James Stuart, King of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland

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James Stuart thought he was better than you.

This isn’t a base slander on my part, this was his honest academic opinion. In The True Law of Free Monarchies, James explains that kings (such as himself) had been chosen by God to rule over nations simply because they were superior beings. But, he explained, it would be wrong of you to be jealous. Because God had made king’s lives more difficult, as they were powerful enough to bear it. Besides, since they were king by divine right, it would be blasphemy to criticise or attempt to contradict a king. As such, therefore, Parliament was there to endorse the laws made by the king, rather than to block them or (blasphemy of blasphemies) attempt to suggest laws of their own. Kings had existed before laws, after all. And had Parliament been chosen by God for their position?

In other words, James was an absolutist. Unfortunately, he was born in an era when countries were growing too large for the rule of an absolute monarch. His son, Charles I, would reap the consequences of what his father had sown, when the Parliament he scorned rose against him and placed him on the executioner’s block. Ironically, it was James’ mother’s path to the scaffold that had put him in this position. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate in his favour in 1567 when he was eighteen months old. In part this was because of her complicity in the plot that killed James’ father, Henry Stuart, before James was born. Mary fled south to England, but her status as the great-granddaughter of Henry VII had seen her raised up as a possible alternative to Elizabeth, and her cousin had her imprisoned for eighteen years, before a plot to free her led to her execution. In the absence of his Catholic mother, James was raised as a Protestant in Stirling Castle, under a succession of regents. The first was assassinated, the second fell in battle, the third died of illness and the fourth was executed by James himself for complicity in the murder of Henry Stuart fifteen years earlier. So the young king came into power.

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Mary, Queen of Scots.

The young king showed little interest in women, which led some to praise him as a model of Christian chastity, and others to darkly proclaim that his most trusted councillor, his father’s cousin Esmé Stewart, “went about to draw the King to carnal lust”. In fact, through his life James would always have male “favourites”, and historians generally tend to assume that his relationships with these favourites went beyond “just good friends”. James was always an advocate of the laws against homosexuality, but as we’ve already discussed, he didn’t think the laws applied to kings. Still, a king needed a queen to guarantee the succession. Princess Anne of Denmark, a good Protestant girl, was chosen. However her journey to Scotland was disrupted by storms, so in the autumn of 1589 James set off for Denmark to fetch her. This trip was to have fearful consequences for many Scottish innocents.

James and Anne were married in Oslo in November, and the couple stayed in Denmark for six months before returning to Scotland. On the trip home, they were beset by storms and forced to seek shelter in Norway. The Norwegian fleet had been devastated by the storm, and blame first fell on the minister of finance for failing to equip the fleet for the weather. He responded by claiming that it was witchcraft that had raised the storm, and no amount of equipment would have saved them. His blatant attempt at blame deflection succeeded admirably, and the ensuing rounds of torture leading to confessions and accusations leading to more torture led inevitably to thirteen innocent women being burned at the stake in Kronborg Castle. James was present for the beginning of this, and received news of the conclusion. Being convinced that servants of the Devil would naturally have aimed such a storm at his own divinely-ordained person, James instituted a witch hunt of his own.

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A surviving newsletter called Newes From Scotland has a woodcut showing the alleged witches meeting the devil while their menfolk sleep.

Gillis Duncan was a maid servant in the town of Tranent, about ten miles from Edinburgh. Her master David Seaton caught her sneaking out of the house one night. Gillis had a talent for healing wounds and comforting the dying, and naturally Mr Seaton thus assumed that she must be a servant of Satan. He had her tortured, and under this torture she confessed, confirming that any name given to her was also a witch. [1] This came to the attention of the King, as he believed that this great coven must be the ones responsible for trying to use “magic” to sink his ship as it returned from Denmark. He took a personal interest in what became known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, and in the examination of those accused. Of these, the most infamous example is that of Agnes Sampson. Agnes was a midwife, a group of people often accused of witchcraft simply for practising their trade. Agnes was brought to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, where James personally supervised her torture. She was chained to the wall of her cell by means of a piece of metal inserted into her mouth, with four spikes digging into her cheeks and gums. She was deprived of sleep. She had a rope tied around her head, and then had it brutally jerked around. She was stripped naked, and had her hair all over her body crudely shorn off to search for the “witch’s mark”, which was predictably found on her “privities”. Finally, understandably, she confessed. Not only women were targetted – a schoolteacher named John Fian (accused of leading the coven) had his fingernails torn out and nails thrust into the wounds, followed by having his thumbs and feet crushed in torture devices. James later wrote a handbook for future witch hunters entitled Daemonologie. In it, he declared that witchcraft “merits most severely to be punished”. In accordance with this belief Agnes, and Gillis Duncan, and John Fian, and over two hundred others were all garroted before having their bodies publicly burned. Thousands more in Scotland would follow them in the coming centuries. [2]

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The witches before the king, from Newes From Scotland.

In 1603 James became king of England. Elizabeth had unofficially recognised him as her heir in a treaty signed the year before she executed his mother, and though the execution had upset James it had not disrupted the treaty. As a Protestant, James was far more acceptable than any of the alternatives to her ministers. Chief among them was Robert Cecil, who would serve as James’ chief minister (and spymaster) until his death in 1612. [3] Some other ministers were less happy, leading to a plot that conveniently cleared out relics of the previous reign such as Sir Walter Raleigh and allowed James to install several of his Scottish supporters in English position. This was followed by an attempt to force through a union of England and Scotland, but though James declared himself the king of “Great Britain”, the first time the term had been used to refer to a single kingdom, the English Parliament proved far less willing to bend to his absolute rule than its Scottish equivalent. [4] In fact, aside from a brief period of sympathy for him following the unsuccessful “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605, James would have incessant trouble with Parliament. The highlight was the “Addled Parliament” of 1614, which was summoned to impose a new tax, refused to do so, and was dissolved after eight weeks. This left James to raise money instead through Crown business ventures and the sale of honours. In 1621 he called another Parliament, but when they petitioned him to declare war on Spain and pledge that the heir, the future Charles I, would marry a Protestant, he flatly refused. They made a formal protest, but the enraged James tore the protest out of the record book and dissolved them. Ironically, the final parliament he called in 1624 was to finance a war with Spain caused, in part, by the failure of Charles to marry the Catholic Infanta (Spanish princess) Maria Anna.

One of James’ most notable legacies to his subjects was the King James Version of the Bible, still considered the definitive version by some branches of Christianity. James had originally conceived the project in 1601, prompted by the loud concerns raised by Puritans over inaccuracies in the two available (for example, Psalm 105 in the CoE’s Bishop’s Bible declared that God had sent darkness upon the lands as punishment for being obedient to his commands). With their faith declaring Biblical studies a necessity, this was a serious concern for them. In 1604, now head of the Anglican church, James was able to convene this great translation. The competing influences of the Anglicans and Puritans helped to ensure an impartial translation, while one bugbear of previous translations (marginal notes expresssing opinions on the text) were banned outright. All translators had to be Anglican, and all but one were clergymen. [5] The translations (from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and from the Greek of the New) were completed in 1608, at which point a long review for inaccuracies took place. Finally, in 1611, the first printing took place.

A painting by Rubens on the roof of the Banqueting House in Whitehall shows James being carried off to heaven, death of James I, charles I, spanish infanta, war, parliament, protestant, catholic, england, scotland, the gun powder plot, james stuart - HeadStuff.org
A painting by Rubens on the roof of the Banqueting House in Whitehall shows James being carried off to heaven.

James died in 1625. He had been suffering from a variety of illnesses, most notably gout and kidney stones, but it was a violent attack of dysentery that finally finished him off. James had always been popular with the people, largely due to the lack of violence in his accession and the peacefulness of his reign. Somewhat glossing over the intestinal details of his final hours, the Earl of Kellie said “”As he lived in peace, so did he die in peace, and I pray God our king may follow him.” Of course, the foundations of the division between monarch and parliament he had lain would prevent that. Within twenty years, the English Civil War would break out, and in the ideological conflict that followed James would briefly be recast as an authoritarian monster, before the restoration of his grandson Charles II to the throne saw him returned to his status as father of the Stuart dynasty. In his defence, one could say that he always thought what he was doing was right – that he was the divinely-appointed guardian of the realm, the sole one fit to steer it through the dangerous waters of international and religious conflict, defending it against the encroaching forces of evil and darkness. I doubt the hundreds of victims of his misguided crusade in North Berwick would see it that way. Just remember, whatever your opinion, James wouldn’t have cared. After all, he was better than you.



[1] The fact that Scotland, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, accepted confessions under torture as evidence is why the number of those killed as witches in Scotland number in the thousands, as opposed to the hundreds killed in England.

[2] Exact figures are hard to come by, but a study by the University of Edinburgh indicate that over 3,000 people were accused of witchcraft and around two-thirds of those were executed.

[3] The combination of hatred and fear that Cecil (probably deliberately) inspired can be measured by the number of libellous poems released after his death.

[4] Unlike its English equivalent, the Scottish parliament did not include a section of “Commons”, but consisted mostly of the lairds of various clans.

[5] Popular legend has it that several famous authors of the era contributed to the KJV, though no actual evidence backs this up. Some point to Shakespeare, with the somewhat dubious assertion that as he was 46 in 1610 when the book was completed, and the 46th word of Psalm 46 is “shake”, and the 46th word from the end is “spear”, that proves it! Another popular candidate is noted Freemason Sir Francis Bacon, a claim which is furiously debunked by those who regard the KJV as the definitive edition, and wholeheartedly embraced by those who believe he embedded Rosicrucian symbols in it.