King James VI of Scotland, who also became James I of England, was born on the 19th of June, 1566.
James Stewart was one of a long line of Jameses who ruled Scotland; a chain of six Jameses broken only by the rule of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. His father, so we should believe, was also a Stewart; Henry, Lord Darnley. Wee Jamesie ascended the throne at the tender age of one, after his mother was forced to abdicate. Controlled by Regents during his minority, James grew up to become a master diplomat and a serious contender for the soon to be vacant throne of England, which he duly occupied on the death of ‘the Virgin Queen’ Elizabeth. James left Edinburgh on his great adventure to London and only ever returned once to Scotland. King James is famous for lots of things, including the edition of the bible to which he gave his name.
Nigel Tranter wrote several novels featuring James VI and I. Amongst those was ‘The Wisest Fool’ in which James is portrayed as one of the oddest Kings of Christendom. Tranter christens him ‘Shaughling Jamie’ and describes his impact on London as cataclysmic and traumatic, with England forever altered as the result. However, he makes a case for James being the best Monarch England ever had, never mind he was a poor Scottish King in many ways. It’s certain that James wouldn’t have ‘lost his heid’ like his mother and son. He appears scarcely regal, noble or heroic in Tranter’s novels, which is a fair depiction, you’d have to agree. Nevertheless, he was shrewd, peace-loving, learned and indestructible. In an age when lives tended to be short and dramatic, he reigned for fifty-eight years, survived innumerable plots on his life and never went to war.
James ruled a Kingdom whose subjects included Patrick, Master of Gray, George Buchanan, Peter Young, Jinglin’ Geordie Heriot, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Will Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Guy Fawkes, Inigo Jones, William Alexander of Menstrie, and David Murray. The latter two are main characters from further Tranter novels; ‘Poetic Justice’ and ‘Right Royal Friend’ respectively. Under James’ patronage, William Alexander was given the major task of translating the Psalms for his new, royal version of the bible in English and rose to become Earl of Stirling, Viscount of Canada, Governor of Nova Scotia and Secretary of State – and all because he was a dab hand at crafting poems. James VI was a poet himsel’ you see, calling it ‘the Divine Art of Poesie’.
Overall, James’ poetry is reasonably competent and sometimes quite striking. However, as a King, James believed he had a special relationship with god and was, therefore, both entitled and privileged to write religious poetry. One of his best poems is the sonnet he composed to preface ‘Basilikon Doron’, which he wrote, in 1599, on the topic of Divine Right for the instruction of Prince Henry. Here’s the text (thanks to www.stoics.com):
“God giues not Kings the stile of Gods in vaine,
For on his Throne his Scepter doe they swey:
And as their subjects ought them to obey,
So Kings should feare and serue their God againe
If then ye would enjoy a happie raigne,
Obserue the Statutes of your heauenly King,
And from his Law, make all your Lawes to spring:
Since his Lieutenant here ye should remain,
Reward the iust, be stedfast, true, and plaine,
Represse the proud, maintayning aye the right,
Walke alwayes so, as euer in his sight,
Who guardes the godly, plaguing the prophane:
And so ye shall in Princely vertues shine,
Resembling right your mightie King Diuine.”
James was educated by a couple of notable tutors, those being the poet, dramatist and humanist, George Buchanan, and Peter Young. The latter’s enthusiasm for lighter reading thankfully offset the formidable teaching methods of Buchanan. So, under Young’s influence, James learned to appreciate poetry and developed a genuine love of learning and surely, some skill in poetry and prose.
James’ first book was published, in 1584, and entitled ‘The Essays of a Prentice in the Divine Art of Poesy’. He followed that, in 1591, with ‘His Majesties Poetical Exercises at Vacant Hours’. A lot of James’s books were concerned with theology and the justification of his theory of Divine Right. He also believed he could use poetry, books, masques, and plays for the dissemination of his religious and political beliefs. Apart from the aforementioned ‘Basilikon Doron’, James VI & I also wrote ‘The True Law of Free Monarchies’, to educate his literate public on the same subject.
Curiously, James also wrote ‘A Counterblast to Tobacco’, which was one of the first, and surely one of the best, attacks on smoking ever written. Smoking, James wrote, “[is] a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” Wonderful stuff!
All told, King James VI & I had a fairly reasonable impact on English literature and not least because of his drive, ambition and participation in the translation of the bible into English. That 1611 the translation, which bears his name, is still considered the best, by folks who should know. Above everything he did, perhaps that bible is James’s fitting legacy.
Interestingly, on the debateable subject of religion, James instigated several changes, including the ‘Five Articles of Perth. That Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension and Whit Sunday are holy days; Holy Communion can be given privately to the aged and sick; communion should be taken kneeling; children should be confirmed at the age of eight; and Baptism can take place at home, are not divine, theological certainties – they are edicts imposed on the Kirk through the persuasion of bribery and blackmail by its King, Jamie Saxt.
Apart from The Wisest Fool, Poetic Justice and Right Royal Friend, other Tranter novels featuring James VI and I, which you might like to find, are: The Patrick Gray Trilogy (The Master of Gray, The Courtesan, and Past Master); Children of the Mist, Unicorn Rampant, and Mail Royal.