Who were James VI and I’s favourites?

King James VI and I was renowned for his enjoyment of the company of handsome young male courtiers. His relationships were no secret at court, and he was very open about the men whom he favoured.


In 1603, when James VI succeeded Elizabeth I to become James I of England, his court was packed with Scottish courtiers, and “this was particularly noticeable in the bedchamber”, explains Joe Ellis of the University of York on an upcoming episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.

This was “the real inner sanctum of royal life, where only very few courtiers were allowed to be,” says Ellis. “The bedchamber was somewhere where everybody wanted to be if they wanted to get ahead.”

Anna of Denmark
James VI and I was married to Anna of Denmark. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

While the king married Anne of Denmark in 1589, and fathered as many as seven children, there was a culture within his court of elevating the status of young, attractive men. They shared his bedchamber with him – a convention of the time (more below). This trait of raising up the status of his male favourites dates back to when the young king was a teen, explains Ellis.

“When he was only 13 years old, the absence of his own family, I think, led James to call Esmé Stewart, his cousin, back to Scotland from France.” At 37 years old, Stewart was much older than James, and Ellis explains that he was something of an exotic presence at court who fascinated the young king.

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“Stewart was showered with rewards. He was made the only duke in Scotland at the time. But he was deeply unpopular at court, because he was French, and also Catholic,” says Ellis. “I think what we see here is the beginning of a pattern emerging, where James was facilitating the rise of a favourite.”

Soon after James’s accession to the English throne, Scottish noble Robert Carr became a prominent favourite, gaining status as a groom of the bedchamber around 1604.

Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset, a favourite of King James VI and I
Engraving depicting Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset, a favourite of King James VI and I. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Having been knighted by the king, Carr soon became influential in royal policy and was given titles and property (including Sherborne Manor, formerly owned by the condemned Sir Walter Raleigh). In 1613, he was advanced to the Earldom of Somerset, and Carr (and his wife, Frances Howard) enjoyed much favour.

In 1614/15, George Villiers, a second son born into a family of middling nobility on the edges of royal favour, was backed by a group of English courtiers (including his mother, Mary Villiers) who sought to combat the influence of the Scottish nobles that had previously formed James’s inner circle.

Villiers began to cultivate a relationship with the king, which put him at odds with Carr, resulting in a bitter contest that culminated in Carr's fall from grace and implication in a court poisoning; he ended up imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Having gained the king’s favour, Villiers enjoyed an unprecedented rise to power that continued into the early reign of Charles I.

“He had an extraordinary amount of power and status very quickly,” explains Benjamin Woolley, author and biographer of George Villiers. “The most obvious example of that was being made duke.” Villers was granted the title of 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1623.

“Elizabeth [I] never made anyone a duke,” says Woolley on the HistoryExtra podcast. “That hadn't really been done, I think, for about a century.”

“There were dukes like the Howards, who went back to the time of the Normans, or there were members of the royal family. Dukedom, in other words, normally denoted some direct relationship to the royal family. And George got a dukedom. He also got his mother to be made countess, an extraordinary thing to achieve.”

What was the nature of the relationships between James and his favourites?

James and his favourites certainly enjoyed political partnerships, explains Joe Ellis. The young men often informed royal policy, and acted as a bridge between the king and his army of suitors.

“But I also think it's likely, based on the very small amount of evidence available, that the relationships between James and his favourites were more than platonic,” says Ellis.

While no sources exist to fully confirm the nature of the relationship, there are some slivers of evidence of James’s feelings towards certain courtiers.

As a teenager, the young James wrote a poem about Esmé Stuart, explains Benjamin Woolley, “an extraordinary poem talking about a phoenix resting between the thighs of this figure in a way that was highly suggestive.”

Esmé Stewart, 1st Duke of Lennox
Esmé Stewart, 1st Duke of Lennox. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

What was really happening behind the closed doors of the king’s bedchamber is almost unknowable, explains Ellis, “because there’s no real hard evidence. However, many at the time, and now, suspect that they were sexual in nature."

“Sexual acts between men were reasonably common at the time,” he says. “It was very much seen as a physical act, as opposed to a kind of partnership in the sense that we see it now. Obviously, men were friends, and this is often how [such a relationship] was viewed by contemporaries.”

Tony Curran as James VI and I in Mary & George (right) and Laurie Davidson as Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset
Tony Curran as James VI and I in Mary & George (right) and Laurie Davidson as Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. The drama depicts the king's relationships with his male favourites. (Image by Sky Original Drama)

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the relationship between George and James was sexual, is a letter from Buckingham to the king, says Ellis. “In this letter, Buckingham mentions that he shall never forget at Farnham when they were on progress: ‘when the bed's head could not be found between the master and his dog’.

“There are quite a few ways that you could take this, but I think that certainly does suggest some kind of physicality between the two,” says Ellis.

Woolley also highlights the letters exchanged between the two, and their analysis by American academic David Moore Bergeron, who published a 1999 volume called King James and the Letters of Homoerotic Desire – “which is a bit of a breakthrough book”, says Woolley.

“If you read [Bergeron], they're a set of love letters,” Woolley says. “There’s lots of ambiguous, suggestive phrasing in these letters. There are also very moving parts, such as when James sent a letter at Christmastime to George, after the death of James's queen, Anne, sort of pleading with George to become his wife.

“And that kind of language clearly shows a very deep, complex, probably sexual relationship between them.”

Academics Alastair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell have also considered the pair’s letters amid their shared experience of illness; both suffered ailments and bonded over this.

“James and Buckingham nursed each other through bouts of ill health,” they write, “and exchanged reports about unorthodox remedies. When Buckingham’s conversion to the anti-Spanish cause nearly broke their friendship in 1624, it was the duke’s subsequent illness that provided the occasion for its renewal.”

Was James VI and I gay or bisexual?

Joe Ellis warns against applying modern labels. “I think we have to be careful here about transferring modern concepts of sexual identity onto early modern people,” he says. “The concepts of homosexuality and bisexuality, for example, they simply didn't exist in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Likewise, Woolley urges caution when considering the king’s relationships. Bergeron’s 1999 study of the correspondence between the king and Villiers brought “a new way of looking at these letters,” says Woolley, which had proved challenging for Victorian and Edwardian historians, in particular. “They found them difficult to interpret without writing about James in ways that were difficult to do at the time.”

“But now it's much easier. However, we have to be careful, because identity politics – as we understand it now – didn't exist then. So, you wouldn't describe James as homosexual. That, I think, would be anachronistic. He had a wife, he had children.”

The relationship with Villiers, says Woolley, speaks more to “that part of James's make-up, part of his need. And part of what George could provide was a physical, as well as a formal or courtly bond. And that physical connection was extremely important to the relationship between the two – as it was in the relationships between lots of men at the time.”

“It's an intriguing and absolutely crucial aspect to the story of George's role in James's court,” says Woolley.

The picture is complicated by the fact that “James was vehement that laws be put into place against the act of sodomy itself,” Ellis explains. The king listed the act in one of his books as being among “horrible crimes which ye are bound in conscience never to forgive”.

James, as Ellis reminds, also fathered seven royal children – “so evidently he was able to rise to the occasion when necessary”.

Ellis adds that there were some rumours during the king’s earlier reign in Scotland that he had a mistress – “Agnes Murray, which is something that doesn't get spoken about enough, I don't think.”

This was unlikely to have been a sexual relationship with the young Murray – it was “more likely to be an exercise in political spin to demonstrate the king's virility and masculinity,” Ellis explains. “But I think it needs to be remembered that this is how James viewed his kingship, and this is what he had to do. He had to sort of invent a mistress, if that was the case, to display his kingship in that way.”

James VI and I’s relationships on screen

The intimate and sexual relationship between James VI and I and George Villers is depicted in certain terms on screen in the drama Mary & George, based on Woolley’s 2017 book The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I (Pan Macmillan).

“Obviously one can speculate about what happened in the bedchamber,” says Woolley, “but in Mary and George, the interesting thing about this becoming drama, is that speculation isn't quite going to do it. You have to dramatise what's happening.

George Villiers (played by Nicholas Galitzine)
The relationship between George Villiers (played by Nicholas Galitzine, pictured) and James VI and I is depicted in certain terms in drama 'Mary & George'. (Image by Sky Original Drama)

“And one of the most fascinating parts of this adventure, of being involved in this production – not just in that respect, in so many respects – was how you actually visualise something that you only had to kind of speculate about, when you were writing about it historically.”

Woolley explains the types of questions that the show grappled with, including: “How do you show what kind of sex they had, and things like that. And we had discussions –bizarre, you could say, discussions about it. I had my views on it. Others had other views on it. And what you see is what you get, so to speak. It really is quite bold.”


Joe Ellis and Benjamin Woolley were speaking to Elinor Evans on episodes of the HistoryExtra podcast


Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast