Was James I murdered?

As the Stuart king lay dying, rumours swirled that he had been poisoned – and that the perpetrator was his best friend. Alastair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell investigate…

A 1628 engraving of the Spanish siege of the Dutch city of Breda

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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James VI and I died at Theobalds Palace in Hertfordshire on 27 March 1625. In the weeks afterwards, the official line – from courtiers, preachers and poets alike – was that James had died well, confident in his salvation, firm in his Protestant faith, and surrounded by the men he treasured most: his son Charles, and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. It was a comforting story, designed to enhance the monarchy’s prestige while easing the awkward transition from one reign to the next. But already in these early weeks, another, far less comforting, story of James I’s last days had begun to worm its way into contemporary imaginations. This secret history, the unauthorised version of James’s death, would take another 12 months to achieve a definitive form, but the anxious whispers around court in the early spring of 1625 were disturbing enough. Something untoward had happened in James’s sickroom. Someone had violated the strict protocols regulating who was to treat the king, and when.

This interference had precipitated a dramatic deterioration in the king’s condition, just when his doctors thought him on the road to recovery. Tempers had flared and strange accusations had been hurled. A royal servant and a royal doctor had been brusquely silenced and commanded to leave the court. The king, it was said, had been poisoned, and the all-powerful royal favourite Buckingham was the man who had killed him.

Long dismissed by historians as an implausible falsehood, the allegation that James I had been murdered would haunt English politics for three decades. It did so, in great part, because of an astonishingly successful piece of political writing. In the spring of 1626, George Eglisham, a Scots Catholic poet, physician and polemicist, published The Forerunner of Revenge Against the Duke of Buckingham, a pamphlet accusing Buckingham of murdering several leading courtiers, as well as the king.

Copies of The Forerunner arrived in London just before the House of Commons, bent on impeaching the unpopular Buckingham, opened hearings into James’s death. The Commons’ decision to charge Buckingham for his “transcendent presumption” in meddling with James’s treatment infuriated Charles I, who would soon dissolve the parliamentary session in frustration.

As contemporaries began to pore anxiously over copies of Eglisham’s tract, the allegation that Buckingham had murdered James entered the turbid stream of rumour, libel and controversy that engulfed the favourite in the turbulent last two years of his life. When John Felton assassinated Buckingham in the summer of 1628, some thought it a fitting “execution” of a notorious murderer, while others reported that Felton himself had cited Eglisham’s pamphlet as one of his motivations for killing the duke.

The mystery of James I’s murder continued to draw attention in the 1630s, but it was during the revolutionary crisis of the 1640s that it left its deepest marks. During the opening weeks of the Civil War, multiple new editions of The Forerunner of Revenge poured from London’s presses as hardliners worked to stiffen parliamentarian resolve for the military struggle against Charles I and his ‘evil’ advisers.

Throughout the war, parliamentarian writers reused the story of James’s murder for their own advantage, but few could have predicted the stunning role that it would play at the very crisis of the English revolution. Forced to justify its vote to end negotiations with the king early in 1648, parliament published a scathing declaration detailing Charles I’s legacy of misrule. Heading the list of charges against the king was the claim that Charles had dissolved parliament in 1626 to protect his father’s murderer. The implication was clear: Charles had perverted the course of justice to cover up his own guilt.

Royalist pamphleteers reacted with horror to the implicit charge of parricide, an allegation that they feared would destroy the monarchy. But their deconstruction of the story’s murky origins had only limited effect. That Charles I had murdered his father became a shibboleth of the radical cause.

Early in 1649, the regicides almost certainly considered incorporating the accusation into their formal charges against the king, and, if Charles had offered a plea at his trial, the prosecutor John Cook would have bolstered his depiction of the king’s tyrannical misrule with allusions to James’s murder. As the English republic struggled to shore up its legitimacy in the wake of Charles’s execution, its newswriters returned repeatedly to the secret history of James’s death: God had blasted the Stuart dynasty, they argued, and James’s untimely demise was both a sign and a cause of God’s righteous anger. Charles I had died, in part, for the original sin of his reign – the murder of James I.

But how did this story begin, and why would anyone in 1625 have taken it seriously? James fell ill early in March 1625. He was in his late fifties and had been in poor health for some time, but his physicians diagnosed him with an intermittent fever – a tertian ague – which, in its ‘pure’ form, was thought to pose little danger. Nonetheless, the king’s illness added to the anxious mood at court. A serious epidemic sickness (contemporaries dubbed it the ‘purple fever’; medical historians think it may have been typhus) had been cutting a swathe through the English and Scottish aristocracy for months.

More alarming still were the bitter disputes over foreign policy that had fractured the Jacobean court. Since late in 1623, James’s favourite, Buckingham, had been working in tandem with Prince Charles to reverse the king’s foreign policy. They had abandoned James’s proposed marriage treaties with Spain and, in alliance with parliament, had pushed the king towards open military conflict with England’s old enemy. But James had begun to push back. Early in 1625, he had prevented an English expeditionary force from helping the Dutch lift the Spanish siege of Breda. James had also indicated his continued willingness to deal with Spain by granting the veteran Spanish ambassador Gondomar a licence to return to Whitehall.

When the king fell ill, the pro-Spanish faction at court, marginalised by Buckingham and Charles over the previous year, seemed poised to regain influence. But if James were to die, all-out war with Spain seemed inevitable.

Meanwhile, in the king’s sickroom, the royal physicians tried to treat their patient according to the protocols they had designed for managing royal illnesses. It was vital that every physician agree to any treatment in advance, so that no individual could be blamed if anything went wrong, and it was critical that the sickroom be kept free from outside interference. But James was a difficult patient. He “scoffed at medicine” and its practitioners and found the orthodox therapeutic regime of repeated purgation (whether through bleeding, laxatives or emetics) repugnant. The royal physicians knew they would have to struggle to persuade their patient to submit to the standard treatments for tertian agues, and they were willing to call on his courtiers to cajole the sceptical king.

The doctors subsequently lamented that it had taken too long to persuade the king to submit to treatment, arguing that the delay had allowed the distemper to mutate into a fever too strong for the king to overcome. But this post-mortem report contained one crucial omission. While James had been arguing with his doctors, he had been seeking medical advice elsewhere.

James I’s relationship with the Duke of Buckingham remains difficult to define. Some contemporaries feared that the two men were lovers. Yet, while the pair clearly shared an intimate friendship, the evidence for a sexual dimension in their personal letters is enigmatic. Yet the letters do make clear the importance to their friendship of the shared experience of illness. James and Buckingham nursed each other through bouts of ill health, 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.

As the tertian ague’s distinctive chills began to trouble the king early in March 1625, it was thus entirely predictable that he would turn to Buckingham for comfort and counsel. And he knew that Buckingham might have practical advice, for the duke himself had been treated for a tertian ague during his illness the previous year. No doubt James remembered that Buckingham had consulted then with John Remington, an obscure Essex doctor who had developed an effective treatment for the ague prevalent in his home county.

Buckingham’s financial accounts for March 1625 record two payments to Remington for consultations with the king during his final illness, and James seems to have been keen to try the Essex remedies – a plaster, comprised mostly of the compound panacea known as ‘London treacle’, and a posset comprised of various herbs designed to counteract the ague’s causes and symptoms.

Early in the course of James’s illness, Buckingham gave Remington’s plaster to the king, without consulting the royal physicians. When the doctors discovered what had been done, they ordered the plaster removed, but, since the king’s condition remained stable, no one thought much of the intervention. But when the Essex medicines were reapplied nine days later, apparently at the king’s request, all hell broke loose. Thomas Erskine, Earl of Kellie, the head of the royal bedchamber, wrote to his cousin: “There is something fallen out here much disliked, and I for myself think much mistaken.” The Duke of Buckingham, “wishing much the king’s health”, had given James a plaster “applied to the king’s breast” and a “drink or syrup”, both “without the consent or knowledge of any of the doctors”.

Worse still, James had become “extremely sick” after taking the potion, and his deterioration “has spread such… a discontent as you would wonder”. A royal doctor, John Craig, and a bedchamber servant, had been punished for confronting the duke over his actions. Buckingham was “incensed”, Kellie wrote, and “I would be so myself, considering what the world says”.

Kellie couldn’t bring himself to spell out “what the world says”. But it is clear that some at court were accusing Buckingham not simply of a reckless disregard for the physicians’ rules but of a deliberate poisoning. James had seemed to be improving; after Buckingham’s second intervention, he deteriorated beyond recovery.

In the tense atmosphere at court, such poisoning allegations seemed entirely credible. Shortly after James fell ill, his cousin, James, Marquess of Hamilton succumbed to what looked at first to be another case of purple fever. But the post-mortem symptoms on Hamilton’s corpse, including grotesque swelling and discolouration, unnerved his servants and family. Although the physicians attributed the symptoms to natural causes, many thought they could only be signs of poisoning. The marquess’s friends were already digesting rumours that he had converted to Rome on his deathbed, and some now suspected that a Catholic poisoning plot had ended his life.

Well aware that his enemies at court might use the accusations about his medical dabbling to destroy him, Buckingham pressed the king’s physicians to sign a statement vouching for the safety of Remington’s remedies. The physicians, however, were reluctant to sign – even good remedies could have bad effects if administered at the wrong time, they argued, and they could not be certain that the medicines Buckingham and his servants had given James contained only the ingredients Remington had prescribed.

As James lay dying, whispers of poisoning began to leak out. Some versions of the story pinned the blame on Buckingham’s Catholic mother; others implicated both mother and son. The Venetian ambassador in London heard that a bedchamber servant had “announced that the duke and his mother in applying some medicaments had taken not the medicine but the poison”, and the ambassador soon came to believe that “parliament will want to enquire into the rumours about poisonous applications”.

Such stories had purchase not only at court but also beyond, especially among men like George Eglisham who – as a Hispanophile, crypto-Catholic and Scot – had plenty to lose through James’s death and Buckingham’s ascendancy.

Eglisham spent the last weeks of the king’s life in hiding, yet he had once been a man very much on the rise. In 1612, he had rushed to Holland to contribute two polemical tracts to James’s campaign to unseat the Arminian theologian Conrad Vorstius from his chair at the University of Leiden. As a reward, James had granted Eglisham the honorary title of royal physician and a patent to establish a London company for the manufacture of gold leaf. But by late 1624, his fortunes were in ruins. The goldbeaters’ patent had been revoked after parliament’s 1621 attack on monopolies, and he had then fallen victim to the anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic backlash of 1624.

Eglisham now risked everything on a final, reckless gamble. For years, he had served as personal physician to his old friend the Marquess of Hamilton, and as Hamilton lay dying, Eglisham had smuggled in a Jesuit priest to reconcile the king’s cousin to Rome. The scandal of Hamilton’s alleged conversion infuriated James, and so Eglisham went underground. Shortly after James’s death, he slipped out of England and made his way to Brussels.

Eglisham arrived on the continent with a story to tell: Hamilton had been poisoned by Buckingham. As the Habsburg regimes in Brussels and Madrid prepared for what now looked like inevitable war with England, anything that might damage Buckingham could prove helpful to their cause. Perhaps relying on information picked up from Scottish contacts at court, perhaps using intelligence sent to Brussels by spies, Eglisham added an account of James’s death to his more detailed description of Hamilton’s.

According to Eglisham, Buckingham was losing his hold over the king, who increasingly resented the duke’s interference in his foreign policy. James wanted to recall the old Hispanophile courtiers. But if the pro-Spanish faction were to regain the upper hand, Buckingham would face ruin. And so the duke took matters into his own hands. With his mother’s help, he poisoned the king while pretending to give him medicines. A white powder mixed with wine sent the king into “violent fluxes of the belly”, while a plaster applied to his chest caused him “great agony”, making him “grow faint [and] short breathed”.

Eglisham noted how Buckingham had feigned grief at the king’s death, but no dissimulation could mask the telltale signs of the poisoned corpse. James’s “body and head swelled above measure, his hair with the skin of his head stuck to the pillow, his nails became loose upon his fingers and toes”. Having described similar symptoms in Hamilton’s corpse, Eglisham concluded that he needed “to say no more to understanding men”.

Distributed throughout Europe as part of a wide-ranging Habsburg disinformation campaign, Eglisham’s little book wreaked havoc far beyond its author’s wildest dreams. The charges of a disaffected Catholic physician became, in the hands of radical Protestant revolutionaries, a warrant for regicide. Eglisham had demanded that Charles I punish the murderous duke, warning of the dire fate that awaited kings who neglected justice.

By shaping the rumours of 1625 into a credible secret history, he had fashioned an endlessly malleable political legend that would ultimately help send Charles I to the scaffold.

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Alastair Bellany is associate professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Thomas Cogswell is professor of history at the University of California.