From Tudor to Stuart: When James I Arrived in England


It is never easy to follow a popular monarch, even more so when the reign was a lengthy one. Such was the case when James I succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, for Elizabeth’s brand of queenship was one marked by instinctually understanding the mood and needs of her people. Indeed, nationalism was a byword for her reign. Not only did Elizabeth oversee a period of immense growth and prestige, but she did it while defining herself as first and foremost an English native. She is hardly the only monarch in British history to do so, but she is certainly one of the most successful.

James, on the other hand, had no similar hands of cards to deal. Male, foreign and decidedly less sophisticated, on the face of it, he couldn’t have been more different from his Tudor cousin. Yet, there are some notable similarities between the two – both came from rather infamous parents and both, based on birth and legal hurdles, had little business sitting on the English throne at first glance.

James had never known his mother, the legendary Mary, Queen of Scots. She was forced to abdicate when he was 13 months old, making him king of Scotland before he was even aware of his surroundings. As he grew up, his government was held by series of regents while his mother was held a prisoner in England after having sought refuge from her cousin. Ironically, despite being linked in both life and death as “sister queens,” the two women never met. From the start, Mary posed a threat to Elizabeth’s rule thanks to her Catholicism, her lineage and her willingness to marry and produce children.

An imagined portrait of Mary and James

Mary was the only child of James V of Scotland, himself the eldest surviving son of James IV of Scotland his wife, Princess Margaret Tudor. Margaret was the eldest daughter of England’s Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, thus making her Henry VIII’s sister. As such, Mary and Elizabeth were first cousins once removed.

The great irony of Henry VIII’s marital foibles is that so many of them were in the pursuit of heirs and in doing so he weakened the claims of those that he already had. His last will left his kingdom to his only legitimate son, Edward VI, who was to be succeeded by his half-sisters according to their birth order, Mary I and then Elizabeth I. Should all three die without heirs of their own, then the crown would pass to the offspring of Henry’s beloved – and deceased – younger sister, Mary Tudor, the Dowager Queen of France. As of the 1540s, her two daughters via her second marriage – Frances and Eleanor Brandon – were both married with children of their own.

That the crown would ever reach the Brandon women seemed remote during Henry VIII’s lifetime, for what were the odds all three of his children would fail to produce at least one legitimate, living child? But they did just that. To complicate the matter even further, both Mary and Elizabeth had been branded bastards at one point by their father when he was in the middle of divorcing their mothers, thus even when they were re-legitimized, the stigma remained. And if that’s not chaotic enough, layer in that one daughter was Catholic and the other Protestant as Europe was reckoning with the aftershocks of the Reformation.

Henry’s preferred line of succession was one based purely on choice, not bloodlines, for it skipped over the offspring of his eldest sister, Margaret, who had a better claim. In the short-term, though, none of it was an immediate concern so long as Henry’s children lived. In 1553, Edward VI passed away at the age of 16 after once more attempting to re-write the succession. He chose, urged on by his Protestant ministers, to bypass both of his sisters for the claim of his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of his aunt, Mary Tudor. Jane’s rule was short-lived and ended in the execution of her, her husband and both of their fathers.

Instead, Mary I ascended the throne, married Philip II of Spain and attempted to bring England back to Catholicism while producing a Catholic heir. Her plan failed, but while she sat on the throne, James’s mother, Mary Stuart, came of age. Like her son after her, Mary became Scotland’s sovereign as an infant, however unlike James, she was betrothed as a child to the King of France’s eldest son and grew up at French court.

As Mary I’s reign came to a close and it became clear that she wouldn’t produce a child and the English throne would pass to the Protestant Elizabeth, the claim of Mary Stuart became all the more important. Like Mary I, Mary Stuart was Catholic, and unlike Elizabeth, her legitimacy had never been questioned. For France, who loved nothing more than taking shots at England just to see what damage they could do, reinforcing Mary’s claim as the legitimate Catholic heir was a perfect opportunity. Thus, they did just that, though without ever really putting their back into it.

When Mary I died in 1558, the crown passed to Elizabeth without serious opposition and by 1559, Mary Stuart and her husband, Francis, were by far more preoccupied with their accession to the French throne. But the situation was fleeting, for by the dawn of 1561, Francis was dead and Mary was on her way back to Scotland for the first time in nearly two decades. She took as her second husband an Englishman, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who himself had a claim to the English throne, and they produced James. Within months, Darnley was assassinated, Mary was implicated in his death and her government came crashing down (I’m mashing quite a bit up, but the link on Darnley’s name offers more detail).

James in 1574

James became King James VI while still in his cradle and Mary found herself under lock and key in the English countryside, her years of oscillating between positioning herself as Elizabeth’s heir or her rival making her too much of a threat.

James was 20 when his mother was executed on Elizabeth’s orders in February 1587. Already, though, his relationship with England and its queen was following an already-tread path. So long as his mother lived, he had to account for Elizabeth’s treatment of her, but at the same time, his mother’s presence put him in an awkward position as Scotland’s king. The easiest route was to forget, whenever possible, that she existed at all, and certainly that was the tactic to depose when it came to setting himself up as Elizabeth’s heir. One of the biggest differences between James’s actions and his mother’s two decades earlier was quite simply the elapsed time, for Elizabeth had been in her 20s and 30s when she was being compared to her cousin. By the time James came along, the Queen was past childbearing years and the question as to whether she would marry had essentially been answered.

The second was that Scotland – and thus its king – were Protestant. James was not a rival to Elizabeth and his hypothetical succession offered up a religious continuation, not an alternative. Given that Elizabeth’s religious policy became by far less relaxed as her reign wore on, the idea that she would hand her crown to a Catholic became all the more ridiculous. Protestant James, who agreed to marry only with Elizabeth’s blessing, was a different animal altogether.

A year before Mary’s death, Scotland and England met at the negotiating table for the Treaty of Berwick. For a week, the countries’ envoys hashed out an agreement that promised aid to the other should it be invaded, the real threats being Catholic nations like France or Spain. The real win for James was the promise of a sizable annuity from England – not only was this a win for his coffers, but it created the visual that Elizabeth already saw him as her natural heir. In truth, it may well have been a way for Elizabeth to mitigate fallout when she eventually did order Mary’s execution.

James in 1586

Nevertheless, by the dawn of the 1590s, James was viewed by many as the inevitable heir, despite his foreignness. The only other viable candidates, both of whom had less of a blood claim, were 1) Edward Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, a grandson of Jane Seymour’s brother, the Duke of Somerset, via his son, the Earl of Hertford, and Lady Catherine Grey, Jane Grey’s younger sister, and 2) Lady Arabella Stuart, daughter of James’s father’s younger brother, Henry Stuart, and Lady Elizabeth Cavendish.

But James’s relationship with Elizabeth’s council was at times uneasy. He had an uneven relationship with William Cecil, Lord Burghley, particularly when the English were inconsistent on regularly paying James’s annuity. Instead, he developed a closer rapport with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the man who replaced his own stepfather, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester after his death as the Queen’s particular favorite. Essex provided James with his insight into Elizabeth’s court and government, and perhaps most helpfully, was prepared to speak favorably about the “Scottish option.”

Unfortunately, Essex was unreliable. By the end of 1600 he had been dismissed from all of his offices, though he did urge James that Robert Cecil was plotting against him and that he should prepare to send Scottish envoys to London as quickly as possible. James did just that, but by the time his men arrived at Elizabeth’s court, Essex and his supporters had been executed for attempting to carry out a coup and Elizabeth was in high dungeon with the Scots thanks to James’s known relationship to the traitor du jour.

The most productive thing to come of the entire affair was rapprochement with Cecil, which came just in time. Elizabeth passed away on March 24, 1603 at Richmond Palace in Surrey. Eight hours later, in London, James was proclaimed king of England.

By April 3, James was in Edinburgh preparing for his journey south, but the matter was a complicated one, for he was now king of two separate realms. As he addressed his government, he made clear that he saw no difference between Edinburgh and London, stating, “Think not of me as a king going from one part to another; but as a king lawfully called, going from one part of the isle to the other, that so your comfort may be the greater.” But if the Scottish had grounds to fear their king would forget them once he was in England, the English feared the idea of a foreigner ruling over them.

James’s wife, Anna, in 1600

James staggered the arrival of himself and his family into London, easing both the arrival and departure for both counties. He left for London first, dictating that his wife, Anna of Denmark, would arrive in mid-May with their two younger children, Elizabeth and Charles. Their eldest son, Henry, would remain in Scotland, much in the way that Frederick of Hanover would be left behind in Germany once his grandfather ascended the British throne some 200 years later. The dynamic left Anna free and clear to regain custody of her eldest son, an issue that had plagued the royal marriage since Henry’s birth in 1594.

James departed Scotland on April 4, spending a month traveling slowly down England to take in his new country and, more importantly, to let his people see him. It also allowed him to reach London several days after Elizabeth’s funeral on April 28, thus giving time for some of the mourning to dissipate. Each city greeted their king with bonfires and celebrations, while James returned the favor by freeing prisoners jailed for anything except treason or murder.

On May 3, he met Cecil for the first time at his estate of Theobalds where his first privy council meeting was held. On May 7, he made his way to London for his official procession in – there he was met with 100,000 extra citizens who visited the capitol in the hopes of seeing him, while nearly 40,000 people attempted to visit court. Yet whatever the inconvenience, it was a warm welcome and early reports of James were favorable. As one courtier noted:

“The King is of the sharpest wit and invention, ready and pithy speech, an exceedingly good memory; of the sweetest, pleasantest and best nature that ever I knew, desiring nor affecting anything but true honour.”

Anna, meanwhile, was delayed. She suffered a miscarriage in May, some believing that it was associated with her outrage over the last struggle to regain Henry. Regardless, she took matters into her own hands with her husband out of the country and, instead of traveling with her two youngest children, she traveled for England with her two eldest. She and Henry departed Scotland on June 1, with Elizabeth trailing behind two days later. Charles, who had reportedly been ill, was left in Scotland. Only two, it is entirely possible he wasn’t expected to live.

Shortly after Anna’s arrival, London was greeted with an outbreak of the plague, prompting the Royal Family’s retreat to Winchester. Nevertheless, James’s coronation went forward on July 11, but much of the celebration planned was postponed until March 1604.

James in 1606

From there, James’s relationship to the English privy council came into focus. There was much angst from the English as to whether he would seek to remove Elizabeth’s men and replace them with his own. Instead, James kept the vast majority of Elizabeth’s councilors – the only concession that he made to Scotland was simply adding five more spots.

James was a very different monarch than his predecessor. While Elizabeth agonized over every decision and kept a tight grip on the day-to-day management of the kingdom, James was a fan of delegating. He saw no issue with putting various ministers in charge of tasks and then leaving them to it – preferably while he then retreated to the country to hunt. This posed a problem, for the English were unused to this dynamic and uncomfortable with moving forward without his approval, and so instead grew annoyed trying to seek the King’s attention on matters he considered unimportant.

The other prominent change was the stark difference of serving a man instead of a woman after 44 years, particularly in matters of pure logistics. Elizabeth had been served by women in the royal bedchamber, as such it was not a political space. When James ascended the throne, the sovereign’s bedchamber was once more an arena of influence as he was necessarily attended on by male courtiers. But in an unfortunate blind spot, within this space James did choose comfort over politics, staffing himself at his most private and vulnerable with Scotsmen rather than Englishman. The English, of course, found this frustrating, if not alarming.

Taken together with a laissez-faire attitude towards the daily mechanics of government and you have a situation that was wholly foreign to English courtiers used to the Tudor regime. Indeed, if there is one fact usually taught about the rise of the Stuarts in the 17th century it is that they were not as adept at handling Parliament as their predecessors, and this is true. But unlike the liberties taken by Charles I, Charles II and James II, in the early months and years of James I’s reign were not built on arrogance or ill-will, but rather benign ignorance.

James, Anna and Charles in 1612

As for his successor, three-year-old Prince Charles arrived in England from Dunfermline in July 1604. Like his father, he too wasn’t a natural at handling the political machinations of his court or government – for him, however, it would eventually cost him his life.

I realized as I was writing this that we haven’t covered James I’s reign or family in too much detail here, which I suppose makes sense given that the monarchs who came directly before and after him are a bit more dramatic. Still, we’ll try to rectify that over the next few months!

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