Tuesday, 2 December 2014

James VI and I

James I in his coronation robes
by Daniel Mytens

James had been King of Scots (James VI) since his mother’s abdication in 1567. He became King of England in 1603.  He was a foreigner, but otherwise he had many positives. He was an adult male and England had not had an adult male ruler since 1547. He had three children, two of them boys. He had successfully governed Scotland.

His reign is important in British history for three reasons:
He was the first joint ruler of both England and Scotland and would have created a united country if the respective parliaments of the two kingdoms had permitted it. See here for what happened when he tried to achieve union.
His reign saw the plantation of Ulster with English and Scottish settlers, superimposed on a native Irish Catholic population.
His reign saw the foundations of the colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts.
Seal of the London Virginia Company.
Note James's title as King of 'Great Britain'.


James’s policies in Ireland laid the foundations of the modern Irish problem. At the end of Elizabeth’s reign a rising of the Catholic aristocracy of Ulster had been suppressed, and in September 1607 the leading Ulster lords, fled to Spain. The ‘flight of the earls’ allowed the Crown to annex the most recalcitrant parts of Ireland including most of Ulster. In 1609 James appointed commissioners
Monea Castle, Co. Fermanagh,
a plantation castle built in the
Scottish style
to oversee the systematic plantation of Ulster by England and Scottish settlers who were to be granted units of 1-2,000 acres each; conditions of military service were attached to these grants. The native Irish were to be transplanted to the west of Ireland.  

Because James liberally granted units of land to courtiers and their clients, the area of plantation was gradually extended to strategically important areas outside Ulster including Longford and Wexford. Much of the actual work of colonization was left to private enterprise such as the City of London joint-stock company that settled the town and county of Londonderry. Very often the Gaelic Irish were not resettled in the west but were submerged as tenant farmers beneath New English settlers.

Political views

James’s views on kingship had been set out in his Basilikon Doron (Book of the King), written for his son, Henry. It was originally printed for private circulation in 1599 and, with 16,000 copies circulated, it became a best-seller.   Early in 1603 he decided to issue a revised public edition in Edinburgh, which by change appeared within days of Elizabeth I’s death. This was then re-printed in London, and it enhanced James’s reputation in his new kingdom. The book expresses the king’s respect for the rule of law, and his praise for Parliament as the highest court in the land.  But it also shows a strong view of monarchical prerogative.

Another insight into his views on monarchy is afforded by his speech to Parliament on 21 March 1610 in which he compared kings to gods. But he also noted that the king was bound by his coronation oath ‘to the observation of the fundamental laws of his kingdom’, and that when he broke these laws the monarch became a tyrant. He recognized that the law could only be changed by the consent of Parliament and that the ‘King in Parliament’ was the supreme legislative authority. 

In the early 17th century the terms ‘absolutist’ and ‘constitutionalist’ are misleading and anachronistic. Most early Stuart writers, lawyers, and politicians, shared a conviction that government should be in accordance with the common law. Where the term ‘absolute’ was used in the early 17th century to describe the monarchy, it usually meant ‘complete’ - the king actually possessed all the powers that a king ought to possess. It is nothing like the modern concept of totalitarianism.

James's Parliaments

James’s dealings with Parliament have been invested with great significance because of the later onset of the Civil War. However, both king and Parliament preferred to work with a model of co-operation rather than confrontation. The most intractable problems concerned the royal finances, and finance was a matter that the Commons regarded as its legitimate territory. They did not believe that they were claiming new rights or seeking to lessen the power of the Crown. James, however, disagreed.

Inflation had caused the Crown’s income to decline by 40% in real terms during the 16th century, and James had inherited a royal debt of over £400,000 from Elizabeth. In addition, his family made the running of his household at least £80,000 p.a. more expensive than Elizabeth’s. King and Parliament were unable to reach agreement on how to solve the Crown’s escalating financial problems. One remedy tried by James was the sale of honours. In 1611 the order of baronets (price £1,095 each) was created for the express purpose of raising revenue.

The ‘Addled Parliament’ (1614)

In this Parliament James and the Commons clashed so fiercely over finance that no legislation was passed, making the parliament unique in English history. After chaotic scenes it was dissolved in June. James complained to the Spanish ambassador, Gondomar that members 
‘give their opinions in a disorderly manner. At their meetings nothing is heard but cries, shouts, and confusion. I am surprised that my ancestors should ever have permitted such an institution to come into existence.’ 
But he added, ‘I am obliged to put up with what I cannot get rid of.’  

The 1621 Parliament

At the end of 1620 James called a Parliament, nearly seven years after the last one. Parliament met in January 1621. In February it granted the king two subsidies but then proceeded to attack some of the king’s leading ministers for corruption.  The Lord Chancellor, Sir Francis Bacon, was impeached for accepting bribes, fined £40,000, and deprived of office. 

The second session in the autumn lasted barely four weeks and culminated in James’s most famous confrontation with the Commons. In December the House drew up a petition that exhorted James to intervene on the Protestant side in the Thirty Years’ War, if necessary by declaring war on Spain, and to ensure that James’s heir Charles Prince of Wales married a Protestant princess.  In return for this they offered one subsidy. One of the leaders of the ‘popular party’ in the Commons was the former Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke. James responded by telling Parliament that they should not interfere ‘with anything concerning our government or deep matters of state. 

On 9 December the Commons drew up a petition complaining that the king 
‘doth seem to abridge us of the ancient liberty of Parliament for freedom of speech’. 
On 11 December James replied that Parliament’s privileges were 

‘derived from the grace and permission of our ancestors and us’. 
This caused uproar in the Commons and prompted members to compose a Protestation (18 December) in which they claimed that Parliamentary privileges were 
‘the ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England’. 
James immediately ordered Parliament to adjourn. The Spanish ambassador told him that Spain would not negotiate further while so unruly a Parliament remained in existence. On 30 December in front of the Privy Council James erased the Protestation from the Commons’ Journal. A week later he issued a proclamation dissolving Parliament.

The Parliament of 1624

In February 1624 James's last Parliament assembled. The king opened it with a conciliatory speech in which he insisted that he had no wish to alter Parliament’s liberties. In spite of important domestic reforms such as the outlawing of grants of monopolies to individuals, the Parliament was inevitably dominated by foreign policy. Lord Treasurer Middlesex (Lionel Cranfield) was impeached in May on (almost certainly false) charges of bribery. He was fined and deprived of public office, and imprisoned in the Tower. James warned Charles that by encouraging another impeachment he was ‘making a rod with which you will be scourged yourself’ and that he would ‘live to have his belly-full of Parliaments’. Very true!

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