Was Knowledge of Scotland and the Scots of No Real Advantage to James VI and I?

An Assessment

Essay 2006 14 Pages

History Europe - Other Countries - Middle Ages, Early Modern Age


Knowledge of Scotland and the Scots was of no real advantage to James VI and James I

James VI and I’s knowledge of Scotland and the Scots was gained from his training for kingship, the turbulent circumstances of his minority and from the experiences of his predecessors. Any discussion as to whether this knowledge was of real, as opposed to perceived, advantage to James must be examined in light of his beliefs, aims and aspirations relating to kingship, including the divine right of kings and absolutist tendencies. Inherent to the discussion are James’s dealings with the nobility in Scotland and in both Scotland and England after 1603. Problems of the lawlessness of the Borders and Highlands, together with James’s religious policies in both Scotland and England will also be examined. Following the Regal Union, knowledge of Scotland and the Scots will be further examined relative to his desire for a perfect union between Scotland and England, his government of Scotland as an absentee monarch and the challenges created by ruling two kingdoms with contrasting parliaments, courts and religious views. An assessment of any real advantage gained will be made considering how successful James was in achieving his goals.

James’s knowledge of Scotland and the Scots was gained from several sources. Levack asserts that the sixteenth century was an age of princes[1] and there is no reason to believe that James was any different from other European princes in his preparation for kingship. His education by George Buchanan introduced him to the theory of a monarch accountable to his people, amongst other important teachings. Although this theory will be discussed hereafter, it was instrumental in forming James’s knowledge of, and opinions on, Scotland. James also understood the traditional kingship beliefs of his forefathers. As Enright argues, he had a deep understanding of Celtic kingship rituals[2] and this influenced his understanding of his birth country. Moreover, the turbulent period of his monarchy, the regency of Morton and incidents such as the Ruthven Raid emphasised to James the potential power of the Scottish aristocracy and the need to manage them without alienating them. Knowledge of the whims of the Scottish aristocracy was a prerequisite for good kingship, and their prudent management was essential as “contemning your Nobilitie” led to “that erroure brake the King (James V) my grandfatheris hairte.”[3] James had no desire to self-inflict the same error of alienating the nobility. In addition, the experiences of his mother during the Reformation personalised the religious problems he would face in both Scotland and England, together with realising the potential regicidal power of fundamentalist Presbyterianism. There is no doubt, therefore, that James had a personal and intimate knowledge of Scotland and the Scots, his kingly attributes being recognised early in his reign in 1581 “wherein he is in his tender years more practised than others forty years older than he”[4] and that such attributes and knowledge would be of use to him during his reign.

At first glance, James’s kingship beliefs appear to belittle Buchanan’s theoretical teachings that kings were answerable to the people and to support Notestein in that “broadmindedness was beyond James’s ken”[5] implying a despotic mindset. This was not the case, but rather a means to address the particular problem of Melvillian doctrine of two kingdoms where “the power ecclesiasticall flowes immediatlie from God, not having a temporal heid on earth, bot onlie Christ, the onlie spitituall King.”[6] James’s teachings in Basilicon Doron on divine-right monarchy were intended to counter this doctrine and advise his successor of the potentially devastating effects of Scottish Presbyterianism on the Stuart dynasty. James identified the severity of the problem as “the first calumnie” fearing “rashe-headie preachers, that think it their honour to contend with Kings”[7] if left unchecked. Any attempt to spread absolutist aims to deal with other problems was potentially regicidal. Doubtless, persistent magnate feuding aggrieved James and it was this he recognised as having to be dealt with on an individual basis, not dominating the aristocracy per se. Indeed, he recognised the traditional benefits of close counsel, informality and plain speaking in relations between himself and the aristocracy, urging his son to appreciate “the frequentlier that your courte cann be garnished uith thaime it the maire youre honoure.”[8] Any impression given of this was to address a specific problem caused by Presbyterian doctrine of spiritual and temporal kingdoms. Hence, James was not a despotic or absolutist monarch. In all else he maintained traditional kingship values based on his Scottish knowledge of accepting counsel from advisors in informal surroundings and acting in a down-to-earth manner. Knowledge of Scotland and the Scots was, therefore, a real advantage in the formation of James’s kingship.

James’s relationship with the Scottish aristocracy provides further insight. Smout argues that Scotland’s factious society heightened the threat from the nobility, which was not fully eradicated until after 1603 following the monarch’s removal to London, placing him outside the clutches of power wielding nobles.[9] However, James’s knowledge of the Scottish nobility enabled him to manage their power, but not to dominate them and by so doing reduce any threat to his monarchy. James used his knowledge to manage and balance factional power and to create counter balances to magnate power. Moreover, he appreciated past loyalty shown to the Stuart monarchy, treating any dissent from previously loyal nobles as a passing aberration. For example, Huntly incurred the wrath of James VI for his persistent feuding with the earl of Moray. James sought not to destroy Huntly but “neither mind we to control or remove any of our nobility or others who had faithfully given their dependence on us heretofore”[10] and managed him as a trusted magnate. Additionally, James was prepared to use the Presbyterian kirk when it suited his purpose, whereby the Kirk brought pressure to bear on the feuding Catholic earls of Huntly and Moray forcing them to at least theoretically denounce Catholicism. James further managed the nobility by creating new classes within the aristocracy, creating a buffer between himself and the elite. By way of illustration, members of the Octavians were primarily elevated from the lairds and not the magnate class. Similarly, the Lords of Erection were promoted from legal or civil service backgrounds and would become James’s most prominent bureaucrats. James recognised that to “emploie euerie man as ye think him qualified”[11] created an effeicient bureaucracy, whilst not threatening the aristocracy. Ergo, James’s knowledge of and loyalty to the aristocratic elite was a real advantage in managing them without antagonising them.

Following the Regal Union of 1603, James was faced with new challenges concerning the Scottish and English nobility. Young maintains that James’s political pedigree was essentially Scottish and that this stood him in good stead when his political power base was moved to London.[12] Notwithstanding Weldon’s vitriolic caricaturing of James as the “wisest fool in Christendom”[13] – after all Weldon had personal reasons for disparaging the king and James was no fool as we have seen when managing the Scottish nobility – but, by surrounding himself with prominent Scottish courtiers from the nobility, particularly in the Bedchamber, who stood “like mountains betwixt the beams of his grace and us”[14] he effectively denied the English aristocracy convenient access to him, making their management remote and giving rise to friction between England’s foreign king and his English aristocracy. In so doing, James concentrated patronage and political power in a small cadre of Bedchamber Scots, exemplified by the unprecedented action of James’s elevation of Somerset from a modest landed background to an English earldom. James supposed that surrounding himself with known, trusted Scots favourites would be to his real advantage, but the reality was that it antagonised the English nobility already fearful of being overrun by Scots. James’s Scottish knowledge did not give him any real advantage in his desire to create a British aristocracy or using his London court as a hotchpotch of debate for several reasons. Firstly, with few exceptions, the London Scots saw their priority was preserving their Scottish interests and gaining any financial remuneration possible from service to their Scottish, not British, king. They refused to be drawn into James’s British imperial aristocracy and refused to bow to pressure imposed by the English nobility’s agenda of becoming acceptable through a process of anglicisation. James misread the Scottish nobilities’ loyalty to him as a sign that they were prepared to demote their Scottish interests in favour of British court, subject to a king of Great Britain. Secondly, the English aristocracy retained their desire to subjugate Scotland as an imperial acquisition and not as an equal partner in an aristocratic union. In no sense could the court in London be called British, remaining segregated in English, Scottish and Irish factions. Hence, James’s knowledge of the Scottish nobility after 1603 was of no real advantage to him.


[1] B.P. Levack, The Formation of the British State (1987) p. 3.

[2] M. J. Enright, “King James and his island: an archaic kingship belief?” in Scottish Historical Review 55 (1976) p. 40.

[3] J. Graigie (ed.), The Basilicon Doron of King James VI Volume 1MS Royal 18. B. xv. Edition (1944) p. 86.

[4] Thomas Randolph, ambassador of Queen Elizabeth I, quoted in J. Wormald, “James VI and I: two kings or one?” in History 68 (1983) p. 189.

[5] Wallace Notestein quoted in J. Wormald, “James VI and I, two kings or one?” in History 68 (1983) p. 187.

[6] Second Book of Discipline (The Two Kingdoms) in G. Donaldson (ed.), Scottish Historical Documents (1970) p. 144.

[7] J. Craigie (ed.), The Basilicon Doron of King James VI Volume 1 Waldergrave 1603 Version (1944) p. 14.

[8] J. Craigie (ed.), The Basilicon Doron of King James VI Volume 1 MS Royal 18. B. xv.Version (1944) p. 87.

[9] T. C. Smout, The History of the Scottish People 1560 – 1830 (1969) p. 95.

[10] James VI and I in a letter to Queen Elizabeth 1 quoted in J. M. Brown, “Scottish Politics 1567 – 1625” in A.G.R. Smith (ed.) The Reign of James VI and I (1973) p.26.

[11] J. Craigie The Basilicon Doron of King James VI Volume 1 MS Royal 18. B. xv. Version (1944) p. 120.

[12] J.R. Young, “The Scottish Parliament and National Identity from the Union of the Crowns to the Union of the Parliaments, 1603 – 1707” in D. Brown, R.J. Finlay and M. Lynch (eds.), Image and Identity (1998) p.107.

[13] Anthony Weldon quoted in J. Wormald, “James VI and I: two kingdoms or one? in History 68 (1983)p.190-191.

[14] Sir John Holles quoted in C. Russell, James VI and I and rule over two kingdoms: an English view at http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/focus/Elizabeth/Russell.pdf.


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Title: Was Knowledge of Scotland and the Scots of No Real Advantage to James VI and I?