James VI Becomes King of Scotland

James was a Protestant who often compromised with clergy on issues of who should control matters of faith, but he later insisted on his divine right to rule state and church. He was committed to Scottish Church reform, thus gaining the favor of the English queen, who named him her successor as king of England, assuring the two nations’ continuing religious autonomy from the Catholic Church.

Summary of Event

James Stewart became James VI, king of Scotland, in 1567 when he was just a toddler. On July 29, 1567, just days after his mother abdicated the throne, James was crowned king at the Church of the Holy Rood in Stirling. The events that led up to the young king’s coronation profoundly affected James’s future as monarch of both Scotland and England. James VI
Mary, Queen of Scots
Lord Darnley
Hepburn, James
Elizabeth I
Mary Tudor (queen of Scots)
Darnley, Lord
Rizzio, David
Elizabeth I (queen of England);Scotland
Hepburn, James
Moray, earl of
James VI (king of Scotland)

Much of James’s young life was marked by violence and scandal. When Mary was still pregnant, James’s father, Lord Darnley, stabbed to death his mother’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio. Mary’s husband was led to murder Rizzio most likely because Rizzio was becoming one of Mary’s favorites, while Darnley was losing his wife’s affections. Feeling angry and resentful, Darnley murdered Rizzio in front of the queen. James may have been traumatized by this act of violence early in his life, as he later developed an intense fear of weapons and went about in padded clothing to protect himself from possible attacks.

On February 10, 1567, when James was just eight months old, Darnley was killed in an explosion at his lodgings. On examination of his body, it appeared that Darnley had been strangled, and James’s mother was a suspect in the murder. Though she may have loved Darnley at some point, it is probable that she married the Protestant after the 1561 death of her first husband (Francis II) to strengthen her claim to England’s throne. Since both she and Darnley were descendants of Henry VII, they thought they would have a better claim on the English monarchy than that of England’s queen, Elizabeth I.

Whatever the reason for her marriage to Darnley, Mary permitted him to be king consort only, a partner with no royal power, and soon grew to dislike him strongly. She had called Darnley back from Glasgow and arranged for him to stay in the house in the countryside where he died. The young queen looked even more suspect when, soon after her husband’s death, she married the man who was thought to be Darnley’s murderer.

James Hepburn, fourth earl of Bothwell, was put on trial for Darnley’s murder, but he was acquitted. Soon after, he abducted and married Mary on May 15, 1567. This union with Bothwell upset Scottish nobles, since even though they were not fond of Darnley, Bothwell seemed worse. They revolted against their monarch, forcing her to choose between her husband and her country.

In June of 1567, Scottish nobles who disapproved of Mary’s marriage to Bothwell gathered and then confronted the couple at Carberry Hill. The Protestant rebels agreed to submit themselves to their queen if she promised to abandon Bothwell, but Mary would not leave her husband. Even those who supported her at Carberry Hill believed they would be defeated and so deserted her. With the rebels clearly in control by this point, the queen was forced to give up. Though she agreed to surrender, Mary made the rebels promise to allow Bothwell to flee unharmed. Bothwell managed to escape to Denmark; the couple never again saw each other. Mary was taken to Edinburgh and held captive in Lochleven Castle, where she miscarried Bothwell’s twins. Mary abdicated the throne officially in July, and a few days later her son, just over one year old, was crowned king of Scotland.

Once Mary gave up the throne, James never again saw his mother. During the time Mary was on the run from Scottish noblemen as well as in prison, the child-king was educated by Protestants in spite of his Catholic baptism. Under the guidance of one of his tutors, Peter Young, the young king was taught to embrace Calvinist theology and abhor Catholicism. He was well-read and proved to be an intelligent young man, though he was beginning at this early age to develop some of the less attractive habits for which he would be remembered, including his bad manners and his high opinion of himself. Because James was still too young at this point to rule the country, a succession of four regents took charge of politics in Scotland. The earl of Moray was the first. The three regents who followed—the earl of Lennox (James’s grandfather and Darnley’s father), the earl of Mar, and the earl of Morton—all treated James as a pawn in their own struggles for power.

On May 13, 1568, Mary escaped from Lochleven Castle. Her forces clashed with Protestant forces led by the earl of Moray, Mary’s half brother and regent at the time. After a short battle, Mary’s men retreated and the former queen fled to England. She headed south, expecting to be saved by her cousin, Elizabeth I, but was much surprised when on May 19 the queen of England arrested her in Carlisle.

Although many of the rumors about plans to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary may have been fabricated by Mary’s enemies, Elizabeth’s anxieties about the imprisoned queen grew in the following years. Elizabeth eventually signed the warrant for Mary’s death, alleging that the former queen was involved in the Babington plot of 1586, which sought to murder her. Mary presented herself as a Catholic martyr by wearing red at her execution at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, England, on February 8, 1587. Martyrdom;Mary, Queen of Scots

About this time, James had reached his majority and began his rule as king of Scotland, a country that had become predominantly Protestant and would remain so under James. James’s Protestant sympathies would later make him a good candidate for the Crown of England, which Elizabeth would bestow on him as she was on her deathbed in 1603.


Just before James became king of Scotland, the struggle over religion was fierce. As battle lines were being drawn between Protestants and Catholics, the Catholic Mary was seen as a threat to Protestants and James appeared to be the answer to their problems. By removing their Catholic queen and replacing her with her infant son, Protestant nobles could raise the child-king as a Protestant, thus ensuring the success of their religion.

This plan worked, as James later would reduce the power of Catholics in Scotland and secure that country as a Protestant nation. Although Catholicism had already been replaced officially by Protestantism Protestantism;Scotland in Scotland when James was crowned, the king had to make an effort to quiet the Catholics who remained in the country and reduce the influence of Catholics on the Continent.

The Protestant James shared his religion with Queen Elizabeth I, and so the Scottish ruler was able to maintain a good relationship with the English monarch even after his mother’s attacks on Elizabeth and even after Elizabeth had his mother executed. James’s alliance with the queen allowed him both to advance the Protestant cause in Scotland and to advance his own chances to succeed Elizabeth. When Elizabeth died in 1603, James reaped the benefits of their relationship.

Further Reading

  • Fraser, Antonia. Mary, Queen of Scots. 1969. Reprint. New York: Dell, 1993. Fraser’s biography of Mary is generally sympathetic with Mary in her struggles with her lovers and her enemies.
  • Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. This biography claims she was not helpless, emotional, and prone to poor decision making as is generally believed. Rather, she was intelligent and politically savvy, a match for her cousin, Elizabeth I, and for the Scottish nobles who were trying to oust her.
  • Lockyer, Roger. James VI and I. London: Longman, 1998. This biography of James discusses mostly his kingship of England, examining his philosophy of kingship as well as others’ opinions about his reign.
  • Weir, Alison. Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley. New York: Random House, 2003. Weir argues that Mary was innocent of Lord Darnley’s murder, arguing that the evidence against Mary is weak and was put together by rebellious Scottish nobles.
  • Willson, David Harris. King James VI and I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. Willson’s biography of James gives readers a good sense of the king as a leader of Scotland and of England. This book is a good starting point for studying James.

Aug. 22, 1513-July 6, 1560: Anglo-Scottish Wars

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

Feb. 27, 1545: Battle of Ancrum Moor

May, 1559-Aug., 1561: Scottish Reformation

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I