Stirling Castle where the 5 year old king was staying.
James’ youth and teenage years were fraught with violence and the fight to gain control of the King with plots and counter plots. All of these led to James developing anxiety as he was in constant fear of attack. This may have had an effect on him as an adult leading to his hatred of war and violence.
James was average in height with tall and thin legs. He had large eyes, a thin beard and a large tongue. In his dress he wore large quilted doublets which were supposedly dagger proof. He also hardly ever washed.
However James was also very academic. He was an author of many pamphlets three of these being Basilikon Doronabout kingship and how to be a good king; Demonology about witchcraft, something James was very fascinated by and ‘a counterblast for Tobacco’ where he expresses his distaste for it, especially the smoking of tobacco.
One of James’s great contributions to England was the Authorised King James’s Version of the bible (1611) which was to become the standard text for more than 250 years. The King James translation had a significant influence on the English language and was widely accepted as the Standard English Bible. Some of its phrases are still in use today in the English language such as ‘Turned the world upside down, ‘God forbid’ and ‘The powers that be’.
However although wise, James had some awful habits which led to the French king giving him the nickname of ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’. This was a result of James’s learned ability but also the fact that due to his large tongue he would spit and slobber and when drinking it would come out the sides of his mouth. He also was known to pick his nose and play with his codpiece while in the company of others.
James also liked to be reffered to as ‘the English Solomon’. He is represented as Solomon in one of Rubens canvas prints in the Banqueting House. The print above the throne (not an original) is titled the Peaceful Reign of King James the first and it depicts James sitting in a splendid biblical style setting that suggests a comparison with King Solomon. Peace and plenty (in gold and red) to his right embrace while Minerva fights down Mars. In the foreground is Mercury holding the cadecus (a symbol of peace). The figure at the bottom centre is rebellion, about to receive a crushing blow. James has his left arm thrust forward towers Peace and Plenty in van attempt to protect them. James is being crowned with the Laurels of Victory by genii indicating his Semi divine status as monarch. James brought peace to both England and Scotland after hundreds of years of warfare with each other and even in his lifetime was compared to King Solomon.
However James did have to overcome some disputes and problems in his reign. He was of the Protestant faith and some people in his two countries were still Catholic and others were Puritans, an extreme end of the Protestant religion. Both were urging James to change his policies. However James chose to be quite tolerant of the Catholic religion and was even accepting when his wife converted to Catholicism. But it was not enough for some Catholics and they conspired to blow up the king in 1604 this being known in history as the Gunpowder plot.
Another issue in James’s reign was his particular fondness for certain members of his court who have become known as his favourites. It was his closeness to these mean that has led some historians to believe that James may have had homosexual tendencies.
However James did his duty as monarch and he and his wife Anne had seven children (not all to survive infancy) and were thus successful in continuing his Stuart line when he died in 1625.
James’s eldest child was born in 1594 and was called Henry. Prince Henry was a very charismatic, bright and popular prince. Unlike his father he disliked swearing and in his smaller court at St James’s Palace had a swear box in place. He decreed that
‘all Banquets ‘should be conducted with decency and decorum, and without all rudeness, noise or disorder.’
Prince Henry was also responsible for collecting many pieces of artwork. This would be the beginnings of what would eventually become one of the largest collections in Europe and be the beginnings of the Royal Collection. Henry died at the age of 18 from Typhoid fever unexpectedly. The new heir to the throne was now his younger sickly brother Prince Charles.
Prince Charles was born in 1600 and was the first monarch to be raised in the Church of England faith. He was quite a short person and suffered from a stammer. Unlike his father and his late brother Charles did not really make much of an impression when people met him.
As an adult and like his father Charles too had a favourite, one of his late father’s – George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. This caused much uproar and annoyance in his court, even Charles’s wife disliked the man as he prevented her and her husband from forming a bond. However after Buckingham was murdered, Charles and Henrietta eventually grew close and it was she who then was his confidant.
Henrietta Maria was Catholic and again like in his father’s reign Charles tolerated her faith and made allowances for her. This would eventually add to the flames of unrest amongst Charles’s people and court, especially the ever rising Puritans.
Charles inherited his brother’s art collection and with encouragement from Buckingham and the Earl of Arundel expanded this collection and used it to help define his persona amongst the ruling families of Europe. It gave him a role, and brought to England the artist Peter Paul Rubens and the commission for the 9 canvas panels at the Banqueting House.
Charles used art and painting to help give an image of himself as he wanted to be seen, not as he actually was. He used it as a tool of propaganda. In some of his portraits Charles is a grand imposing figure and the images backed up his belief in the Divine Right of Kings and that as a monarch he was semi-divine.
Eventually Charles and his parliament were no longer able to see eye to eye and get along. Things had progressed so far that in 1642 Charles fled London with his family in fear for their lives. He eventually raised his standard at Nottingham Castle and Civil War erupted in the country between himself and the parliamentarians who would eventually be led by Oliver Cromwell. Charles himself lead the Royalists and even entered into battle.
Charles was eventually captured and held prisoner. In January 1649 he was put on trial at Westminster Palace as a traitor to his country. He was being held responsible for all the deaths and trouble that the Civil War had brought to the country. As he was king it was his responsibility to keep peace in his realm which he had not. However Charles refused to submit any plea to the court refusing to acknowledge any authority they had. Who had the right to try their king?
‘England was never an elective kingdom, [he said] but an hereditary kingdom for near these thousand years; therefore let me know by what authority I am called hither: I do stand more for the liberty of my people than any here that come to be my pretended judges.’
However Charles was still declared guilty by the court and was sentenced to a traitor’s honorable death by beheading. On 30th January 1649 Charles was walked across from St James’s Palace up into his privy apartments next to the Banqueting House. It was a cold day and so he wore two shirts to prevent him shivering in case it was interpreted as fear. After a small bite to eat he was walked across the Banqueting House hall and out through a doorway where (roughly where his portrait now hangs on the staircase). He stepped out onto an erected scaffold draped in black and to a large crowd. At about two in the afternoon he said his last speech including the words:
I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown where no disturbance can be….’
And placed his head on the block. The block was very close to the floor so Charles was near enough lying flat. He raised his arms out as an indication to the disguised executioner that he was ready and with one blow of the axe his head was removed from his body.
Even though Charles was now dead and that England had now entered a Commonwealth the Stuart Kings were eventually restored in 1660 and continued to reign for another 47 years. Even then the Stuart line did not die out completely. The throne passed to the Hanoverians, more commonly remembered as the Georgians. King George I was, through his mother’s line, a great grandson of King James VI.