Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1236
James VI of Scotland, I of England 1566-1625
Scottish poet, essayist, critic, translator, and nonfiction writer.
At a time when monarchs were expected to be highly literate and cultured, King James VI of Scotland and I of England was one of the most accomplished and prolific. During his reign, he wrote poetry, political theory, theological meditations, tracts against smoking and witchcraft, and literary criticism. He also authorized the creation of the King James Bible, which is regarded as his most enduring literary achievement.
Born in Edinburgh on June 19, 1566, James was the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Lord Darnley. Mary was an incompetent ruler, and James's birth was clouded by rumors of illegitimacy and his mother's adultery. Darnley was murdered a few months after James's birth; historians assert that he was killed to avenge the slaying of Mary's secretary and possible lover, David Rizzio. After her husband's murder, Mary married her lover, the Earl of Bothwell. Deposed by rebellious Scottish lords in June 1567, she fled to England to procure the protection of Queen Elizabeth I. She was immediately incarcerated and James became King James VI of Scotland on July 29, 1567. The young monarch was educated by a series of notable tutors, the best known being the poet, dramatist, and humanist George Buchanan and the scholar Peter Young. Buchanan instilled in James an insatiable interest in political theory; from Young he learned to appreciate poetry and theological debates. Under the tutelage of these great teachers, James became a skillful debater, a voracious reader, and an aspiring poet. He also showed a burgeoning fascination with the theater—particularly the plays of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson—and was very fond of the masque, which would become the leading form of court entertainment when he became king. In 1579 the first of a series of male favorites, Esmé Stuart (or Stewart), Seigneur d'Aubigny, arrived in Scotland and quickly charmed the young king. Esmé's meteoric rise from courtier to Duke of Lennox and his intimate relationship with James caused much consternation among the Scottish nobles and English aristocracy, including Elizabeth. Some historians claim that the two men were lovers and that the relationship inspired James to fulfill his literary ambitions and patronize a group of prominent poets as well as to undertake other artistic pursuits. In 1582 a group of Scottish nobles convinced James to separate from Esmé for the good of the monarchy, and Esmé was ordered to leave the country. From an English prison, Mary wrote to James with a plan to share power; James rejected her offer and she was executed on February 8, 1587. In 1589 James married Anne of Denmark in Oslo.
After Elizabeth's death on March 24, 1603, James was crowned King James I of England at Westminster. As king, he aimed to unite England and Scotland, strengthen England's power, and end the war with Spain. The power structure in England was wary of a Scottish king and often perceived him as foreign and a barbarian. Moreover, he continued to raise suspicion with his system of favorites in which his close male friends gained power, titles, and prestige through their intimacy with the monarch. In 1611 James authorized a translation of the Bible; this Authorized Version, or King James Bible, as it came to be known, was technically not a new translation of the bible but a synthesis of several earlier versions of the scriptures. He survived several assassination attempts during his reign, most notable among them the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Tension between the English Parliament and the Scottish-born king did not abate during his reign; in fact, issues such as the official policy toward Spain and the generation of income exacerbated conflict. In 1613 a new scandal erupted, as James's favorite, Robert Carr, was implicated in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, who had a sexually intimate relationship with Carr. James was also derided for his next involvement, an intense relationship with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; James eventually made Villiers an earl in 1617 and a marquess in 1618. The last few years of James's life were preoccupied with England's relationship with Spain and the growing dissension with his foreign policies. James died on March 2, 1625.
James's best-known written works focus on theological issues and the principle of divine right of kings, which is the doctrine that sovereigns derive their right to rule solely from God. The True Lawe of Free Monarchies (1598) is a clear explanation of the theory of divine right for the general public. Another well-regarded work, Basilikon Doron (1599), contains practical advice for his son, Prince Henry, on the responsibilities and logistics of power. It is comprised of three sections: “Of a King's Christian Duty Towards God,” “Of a King's Duty in His Office,” and “Of a King's Behavior in Indifferent Things.” Several thousand copies were put into circulation and the book was translated into several different languages. His Counter-Blaste to Tobacco (1604) is regarded as one of the best attacks on smoking ever written. In a religious vein, James published Triplici Nodo, Triplex Cuneus. Or, An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance (1607), a defense of the oath of allegiance that all Catholics were required to take to the Protestant king; A Meditation upon the Lord's Prayer (1619); and several other biblical studies and reflections. His fierce interest and personal encounters with witchcraft inspired his Daemonologie (1597), which recounts his collected knowledge and experience with the subject. James also published works of poetry and literary criticism. His first published poetic work, The Essayes of a Prentise, in the Divine Art of Poesie appeared in 1584 and was followed by another collection His Maiesties Poeticall Exercises at Vacant Houres in 1591. This work contains his epic poem, Lepanto, which chronicles the decisive victory of Christian forces over the Turkish fleet in 1571. Critics note that James employed poetry for the dissemination of his religious and political beliefs and assumed that his position as monarch allowed him a privileged viewpoint from which to write religious poetry. His Some Reulis and Cautelis to Be Observit and Eschewit in Scottish Poesie, included in The Essayes of a Prentise, was the first treatise ever written on Scottish poetry and underscores the value he placed on Scottish culture.
Commentators argue that the mixed reaction to James's reign throughout the years shaped his reputation as a literary figure. His work—especially his tracts on political and theological concerns—was quite influential in his time, and critics point to his support for Scottish poetry and English masques as particularly significant. After his death, his literary reputation declined because scholars asserted that it was only James's privileged position that allowed him any critical attention as a literary figure. In fact, such prestigious critics as Sir Walter Scott and David Harris Willson eviscerated James's literary reputation, but in the early twentieth century commentators rediscovered James's political work, and a reevaluation of James's reign and literary achievements occurred. Through the efforts of the scholar James Craigie, reissues of James's poems, psalms, and essays appeared and brought increased critical attention to his literary achievements. James is now recognized as a critic and poet as well as a political and religious theorist. Although some of his political positions, such as his stand on the divine right of kings, are now viewed as obsolete, critics commend his lively, clear prose and deft use of imagery. It is the King James Bible, however, that constitutes his most lasting and influential literary achievement.