The English Solomon – The life of King James I

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, the grandson of her aunt Mary Boleyn, was racing on horseback from Richmond Palace where she lay. His destination was Holyrood Palace in Scotland, where a great grandson of Henry VII was King of Scots.  

ROBERT CAREY British School, National Trust Montacute House

Carey arrived two days later on 26th March and was the first to inform the King of the death of Queen Elizabeth. Also that he was now not just King James VI of Scots but now King James I of England as well. Elizabeth had produced no heirs and so James was the closest in line to the Tudor English throne and of the Protestant faith.

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – after Nicholas Hilliard
oil on panel, inscribed 1578 National Portrait Gallery

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, the twice-widowed Mary Queen of Scots who had been married to the French heir. As a result, she had been raised in France, had adopted their ways, and was a Catholic.

As James was still a child when he became king his country was ruled by Regents, these were men appointed to rule in the king’s stead either due to them being too young, as was the case or incapacitated and unfit to rule. Many of these Regents met violent ends during the fight to control the young King of Scots. One of the regents was his grandfather, Matthew Stewart, who was fatally stabbed and his bloody corpse was brought into Stirling Castle where the 5-year-old king was staying.

JAMES I – Unknown artist
oil on canvas, late 16th century, based on a work of 1574 National Portrait Gallery

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. In his dress he wore large quilted doublets which were supposedly dagger proof. 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. He married at the age of 23 to Anne of Denmark as part of  a diplomatic alliance. The two seemed to get along with James going to collect her from Denmark himself after her ships kept being postponed due to the bad weather and was believed to have been brought on by witches. However, it does not seem like it was a love match, and Anne even converted to the Catholic faith while she was Queen.

JAMES I – after John De Critz the Elder
oil on panel, early 17th century, based on a work of circa 1606 National Portrait Gallery 
ANNE OF DENMARK – John de Critzy c. 1605

James was a very academic and intelligent man. He was an author of many pamphlets three of these being Basilikon Doron about kingship, which he had written for his son, 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.  James felt that it was ‘A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof ,,,’[1] He also spoke five languages – Greek, Latin French, Scots and of course English.

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’.

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, his poor decision making along with the fact that his large tongue made him drink very uncomely, as if eating his drink, which came out into the cup of each side his mouth. He also was known to pick his nose and his fingers…fiddling about his codpiece.[2] It is also said that he hardly ever washed.  One of his earliest biographers, Sir Antony Weldon said that his skin was as soft as Taffeta Sarnsnet, which felt so because, he never washt his hands, only rub’d his fingers ends slightly…’[3]

Today,  James is known as ‘the English Solomon’. This is how he is represented in one of Rubens painitngs at thne Banqurting House, Whitehall. 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. Solomon is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as being great in wisdom, wealth and power.[4]

THE PEACEFUL REIGN OF KING JAMES I – Peter Paul Rubens. Banqueting House. 1629.

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. But it was not enough for some Catholics and a group of them led by Robert Catesby and including the infamous Guy Fawkes conspired to blow up the king and most of his parliament in 1604. They had planned to place James’ young daughter Elizabeth on the throne and to marry her to a catholic lord. However Guy Fawkes was located in the cellars at the houses of parliament after a tip off from a letter and the plot was foiled. Most of the conspirators either died in a final showdown or were tried and executed as traitors. This in now known as the gunpowder plot and is remember on bonfire night every year in Britain on 5th November.

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 meant that has led some historians to believe that James may have had homosexual tendencies as all these favourites were all young males. James would raise them up to high favour, however even when he got bored with them he never took back what he had given to them. One of the most famous of his favourites was George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham, originally a cup bearer in James’ court would eventually achieve the rank of Duke, the only Duke to be made and James’ whole reign. Throughout their relationship the two would correspond in letters to each other and it is through these that we get a feel for how close they were. In one letter Buckingham wrote to James –

whether you loved me now . . . better than at the time which I shall never forget at Farnham, where the bed’s head could not be found between  the master and his dog

And in another

I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts.

And James would remark another time that

you may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled … Christ has his John, and I have my George”.

Whatever his preferences in the bedroom were James did his duty as monarch and he and his wife Anne had seven children with only three to survive to adulthood – Henry, Elizabeth and Charles, and was thus successful in continuing his Stuart line when he died in 1625. James eldest son, 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. Unfortunately, at the age of 18 in 1612, he died, possible of Typhoid fever and so the heir to the British throne was James younger son Charles who would become King Charles I.


Adamson, J. (1999) The Princely Courts of Europe 1500-1750. Weidenfield and Nicolson. London

Borman, T (2013) Witches. Jonathan Cape. London

Massie, A. (2010) The Royal Stuarts. Jonathan Cape. London.

Stewart, A (2003) The Cradle King. London: Chatton and Windsor.

Strong, R. (1986) Henry, Prince of Wales and England’s lost Renaissance. Germany: Thames and Hudson.

[1] A counterblast for Tobacco. James Stuart.

[2] The character of King James. Sir Antony Weldon

[3] The character of King James. Sir Antony Weldon

[4] Solomon.

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