Popery, puritans and witches: The reign of King James I and VI

King James I and VI - Portrait attributed to John de Critz, c. 1605
Image: Portrait attributed to John de Critz, 1605 | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Key dates

Ascended the throne on 24 March 1603.

Coronation: Westminster Abbey, 25 July 1603 as King of Great Britain and Ireland.

Died: Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire, 27 March 1625. Buried Westminster Abbey.

King James is famous for three things: Popery, puritans and witches. Popular history will always associate him with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when he was the intended victim of one of the most audacious assassination plots to kill a royal. But there are more noteworthy facts about the Scottish King whose intention to converge two countries, England and Scotland in an act of unity, represents just one of many intriguing ambitions by a monarch who has gone down in history as the ‘wisest fool in Christendom’, as said by the King of France, Henry iV.

Ad hominem attacks from his enemies aside, such as Sir Anthony Weldon, who referred to James as a swearing ‘slobbering idiot with a tongue too large for his mouth, ‘forever fiddling with his codpiece’, such criticisms detract from the story of one of the most fascinating and colourful monarchs Britain has produced. The son of the tragic Mary Queen of Scots, his legacy includes the world’s first English Bible, the creation of the Union Jack, the first colonisation of America and the introduction of tobacco to England despite hating the addictive plant himself.

James’s reign began during a turbulent period of religious intolerance and change. Since the beginning of the 16th century, no Scottish monarch had ascended to the throne as an adult, they were all aged two or under. James VI was just 13 months old when he became King, his mother, Mary Queen of Scots was born a week before her father King James V died. This succession of infant monarchs created a minority rule between a series of power-hungry regents who ran the show.

It was a period of political and religious turmoil as the country underwent a Protestant reformation inspired by Calvinism (hardline Protestantism) that led to a series of big changes. There was widespread Iconoclasm, which involved the smashing of religious images and saw the power of the bishops reduced.

Bad parenting

James’s family situation was complicated. He was born in Edinburgh Castle on 19 June 1566, the only son of Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. The marriage was falling apart and Mary's position as Queen was very insecure. Two months before James was born his father Lord Darnley sided with the rebels against his wife and became involved in the brutal and murder of Queen Mary’s Catholic private secretary David Rizzio, who was stabbed to death in front of the terrified and pregnant queen. Darnley himself was later murdered in an explosion at Kirk o’ Field in Edinburgh in February 1567 prompting Mary to move on to her second lover who was a suspect in her previous husband’s murder. Her new marriage wasn’t popular with the Protestant rebels who then imprisoned Mary at Loch Leven Castle near Perth in Scotland which resulted in her never seeing her son James again.

Into this turbulent world the infant James, at just one year of age, was made a ‘puppet king’ officially looked after by a series of Regents who were out for themselves. Many of these men were murdered in time, including James’s paternal grandfather. By the 1580s, James attained a degree of short-lived power but by the age of 12, he was captured and imprisoned for a year by two earls in what is known as the ‘Raid of Ruthven’, a political conspiracy in Scotland which took place on 22 August 1582.

Forbidden love

A young scholar who enjoyed studying and not naturally inclined towards sport the teenage James revelled in reading and learning languages from Greek to Latin and French as well as composing poetry and translating the bible. Not known to be a social creature James nevertheless cultivated a close friendship with the married 37-year-old Esme Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox, to who he also dedicated a poem. What was more likely a crush for the then 14-year-old James than a friendship is the first indication of the Scottish king’s latent homosexuality which Protestant nobles disdained given James's enjoyment of demonstrating public displays of affection with the earl.

Accused of seducing the young king, drawing him into a ‘carnal lust’, the nobles forced Esme to leave Scotland and imprisoned James to bring the relationship to an end. This was devastating for James who had romantic feelings for the earl, the kind which inspired love poetry by a young king who appeared unaware of how his displays of affection for men was potentially scandalous. Despite the enforced separation, James would later develop relationships with several male lovers. For James, still, a gangly, awkward youth, his interest in the handsome men at court found an outlet in poetry as one way to express his secret, and for the time, forbidden feelings. Despite James I having relations with men, he adopted a severe stance against ‘sodomy’ using English law. He even listed the act of sodomy in one of his books as being among ‘horrible crimes which ye are bound in conscience never to forgive’ and ordered judges never to issue pardons to those found guilty of it.

'The Black Acts'

One way James tried to assert his political authority is by passing through the Black Acts in 1584 which were new laws imposed on the Scottish church and unsurprisingly were not welcomed by the religious institutions in Scotland. This arrogant move reflected James’s belief that he was king and answerable only to God. While these events unfolded James’s mother Mary Queen of Scots was still alive but imprisoned in England until Queen Elizabeth I ordered her execution for treason and plotting against her. The irony of such events where James’s mother was executed by the Queen of England put him in pole position to be her heir as the godchild of the unmarried and childless Elizabeth. But Elizabeth refused to name James as her heir. One reason may have been to stop her detractors and enemies looking to Scotland and James, thus undermining her authority in England. On her deathbed, Queen Elizabeth finally relented and named James as her heir.

Double life and witches

Although King James seemingly preferred men’s company sexually and romantically, he understood that his role as king meant he would be expected to have children and future heirs. In 1589 he decided to marry 14-year-old Anne of Denmark to stop gossip that he was a secret Catholic. James was 23 years of age when he got engaged to the Danish princess. They were to produce seven children, including the future Charles I, who would be the first king in Europe to be beheaded. To marry Anne he decided to sail to Denmark and collect her. The journey was beset by dangerous storms, which James suspected at the time were the result of a ‘curse’ by ‘witches’ to drown him and his new bride. This was the catalyst to what was to become an obsession for King James to hunt down ‘witches’ throughout the country, inspired by what he believed was an attempt through sorcery to kill him.

Mythical tales and witch trials

James believed that witches in a coven had conjured up the spell by tying a cat to a dead man's body with a kitchen hook and throwing it into the sea. This act of demonic witchcraft was believed to be the cause of the storm that nearly killed the King and Princess Anne of Denmark on their return to Scotland. Before long witch trials began taking place throughout the country.

‘The North Berwick Witch Trials’ saw James taking it upon himself to appear in person to interrogate a group of people accused of witchcraft. James played the role of prosecuting barrister, interviewing women such as Agnes Sampson, a ‘healer’ known as the ‘Wise Wife of Keith’ which kicked off a witch craze of prosecutions between 1590 – 1662. It is estimated that about 1500 people were executed in Scotland under charges of witchcraft, most of whom were women who had become victims of gossip and hearsay. Sampson was found guilty and burned at the stake but James spared the lives of others believing that after listening to evidence they were innocent. Such a contradictory attitude showed that this was a king who despite his superstitious beliefs in a time of religious fanaticism also possessed the capacity to be rational. The fact that James didn’t condemn accused prisoners randomly showed he was a man who insisted on evidence being good enough or reliable enough to justify a guilty verdict.

The Daemonologie (Demonology)

As both a philosopher, thinker and writer James wrote a treatise on magic and witchcraft called Daemonologie, published in 1597. This study on the methods of so-called ‘demons’ allegedly used to influence ordinary people to carry out nefarious acts also touched on subjects such as werewolves and vampires.

It was written as an informative journal to educate the populace about the history and practices of sorcery that could bring about harm and justified the reasons for persecuting witches and necromancers in a Christian society. Later James penned two books on the theory and art of being a king. His Basilikon Doron, written in the form of a private letter to James’s eldest son, Henry, Duke of Rothesay was an instruction manual in how to be a good king and not a tyrant. It illustrated James’s personal beliefs and values and was to become a best seller in both England and abroad. Part of its popularity was because King James's new English subjects had a thirst to know what their new king was like.

James I of England: Charm offensive

A Scottish king becoming a ruler of England was a big deal to the people and James embarked on a grand and ostentation strategy to win hearts and minds. When his procession travelled down from Scotland to England crowds turned out to see what he looked like as well as his courtiers, who he dragged down from the north. When he took his procession through Newcastle he fired off canons and freed all the prisoners in the city apart from the murderers and the Catholics. Like a 16th Century Santa Claus, he showered the streets with gold coins while in fancy dress as ‘Robin Hood’, aping a mythical character from a medieval folktale.

In 1602 James VI of Scotland became James I of England, who despite having distractors in many areas was promising a degree of certainty after years where people feared civil war. Here now was a male monarch with a family offering a future that looked more secure. The fly in the ointment (to quote a phrase from the King James Bible) was the fact he was Scottish and more importantly that he had a big plan for change, one that wasn’t greeted with the same enthusiasm as when he entered England in a flurry of pomp and spectacle.

The Union Jack

In 1603 James, promising the kind of security people yearned for after a childless queen, was to face his first major political obstacle. The big issue was that he was Scottish and to boot foreign yet more alarmingly seemed armed with a plan to unite England and Scotland to formally create Great Britain. Not everyone was happy with this idea from both sides of the political divide. The Scottish didn’t want to play second fiddle to the English and the English weren’t keen on becoming known as Britons. They wished to remain English. Despite many pamphlets being published on the matter and Parliament going into overdrive discussing the debate, King James went ahead and proclaimed himself King of Great Britain together with the creating of a new union flag. The Union Jack, combining the St Andrews and St George’s crosses is one of the most iconic flags in the world. But the reality of a united Great Britain fell short of James’s lofty ambition and he retained the title in name only.

Despite promising the Scottish people that he would be returning to Edinburgh regularly James remained in England and only returned to Edinburgh once. As he needed important letters and messages sent back and forth between London and the Scottish capital, this urgency precipitated the beginning of the postal service as horses shuttled back between the two cities.

The King James Bible

Before James became king he made promises to people from different political and religious factions. The Catholics wanted to move the church in a decisive direction and rid the country of Protestantism, while the Protestants wanted to get rid of the vestiges of Catholicism and go mainstream Protestant.

In 1604 a three-day conference was arranged at Hampton Court in Surrey which was set up as an attempt to try and hear both sides with James as mediator. James, who was born a Catholic but raised a Protestant rejected most of the ideas put forward by both sides.

The one solid idea that came out of the conference was a new translation of the English Bible. It was created by forty-eight translators and became the authorised King James Bible and one of the biggest selling books in the English language. This was a huge achievement for King James; his influential text remains with us to this day and copies of the bible can often be found in the bedside drawers of hotels throughout England and Scotland. Everyday phrases used today originate from this bible such as sayings ‘To see eye to eye’, ‘A fly in the ointment’, ‘The blind leading the blind’ and ‘To give up the ghost’, as well as hundreds of other phrases.

The Gunpowder Plot

James had a talent for agitating both the Catholics and Protestants, which saw a flurry of plots aimed against him such as the ‘Bye Plot’ in 1603, a conspiracy by Roman Catholic priests and Puritans designed to arrest the king, get rid of him and replace him with his cousin. But this murderous scheme foreshadowed the most famous plot in 1605, which today is still celebrated every November 5 with fireworks. Masterminded by a Catholic conspirator, Guy Fawkes who took the name Guido, was one of thirteen conspirators of a plot to blow up the king while residing in Westminster palace. James was to be present in the building with his wife, Queen Anne and son Henry and the most important people in the country. The plan was to kill the king and replace him with his daughter Elizabeth as a puppet Catholic queen. The conspiracy was led by Robert Catesby who along with Fawkes were eventually rounded up by the authorities after the plot was discovered. The unearthing of the plot resulted in the most extreme punishment against the conspirators for treason; the barbaric execution of being hung, drawn and quartered to baying crowds.

The Gunpowder Plot against King James also initiated the most stringent laws against the Catholic population as James turned the screw preventing Catholics from taking up positions in public life. The Popish Recusants Act of 1605 was passed and an oath of allegiance was instated which forbade Catholics from practising law, medicine, joining the military and demanded Catholic clergy deny the authority of the Pope. Catholics also had to receive the sacrament in an Anglican service or face fines.

James’s controversial reign over two countries saw him in constant struggles with Parliament particularly when it came to spending treasury money. Parliament on the other hand was determined to control taxation. But James believed that he was only answerable to God alone and should be able to do as he liked. As James ignored Parliament for most of the decade, his personal relationships with favourites - offering them expensive gifts and high ranking titles - also irked the authorities. But few at the time were aware of the intimate nature of some of these relationships.

Gay lovers

Although James through his marriage to Anne of Denmark produced seven children, four of whom died young, he was still sexually attracted to men. The Earl of Lennox was one of his first crushes as a youth and in 1607 a now older King James turned his affections to one Robert Carr, a young glamorous married courtier. As King James and Carr became very close, often displaying shows of affection, Carr became rapidly promoted through the ranks. He was also given a place on the privy council and granted the Earldom of Somerset, developments of which alarmed the authorities at court. To make matters worse for James in 1615 his lover Carr, now appointed Lord Chamberlain, was linked with his wife Frances to the murder of an English poet called Sir Thomas Overbury. The incident became a huge scandal and the trial was written up in papers every day as people throughout the country poured over the developing news. The guilty verdict saw Carr and his wife sentenced to death although King James stepped in and granted a pardon.

Displays of affection

The next passionate love of King James’s life after Robert Carr was the handsome but ambitious 21-year-old George Villiers who James promoted to the title of Duke of Buckingham, accelerating the young man’s rise through the top ranks of nobility. James was obsessed by Villiers as evidenced by the many letters sent to the Duke from the king affectionately calling him ‘Steenie’ as a reference to Saint Stephen who allegedly had the face of an angel. James also wore Buckingham’s picture on a blue ribbon next to his heart when they were apart.

The relationship between King James and the Duke was mutually passionate and possibly more based on love as well as infatuation on the part of James. But the romance, possibly exploited by an ambitious Villiers, also angered nobles at court concerned at the level of power and influence granted to Buckingham. Interestingly James’s wife Queen Anne appeared happy doing her own thing, living at Somerset House with her court and household and rarely seeing her husband. Somewhat ironically George Villiers was to develop a close platonic relationship with James’s son Charles, particularly when the latter became the ill-fated King Charles 1 in 1625. The Duke’s consistent rise to power, gaining new ground with Charles I came to an end three years later when he was killed by an assassin’s knife.

New colonies

One legacy that is overlooked about King James is his association with maritime exploits through which was founded Jamestown, one of the first of the new colonies in America named after him. The beginnings of this new colony were terrible, involving starvation and death but turned into an important part of the new British empire. While his predecessor Queen Elizabeth I was given the plaudits for colonizing the New World it was Jamestown which was the first permanent English colony in North America. The settlement was founded by one Captain John Smith in 1607 giving the English a bit of territory in America and attracting investment from England to fund it. The big important crop contributing to that funding was tobacco.

The discovery by the English of this plant was the saving of the colony due to it being so lucrative as a new hobby for Europeans smoking pipes. Ironically King James himself found the product so disagreeable that he wrote a book about tobacco called A Counterblast to Tobacco where he described it as ‘loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brains and dangerous to the lungs’ proving a somewhat prophetic analysis four hundred years ahead of its time.

King James died in 1625 from dysentery at the age of 58 after suffering poor health exacerbated by a reliance on alcohol which brought about fainting fits due to excessive drinking. The ‘wisest fool in Christendom’ as said by the King of France and whose reign was dismissed by early historians as one of insignificance is now applauded for his vision of Anglo-Scottish Union and respected for seeking peace during a troubled period of religious strife in Europe. As well as succeeding in establishing a permanent settlement in America he also saw England engaging with trade on a scale beyond Europe to the likes of Asia and America. James I’s reign is more than just an association with witches and the Gunpowder Plot but was, in fact, global in its ambition with trade across the world and significant through both its political failures as well as successes, which like the King James Bible is still with us today. James VI of Scotland and I of England is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Written by:

Richard Bevan

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to Sky HISTORY channel. Represented by WGM Atlantic agency.