Your guide to King James VI and I, the first Stuart monarch of England

How did James VI of Scotland come to rule as King James I of England? Who were his personal favourites? And what was his role in the witch hunts at the turn of the 17th century? Historian and author Tracy Borman presents a comprehensive guide…

King James VI and I of Scotland and England

What was James VI’s childhood like?

Born on 19 June 1566, the self-styled ‘cradle king’, James VI, became the nominal ruler of Scotland at the age of just 13 months, following the enforced abdication of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary had subsequently fled to England, where she remained Elizabeth I’s captive for almost 20 years, until her execution in 1587.

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The lonely and dangerously volatile childhood that James endured may account for the fearful, almost neurotic nature that became manifest in his adult life. When he was only a few months old, his father, Lord Darnley, had been murdered, and as a youth James narrowly escaped various plots and assassination attempts. During his minority, there was a rapid succession of regents: first, his half-uncle James Stewart, Earl of Moray, an illegitimate son of James V, who had been Mary, Queen of Scots’ chief adviser before he turned against her. Moray was assassinated in January 1570 and was succeeded as regent by the young king’s paternal grandfather, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox. But just a year later, Lennox was fatally wounded after a clash with Mary’s supporters. His successor, the Earl of Mar, fared little better and died after a year in post, probably as a result of poisoning. The final regent was James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, who served in the role until James was proclaimed an adult ruler in October 1579, at the age of 14.

Portrait of James VI of Scotland as a baby.
Portrait of James VI of Scotland as a baby. He was “a fragile and sickly child”, writes Tracy Borman. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

James was a fragile and sickly child, and until the age of six he was unable to stand up or walk without assistance. As a young man, he had to be tied onto his horse in order to indulge his passion for hunting, and he would continue to walk while leaning on the shoulder of an attendant for much of his adult life. But James’ mental abilities compensated for his physical incapacity. He received an exceptional (if harsh) education at the hands of Scotland’s leading scholars, and later remarked that they had taught him to speak Latin “’ere I could speak Scottish”. By the age of 17, he had already acquired an extensive library that included works of classics, history, theology, political theory, geography and mathematics, as well as books on hunting and other sports. Although the King of Scots was hailed as “the bright star of the North”, his critics pointed to his lack of common sense and sneered that he was the “wisest fool in Christendom”.

James VI and I: key dates and facts

Born: 19 June 1566, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Died: 27 March 1625, Hertfordshire, England

Parents: Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who was the queen’s second husband 

Known for: He was king of Scotland (as James VI) from 1567 to 1625 and the first Stuart king of England, from 1603 to 1625, acceding to the throne upon the death of Elizabeth I. He styled himself as “king of Great Britain”

What religion was James VI?

James was a product of the strict Scottish Reformation. From an early age he was trained by scholars of the Protestant faith, and grew up with a strong aversion to Catholicism. But the fact that he was the son of a celebrated Catholic martyr gave those of the ‘old faith’ cause to believe that he would show greater tolerance towards them. Indeed, before becoming king of England, he had offered reassurance that he would not persecute any Catholics who were “quiet and … obedient”.

Unfortunately for them, he soon went against his word. While his Tudor predecessor, Elizabeth I, had turned a blind eye to private Catholic practices, James insisted upon a much stricter observance of the reformed faith, declaring: “Who can’t pray with me, can’t love me.” Early in his reign, he and his councillors began drafting new legislation for the persecution of Catholics. The Jesuit priest, John Gerard, expressed the bitter disappointment that spread among the Catholic community: “A flash of lightning, giving for the time a pale light unto those that sit in darkness, doth afterwards leave them in more desolation.”

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How were Elizabeth I and James VI related, and how did he come to the English throne?

Both Elizabeth and James were direct descendants of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII – Elizabeth was his granddaughter and James his great-great grandson. But James’ claim was fundamentally weakened by the fact that since 1351, ‘foreigners’ had been forbidden from inheriting English lands – which, technically, James would be too if he inherited the crown and its estates. Moreover, Henry VIII’s will of 1547 had debarred his Scottish relatives from the throne. Added to this was the fact that Elizabeth I had passed a statute in 1585 whereby any claimants who conspired against her (as did James’s mother, Mary, Queen of Scots) would forfeit all their legal rights to the English succession.

All of this strengthened the claim of James’s cousin, Arbella Stuart, another descendant of Henry VII but English-born. In the event, James’ track record as a proven monarch worked in his favour, as did his sex – despite Elizabeth I’s success, the English still viewed queens regnant as an undesirable anomaly. It also helped James’ case that Arbella was regarded as a volatile and unstable young woman, described by one contemporary as “half mad”, and had alienated Elizabeth with her “haughtiness”.

Even though in Elizabeth’s last years it became obvious that there could only be one successor, almost to her last breath she refused to name James as her heir. She knew all too well that as soon as she did so, her subjects would entirely neglect her as “the sun now ready to set” and rush to worship the “rising sun”, James.

James VI and I
Almost to her last breath, writes Tracy Borman, Elizabeth I refused to name James as her heir. He assumed the throne as James I of England upon her death in 1603. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

James VI and I and witch hunts: what role did the king play? 

The regent Moray had ensured that his half-nephew was surrounded by men hostile to the erstwhile Queen of Scots. As he grew to maturity, the young king’s distrust of his mother deepened into a more general antipathy towards women, which found expression in witch hunting. In 1597, James VI became the only monarch in history to publish a treatise on the subject. Daemonologie, a international bestseller of its day, warned of “the fearful abounding at this time, in this country, of these detestable slaves of the Devil”. The book sparked a surge in the number of witchcraft cases brought before the Scottish courts and half of those arrested (the vast majority of them women) were put to the flames.

A depiction of a group of supposed witches being beaten in front of King James I
A depiction of a group of supposed witches being beaten in front of King James I, c1610. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By contrast, in England the number of witchcraft trials and executions had declined significantly during Elizabeth I’s reign, and by the time James inherited the throne in March 1603, there was a growing scepticism about the existence of witches. The new king was determined to change all of that. Barely a year after his accession, he ordered that the Elizabethan statute on witchcraft be replaced by a much harsher version. The Witchcraft Act of 1604 declared that anyone found practising “Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm or Sorcery… shall suffer pains of death”.

Eager to curry favour, the likes of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe immediately began penning plays aimed at stoking the English population’s fear of witches. The best known of these was Macbeth, which Shakespeare made shorter than his usual dramatic works because he knew the king had little patience for the theatre.

What was the nature of James’s personal relationships and favourites?

Although James fathered seven children with his consort Anne of Denmark, their marriage was one of politics, not passion, and they lived separate lives at court. “He was ever best, when furthest from the queen,” remarked Sir Anthony Weldon, one of the earliest historians of James’s reign, who concluded that this was the reason for the king’s regular ‘removes’ from court.

Anne of Denmark, queen consort to James VI and I
King James fathered seven children with his consort Anne of Denmark. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

James had long been rumoured to be a closeted homosexual man, and throughout his reign – both in Scotland and in England – he surrounded himself with a succession of beautiful young men. Each of these was rapidly promoted to exalted positions at court, and then just as rapidly dropped when a younger, more beautiful man came along.

For most of James’s early reign as king of England, his closest companion was a young Scotsman named Robert Carr, whom he created Earl of Somerset. But in 1614, Carr was supplanted by the man who would come to dominate James and his entire court for the rest of the reign. The second son of a country gentleman and his beautiful (but penniless) wife Mary, George Villiers enjoyed a meteoric rise to fortune after first meeting the king at Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire during his summer visit. Then aged 22, he was described as “the handsomest-bodied man in all of England; his limbs so well compacted, and his conversation so pleasing, and of so sweet a disposition”. King James, 26 years his senior, was instantly captivated. Soon after their first meeting, he appointed Villiers his cupbearer [a person who serves wine in a royal household], which gave the new favourite frequent access to the royal presence. Further promotions followed in rapid succession, culminating in the dukedom of Buckingham in 1623.

By the end of James’s reign, Buckingham’s power and ambition knew no bounds, and it was even rumoured that he had hastened the king’s death in order to pave the way for his successor, Prince Charles, with whom his influence was just as great.

Portrait of George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, who was an influentia
Portrait of George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, who was an influential advisor in the last years of the reign of James, and in the early years of the reign of Charles I Stuart. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Who succeeded James VI and I? 

In contrast to his predecessor’s reign, there was no succession crisis in James’s later years. By the time he was crowned king of England, he already had two sons: Henry (born 1594) and Charles (born 1600). Handsome, charismatic, and accomplished, Prince Henry enjoyed far greater popularity than his father, and James’s subjects on both sides of the border looked forward to the day when he would rule over them. But in 1612, at the age of 18, Prince Henry contracted typhoid fever and died, plunging the nation into mourning.

Henry’s younger brother Charles, who was just shy of his 12th birthday when he became heir to the throne, had been largely overlooked until then. A weak and sickly child, he had been slow to develop and was painfully shy. Although he overcame most of his physical infirmities when he reached adulthood, he retained a stammer for the rest of his life.

Charles had grown in confidence by the time he succeeded his father in March 1625. In fact, he was so convinced of the Divine Right of Kings that he soon proved unwilling to accept any limits to his authority – with disastrous results.

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Tracy Borman is the author of Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts, as well as The King’s Witch, a fictional trilogy based on James’s reign