Rigging and Bending

Simon Adams

  • The Cradle King: A Life of James VI & I by Alan Stewart
    Chatto, 438 pp, £20.00, February 2003, ISBN 0 7011 6984 2

Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587. English observers, anxious about James VI of Scotland’s reaction to his mother’s execution, were alarmed to discover that the greatest of the Scottish Catholic peers, George Gordon, Sixth Earl of Huntly, was rapidly becoming his chief confidant. In 1588 James arranged Huntly’s marriage to Henrietta Stuart, daughter of his former favourite the Duke of Lennox, thus admitting him into the wider royal family. In the following decade, Huntly’s various escapades – the murder of the Earl of Moray; the ‘Spanish Blanks’ affair, an offer by Scottish Catholics to facilitate a Spanish invasion of England – caused James major political difficulties, but the King remained loyal to him. On the eve of his death in 1625, James recommended Huntly to his son Charles as ‘the most faithful servant that ever served a prince’.

The summer of 1587 also saw the visit to Scotland of Guillaume de Salluste, seigneur du Bartas, courtier of Henry, King of Navarre, and the leading exponent of Calvinist poetics. James had admired du Bartas’s poetry for several years and it strongly influenced his own verse. The visit was at his invitation, though it was also used by Navarre to advance James’s marriage to his sister, Catherine de Bourbon. Du Bartas returned to France in the autumn greatly impressed by James’s commitment to Calvinism – ‘he agrees with us not only in doctrine but also in discipline and ceremonies’ – and convinced that he would make an excellent husband for the Princess.

Which was the real James? The enigma has many aspects. At the end of the 1590s James published his celebrated treatises on kingship, The True Lawe of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599), in which he made the case for divine-right monarchy in uncompromising fashion. Yet these were also the years in which he defaulted on his main domestic creditor and bankrupted the Scottish Crown. He was now dependent for petty cash on his annual ‘gratuity’ from Elizabeth I, and his future was effectively mortgaged on his succession to the English throne.

James notoriously showed no interest in martial matters of any kind, with the exception of the few brief and almost bloodless campaigns against rebels in Scotland between 1589 and 1594. He preferred the role of Rex Pacificus, European peacemaker, which he adopted after 1603. In recent years his bookish pacificism has been treated with sympathy; at the time there were insinuations of physical cowardice. Yet the scholar prince was also a man who from boyhood was addicted to hunting: both in Scotland and in England this was how he preferred to spend his time, and he bitterly resented being dragged away from the chase to attend to more serious business. His favourite sport was pursuing deer on horseback, ‘with running hounds, which is the most honorable and most noblest sort thereof’, as he described it in Basilikon Doron. It was also particularly dangerous, but though he was a poor horseman, who fell off regularly, he was not deterred by the risk of injury or death.

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