In June 1589, James VI of Scotland celebrated his 23rd birthday. He was a baby-faced king, raised amid factional politics and had ruled in place of his mother – the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots – since he was a year old. As the potential heir of the childless queen of England, Elizabeth I, James also knew how important it was to have a legitimate son. He had been criticised for his close friendships with various gentlemen of his court, especially the dashing Esmé Stuart, Duke of Lennox, so the presence of a young, fecund wife would go a considerable way to dispelling rumours of his homosexuality.


A perilous voyage

James’ choice was the 14-year-old Anna of Denmark, a high-foreheaded, long-nosed beauty who was the daughter of the recently deceased Frederick II. She had the added advantage of being Protestant, the faith in which James himself had been raised. Her family also had considerable wealth. The marriage contract, sewn with numerous terracotta seals attached by ribbons, was signed in July. The young bride-to-be was ecstatic, declaring herself to be already in love and that it would be “death to her” to have the engagement broken off. James had no intention of doing so. On 20 August, they were married by proxy at Kronborg Castle, with the nobleman George Keith standing in for the Scottish king. Anna set about embroidering a number of shirts for her new husband, while ships were provisioned for her departure across the North Sea to Leith, the port above Edinburgh.

An engraving by Francis Delaram commemorates James and Anna’s historic union
An engraving by Francis Delaram commemorates James and Anna’s historic union, which took place in Oslo a mere four days after they met for the first time. (Image by Getty Images)

September arrived. Scotland was on high alert, with gifts and provisions sent to welcome their new queen. While James lodged nearby and waited, writing a series of love poems called the Amatoria, the expected date for Anna’s arrival came and went. Great storms raged at sea for weeks. One of the Scottish noblewomen summoned to attend on the new queen, Janet Kennedy, drowned crossing the Firth of Forth. A single Danish ship made it to port on 12 September, but the others had been driven back by terrible weather conditions, sheltering in Norway.

A young, fecund wife would go a considerable way to dispelling rumours of his homosexuality

This prompted James to make the most romantic gesture of his married life. Adopting the same role as the classical heroes who peopled his verses, he summoned a ship and decided he would bring his bride home himself. After further storm delays, he eventually left Scotland on 22 October; he would not return until the following May.

James survived a difficult voyage, landing on the coast of Norway on 3 November. Meeting his wife for the first time, dressed in a red velvet coat sewn over with gold stars, and a black cloak, he strode towards her in his boots and tried to plant a kiss upon her lips. There were some scruples about this on the Danish side, but after a little persuasion, Anna permitted James to greet her in the manner of his choosing, making it a “joyful meeting on all sides”.

Hovedøya, remains of a monastery
James and Anna’s honeymoon included a trip to the small island of Hovedøya, where the remains of a 12th-century Cistercian monastery are still visible today. (Image by Getty Images)

Four days after meeting, James and Anna were married in person at the Bishop’s Palace in Oslo, newly fashioned in the Renaissance style. The ceremony took place in a room hung with tapestries, with the couple standing on red cloth, followed by a “reasonable banquet”. Scottish minister David Lindsay presided over the rites, finding Anna to be “both godly and beautiful”. James received a dowry of 75,000 Danish dalers, with an additional 10,000 from Anna’s mother. The following days were filled by many celebrations, including a hunting trip to Hovedøya, a tiny island only 800 metres wide, where the ruins of an old monastery would have still been visible. Afterwards, the royal couple set out for Anna’s homeland of Denmark, lodging in religious houses along the way. By early January, they had reached Bohus, on the mouth of the River Göta, where they stayed in its imposing 14th-century fortress. For one of the very few occasions in his life, James danced with Anna, and gave the gift of a gold chain and ring worth 3,000 dalers to their hosts.

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Distinguished company

On 21 January, the couple arrived at Kronborg Castle in the town of Elsinore, which would later inspire Shakespeare to create the setting for Hamlet. They approached in a small boat, decked out in red velvet, affording them an imposing view of the castle’s position on the waterfront, overlooking a narrow sound of water. It was a dramatic, square building, newly extended outwards and upwards, with sandstone walls, turrets in its curtain walls and a roof made of copper sheeting. A new ballroom had been constructed a decade earlier, above the chapel, along with an enclosed passageway. James and Anna were met by a formal delegation including Anna’s mother, Sophia, and the new king of Denmark, Anna’s 12-year-old brother, Christian. They remained as guests there until 7 March, before moving on to the city of Copenhagen.

Kronborg Castle, which would later inspire the setting of Hamlet
The couple also travelled to Kronborg Castle, which would later inspire the setting of Hamlet. (Image by Getty Images)

It was in the Danish capital that James was able to indulge his academic passions. He made gifts of books, gilded cups and purses to the city’s university and visited the Royal Academy, discussing the latest approaches to anatomy and theology. From there, he travelled west to the cathedral at Roskilde, traditional resting place of Danish kings, where Frederick II had been buried in the Chapel of the Magi. Once an ornate place, with saints’ shrines covered in gems, the cathedral had been stripped of idols and showy wealth, and its simplicity made a huge impression upon James. The king also met the Lutheran priest Niels Hemmingsen, who had been removed from his professorship at the University of Copenhagen for his reformist views on predestination. It is likely that Anna accompanied James to the tomb of her father, but how she occupied herself during his debates is not recorded.

Return of the king

On 20 March, James arrived at the island of Hveen, where the astronomer Tycho Brahe had built an observatory following his discovery of a new star. Brahe was a colourful character, and wore a fake nose made from brass after having his own sliced off in a duel. James visited him between 8am and 3pm, during which the king brought a gift of two mastiffs, and they discussed the Copernican system of astronomy. Brahe held a banquet in James’ honour, where the conversation was in Latin and wine flowed as minstrels played. If Anna was present, she may have been hosted by Tycho’s sister and helper, Sophie. James composed poetry in honour of his host, which Brahe reproduced among his own works.

Having been away from Scotland almost five months, James began to plan his return. A kingdom without a king was always vulnerable, both from outside attack and internal coups. He wrote home to instruct his councillors and ensure his return was a “holy jubilee” that would impress the Danes. It was also expensive to remain abroad, and James had already reduced his original retinue to just 50. He told them to “waken up all men... prepare themselves accordingly” and dispatch a small fleet to bring the couple back, while the nation’s royal residences were to be made ready for their occupation. The voyage home from Denmark would be longer than that James had made to Norway to meet Anna, and would force them to pass through the notorious Kattegat and its shifting sands – so named by sailors as it was so narrow and perilous that a cat could barely make it through alive.

James VI personally presided over Agnes Sampson’s ordeal and confession
James VI personally presided over Agnes Sampson’s ordeal and confession. In total, more than 70 people were implicated during the so-called North Berwick Witch Trials. (Image by Getty Images)

The couple’s final engagement was to attend the wedding of Anna’s sister Elizabeth to Henry Julius, Duke of Brunswick, on 19 April 1590; two days later they set sail on board the Gideon at the head of a fleet of 13 ships. The return journey was much smoother, perhaps due to the season, allowing the Scottish king and queen to sail into Leith Harbour at 2pm on the afternoon of 1 May. A welcoming committee waited on the quay, with musicians, speeches and a bonfire accompanying their disembarkment. Anna’s coronation took place on 17 May in Holyrood Abbey, attached to the palace that was to become her main home. A gold coronet set with jewels was placed upon her head, with a purple and crimson bonnet. Later, Anna made her progress through the city of Edinburgh, welcomed by a number of classically inspired pageants.

The spark fizzles out

Unfortunately, the marriage of James and Anna never quite lived up to the spectacular promise of their honeymoon and triumphant return to Scotland. While treating her with affection and respect, James could not match her initial devotion, and always kept a string of favourites close by – of both genders. Anna was also bitterly disappointed in 1592, when James insisted that the couple’s eldest son, Henry, be raised in his own establishment, away from her.

During their marriage – a period that included James’ accession to the thrones of England and Ireland in 1603, making him both James VI and I – Anna fell pregnant a further eight times, but only three of the children reached adulthood. Another terrible blow struck the couple with the death of Henry at the age of 18, paving the way for their second son, the future Charles I, to be named as successor.

Anna threw herself into her friendships, court masques and her secret conversion to Catholicism. She died in 1619, being outlived by James by six years.

Hunting for witches

James VI’s visit to Denmark triggered an unhealthy obsession with rooting out ‘evil’

Although the honeymoon of James VI and Anna of Denmark was a joyous affair, it had a darker side, too. After Anna’s intended ship to Scotland nearly perished in a storm, its captain, Peder Munk, accused Danish finance minister Christoffer Valkendorff of failing to equip the vessel properly. However, Valkendorff claimed that the ship’s near-sinking had been caused by witches, who had sent small demons on board to impede its progress. Seventeen people were eventually tried and convicted of witchcraft, and publicly burned in Copenhagen in 1590. 

Impressed by the trials, James began his own investigation into witchcraft when he returned home, which uncovered an anti-royalist coven near Leith led by a woman named Agnes Sampson. Agnes claimed that the Devil had appeared before her and denounced James as an enemy, and that she too had tried to conjure up a storm to sink the king’s ship. The resulting trial ran for two years, during which Agnes and an uncertain number of other suspects were condemned, strangled and burned as witches. The details are known to us today through a pamphlet entitled Newes from Scotland (1591), thought to have been written by the minister James Carmichael, who went on to advise the king on his own anti-witchcraft treatise, Daemonologie (1597). 

Amy Licence is a historian of women’s lives in the medieval and early modern periods. Her most recent book is Living Like a Tudor: Woodsmoke and Sage: A Sensory Journey Through Tudor England (Pegasus Books, 2021)


This article was first published in the August 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed