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Portrait of King James, by Daniël Mijtens, 1621, in the National Portrait Gallery

The life of King James I, target of the failed Gunpowder Plot

Image: Public Domain

Born: 19 June 1566, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Died: 27 March 1625, Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire

Reigned in Scotland 1567 – 1625, England 1603 – 1625

Famous for his association with the Gunpowder Plot which threatened to destroy royal family members and parliament, King James I of England and VI of Scotland is perhaps less well known for his self-penned books on witchcraft, resulting in thousands of executions, and his indiscreet passion for handsome male courtiers.

Son of the tragic Mary Queen of Scots

James was just a year old when he was separated from his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. Two years later in 1568, she fled to England in the hope of securing support from her cousin Queen Elizabeth I to restore her place back on the Scottish throne. Instead, she found herself held captive for years and embroiled in plots against Protestant Elizabeth that eventually saw her executed for treason.

Despite becoming King of Scotland while his mother remained captive in various places in England over the decades, James never sought to have her freed. He never knew his mother and they did not even share the same beliefs. James was aggressively Protestant while Mary was an ardent Catholic. Mary’s scandalous past made her a potentially toxic figure in relations between Scotland and England.

To Kill a King

Whether King James as an adult felt any empathy with his tragic mother is not known. Somewhat ironically, James became the target of an assassination plot by Catholic activists who wished him and his government replaced by a Catholic sovereign.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, involved Catholic conspirators led by Robert Catesby hiding barrels of explosives in a basement under the House of Lords. Their aim was to kill King James during the Opening of Parliament to incite a Catholic uprising. It was foiled by the authorities after an anonymous letter was sent by a traitor of the plotters.

Discovery of Witches

The 1600s was a time of superstition and a belief that magic could be used for nefarious purposes. The King took the subject seriously. He believed a coven of witches had attempted to raise storms to drown him on his voyage from Denmark to Scotland with his new bride, Anne.

The superstitious monarch also attended the first witch trials in North Berwick, Scotland inspiring him to write ‘Daemonologie’, his study of sorcery and necromancy. Under James’ rule, the Witchcraft Act of 1563 saw thousands of women in Scotland and England hanged as witches. The king even supervised the torture of some victims, although by 1599 his views became more sceptical.

Forbidden Love

In the 17th century, homosexuality was illegal and punishable by prison or death. For a king to exhibit his romantic feelings for men at court was a particularly dangerous form of behaviour. Despite marrying Anne of Denmark (and siring eight children including the future Charles I) James had several male lovers during his reign.

Two of James’ male partners were Esme Stewart (Duke of Lennox) later succeeded by Robert Carr (Earl of Somerset) who James become besotted with after Carr broke his leg during a jousting match. The glamorous George Villiers (later Duke of Buckingham), who the king nicknamed ‘Steenie’, was James’ third and most loved companion who replaced Carr when he was disgraced over a murder plot.

Democratising the Bible

The King James Bible (16011) was the result of the Hampton Court conference on religious affairs that took part in 1604. The bible today is considered one of the most important texts to be disseminated and read throughout the world.

At the time of James’ rule, England was under Protestant authority, but its deep-rooted history of Catholicism and celebrating mass was still secretly honoured by many subjects. Catholic ideology remained rigidly confined to a belief that ordinary subjects could only connect with God through the clergy.

King James has several reasons for translating the bible into English. Foremost was his desire to prove his own supremacy, secondly, he wanted English to become the dominant global language and thirdly, his own religious beliefs meant he believed that ordinary subjects had the right to connect with the word of God through democratising the Bible.

Colonisation and future troubles

Jamestown in Virginia, USA, founded in 1607, is a reminder of King James’ legacy of colonisation during the 17th century. The colony, named after the king, was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Jamestown led to the birth of religious puritanism in America, with the Pilgrim Fathers who settled in New England in 1620. Their Puritan influence can still be felt within these communities today.

Similarly, in 1603 a form of religious colonisation was implemented in Ulster under King James when Protestant settlers from Great Britain were encouraged to start new lives in the Irish province. King James wanted to strengthen his rule in Ireland by weakening opposition to the British crown from the Catholic and Irish-speaking populations.