James VI of Scotland and I of England Essay - Critical Essays

James VI of Scotland and I of England


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

The Essayes of a Prentise, in the Divine Art of Poesie (essays, poetry, and translations) 1584

Ane Frutfull Meditation Contening ane Plane and Facill Expositioun of ye 7.8.9 and 10 Versis of the 20 Chap. of the Revelatioun in Forme of ane Sermon (essays) 1588

Ane Meditatioun upon the xxv., xxvi., xxvii., xxviii., and xxix. Verses of the xv. Chapt. of the First Buke of the Chronicles of the Kingis (essays) 1589

His Maiesties Poeticall Exercises at Vacant Houres (poetry) 1591

Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into Three Bookes (nonfiction) 1597

The True Lawe of Free Monarchies: or The Reciprock and Mutuall Dutie Betwixt a Free King, and His Naturall Subjectes (nonfiction) 1598

Basilikon Doron: Devided into Three Books (nonfiction) 1599; revised 1603

A Counter-Blaste to Tobacco (essay) 1604

Triplici Nodo, Triplex Cuneus. Or, An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance, against the Two Breves of Pope Paulus Quintus, and the Late Letter of Cardinal Bellarmine to G. Blackwel, the Arch-priest (nonfiction) 1607

Declaration du Serenissimie Roy Jacques I. Roy de la Grand' Bretaigne France et Irlande, Defenseur de la Foy. Pour le droit des rois & independance de leurs Couronnes, contre la Harangue de L'Illustrissime Cardinal du...

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Robert S. Rait (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: Rait, Robert S. Introduction to A Royal Rhetorician: A Treatise on Scottis Poesie, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, etc. etc. by King James VI and I, edited by Robert S. Rait, pp. ix-xlvii. Westminster: A. Constable and Co., 1900.

[In the following essay, Rait offers an overview of King James's literary, political, and theological works.]

‘Your Inheritance consists as much in the workes of your Father's Royall Vertues, as in the wealth of his mighty Kingdomes.’ So wrote the courtier Bishop of Winchester in his ‘Epistle Dedicatorie to the Thrice Illustrious and most Excellent Prince, Charles, the Onely Sonne of Our Soveraigne Lord the King’—an epistle...

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Ronald D. S. Jack (essay date autumn 1967)

SOURCE: Jack, Ronald D. S. “James VI and Renaissance Poetic Theory.” English 16, no. 96 (autumn 1967): 208-11.

[In the following essay, Jack perceives Some Reulis and Cautelis to Be Observit and Eschewit in Scottish Poesie to be a valuable contribution to Renaissance poetic theory.]

During the Renaissance many critical treatises appeared in Europe. Scholars turned to a more minute study of classical authors and discovered that many of the metrical and theoretical principles underlying classical verse could not be applied to works in the vernacular. As a result it became clear that the critical manuals of Cicero and Quintilian were inadequate for evaluating...

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Emrys Jones (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Jones, Emrys. “Othello, Lepanto, and the Cyprus Wars.” Shakespeare Survey 21 (1968): 47-52.

[In the following essay, Jones explores the link between Lepanto and Shakespeare's Othello.]

In 1604 the theatrical company for which Shakespeare wrote and acted was taken under the patronage of the new king; and it is becoming increasingly clear that at least two of the plays written by Shakespeare during the early years of the new reign were probably intended to reflect James I's opinions and tastes.1Othello, acted at court on 1 November 1604, seems never to have been considered in relation to Shakespeare's new patron. I want...

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G. P. V. Akrigg (essay date winter 1975)

SOURCE: Akrigg, G. P. V. “The Literary Achievement of King James I.” University of Toronto Quarterly 44, no. 2 (winter 1975): 115-29.

[In the following essay, Akrigg assesses King James's achievement as an author, translator, critic, and patron of the arts.]

Speaking at the University of Cambridge a good many years ago, Professor W. P. Ker assured his audience that King James I had ‘abilities which would have entitled him to be a Professor of Literature.’1 Of James's pedagogical bent there has never been any doubt—he has been described as a Scottish dominie at heart. Characteristically, King James, daily visiting his young favourite, Robert Ker,...

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Rhodes Dunlap (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Dunlap, Rhodes. “King James and Some Witches: The Date and Text of the Daemonologie.Philological Quarterly 54 (1975): 40-6.

[In the following essay, Dunlap investigates the publication date of Daemonologie through an analysis of the manuscript and dates of events included in the volume.]

MS 1125.1 in the Folger Shakespeare Library at Washington is described as follows in Seymour de Ricci's Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada:1 “James VI, Daemonologie in forme of ane dialogue. Pap. (ca. 1597), 64 ff. (20 × 16 cm.). Written by a professional scribe, but with numerous additions and...

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Jacqueline E. M. Latham (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Latham, Jacqueline E. M. “The Tempest and King James's Daemonologie.Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 117-23.

[In the following essay, Latham identifies James's Daemonologie as a possible source for the character of Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest.]

The Tempest offers a twentieth-century audience more problems for a full understanding than most of Shakespeare's plays, and these problems are the more insidious because action, language and characters seem transparently clear. Yet the play is highly intellectual and despite the work of scholars who have explored many of the ideas raised by the varied but scant sources there...

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Sheldon Hanft (essay date spring 1981)

SOURCE: Hanft, Sheldon. “The True King James Version: His Bible or His Daemonologie?” Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Association 6 (spring 1981): 50-7.

[In the following essay, Hanft asserts that James's intense interest in spirituality and religious practice led not only to his call for a new translation of the Bible but also to his study of witchcraft, Daemonologie.]

The effort to mark the emergence of modern society in Great Britain is an endeavour which has stirred substantial controversy among scholars over the last three decades. While different interpretations have suggested a variety of dates, events, and...

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Terrell L. Tebbetts (essay date spring 1985)

SOURCE: Tebbetts, Terrell L. “Talking Back to the King: Measure for Measure and the Basilicon Doron.College Literature 12, no. 2 (spring 1985): 122-34.

[In the following essay, Tebbetts asserts that individuals fare better in “a society based on what is organic to human life,” such as that portrayed in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, than in the paternalistic society of Basilikon Doron.]

The relationship of Measure for Measure to James I's Basilicon Doron has interested critics for some time. The King's little book advising his son on statecraft was London's best-seller in 1603. Critics early in this century disputed its...

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J. Derrick McClure (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: McClure, J. Derrick. “‘O Phoenix Escossois’: James VI as Poet.” In A Day Estivall: Essays on the Music, Poetry and History of Scotland and England & Poems Previously Unpublished: In Honour of Helena Mennie Shire, edited by Alisoun Gardner-Medwin and Janet Hadley Williams, pp. 96-111. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, McClure surveys James's verse and assesses his contribution to Scottish poetry.]

In the great pageant of European royalty, King James the Sixth of Scots occupies a place all of his own. Not even the features of Henry VIII or Louis XIV can be more familiar than the oft-portrayed, very Scottish...

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Jenny Wormald (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Wormald, Jenny. “James VI and I, Basilikon Doron and The Trew Law of Free Monarchies: The Scottish Context and the English Translation.” In The Mental World of the Jacobean Court, edited by Linda Levy Peck, pp. 36-54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Wormald elucidates James's political theory and places Basilikon Doron and The True Lawe of Free Monarchies into their historical and political contexts.]

The Trew Law of Free Monarchies was published in 1598. It is significant that the only writings in English of the period of the reign of Elizabeth that definitely...

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Kevin Sharpe (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Sharpe, Kevin. “Private Conscience and Public Duty in the Writings of James VI and I.” In Public Duty and Private Conscience in Seventeenth-Century England: Essays Presented to G. E. Aylmer, edited by John Morrill, Paul Slack, and Daniel Woolf, pp. 77-100. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Sharpe argues that an understanding of James's perceptions of conscience and duty is central to any study of his work.]

Conscience: ‘a man cannot steal, but it acuseth him; a man cannot swear but it checks him; a man cannot lie with his neighbour's wife but it detects him. 'Tis a blushing shame fac'd spirit that mutinies in a...

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Susan Campbell Anderson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Anderson, Susan Campbell. “A Matter of Authority: James I and the Tobacco War.” Comitatus 29 (1998): 136-63.

[In the following essay, Anderson examines James's attitude toward tobacco and its use through a survey of his writing on the subject.]

In the summer of 1604, only a year after acceding to the English throne, King James I implemented a daring, and some might say foolhardy, measure: complaining that, “at this day, through evil custom and the toleration thereof … a number of riotous and disordered persons of mean and base condition … do spend most of their time in that idle vanity,”1 he raised the duty on tobacco from 2d. to 6s.8d....

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Sandra Bell (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Bell, Sandra. “Writing the Monarch: King James VI and Lepanto.” In Other Voices, Other Views: Expanding the Canon in English Renaissance Studies, edited by Helen Ostovich, Mary V. Silcox, and Graham Roebuck, pp. 193-208. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Bell argures that James's heroic poem Lepanto formed part of the king's statecraft.]


James VI of Scotland entered the print market in an at tempt to shape the role of the monarchy in a rapidly changing Scottish nation. James's writings include the well-known prose treatises The Trew Law of Free...

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Robert Appelbaum (essay date February 2000)

SOURCE: Appelbaum, Robert. “War and Peace in The Lepanto of James VI and I.” Modern Philology 97, no. 3 (February 2000): 333-63.

[In the following essay, Appelbaum explores the meaning of war and peace in Lepanto, contending that James's epic poem “tells its tale of peace in a complicated way.”]

War and Peace. The topos antedates Leo Tolstoy's novel by two thousand years, and its utility is obvious. War is one thing. Peace is another. And so a discourse of differences, of contrasts, may begin. But as terms of rhetoric and representation, war and peace can also be held to resemble, to interpenetrate, or even to become one another. “Much remains /...

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Peter C. Herman (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Herman, Peter C. “Authorship and the Royal ‘I’: King James VI/I and the Politics of Monarchic Verse.” Renaissance Quarterly 54, no. 4 (winter 2001): 1495-1530.

[In the following essay, Herman contends that James's position as a monarch influenced both his poetry and its reception, and he discusses the diplomatic value of his verse.]

Despite the reinvigoration of historicism in literary studies over the last twenty years or so, the poetry of King James VI/I has remained practically unexamined despite the copious attention given to his prose works.1 The lack of attention, however, is part of the general neglect of monarchic verse. While one...

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Further Reading


Collier, Susanne. “Recent Studies in James VI and I.” English Literary Renaissance 23, no. 3 (autumn 1993): 509-19.

Bibliographic article on recent studies of James.


Bevan, Bryan. King James VI of Scotland & I of England. London: Rubicon Press, 1996, 216 p.

Biographical portrait of James.

Fraser, Antonia. King James VI of Scotland, I of England. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974, 224 p.

Biography of King James.

Lockyer, Roger. James VI and I. London: Longman, 1998, 234 p....

(The entire section is 536 words.)