James I Becomes King of England

James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne, founding the Stuart Dynasty and beginning a century-long battle between the monarchy and Parliament over the proper powers of each. James’s uneasy relationship with Catholicism and his antagonism of Puritans would also prove to foreshadow much of seventeenth century English history.

Summary of Event

Henry VIII of England was survived by three children, each of whom succeeded him in turn. Edward VI died at the age of sixteen; he never married and left no children. Mary I Mary I (queen of England) was married to Philip II of Spain, but she was already past childbearing age at the time of her marriage. Upon her death, Mary was succeeded by her half sister Elizabeth, Elizabeth I (queen of England) who likewise left no children. With Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the Tudor Dynasty, which had occupied the English throne since 1485, came to an end. Henry’s VIII’s sister Margaret had been the wife of James IV of Scotland and the mother of James V, who was in turn the father of Mary, Queen of Scots, the mother of James VI. Thus in 1603, it was James VI of the House of Stuart who possessed the best claim to the English throne. [kw]James I Becomes King of England (Mar. 24, 1603)
[kw]England, James I Becomes King of (Mar. 24, 1603)
Government and politics;Mar. 24, 1603: James I Becomes King of England[0330]
England;Mar. 24, 1603: James I Becomes King of England[0330]
Scotland;Mar. 24, 1603: James I Becomes King of England[0330]
James I (king of England)

James had been born on June 19, 1566, and he had been only fifteen months old when he succeeded his mother to the Scottish throne. His Catholic mother had been driven out of Scotland by the Calvinist nobility for marrying James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, shortly after the unsolved murder of her estranged husband, Lord Darnley. Mary, Queen of Scots had fled to her cousin Elizabeth I in England, but Elizabeth had made Mary a prisoner for nineteen years. In 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed for her alleged involvement in several plots to regain her throne and possibly to gain the throne of England as well.

James VI became king of Scotland from the time of his mother’s exile (he never saw her after 1567) and was reared under the strict supervision of the leading nobles. Eager to succeed the childless Elizabeth I to the English throne, he merely lodged a formal protest when his mother was executed for treason against Elizabeth in 1587. James had taken no measures to prevent his mother’s execution, and he maintained generally good relations with Elizabeth. He spent twenty years successfully attesting his position as head of church and state in Scotland, outwitting nobles who conspired against him. This experience was to serve him well as monarch of England.

The question of the succession to the English throne was widely discussed almost from the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, when it was assumed that she would marry. She apparently had no intention of marrying, however, and in time forbade discussion of the question by her subjects. She also refused to discuss the succession, perhaps to allow herself as much flexibility as possible in diplomatic dealings concerning proposals of marriage.

James, the only child of Mary, Queen of Scots, was the first king to rule both England and Scotland and appears to have had his mind set on attaining the English throne from an early date. More than once, he complained about Elizabeth’s long life, and following the execution of his mother he demanded that Elizabeth recognize his claim formally in order to wipe out the dishonor done to his family. There were two other possible claimants to the English throne. James’s cousin Arabella Stuart Stuart, Arabella was also a descendant of Margaret Tudor. Arabella had been born and reared in England, and this circumstance appeared to give her an advantage, but a female succession was favored by few people, and Arabella was not considered suitable to rule. Henry VIII had actually excluded the descendants of his sister Margaret from the throne in favor of those of his younger sister Mary. Mary’s last surviving heir, Lord Beauchamp, Beauchamp, Lord was also considered unfit to rule because the validity of his parents’ marriage was in question.

James’s expectations were therefore realistic. At the time of Mary, Queen of Scots’s execution, Elizabeth had told James that she would not oppose his claim if his behavior toward her continued to be correct. In 1589, James went to Scandinavia to marry Anne of Denmark, who bore him several children, three of whom survived. He expended considerable energy in diplomatic negotiations with the rulers of Europe, seeking their support for his candidacy. In general, they gave him their approval but did nothing active to further his cause.

In 1594, the English Jesuit Robert Parsons Parsons, Robert published A Conference on the Next Succession to the Crown of England
Conference on the Next Succession to the Crown of England, A (Parsons) , in which he argued against all prevailing claims, especially those of James. His intention was to further the cause of the Infanta of Spain, Carla Eugenia, who was a descendant of Edward III of England. The claim put forth by Parsons was absurdly farfetched and could have been realized only by a successful Spanish invasion, but James was sufficiently disturbed about it to publish a reply.

In their dealings with the Catholic rulers of Europe, James’s emissaries were instructed to promise secretly that James would grant toleration to English Catholics Catholicism;England if he should come to the throne. He was greatly concerned, however, that news of these promises should not reach the English, who might thereby be prejudiced against him. In his dealings with Pope Clement VIII, James even held out the possibility of his own conversion (his wife, Anne of Denmark, was already a Catholic), a matter that would in all probability have ended his hope of being crowned if it had become known in England.

As it was, James almost lost his chance through his involvement with Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, Essex, second earl of Elizabeth’s favorite, who fell from favor after a quarrel with her in 1601 and who fomented a foolish and unsuccessful rebellion for which he was subsequently executed. James had solicited friendship with Essex while that nobleman was still powerful. When Essex fell, Elizabeth threatened to deny James the succession. His claim was revived unexpectedly by Robert Cecil, the first earl of Salisbury, Salisbury, first earl of Elizabeth’s chief minister. Salisbury had been hostile to James, but he secretly promised to aid him after the fallout from the Essex Rebellion. Both sides maintained complete secrecy, lest Elizabeth discover the alliance and turn against them. Salisbury was able to soothe Elizabeth’s feelings toward James, who also wrote her a series of unctuous letters.

Elizabeth I died early on the morning of March 24, 1603. There were rumors that on her deathbed she had named James as her successor, but they were never confirmed. Within eight hours of her death, the Privy Council, the body of chief advisers to the Crown, proclaimed James I king of England, and within two days the news reached him in Edinburgh. His trip to London was a triumphal procession lasting a month, during which he was entertained lavishly by many of the great people of England, and he knighted more than three hundred individuals. James was crowned on July 25, 1603.

King James I of England.

(Library of Congress)

In the beginning, James made a good impression on most of the people he met in England. Friction arose, however, when the large number of Scots he brought with him were given English titles and offices that aroused jealousy among the English nobility. In January, 1604, the first serious conflict of James’s English reign occurred at the Hampton Court Conference Hampton Court Conference , a discussion between the king and the leading clergy of the Puritan wing of the Anglican Church. The Puritans had presented James with a petition during his journey from Scotland in which they called for an end to all ritual and vestments in church services and for a better-educated clergy. James, an avid theologian, showed his autocratic nature at the conference by violently abusing delegates who criticized episcopacy. He declaimed, “No bishop, no king,” and ordered the Puritans Puritanism;England to conform to the regulations of the Church of England within ten months. Eventually, ninety of them were dismissed from their posts. The only positive outcome of the conference was that it led to the creation of the King James Version of the Bible.

The king’s major quarrels, however, were with the House of Commons, which contained a substantial Puritan element. In his first Parliament, held in 1604, he was unable to secure the proclamation of total union between England and Scotland that he desired, and he had to suffer complaints about his methods of raising money and his attitudes toward the Puritans. He lectured Parliament sternly on its duties of obedience.

James’s firm stand against the Puritans did not necessarily indicate good relations with Catholics, however, toward whom he was unable to fulfill the promises he had made before his accession. In the Gunpowder Plot Gunpowder Plot (1605) of 1605, a small group of Catholic nobles and a Catholic mercenary named Guy Fawkes Fawkes, Guy plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the opening day of the session; the plan was to kill the king and the leading men of the kingdom. The conspirators believed that this would cause spontaneous Catholic uprisings throughout the country, resulting in the seizure of the government and the institution of Catholic rule. The plot was discovered ahead of time, and the leading conspirators were executed.

James also had trouble with the lord chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, Edward Coke, Coke, Sir Edward who believed strongly that the courts and the law should be independent of royal control. They clashed several times over James’s interference in Coke’s jurisdiction. The king attempted to overcome Coke’s resistance by promoting him to lord chief justice of the King’s Bench, which resulted in Coke losing jurisdiction over the kinds of cases that were the source of greatest contention between them. Ultimately, Coke was dismissed from the King’s Bench in 1616. He would be instrumental in framing the Petition of Right Petition of Right (1628) in 1628, asserting limitations upon the powers of James’s successor, Charles I.

The king’s major problem was financial, for his need for funds made him dependent on Parliament, which alone had the legal right to levy new taxes. In 1610, the House of Commons proposed the Great Contract, by which James would surrender his extra-Parliamentary means of taxation in return for a guaranteed annual income. King and Commons again quarreled, and James dismissed Parliament.

The earl of Salisbury died in 1612. He had been a moderating influence on James’s policies, and henceforth the greatest political influence at court was wielded by two of the king’s personal favorites, Robert Carr, Carr, Sir Robert who was created Viscount Rochester in 1611 and earl of Somerset in 1613, and George Villiers, who was successively created earl (1617), marquis (1618), and duke (1623) of Buckingham Buckingham, first duke of . The favorites were intensely disliked, both by their rivals and by the populace at large, and the moral tone of the court was a scandal to the Puritans. In the Parliament of 1614, the so-called Addled Parliament Addled Parliament (1614) , the king’s advisers were severely criticized. In a rage, James again dissolved that body.

The Parliaments of the early 1620’s concerned themselves with foreign affairs, with the strong Puritan element in the Commons urging the king to aid the Protestants in the Thirty Years’ War. In return for grants of revenues, James was forced to grant concessions to the Commons, although he did not become involved in the war to any great extent.

One of the king’s major quarrels with Parliament involved the use of monopolies, a royal prerogative. Before Parliament abolished monopolies in 1624, James exercised his rights to start colonies in North America; Virginia was established in 1607, and Plymouth was founded in 1620. In Ireland, the early submission of the earl of Tyrone was followed by enforcement of the English legal and administrative systems. When Tyrone and the earl of Tyrconnel fled their country under suspicious circumstances a few years later, six of the northern counties were declared forfeit to the crown, and English and Scottish settlers were sent to set up plantations on the best Irish land. There were to be long-lasting repercussions both in North America and in Ireland resulting from the king’s acts.

Toward the end of his reign, James tried to conclude a marriage contract between his son and heir, Charles, and a Spanish princess. Negotiations were protracted but ultimately fruitless, and the duke of Buckingham and Charles returned from a visit to Spain determined to declare war on that country. Parliament was in favor of doing so, but James was not. In any case, the suggestion of a marriage alliance with Spain was abhorrent to Englishmen, so James and Charles started to negotiate with France for a marriage between Charles and Henrietta Maria Henrietta Maria , sister of Louis XIII Louis XIII , even though it involved a secret agreement to promise toleration for English Catholics. Negotiation of this marriage treaty, which was later to involve Charles in war with France, was one of James’s last acts before he died on March 27, 1625. At his death, he rightly warned his son and heir, Charles I Charles I (king of England);marriage of , of future dangers to the monarchy from Parliament. Charles lost a civil war against Parliament and was beheaded in 1649.


In his lifetime, James wrote poetry and books about kingship, theology, witchcraft, and tobacco. Many of his strongest historical associations are literary or cultural rather than political. James commissioned the English translation of the Bible Bible;King James that is named for him. William Shakespeare Shakespeare, William spent much of his writing career as playwright to James I, and there is a distinct difference between the plays of his Elizabethan period and those of his Jacobean period of production. The term “Jacobean” has, indeed, become strongly associated with the dark, bloody, and vengeful tragedies the were written during James’s reign.

James was also the founder of the English Stuart Dynasty Stuart Dynasty , the most controversial and contentious of English ruling families. Of the first four Stuart kings, one was overthrown in the bloody Civil Wars, and a second was deposed in the bloodless Glorious Revolution. The issues raised by James’s reign—the proper constitutional relationship between the Crown and Parliament and the proper attitude of the state toward Puritanism, Catholicism, and other non-Anglican religions—would be the two issues that defined seventeenth century English politics. The century would end with both issues settled, a constitutionally limited monarchy firmly established and an Act of Toleration allowing freedom of Christian worship.

Further Reading

  • Bergeron, David M. Royal Family, Royal Lovers: King James of England and Scotland. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991. Psychological profile that presents James in the familial roles of son, husband, and father. Although it is sometimes complicated by literary theory, the book nevertheless provides an in-depth account of James, the man. Illustrated.
  • Bingham, Caroline. James I of England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981. Approachable historical account of James I’s reign. Although this volume is a sequel to James VI of Scotland, which traces James’s life to his thirty-seventh year, it can stand alone and provides an adequate prologue. Highly illustrated with bibliography and family tree.
  • Croft, Pauline. King James. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Balanced and perceptive account of James’s life and reign, focusing on his attempts to rule Scotland and Ireland as well as England.
  • Davies, Godfrey. The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660. Vol. 9 in The Oxford History of England. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. Provides an exhaustive account of James’s economic, political, and religious policies. Emphasizes Parliament’s increasing power.
  • Lee, Maurice. Great Britain’s Solomon: James VI and I in His Three Kingdoms. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. In-depth and scholarly biographical account of James that questions James’s reputation. Includes bibliographical references.
  • Newton, Diana. The Making of the Jacobean Regime: James VI and I and the Government of England, 1603-1605. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell, 2005. Surveys the early years of James I’s reign and describes how these years were crucial in shaping his approach to English rule. Newton argues that after some initial misunderstandings, James proved his political acumen and ability to rule both England and Scotland.
  • Stewart, Alan. The Cradle King: The Life of James VI and I, the First Monarch of a Unified Great Britain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Focuses on how James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Stewart maintains James was an able ruler of Scotland, but the tactics that served him well in that country were not applicable for governing England and a unified Great Britain.

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