What sort of a man had he become in thirty-seven years? Of middle stature, weak legs, slightly swollen paunch, padded doublet and breeches to impede assassins’ knives; brown hair, ruddy cheeks, knobby nose, a look of suspicion and sadness in the blue eyes, as if the god were conscious of his clay. A little lazy, resting on Elizabeth’s oars. Profane in his language, coarse in his amusements; stammering and absolute, wagging too loosely his burry tongue. Vain and generous, timorous and deceitful because often endangered and deceived; ready to take and give offense, to grant and sue for pardon. When John Gib denied having lost some precious documents, James lost his temper, kicked him; then, having found the papers, he knelt down before his humiliated aide and would not rise till Gib had forgiven him. Tolerant amid intolerance, sometimes hard, usually kind and affectionate, suspecting his son Henry as too popular, loving his son Charles to foolishness; unblemished in his relations with women, but given to fondling handsome young men. Superstitious and learned, silly and shrewd, taking demons and witches seriously but favoring Bacon and Jonson; jealous of scholars and enamored of books. One of his first acts as King of England was to empower Oxford and Cambridge to send representatives to Parliament. When he saw the Bodleian Library he cried out, “If I were not a king, I would be a university man; and if it were so that I must be a prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would desire to have no other prison than that Library, and to be chained together with so many good authors and dead masters.”14 All in all, a man a bit off balance and key, but at bottom good-natured, good-humored, ridiculed by the clever, but forgiven by his people because, till near his melancholy end, he gave them security and peace.
He was so unfriendly to water that he resented having to use it for washing. He drank to excess and allowed some court festivities to end in a general and bisexual intoxication. Extravagance in dress and entertainment prevailed at his court even beyond Elizabethan precedent. Masques had been favored by Elizabeth; but now, when Ben Jonson wrote the lines and Inigo Jones designed the costumes and scenery, and the roles were played by gorgeous lords and ladies swathed in the revenues of the kingdom, the fabulous, fantastic art reached its apogee. The court became gayer than ever, and more corrupt. “I do think,” says a lady in one of Jonson’s plays, “if nobody should love me but my poor husband, I should e’en hang myself.”15 Courtiers accepted substantial “gifts” to use their influence in getting charters, patents, monopolies, or offices for applicants; Baron Montagu paid £20,000 for appointment as Lord Treasurer;16 one tender soul, we are told on not the best authority, grew sick and died when he learned how much his friends had paid to have him made recorder.17
James took all such matters in his stride, and did not trouble himself too laboriously with government. He left administration to a Privy Council of six Englishmen and six Scots, headed by Robert Cecil, whom he made Earl of Salisbury in 1605. Cecil had every advantage of heredity except health. He was crippled with a humped back and made a lamentable appearance to the world; but he had all his father’s acumen in the selection and ordering of men, and a silent tenacity and crafty courtesy that outwitted domestic rivals and foreign courts. When “my little beagle” died (1612), James fell under the sway of handsome young Robert Carr, made him Earl of Somerset, and allowed him to supersede, in policy and administration, such older and far more accomplished men as Francis Bacon and Edward Coke.
Coke was the embodiment and the watchdog of the law. He rose to fame by his tenacious prosecution of Essex in 1600, Raleigh in 1603, the Gunpowder Plotters in 1605. In 1610 he issued a historic opinion:
It appears in our books that in many cases the common law will control [override] acts of Parliament, and sometimes adjudge them to be utterly void. For when an act of Parliament is against common right and reason … or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it and adjudge such an act to be void.18
Parliament may not have relished this, but James made Coke chief justice of the King’s Bench (1613), and a member of the Privy Council. From being the King’s man he became the King’s gadfly, condemning inquisitions into private opinions, upholding parliamentary freedom of speech, and puncturing the royal absolutism with sharp reminders that kings are the servants of the law. In 1616 Bacon, his rival, brought charges of malfeasance against him. Coke was dismissed, but he was returned to Parliament; continuing to lead the resistance to the King, he was sent to the Tower (1621), but was soon released. He died impenitent (1634), obstinately faithful to the letter and rigor of the law, and leaving behind him four volumes of Institutes that still stand as a pillar and monument of English jurisprudence.I
Meanwhile James had been carrying on with Parliament the debate that in his son’s reign would eventuate in civil war and regicide. He did not merely assume all the powers that Henry VIII and Elizabeth had wielded over their cowed or grumbling legislators; he formulated his claims as divine imperatives. To the Parliament of 1609 he announced:
The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth. For kings are not only God’s lieutenants on earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God Himself are called gods…. Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power on earth; for if you will consider the attributes of God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy, make or unmake at His pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and be judged nor accountable to none … And the like power have kings; they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and death; judges over all their subjects and in all causes, and yet accountable to none but God only. They have power to … make of their subjects like men at the chess—a pawn to take a bishop or a knight—and to cry up or down any of their subjects, as they do their money.20
This was quite a step backward, for medieval political theory had regularly made the king a delegate of the sovereign people; only the popes had professed to be the viceroys of God. To put the best philosophical front on this claim we must assume that the popes, as the final heads of authority in the Middle Ages, had believed the individualistic impulses of men to be so powerful that social order could be maintained only by inculcating in the people a traditional reverence for ecclesiastical authority, and for the popes as the voice and vicars of God. The weakening or destruction of papal authority by the Reformation had left the political powers primarily or ultimately responsible for social order; and they too judged that a purely human authority would be too challengeable to restrain effectively, or economically, the antisocial proclivities of men. Hence the doctrine of the divine right of kings grew side by side with the development of nationalism and the reduction of papal power. The Lutheran princes of Germany, having assumed the spiritual powers of the old Church in their realms, felt justified in transferring to themselves the divine aura which almost all rulers before 1789 considered indispensable to moral authority and social peace. James made the mistake of expressing this assumption too clearly, and in the most extreme form.
Parliament might have yielded (with private smiles) some theoretical acceptance of this royal absolutism if, as in Elizabeth’s heyday, its members had been great landowners largely indebted to the Tudors for their title deeds. But the House of Commons now included among its 467 members many representatives of the rising mercantile classes—who could not stomach a limitless royal power over their money—and many Puritans who repudiated the claim of the King to rule their religion. The House defined its rights in bold disregard of James’s divinity. It declared itself the sole judge in contested elections to its membership. It demanded freedom of speech and security from arrest during its sessions; without these, it argued, Parliament would be meaningless. It proposed to legislate on matters religious, and denied the authority of the king to decide such issues without parliamentary consent; the Anglican bishops, however, claimed for their Convocation the right to rule in ecclesiastical affairs, subject only to the approval of the king. The Speaker of the Commons informed James that the king could not institute any law, but could only ratify or reject the laws that Parliament had passed. “Our privileges and liberties,” declared the Commons (June 1604), “are our rights and due inheritance, no less than our very lands and goods … They cannot be withheld from us … but with apparent wrong to the whole state of the realm.”21
So the lines were drawn for that historic struggle between the “prerogative” of the king and the “privilege” of Parliament—which, after a hundred victories and defeats, would create the democracy of England.