King James Was A Tyrant

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The year in which King James VI of Scotland came to the English throne was a great time of upheaval. The much loved Queen Elizabeth, who had been the monarch over such victories as the Spanish Armada, was dead, leaving no direct successor, only her second cousin from Scotland who was a rough-mannered, coarse, paranoid Scot, with a Calvinistic upbringing.

Despite the vast differences between the Scottish and English Courts, James still managed to rule the country reasonably well and with a degree of stability, up to his death in 1625.

Many historians have placed blame of the persecutions of Catholics on James’ shoulders, thus labeling him a tyrant. However, this is not entirely true, as most of the persecution that took place wasn’t due to orders from James, but under a law passed in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, called the Act of Uniformity.

Under this act, all were required to attend Church, with a shilling fine if you refused. This was to discourage recusants.

However in conjunction with this act, was the Act of Supremacy, which required all judges, Members of Government, Justice of Peace, and mayors to take an oath approving the Royal supremacy. This meant they declared that the monarch was the ‘supreme governor’ of the church. Those that refused to do so three times were executed.

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This ruling carried on, well into James’s reign. This meant that for any Catholics who refused to take the oath, they would be executed.

Who Is King James The First

Another fact to consider is that James had lead a very paranoid childhood, ripe with assassination attempts, and family intrigue. As such he was very wary of people in general and in particular the Catholics. This paranoia increased after the gunpowder plot of 1605, although there are suspicions that it was all planned by James himself, to increase his popularity, and decrease Catholic sympathy.

James should not be blamed for the persecution of the Catholics, as although he disliked them, he also disliked the puritans. The puritans didn’t endure any major injustices as they were strictly Protestant. James disliked the extremities of their faith immensely, but they were not persecuted. Therefore it is possible that any persecution of Catholics that took place during his reign, were not under James’s orders but someone else, such as Robert Cecil, who was a firm Protestant with very anti-Catholic views.

James was also called a tyrant, because his coarse Scottish upbringing did not fit in well with the English Aristocracy. He was unkempt, brash, and tactless. Ideal for the boisterous violent Scottish court, but unheard of across the border. Thomas Macauly said of him:

“[he was prone to] stammering, slobbering, shedding unmanly tears, trembling at a drawn sword, and talking in a style alternatively of a buffoon and a pedagogue.”

The stammering and slobbering were most likely due to the fact he had a huge tongue and badly deformed mouth (due to the years of inbreeding between the many monarchies of Europe). He had been incredibly well educated for royalty of those times, and was fluent in several languages, but still spoke as a simple man in his court.

Most of the descriptions of James come from Sir Anthony Weldon, who was a civil servant of the time. He disliked some of James’s views on the Catholic ‘situation’, and so effectively badmouthed him in his writings ‘The Court and Character of King James.’ This is one of the few texts that remain from that era, so is a frequently used source about James by historians studying that period. However it is not very pleasant, and offers an anti-James view, leaving us with no other source of contradiction.

It is true that, under James’s reign, the poor remained as hungry and insignificant as they had ever been. James has been accused of not listening to the people, and while this is true of the 95% of the population, he listened to the remaining 5% who were the landed aristocracy. These were the people with power, and therefore the ones worth listening to.

And while sessions of parliament were irregular and often only for one purpose such as approval of money, James instead used the opportunities of the Royal court to stay in touch with the differing political opinions of the time. This meant that those in court could not speak freely of their opinions of James himself, to the same extent that they could in parliament, because they didn’t have the luxury of certain rights (freedom of speech, freedom from arrest etc.)

This prevented James from getting a clear idea of the political opinions about himself, so to ensure people’s loyalty he gave rewards such as cash, lands and titles. This was not a complete success however as the Ambassador of Venice stated in 1607:

“[James did not] Caress the people nor make them that good cheer the late queen did whereby she won their loves.”

James was often compared to his predecessor, Elizabeth, as many of the political standings and foreign situations were similar for both monarchs. However, he also failed to live up to these comparisons, as Elizabeth was both a popular queen and one who governed of periods of great change and discovery.

That is not to say that James’s reign was without success. He governed over the first settlements of what was to become the United States of America, delayed open war both with other countries, and within itself. But although James was a successful monarch in these respects, he did not have the same charisma as the previous monarch. It is because of this that had handed out gifts so frivolously, hoping to gain favor with the court, but instead decreasing the worth of the titles and draining his already debt-ridden finances.

James has been said to have no respect for the law. James believed in the Divine right of Kings, which meant that he derived his royal powers and prerogatives directly from God, therefore he was answerable to God and God alone. He was:

“…. above the law as both the author and giver of strength thereto, yet a good king will not only delight to rule his subjects by the law, but even will conform himself thereunto; always keeping the ground that the health of the commonwealth be his chief law.”

This was a tract written by James and published anonymously five years before he became king of England. It displays his arrogance of being above the law, but also contains a condition that even though the king is above the law, if he is a ‘good’ king, he will follow the laws he sets himself. This displays that even before he was James I of England, as James VI of Scotland he respected the laws that he set himself. He also wrote extensively about how a king should act in his book Basilcon Doron, setting guidelines down for his son.

Another argument against James is that on his journey down from Scotland to be crowned in London, he stopped in the town of Newark. He was witness to a pickpocket being caught and ordered that the punishment be hanging. The obedient councilors did as James said, and after the deed had been done told him that in England the king did not have the power to put someone to death without a trial. This is not a case of James having no respect for the law, simply a case of not knowing the differences between the English and Scottish systems.

In conclusion, James was an adequate and fairly successful king. He was not the tyrant sometimes described, and listened to the people that mattered at the time, the landed aristocracy. Although he did not charm them the way the former queen did, he managed to keep them satisfied by gifts and rewards for loyalty at the expense of his own pocket. And he respected the law as much as was possible to, by following the guidelines he set himself.

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King James Was A Tyrant
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