VII. JAMES SOWS THE WHIRLWIND: 1615–1625

Love and diplomacy are treacherous bedfellows. In 1615 King James fell in love, in his kindly ambidextrous way, with handsome, dashing, rich George Villiers, twenty-three. He made him Earl, then Marquis, then Duke of Buckingham and, after 1616, allowed him to direct the policies of the state. Buckingham’s wife, Lady Katherine Manners, outwardly conforming to the Anglican rite, was at heart a Roman Catholic, and may have inclined him to friendship with Spain.

James himself was a man of peace, and did not allow theology or piracy to keep him embroiled with the Continent. Soon after his accession he ended the long war that England had waged with Spain. When Frederick, Prince of the Palatinate and husband to James’s beloved daughter Elizabeth, lost his principality at the outset of the Thirty Years’ War, James played with the hope that the Hapsburg King of Spain, properly appeased, would influence the Hapsburg Emperor, Ferdinand II, to let Frederick regain his throne. To the disgust of his people, James proposed to Philip IV the marriage of Philip’s sister, The Infanta Maria, with Prince Charles.

Raleigh came to his bloody end as a sacrifice to this Spanish policy. He had privately opposed James’s succession, and bitterly opposed James’s supporter Essex. Soon after reaching London James dismissed him from all governmental posts. With characteristic passion and rashness, Raleigh allowed himself to be implicated in several attempts to unseat the King.65 He was sent to the Tower, protested his innocence, and attempted suicide. He was tried, was convicted on dubious evidence, and was condemned to die, December 13, 1603, with all the tortures of a traitor. On December 9 he wrote to his wife a letter66 warm with such tenderness and piety as he had seldom shown to the world. James rejected the pleas of the Queen and Prince Henry to forgive him, but permitted the prisoner to live on for fifteen years more, always keeping the death penalty over his head. Raleigh’s wife was allowed to come and dwell with him in a little house that he built within the Tower precincts. He was supplied with books by his friends; he made experiments in chemistry, composed some excellent poems, and wrote his History of the World. As published in 1614, it began with a pious preface involved and verbose, revealing a mind harassed and distraught. The narrative opened with Nineveh, passed on through Egypt, Judea, Persia, Chaldea, Greece, and Carthage, and ended with Imperial Rome. Raleigh was not anxious to reach recent times, for “whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth.”67His style improved as he went on, attained a noble splendor in describing the battle of Salamis, and came to a climax in the concluding apostrophe to “eloquent, just, and mighty Death.”68

But he was not reconciled to defeat. In 1616, having raised £1,500, he bribed the Duke of Buckingham to intercede for him with the King.69 He promised that, if released, he would sail to South America, find what he alleged to be the rich gold deposits of Guiana, and bring back royal spoils for the thirsty treasury. James freed him provisionally, and agreed to let him and his partners keep four fifths of any treasure he might capture from “heathen and savage people”; but the canny ruler held the death sentence still in force as an inducement to good behavior. The Count of Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, pointed out that there were Spanish settlements in Guiana and hoped they would not be disturbed. James, anxious for peace and marriage with Spain, forbade Raleigh, on pain of immediate execution of his death sentence, to interfere with Christian communities anywhere, particularly the Spanish.70 Raleigh consented in writing to these restrictions.71 Gondomar still protesting, James vowed that if Raleigh violated his instructions the death penalty would be enforced.72

With the aid of his friends Raleigh equipped fourteen ships, and with these he sailed (March 17, 1617) to the mouth of the Orinoco. A Spanish settlement, Santo Tomás, barred the way up the river to the supposed—quite legendary—mines. Raleigh’s men (he himself staying on board) landed, attacked and burned the village, and killed its governor. Then, discouraged by further Spanish resistance, the depleted force abandoned the gold quest and returned empty-handed to the ships. Raleigh was disheartened to learn that his son had been slain in the assault. He reproved his second in command, who thereupon committed suicide. His men lost confidence in him; vessel after vessel deserted his fleet. Returning to England and finding that the King was in a rage against him, he negotiated for escape to France; he was arrested; he tried again to escape and got as far as Greenwich; there a French agent betrayed him. He was captured and sent to the Tower, and the King, pressed by Gondomar, ordered the death sentence carried out.

Tired at last of life and welcoming the boon of a sudden death, Raleigh walked to his execution (October 29, 1618) with a calm dignity that made him the hero of a people that hated Spain. “Let us dispatch,” he asked the sheriffs. “At this hour mine ague comes upon me; I would not have mine enemies to think I quaked from fear.” He tested with his thumb the edge of the ax. “This,” he said, “is a fair sharp medicine to cure me of all diseases and miseries.”73 His loyal widow claimed the corpse and had it buried in a church. “The Lords,” she wrote, “have given me his dead body, though they denied me his life. God hold me in my wits.”74

Raleigh’s expedition was one of many that took James’s subjects hopefully to America. Peasants hungry for land of their own, adventurers seeking fortunes in trade or spoils, criminals fleeing the cruelty of the law, Puritans resolved to plant the flag of their faith on virgin soil—these and others bore the risks and the tedium of the sea to make new Englands everywhere. Virginia was settled in 1606–7, Bermuda in 1609, Newfoundland in 1610. “Separatist” clergymen refusing to accept the Prayer Book and the ritual of the Anglican Church fled to Holland with their followers (1608). From Delft (July 1620), Southampton, and Plymouth (September) these “Pilgrims” took sail across the Atlantic; after three months of ordeal, they set foot on Plymouth Rock (December 21).

In Asia the English East India Company, confined to £30,000 and seventeen ships, tried in vain to capture trading ports and routes from the Dutch East India Company, sailing sixty ships and sinewed with £ 540,000. But in 1615 the mission of Sir Thomas Roe resulted in the establishment of trade depots at Ahmadabad, Surat, Agra, and elsewhere in India; and Fort St. George was built and armed to protect them (1640). The first steps had been taken toward the British Empire in India.

Despite all temptations of mercantile interests, parliamentary prodding, and popular chauvinism, James for sixteen years kept to his policy of peace. The House of Commons begged him to enter the Thirty Years’ War on the side of the endangered Protestants of Bohemia and Germany. It pleaded with him to marry his sole surviving son not to a Spanish but to a Protestant princess. It condemned James’s relaxation of the anti-Catholic laws, urged him to order all Catholic children to be separated from their parents and brought up as Protestants, and warned him that toleration would lead to the growth of a Catholic Church frankly pledged to intolerance.75

In 1621 the divergence of views between Parliament and King almost rehearsed the conflict (1642) between the Long Parliament and Charles I. The Commons denounced the extravagance of the court and the persisting monopolies in restraint of trade; it fined and banished monopolists, rejecting their plea that a nascent industry had to be protected from competition. When James rebuked it for meddling in executive business, it issued (December 18) a historic “Great Protestation,” which again affirmed that “the liberties, franchises, privileges, and jurisdictions of Parliament are the ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England,” and added that “the arduous and urgent affairs concerning the king, state, and defense of the realm … are proper subjects and matter of council and debate in Parliament.”76 James angrily tore from the journal of the Commons the page containing this protestation; he dissolved the Parliament (February 8, 1622), ordered the imprisonment of four parliamentary leaders, Southampton, Selden, Coke, and Pym, and defiantly proceeded with Buckingham’s plea for a marital alliance with Spain.

The reckless minister now urged the King to let him take Prince Charles to Madrid to show him off, to see the Infanta, and to conclude the match. James consented reluctantly, for he feared that Philip would send Charles back to England the laughingstock of Europe.

Arrived in Madrid (March 1623), Prince and Duke found the lovely Infanta unapproachable, and the Spanish populace as furious at the thought of her marrying a Protestant as the English were at the idea of Charles bringing home a Catholic. Philip and his minister Olivares gave the visitors every courtesy; Lope de Vega wrote a play for the welcoming festivities; Velazquez painted a portrait of Charles; and Buckingham wooed the Spanish beauties almost to the point of honor. But it was made an indispensable condition of the marriage that English Catholics should receive religious freedom. Charles at once, James at last, agreed; the marriage treaty was signed; but when James further required Philip to promise the use of Spanish arms, if needed, to restore the Palatinate to Frederick, Philip refused to commit himself, and James ordered his son and his favorite home. We see the human side of a king in his letter to Charles (June 14, 1623): “I now repent me sore that ever I suffered you to go away. I care [neither] for match nor nothing, so I may once have you in my arms again. God grant it! God grant it! God grant it!”77 The Infanta, in bidding Charles farewell, made him promise that he would have a care for the Catholics of England.78 The returning Prince was hailed by England as a hero because he brought no bride. He brought a set of Titians instead.

And now Buckingham, angry at having made a fool of himself in Spain (as Olivares had assured him), turned to France for a marital alliance, and secured for Charles the youngest daughter of Henry IV—that Henrietta Maria whose Catholic faith was to be one of many thorns in the side of coming Parliaments. Then the rash young minister regained popularity with the House of Commons by importuning James—failing in health and in mind—to declare war against Spain. Reassembled in February 1624, Parliament followed policies formed in part by mercantile interests eager to capture Spanish booty, colonies or markets, and in part by a resolve to deflect Spain from lending aid to the Catholic Emperor against the Protestants of Germany. The people, having called James a coward for loving peace, now called him a tyrant for conscripting men to military service. The regiments raised, the funds voted, were inadequate, and James had the bitterness of concluding a peaceful reign with a futile war.

His ailments crowded upon him in these final years. He had poisoned his organs with Gargantuan and indiscriminate food and drink; now he suffered from catarrh, arthritis, gout, stone, jaundice, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids; he had himself bled every day until the least royal of his troubles made this superfluous.79 He refused medicine, received the sacraments of the Church of England, and died (March 27, 1625) murmuring the last consolations of his faith.

Despite his vanity and coarseness, he was a better king than some who excelled him in vigor, courage, and enterprise. His absolutism was mainly a theory, tempered with a timidity that often yielded to a powerful Parliament. His pretensions to theology did not impede a will to tolerance far more generous than that of his predecessors. His brave love of peace gave England prosperity, and checked the venal bellicosity of his Parliament and the vicarious ardor of his people. His flatterers had called him the British Solomon because of his worldly wisdom, and Sully, failing to embroil him in Continental strife, termed him “the wisest fool in Christendom.” But he was neither philosopher nor fool. He was only a scholar miscast as a ruler, a man of peace in an age mad with mythology and war. Better the King James Bible than a conqueror’s crown.


I. Aubrey informs us that Coke’s second wife, the widow of Sir William Hatton, “was with child when he married her. Laying his hand on her belly (when he came to bed), and finding a child to stir, ‘What,’ said he, ‘flesh in the pot?’ ‘Yea,’ quoth she, ‘or else I would not have married a cook.’ “19—for so his name was pronounced. We might add that she had already refused Bacon.

II. Some undistinguished prose acquired historical distinction: the newssheets that fluttered about Jacobean London graduated in 1622 into the first English newspaper, The Weekly Newes.

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