James VI and I



JAMES VI was crowned King of Scotland (July 29, 1567) at the age of thirteen months, while his mother lay captive at Lochleven. He was eight months old when his presumptive father, Darnley, was killed, ten months old when he saw his mother for the last time; she could never be anything more to him than a name and an imagination blurred with contumely and far-off tragedy. He was brought up by self-seeking lords and by teachers hostile to his mother. He received ample education in the humanities, too much in theology and too little in morals, and he became the most learned hard drinker in Europe.

Four regents in succession ruled Scotland in his name—Murray, Lennox, Mar, Morton; all but one died by violence. Rival noble bands fought for the King’s person as the aegis of power. In 1582 some Protestant lords, supported by the Kirk, confined him in Ruthven Castle for fear that he might submit to the influence of his Catholic relative Esmé Stuart. Released, he promised to defend Protestantism, signed an alliance with Protestant England, and, aged seventeen, undertook to be actual king (1583).

He was unique among sovereigns. His manners were rough, his gait ungainly, his voice loud, his conversation a cross of coarseness with pedantry. One not too kindly to him judged that “in languages, sciences, and affairs of state he has more learning than any man in Scotland.”1 But the same observer added, “He is prodigiously conceited”; perhaps this trait was a life preserver in a sea of troubles, as well as the warped perspective of one who could never recall when he had not been king. He must have had some saving intelligence to keep his crown on his head in Scotland and wear a greater one in England to a natural death. He was a bit unsteady about sex; he married the Danish Catholic Princess Anne, but he had little taste for women, and indulged his friendliness with favorites to the point of giving gossip a lead.

He had to weave his way craftily amid the furious dogmatisms of his time. The Guises in France, Philip in Spain, the Pope in Rome, pleaded with him to bring Scotland back to the Catholic Church, but the Scottish Kirk watched his every word lest he deviate from the Calvinist line. He burned no bridges behind him. He corresponded politely with Catholic powers and was inclined to soften the laws against Catholic worship; he secretly released a captured Jesuit and connived at another’s escape.2 But Catholic plots angered him, England’s victorious Protestantism impressed him; he cast in his lot with the Kirk.

It was no comfortable bedfellow. By 1583 its ministers formed the great majority of the Scottish clergy. Poor in income and in secular learning, they were rich in devotion and courage. They labored to restore neglected churches, they organized schools, administered charity, defended the peasants against the lords, and preached long sermons which their congregations absorbed in place of printed material. In the kirk sessions, the provincial synods, and the General Assembly the new clergy now enjoyed a power rivaling that which the Catholic hierarchy had wielded before them. Claiming divine inspiration and therefore infallibility in faith and morals, they assumed over public and private conduct a control much more rigorous than under the lax guardians of the older creed. In many towns they levied fines on Scots who failed to attend kirk services. They prescribed public penitence, sometimes physical penalties, for detected sins.3 Alarmed by the prevalence of fornication and adultery, they commissioned the elders to watch with especial severity over sexual deviations, and to report these to the sessions and the synods of the Kirk. Shocked by the license of the English stage, they sought to prohibit theatrical performances in Scotland; and failing in this, they forbade their people to attend them. Like their predecessors, they made heresy a capital crime. They pursued witches with burning zeal and voted firewood for the pyres.4 They persuaded the Parliament to decree the death penalty for any priest who thrice said Mass; this edict, however, was not enforced. On hearing of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, the Kirk called for a massacre of Catholics in Scotland, but the state neglected to co-operate.5

Except for the ministerial claim to inspiration and infallibility, the Kirk was one of the most democratic institutions of its time. The parish parson was chosen by the elders, subject to the approval of the congregation, and the laity shared in the sessions, the synods, and the General Assembly. These democratic tentatives irritated the aristocratic Parliament and the anointed King. Arguing—perhaps believing—that he ruled by divine right, James complained that “some fiery-spirited men in the ministry got such a guiding of the people … that, finding the gust [taste] of government sweet, they began to fancy a democratic form … I was calumniated in their sermons not for any vice in me but because I was king, which they thought the highest evil.”6 The medieval struggle between Church and state was resumed.

Now it took the form of an attack by the ministers on the bishops. These, a Catholic legacy to the Kirk, were formally chosen by the ministers, but were actually nominated, and often forced upon the clergy, by the Regent or the King, and they handed over a large part of their ecclesiastical revenues to the state. The ministers saw no warrant in Scripture for episcopacy, and resolved to run it out of Scotland as incompatible with the popular organization of the Kirk.

Their leader, Andrew Melville, was a fiery Scot equipped by nature to inherit the mantle of John Knox. After a university education at St. Andrews, he continued his studies in Paris and then imbibed the Calvinist gospel from Bèze in Geneva. Returning to Scotland (1574), he was at once appointed, at the age of twenty-nine, principal of Glasgow University, and he ably reorganized its curriculum and discipline. In 1578 he shared in compiling the Second Book of Discipline, which denounced episcopacy in the name of ministerial equality. He argued for the definite separation of spheres between Church and state, and this influenced their separation in the United States; but he claimed the right of the ministers to teach the civil magistrates how to exercise their powers “according to the word.”7 James, however, wanted to be an absolute ruler like Henry VIII or Elizabeth; he believed in bishops as necessary in ecclesiastical administration, and as convenient intermediaries between Church and state.

In 1580 the General Assembly of the Kirk “damned” the office of bishops as a “folly of men’s invention”; all bishops were commanded, under penalty of excommunication, to cease their functions, and to apply to the Assembly for admission as simple ministers. The government rejected the Second Book of Discipline and held that no excommunication should be valid unless ratified by the state. In 1581 Lennox, then regent, nominated Robert Montgomerie to be Archbishop of Glasgow. The Glasgow ministry refused to elect him; he insisted on officiating nevertheless; the General Assembly, led by Melville, excommunicated him (1582); Montgomerie yielded and withdrew. Melville, accused of sedition, rejected a civil, demanded an ecclesiastical, trial; condemned for contempt of court, he fled to England (1584). James persuaded the Parliament to declare treasonable any refusal to submit to secular jurisdiction, any meddling of ministers in affairs of state, any resistance to the episcopate, any convocations unlicensed by the King. Many ministers, rather than accept these decrees, followed Melville into exile. James, savoring his sovereignty, indulged himself in a reign of terror: ministers were punished because they prayed for their exiled brethren; two men were put to death for communicating with them; two others were executed on a charge of conspiracy.

The clergy and their congregations resisted with Scottish tenacity. Pamphlets of undiscovered origin blackened the King, ballads sang the shame of his tyranny, even women wrote diatribes committing him to hell. His bishops received less and less money, transmitted ever less to the state; James found himself starved of coin—the very sinews of his will. Year by year he weakened, until the Parliament of 1592, with his dour consent, voted a charter of liberty to the Kirk, restoring to it all its powers of jurisdiction and discipline, and abolishing the episcopate. The exiles returned.

Melville, bolder than ever, called James to his face “God’s silly vassal,” and gave the theocratic gospel to him in 1596 as firmly as Gregory VII to Emperor Henry IV five hundred years before (1077): “There are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is Christ Jesus and His Kingdom the Kirk, whose subject King James VI is … not a king, nor a head, nor a lord, but a member.”8 David Black, minister at St. Andrews, told his congregation (1596) that all kings were children of the Devil, Elizabeth was an atheist, and James was Satan himself.9 The English ambassador protested. The Privy Council summoned Black to trial. He refused to appear, saying that an offense in the pulpit was subject only to a court of the Kirk, and that, besides, he had received his message from God. James ordered him tried in absentia. A committee of ministers came to the King; he yielded nothing; on the contrary, he demanded that acts of the ecclesiastical Assembly, as of Parliament, must be subject to his ratification. The ministers proclaimed a general fast, and declared ominously that, whatever happened, “they were free of his Majesty’s blood.”10

A riotous crowd gathered about the building where James was staying (December 17, 1596). He fled to Holyrood Palace, and next morning removed with all his court from Edinburgh. He declared to its people, by a herald, that it was not fit to be a capital, and that he would never return except to execute judgment on rebels; and he ordered all clergy and nonresidents to leave the city. The rioters, having no one to kill, dispersed. The merchants bemoaned the loss of court trade; the citizens wondered whether the dispute was worth economic martyrdom; James returned in angry triumph (January 1, 1597). The General Assembly, meeting at Perth, offered the Kirk’s submission; it agreed that no ministers were to be appointed in the chief cities without the consent of the King and the congregation; that ministers were not to preach about acts of Parliament or the Privy Council, and that no man was to be personally attacked from the pulpit. The ministers were allowed to re-enter the capital (1597), but the episcopate was restored. A sullen truce settled down upon the ancient war between Church and state.

Two figures stand out in the Scottish literature of this period: the King himself and the most famous of his teachers. George Buchanan had an astonishing career. Born in Stirlingshire in 1506, he studied in Paris, served as a soldier in France and Scotland, caught scholastic and political fire from the lectures of John Major, returned for love and learning to Paris, came back to Scotland a satirical heretic, was imprisoned by Cardinal Beaton, escaped to Bordeaux, taught Latin there, wrote poems and dramas in remarkably good Latin, saw his pupil Montaigne act in one of these plays, headed a college in Coimbra, was imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition for making fun of friars, went back to Scotland, to France, to Scotland, tutored Mary Queen of Scots (1562), was made moderator of the General Assembly (1567), pronounced the Casket Letters authentic, was accused of forging part of them,11 condemned Mary without mercy in his Detectio Mariae Reginae (1571), tutored her son over her protests, and gave up the ghost in 1582. His Rerum Scoticarum historia (1579) labored to free his country’s history from “English ties and Scottish vanity.” His treatise De iure regni apud Scotos (1579) boldly reaffirmed, in the face of his soon-to-be-autocratic pupil, the medieval doctrine that the sole source of political power, under God, is the people; that every society rests on an implicit social contract of mutual obligations and restraints between the governed and the governors; that the will of the majority may rightly rule the whole; that the king is subject to the laws passed by the representatives of the people; and that a tyrant may justly be resisted, deposed, or killed.12 Here was the social-contract myth a century before Hobbes, two centuries before Rousseau. The book was condemned by the Scottish Parliament and burned by the University of Oxford, but it had a powerful influence. Samuel Johnson thought that Buchanan was the only man of genius that Scotland had produced.13 Hume modestly gave this plume to Napier; Carlyle, being Knox redivivus, offered it to Knox; and James VI had his own views on the matter.

The King was as proud of his books as of his regalia. In 1616 he published, in a huge folio, The Works of the Most High and Mighty Prince James, which he dedicated to Jesus Christ. He wrote poems, advice to poets, a translation of the Psalms, a study of the Apocalypse, a treatise on demons, and, in the annus mirabilis 1598, two royal octavos in defense of absolute monarchy. One, the Basilikon Doron (1598), or Kingly Gift, was a book of advice to his son Henry on the art and the duties of sovereignty; it emphasized the ruling of the Kirk as “no small part of the king’s office.” The other volume, The True Law of Free Monarchies, expounded absolutism with considerable eloquence: kings were chosen by God, since all important events were dictated by His Providence; their divine appointment and anointment constituted a mystery as holy and ineffable as any sacrament; therefore their rule had every right to be absolute, and resistance to it was a folly, a crime, and a sin bound to cause more harm than any tyranny. What to Elizabeth had been a useful myth became to James a passionate principle, born of being born of a queen. His son Charles inherited the doctrine and paid the penalty.

England, however, did not in 1598 foresee 1649. After James had pledged himself to Protestantism, the leaders of Elizabeth’s Privy Council recognized him as heir, through Mary, to the English crown. Four days after Elizabeth’s death James began (April 5, 1603) a festive progress from Edinburgh to London; he stopped leisurely en route to be feted by the English nobility; on May 6 he reached a London which was all decked out to welcome him—crowds genuflecting before him, lords kissing his hands. After a millennium of useless strife the two nations (not till 1707 the two parliaments) were united under one king. So fruitful had been Elizabeth’s barren womb.

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