James VI of Scotland and I of England

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Robert S. Rait (essay date 1900)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9187

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 prefixed to the Bishop's edition of King James's Works, published in 1616. The goodly folio1 volume of some six hundred pages may have seemed to the prelate and his master to justify the compliment, or the sentence may have served for taking up the wager of battle against those who held that writing became not the majesty of a king, and to whose confutation the editor devoted a ‘Preface,’ wherein he appealed to ‘the King of Kings, God Himselfe, who, as he doth all things for our good; so doeth he many things for our Imitation. It pleased his Divine wisdome to bee the first in this Rancke, that we read of, that did ever write. Hee wrote, and the writing was the writing, saith Moses, of God.’

We have fallen heirs to this portion of Prince Charles's inheritance; but it can scarcely be said that any generation, later than King James's own, has received its heritage with the Bishop's triumphant cry: ‘God hath given us a Solomon.’ Yet it would be matter of regret if King James, as an author, were to pass into complete oblivion. We are, of course, not dealing with literature in any true sense. But, in the King's writings, we have, in the first place, the work of one of the best educated men of his time. Brought up under the care of the greatest living humanist, he was, if a pedant, none the less a scholar. ‘Thay wald haif me learn Latin before I can speik Scots,’ he had scrawled on the margin of his copy-book in his strange, dreary, motherless boyhood in Stirling Castle, and George Buchanan had allowed no whipping-boy to bear vicarious suffering for the shortcomings of the Lord's Anointed. By nature, too, he was shrewd and capable, seeing clearly if not far. His mind was precisely fitted to appreciate the intricacies of Formal Logic, and his thought naturally ran in syllogisms. He revelled in the hard, logical, and crude discussions on Divinity, which could bear no mystery, and found superstition congenial and mysticism impossible. The opinions of such a man are better fitted than writings which bear even faint traces of unusual intellectual force, to picture for us the attitude of the men of his time. The political theses which the King impugns and supports, throw an interesting sidelight upon English history and go far to explain the tragedy of his House. But, above all, these interminable treatises are interesting as bringing into relief the personality of perhaps the oddest figure in our national history. James was not a great king; in some respects he was a fool. But, as Henry IV. remarked about him, he was the wisest fool in Christendom. The cautious shrewdness which was ever waging war against the pride of Kingship and the arrogance of intellectual self-confidence; the simpleness and naïveté which strove in vain to hide themselves under an affectation of cunning statecraft and an assertion of fierce wrestlings with the evil spirits of ignorance and heresy; the quaint humour, now unconscious, and now scoring an obvious or verbal point, but rarely affording salvation from the worst errors that lack of humour can bring; the worldly-wisdom which only at times rose above the level of garrulous advice; the piety which honestly strove to be unaffected, and which succeeded in clothing the royal prejudices in language of unctuous and suspicious sanctity; the rashness of a mind filled with but one idea and of an ambition which sought vainglory in good and evil alike, mingled with a keen moral sense and with that cowardice which ‘would not play false and yet would wrongly win’; the humility, genuine enough in its way, which boasted that even kings must acknowledge God—all these and a thousand other incongruities make this king real to us in his own pages.

The present selection2 from the works of King James comprises his Treatise on Scottish Poesie, and his more widely-known Counterblaste to Tobacco. The former was written as a preface to a volume of Essayes of a Prentise in the Divine Art of Poesie, printed at Edinburgh in 1585, when the royal author was eighteen years of age. These Essayes, with His Majesty's Poetical Exercises at Vacant Houres (published in 1591), some sonnets, and ‘The Psalms of KING DAVID translated by KING JAMES,’ constitute the whole of the king's production of verse. They possess little interest of any sort.3 It is otherwise with the Schort Treatise, which, if it proves the king's words that ‘if Nature be not the chief worker in this art, Rules will be but a bond to Nature,’ remains valuable, not only as showing the æsthetic and intellectual fibre of the writer, but also as the only work of its kind in existence. It is a schoolboy's essay, and it represents the fruit of George Buchanan's teaching. James himself thus apologised for his early work: ‘I composed these things in my verie young and tender yeares: wherein Nature (except shee were a monster) can admit of no perfection’; and, fortunately for our enjoyment of the Treatise, he never revised it. ‘Being of riper yeares, my burden is so great and continuall, without anie intermission, that when my ingyne and age could, my affaires and fasherie would not permit mee to remark the wrong orthography committed by the copiars of my unlegible and ragged hand, far less to amend my proper errours.’ The present editor has added a glossary and a few notes to the Treatise and to the Counterblaste. The latter will explain itself. It was published, anonymously, shortly after King James's accession to the English throne, and the authorship was first openly avowed in 1616. It shows King James in a lighter vein. He calls it ‘but a toy,’ and ‘the fume of an idle braine’; and in Bishop Montagu's Latin translation of his works, which appeared in 1619, it is described as ‘Misocapnus, sive De Abusu Tobacci Lusus Regius.’ But it is a case of Pegasus on stilts, and the humour is, for the most part, unconscious, although the pamphlet might have warranted the Bishop in applying to the royal rhetorician the title of ‘Doctor Subtilis.’

Of King James's remaining writings, the most interesting is his Basilikon Doron, or book of advice to his eldest son, Henry, afterwards Prince of Wales. It deals with a king's duty towards God, his duty in his office, and his behaviour in things indifferent. A fierce attack upon Presbytery and ‘the proud Puritanes’ explains why it was necessary, in 1599, to limit the first edition to a secret issue of seven copies. ‘Paritie is the mother of confusion, and enemie to Unitie, which is the mother of order. … Take heede therefore (my sonne) to such Puritanes, verie pestes in the Church and Common-weale, whom no deserts can oblige, neither oathes nor promises binde, breathing nothing but sedition and calumnies, aspiring without measure, railing without reason, and making their owne imaginations (without any warrant of the word) the square of their conscience.’ The English succession had removed all need of hiding such sentiments from the Church of Scotland, but the sentence throws a light upon James's religious policy in England and the consequent separation of the Puritans from the Church. James never failed more egregiously to understand men's minds than when he confused English Puritanism with Scottish Presbytery. We find, too, an anticipation of James's Irish policy in his advice regarding the Scottish Highlands:—‘As for the Hie-lands, I shortly comprehend them all in two sorts of people: the one, that dwelleth in our maine land, that are barbarous for the most sorte, and yet mixed with some shewe of civilitie; the other that dwelleth in the Iles, and are all uterly barbares, without any sort or shew of civilitie. For the first sort, put straitly to execution the Lawes made alreadie by me against their Over-lords, and the chiefes of their Clannes, and it will be no difficultie to danton them. As for the other sort, follow forth the course that I have intended, in planting Colonies among them of answerable In-land subjects, that within short time may reforme and civilize the best inclined among them; rooting out or transporting the barbarous and stubborne sort, and planting civilitie in their roomes.’ The transference of King James's energies to England reserved the suppression of the clan-system for the government of George II. And, again, we are reminded of the Book of Sports, when James urges, as a means of preventing people from speaking ‘rashly of their Prince,’ the appointment of ‘certaine dayes in the yeere, for delighting the people with publicke spectacles of all honest games, and exercise of armes; as also for conveening of neighbours, for entertaining friendship and heartlinesse, by honest feasting and merrinesse: For I cannot see what greater superstition can be in making playes and lawfull games in Maie, and good cheere at Christmas, than in eating fish in Lent, and upon Fridayes, the Papists as well using the one as the other.’4

The king's personal advice is not less interesting than his political maxims. Prince Henry should ‘not marry for money, but marry where money is.’ For ‘beautie increaseth your love to your wife, and riches and great alliance doe both make her the abler to be a helper unto you.’ In things indifferent, he was to be wise and discreet:—

In the forme of your meate-eating, bee neither uncivill like a grosse cynicke, nor affectatlie mignarde, like a daintie dame; but eate in a manlie, round, and honest fashion. … Be also moderate in your raiment, neither over superfluous, like a deboshed waster, nor yet over base, like a miserable wretch … but in your garments be proper, cleanely, comely and honest, wearing your clothes in a careless yet comely forme.5 … Especially eschew to be effeminate in your cloathes, in perfuming, preening [pinning] and such like, and make not a foole of yourselfe in disguising or wearing long haire or nailes. … In your language be plaine, honest, naturall, comely, cleane, eschewing both the extremities, as well in not using any rusticall corrupt leide [language], as booke language, and pen and inke-horne termes, and least of all mignard and effeminate termes … not taunting in Theologie, nor alleadging and prophaning the Scripture in drinking purposes [conversations], as over many doe. … If yee would write worthily, choose subjects worthie of you, that bee not full of vanitie, but of vertue, eschewing obscuritie, and delighting ever to be plaine and sensible. And if yee write in Verse, remember that it is not the principall part of a Poeme to rime right, and flow well with many pretie wordes: but the chief commendation of a Poeme is, that when the verse shall be shaken sundrie in prose, it shall bee found so rich in quicke inventions, and poetick flowers, and in faire and pertinent comparisons, as it shall retaine the lustre of a Poeme, although in Prose. And I would also advise you to write in your owne language: for there is nothing left to be saide in Greeke and Latine alreadie, and ynew [enough] of poore schollers would match you in these languages; and beside that, it best becommeth a king to purifie and make famous his owne tongue; wherein he may goe before all his subjects, as it setteth him well to doe in all honest and lawfull things. And amongst all unnecessarie things that are lawfull and expedient, I think exercises of the bodie most commendable to be used by a young Prince, in such honest games or pastimes, as may further abilitie and maintaine health … but from this count I debarre all rough and violent exercises, as the foote-ball, meeter for laming then making able the users thereof. … But the exercises that I would have you to use are running, leaping, wrastling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the caitch or tennise, archerie, palle maille, and such like other faire and pleasant field-games. And the honourablest and most commendable games that yee can use, are on horseback, for it becommeth a Prince best of any man, to be a faire and good horseman. … I cannot omit heere the hunting, namely with running hounds, which is the most honourable and noblest sorte thereof: for it is a theevish forme of hunting to shoote with gunnes and bowes, and greyhound hunting is not so martiall a game. … When ye are wearie of reading, or evill disposed in your person, and when it is foule and stormie weather; then, I say, may ye lawfully play at the cardes or tables. For as to dicing, I thinke it becommeth best deboshed souldiers to play at, on the head of their drums, being onely ruled by hazard, and subject to knavish cogging. And as for the chesse, I think it over fond, because it is over-wise and Philosophicke a toy. For where all such light playes are ordained to free men's heades for a time, from the fashious thoughts on their affaires; it by the contrarie filleth and troubleth men's heades, with as many fashious toyes of the play, as before it was filled with thoughts on his affairs.

So he rambles garrulously on, playing with keen zest the part of Polonius (which his future subject must about the same time have been creating). It is all wise and shrewd, and the language redeems the commonplace of the thought. He refers now and again to the circumstances of his youth and the troubles of his mother's reign, describing his uncle, the Regent Murray, as ‘that bastard, who unnaturally rebelled, and procured the ruine of his owne Soverane and sister,’ and urging the destruction of ‘such infamous invectives as Buchanan's or Knoxes Chronicles.’ In command of Scriptural quotation the king cannot have been surpassed by any of the hated Presbyterians who ‘claiming to their Paritie, and crying, “Wee are all but vile wormes,” yet will judge and give Law to their king, but will be judged nor controlled by none.’ It is with them in mind that he advises the prince to study well the Psalms of David ‘for teaching you the forme of your prayers. … So much the fitter are they for you then for the common sort, in respect the composer thereof was a king: and therefore best behoved to know a king's wants, and what things were meetest to be required by a king at God's hand for remedie thereof.’ The sentence seems to resound with the echoes of ecclesiastical controversies, and it reveals the storehouse from which King James borrowed his armour when he went forth to face Andrew Melville himself.

Next in interest to the Basilikon Doron is a treatise on Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue, which also saw the light in 1599. James is well known as a persecutor of witches, and here we have his Apologia. It was written ‘not in any wise to serve for a shew of my learning and ingine,’ but as a protest ‘against the damnable opinions of two principally in our age, whereof the one called Scot,6 an Englishman, is not ashamed in publike Print to deny, that there can be such a thing as witchcraft: and so maintaines the old errour of the Sadduces in denying of spirits; the other called Wierus, a German Physitian, sets out a publike Apologie for all these craftsfolkes, whereby, procuring for their impunitie, he plainely bewrayes himselfe to have bene one of that profession.’ The interlocutors are Philomathes, the willing disciple, and Epistemon, the wise instructor. Epistemon begins by proving (largely by means of the Witch of Endor) the possibility of magic, and then proceeds to divide it into Necromancie and Sorcerie or Witchcraft.

What difference is there between Necromancie and Witchcraft?
Surely, the difference vulgare put betwix them is very merry, and in a manner true; for they say, that the Witches are servants onely, and slaves to the divel; but the Necromanciers are his masters and commanders.
How can that be true, that any men being specially addicted to his service can be his commanders?
Yea, they may be: but it is onely secundum quid; for it is not by any power that they can have over him, but ex pacto allanerlie; whereby he obliges himselfe in some trifles to them, that he may on the other part obteine the fruition of their body and soule, which is the onely thing he huntes for.

After a discussion of the use of charms, we come to the ‘difference between God's miracles and the Divel's’:—

God is a creatour, what he makes appeare in myracle, it is so in effect. As Moyses Rod being casten downe, was no doubt turned into a naturall serpent; whereas the divel (as God's ape) countersetting that by his magicians, made their wandes to appeare so, onely to men's outward senses: as kythed [was shown] in effect by their being devoured by the other; for it is no wonder that the divel may delude our senses, since we see by common proofe, that simple jugglars will make an hundredth things seeme both to our eyes and eares otherwayes then they are.’ Passing now to witchcraft, Epistemon declines to believe that witches can travel to their diabolical conferences in the shape of a little beast or fowl, but thinks it credible that they can be ‘caried by the force of the spirit which is their conducter, either above the earth, or above the Sea swiftly, to the place where they are to meete: which I am persuaded to be possible in respect that as Habakkuk was carried by the Angel7 in that forme, to the den where Daniel lay; so thinke I, the divell will be readie to imitate God as well in that as in other things: which is much more possible to him to doe, being a Spirit, then to a mighty wind, being but a naturall meteore.

The idea of witchcraft naturally suggests a question which gives King James an opportunity for one of his most characteristic sentences:—

What can be the cause that there are twentie women given to that craft, where there is one man?
The reason is easie, for as that sexe is frailer then man is, so is it easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the divell, as was overwell prooved to be trew by the serpent's deceiving of Eva at the beginning, which makes him the homelier with that sex sensine.

The discussion on witchcraft ends with a reminiscence of ‘the Logicks’:—

Doubtlesse who denieth the power of the Divell would likewise denie the power of God, if they could for shame. For since the Divel is the very contrarie opposite to God, there can bee no better way to know God, then by the contrarie; as by the one's power (though a creature) to admire the power of the great Creatour: by the falshood of the one to consider the trewth of the other: by the injustice of the one to consider the justice of the other: and by the cruelty of the one, to consider the mercifulnesse of the other, and so foorth in all the rest of the essence of God, and qualities of the Divell. But I feare indeed, there bee over many Sadduces in this world, that denie all kinds of Spirits: for convicting of whose errour, there is cause enough if there were no more, that God should permit at sometimes Spirits visibly to kyith.

The third book deals with Ghosts, which are explained as being evil spirits which ‘have assumed a dead bodie, whereinto they lodge themselves.’ The bodies of the righteous may be used for this purpose for ‘the rest of them that the Scripture speakes of, is not meaned by a locall remaining continually in one place, but by their resting from their travailes,’ and ‘there is nothing in the bodies of the faithfull, more worthie of honour, or freer from corruption by nature, nor in these of the unfaithfull, while time they be purged and glorified in the latter Day, as is daily seene by the wilde diseases and corruptions, that the bodies of the faithfull are subject unto.’ The story of the wer-wolf he rejects in a characteristically matter-of-fact way: ‘If any such thing hath beene, I take it to have proceeded but of a naturall super-abundance of melancholy, which as we reade, that it hath made some thinke themselves pitchers, and some horses, and some one kinde of beast or other, so suppose I that it hath so viciat the imagination and memory of some, as per lucida intervalla, it hath so highly occupied them, that they have thought themselves very woolfes indeed at these times … but as to their having and hiding of their hard and schelly fluiches, I take that to be but eiked [added], by uncertaine report, the author of all lies.’ The Brownies, on the contrary, are genuine, being evil spirits sent to haunt houses ‘without doing any evill, but doing as it were necessarie turnes up and downe the house,’ the more readily to deceive ignorant Christians in times of Papistrie and blindness, and make them account God's enemy their own particular friend. The ‘Phairie,’ again, are merely illusions, ‘objected’ by the devil to men's fantasie and not possessing any real existence, apart from the common herd of evil spirits. And so we reach the conclusion of the whole matter—the duty of suppressing, at any cost, the sin of witchcraft. Epistemon will not admit that there is any real difficulty in detecting guilt. If witchcraft cannot be absolutely proved in all cases, yet the accused are always sure to be ‘of a very evill life and reputation,’ and so no real injustice is done. ‘And besides that, there are two other good helps that may be used for their triall: The one is, the finding of their marke, and the trying the insensiblenes thereof: the other is their fleeting on the water … for it appears that God hath appointed … that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosome that have shaken off them the sacred water of baptisme, and wilfully refused the benefite thereof: No, not so much as their eyes are able to shed teares (threaten and torture them as ye please) while [till] first they repent … albeit the womenkind especially be able otherwayes to shed teares at every light occasion when they will, yea although it were dissemblingly like the crocodiles.’ We are thus brought from comedy to tragedy, for the darkest stain on the wonderful history of seventeenth-century Scotland is the record of the cruel tortures and executions of many innocent old women whom an unfortunate combination of circumstances or the malice of personal enemies had accused of witchcraft.

King James's purely theological work8 consists of A Paraphrase upon the Revelation of S. John, dedicated to ‘the whole Church Militant,’ A Meditation upon 1 Chron. xv. 25-29, and a Declaration against the Dutch heretic, Vorstius,9 which bears the extraordinary inscription:—‘To the Honour of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ … in signe of Thankfulnes, His Most Humble and Most Obliged Servant, James, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britaine, France, and Irelande, Defender of the Faith, Doeth Dedicate and Consecrate this his Declaration.’ The Paraphrase was written before the king was twenty years of age, and the Meditation a little later, and they are just what might be expected from a clever boy who had received James's training and possessed his self-confidence. The Declaration is addressed to the States-General of the United Provinces, and its aim was to persuade them to deprive Vorstius, a follower of Arminius, of his office in the University of Leyden, and, if possible, to bring him to the stake. His main offence consisted in his Tractatus Theologicus de Deo, and his Exegesis Apologetica, in which he had argued that ‘nothing forbids us to say that God hath a Body, so as we take a Body in the largest signification,’ and had expressed similar and consequent tenets. James described him as ‘a wretched Heretique or rather Athiest,’ and used his whole diplomatic power to secure his ruin. He professed his readiness to have controverted Arminius in person; but ‘it was our hard hap not to heare of this Arminius before he was dead,’ and he had to content himself with warnings regarding the dangers of heresy in general, and the pernicious effect of the teaching of Vorstius in particular. The books in question were solemnly burned in London, Oxford, and Cambridge; and James, who was invited to act as umpire between Vorstius and his opponents in Leyden, succeeded in obtaining his expulsion from Leyden, and afterwards his banishment from the States. The Declaration shows considerable debating power, and a knowledge of orthodox Theology, and it proves that the Calvinistic teaching in which James was educated had not lost its hold upon his mind.

Two further treatises deal with the relation of Church to State, and they may be next described. A Defence of the Right of Kings against an oration of the Most Illustrious Cardinal of Perron10 arose out of a speech made by the Cardinal in the Chamber of the Third Estate in France, at the meeting of the States-General in 1614 (the last instance of their being convened till the Assembly of 1789). The assassination of Henry III. in 1589, when under a Papal sentence of excommunication, and the murder of Henry IV. in 1610 (of which the Jesuits were, probably unjustly, suspected to have been the instigators), had drawn attention to the ever-recurring question of the relation of a monarch to the Papacy. A motion was under discussion which was intended, as King James puts it, to disavow the sentiment that ‘the Pope may tosse the French King his Throne like a tennis ball,’ and the Cardinal's speech, which turned the current of opinion in a Papal direction, was printed with the Pope's recommendation, and a copy was sent to King James ‘by the Author and Orator himselfe; who presupposed the reading thereof would forsooth drive me to say, “Lord Cardinall, in this high subject your Honour hath satisfied me to the full.”’ The main portion of the argument is occupied with a discussion of historical instances adduced by the Cardinal to show the powers which had been exercised by Popes over Kings in the past, and James disputes the ground inch by inch. As regards wider considerations, he observes that, while the Cardinal had asserted the Pope's power of deposing a king only in cases of Apostasy, Heresy, and persecution of the Church, these powers had, in fact, been claimed on a very much wider scale, and ‘Heresy’ may include anything whatsoever. ‘Among the crimes which the Councel of Constance charged Pope John XXII. withall, one was this, that hee denied the immortalitie of the soule … Now if the Pope shall be caried by the streame of these or the like errours, and in his Hereticall pravitie shall depose a king of the contrary opinion, I shall hardly bee persuaded, the said king is lawfully deposed.’ He points out also the evil effects likely to follow from the authorisation of such teaching by the Roman Church, and makes a profession of tolerance, which was probably justified as far as Roman Catholicism was concerned:—

As for myselfe, and my Popish Subjects, to whom I am no lesse then an heretike forsooth; am I not by this doctrine of the Cardinall, pricked and whetted against my naturall inclination, to turne clemencie into rigour; seeing that by his doctrine my subjects are made to believe, they owe me subjection onely by way of proviso, and with waiting the occasion to worke my utter destruction and finall ruine. … Who seeth not here how great indignitie is offered to me a Christian King, paralleld with Infidels, reputed worse then a Turke, taken for an usurper of my kingdomes, reckoned a Prince, to whom subjects owe a forced obedience by way of provision, untill they shall have meanes to shake off the yoke, and to bare my temples of the Crowne, which never can be pulled from the sacred Head, but with losse of the head itselfe? … The plotters and practisers against my life are honoured and rewarded with a glorious name of Martyrs: their constancie (what els?) is admired, when they suffer death for treason. Wheras hitherto during the time of my whole raigne to this day (I speake it in the word of a king, and trewth itselfe shall make good the king's worde) no man hath lost his life, no man hath indured the Racke, no man hath suffered corporall punishment in other kinds, meerely or simply, or in any degree of respect, for his conscience in matter of religion; but for wicked conspiring against my life, or estate, or Royall Dignitie; or els for some notorious crime, or some obstinate and wilfull disobedience.

James was acute enough to see the weakness of the Cardinal's admission that ‘the Church abhorreth sudden and unprepensed murders [of kings] above the rest … because in sudden murders oftentimes the soule and the body perish both together,’ and he compares it to the well-known quibble of the Jesuit Mariana:—

For Mariana liketh not at any hand the poisoning of a Tyrant by his meat or drinke: for feare lest he taking the poison with his owne hand, and swallowing or gulping it downe in his meate or drinke so taken, should be found felo de se (as the common Lawyer speaketh), or culpable of his owne death. But Mariana likes better, to have a Tyrant poysoned by his chaire, or by his apparell and robes … that being so poysoned onely by sent, or by contact, he may not be found guiltie of selfe-fellonie, and the soule of the poore Tyrant in her flight out of the body may be innocent. O hel-houndes, O diabolical wretches, O infernall monsters! Did they onely suspect and imagine, that either in kings there is any remainder of kingly courage, or in their subjects any sparke left of ancient libertie; they durst as soone eat their nailes, or teare their owne flesh from the bones, as once broach the vessell of this diabolicall device. How long then, how long shall kings whom the Lord hath called his Anointed, kings the breathing images of God upon earth; kings that with a wry or frowning looke, are able to crush these earthwormes in pieces; how long shall they suffer this viperous brood, scot-free and without punishment, to spit in their faces? how long the Majestie of God in their person and Royall Majestie, to be so notoriously vilified, so dishonourably trampled under foot?

Apart from its rhetoric, the Defence shows James at his best as a controversialist. It was a subject on which he felt strongly and with regard to which he had a good case; and he knew his position to be so strong that he could speak of his adversary with courtesy and respect, except when he was carried away by his own denunciations. It was a subject, too, which afforded an opportunity for a display of his very considerable learning, and he was not insensible of the importance, for this purpose, of marginal references, if judiciously employed.

The other politico-theological treatise is An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance, imposed upon Roman Catholics after the Gunpowder Plot. Pope Paul v. had issued two Briefs forbidding English Romanists to take the oath, and Cardinal Bellarmin, the ex-Jesuit, had enforced the Papal briefs in a strongly worded letter. James now published, under a veil of anonymity, a remarkably temperate defence of the position of the Government, pointing out that the oath did not involve any acknowledgment of the Royal Headship of the Church, and was a promise of political obedience. Two answers made to this Apologie led to the king's publishing a second edition, in his own name, with a vigorous preamble, entitled, ‘A Premonition to all Most Mightie Monarchs, Kings, Free Princes, and States of Christendom.’ One of these answers was in English, and was the work of an English Roman Catholic resident abroad.11 Him James dismissed in a few words, considering ‘a rope the fittest answer’ for him:—

As for the English Answerer, my unnaturall and fugitive Subject; I will neither defile my pen, nor your sacred eyes or eares with the describing of him, who ashames, nay, abhorres not to raile, nay, to rage and spew foorth blasphemies against the late Queene of famous memory. A subject to raile against his naturall Soveraigne by birth; a man to raile against a Lady by sexe; a holy man (in outward profession) to insult upon the dead; nay, to take Radamanthus office over his head, and to sit downe and play the judge in hell.

The other antagonist had written in Latin, and his name led the king into a play upon words—‘Hee calleth himselfe Mattheus Tortus, Cardinall Bellarmins Chaplaine. A throwne12 Evangelist indeed, full of throward Divinitie.’ Tortus brought three main accusations against James, that he was an Apostate, having been baptized into the Roman Faith; that he had been a Puritan in Scotland, and now persecuted the Puritans; and that he was a Heretic. Against each of these James defended himself in his characteristic manner, making incidentally a number of interesting statements, and concluding with an assertion of the Anglo-Catholic position which is strangely reminiscent of modern controversies:—

I am no Apostate … not onely having ever bene brought up in that Religion which I presently professe, but even my Father and Grandfather on that side professing the same. … And as for the Queene my Mother of worthy memorie; although she continued in that Religion wherein she was nourished, yet was she so farre from being superstitious or Jesuited therein, that at my Baptisme (although I was baptized by a Popish Archbishop) she sent him word to forbeare to use the spettle in my Baptisme; which was obeyed, being indeed a filthy and an apish tricke, rather in scorne then in imitation of Christ. … As also the Font wherein I was Christened, was sent from the late Queene here of famous memory, who was my Godmother; and what her Religion was, Pius V. was not ignorant. And for further proofe, that that renowned Queene my Mother was not superstitious; as in all her Letters (whereof I received many) she never made mention of Religion, nor laboured to persuade me in it; so at her last words, she commanded her Master-houshold, a Scottish Gentleman, my servant and yet alive, she commanded him (I say) to tell me; that although she was of another Religion then that wherein I was brought up; yet she would not presse me to change, except my owne Conscience forced mee to do it. … Neither can my Baptisme in the rites of their Religion make me an Apostate, or Heretike in respect of my present profession, since we all agree in the substance thereof, being all Baptized In the Name of the Father, the Sonne, and the holy Ghost: upon which head there is no variance amongst us. … I cannot enough wonder with what brasen face this Answerer could say that I was a Puritane in Scotland, and an enemie to Protestants: I that was persecuted by Puritanes there, not from my birth onely, but even since foure moneths before my birth?13 I that in the yeere of God 84 erected Bishops, and depressed all their popular Paritie, I being then not 18 yeeres of aage? I that in my Booke to my Sonne doe speake tenne times more bitterly of them nor of the Papists; having in my second Edition thereof, affixed a long Apologetike Preface, onely in odium Puritanorum? … And now for the point of Heretike, I will never bee ashamed to render an accompt of my profession, and of that hope that is in me, as the Apostle prescribeth. I am such a CATHOLIKE CHRISTIAN, as beleeveth the three Creeds … and I beleeve them in that sense, as the ancient Fathers and Councels that made them did understand them. … I reverence and admit the foure first generall Councels as Catholique and Orthodoxe. … As for the Fathers, I reverence them as much and more then the Jesuites doe. … As for the Scriptures, no man doubteth I will beleeve them. … As for the Saints departed, I honour their memory, and in honour of them doe we in our Church observe the dayes of so many of them, as the Scripture doeth canonize for Saints. … For the blessed Virgin Marie, I yeeld her that which the Angel Gabriel pronounced of her … that all generations shall call her blessed. … And I freely confesse that shee is in glory both above angels and men, her owne Sonne (that is both God and man) onely excepted. But I dare not mocke her and blaspheme against God, calling her not onely Diva but Dea, and praying her to command and controule her Sonne, who is her God and her Saviour: Nor yet not I thinke, that shee hath no other thing to doe in heaven than to heare every idle man's suite, and busie herselfe in their errands; whiles requesting, whiles commanding her Sonne, whiles comming downe to kisse and make love with Priestes, and whiles disputing and brawling with Devils. … That Bishops ought to be in the Church. I ever maintained it, as an Apostolique institution. … If the Romish Church hath coined new Articles of Faith, never heard of the first 500 yeeres after Christ, I hope I shall never bee condemned for an Heretike, for not being a Novelist. … Since I beleeve as much as the Scriptures doe warrant, the Creeds doe perswade, and the ancient Councels decreed; I may well be a Schismatike from Rome, but I am sure I am no Heretike. … And I will sincerely promise, that whenever any point of the Religion I professe, shalbe proved to be new, and not Ancient, Catholike, and Apostolike (I meane for matter of Faith) I will as soone renounce it.

But the Anglican Catholic, before he concludes, appears as a sixteenth-century Protestant, and devotes many pages, and much wealth of Scriptural and historical allusion, to proving that the Pope is Antichrist.14 From this we pass naturally to an Appendix consisting of ‘A Catalogue of the Lyes of Tortus, together with a Briefe Confutation of them,’ and there we leave this part of our subject.

It remains to mention King James's more purely political writings. These have reference, mainly, to three topics—the proposed Union of the Kingdoms, the Gunpowder Plot, and the general relations between king and subject. In his first speech to his English Parliament, on 19th March 1603-4, the king brought forward his proposal for a complete union of the two kingdoms. The words in which he commended it to his new people are very characteristic:—

What God hath conjoyned, let no man separate. I am the Husband and all the whole Isle is my lawfull wife; I am the Head, and it is my Body; I am the Shepherd, and it is my flocke; I hope therefore no man will be so unreasonable as to thinke that I that am a Christian King under the Gospel, should be a Polygamist and husband to two wives; that I being the Head, should have a divided and monstrous Body; or that being the Shepheard to so faire a Flocke (whose fold hath no wall to hedge it but the foure seas) should have my Flocke parted in two. … And as God hath made Scotland the one halfe of this Isle to enjoy my Birth, and the first and most unperfect halfe of my life, and you heere to enjoy the perfect and the last halfe thereof: so can I not thinke that any would be so injurious to me … as to cut asunder the one halfe of me from the other.

The incorporating Union proposed by King James was more thorough than that which afterwards was carried in 1707. It involved the abolition of Scots Law, and the Scottish Church would have become part of the Church of England. The Parliament did not welcome the proposal, and, in 1607-8, James had again to devote his oratorical power to persuade his English subjects to consent:—

You here have all the great advantage by the Union. Is not here the personall residence of the King, his whole Court and family? Is not here the seate of Justice, and the fountaine of Government? must they [the Scots] not be subjected to the Lawes of England, and so with time become but as Cumberland and Northumberland, and those other remote and Northern Shires? you are to be the husband, they the wife: you conquerours, they as conquered, though not by the sword, but by the sweet and sure bond of love. … Some thinke that I will draw the Scottish nation hither, talking idlely of transporting of trees out of a barren ground into a better … doe you not thinke I know England hath more people, Scotland more wast ground? so that there is roumth in Scotland rather to plant your idle people that swarme in London streets, and other Townes, and disburden you of them? … The Kings my successours, being borne and bred heere, can never have more occasion of acquaintance with the Scottish nation in generall, then any other English King that was before my time. … Since my comming from them I doe not alreadie know the one halfe of them by face, most of the youth being now risen up to bee men, who were but children when I was there, and more are borne since my comming thence.

James failed to convince the English Parliament. The question became connected with the difficult constitutional problems of the time, and the project was definitely abandoned. Like James's foreign policy, the scheme possessed a distinct note of statesmanship, but it resembled it also in its impracticability. It was premature, and could not but have ended in disaster: the ecclesiastical conditions alone would have been sufficient to work its ruin.

In connection with the Gunpowder Plot, the king published A Discourse of the maner of the Discoverie of the Powder Treason, joyned with the examination of some of the prisoners, and he also devoted to the subject his speech to Parliament after the discovery. In neither does he add anything that is not otherwise known; but his personal allusions are, as usual, interesting, and he gives us incidentally such a piece of information as the fact that Salisbury was accustomed to end an audience with the king ‘with some merry jeast.’ In his Speech to Parliament, James laid great stress on the ‘two great and fearefull Domesdayes, wherwith God threatned to destroy mee.’ The first was the mysterious Ruthven Raid: the second, the Gunpowder Plot:—

By three different sorts in generall may mankinde be put to death. The first, by other men and reasonable creatures, which is least cruell … and the second way more cruell then that, is by Animal and unreasonable creatures, for as they have less pitie then men, so is it a greater horror and more unnaturall for men to deale with them. … But the third, which is most cruell and unmercifull of all, is the destruction by insensible and inanimate things, and amongst them all, the most cruell are the two elements of Water and Fire: and of those two, the fire most raging and mercilesse. … The discovery hereof is not a little wonderfull, which would bee thought the more miraculous by you all, if you were as well acquainted with my naturall disposition, as those are who be neere about me: For as I ever did hold suspition to be the sicknes of a Tyrant, so was I so farre upon the other extremity, as I rather contemned all advertisements, or apprehensions of practises. And yet now at this time was I so farre contrary to myselfe, as when the Letter was shewed to me by my Secretary, wherein a generall obscure advertisement was given of some dangerous blow at this time, I did upon the instant interpret and apprehend some darke phrases therein, contrary to the ordinary Grammar construction of them,15 (and in another sort then I am sure any Divine, or Lawyer in any Universitie, would have taken them) to be meant by this horrible forme of blowing us up all by Powder.

Finally, we have King James's political philosophy stated in a discussion of The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, written before he left Scotland, and in three speeches to his English Parliament. His view was that which is known as the Divine Right of Kings. ‘Kings are justly called Gods.’ for

God gives not kings the style of Gods in vaine.

The king is the father of his people, and they may in no case oppose his will. If he is a bad king, he ‘is sent by God for a curse to his people, and a plague for their sinnes: but that it is lawfull for them to shake off that curse at their owne hand, which God hath laid on them, that I deny, and may do so justly.’ To God alone is any king responsible. The king is above the law. ‘A good king will frame all his actions to be according to the Law, yet is hee not bound thereto but of his good will, and for good example-giving to his subjects.’ This theory he grounded upon the law of nature which makes the king stand to the people as the father to the children or the head to the members; upon the statements of chroniclers regarding early history; upon deductions from the laws (e.g. the law of treasure-trove); and upon the teachings of Scripture. In his Trew Law, he makes a clever use of Samuel's description of the office of a king, when the Israelites demanded a king to rule over them, and the old prophet attempted to dissuade them, by drawing a picture of the powers of an absolute monarch.16 This speech of Samuel being part of Holy Scripture, ‘it must necessarily follow that these speeches proceeded not from any ambition in Samuel, as one loath to quite the reines that he so long had ruled, and therefore desirous, by making odious the government of a king, to disswade the people from their farther importunate craving of one. For, as the text proveth it plainly, he then conveened them to give them a resolute grant of their demand, as God by his owne mouth commanded him, saying, “Hearken to the voice of the people.” And to presse to disswade them from that, which he then came to grant unto them, were a thing very impertinent in a wise man; much more in the Prophet of the most high God.’

In his speeches to his English Parliaments, James stated his position with regard to the rights and privileges of Parliament. ‘It is no place for particular men to utter their private conceipts, nor for satisfaction of their curiosities, and least of all to make shew of their eloquence by tyning [losing] the time with long studied and eloquent Orations: No, the reverence of God, their King, and their Countrey being well setled in their hearts, will make them ashamed of such toyes. … Men should bee ashamed to make shew of the quicknesse of their wits here, either in taunting, scoffing, or detracting the Prince or State in any point, or yet in breaking jests upon their fellowes.’ The duty of a Parliament is to ‘give advice in such things as shall by the king be proposed,’ to propose anything that, after mature judgment it shall consider to be needfull, to supply the king with money, and to inform him of grievances. But, under the pretext of grievances, Parliament must not presume to ‘meddle with the maine points of Government,’ or with ancient Rights received by the king from his predecessors, or to attempt to disturb ‘any thing that is established by a setled Law,’ which they know the king is unwilling to alter. Both in his speeches to Parliament and in ‘A Speach in the Starre Chamber,’ James stated his belief in the doctrine that the king is the fountain of law. And he warned the judges of the Star Chamber not to decide anything affecting the royal prerogative or mysteries of State, without first consulting the king. ‘The absolute Prerogative of the Crowne is no subject for the tongue of a Lawyer, nor is lawfull to be disputed. It is Athiesme and blasphemie to dispute what God can doe … so, it is presumption and high contempt in a subject to dispute what a king can doe or say that a king cannot doe this.’ These speeches abound in valuable illustrations of the domestic history of the reign, though the topics are too varied to find mention here.

Only once does James refer to the great political theory which was being debated in his time—the theory of the Social Contract, afterwards associated with the name of Locke. ‘There is, say they, a mutuall paction, and contract bound up, and sworne betwixt the king and the people: Whereupon it followeth, that if the one part of the contract or the Indent bee broken upon the king's side, the people are no longer bound to keepe their part of it, but are thereby freed of their oath.’ James denies the existence of any such contract, ‘especially containing such a clause irritant as they alledge,’ but admits that, at his coronation, a king ‘willingly promiseth to his people’ to discharge his office honourably. But God alone can judge whether or not the promise has been broken: ‘the cognition and revenge must only appertaine to him,’ and he must first ‘give sentence upon the king that breaketh.’

‘Our play is played out.’ It is easy to speak severely of the puppets; but the feeling of the reader will probably be directed rather towards a sympathetic judgement. The faults of King James lay largely on the surface. If he has not deserved the prophecy of his flatterers:—

The Monarks all to thee shall quit their place:
          Thy endless fame shall all the world fulfill.
          And after thee, none worthier shal be seene,
          To sway the Sword, and gaine the Laurell greene,

yet we may apply to him the often-quoted words that were written of his grandson: ‘He had as good a claim to a kind interpretation as most men. It there might be matter for objections, there is not less reason for excuses; the defects laid to his charge, are such as may claim indulgence from mankind. Should nobody throw a stone at his faults but those who are free from them, there would be but a slender shower.’


  1. The works contained in the folio edition had been frequently printed; some of them under various titles. (Cf. The British Museum Catalogue.) Several speeches, delivered after the publication of the folio of 1616, were separately published. They have reference to incidents in the political history of the reign, and scarcely come within our province.

  2. For a selection on a somewhat larger scale, see Arber's English Reprints, James VI. of Scotland and I. of England. Westminster: A. Constable & Co.

  3. The reader will find a few specimens on pp. 61-79.

  4. The Scottish Parliament had, after the Reformation, made stringent rules for maintaining the old customs regarding the eating of fish in Lent. These Acts were passed in the interests of the fishing trade, which, as in England, had, since the fifteenth century, contributed largely to the prosperity of the towns on the East Coast.

  5. Cf. Sir Walter Scott's description of James's person in The Fortunes of Nigel, chap. v.

  6. Reginald Scot (1538?-1599) was the author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), in which he advanced views far beyond his age with regard to witchcraft and sorcery. He had adopted, in part, the enlightened opinions of John Wier (1515-1588), who published, in 1566, a work entitled De Praestiqiis Demonum. Cf. Mr. Sidney Lee's article on Scot in the Dictionary of National Biography.

  7. Bel and the Dragon.

  8. Subsequently to the folio edition, King James published two purely theological writings, A Meditation upon the Lord's Prayer (1619), and A Meditation upon St. Matthew xxvii. 27-29 (1620). After his death, there appeared Cygnea Cantio or Learned Decisions, and most Prudent and Pious Directions for Students in Divinitie, delivered by our late Soveraigne of Happie Memorie, King James, at Whitehall, a few weekes before his death (1629). It was edited by Daniel Featly, the well-known controversialist, chaplain to Archbishop Abbot, and is a report of a ‘scholastick duel’ between the king and Featly.

  9. Conrad Vorstius (1569-1622) succeeded Arminius in his Chair in the University of Leyden in 1610.

  10. Jacques Davy du Perron, Cardinal (successively Bishop of Evreux, and Archbishop of Sens). The Cardinal's oration was translated into English in 1616. He wrote a reply to King James's Defence, but it did not appear in English till 1630, when it was translated by the Viscountess Falkland.

  11. Parsons the Jesuit.

  12. Being a proper word to expresse the trew meaning of Tortus [original note].

  13. A reference to the circumstances of the murder of Rizzio.

  14. The Gunpowder Plot and the Perron controversy had driven James to this extreme attitude. At the time of his arrival in England he held quite different language:—‘I acknowledge the Romane Church to be our Mother Church, although defiled with some infirmities and corruptions.’—Speech in Parliament, March 1603.

  15. The words (which occurred in a letter to Lord Mounteagle, warning him not to go to the meeting of Parliament) were:—‘For though there be no appearance of any stirre, yet I say, they shall receive a terrible Blow this Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsell is not to be contemned, because it may doe you good, and can doe you no harme; for the danger is past so soone as you have burnt the Letter.’ The last clause was construed by the king to indicate ‘the suddaintie and quickenesse of the danger, which should be as quickly performed and at an end as that paper should be of bleasing up in the fire; turning that word of as soone to the sense of as quickly,’ and this suggested gunpowder.—Discourse of the Powder Treason.

  16. Samuel viii, 11-18.

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2874

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 art written in the vulgar tongue. In Italy, Trissino had suggested that Italian verse worked on a different idea of rhythm than Latin or Greek. For Trissino the Italian innovation was intimately connected with dancing:

Rithmo e anchora quello, che risulta dal danzare con ragione, e dal sonare, e cantare; il che volgarmente si kiama misura e tempo.1

The Pléiade too were concerned with comparisons between classical and vernacular verse. Most of all they were conscious that French could not rival the older tongues in wealth of vocabulary. Thus when Du Bellay argued for the use of the vernacular in composition, it was only after adding the reservation, that ‘nostre Langue n'est si copieuse que la Greque ou Latine’.2 In England Puttenham spoke out for the superiority of modern poetry in having introduced rhyme, while Ascham adduced rules to bring English into close alignment with Latin.3

As this idea of vernacular composition lay behind the treatises, it is not surprising that they betray a spirit of nationalism, ranging from the open chauvinism of Vida's Ars Poetica to the more muted patriotism of Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie. Nearly all the critics are agreed that art has degenerated since antiquity and that the Renaissance will herald the first reversal of this process. But the location of the revival depends on the poet's birthplace. Vida believes the leaders of the vernacular revolution to be the Tuscan poets under Medici patronage:

Iampridem tamen Ausonios invisere rursus
Coeperunt Medycum revocatae munere Musae
Thuscorum Medycum, quos tandem protulit aetas
Europae in tantis solamen dulce ruinis.(4)

Ronsard puts his faith in the Pléiade, and Puttenham advances a less vitriolic case for English supremacy.

Renaissance criticism thus had a strongly vernacular and patriotic bias. It is perhaps fitting that the quieter Scottish movement should produce but one contribution to this wealth of critical material, and that a work of less than twenty quarto pages, composed by a teenage king. Yet James VI's Ane Schort Treatise Conteining some Reulis and Cautelis to be obseruit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie,5 shows its author to have been aware of the larger European tradition. Apart from differences in terminology, James approaches poetry in the same way as Vida, Du Bellay, and Puttenham. He too opens by justifying his work in terms of the new problems besetting a writer:

As for them that wrait of auld, lyke as the tyme is changeit sensyne, sa is the ordour of Poesie changeit. For then they observit not Flowing, nor eschewit not ryming in termes, besydes sindrie uther thingis, quhilk now we observe, and eschew, and dois weil in sa doing.6

It was this sense of particular and present need which motivated the major European treatises. Like Vida and Du Bellay, James sees the Renaissance poet as being in a unique and fortuitous position. He can take advantage of all the errors or advances made by earlier poets, and so speak of poetry ‘as being come to mannis age and perfectioun’. It was in a similar light that Vida had seen the Tuscan movement, Ronsard and Du Bellay the Pléiade.

The nationalistic bias is reflected in the title of James's essay and expanded upon in the prologue. One of the king's justifications for writing is that among the many critical writers of the period, ‘there hes neuer ane of them written in our language’. Nor is Scots to be confounded with English, for ‘we differ from thame in sindrie reulis of Poesie’. He is intent on pleading for a Scottish poetic and linguistic autonomy. No language, however similar in structure to another, can be equated with it. This type of argument was already familiar to readers from the first chapter of Du Bellay's Deffence, where he advanced his famous account of language evolution. All tongues originate like the plant from a single root, and their diverse developments depend on national character and idiosyncrasy.

The Reulis is primarily a technical account of poetry. Like most European critics James is mainly concerned with devising rules for rhyme, rhythm, and stanza formation. This prevalent attitude to poetry resulted from its still being considered a secondary branch of rhetoric. The idea of the close relationship of the seven liberal arts had survived the Medieval period, while rhetoric had gained primary importance for literary men since Il Trapezunzio's Rhetoricum Libri of 1435.7 As a result four of the six books in Trissino's Poetica deal with technical problems and only the second of Gascoigne's sixteen rules touches on general poetic theory.8 In the same way, seven of the eight chapters in the Reulis teach the poet his craft by means of arbitrary laws.

From this brief comparison of the Reulis with other examples of Renaissance critical theory, it becomes clear that it belongs to the same tradition. It originates from an interest in the vernacular. It shares with many other European manuals the patriotic tone and the view of the sixteenth century as a golden age. It sees poetry as the metrical branch of rhetoric and devotes a large section to metrical problems. With this general similarity established, a more detailed study of the work is necessary. This is especially so as James set up a poetic school at court and encouraged writers like Stewart of Baldynneis, William Fowler, and William Alexander to follow his critical views.

In the discussion on rhyming James puts forward three ideas, continuing the almost mathematically logical approach of the prologue. He forbids identical rhymes, like those used by Chaucer, yet goes even further by not permitting a ‘proue’/‘reproue’ or ‘houe’/‘behoue’ rhyme. At first sight this stricture seems to be only an echo of Du Bellay's rule in the Deffence:

Ces equivoques donq' et ces simples rymez avecques leurs composez, comme un baisser et abaisser, s'ilz ne changent ou augmentent grandement la signification de leurs simples, me soint chassez bien loing.9

But Du Bellay, unlike James, lays the stress on a meaning criterion. ‘Baisser’ and ‘abaisser’ were synonyms in sixteenth-century French. The Scottish critic is widening the scope of the rule to cover cases in which there is a wide divergence of sense. It would seem that James is no servile imitator.

The tendency of his changes is to a stricter poetics than any hitherto advanced. For example, he insists that, without exception, the rhyme should be carried by the last long syllable in the line, even if this involves rhyming on the antepenultimate. No other critic seems to agree with this viewpoint, and indeed only Puttenham considers the problem at any length. Similarly he argues that only the iamb should be used in Scottish verse. This decision he justifies by ear, and it seems strange to ignore all the other possible types on the strength of so flimsy an argument, especially when Puttenham had advocated the use of all the ancient feet.

Despite strange rules like these, James is often enlightening. In no case is this more so than when he treats decorum, one of the main topics in Elizabethan criticism.10 It had been fully sketched out by Puttenham in book 3, chapter 6, of the Arte of English Poesie. He defined the three styles as high, mean, and base, as well as introducing a series of topics to fit each level. The high style was to be used in hymning the gods or princes; the mean style for matters concerning lawyers, gentlemen, and merchants, and the base for the ‘doings of the common artificer’. This social division James at first ignores. Instead he confines himself to those aspects omitted by Puttenham or falsely treated in his account. On the subject of tragedy he openly disagrees with the English critic, who had assigned it to the high style. James advocates the use of ‘lamentable wordis with some heich’, thus extending the principle to mood and introducing a more complex system of graded levels of diction. The effect of this is to allow a freer, less rigid application of the device, enabling it to enrich rather than restrict the free flowing of verse.

Secondly, he extends the principle from the level of style to that of argument. If the lover is to use passionate but unaffected words, his reasoning must also proceed from passion. If country people are to speak colloquially, their argument must fit this style. In short, decorum is not only a linguistic but a social phenomenon. James takes up Puttenham's social division from a different angle, expanding the implications of his ideas, to show that the merchant will not only use the mean style but also arguments fitted to his mental capacity and social position. The king breaks down the artificial and harmful rigidity of the three stylistic levels set out by Puttenham. He also extends their relevance from the linguistic to the rhetorical; from style to argument.

James has thus successfully dealt with the principle of decorum, yet not been content merely to accept the ideas laid down by his predecessors. His views on imitation are equally interesting. He ignores the first interpretation of this topic—art as an imitation of Nature, and instead concentrates on imitation of classical authors. In this context most early critics had based their theory on some modification of Petrarch's statement in the Familiares. He had argued for imitation alongside ingenuity, by seizing on Seneca's image of the bee. The modern poet steals from classical models as the bee steals from flowers:

Apes in inventionibus imitandas, quae flores, non quales acceperint, referunt, sed ceras ac mella, mirifica quadam permixtione, conficiunt.11

Just as both bee and flower profited from their interrelationship, so imitation of the classics benefited the vernacular. Just as the bee did not retain the pollen in its original form but converted it into honey, so the good imitator transformed his model into something new.

James is not of this opinion. Beginning with invention as one of the chief poetic virtues, he says that this quality is best exercised ‘if ye inuent your awin subiect, yourself’, and don't ‘compose of sene subiectis’. Imitation, it is implied, hinders the free action of this prime poetic virtue. This is especially so in translation, where ‘ye are bound as to a staik, to follow that buikis phrasis, quhilk ye translate’. In his discussion of both imitation and translation James's approach is valuable, for he is thinking of lesser writers. Other critics tended to deal with first-rank poets, in whose hands imitation might have the beneficial effects suggested by Petrarch's image. But minor writers, following in their footsteps, adopted a more literal approach, which produced poetry sounding like the first awkward steps in French or Latin translation.

A salient feature of the king's poetic theory has by now come to light. He simplifies previous accounts by concentrating on technical rather than metaphysical aspects. By refusing to discuss imitation in Neo-Platonic or Aristotelian terms he is forced into a further simplification, this time with regard to invention. This concept was very important for the sixteenth-century critic, who saw it as closely connected with the theory of art as imitative of nature. By assigning art's terms of reference to the realm of the ‘probable’ rather than the ‘actual’, it was an easy matter to reconcile imitation with invention. The poet was not restricted to a reproduction of the real world as sensuously perceived but could imitate the potential values by means of his invention. But James had ignored imitation in this sense. In the same way he views invention narrowly, equating it with originality, the antithesis of literary imitation:

Bot sen Inuention, is ane of the cheif vertewis in a Poete, it is best that ye inuent your awin subiect, your self, and not to compose of sene subiectis.12

This closely resembles Gascoigne's approach. He also saw invention as ‘the first and most necessarie poynt’ in poetic craftsmanship and asserted that it was opposed to imitation.

In fact Gascoigne and James are fulfilling a different function from Puttenham and Du Bellay. In modern terms, they are producing a textbook on elementary versifying rather than a full poetic theory. That is why they put a heavier emphasis on technical elements than usual. That is why they ignore the far-reaching metaphysical speculations on art's function in order to confine themselves to more practical problems of the poet's craft. They are not writing for the master poets but for the apprentices. As a result no discussion of the imagination is necessary, for it is a quality which is inherited, not imparted by ‘reulis’. Imitation and invention are accepted as tools and their value assessed, but wider questions of the relationship of finished artefact to the world at large are outside the scope of the discussion.

Only once does James move outside the limits of a purely technical treatise. This is when he discusses the Horatian theory of a ‘divine fury’ animating great artists. Vida, Du Bellay, Ronsard, and Puttenham all stressed the poet's divinity, but the clearest statement is in Thomas Lodge's Defence of Poetry, where he uses it as a means of distinguishing the poet from the orator:

It is a pretye sentence, yet not so prety as pithy, Poeta nascitur, Orator fit: as who should say, Poetrye commeth from above, from a heavenly seate of a glorious God, unto an excellent creature man; an Orator is but made by exercise.13

Such a theory is clearly out of place in a technical treatise and Gascoigne ignores it. But James not only mentions it, he opposes the mainstream of critical thought resolutely. For him, the poet must avoid ‘materis of commoun weill’ as ‘they are to graue materis for a Poet to mell in’. Uncharacteristically he is departing from purely literary criteria and considering the poet's function in general terms. Such a departure must be accounted for.

The solution probably lies in his unique social position and his belief in divine right. In the Basilicon Doron he stressed that only the king is inspired by God. Yet he was aware that Ronsard had mocked Henri II's claim to near-deity, while Vida in the Poetica had placed the poet above earthly kings:

Ultores sperate Deos, sub numine quorum
Semper vita fuit vatum defensa piorum.
Illi omnes sibi fortunas posuere volentes
Sub pedibus, regumque et opes, et sceptra superba
Ingenti vincunt animo, ac mortalia rident.(14)

James therefore ignores the technical nature of his treatise on this isolated occasion to warn Scottish poets that interference in court matters will be frowned upon.

A more detailed study of the Reulis thus reveals that its broad similarity to other critical treatises goes along with a number of hidden differences. The most important of these is its stature as a technical handbook of poetry on the model of Gascoigne's Notes of Instruction. As a consequence, the emphasis on rhetoric, versification, and metre is even more pronounced than in the Deffence or the Arte of English Poesie. Most of the major theoretical ideas are mentioned but their scope of reference is severely limited, as questions of poetic imitation of Nature or the relationship between invention and imagination would be irrelevant in the given context. On the other hand, the young king shows good sense in realizing that his youth and lack of poetic experience render him a poor rival to Du Bellay and Ascham on their own ground. If the Reulis are seen as a guide to versification written by a young man and not as a national poetic manifesto, they do constitute a valuable contribution to Renaissance learning.


  1. Giovan Trissino, La Poetica (Vicenza, 1529), p. xii r.

  2. J. du Bellay, La Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Francoyse, ed. Henri Chamard (Paris, 1948), p. 22.

  3. George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Arber, English Reprints, vii (London, 1869), p. 22. Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster, ed. W. A. Wright (Cambridge, 1904), p. 260.

  4. Ars Poetica Marci Hieronymi Vidae Cremonensis (Lugduni apud Gryphium, 1536), p. 10.

  5. James VI, ‘Essayes of a Prentise in the Divine Arte of Poesie’, in The Poems of King James VI of Scotland, ed. J. Craigie, Scottish Text Society, 2 vols. (Edinburgh and London, 1948), i. 66-83.

  6. Ibid., p. 67.

  7. See E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. W. R. Trask (London, 1953), pp. 36-79.

  8. George Gascoigne, ‘Certayne Notes of Instruction’, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London, 1950), vol. 1.

  9. Du Bellay, La Deffence, p. 146.

  10. See Rosemund Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery, for a modern discussion of decorum.

  11. The comparison between the author and the bee is a commonplace in classical literature. See Seneca, Epist. 84; Pindar, Pyth. X; Plato, Ion.

  12. James VI, Essayes, p. 79.

  13. Thomas Lodge, ‘Defence of Poetry’, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford, 1950), i. 71.

  14. Vida, Ars Poetica, p. 21.

Emrys Jones (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3441

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 to suggest that, like Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and possibly other plays written during these years, Othello was also designed as a work appropriate to the chief dramatist of the King's Men.

James's various interests as a man, theological, political and scholarly, as well as his multiple roles as king—in particular his peculiar historical position as the first British king of modern times—provided panegyrists with a number of possible themes. He could be celebrated for his wisdom and learning, his piety, and his love of peace, as well as for the British unity which his accession to the English throne had achieved. Allusions could be made to his views on the theory of kingship and on witchcraft, and his own published works, Basilikon Doron and Daemonologie, could be searched for usable material. In poems, masques and processions he could be figured as David, Solomon, Augustus or Brute. There was also one other aspect of James's public personality which was eagerly taken up at the time of his accession: he could be acclaimed by poets as one of themselves. For while still a young man in Scotland James had not only written but published poems, so that along with his other roles he could be celebrated as a poet-king—and poets in particular were naturally anxious that no one should forget the fact. A sonnet by Drayton addressed to James opens, ‘Of Kings a Poet, and the Poets King’, and an epigram of Jonson's calls him ‘best of Poets’. Of course other English monarchs of recent date had also written poetry: Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had done so. But their poems had been no more than brief lyrics, while James's poetical works were more ambitious. Among the poems and translations which he had published the best known was his original heroic poem Lepanto. It is this poem, I suggest, which provides the link between Othello and the king.

Lepanto was first published in James's second volume of verse, His Maiesties Poeticall Exercises at Vacant Houres; the earliest known edition is dated 1591. It was written several years before, probably in 1585, when James was nineteen.2 The poem is hardly of much interest in its own right; yet whatever its poetic deficiencies it had at least the merit of a striking subject: an heroic action taken from recent history and of large political importance.3 James's poem celebrates the great naval victory over the Turks won by the confederate Catholic states. The battle of Lepanto was the culmination of a military episode which had begun in 1570 with the Turkish attack on Cyprus, at that time one of Venice's richest territorial possessions. Spain and Rome, who were in a confederation with Venice, came to her assistance, and in the autumn of 1571 the combined Christian fleet of Spain, Venice and the Papacy set sail from Messina under the command of Don John of Austria, the illegitimate half-brother of Philip II. Battle was joined with the Turkish fleet at the gulf of Lepanto (near Corinth) on Sunday 7 October 1571. There were heavy losses on both sides, but the greater part of the entire Turkish fleet was destroyed or captured. Lepanto was not only an overwhelming victory for the Christians: it was also the only great Christian victory over the Turks in the sixteenth century. It was usually interpreted as a victory for Christendom as a whole, Protestant as well as Catholic, and so, although the king of a fiercely Protestant nation, James could take it as a suitable theme for his Christian muse.

James's Lepanto quickly became famous. Poets and scholars in England paid it tribute; Du Bartas translated it into French. In his edition of James's poems James Craigie collects a number (27 in all; the collection is not exhaustive) of contemporary references to James as a poet; among the writers are Sidney, Gabriel Harvey, Francis Meres, Sir William Alexander, and Ben Jonson.4 Some of them refer explicitly to Lepanto: e.g. Gabriel Harvey, who in Pierces Supererogation (1593) declares of James that he

hath not only translated the two diuine Poems of Salustius du Bartas, his heavenly Vrany, and his hellish Furies, but hath readd a most valorous Martial Lecture unto himselfe in his own victorious Lepanto, a short, but heroicall, worke, in meeter, but royal meeter, fitt for a Dauids harpe—Lepanto, first the glory of Christendome against the Turke, and now the garland of a soueraine crowne.

As might have been expected, there was a sharp revival of interest in James's poem—as there was in all his published works—at the time of his accession to the English throne. A separate edition of Lepanto was printed in London in 1603; the poem was called on the title-page His Maiesties Lepanto, or, Heroicall Song. Naupactiados, a Latin version of Lepanto by Thomas Moray, appeared in 1604. In Sorrows Joy (1603), a collection of elegies for Elizabeth I and panegyrics to James, a poem by ‘T. B.’ asks what poet is worthy to praise the King and answers, predictably enough:

Lo then the man which the Lepanto writ;
Or he, or els on earth is no man fitt.(5)

And in the same year, 1603, Richard Knolles dedicated his Generall Historie of the Turkes to James, and in his dedicatory epistle argued the aptness of the dedication: ‘and the rather, for that your Maiestie hath not disdained in your Lepanto, or Heroicall Song, with your learned Muse to adorne and set forth the greatest and most glorious victorie that ever was by anie the Christian confederate princes obtained against these the Othoman Kings or Emperors.’

There is further evidence that James was especially famed as a poet for Lepanto, and also that the poem was made to contribute to the coronation celebrations of 1604—possibly the year in which Othello was composed. In March 1604 the King made a coronation progress through the City of London. (The ceremony was described by Dekker in his tract, The Magnificent Entertainment given to King James.) The Italians Pageant, one of several before which the King and his party were required to pause, consisted of a great triumphal arch inset with illustrative panels.6 The main panel on the front side of the arch depicted James's main claim to the English throne by showing James receiving the sceptre from Henry VII. On the reverse side of the arch James's poetic achievements were the subject:

The middle great Square, that was aduanc'd over the Freeze of the Gate, held Apollo, with all his Ensignes and properties belonging vnto him, as a Sphere, Bookes, a Caducaeus, an Octoedron, with other Geometricall Bodies, and a Harpe in his left hand: his right hand with a golden Wand in it, poynting to the battel of Lepanto fought by the Turks, (of which his Maiestie hath written a Poem) and to doe him Honour, Apollo himselfe doth here seeme to take vpon himself to describe …

Othello was probably the first of Shakespeare's tragedies to be written for the King's Men, but it has apparently never been related to this setting of allusive compliment. That this is so may be largely due to the peculiarly private or even domestic nature of its action. Among Shakespeare's mature tragedies Othello is exceptional in taking its main plot not from history but fiction; and its apparent confinement to the private and domestic sphere sets it apart from Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and the Roman tragedies. Indeed its difference from them has seemed so marked that it has often been described as Shakespeare's closest approach to domestic tragedy, a genre concerned not with the crimes and misfortunes of heads of state but with the essentially private, and so unhistorical, lives of citizens. However, the opening scenes of the play present a world which could not be at all adequately described in private and domestic terms. These scenes evoke a world of public events: affairs of state, war, and military heroism. This is the world in which history is made; and it is accordingly in this part of the play—the Venetian part—that Othello comes closest to the public and historical concerns of the other tragedies.

The early Venetian scenes are usually regarded as a prelude to the main Cyprus action. The conflict of Othello and Brabantio can be seen as foreshadowing the much more difficult, because concealed and oblique, conflict of Othello and Iago, just as the trial scene in I, iii can be seen as anticipating the passing of judgement that takes place in the last scene of all. But otherwise the political events of which we hear in Act I are usually regarded as no more than dramatic machinery for effecting the move of the main characters from Venice to Cyprus (which from one point of view they are) and are seldom scrutinized for their own sakes. The modern playgoer probably never spares a thought for the ‘Cyprus wars’ mentioned early on by Iago or for the manoeuvres of the Turkish naval forces which so much exercise the Duke and Senators of Venice. The question arises whether Shakespeare had any further intentions in including this political material.

Shakespeare has so arranged it that the night of Othello's elopement with Desdemona is also the night when the news arrives in Venice of the movements of the warlike Turkish fleet. The Venetian Senate is alarmed for the safety of Cyprus, and accordingly Othello is sent to Cyprus to supervise its defences. Now although these events are in themselves fictitious (since Othello is a fictitious character), they could hardly have failed to arouse the memory of anyone in Shakespeare's audience who was at all aware of recent European history. For if we were to seek to give an approximate date to the action of Othello, we should be driven to the crucial years round about 1570, the year of the Turkish attack on Cyprus. The Turks had landed in Cyprus in 1570; one of the two chief Cypriot towns, Nicosia, soon fell; the other, Famagusta, underwent a long siege. It was these events which led to the Lepanto engagement. But the victory of Lepanto did not in fact restore Cyprus to Venice. Famagusta fell to the Turks on 1 August 1571, which left them in possession of the island. At the time of Othello's composition therefore (c. 1602-4), Cyprus had been in Turkish hands for over thirty years.

The connexion of the action of Othello with these events, at least in approximate date, is allowed by the Variorum editor. He quotes Isaac Reed's note on the play:

Selymus the Second formed his design against Cyprus in 1569, and took it in 1571. This was the only attempt the Turks ever made upon that island after it came into the hands of the Venetians (which was in the year 1473), wherefore the time of the play must fall in with some part of that interval.7

In the story by Cinthio, which is Shakespeare's only known source of Othello, there is no mention of a Turkish threat to Cyprus. Cinthio's story was after all written before the Turkish attack; the novelle were first published in 1565. So the story of Cinthio's Moor takes place in time of peace. If Cinthio was in fact his only narrative source, then Shakespeare has deliberately brought the action closer to the events of 1570-1. In Act I everything seems—or perhaps would have seemed to Shakespeare's first audience—to be moving towards the naval action which culminated in Lepanto and which was fought over the same issue as that presented in the play: the possession of Cyprus. Thus Iago says of Othello in the opening scene:

                                                  … he's embark'd,
With such loud reason to the Cyprus wars,
Which even now stand in act …

—a remark which seems, among other things, to be a direct pointer (‘Which even now stand in act’) to the approximate date of the action. And in the senate scene the Duke tells Othello:

The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus.

Given the fame of the battle of Lepanto, Shakespeare's audience could not have been blamed if they had expected the play to run along lines much more true to history than the play they were actually given. But what happens is that as soon as the main characters are arrived in Cyprus, the action moves into an entirely fictive realm, and the military background involving Venice and Cyprus, Christian and Turk, is allowed to recede from the attention. The military and naval clash which we seem led to expect never takes place. For instead of a battle between Christians and Turks Shakespeare substitutes a storm which disperses the Turkish fleet. An anonymous Gentleman announces:

                                                            News, lads! Our wars are done.
The desperate tempest hath so bang'd the Turk
That their designment halts …

A little later, on his entry, Othello dismisses all thought of the Turks in a single line:

News, friends: our wars are done; the Turks are drown'd.

And finally the war theme is allowed to die with the Herald's proclamation:

It is Othello's pleasure, our noble and valiant general, that, upon certain tidings now arriv'd, importing the mere perdition of the Turkish fleet, every man put himself into triumph …

The fate of the Turks is left purposely vague, and apart from one or two phrases which help sustain the atmosphere of an exposed garrison town (‘this warlike isle’, ‘what! in a town of war, / Yet wild, the people's hearts brimful of fear’), the Turkish threat to Cyprus is allowed to be forgotten.

The connexion of Othello with the ‘Cyprus wars’ is not only of a general kind; there are one or two precise details which suggest that Shakespeare had the events of 1570-1 in mind. At the beginning of I, iii the Duke and Senators are comparing the different reports of the numbers of the Turkish galleys and their movements:

My letters say a hundred and seven galleys.
And mine a hundred and forty.
                                                                                                                        And mine two hundred …

In his Generall Historie of the Turkes Knolles says of the Turks at the time of their first landing in Cyprus: ‘The whole fleet at that time consisted of two hundred gallies.’ And later, after Lepanto, he notes: ‘Of the enemies gallies were taken an hundred threescore and one, fortie sunk or burnt.’8 The Turks had two hundred galleys; and this is the number which Shakespeare keeps last, in a position of emphasis or climax, for his Second Senator. This may be a coincidence, but at any rate the size of the Turkish fleet in Othello and at Lepanto was roughly the same. A little later in the same scene a messenger reports news of the Turkish movements:

The Ottomites, reverend and gracious,
Steering with due course toward the isle of Rhodes,
Have there injointed them with an after fleet.
Ay, so I thought. How many, as you guess?
Of thirty sail; and now do they restem
Their backward course, bearing with frank appearance
Their purposes toward Cyprus.

These movements correspond exactly to Knolles's account of the Turkish invasion plans:9 ‘For Mustapha, author of that expedition … had before appointed Piall Bassa at a time prefixed, to meet him at the Rhodes, and that he that came first should tarrie for the other, that so they might together sayle into Cyprus.’ Knolles goes on to say that Mustapha Bassa ‘together with Haly Bassa and the rest of the fleet, departed from Constantinople the six and twentieth of May, and at the Rhodes met with Piall as he had before appointed. The whole fleet at that time consisted of two hundred gallies …’10

Shakespeare could of course have taken for granted a general interest in the Ottoman empire which is very remote from what a modern audience brings to Othello. The Turkish menace to Christendom was a fact of Shakespeare's entire lifetime; it remained of pressing concern to the West until late in the seventeenth century. This fact may of itself have given Othello's Cypriot setting an ominous character which is lost on us. As Knolles put it: ‘The Venetians had ever had great care of the island of Cyprus, as lying far from them, in the middest of the sworne enemies of the Christian religion, and had therefore oftentimes determined to have fortified the same.’11 So Cyprus could be seen as an outpost of Christendom, rich, vulnerable, and perilously situated: a highly suitable setting for a play showing Christian behaviour under stress. After Cassio's drunken brawl has been put down, Othello is to say:

Are we turn'd Turks, and to ourselves do that
Which Heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?
For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl.

His words, skilfully placed in the scene, are emphatic and ironic. For if Shakespeare's fictitious action can be said to belong to the years 1570-1, those were historically the very years when Cyprus underwent a violent conversion from Christian to Turkish rule—the years when it literally ‘turned Turk’.

However, over thirty years had elapsed between Lepanto and the writing of Othello. The battle in itself was no longer a matter of topical interest as it had been (for example) to Gascoigne when, in his Mountacute Masque of 1572, he had incorporated a dramatic eyewitness account of the sea-fight. But in the interval between 1571 and 1604 an event had taken place which had had the effect of reviving interest in the battle, at least indirectly. The event was, as I have argued, the accession of James, whose heroic poem was promptly reprinted in 1603.

It has to be admitted that Shakespeare seems to have no direct indebtedness to James. What is relevant here is Lepanto as an historical event rather than any specific reminiscences of the poem.12 Even so the general affinities between Othello and Lepanto are sufficiently striking. Both are concerned, Lepanto centrally, Othello peripherally, with the ‘Cyprus wars’, which for Shakespeare's contemporaries could only have pointed to the events of 1570-1. And a major topic of the poem—the conflict of Christian and Turk—is present in Othello as it is in no other of Shakespeare's plays. Knolles's dedication of his Generall Historie of the Turkes has already been quoted; it can surely be assumed that Shakespeare and his fellow actors would have been quite as adroit in publicly saluting their new patron.


  1. See Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play ofMacbeth’ (New York, 1950); David L. Stevenson, ‘The Role of James I in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure’, E.L.H. XXVI (1959), 188-208; Josephine Waters Bennett, ‘Measure for Measureas Royal Entertainment (New York and London, 1966); I have argued the case for Cymbeline in E.C. XI (1961), 84-99.

  2. The Poems of James VI of Scotland (vol. 1), ed. James Craigie (Edinburgh and London, 1955), p. xlviii.

  3. The subject inspired several Venetian painters. Paolo Veronese's Battle of Lepanto is reproduced in Samuel C. Chew's The Crescent and the Rose. Islam and England during the Renaissance (New York, 1937). Chew quotes (p. 126) Jonson's Cynthia's Revels, IV, i, 48 (‘He looks like a Venetian trumpeter in the battle of Lepanto in the gallery yonder’) as evidence for the existence of paintings on the subject in England.

  4. Craigie, op. cit. Appendix A.

  5. Quoted by Craigie, op. cit. p. 276.

  6. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, 1955), II, 262-5.

  7. Othello, ed. H. H. Furness (Philadelphia, 1886), 357. The editor wrongly attributes the comment to Henry Reed, author of Lectures on English History and Tragic Poetry (1856). It should be attributed to Isaac Reed; it occurs in his prefatory note to Othello in his edition of Shakespeare (1799-1802).

  8. Knolles (2nd edn. 1610), pp. 846, 863.

  9. This was noted by Isaac Reed.

  10. Knolles, op. cit. p. 846.

  11. Knolles, op. cit. p. 847.

  12. In ‘Othelloas the Tragedy of Italy (1924), an attempt at a cryptic reading of the play, Lilian Winstanley wrongly states (p. 21) that the battle of Lepanto is directly referred to. In this context of the Christian and Turkish conflict in Othello, see F. N. Lees's article, ‘Othello's Name’ (N.Q., n.s., VIII (1961), 139-41), for the suggestion that Shakespeare adapted Othello's name from that of Othoman, the founder of the Ottoman (or Othoman) empire. Shakespeare could have found an account of Othoman in Knolles.

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

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6697

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, while the young man was recovering from a leg injury, used the opportunity to teach him Latin. But a desire to teach is not enough to create a professor. There is a further consideration: the man must be a publishing scholar. With this in mind, let us consider the bibliography of King James.

His Essayes of a Prentise in 1584 and Poetical Exercises in 1591, being mere verse, would be excluded by some austere academics from any professorial bibliography. But His Majesty had more substantial publications. When not yet twenty he wrote his formidable Paraphrase on Revelations, an admirably documented piece of scholarship. In 1597 he published his Daemonologie, and in 1598 his True Law of Free Monarchies. In 1599 he wrote his Basilikon Doron. In 1604 he published his Counterblast to Tobacco, and in 1606 his Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance. In 1609 King James published, both in English and in his own Latin translation, his Praemonition to all Christian Monarches. In 1612 he composed in French his weighty Declaration against Vorstius and in 1615, also in French, his Defence of the Rights of Kings. He also wrote a number of lesser pieces. On the whole, this must be accepted as quite an impressive record, especially since, throughout this period, King James was carrying a very considerable administrative load. Moreover, we may note that King James was not only a publishing scholar himself but a cause of publication in other men. He deserves credit for setting the bishops and professors of theology to work on the King James Bible, and he actively encouraged such younger writers as John Donne and Ben Jonson.

The purpose of this present essay is to assess the literary achievement of King James himself as a practising man of letters. It may, however, be germane first to take a glance at the family from which he sprang. It is a commonplace of British history that, though the Stuarts were on the whole unsatisfactory politically, where the arts are concerned they were the most gifted royal family ever to possess the throne. Certainly if literary taste and talent are heritable (and a fair bit of evidence suggests that they may be), James might reasonably have been expected to show a flair for literature. In his realm of Scotland, our King was James VI and his Stuart ancestor there, James I, author of The Kingis Quair, was one of the really major Scottish poets. But there is no need to reach that far back for family literary antecedents. James's own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, according to Brantôme, delighted in poets and poetry. She wrote poems, in French, herself; and Ronsard, a particular friend of hers, paid tribute to her lines. We are told that King James had in his possession, and ‘esteemed as a most precious jewell,’ a manuscript of his mother's verses on ‘The Institution of a Prince,’ written in her own hand and bound in a cover decorated with her own meticulous needlework. On his father's side also James came of a literary line. Contemptible as the weak and vicious Lord Darnley may have been as a person, he was the author of poems which Lady Antonia Fraser has recently characterized as ‘pleasant.’ Darnley's mother, the Countess of Lennox, was, like her daughter-in-law, Queen Mary, a poetess. All in all we may say that if genes have anything to do with the matter, James was made for some sort of a career in literature.

James Stuart became King of Scotland at the age of one year. When he advanced into his teens, he gathered about him a court circle of poets, ‘The Castalians.’2 Chief among them was Alexander Montgomery, saluted by James as ‘master of our art.’ Montgomery almost certainly helped the young king with the revision of his own verses. Others in the group were Alexander Hume, John Stewart, William Fowler (to whom James assigned the translating of Petrarch's Trionfi), and Robert Hudson, whom he set translating the Judith of Du Bartas. Du Bartas was held in very high regard by James, and in 1587 he visited Scotland at the royal invitation. The creation of this literary circle was the more remarkable because at this time there was hardly one of the rough Scots lords who could be regarded as a patron of literature. The subjects assigned for translation by members of the King's circle are significant. As Professor Craigie has noted, James was for a while bringing Scottish poetry ‘back into the main stream of European Literature.’3 King James's own library, by the way, contained three books in French for every one in English. At times, however, a homely Scots flavour marks ‘The Castalians.’ One of James's own poems bears the thoroughly Burnsian title ‘An admonition to the Master poet to be warr of great bragging hereafter, lest he not onlie slander himselfe; bot also the whole professours of the art.’ In consequence of his interest in poetry and his poets, James wrote Ane Schort Treatise, Conteining Some Reulis and Cautelis to be Observit and Eschewit in Scottis Poesie. Banal and obvious though most of its declarations are, this little work is in fact the first critical treatise to be written on Scottish poetry. The Short Treatise was printed in 1584 as part of the King's first volume of verse, which he published under the modest title of The Essayes of a Prentise, in the Divine Art of Poesie.

With mention of the Essayes we come directly to appraisal of James as an author. In this matter a notorious split verdict has been delivered over the centuries. During the King's own lifetime nobody, either in Britain or on the Continent, seems to have regarded James's writings with anything less than respect—if we except Henri IV, who felt that it was beneath the dignity of a king to be an author. James's troubles began later, in the eighteenth century, when his political views became reprehensible. The real damage was done by Alexander Pope in a speech which he provided for the Goddess Dullness in The Dunciad:

‘Oh’ (cry'd the Goddess) ‘for some pedant Reign!
Some gentle James to bless the land again;
To stick the Doctor's Chair into the Throne,
Give law to Words, or war with Words alone,
Senates and Courts with Greek and Latin rule,
And turn the Council to a Grammar School!’


Although Pope made not the slightest reference to James's abundant works in English, he had effectively set the note for subsequent literary criticism: as an author King James was a dull pedant. This view has persisted right into our own day. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature speaks contemptuously of ‘the jejuneness and insipidity which characterize the literary efforts of the royal pedant.’4

A contrary view had been expressed, however, as early as 1816 by Isaac Disraeli who, in his ‘Inquiry into the Literary and Political Characters of James the First’ quietly observed:

… James the First was a literary monarch at one of the great eras of English literature, and his contemporaries were far from suspecting that his talents were inconsiderable, even among those who had their reasons not to like him. The degradation which his literary character has suffered has been inflicted by more recent hands; and it may startle the last echoer of Pope's “Pedant-reign” to hear that more wit and wisdom have been recorded of James the First than of any one of our sovereigns.5

In our own century James has found defenders, not only in Dr Craigie, the editor of his collected poetry, but in Caroline Bingham, who has found James's works ‘pungently readable’6 and, more notably, in C. J. Sisson, who after observing that ‘the writings of James the Sixth and First are of the highest importance and of great variety’ sardonically added ‘unfortunately they are very seldom read.’ Speaking subsequently of James's works, Sisson remarks on ‘the invincible freshness and vividness that is his most notable characteristic.’7

Caught between such wildly varying opinions, we are left to reach our own conclusions about King James as an author. Since he began as a poet, and wrote most of his poetry during his early years, though he intermittently returned to poetic authorship in later life, we may well begin with some consideration of James as a poet. Right at the outset we encounter a significant fact: the two volumes of poetry which James published in early life do not contain much of the best of his poetry. For that we had to wait for Professor A. F. Westcott's New Poems by James I in 1911, and Dr Craigie's second volume of his definitive edition of James's poetry, published in 1958. These works seem to have been largely ignored by literary historians, who keep passing on verdicts based on the poems published in 1584 and 1591. Clearly any just appraisal must take into account the entire corpus of the King's poetry.

Making survey of that entire corpus, one finds that, as a poet, King James was quite remarkably uneven. Despite his own warning against making translation provide the substance for one's poems, in his early years he spent far too much time in mechanical uninspired translations of the Psalms and of his admired Du Bartas. Only very occasionally do we have a vivid phrase. One remembers his description of Hunger from Du Bartas's Furies:

                    Lo, Hunger comes at ones,
Her blackened skin is pierced with
                    The sharpe points of her bones.(8)

Still, by and large, the King's translations are poor stuff, and it would be folly to claim any real merit for them.

King James did considerably better when being original. Surely a kind word is merited by the earliest surviving piece of original verse by our royal author, written when he was fifteen:

          Since thought is free, think what thou will
O troubled heart to ease thy pain.
Thought unrevealed can do no ill.
But words passed out comes not again,
          Be careful aye for to invent
          The way to get thy own intent.(9)

So runs the first stanza of the poem by the boy king in which he reveals already the political shrewdness which would permit him to master his turbulent Scottish lords. At about the time of the writing of this poem, Queen Elizabeth, shocked at finding herself out-manoeuvred by young James exclaimed, ‘That false Scotch urchin! What can be expected from the double dealing of such an urchin as this!’10

In another early poem, ‘Phoenix,’ James laments the forced banishment of his dazzling French kinsman and favourite, Esme, Duke of Lennox. He sees Lennox as the resplendent Phoenix who has made her home in Scotland:

                                                                      … this country cold,
Which naught but hills and darkness aye does bear.

Now, attacked by Envy and Malice, the Phoenix has flown back to France:

Where she was bred, where storms doth never blow,
Nor bitter blasts, nor winter snows, nor rain,
But summer still.(11)

A special place among these early poems must be reserved for James's poem on the Battle of Lepanto. Translated by Du Bartas, it established for the King his poetic reputation upon the Continent.

James could always turn out a competent, adroit sonnet. Typical is one which he addressed to his bride, Anne of Denmark, which begins with mention of his dangerous voyage from Scotland to wed her:

As on the wings of your enchanting fame
I was transported o'er the stormy seas,
Which could not quench that restless burning flame
Which only ye by sympathy did mease [assuage];
So can I troubled be with no disease
But ye my only mediciner remains,
And easily whenever that ye please
May salve my sores and mitigate my pains.
Your smiling is an antidote againes [against]
The melancholy that oppresseth me,
And when a raging wrath into me reigns
Your loving looks may make me calm to be.
          How oft you see me have an heavy heart
          Remember then, sweet doctor, on your art.(12)

Many years later, after Anne's death in 1619, he wrote verses which one finds preserved in many of the commonplace books of the period:

Thee to invite, the great God sent a star,
Whose friends and nearest kin good princes are,
For though they run the race of men and die,
Death seems but to refine their majesty.
So did the Queen her court to Heaven remove
And left of earth to be enthroned above.
Then she is gone not dead, no good prince dies
But only with the day-star shuts their eyes.(13)

Poetically competent, though politically distasteful by the eighteenth century, is the sonnet in which James instructed his heir in the duties of kingship:

God gives not kings the style of gods in vain,
For on his throne his sceptre do they sway:
For as their subjects ought them to obey,
So kings should fear and serve their God again.
If, then, ye would enjoy a happy reign,
Observe the statutes of your heavenly King
And from his Law make all your laws to spring,
Since his lieutenant here ye should remain.
Reward the just. Be steadfast, true, and plain.
Repress the proud, maintaining aye the right.
Walk always so as ever in His sight,
Who guards the godly, plaguing the profane:
          And so ye shall in princely virtues shine,
          Resembling right your mighty King Divine.(14)

If anything is needed to refute The Cambridge History's absurd description of James's poetry as jejune and insipid, it is the wonderful pungent poem which the King wrote around 1623 when he had been goaded beyond endurance by the ever-increasing demands of Parliament. The immediate occasion for the writing of the poem was the discovery within the precincts of the court of a pro-Parliament and pro-Puritan lampoon entitled The Commons' Tears. His Majesty retorted to it with his own ‘Verses Made Upon a Libel Let Fall at Court.’ The poem is much too long to be quoted in full here, but a few excerpts may serve:

O stay your tears, you who complain,
Cry not as babes do all in vain,
Purblind people, why do you prate,
Too shallow for the deep of state?
You cannot judge what's truly mine,
Who see no farther than the rin[d].
Kings walk the heavenly milky way.
But you by by-paths gad astray.
.....Religion is the right of kings
And they know best what good it brings,
Whereto you must submit your deeds
Or be pulled up like stubborn weeds.
.....Oh, what a calling were a king
If he might give or take no thing
But such as you should to him bring!
Such were a king but in a play
If he might bear no better sway.(15)

The political sentiments may have been completely reprehensible for several centuries; but literary criticism should not be concerned with politics but with literature, with the skill, the adroitness, the effectiveness with which language is used, regardless of the sentiments expressed. Judged properly on literary grounds, this poem deserves a good rating. Seldom have racy octosyllabic couplets been better employed for political satire.

Almost as pungent is a poem written by the King in 1622 when he learned that, despite a royal proclamation commanding the gentry to return to their country mansions and tend their estates, many were lingering in London. King James had no doubt that the womenfolk were to blame:

Ye women that do London love so well
Whom scarce a proclamation can expell,
And to be kept in fashion, fine and gay,
Care not what fines your honest husbands pay …

Sardonically he advises these women who dote on the pleasures of the city and the court that a good life awaits them back in the shires:

Your husbands will as kindly you embrace
Without your jewels or your painted face.
And there your children you may educate
As well as they of French and Spanish prate.
Visit your sick and needy, and for plays
Play the good housewives, waste not golden days.(16)

The whole poem is both amusing and pithy.

The prose works of King James are not the easiest of reading, but then neither are those of Milton nor Sir Thomas Browne. The reasons are the same: a Latinate sense of style which calls for elaborate cumulative sentences, freighted with complexities of antithesis, parenthesis, and alliteration. Even so, once we begin to get attuned to the prose of an earlier age, King James offers good reading for he is vivid and energetic in his phrases, clear and systematic in the marshalling of his ideas. A good sample of his prose can be found in Book II of his Daemonologie, in a passage wherein he tells how the Devil recruits witches:

At which time, either upon walking solitary in the fields, or else lying pansing [thinking] in their bed, but always without the company of any other, he either by a voice, or in the likeness of a man, inquires of them what troubles them, and promiseth them a sudden and certain way of remedy, upon condition on the other part that they follow his advice, and do such things as he will require of them. Their minds being prepared beforehand, as I have already spoken, they easily agree unto that demand of his, and syne [afterwards] sets another tryst, where they may meet again. At which time, before he proceed any further with them, he first persuades them to addict themselves to his service, which being easily obtained he then discovers what he is unto them, makes them to renounce their God and baptism directly, and gives them his mark upon some secret place of their body, which remains sore unhealed, while [until] his next meeting with them, and thereafter ever insensible, howsoever it be nipped or pricked by any, as is daily proved, to give them a proof thereby, that as in that doing he could hurt and heal them; so all their ill and well doing thereafter must depend upon him. And besides that, the intolerable dolour that they feel, in that place where he hath marked them, serves to waken them and not to let them rest, while [till] their next meeting again: fearing lest otherwise they might either forget him, being as new prentises, and not well founded yet in that fiendly folly; or else remembering of that horrible promise they made him at their last meeting they might skunner at the same, and press to call it back.17

By the standards and practice of most seventeenth-century writers this is certainly good, clear, straightforward prose. And in fact King James was a great believer in plain direct utterance. ‘I study clearness not eloquence’ he declared to Parliament in a speech in 1607. In the preface to his Basilikon Doron he can refer to ‘the concised shortness of my style.’ He tells us that his reason for casting The Daemonologie in the form of a dialogue was to make it ‘more pleasant and facile’ for his readers.

In fact, once we become acclimatised to seventeenth-century idioms, punctuation, spelling, and word meanings James does emerge as a writer who combines originality of thought with clarity of expression. Far from being ‘insipid,’ to return to that unhappy epithet of the Cambridge History, James's prose is pungent, strenuous, and alive. Good phrases abound. To James, the Devil is ‘God's hangman,’ and he tells us that, ‘being so learned a knave as he is,’ the Devil has little trouble getting the ‘tinsel’ of the souls of those who lack spiritual strength. His Majesty's famous Counterblast to Tobacco is full of fine vituperative phrases for those who are addicted to ‘this precious stink.’ When the King discusses how deep a matter ‘The Book of Revelation’ is for him as a theological commentator, he speaks of ‘these high and profound Mysteries in the Revelation, wherein an Elephant may swim’ (A Meditation upon the Lord's Prayer).

But at this point a caveat must be given. Today proverbs are little used, though clichés abound. In King James's day proverbs were used abundantly and James, with his feeling for a telling phrase, is a great user of proverbs. His works are of course sprinkled with Latin tags, but they contain a large number of English proverbs also, and others in good homely Scots. Sometimes a proverb is signalled by italics, or by specific identification as when (speaking of the Puritans) James remarks:

I cannot wonder enough at the inconstancy of too many among us in our days that like fools fain of flitting, as the Scottish proverb is, are so greedy of novelties.18

Often, however, James will use proverbs without a hint that he is borrowing. One may, at first glance, credit James with still another good phrase when he tells us that the Devil is ‘God's ape.’ Then, with a start, one discovers that he has just given us a proverb popular in his age.

Not surprisingly, James was a master of the well-turned phrase, epigram, or apothegm. To quote the most famous, we have his declaration at the Hampton Court conference:

I approve the calling and use of bishops in the church and it is my aphorism ‘No bishop, no king.’

One can easily draw up a little florilegium to illustrate His Majesty's way with a phrase:

[Leave] the envious to the food of their own venom.

… the preposterous humility of one of the proud Puritans, claiming to be of their party and crying ‘We are all but vile worms,’ and yet will judge and give law to their King, but will be judged nor controlled by none.

Let your countenance smell of courage.

Beauty without bounty, wealth without wisdom, and great friendship without grace and honesty are but fair shows and the deceitful masques of infinite miseries.

Jesuits are nothing but Puritan papists.

Knowledge and learning is a light burden, the weight whereof will never press your shoulders.

Indicative of James's reputation as a coiner of pithy and telling phrases is the fact that two years after his death, when flattery could no longer be a motive, a little book of The Apothegms of King James was published in London.

One cannot read far into the works of James without being impressed by how habitually the King employs vivid and original images. A few examples will show how effectively imagery gives emphasis to his writing. In the preface to The True Law of Free Monarchies, James, wanting to indicate that too extended a preface will leave him little to say in the work proper, puts the matter thus:

But lest the whole pamphlet run out at the gaping mouth of this preface, if it were any more enlarged, I end …

Counselling Prince Henry in his Basilikon Doron, James tells him:

In your prayers be neither over strange with God, like the ignorant common sort, that prayeth nothing but out of books, nor yet over homely with him, like some of the vain Pharisaical Puritans that think they rule him upon their fingers.

Clear as he was in the principles which he was convinced should govern good writing, James was a shrewd critic of other men's literary style. We may pass over his somewhat profane comment upon Bacon's Novum Organum, that ‘like the peace of God it passeth all understanding,’ and go on to His Majesty's comment upon the labyrinthine sentences of the Earl of Northampton, who at one time had lectured at the University of Cambridge. His lordship's prose, said James, was too ‘Asiatic.’ The term was a technical one, used with perfect exactness, taken from the treatises of the ancient Roman rhetoricians. By ‘Asiatic’ they referred to a conspicuously ornate and elaborate style. One of the reasons for the excellence of the King James Bible may be that the translators were well aware that their royal master put a very high value on literary simplicity, directness, and vigour.

The best place to see James functioning as a literary critic is in his Basilikon Doron, the treatise which he wrote to instruct his heir in what he liked to term the ‘craft’ of kingship. It is indicative of the whole literary bent of James that he considered instruction in the use of language a necessary part of such a manual. Here is some of James's literary advice to Prince Henry:

In your language be plain, honest, natural, comely, clean, short and sententious [ie, really having something to say], eschewing both the extremities, as well in not using any rustical corrupt leide [speech], as book-language and pen and inkhorn terms; and least of all mignard and effeminate terms. But let the greatest part of your eloquence consist in a natural, clear and sensible form of delivery of your mind, builded ever upon certain and good grounds; tempering it with gravity, quickness or merriment according to the subject and occasion of the time …

Now as to your writing, which is nothing else but a form of en-registrate speech; use a plain, short, but stately style, both in your proclamations and missives, especially to foreign princes.19

In an interesting passage James has some counsel for the young Prince if, following in his father's path, he should turn to writing poetry:

And if ye write in verse, remember that it is not the principal part of a poem to rime right and flow well with many pretty words. But the chief commendation of a poem is, that when the verse shall be shaken sundry in prose, it shall be found so rich in quick inventions, and poetic flowers, and in fair and pertinent comparisons as it shall retain the lustre of a poem, although in prose. And I would also advise you to write in your own language: for there is nothing left to be said in Greek and Latin already; and enough of poor scholars would match you in these languages. And besides that, it best becometh a king to purify and make famous his own tongue, wherein he may go before all his subjects as it setteth him well to do in all honest and lawful things.20

If, in the above passage on the requirements of poetry, we recall that by ‘quick inventions’ the King meant lively and stimulating concepts, by ‘poetic flowers’ turns of phrase of a particular richness, and by ‘fair and pertinent comparisons’ imagery of a particularly fit and interconnecting kind, we will realize that James's requirements are not far from those of a present day professor of English taking a class in practical criticism.

So far, in making survey of the canon of James's writing, we have left out of account two special categories: his speeches and his letters. The former pose particular problems for, though a surprising number of them survive, they have generally reached us in varying degrees of inexactness, depending upon the competency of the stenographer who took down the royal utterance. Even so, it is quite surprising how often the same arresting phrases reappear in variant accounts of a particular speech. Five of King James's speeches were published in 1616 by James Montague, Bishop of Winchester, in his thick folio edition of The Workes of the Most High and Mightie Prince, James. One of these speeches has the somewhat apologetic heading ‘A Speach in the Parliament House, As Neere the Very Words As Could be Gathered at the Instant.’ The other four speeches carry no such caveat and would appear to have been printed from the King's own script. For a sample of James as an orator we may look at his speech of 19 March 1604, the first he ever delivered before an English Parliament. In it he spoke feelingly of the union of England and Scotland under his reign:

Hath not God first united these two kingdoms both in language, religion, and similitude of manners? Yea, hath he not made us all in one island, compassed with one sea, and of itself by nature so indivisible as almost those that were borderers themselves, on the late Borders, cannot distinguish, nor know, or discern their own limits? These two countries being separated neither by sea, nor great river, mountain, nor other strength of nature, but only by little small brooks, or demolished little walls, so as rather they were divided in apprehension than in effect. And now in the end and fullness of time united, the right and title of both in my person, alike lineally descended of both the crowns, whereby it is now become like a little world within itself, being entrenched and fortified round about with a natural, and yet admirable strong pond or ditch, whereby all the former fears of this nation are now quite cut off: the other part of the island being ever before now not only the place of landing to all strangers that was to make invasion here, but likewise moved by the enemies of this state by untimely incursions to make enforced diversion from their conquests, for defending themselves at home, and keeping sure their back door, as then it was called, which was the greatest hinderance and let that ever my predecessors of this nation got in disturbing them from their many famous and glorious conquests abroad. What God hath conjoined, then, let no man separate, I am the husband, and all the whole isle is my lawful wife. I am the head and it is my body. I am the shepherd and it is my flock.21

As far as the letters of King James are concerned, we are in a rather different area, and one which has too long been overlooked. Renaissance rulers did little of their own letter writing. Normally a secretary was given the gist of what the king wanted said, drafted a letter, and submitted it for his master's signature. A letter entirely in a monarch's own hand was something exceptional, usually a special act of courtesy and compliment when corresponding with another monarch. It is symptomatic of the whole literary bent of James I that again and again he grabbed a pen and wrote his own letter. The present writer has found and transcribed some 250 letters surviving entirely in James's holograph. They range a great deal in literary merit. Many are offhand jottings—one unfriendly critic has characterized James as ‘an inveterate scribbler.’ Others of the letters are so full of private jokes and allusions as to make their editing something of a nightmare; but some have just those virtues of clarity, energy, and personality which we commented upon earlier.

For examples we may turn to letters addressed to his wife, Anne of Denmark, and his heir, Prince Henry, at the time of his accession to the English throne. Anne was full of dire apprehensions that courtiers who were her enemies were turning King James against her. After various reassurances, James continued:

… I say over again, leave these forward womanly apprehensions, for I thank God I carry that love and respect unto you which, by the law of God and nature, I ought to do to my wife and mother of my children, but not for that ye are a King's daughter, for whether ye were a King's or a cook's daughter, ye must be all alike to me, being once my wife. For the respect of your honourable birth and descent I married you; but the love and respect I now bear you is, because that ye are my married wife, and so partaker of my honour as of my other fortunes. I beseech you excuse my rude plainness in this; for casting up of your birth is a needless impertinent argument to me. God is my witness I ever preferred you to all my bairns, much more than to any subjects; but if you will ever give place to the reports of every flattering sycophant that will persuade you that when I account well of an honest and wise servant for his faithful service to me, that is to compare, or prefer him to you, then will neither ye or I be ever at rest at peace.22

In a second undated letter, plainly of the same period, James warns Prince Henry not to let the good news of the Stuarts' acquisition of the English throne inspire in him any foolish vainglory:

… let not this news make you proud or insolent, for a king's son and heir was you before, and no more are ye yet, the augmentation that is hereby like to fall unto you, is but in cares and heavy burdens, be therefore merry but not insolent, keep a greatness but sine fastu, be resolute but not wilful, keep your kindness, but in an honourable sort …23

Among the best of James's letters is one which he wrote on 12 November 1617. At the time the King was revisiting his native Scotland and he had charged his Privy Council in England to use his absence to make a drastic retrenchment of the royal finances. (As usual James was deeply in debt, and he hoped that the Council could get things sorted out and made manageable during his absence.) The letter reads:

My Lords:

No worldly thing is so precious as time. You know what task I gave you to work upon during my absence, and what time was limited unto you for performance thereof. This same Chancellor of Scotland was wont to tell me 24 years ago that my house could not be kept upon epigrams. Long discourses and fair tales will never repair my estate. Omnis virtus in actione consistit. Remember that I told you that the shoe must be made for the foot, and let that be the square of all your proceedings in this business. Abate superfluities in all things, and multitudes of unnecessary officers wherever they be placed. But for my household, wardrobe and pensions, cut and carve as many as may agree with the possibility of my means. Exceed not your own rule of £50,000 for the household. If ye can make it less, I will account it for good service. And that you may see I will not spare mine own person, I have sent with this bearer a note of the superfluous charges concerning my mouth, having had the happy opportunities of this messenger in an errand so nearly concerning his place. In this I expect no answer in word or writing, but only the real performance for a beginning to relieve me out of my miseries. For now the ball is at your feet, and the world shall bear me witness that I have put you fairly to it.

And so, praying God to bless your labours, I bid you heartily farewell.

Yours own, James R.24

No letters bring us closer to James as a man than those he wrote, in 1623, to Prince Charles and Buckingham, far off in Spain, seeking the Infanta as a bride for the Prince. The first of these letters opens bravely as he addresses ‘My sweet boys and dear venturous knights, worthy to be put in a new romance,’ but even in this first letter one senses the loneliness of James in their absence. As the months passed, with both his son and his favourite still in Madrid, involved in ever more complicated negotiations, the old King's cries for their return become increasingly urgent. The anguish is real and insistent in his letter of 14 June:

My sweet boys your letter by Cottington hath struck me dead, I fear it shall very much shorten my days. … Come speedily away, if you can get leave, and give over all treaty, & this I speak without respect of any security they can offer you, except ye never look to see your old dad again, whom I fear ye shall never see, if ye see him not before winter. Alas I now repent me sore that ever I suffered you to go away. I care for match nor nothing so I may once have you in my arms again. God grant it. God grant it. God grant it. Amen, amen, amen. I protest ye shall be as heartily welcome as if ye had done all thing[s] ye went for, so that I may once have you in my arms again. And so God bless you my only sweet son & my only best sweet servant, & let me hear from you quickly with all speed, as ye love my life. And so God send you a happy and joyful meeting in the armes of your dear dad.

James R.25

A few things may be said by way of conclusion. One cannot work at all closely with King James without feeling that one is dealing with a man who is profoundly a man of letters. One of the most significant things here is the King's habitual use of images. Like a poet he thinks in terms of images. The trait is inherent and basic. Words were tremendously important to James. He had a literary man's sensitivity to words and, like so many literary men, instinctively fell back on them as weapons. Responding as he did to the power of language, he counted too much upon language. He expected his words to prevail with Parliament. He expected his publications and letters to modify the policies of other sovereigns. For James was a king who would send abroad a treatise of his inditing where a more practical monarch would have dispatched a fleet. But such is the price of having a literary man as the ruler of a realm. And James was a literary man, and one of no mean competence or achievement.

In 1938 C. J. Sisson, in his essay ‘King James the First of England as Poet and Political Writer’ observed of King James: ‘The time will come, and may well come soon, when popular views concerning his character, his policy and its results, will sway strongly in his favour.’ Without going into King James's policies, this writer would like to express a hope that, at least in matters of literature, opinion will soon sway strongly in his favour.


  1. See C. J. Sisson, ‘King James the First of England as Poet and Political Writer,’ Seventeenth Century Studies Presented to Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford 1938) 50

  2. On ‘The Castalians’ see Ian Ross, ‘Sonneteering in Sixteenth-Century Scotland,’ University of Texas Studies in Literature and Language IV (Summer 1964) 255-68.

  3. The Poems of James VI of Scotland, ed. James Craigie (Edinburgh 1955-8) I: xxv. This edition will hereafter be referred to simply as ‘Craigie.’

  4. George Sampson, The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, 2nd edition (Cambridge 1961) 398

  5. Isaac Disraeli, Literary Character of Men of Genius, ed. the Earl of Beaconsfield (London, nd) 385

  6. The Making of a King: The Early Years of James VI and I (London 1968) 98

  7. Sisson, 48, 60

  8. Craigie, I.140. Throughout this article the quotations from King James's works have uniformly been given in modern anglicized form. After all major quotations a footnote is made to the standard edition, where one exists. These old-spelling editions sometimes are able to supply the text in the original Scots of the King, but more often reproduce the anglicized text of some sixteenth- or seventeenth-century printer or transcriber.

  9. Craigie, II:132-3

  10. Calendar of State Papers relating to Scotland, III:35

  11. Craigie, I:49, 53

  12. Ibid., II:69

  13. Ibid., II:174-5

  14. Ibid., II:170

  15. Ibid., II:182-5

  16. Ibid., II:178-81

  17. Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue (Edinburgh 1597) sig. G4v, H1r

  18. A Meditation upon the Lords Prayer (London 1619) sig. K5v, K6r

  19. Basilikon Doron in C. H. McIlwain, ed., The Political Works of James I (Cambridge, MA 1918) 46-7

  20. Ibid., 48

  21. McIlwain, ed., The Political Works of James I, 271-2

  22. John Nichols, The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First (London 1828) I:153-4

  23. Harl. MS 6986, f 67

  24. BM Add. MS 5503, ff 96-7

  25. Harl. MS 6987, f 100

Rhodes Dunlap (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2845

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 corrections in the King's autograph. … There is every reason to believe that this is the actual ms. used by the Edinburgh printer Robert Waldegrave for the first edition (1597).” This description needs to be modified in several respects. The manuscript contains in fact three hands—that of the copyist, in a regular print-like italic; another italic hand which has supplied a few revisions and some marginal notes; and the clear though somewhat untidy script of the King himself. The copyist need not have been a professional scribe; he could have been a calligraphically adept member of the court circle such as Sir James Semple, a friend and companion of the King since boyhood, who in 1599 copied out in elegant italics another of the King's works before it was published.2 De Ricci's suggestion that the present manuscript served as printer's copy for the 1597 edition of the Daemonologie is not supported by a detailed comparison of the two texts, though the manuscript helps to correct and explain some glaring defects of the printed version.

The interest of the manuscript is not exclusively textual. Most of its marginal notes are also to be found in the printed Daemonologie, but this is not true of three sets of initials which stand in the margin of p. 39 in the manuscript. The discussion at this point (corresponding to p. 30 as printed) has to do with the skeptical notion that so-called witches are really self-deluded melancholics, a notion which James undertakes to refute by describing obviously unmelancholic witches as he has actually known them: “sume of thame riche, and worldlie wyse, sum of thame fat or corpulent in thair bodies and maist pairt of thame altogether geuin ouer to the pleasours of the flesche, contenuall haunting of companie, and all kynde of mirrines baith laufull and unlawfull.” In the margin by “riche, and worldlie wyse” are written the initials EM; by “fat or corpulent,” RG; and by “geuin ouer to the pleasours of the flesche,” BN. These initials, which invite identification with particular persons, may well point to the immediate background of the Daemonologie and help determine the date of its composition.

James had indulged some special curiosity about witchcraft as early as 1589, when at Aberdeen he insisted on seeing the “notorious and rank” witch Marioune McIngaruch; she showed him three “stanis” or drinking-vessels used in her art, and seems to have gone unpunished for what might have been considered a violation of the severe statute “Anentis Witchcraftes” passed by the Ninth Parliament of Queen Mary in 1563. In 1590 her client Hector Munro was charged with murder by witchcraft but acquitted.3 But in 1590-91 James found his own life threatened by witches in league with his rebel cousin the Earl of Bothwell. Abundant evidence seemed to show that they had used demonic aid to raise a tempest while he was sailing home from Denmark after his marriage, and that they had also tried to work his destruction by a toad, a wax image, and other devices. James followed the examinations with understandably close attention, especially since the criminal complicity of Bothwell could be established only on the witches' testimony; and in May 1591 he intervened in one of the trials, that of Barbara Napier, who was charged with treasonable practice against the King's life as well as previous murder by witchcraft. She was the wife of Archibald Douglas, a burgess of Edinburgh. Her identification with BN as “geuin ouer to the pleasours of the flesche” may perhaps be supported by testimony at the trial of another witch earlier in the year, in which Barbara Napier was said to have obtained a bonny small “pictour” or image of yellow wax to be used against “a man callit Archie” that “had done hir grit wrang.”4 On May 9, 1591 the assize convicted her of consulting with witches, but found her innocent of attending witch meetings or of using witchcraft to commit murder and treason. Her punishment they referred to the King's pleasure.5 Two days later James pronounced in favor of death, and had the fourteen members of the assize charged with wilful error. These threw themselves on the royal mercy, pleading that their error was ignorant rather than wilful,6 and James forgave them after lecturing them (June 7, 1591) in the Tolbooth at Edinburgh in a long discourse which is his first detailed discussion of witchcraft.7 Surely no more prominent witch with the initials BN could be found than Barbara Napier.

Equally plausible is the identification of the “riche, and worldlie wise” EM as Ewfame Makcalzane, who was the only daughter and heiress of Mr. Thomas Makcalzane Lord Liftounhall, one of the Senators of the College of Justice; her husband, Patrick Moscrop, was himself the son of a respected advocate. In reporting her trial, Robert Pitcairn expresses wonder that “a person, moving in the rank of society which Ewfame Makcalzean occupied, should have leagued with the obscure and profligate wretches who figure in the Trials for Witchcraft at this period, for the destruction of her sovereign.”8 The twenty-eight crimes of which she was charged included treasonable conspiracies enterprised by witchcraft “to haif destroyit oure souerane lordis persoune.” On June 24, 1591 she was burnt on Castle Hill in Edinburgh. Her property, which was forfeited to the crown, was in part restored to her three daughters in 1592, the King being “tuichit in honour and conscience” that they should suffer.9

Finally, who was RG? Here the identification must be much more doubtful because there are two possibilities. Robert Grierson, a ship's captain of Prestonpans, figures prominently in accounts of the witch-meetings along with Barbara Napier and Ewfame Makcalzane. He was concerned in particular with raising the tempest which was intended to prevent the return from Denmark of the King and his new Queen. At a meeting of witches, more than a hundred in all, in the Kirk of North Berwick, Grierson was one of the six men present, all the rest being women, and was involved in a vividly recorded incident: the Devil, calling the roll, should have used nicknames for his followers but mistakenly called Grierson's true name instead of Robert the Comptroller or Rob the Rover, whereat the participants “ran all hirdie-girdie and wer angrie.” Nothing awed, Grierson complained to the Devil that the King's image was not given to them, as promised, to be roasted.10 That he was “fat or corpulent” there seems to be no evidence, but the supplier of the initials RG in the Folger manuscript might well have had Robert Grierson in mind. An even better-known bearer of the initials, however, and far worthier of specification in the royal margins, was Richard Graham, who had been notorious for some years as a sorcerer. Barbara Napier was said to have consulted with him “in Johnne Ramsayis hous, outwith the West-poirt of Edinburgh” and rewarded him with three ells of bombesie cloth and five quarters of brawn. He told her, according to the testimony, that she, along with Effie Makcalzane and another witch, were destined to destroy the King.11 Sir James Melville, who was present when Graham was examined before the King, says that he was “a West-land man,” who had a familiar spirit but denied being a witch. The Earl of Bothwell “had knowledge of him by Effe Machalloun, and Barbary Naper, Edinburgh Women. Whereupon he was sent for by the Earl Bothwel,” first for aid in obtaining restoration to the King's favor by a drug or herb, then (this proving ineffectual) for aid in destroying the King. Graham told Bothwell he could not raise tempests, but referred him to a witch who could.12 The prominence of Graham in the witchcraft proceedings is emphasized by the fact that he is the only prisoner named in a warrant to pay £200 to the jailer of the Tolbooth, “be his majesties precept, for furnesing of Richart Grahame and utheris witcheis.”13 He was burnt at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh on February 28, 1592.

There was renewed excitement over witchcraft in 1597, more than sufficient to explain James's sending his Daemonologie to the press in that year. But it does not appear possible to fit the initials with which we have been concerned with any appropriately prominent persons who are named in the proceedings of 1597. The identifications suggested here would indicate that James composed his work, in the substantially complete form which we find in the Folger manuscript, at a time early enough for Ewfame Makcalzane, Barbara Napier, and Richard Graham (or, quite conceivably, Robert Grierson) to be still the most vivid examples of the sorts of witches described in the text. The hand in which the three sets of initials are written may be that of James Carmichael, Minister of Haddington, who according to Melville14 wrote a “History” of the 1591 cases “with their whole Depositions”; at least it resembles the hand in which Carmichael subscribed a letter which he wrote to King James from Haddington on March 27, 1615 recalling that he had formerly been employed by the King to “penne ane pairt of ye Comoun grammar” (printed in 1587) and “to attend sestein monethes vpoun ye examinationes of divers Witches.”15 In 1590 he also wrote an account of the coronation of Anne of Denmark, James's Queen.16 His work on the witch trials has not survived under his name, but seems almost certain to be the basis of a pamphlet called Newes from Scotland which appeared in London in 1591, “Published according to the Scottish Coppie”; this pamphlet summarizes the examinations of some of the main witches “as they uttered them in the presence of the Scottish King,” and concludes with special praise of King James for his magnanimous and undaunted mind, “not feared with their inchantmentes, but resolute in this, that so long as God is with him, hee feareth not who is against him.” It is apparently to Carmichael's work that James refers in the manuscript version of his Preface, where he cites “thair confessions that haue beine at this tyme apprehendit: quilkis all are to be set furthe in prent”; the last nine words are crossed through—apparently by James, to judge from the color of the ink—and do not appear in the printed version of 1597, when they would have been no longer timely.

In the light of these considerations we may plausibly reconstruct the inception of the Daemonologie as follows. It was one of two works which the King planned in 1591—one an account of the testimony at the witch trials, to be written by James Carmichael, the other his own treatise on the main theoretical and judicial aspects, developing more systematically some of the ideas expressed in his speech to the members of the assize for Barbara Napier. After completing his first draft he had a fair copy made but kept it for some further revisions instead of sending it at once to the printer.

But if the Daemonologie was substantially completed in 1591-92, why would James have been so tardy about publication? He himself provides a possible answer in the preface to His Maiesties Poeticall Exercises at Vacant Houres, 1591: “my burden is so great and continuall, without anie intermission, that … my affaires and fasherie will not permit mee, to re-mark the wrong orthography committed by the copiars of my unlegible and ragged hand, far les to amend my proper errours: Yea scarslie but at stollen moments, haue I the leasure to blenk vpon any paper, and yet not that, with free and vnuexed spirit.” The contents of the Poeticall Exercises were themselves several years late in appearing; manuscripts had been circulating in England at least two years previously, as is proved by an entry in the Stationers' Register on 7 August 1589, and according to the King's own account one of the pieces, the Lepanto, was composed even earlier, in 1585. In 1591 James also had on his desk other unpublished work: his paraphrase of the Book of Revelation, which did not reach print till the collected Workes of the Most High and Mightie Prince, James of 1616, and a number of versified Psalms which remained in manuscript until the present century.

The published Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue which came from the press in 1597 contains surprising faults for an authorized edition issued by the King's printer. There are three clear errors in the speech-divisions (on pp. 34, 35, and 40), and a number of words seem to have been dropped or misread. The Folger manuscript not only offers what seem to be correct readings, but it also helps to explain how the speech-divisions went wrong. Apparently when he composed his work in the form of a dialogue the King did not decide at first what to name his two speakers. In a brief fragment of manuscript at the Bodleian Library (MS Bodley 165), entirely in James's hand, the speeches are marked simply Q and A. In the Folger manuscript the copyist left spaces where the names of the speakers might be supplied, and they were subsequently written in for the heading and the first four speeches only. But some of the spaces left between speeches are only a little larger than the ordinary spaces between sentences. It is thus not surprising that a few errors in the assignment of speeches should have occurred when copy was prepared for the printer. On p. 34 of the printed text the inquiry of Philomathes ending “I would faine heare what is possible to them to performe in verie deede” is run together with what should be the answer of Epistemon beginning “Although they serue a common Master”; on p. 35, conversely, there is a mistaken change of speakers at “In two partes their actiones may be diuided,” though this properly continues Epistemon's long speech which should have begun with “Although they serue a common Master” on the previous page; on p. 40 a change of speakers is again missed: “The reason that moues me to thinke” should begin a new speech by Epistemon, as is indicated by a blank for the speaker's name in the manuscript. There are also many verbal differences between manuscript and printed text, some of them by no means insignificant, though they cannot be catalogued here.

Not only are a number of additions and revisions written into the Folger manuscript, but others might readily have been introduced in preparing the printer's copy, which seems clearly to have been based on this manuscript, whether directly or indirectly. Some changes were made even after the printing had begun: in sheet I, for which the inner forme exists in two states,17 the uncorrected readings correspond with those of the manuscript. But the mistakes in the printed Daemonologie are numerous enough to warrant surprise that James should have allowed them to stand. Ordinarily he was by no means indifferent to such matters. Errors less gross in His Maiesties Poeticall Exercises were corrected in ink apparently at the printing house; and in 1609 he called in by proclamation a defective issue of his Apology and Monitory Preface. But though the Daemonologie was several times reprinted in his lifetime, James did nothing to correct the text—which, for that matter, has been reproduced in its original imperfect state in all subsequent reprints. The Latin translator in the Opera of 1619 did indeed correct one of the three wrong speech-divisions, but this was apparently by the light of nature only. No doubt by 1597, troublesome though the problem of witchcraft still remained in that year, the Daemonologie itself no longer claimed James's principal attention as an author. He must already have been meditating other problems of importance for The True Lawe of Free Monarchies, which he was to publish in the following year as his next serious work.


  1. (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1935), I, 371.

  2. The Basilicon Doron of King James VI, ed. James Craigie, Scottish Text Society, Third Series, No. 18 (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1950), II, 314.

  3. Robert Pitcairn, Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland (Edinburgh: H.M.S.O., 1833), I, iii, 201-04.

  4. Pitcairn, I, iii, 240.

  5. Pitcairn, I, iii, 242-43.

  6. Pitcairn, I, iii, 244-47.

  7. Calendar of Scottish Papers (Edinburgh: H.M.S.O., 1936), X, 522-25. An abstract of King James's speech, sent by the English agent Robert Bowes to Lord Burghley, is in the Public Record Office, S.P. 52.67 (61 I).

  8. Pitcairn, I, iii, 247-57.

  9. The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1814), III, 608-09.

  10. Pitcairn, I, iii, 211-12, 236-39, 245-46.

  11. Pitcairn, I, iii, 243-45.

  12. Memoires of Sir James Melvil of Hal-hill (London, 1683), pp. 194-95.

  13. Rotuli Scaccarii Regum Scotorum. The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland (Edinburgh: H.M.S.O., 1903), XXII, 160.

  14. Melville, Memoires, p. 195.

  15. British Museum, Add. MS 19402, fol. 120.

  16. Calendar of Scottish Papers, X, 307.

  17. The Carl H. Pforzheimer Library: English Literature 1475-1700 (New York: Morrill, 1940), p. 536.

Jacqueline E. M. Latham (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4003

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 remain elements that still seem to fit uneasily, and one character, Caliban, who eludes even the simplest definition. This essay seeks to develop two aspects of contemporary thought by means of which Caliban can be seen not more clearly but in even greater complexity, and it proposes King James's Daemonologie as a possible source for these ideas. Contemporary beliefs about devils could, of course, be found elsewhere, but James's relationship to Shakespeare as patron of the King's Men, the clarity and dialectical skill of his Daemonologie as well as its content make the King's famous work a likely source for some of the ideas of Shakespeare's strange play.

The problem of Caliban's birth, while receiving little attention on its own account, crops up from time to time in more general discussions of The Tempest. Unfortunately, though many critics agree that Caliban is the touchstone by which the civilised world is judged, his actual status—human, sub-human or demi-devil—is rarely subjected to close examination, and critics tend to take the view which suits their particular interpretation of the play. To cite an obvious example, Professor Kermode, in his brilliant Arden Introduction, places the ‘salvage and deformed slave’ within the tradition of the European savage man, and in a note added when this edition was in proof, draws attention to Wild Men in the Middle Ages by R. Bernheimer, whose views, incidentally, are far more complex than Kermode's brief summary allows.1 In the same way, Caliban can be seen in the context of the exploration of the New World, corrupted by a supposed civilisation or corrupting the civilised. These are two important dimensions within which Caliban can fruitfully be viewed, but there are others, like the problem of his birth.

For Kermode, ‘Caliban's birth, as Prospero insists, was inhuman; he was “a born devil”, “got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam”. He was the product of sexual union between a witch and an incubus, and this would account for his deformity, whether the devil-lover was Setebos (all pagan gods were classified as devils) or, as W. C. Curry infers, some aquatic demon.’2 Yet, even in this simple account of Caliban's origin there lurk ambiguities, as I intend to show.

In what would appear to be a key study, ‘The Magic of Prospero’, C. J. Sisson merely remarks in passing that ‘the powers of Sycorax derived from evil communion with the devil, the father of her son Caliban’,3 thus distinguishing the source of her powers from those of Prospero. More recently, Robert Egan in his interesting article ‘This Rough Magic: Perspectives of Art and Morality in The Tempest’ comments, ‘Caliban is not a devil—thoroughly evil and unredeemable—but a type of humanity’ and in a footnote on the same page adds that Caliban, who makes frequent references to his mother and her god, never mentions an infernal father,4 apparently missing the point that Setebos is probably his father, in the tradition that false gods are to be identified with devils. Yet Egan is surely correct in his insistence that Caliban's ‘qualities as a character are clearly not satanic but human’. There is, then, an apparent contradiction: the text proclaims (and critics sometimes accept) the demonic origin of Caliban: ‘A devil, a born devil’, cries Prospero (IV, i, 188); yet if we wish to see Caliban as the touchstone of the civilised (or semi-civilised) world, we need to see him in relation to the world of nature or in some definable sense outside it—not, of course, in the world of art but, perhaps, as a symbolic figure, as Bernheimer's book would suggest, representing social, psychological and sexual aspects of man. Alternatively he can be seen as an intermediate link in the chain of being, below man but higher than the animals.

An examination of sixteenth-century views about the incubus may enable certain aspects of The Tempest to be seen more clearly. Although it is important to bear in mind R. H. West's wise warning in the first chapter of his study, The Invisible World, that ‘the literature of pneumatology was rarely so cool and judicial as the ideal required’, we can, I think, agree with him that there can be little doubt ‘that, within degrees proper to works of art, and each in its own way, these plays [Doctor Faustus, Macbeth and The Tempest] and others accommodate it’.5

Traditions of witchcraft in England and on the Continent were very different. This is stressed by Barbara Rosen in her perceptive introduction to the collection of English texts entitled Witchcraft and by Keith Thomas in his widely acclaimed Religion and the Decline of Magic. In England trials were chiefly concerned with maleficium, harm to others, either their person or possessions; the familiar in the form of a domestic creature like cat, toad or fly was also a typically English manifestation. On the other hand, continental witchcraft was frequently concerned with the diabolic nature of the witches' compact and the sexual orgy of the witches' sabbath. As Barbara Rosen says, ‘The English witch was frequently unchaste, but in the usual prosaic fashion.’6 The incubus is, therefore, late in appearing in native accounts of witch trials and Keith Thomas claims that ‘the more blatantly sexual aspects of witchcraft were a very uncommon feature of the trials, save perhaps in the Hopkins period’, the mid-seventeenth century.7 We have, then, an odd situation when we look at The Tempest. Shakespeare's island world, for all its concern with magic, is far from the witch hunts and trials of his own country. And yet, untypical as Sycorax and Caliban are of the English tradition of witchcraft, there were notorious continental studies of witchcraft (some translated into English) and other ways in which the idea of diabolic intercourse could have become familiar to an educated Elizabethan.

If we accept the likelihood that Shakespeare kept one eye on his royal master while writing Macbeth and The Tempest, then King James's Daemonologie, first published in Edinburgh in 1597 but reprinted in London on James's accession to the English throne, provides a helpful gloss on this aspect of The Tempest; it has, moreover, further aspects which suggest that Shakespeare may well have read it closely.8

King James was writing in a particular and personal context. Newes from Scotland declaring the damnable life and death of Doctor Fian, a notable Sorcerer had been published anonymously in Scotland and London in 1591. The story of the tempest, supposedly raised by witchcraft, which sank one boat-load of jewels and provided a contrary wind for King James, though not for his accompanying vessels, is well known. But more significant is that the account of the trial of Dr Fian and the witches included torture, the devil's mark, a witches' sabbath, and obscene kiss,9 a christened cat bound to the ‘cheefest partes’ (p. 16) of a dead man, and intercourse with the devil. James followed the trial closely, and when he came to write his Daemonologie he explicitly directed it against two sceptics: John Weyer, the German physician, whose De Praestigiis Daemonum (1563) remains untranslated, and Reginald Scot, the Kentish author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) which it is thought Shakespeare read. Scot's immensely long and overtly sceptical work serves as an advertisement of the continental views that he is refuting. His sources include Jean Bodin's untranslated De la Démonomanie des Sorciers (1580), Cornelius Agrippa and the notorious Malleus Maleficarum (1486?), and though his refutation of the continental writers is based on common sense and a skilful use of reductio ad absurdum, he betrays an almost prurient enjoyment of some of the more scabrous tales, including a detailed account, which takes up most of Book IV, of the problems of sexual relations with an incubus, whetting his readers' appetite at the end of Book III by urging those whose ‘chaste eares cannot well endure to heare of such abhominable lecheries’ to skip the next pages with their ‘bawdie stuffe’. His major discussion in Book IV leans heavily upon J. Sprenger and H. Institor's Malleus Maleficarum.10 It seems then likely that the Elizabethan and Jacobean public could derive a fairly full account of continental witchcraft practices from Newes from Scotland and from The Discoverie of Witchcraft, but even, for example, Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures, which Shakespeare knew well, ascribes to Bodin the belief that devils may ‘transforme themselves into any shape of beasts, or similitude of men, and may […] have the act of generation with women, as they please’.11

King James's Daemonologie has a remarkably balanced tone. This derives in part from its dialogue form, in which the good tunes are distributed fairly equally between the credulous Epistemon and the more sceptical Philomathes. The argument is close, clear and free from the tedious capping of scriptural quotations which makes Henry Holland's A Treatise against Witchcraft (Cambridge, 1590) such unrewarding reading for us. In chapter 3 of the Third Book Epistemon explains that the devil has two means of effecting the union between himself and a woman—the male authors of works on demonology are strangely reluctant to discuss the mechanics of the succubus. He can steal sperm from a man, dead or alive, and inseminate the witch, or by inhabiting a dead body he can have visible intercourse with her. In both cases the sperm is cold; hence the fact that witches so often report the coldness of union with the devil. Spirits, having no sex, can have no seed of their own; in this James is following the traditional Christian view. A child born of the union of witch and incubus is therefore human. But even the credulous Epistemon is doubtful whether this union can actually take place; this kind of devil, he says, ‘was called of old’ (p. 67) an incubus or succubus, and his account of the intercourse is hedged with the proviso ‘might possibly be performed’ (p. 67). So when the inquirer Philomathes asks ‘How is it then that they say sundrie monsters have bene gotten by that way’ (p. 68), Epistemon can dismiss the notion with ‘These tales are nothing but Aniles fabulae’ and go on to explain that if it were possible ‘(which were all utterly against all the rules of nature) it would bread no monster but onely such a naturall of-spring, as would have cummed betuixt that man or woman and that other abused person’. The devil's part is merely carrying ‘And so it coulde not participate with no qualitie of the same’ (p. 68).

James is surprisingly cavalier in dismissing monstrous births as old wives' tales; Shakespeare was obviously more interested in them. There had, after all, been a very long tradition of extraordinary offspring of unusual parentage: Romulus and Remus and Augustus Caesar were, presumably, a tribute to their unusual fathers. In Mandeville's Travels the ‘fendes of Helle camen many tymes and leyen with the wommen of his generacoun and engendred on hem dyverse folk, as monstres and folk disfigured, summe withouten hedes, summe with grete eres, summe with on eye …’.12 Here we are nearer to the ‘mooncalf’ of The Tempest. But Britain, too, had its monstrous births. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, incorporating Merlin's prophecies, was popular Tudor propaganda, and gives an account of Merlin's mother being visited in a convent by an incubus in the form of a handsome young man. Nearer home for James is Hector Boece's Scotorum Historiae translated by John Bellenden in 1531. In Book VIII chapter 14 he follows an account of Merlin's birth with recent examples of intercourse with the devil, in the last of which the woman is delivered of ‘ane monstir of mair terribill visage’ than had ever been seen before. From this digression Boece returns quietly to his ‘dedis of nobill men’.13 Shakespeare possibly read Holinshed's close paraphrase of Boece's narrative, which inserted, as Boece had done, the fifteenth-century events immediately after reference to Merlin: ‘It is foolishlie supposed that this Merline was got by a spirit of that kind which are called Incubi.14 Holinshed's scepticism contrasts with Boece's credulity.

Shakespeare emphasises not merely Caliban's demonic paternity but his monstrous birth; he is described as a ‘deformed slave’ in the list of characters, and in II, ii Stephano calls him a mooncalf and is followed by Trinculo with ‘monster’, repeated thirteen times in that scene and becoming the name by which Stephano and Trinculo usually address Caliban. Shakespeare is prepared to accept—or exploit—the tradition having before him many of the same examples as James, as well as The Mirror for Magistrates, the 1578 edition of which added the tragedies of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, and her ill-fated husband Humphrey Plantagenet, whose story Shakespeare had told in 2 Henry VI. In The Mirror the Duke says that King Henry II reported:

                    that his Auncient Grandame
Though seeminge in Shape, a Woman naturall,
Was a Feende of the Kinde that (Succubae) some call.(15)

Caliban is not, however, Shakespeare's only ‘salvage and deformed slave’. As early as 3 Henry VI the birth of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is described in unmistakable terms. After the owl had shrieked, his mother brought forth:

To wit an indigest deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.

(V, vi, 51-2)

The most interesting of the references to Richard as monster, however, comes in Richard III when Queen Margaret cries:

Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that was seal'd in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!

(I, iii, 228-30)

Here Richard, like Caliban, is a monster whose outer form indicates a moral depravity which itself has explicit demonic overtones. As Barbara Rosen points out, ‘Imperfection was one of the traditional marks of anything created by the Devil in imitation of God’.16 (Hence the search for the devil's mark in Continental and Scottish witch-hunts.)

Moreover, the Broadside ballads of the sixteenth century reflect a grossly morbid interest in deformed births where the crudity of description is made more offensive by the moralising tone.17 Such births were accounted for not by intercourse with Satan but by the more homely sins of vanity, pride or fornication. The Reverend Stephen Batman, too, in The Doome Warning all men to Judgement (1581) gives a hideous collection of monsters illustrated by woodcuts as a warning to blasphemers and adulterous women. Although continental writers are concerned with demonic intercourse, they give similar horrific descriptions of monstrous births, while some take a more naturalistic—though still moralistic—view. N. Remy in Book I chapter 6 of Daemonolatreiae Libri Tres (1595) describes the birth of a shapeless mass like a palpitating sponge, arguing that it is the impression of the demon on the mother's imagination that has produced the monstrosity; physically the child is wholly human. Bodin has an account of a hideous monster without head or feet, with a liver-coloured mouth in the left shoulder, and Boguet in Discours des Sorciers (1590) believes, like the English writers, that monstrous births may be God's punishment for men's sins. A much more scientific view is given in Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573) by the surgeon Ambroise Paré, though his illustrations are quite as extreme as those of Stephen Batman. Anyone who has seen Peter Hall's 1974 production of The Tempest for the National Theatre has only to recall the ‘living drollery’ (III, iii, 21) of ‘monstrous shape’ (III, iii, 31) bringing in the banquet to have an unforgettable image of these sixteenth-century monsters. Even Stephano's discovery of Caliban and Trinculo under the gaberdine with four legs, two at either end, can be paralleled from contemporary illustrations of headless monsters. Therefore, if King James's reference to monsters is tersely dismissive, it appears to assume both mythical and, more important, popular information; on the other hand, Shakespeare makes his interest manifest, and his monster's relevance to the concerns and images of the age is very close indeed.

King James was clearly more aware of the continental tradition of witchcraft than were most Englishmen, and the chief value for our understanding of The Tempest in James's discussion of the incubus is that biologically even Epistemon, the credulous expositor of demonology, would consider Caliban human, as indeed would Reginald Scot and most continental writers. If, then, Shakespeare and his audience like their King were sceptical of the possibility of demonic paternity, then Caliban's essential humanity must be emphasised and his character qualified only by those human factors of nature and nurture so persuasively discussed by Professor Kermode in his Introduction.

At this point the evidence seems decisive, the interpretation of Caliban simply as natural man acceptable and we can return with confidence to accounts of natives in the New World or wild men in the old, forgetting demonology—as most critics have—but perhaps with the image of the monster more clearly fixed in our minds. Yet The Tempest is more elusive and interpretation more difficult than is allowed by the argument so far put forward. If Shakespeare had read King James's Daemonologie, why did he make Prospero so insistent upon Caliban's demonic nature? After all, though the incubus was not a protagonist in English witch trials, the audience would be likely to accept Prospero's repeated statements with the same kind of willing suspension of disbelief with which in a romance it accepted Ariel and the spirits presenting the Masque.

It seems probable that, as so often, Shakespeare seized upon ambiguities in order to exploit them; Caliban perhaps has more facets than have previously been recognised: as a native of the New World, wild man, demi-devil and monster. As a new-found primitive man he serves as touchstone of the civilisation which has, in one sense, usurped his island as Prospero's throne has been usurped; he seems in this context superior to Trinculo and Stephano though inferior to Ferdinand. As a wild man, he may symbolise the untamed within us, but like Spenser's Sir Satyrane offer hope of ultimate self-discipline. As a man—whether primitive or wild—despite the attempted rape of Miranda and his glorying in the physical details of the proposed murder of Prospero, he may be capable of redemption. However, if we see him as a ‘demi-devil’ his state is lost; his last intention, to ‘seek for grace’ (V, i, 295) is, then, a tactical move born of cunning. Moreover, the associations of ‘monster’ in neo-Platonic, demonic and popular thought emphasise the distortion of human nature by evil; for the twentieth century ‘monster’ has become trivialised, so that we need to recall its power in the sixteenth century. The reiteration of the word in King Lear indicates that Shakespeare felt its force adequate for the most terrible of the tragedies; and the word surely retains some of its strength even in the new context of The Tempest. Caliban is literally a malformed creature, a mooncalf; he may, too, take on something of the word's further sense as a creature part brute part human (‘a man or a fish?’ II, ii, 25); finally, there is the new sixteenth-century sense, exploited in Lear, of moral depravity. The connotations, therefore, of ‘monster’ serve to emphasise Caliban's evil. Moreover, the moralising interpretation of monsters in contemporary popular writing may also give some support to the view of Caliban as externalising Prospero's own propensity to evil, since for Prospero, as for the audience, Caliban's monstrous form must, as I have shown, have had a religious and moral message lost to us. Prospero's concession, ‘this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine’ (V, i, 275-6), now takes on a new resonance.

King James's Daemonologie, however, has further relevance to The Tempest. His Preface includes a reference to the power of magicians who can ‘suddenly cause be brought unto them, all kindes of daintie disshes, by their familiar spirit’. This point is developed more fully in Book I chapter 6. Here Epistemon repeats the traditional view (only to reject it) that at the fall of Lucifer some spirits fell into the elements of air, fire, water and land, the spirits of air and fire being ‘truer’ (p. 20) than those of water and land. However, he grants a spirit the ability to carry news ‘from anie parte of the worlde’ (p. 21) and refers to the ‘faire banquets and daintie dishes, carryed in short space fra the farthest part of the worlde’ (p. 22). In this the devil deceives through his agility, as he does when he produces ‘impressiones in the aire’ of ‘castles and fortes’ (p. 22). The similarity of this to The Tempest is obvious; even the ‘insubstantial pageant’ (IV, i, 155) of Prospero's great speech is prefigured.

There remains some slight additional evidence that Shakespeare had read the Daemonologie.18 James, as one would expect, refers to magicians making circles, as Prospero does to charm the court party in Act V. More interesting, however, in chapter 2 of Book I James gives the three ways the devil ‘allures’ (p. 7) persons by the ‘three passiones that are within our selves’ (p. 8). These are curiosity, thirst of revenge and ‘greedie appetite of geare’ (p. 8). Although James goes on to relate the allurement of curiosity to magicians or necromancers, and the last two to sorcerers and witches, they remain oddly relevant to three important temptations in The Tempest as a whole. First, it is the curiosity of Prospero that has led to his secret studies and to his downfall as Duke of Milan. Second, though Antonio was dry for sway Prospero overcomes his thirst for revenge saying ‘the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance’ (V, i, 27-8). Finally the greedy appetites of the three men of sin could be tempted by the illusory banquet, and Trinculo and Stephano, too, are far from controlling their unrestrained passions when confronted by the ‘geare’ that Prospero displays to distract them.


  1. The Tempest, ed. F. Kermode (1958), Introduction, pp. xxxix, lxii-lxiii. All quotations from The Tempest are from this, the sixth, edition. References to passages in other Shakespeare plays are from the single-volume Oxford edition of W. J. Craig.

  2. The Tempest, Introduction, p. xl.

  3. Shakespeare Survey 11 (Cambridge, 1958), 75.

  4. Shakespeare Quarterly, 23 (1972), 179.

  5. The Invisible World (Athens, Georgia, 1939), p. 4.

  6. Witchcraft (1969), p. 338 footnote.

  7. Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), p. 568.

  8. I have used the Bodley Head Quarto of the Daemonologie edited by G. B. Harrison (1924). All quotations from the work are followed by parenthetical page references which are identical with the 1597 edition. Newes from Scotland is usefully included in the same volume, but since the original is unpaginated the page reference refers only to the reprint.

  9. English innocence is demonstrated by Peele's The Old Wives' Tale where Madge telling the burlesque romance to her sleepy listeners threatens them, ‘Hear my tale, or kiss my tail.’

  10. This remained unavailable in English until Montague Summers edited and translated it in 1928.

  11. A Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures (1603), p. 133. It should be noted that Shakespeare echoes Harsnett in The Tempest. See II, ii, 10-11 and Kermode's note.

  12. Mandeville's Travels, ed. M. C. Seymour (Oxford, 1967), p. 160. I owe this example to R. R. Cawley's pioneering study, ‘Shakspere's use of the Voyagers’, PMLA, XLI (1926), 722.

  13. The Chronicles of Scotland, trans. J. Bellenden, ed. R. W. Chambers and E. C. Batho, The Scottish Text Society, 3rd ser. (Edinburgh and London, 1938), I, 348.

  14. Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, Scotland (London, 1808), V, 146. In the same volume Holinshed refers to Alphonse, King of Naples, and his son, Ferdinand, p. 454.

  15. The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. L. B. Campbell (New York, 1960), p. 447.

  16. Witchcraft, p. 18.

  17. See J. H. Pafford's Arden edition of The Winter's Tale (1963) for his footnote list of references on p. 105.

  18. H. N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (1950), pp. 255ff. and K. Muir, Shakespeare's Sources, 1 (1957), p. 178, provide some of the evidence.

Sheldon Hanft (essay date spring 1981)

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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 institutions prominent from the close of the War of the Roses to the entrenchment of the Reformation, all agree that modernity was firmly settling on Britain by the early seventeenth century.1 King James, whose peaceful ascent to Elizabeth's throne in 1603, appears as the embodiment of this development because he unified the English and Scottish crowns, secured the Reformation, and became embroiled in conflicts which led Britain into the “age of democratic revolutions.”2

Despite these and other contributions to the process of modernization, the first Stuart king of England remains an enigmatic figure. Although he was a champion of the Protestant Cause, he is rarely portrayed as a leader in the Whig chronicles of Britain's march to greatness. While he authorized the most influential translation of the Bible, he defended the Anglican Church from attack by Catholics, Puritans and Separatists, and he married his daughter to Elector Frederick of the Palatinate—the great martyr of the 30-Years War—the mantle of the great Defender of the Protestant Faith is not one which seems comfortable on his shoulders. It fits poorly because it cannot cloak James' active interest in witchcraft, his repugnant behavior, or cover his proposals to the Pope discussing the conversion of his heir to Catholicism. Instead of gaining renown for his theological debates with Cardinal Bellarmine and for his other religious projects, these activities earned him notoriety as the “Wisest Fool in Christiandom.”3

James' accession to the throne did not bring toleration, instead it resulted in the passage of the most severe statutes for the persecution of Catholics and witches in British history.4 For the first time in England communing with the devil became a sin punishable by death.5 While this legislation was enacted with the King's approval, James took great pleasure in discovering witches, and as Goodman noted, vigorously endeavoured “to sound the depths of brutish impostures and he discovered many.” Sometimes James went to great lengths in his investigations. In one case he arranged the seduction of a maid to show how “Cupid's arrows drove out the pretended darts of the devil.”6

While scholars have not been unanimous in their assessment of the duration or the degree of commitment James invested in these activities, most scholars treat these seemingly contradictory aspects of the royal character as unique and separate developments.7 While some recent biographers like David Mathews go so far as to try to “explain away” Daemonologie, most like D. H. Willson, consider each as an individual episode or phase related only to those events and policies with which they are in close chronological proximity.8 I would like to suggest in this paper that most of these diverse activities and antithetical proposals can be reconciled by examining James' cosmology as he developed in his Daemonologie.9

King James, who prided himself on his learning and his piety, was shocked and stimulated by his experiences in Scotland during the last decade of the sixteenth century. He endeavoured to develop a synthesis which would, through an examination of Biblical Scripture and an account of his encounters with witches, explain the existence and actions of divine and supernatural forces in the world. He sought not only to understand the principles which guided the operation of these forces but also to show the various forms evil assumed and to provide a practical guide for his subordinates in the proper ways of dealing with devilish practitioners. The principles James perceived in the operations of divine and supernatural forces in Scotland influenced his actions and policies in England. His proposals to the Pope for an ecumenical council, his desire for a new translation of the Bible, and his antics during the examinations of witches are all expression of James' view of the role and responsibilities of a “lawful magistrate.” These were structured by his encounters with the Scottish witches.

In Daemonologie, James was determined to refute the arguments of Reginald Scott not only because he knew them to be false in theory and by virtue of his personal experiences, but also because he desired to fulfill his obligations as God's “lawful magistrate.” In the preface he tells his readers that he intends to correct two “damnable opinions” of contemporaries in England and on the continent who are “not ashamed in public print to deny that there can be such a thing as witchcraft.”10

As he asserted in the Introduction, his purpose was to demonstrate clearly that “Magic in general and necromacie in special … have been and are.” Not only was the reality of these practices incontestable, but he felt strongly that those who practiced these evil arts must be severely punished. To support his philosophical and scriptural evidence and provide further illumination for his subjects he appended to Daemonologie a section entitled Newes from Scotland. This was an account of his encounter with the coven of Dr. Fian and his coven of Scottish witches who unsuccessfully attempted to murder their King.11

James provided a detailed account of how toads were roasted and venom extracted to be used in the ceremonies through which the coven hoped to invoke the power of the devil to murder James. He learned that the witches had cast a cat into the sea and chanted incantations which they hoped would raise a storm and drown him and his wife as they returned from Denmark. Since his ship did in fact encounter a fierce storm, James became frightened as these confessions were revealed. Soon, however, his initial reaction turned to curiosity as he sought to account for the irregular pattern of effectiveness which was apparent in the practice of witchcraft. The King alone seemed immune to the most extreme acts of black magic. James felt triumphant in the knowledge that even though a coven of witches was employed by one of the great peers of the realm, he was unaffected when they burned his waxen effigy slowly to cause his consumption in the pains of agony. These practices and the exercise of magic impressed him and stimulated his curiosity. Thus James wrote Daemonologie, not because he surrendered to his fears, as Professor MacElwee has suggested,12 but because he felt there was a rational theological explanation for both the existence and the exercise of evil in the real world. He also believed that his experience had taught him that God had reserved within this supernatural cosmology a distinctive role for magistrates. In all countries where the Church was established by law, as it was in England and Scotland, the godly magistrate must be made aware of his responsibilities of combating the conspiracies of the damned.

It is important to remember that James published Daemonologie not for his Scottish subjects, most of whom shared his viewpoint, but to impress the godly of England with his learning, his piety, and his understanding of his responsibilities as God's chief magistrate. This was a concern expressed not only in Daemonologie but also in the first book of his Basilikon Doron. His concern with the spiritual and supernatural responsibilities of Kings was shown in the opening lines of the poem he chose to begin this primer on Kingship, dedicated to his son:

God gives not Kings the style of God in vain
For on his throne, his Septer do they sway
And as their subjects ought them to Obey
So Kings should fear and serve their God, again.(13)

This view of the demonic was also reflected in his first interview with Elizabeth's godson who was considered to be very learned. James told the Queen's godson that he knew of Elizabeth's death long before a messenger arrived with the news. A sorcerer, who saw a floating head, recognized it as that of the English Queen. James also sought to impress his listener by citing foreign works on witchcraft and by indicating those views he wished to discuss. Like many scholars since the event, Sir John Harrington was confused by his new sovereign and could draw few conclusions from this strange interview.14

While he was dazzled and confused by the terminology, and by James' accent, the fact remains that James' views were not distant from his own. The King was a staunch Calvinist who believed in predestination and salvation through God's Grace. The world was corrupt because man had fallen from God's favor, James wrote, and “is but restored again in part by Grace only to the elect.”15 The omnipotence of God was certain, and as he asserted toward the end of the second book of Daemonologie, “God hath before all beginnings preordained as the particular sorts of Plagues as of benefits for every man.”16 But the lesson of Job—as James' experiences had confirmed—was relevant to every man. Salvation must not be taken for granted but confirmed daily. The increased evil and errors of the Papists were constant reminders that those of the Elect who were not diligent would lose the Lord's blessing.

Those of this second group, whom he described as “falling away from God to be given over to the Devil,” he divided into two categories—necromancers and witches. “Witches,” King James wrote, “are servants only and slaves to the devil; Necromancers are his familiars and commanders.”17 While he believed that most witches were women because they were frail and more susceptible than men to Satan's snares, he believed that the devil's supporters came from three groups: sinners, impostors and the frail.

While Satan's delusions are most appealing to those wicked people who commit horrible sins, the devil is not without power among “the Godly who are sleeping in any great sins or informities.” The remaining group of susceptible souls are those who may practice their religion but at heart are weak in their faith. All of these, regardless of how they were induced to abandon their profession, were doomed for eternity. Those who convened with the devil were condemned to “wander through the world, as God's hang-men, to execute such turns as he employs them in.” Thus the devil is “God's Ape” and “God's hang-man” and his agents are merely carrying out the directions of an omnipotent and omniscient God.18

But as James knew from his own experiences, just as God operates through evil agents so too does he have his “lawful lieutenants” and magistrates to assist him. These magistrates were to fight the Lord's fight and keep their subjects both diligent and fervent in their profession and practice of the lawful religion. To this end, magistrates were to use every power at their disposal to expose and punish both real and pretended witches. If a magistrate were negligent in persecuting familiars, magicians, witches or impostors, he would incur the wrath of God for “his sloth.” But a vigilant magistrate was indomitable and indestructible for “God will not permit their master to trouble or hinder so good a work.”19 James devoted much of his energies to these pursuits.

Daemonologie warned the magistrate to exercise care so that he succeeds in protecting the innocent as well as punishing the guilty. As James later wrote in a letter to his son, “Ye have oft heard me say that most miracles now a days prove illusions … judges should be wary in trusting accusations without an exact trial.” Despite this warning James did not abandon his belief in true magic. In the next decade James informed one of his peers who was examining a woman given to prolonged trances, “It becomes us to lose no opportunity of seeking after the real truth of pretended wonders, that if true we may bless the creator who has shown such marvels to men.” But he warned, if the occurrences prove false, then James reminded his kinsman that he was bound to punish severely the impostor.20 The execution of the dual functions of the magistrate make many of his actions seem inconsistant and hypocritical. Yet, as James' behavior illustrates, an effective magistrate had to play the devil's advocate, on occasion, to do the work of the Lord.

Thus James offered pardons to induce impostors to confess their errors. When Archbishop Abbot, in 1613, questioned the King's views in a divorce proceeding by noting there had been no recorded case of impotence caused by witchcraft since the coming of the Reformation to England, James had a ready reply. He drew himself up and told the good archbishop, “Look you my Daemonologie.21

James did not ignore the problems created by the occurrance of the Reformation. He argued that the time before the revelation of true religion was a period when the devil could visibly converse and ensnare his victim. But the light of Scriptures revealed during the Reformation made these practices, “commonest in the time of Papistry,” ineffective and so Satan has been forced to operate through the agency of witches, impostors and heretics. Thus the Pope and his disciples, like the devil and his agents, operated to entice and beguile those who were weak in their faith and lead them from the path of salvation. Therefore, the legal monarch was responsible to denounce and expose these false prophets and treat them just like agents of the devil, because both groups of evil creatures seek “to obtain the perpetual hurt of their souls of so many that by these false miracles may be induced … in the profession of that eroneous Religon.”22 The similarities of these two kinds of witches were obvious to James. He notes the comparison between a witch's sabbath and the actions of “papist priests, dispatching a haunting mass.”23

James believed that the lawful magistrate must frustrate and expose the plots and activities of Papists. Thus he saw nothing inconsistent in his negotiations with the Pope in the last years of Elizabeth's reign. Since they were conducted to prevent a Catholic from securing the English throne, James was merely discharging his duties as a lawful lieutenant by making sure that God's will was enacted. In this age of divine enlightenment, James was still acutely aware that despite the best efforts of the lawful magistrate, witchcraft and heresy still flourished. “We now being of sound religion,” James observed, “and in our life rebelling to our profession, God justly, by that sin of rebellion as Samuel called it, accuseth our life so willfully fighting against our profession.”24

This concern with fulfilling the role of the godly magistrate motivated his interest in a new translation of the Bible. James was dissatisfied with the editions available in England at his accession. When the Puritans at the Hampton Court conference, in 1604, requested a new translation of the Bible, James agreed. In expressing his dislike of the Geneva edition, he used the same formulation he expressed in Daemonologie to note his objections to the marginal notes of the Geneva translation. He felt that some of the comments were “partial, untrue, seditious and savouring of traiterous conceits.” It was the source of error and must be corrected. Of particular interest to James was the commentary on Second Chronicles, XV, 16. James wanted the account of King Asa expanded to note that he not only deposed his mother for her idolatrous practices but also had her executed. James wanted the role of the lawful monarch clearly marked in his new translation of the Bible for his new subjects in England.25

Thus, as King James concluded at the end of his narrative on the events in Scotland, “The King is the child and servant of God and they but servants to the devil … He is the Lord's annointed … they but the vessels of God's wrath: He is a true Christian … they worse than Infidels.”26 Throughout his life he sought to implement this message and demonstrate to his subjects how to treat those he considered worse than infidels. He used every device at his command to fulfill the obligation of a lawful magistrate and to protect his flock from the temptations and spells of witches, false prophets, heretics and impostors. These activities were motivated by the same concerns which caused him to authorize a new translation of the Bible. While the two sets of interests seem contradictory to modern scholars and make a monarch, who was contemporary with Bacon, Kepler and Galileo seem medieval, for King James these forces were part of the same cosmology. To deny the devil was to deny God and his omnipotence. Thus the true version of King James was a combination of the two with each being the reference for the other. As King James said at the conclusion of Book II of Daemonologie:27

For since the Devil is the very contrary opposite of God, there can be no better way to know God than by the contrary; as by ones power (though a creature) to admire the power of the great Creator; by the falsehood of the one to consider the truth of the other, by the injustice of the one, to consider the Justice of the other; and by the cruelty of the one, to consider the mercifulness of the other and so forth in all the rest of the essence of God and qualities of the Devil.


  1. For a useful summary of the major elements in this continuing controversy see Norman Cantor, The English (New York, 1967), pp. 278-310 or Lawrence Stone, The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642 (New York, 1972), pp. 58-117. For the most recent reassertion by a principal in the debate see Geoffrey R. Elton's review of Penry William's The Tudor Regime in the Times Literary Supplement, (February 15, 1980) p. 183.

  2. While this concept was developed by R. R. Palmer to expand Michael Kraus' view of a transatlantic eighteenth-century revolution it is now used to unify a broad spectrum of revolutionary activity which occurred between 1770 and the Congress of Vienna. Students of the “English Revolution” were quick to adopt this paradigm and to characterize the events in England between 1640 and 1689 as the first in a series of major, modern, “democratic revolutions.” For examples of this view see Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution (London, 1961) and Stuart Prall, The Bloodless Revolution (New York, 1972) especially pp. VII-XV, passim.

  3. Two historians of Scotland—Gordon Donaldson Scotland James V-James VII (Edinburgh, 1965), pp. 212-240 and Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI's Government of Scotland After 1603,” Scottish Historical Review, LV (1976), 41-53————and one student of English history—Marc L. Schwarz, “James I and the Historians: Toward a Reconsideration,” Journal of British Studies, XIII (1974), 114-134————are the only modern scholars to suggest that some aspects of King James' reputation might be rehabilitated. Most scholars accept the judgements of David H. Willson, King James VI and I, (New York, 1956) whose biography is scholarly, judicious, and presents a depiction of the Stuart monarch which is highly unflattering.

  4. I James I, cap. 12.

  5. Alan D. J. Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (New York, 1970) pp. 14-16. The text and table compares the provisions of this act with the 1563 Elizabethan “Act against Conjurgations, Enchantments, and Witchcraft.” For the full text of the Elizabethan law see V Elizabeth I, cap. 16.

  6. D. H. Willson, King James VI and I, pp. 309-310.

  7. R. Trevor Davies, Four Centuries of Witch-Beliefs, (London, 1947) pp. 58-60. He quotes Nicholas Fuller Church History of Britain, X, p. 54, to assert that James had abandoned his belief in witchcraft by 1621. Macfarlane notes that the general pardon issued by James in 1624 excluded the practitioners of witchcraft from its benefits, p. 16. While James may have wearied of exposing impostors, it is my contention that it was philosophically impossible for James to repudiate the devil and his agents. They were an essential part of his religious world view. Without them, James' justification for the claims of the divine “rights” of the monarchs would be undermined. Since the system James developed expended much effort to explain the role and functions of false witches, it is unlikely that James would abandon it at the very end of his reign. Witchcraft was an integral part of James' religious and philosophical writings and his official actions, to the very end of his reign, affirmed his belief in the reality of Satan and his agents.

  8. David Mathews, James I (London, 1967) pp. 75-80. David H. Willson, King James VI and I. pp. 103-6, 308-312.

  9. King James I; Daemonologie (1597) and Newes From Scotland (1591) in George B. Harrison, ed., Elizabethan and Jacobean Quartos (New York, 1966). This standard version is a reproduction of the 1922-26 Bodley Head Quartos based on Bodlean MSS—Douce I, 230 and Wood B21. All citations in this paper refer to this edition. All spelling has been modernized.

  10. Ibid., pp. xi-xii.

  11. Ibid., pp. xii. Newes From Scotland, pp. 1-29. John Harrington, ed., Nugae Antiquae, I, 367.

  12. William L. McElwee, The Wisest Fool in Christiandom (London, 1958), pp. 70-71.

  13. King James, Basilikon Doron, (London, 1601), p. 1, and in Charles H. McIlwain, ed., The Political Works of James I (Cambridge, Mass., 1918).

  14. John Harrington, ed., Nugae Antiquae, I, 367.

  15. Daemonologie, p. 6.

  16. Ibid., p. 48.

  17. Ibid., p. 9

  18. Ibid., pp. 20, 23, XIV, “God by the contrary draws ever out of that evil, glory to himself.”

  19. Ibid., p. 50.

  20. Willson, James VI and I, p. 309.

  21. W. Cobbett, T. B. Howell, et. al., A Complete Collection of State Trials, II (London, 1809-1829), 799.

  22. Daemonologie, p. 77.

  23. Ibid., p. 72.

  24. Ibid., p. 54.

  25. William Barlow (Bishop), Sum and Substance of the Conference … (London, 1604), pp. 44-48. Most of this is reprinted in J. R. Tanner, Constitutional Documents of the Reign of James I, 1603-1625 (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 63-64.

  26. Newes From Scotland, p. 29.

  27. Daemonologie, p. 55.

Terrell L. Tebbetts (essay date spring 1985)

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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 relationship with Shakespeare's play; W. W. Lawrence, for example, claimed that any resemblance between the works was likely to be “accidental” (108).1 But more recently those resemblances have seemed too strong for most readers to doubt that Shakespeare deliberately drew on the Basilicon Doron in writing Measure for Measure, perhaps even taking his title from James's concluding allusion to Scripture: “And above all, let the measure of your love to everyone be according to the measure of his virtue …” (156-57).2 Ernest Schanzer, for instance, finds “a great deal of plausibility” in the thesis that Measure for Measure “was deliberately made to turn upon themes which were of special interest to James” (122).3 J. W. Lever agrees that Shakespeare “could hardly have been impervious to the political atmosphere of the time or quite uninfluenced by the most widely discussed book of 1603” (22).4

In light of this kind of agreement, critical debate has begun to focus on the nature of the relationship between the works, and of course various writers have expressed varying opinions. Josephine Bennett holds that Shakespeare used James's book primarily to make his play more topical, mining it for “allusions easily caught by the majority of the audience” in order to build the play's “comic effect” (82).5 David Stevenson, on the other hand, sees an effort by Shakespeare to please the King, “to dramatize the intellectual interests of his new patron” (147).6 Whatever the differences between these opinions and others, many critics in recent years have shared two assumptions. First, they agree that the Duke speaks for and embodies the King's ideas. Second, they agree that the play's presentation of the Duke is almost entirely positive.

This near unanimity of opinion among critics dealing with the relationship of the two works is most puzzling. The second assumption is especially so, since critics approaching the play along other lines have frequently found the Duke's character to be problematic; they have questioned both his motivation and his accomplishments, not only in fulfilling his large responsibilities but also in dealing with the specific personalities and problems within the framework of the play. When a full account of these views is taken, it appears that though the Duke may indeed echo the King and may indeed use his advice in bringing events to apparently successful conclusion, in subtler ways the characterization of the Duke brings some of James's assumptions into real question. Only a few critics investigating the relationship of Measure for Measure to the Basilicon Doron have seen the play as a critical response to the book. Among the best of these few, Roy Battenhouse finds the play “altering and deftly bettering James's precepts, in order to propose obliquely … a more satisfying version of government than James had so far formulated” (193).7 But even this stops short, for Battenhouse sees in the play only a plea that James add a fuller, more Christian mercy to his otherwise acceptable views on statecraft. This stops short because there is a real possibility that the play finds the King's views anything but acceptable. The King's statecraft, as embodied in the Duke, may in fact be the object of Shakespeare's subtlest satire in Measure for Measure. The play may well be the playwright's way of talking back to a very opinionated king.

A close look at the Basilicon Doron reveals a good deal for Shakespeare to pause over. Certainly the book is full of good advice. James writes as a two-fold father—the father of Prince Henry who will become King, and the father of the nations of England and Scotland. And certainly that role was one the Renaissance expected its kings to play. In fact, as Elizabeth Pope explains it, Renaissance expectations of the King went beyond mere fallible fatherhood: “According to Renaissance theory, the authority of all civil rulers is derived from God. Hence, they may be called ‘gods’ … because they act as God's substitutes” (57).8

James's stance in his little book clearly fulfills these high expectations. Repeatedly he assumes for himself a kind of perfection not ordinarily available to human kind. He admits to a former flaw or two (the kind of early laxness that Shakespeare's Duke admits), but these flaws have, he assumes, been overcome, so that the best his son and his nation can do is to submit totally to his habits, his judgment, his will. He goes so far as to counsel Henry that any “unreverent writing or speaking of your parents” ought to be held “unpardonable” (38), and that Henry's choice of servants and advisers ought to be limited to those his father had chosen, with Henry keeping “constant love toward them that I loved” and “constant hatred to them I hated” (79). He advises his son to “foster true humility” toward his parents (115) and to avoid “judging your superiors” and incurring the “curse of the Parents” (116).

The father is suggesting, through these and other demands, that the son deny the validity of his own experience and judgment, and become a puppet for the father, an empty shell in which the father can live and extend his life another generation. He makes the demand based on the assumption of his own perfection. He is a king who has become able to subject “his own private affections and appetites to the weal and standing of his subjects, ever thinking the common interest his chiefest particular” (29). He is a king who can administer justice “only for the love of justice and not for satisfying any particular passions” of his own (35). Naturally such perfection has a right to dominate the kingdom and the son, space and time. Apotheosis is the only just reward for the perfect patriarch.

Can a critic really believe that Shakespeare could read such naive assumptions of patriarchal perfection and respond to the King who wrote it only with echoes, compliments, and gentle additions? Evidence suggests otherwise. Unkingly fathers filled with such stuff appear elsewhere in such guises as Polonius, full of high sentence yet almost indeed a fool. Kingly fathers fare no better, for serving as God's substitute does little to make Claudius, Macbeth, and Lear any less guided by their own “particular passions” than any other mortal. Shakespeare was too clear a seer to take Renaissance political theory or King James I's use of it at face value. He saw too clearly the fallibility of kings to accept the perfection of their judgments and the right of their wills to control both their own world and their children's. Measure for Measure takes on this disparity between royal assumptions and royal realities. It beguiled its first royal audience and its most recent critics alike, for its words echo those royal assumptions rather comfortably. Its actions, on the other hand, are another matter. For a sensitive reader, the play's actions dramatically question those patriarchal assumptions and the political theory supporting them.

Textual and historical evidence supports this position. The material Shakespeare added to his dramatic sources in creating Measure for Measure shows the Duke to be Shakespeare's major addition. He took a bit character whose role in Whetstone had been nothing but that of a convenient deus ex machina and turned him into the chief character and key to the whole action of the play. Introducing such a figure surely suggests that the playwright had something more than topicality and flattery on his mind. The disparity between the actual behavior of James and the grand assumptions of his little book suggests what Shakespeare may in fact have had in mind. The King's extravagance as James VI of Scotland and his excessive devotion to personal pursuits and pleasures had already established a pattern which E. K. Chambers describes as “loose-fibred self-indulgence” and which would quickly lead to “a marked degeneration in the standard court life” in England (1:107).9 Such evidence compels us to a close look at how the Duke behaves in the play and how that behavior might offer subtle but firm correction to the man whose words he frequently echoes.

It might be best to begin such a close look by acknowledging that the Duke's words, his announced intentions, are indeed noble. No doubt they inspire not only those who see flattery in the play but also those who see the Duke as representing Divine Justice and Divine Mercy. He speaks to Escalus of his respect for Angelo, and claims to have “dressed him in our love” (1.1.20).10 He speaks to Angelo of the deputy's virtues and puts aside Angelo's request for more testing of those virtues before they're given full scope. He speaks to Friar Thomas of his own fault in letting liberty get out of hand and of his desire to remedy that fault. He speaks to Claudio of the small worth of dull, sublunary existence and soliloquizes on the importance of “grace” and “virtue” in a ruler (3.2.278). He soliloquizes on his desire to bring Isabella “heavenly comforts” out of her “despair” (4.3.114).

But even in acknowledging how admirable these words sound, we must also acknowledge their problematic nature and the sometimes equal importance of words which the Duke does not bother to speak. Robin Grove questions a number of the Duke's speeches, seeing in them reflections of a man “sensitive to his own dignity above all,” adding that the play gives “not the slightest sign” that the Duke is ever touched by others' sufferings (10,22).11 Rosalind Miles agrees, noting that the Duke “registers no distress or passion” for those he finds in pain (177).12 These critics miss only the potential application of their observations to James I as the probable source for the Duke's character and the King before whom the play was to be performed. We can only imagine how much that performance may have been like the one Hamlet arranges for Claudius, but Battenhouse must be right when he calls the play a “trap for meditation” (212). Perhaps, “Mousetrap” would be better, for the problem here is greater than Battenhouse sees it when he accepts James's premises in the Basilicon Doron as sound but only a bit short of being “integrally Christian” (195). The point seems to be that a system of government cannot function when built on Stuart assumptions, particularly on what Stevenson calls the “bland assumption of [a monarch's] personal right to interfere in the lives of all subordinate persons” (159). The play's response to King James and his bland assumption seems to be that noble views and apparently noble objectives can very easily mask one's self-seeking even from oneself. Such a position would certainly have been daring, especially if the King were subtle enough to catch it, but if the King was as self-deceived as the Duke is, Shakespeare had little to fear. R. A. Foakes sees this feature of the play, characterizing the Duke as both “deceiving others” and “deceived himself” (25).13 To Foakes, though, the negative characteristics of the Duke are so strong as to rule out the possibility that he is a dramatization of James's kingship. To others it is tantalizing to see Shakespeare warning his monarch that noble words and even noble objectives, when masking one's own self-magnification, can lead to results anything but noble, results that offer destruction masked as reformation and totalitarianism masked as community.

Masked destruction and tyranny do indeed seem to be the result of the Duke's activity. His masking is one of the most obvious devices of the play, one that has drawn varying misinterpretations. Miles is a recent spokesman for the positive school, seeing “the disguise of the kindly father” as preparing us to see the Duke as “an ultimately benevolent authority” (190). She thus lines up with Lawrence's earlier claim that the duke-disguised-as-friar was a mere theatrical convention aimed at giving the figure the “binding force or constituted and final authority” but at the same time leaving the figure “of minor importance” as a study in character (103, 110). The problem with this positive interpretation of the Duke's friar mask is that it too greatly contradicts the historical conclusion that Miles herself draws: “the ironic possibilities of the friar disguise must have been so obvious to an audience of 1604 that they needed only allusion rather than explanation … playwrights were using it with a specific intention, in order to provoke a specific response, usually ironic” (167). Miles is more nearly right when she uses this finding to contradict Lawrence, holding that historical evidence gives “no indication that a friar would automatically command respect from an audience of 1604, or necessarily represent venerated authority” (170).

Irony is, in fact, the key to the mask. The friar's robe wraps the Duke in holy garb not his own just as his pious words enwrap his actions. From a Freudian perspective, for example, the disguise as a celibate friar could suggest the father's asexual discourse, his assurances that the taboos he enforces in the family have nothing to do with his own sexual/political interests but are sanctioned by a higher, impersonal authority. Such an application of the irony in the Duke's disguise is strengthened when we realize that the Duke drops the disguise—his convenient manipulative mask—in the same scene in which he claims sexual possession of Isabella, his virginal “daughter.” The irony becomes doubly important when it applies not just to the father of one family (James and Henry) but to a sometime political theorist positioning himself as father of the nation. The mask of personal perfection and social disinterest, Shakespeare hints, disguises serious threats to individuals and the community.

Individual characters clearly do feel the destructive hand of Shakespeare's Duke, especially Angelo and Isabella. The Duke destroys the personalities and plans his “son” and “daughter” have constructed for themselves and substitutes his own will for their lives, even though Isabella's and Angelo's own intentions are harmless enough and potentially productive. Miles has described the repeated “disintegration of the carefully erected self-image” of characters in the play (125); we would correct Miles by noting that the self-images collapse not because they fail to be whole (what “image” is an adequate substitute for reality?) but because the Duke violently rips them apart rather than nurturing them or allowing them to mature naturally.

Isabella has chosen a life of “strict restraint” in the convent. In so doing she has chosen to put aside a sexual life and to live apart from any sexual claims of men. Though an asexual life of prayer and devotion certainly is not to everyone's taste, it is an honorable calling—especially honorable in the Vienna of the play—and one that holds much promise for a young woman to develop her potential even unto sainthood. Certainly Angelo makes the first assault on Isabella in acts one and two; he is the first to assert a sexual claim on her that denies her self-defined status. Yet in the latter half of the play, the Duke misleads her, lies to her, shocks her doubly with her brother's supposed death and sudden resurrection, and then when she is as incapable of making a sound decision or of asserting her own wishes as any human can be, he makes his own sexual claim on her and cancels her right to self-definition. Her silence at the end of the play is not so hard to understand: it is the natural result of such shock as the Duke has put her through, and also the appropriate symbol for the Duke's effective cancellation of what was authentically “Isabella” in her. She is now his and will henceforth continue to speak the scripts he feeds her.

Criticism's rush to the Duke's defense in all of this is more than a bit puzzling, especially in light of Shakespeare's repeated depictions of admirable young women in pursuit of their own, independent goals. His Violas, his Rosalinds, his Beatrices pursue men rather than sainthood, to be sure, but they pursue them independently, because the men they choose suit them. Yet from critics we hear sanguine remarks on the Duke's having “cleansed the prospective bride (Isabella) of her lack of charity” (211),14 and having made her more human, more compassionate (65-69),15 and we get psychological assurances that Isabella reaches a final “acceptance of herself as a woman” through the Duke's ministry (181).16 What leads critics to take the Duke's brutal treatment of Isabella for spiritual and psychological nurture? The misreading itself suggests that they operate from two mistaken assumptions: that the play accepts the right of a dominant patriarch to claim available females despite their wishes (i.e., though Isabella rejects Angelo's claim, she should accept the Duke's), and that the play accepts the Duke at his own valuation (i.e., if he says he is bringing her heavenly comforts, then that must be what he does bring her).

Angelo's character suffers a similar destruction at the Duke's hand. Certainly Angelo participates more fully in his destruction than Isabella does in hers, specifically through his persecution of Isabella and Claudio. When he is publicly disgraced, he has done much to “deserve” that disgrace. But acknowledging this much does not cleanse the Duke of his responsibility in Angelo's fall. Critics have long noted the importance of the idea of mercy in Measure for Measure; in so doing they have examined the need of Angelo and Isabella to learn the ways of mercy, while seeing the Duke most often as the teacher of those ways. Bennett, for instance, holds that “the Duke embodies Divine mercy which watches over man, giving him power to do both good and evil, yet guiding, teaching …” (126). With such insight into the play, critics have still missed commenting on how the theme of mercy becomes problematic when applied to the Duke's treatment of Angelo. Certainly keeping Angelo from raping Isabella and killing Claudio prevents his worst intentions from becoming reality, and granting him his life would be widely viewed as an act of mercy. The problem arises, however, in looking at the Duke's earlier actions and inactions, and in comparing them with what we might expect from a truly merciful individual, especially from a disinterested and perfect patriarch.

What the earlier actions show us is that the Duke recognizes Angelo's probity, his “stricture and firm abstinence” (1.3.12) but that he mistrusts that probity partly because of Angelo's putting aside his engagement and partly for the very strength of that probity itself, since Angelo “scarce confesses / That his blood flows or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone” (1.3.51-53). He suspects, therefore, that Angelo may fail in his difficult assignment. Perhaps we should ask what anyone in Angelo's position would want of his superior in such a case—what, for instance, a Shakespearean scholar would want of his dean if that dean were making him acting department chair. Surely normal professional responsibility, let alone Christian mercy, would call for some counsel on areas of weakness, some advice on how to avoid the traps the new responsibility brings with it, especially when the “patriarch” sees that the initiate may fail. Yet the Duke offers Angelo only flattery:

There is a kind of character in thy life,
That to th'observer doth thy history
Fully unfold. Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.


And just as surely that same professional responsibility and Christian mercy would call for a trial run, a testing of the new person's ability in small areas before entrusting that person with the largest job. Angelo even asks for such a trial:

Let there be some more test made of my metal
Before so noble and so great a figure
Be stamped upon it.


But the Duke responds by calling such requests “evasions.” It seems fair to conclude that the Duke himself is like Angelo, a “seemer” whose real “being” lies hidden. Angelo's later actions certainly reveal him to be a hypocrite; the Duke's early actions suggest that he is one too. He takes a rising young statesman and sets him up for a fall, without a single word or action to prevent it, hiding his expectation of that fall from everyone in Vienna, even old Escalus. When the expected fall comes, it destroys Angelo's future in statecraft, and Vienna's rising star, perhaps a potential rival for the Duke in statesmanship, is sunk. The Duke spares Angelo his life after assuring that it will be lived in obscurity and shame with no one to blame but himself. The Duke remains Vienna's unrivaled and only statesman and its most successful masked avenger.

The Duke's destruction of Isabella and his participation in Angelo's are subtle but firm responses to King James and his Stuart concept of kingship. The Duke's participation in the collapse of these individuals' lives perhaps most closely responds to King James's view of his position as Prince Henry's father in the Basilicon Doron, the view that the son's best hope lies in following all of his father's policies and employing all of his father's ministers. But of course the idea extends beyond this one possible application, reaching finally to the real problematic nature of patriarchy. It suggests to the monarch-father that his position is far more complex than is suggested by his easy assumption of his own present perfection and of the “right” granted by that perfection to dominate the lives of the subjects-children. The coin of his realm may bear the image a perfect king on its obverse, but only if it bears the image of ruin on its reverse. Look on both sides, the play seems to say.

And it says more. The Duke's destructiveness moves beyond what he does to the individuals Isabella and Angelo. He does a pretty good job on political and social institutions, too. Both law (and thus the state) and marriage (and thus the family) suffer at his hands. Stuart statecraft, the play seems to say, not only can damage individual lives but can also undermine the very bases of social life.

The Duke masks his destructive effect on law and the state with the same noble sentiments that masked his destruction of individuals. He tells Escalus that he admires his knowledge of the properties of government, his experience in the “city's institutions, and the terms / For common justice” (1.1.11-12), and he tells Friar Thomas that he regrets having neglected enforcing the city's laws to the point that “our decrees / Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead” (1.3.27-28). This regret, of course, echoes King James's admission in the Basilicon Doron that he had been too lenient in the past: if, he warns Prince Henry, you are too merciful early in your reign, “the offenses would soon come to such heaps, and the contempt of you grow so great, that when you would fall to punish, the number of them to be punished would exceed the punishers” (36-37). The King says he learned this lesson from his own experience: “I confess, where I thought (by being gracious at the beginning) to win all men's hearts to a loving and willing obedience, I by the contrary found the disorder of the country and the tinsel of my thanks to be all my reward” (37). But the play quickly moves beyond the Duke's humble confession, polite admiration, his seemingly responsible intentions—that is, beyond the mask of his words—and shows as what his actions actually accomplish.

They do not do much to strengthen the law and the state. By the end of the play the law has been shown to be overharsh, and its most visible enforcer has been exposed as a hypocrite. Yet there is no promise, no hint even, that the law will be changed, that it will be brought into accord with what the people of Vienna need in order to live together with civility. Instead the Duke has inserted himself between the people and the law, making himself superior to it—becoming, in effect, the savior of the people from the law. Thus he turns Mariana, Isabella, and the friars over to Escalus for trial but then returns to make a mockery of the due process of law and to usurp the role of justice he just handed over to Escalus. And when he then hands out justice, naturally, he substitutes his own idiosyncratic sentences for what the law demands. What are the people of Vienna likely to learn in this spectacle? Probably not that law is the binding force that makes their city what it is. Probably not that judges and courts are capable of administering the law. But they probably do learn that the Duke knows better than the law and is the only reliable source of justice. He has become the law.

Shakespeare would not have had to rely only on the Basilicon Doron to see that the statecraft of that little book could have such consequences. Certainly such consequences would be suggested by its simplistic patriarchal stance, its intolerance of opposition, and many of its specific recommendations (e.g., that the King should spy on the proceedings of his courts). But Shakespeare also had the evidence of the King's own behavior on the throne. The King's emptying of England's jails as he journeyed from Scotland to London but then choosing to have the Newark pickpocket summarily hanged is as idiosyncratic as the Duke's justice. His treatment of the Raleigh conspirators—his arrangement to have his last-minute clemency delivered only when the men were on the scaffold and at the point of execution—was as disruptive a substitution of his own will for due process of law as the actions of the Duke are. Statecraft that assumes the patriarch's omniscience, statecraft that places the patriarch's will between the law and the people, finally destroys the law. It forces society to organize itself around the person of the patriarch. To the degree that that person is erratic, so will social structures be.

Perhaps the Duke's destructiveness is most fully revealed in what he does to the family. In all of Shakespeare's dramatizations of successful marriages, the indispensible feature is mutuality. In the romantic comedies, characters preparing for successful marriages first develop strong, independent lives; their marriages result from their mutual choice of each other and their willingness to give up some of that independence in establishing their family. Maturer marriages—where they are portrayed in Shakespeare—continue to be successful to the degree that couples continue their mutual respect for each other as individuals, still largely independent within their new bonds. Perhaps The Merry Wives of Windsor provides the best illustration since its plots present a full range of marriages in the romantic and mature stages. The principal difference between the successful marriage of the Pages and the rockier one of Fords is the degree to which the husband trusts his wife to live chastely on her own—independently, without the husband's oversight. And the principal quality that recommends Fenton as young Anne Page's best suitor is that their attraction to each other is mutual. Othello offers similar illustrations: the romantic stage of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona is successfully based on mutual attraction and voluntary surrender, notably on the part of Desdemona, who has established her independence in rejecting suitors offered by her father and then selecting Othello as her husband. Their marriage fails tragically for the same reason the Fords' almost failed comically—because the husband fails to trust the wife to live up to her responsibility to him while maintaining her independent will.

Now in Measure for Measure marriage is central. Profligacy that makes independence the only good runs rampant; prostitution, fornication, and adultery threaten the kind of mutual surrender that Shakespeare's successful marriages seem to be based on. The Duke uses language drawn from the family when describing the sorrowful state of disorder in Vienna: “The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum” (1.3.30-31). Even the comic scenes suggest problems in the family—in that of Elbow and his respected wife, the only married couple mentioned in the play apart from the semi-married Claudio and Juliet. By the end of the play, all this seems to be solved: the Duke's major visible accomplishment is the claiming of Isabella as his wife, the forced marriages of Angelo and Mariana and of Lucio and his punk, and the completion of the marriage of Claudio and Juliet. With marriage instituted as the new rule in Vienna, the family would seem to be returning to its proper form and proper place as the basis of the larger social structures. The problems would seem to be solved.

Certainly most criticism has taken this somewhat sanguine line. Battenhouse sees the marriages as properly ending the near worship of self that has marked the behavior of the “independence” party: “… the Duke is mercifully providing for their welfare, while justly ending their evasions of duty to themselves and to the public” (200). Arthur Kirsh goes even further, rhapsodizing that “marriage always in Shakespeare has sacramental value, and never more than in Measure for Measure, where it is seen as a sanctification of impulses that could otherwise damn us, as the means through procreation by which we can make true coin of the currency of our lives, by which we can—literally—remake ourselves in the image of our Creator” (100).17 The problem with this approach, of course, is its naivete. It is based on the notion that marriage is good in every case, that all marriages are equal. Note, for instance, Kirsch's “always.” The plays, on the other hand, present repeated evidence that Shakespeare knew much better than this. For Shakespeare, marriage is as problematic as fatherhood. The question remains, then, whether the marriages made by the Duke are like Shakespeare's successful ones or his unsuccessful ones, whether they strengthen the family or hide its weakness under a mask of strength.

The evidence in Shakespeare and in everyday life is that the Duke's marriages do the latter. Angelo has been tricked and then forced into a disadvantageous marriage with Mariana, one that Renaissance law held he had every right to repudiate. What kind of relationship is he likely to have with the woman who connived in the trick and consented to his public disgrace? Lucio's marriage is likely to be worse. Will being forced into a marriage with a “whore” make him suddenly “responsible” to her or their child? And Isabella's ability to participate mutually in her marriage to the Duke is already indicated by her silence; unless modern productions interpreting the silence as defiance are accurate, she participates not out of mutual surrender but out of vanquishment, and a marriage forced upon a defiant individual, of course, would fare no better. The utter lack of mutuality in all of these marriages suggests that they are little more than whited sepulchres. They are monuments to the Duke's power to form society along the lines of his own will. They have not arisen organically out of real needs of the people involved—as law ought to have but didn't—but they have been imposed from the top. In taking this right to form families at his will, the Duke in effect becomes not only “law” but “society” as well. Why not, when all that is whole lies in himself, all that is corrupt, without?

What a far-reaching, firm response Shakespeare makes to his monarch's little book on statecraft. The playwright offers the King a vision of his egoistic, paternalistic assumptions played out with apparent success, with their spokesman the great and only victor in Vienna and its Savior. But Shakespeare challenges King James and his readers to look beneath the friar's robe, the pious words, the masks of success. He challenges us to understand the complex role of the father—in a family and in a state—and the fragile nature of both marriage and law—the basis of society on the one hand, and its framework on the other. He implies the need for a society based not on the Basilicon Doron's paternalism but on what is organic to human life and is mutually agreed on. Such a society, Measure for Measure implies, might give each individual a chance to be a victor, and might leave no individual in need of a human savior.


  1. William W. Lawrence. Shakespeare's Problem Comedies. New York: Ungar, 1960.

  2. James I. Basilicon Doron. 1599. Menston, England: Scholar Press, 1969.

  3. Ernest Schanzer. The Problem Plays of Shakespeare: A Study of Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, and Antony and Cleopatra. London: Paul, 1963.

  4. J. W. Lever. “The Disguised Ruler.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Measure for Measure. Ed. George Greckle. Englewood: Prentice, 1970.

  5. Josephine W. Bennett. Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment. New York: Columbia UP, 1966.

  6. David L. Stevenson. The Achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1966.

  7. Roy Battenhouse. “Measure for Measure and King James.” CLIO7 (1978).

  8. Elizabeth M. Pope. “The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure.Twentieth Century Interpretations of Measure for Measure. Ed. George Greckle. Englewood: Prentice, 1970.

  9. E. K. Chambers, et al. Shakespeare's England: An Account of the Life and Manners of His Age. 2 vols. 1916. Oxford: Clarendon, 1950.

  10. William Shakespeare. The Complete Works. Ed. G. B. Harrison. New York: Harcourt, 1968. All subsequent references are to this edition.

  11. Robin Grove. “A Measure for Magistrates.” The Critical Review 19 (1977): 10, 22.

  12. Rosalind Miles. The Problem of Measure for Measure: A Historical Approach. New York: Barnes, 1976.

  13. R. A. Foakes. Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays: From Satire to Celebration. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1971.

  14. Battenhouse.

  15. Bennett.

  16. Marilyn Williamson. “Oedipal Fantasies in Measure for Measure.The Michigan Academician 9 (1976).

  17. Arthur Kirsh. “The Integrity of Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975).

J. Derrick McClure (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6474

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 face of James, with its ungracious yet disconcertingly penetrating glower. By the mere fact of dying peacefully in his bed he attained to a distinction rare enough among Scottish kings; and by doing so after a long and on the whole successful reign lasting from his childhood he achieved a status unique in the annals of the House of Stewart. His political achievements, as King of Scots, King of England and an active player on the European scene, are by any standards remarkable; and his success in maintaining order in both his kingdoms, and exercising a powerful influence for peace in Europe, is all the more extraordinary through being achieved in defiance of almost unending criticism directed at—from different quarters and at different times of his life—his religion, his political theories, his nationality, his physique, his recreations, his drinking, his scholarship, his choice of companions, his artistic tastes, his personal hygiene, his sense of humour and much else. An idiosyncratic blend of political acumen and personal eccentricity, such as James displayed, is not so unusual among European monarchs; but James adds to this a truly amazing capacity for provoking diametrically opposite reactions, from his own time to the present, in each of his two kingdoms: Scottish accounts of James VI and English accounts of James I can scarcely be understood as referring to the same man.1 All these factors make of James perhaps the most fascinating and (with the obvious exception of his mother) certainly the most controversial figure ever to occupy the Scottish throne: for the scholarly attempts at undercutting the heroic stature of Robert Bruce, in the first half of the present century, represent a passing aberration, now happily resolved, rather than part of an enduring debate.

Beyond controversy is the guid conceit which James had of himself; and no doubt his lasting fame would have pleased him greatly. Yet in one respect he has not had the attention which he would certainly have considered his due. As self-appointed head of the Castalian Band he exerted considerable influence on Scottish literature during a short-lived but interesting and distinctive phase, and his leadership has been acknowledged and discussed. But James, besides being an enthusiastic patron of poets, was—or at least tried to be—a poet in his own right. On poetic theory he wrote with sense and shrewdness: his Schort Treatise, derivative though much of it is, is the work of a man who had not only studied but clearly understood the precepts and the practice of earlier poets and scholars. His prescriptions on ‘the wordis, sentences, and phrasis necessair for a Poete to vse in his verse’ are sound practical advice. More interesting are his observations on metre: his technical terminology is sometimes idiosyncratic and sometimes erroneous (though he can hardly be censured for a mistake as widespread, in the sixteenth century and much later, as the misleading use of long and short to mean stressed and unstressed; but a modern reader familiar with metrical theory can see beyond this to the fact that he had come much nearer to grasping the principle of stress-timing and the prosodic structure of English (and Scots) words than many of his contemporaries. His own poetic effusions, too, were widely remarked on in his time, often in terms of high praise.2 The complimentary sonnets prefaced to his Essayes of a Prentise need not, of course, be taken as the writers' true estimate of James's work: Montgomerie's fulsome eulogy in particular:

Can goldin Titan schyning bright at morne
For light of Torchis, cast ane greater shaw?
Can Thunder reard the heicher for a horne?
Craks Cannons louder, thoght ane Cok sould craw?

admirable though it is as rhetoric, must provoke some scepticism. (One should remember, however, that those poets were not only judiciously flattering their king but kindly encouraging a very young man of unmistakable promise.) Much more significant is the tribute paid by Du Bartas in the dedicatory introduction to his translation of James's Lepanto:

Hé! fusse-je vrayment, ô Phoenix escossois,
Ou l'ombre de ton corps, ou l'echo de ta voix,
Si je n'avoy l'azur, l'or, et l'argent encore
Dont ton plumage astré brilliantement s'honnore,
Au moins j'auroy ta forme; et si mon rude vers
N'exprimoit la douceur de tant d'accords divers,
Il retiendroit quelque air de tes voix plus qu'humaines,
Mais, pies, taisez-vous pour ouyr les Camœnes.(3)

Du Bartas, perhaps, had appreciated James's enthusiasm for his own work (the young king, in inviting the French poet to visit his court, had expressed himself as eager to meet Du Bartas as Alexander to meet Diogenes)4 and been pleased with the royal entertainment he received at Falkland: nonetheless, he was in no way dependent on James's patronage as the Scottish court poets were; and this dignified compliment is surely a genuine expression of regard.

Yet James's personal contribution to Scottish poetry, as distinct from his indirect influence on the development of it at his court, has rarely received the attention of critics: even by the standards of Scottish poets apart from the very greatest, he is a neglected figure.5 Assuredly he is no Montgomerie or Drummond, and—unlike his great ancestor James I—nothing can make his achievements in the poetic field seem comparable in magnitude to those in the political; but his poetry is at least of sufficient interest to warrant a serious assessment.

A difficulty in judging the work of a poet who is also a major historical figure with an exceptionally well-documented life story is that of considering his poems as poems and not as outcomes of events in his personal history or evidence regarding his thought or character. The song ‘Sen thocht is frie’, for example, is discussed by some historians as a revelation of the cunning and secretive cast of mind which James perforce acquired in early adolescence.6 No doubt it is this; but it is also a very good lyric. The simplicity and clarity of the language (in several cases defying, but to no ill effect, James's later precept against filling a line with monosyllables), the regular but not inflexible metre, and the skilful matching of the clause and sentence structure with the lineation and rhyme scheme—a feature conspicuously lacking in much of James's later work—shows technical aptitude of a respectable order. One is tempted to wonder whether the boy who wrote this song, which not only unites thought and expression in a less contrived manner but has the ring of spontaneity to a far greater extent than many of James's more mature writings, might have developed into a really considerable lyric poet if he had not become so fascinated with reulis and cautelis.

In sharp contrast to this early effort, the Essayes of a Prentise are clearly the work of a practitioner who, in his own belief at least, had learned exactly what poetry was and how he was expected to proceed in writing it. The graceful apologia in sonnet form which James appended to the collection makes the entirely just point: these are the works of a mere beginner in the craft, and:

Then, rather loaue my meaning and my panis,
Then lak my dull ingyne and blunted branis.


James's ambitions as a poet were lofty indeed, at any rate in his youth, but throughout his poetic career his meaning and his pains were very often in excess of his ingyne. The twelve sonnets which open his Essayes show this, at times all too clearly. The theme of these poems—a series of prayers to the various gods in turn, for the gift of poetry so inspired that readers will think they see and hear the gods' own works—could only have suggested itself to a man whose imagination was capable of being profoundly stirred by poetry; and his youthful eagerness cannot fail to arouse the sympathy, at the very least, of any reader. And in the last sonnet of the series if nowhere else, his ambitions are stated with real dignity:

I shall your names eternall euer sing,
I shall tread downe the grasse on Parnass hill
By making with your names the world to ring. …


The couplets in these sonnets are in some cases so weak as to suggest that James did not even realise the necessity to the sonnet form of a decisive conclusion; but this poem ends with firmness:

Essay me once, and if ye find me swerue,
Then thinke, I do not graces such deserue.


James knew well what poetry can do: his sonnet sequence is in effect a catalogue of traditional poetic themes (the stories of the gods, the changing seasons, the sea and voyages, heroic tragedy, warfare); and his technical competence is unfailing in the sense that he never writes a grossly unmetrical or cacophonous line. Nor is the writing without some felicitous touches. He can use alliteration judiciously, produce onomatopoeic lines such as:

                                        … the whiddering Boreas bolde,
With hiddeous hurling, rolling Rocks from hie,

(Sonnet 6, 5-6)

add colour to an address to Neptune by the use of technical terms from seafaring: ‘That readars think on leeboard, and on dworce’, (Sonnet 7, 3) and make a metrical list of sea creatures whose names (seahorse, mersvynis, pertrikis, that is, soles) or another feature (‘Selchs with oxin ee’) suggest the conceit:

In short, no fowle doth flie, nor beast doth go,
But thow hast fishes lyke to them and mo.

(Sonnet 8, 13-14)

The classical references, too, are sometimes turned to good effect: the cleverest instance, perhaps, being (from the same sonnet):

As Triton monster with a manly port,
Who drownd the Troyan trumpetour most raire. …


Bathos and vacuity intrude with distressing frequency, no doubt; and even the least practised of poets should not have been reduced to filling up a line with ‘seasons dowble twyse’ (2:8) (as likewise in the first two lines of a later “Sonnet to Chanceller Maitlane” he made twelve years into ‘… the space / That Titan six tymes twise his course does end’); making the phrase ‘that be / Myle longs’ cross a line break (8:9-10); comparing a smooth sea to alme for the sake of a rhyme with calme (7:14), or ending a sonnet with ‘visited by him’ (9:14). Yet as juvenilia, these sonnets show promise, and occasionally more than this.

The sonnet form continued to entice James, and some of his later exercises show considerable improvement in technique and inspiration over this early sequence. Certain easily-recognisable faults he never outgrew: blatant padding of lines, feeble rhyming tags, lines ending bathetically on semantically unimportant words, failure to counterpoint grammar with metre resulting in distortions of word order or ineptly run-on lines, and a general tendency to peg entire poems on ideas or conceits of insufficient weight to sustain them. A sonnet with an arresting opening may lapse into disappointing banality: examples are the third of the “Amatoria” sequence:

As on the wings of your enchanting fame
I was transported ou'r the stormie seas


and the ‘Sonnet painting out the perfect Poet’, where after the promising opening line, ‘A ripe ingine, a quicke and walkened witt’, the task of rendering as poetry a list of poets' qualities defeated James entirely. Sonnets which show a tolerable degree of competence throughout may be marred by a weak conclusion: the ‘Sonnet against the could that was in January 1616’, after a strongly alliterative lament on the baleful effects of the weather ends:

Curst bee that loue and may't continue short
That kills all creaturs and doth spoile our sport.


The witty ‘Sonnet on Sir William Alexanders harshe vearses after the Inglishe fasone’ opens effectively with the parody-rhetoric of:

Hould hould your hand, hould, mercy, mercy, spare
Those sacred nine that nurst you many a yeare,


proceeds to the deliberately jarring prosody of ‘Bewray there harsh hard trotting tumbling wayne’ (12), and then concludes with the solecism of making the Muses use a mixed metaphor: ‘Our songs are fil'd with smoothly flowing fire’ (14); and the fine line, ‘Although that crooked crawling Vulcan lie’ (“Amatoria” 5, 57), leads through a notably lifelike account of the fire spreading through ‘the greene and fizzing faggots made of tree’, only to fall flat in the hopelessly prosaic last line: ‘I houpe Madame it shall not be for noght’ (70). His poetic taste failed him much less often than his technique: the crass over-literalism of the second sonnet in the “Amatoria” sequence: ‘I frie in flammes’—‘my smoaking smarte’—‘And all my bloode as in a pann doeth playe’—is a breach of decorum of which he is rarely guilty.

On the occasions when he is able to sustain his verbal technique throughout and match it with a thought or idea of sufficient content, however, James can produce sonnets fully worthy of preservation. The two associated with the Basilikon Doron, particularly the verse summary of the argument of the book, can hardly be faulted on any count. The second of the three sonnets ‘When the King was surprised by the Earle Bothwell’ effectively employs an unusually forceful vocabulary, a skilful weaving of alliteration within and across lines, and a striking anaphora in the last quatrain:

How long shall Furies on our fortunes feede
How long shall vice her raigne possesse in rest
How long shall Harpies our displeasure breede
And monstrous foules sitt sicker in our nest.


The rhetorical catalogue, a frequent device, is turned to expert use in the sonnet which concludes the Poeticall Exercises, where the things of the created universe are listed in due order from ‘The azur'd vaulte, the crystall circles bright’ to ‘the bounded roares and fishes of the seas’; and the same theme and method are applied in the second of his poetic tributes to Tycho Brahe, which summarises in imposing language the Christian model of the universe. The names of classical deities appear with monotonous frequency in James's verse and rarely suggest anything but the routine application of a stock poetic device; but the conceit of Minerva, Diana and Venus competing to bestow their favours on his queen results in an inspired and delightful sample of poetic wit (“Amatoria” 3). The attractive sonnet ‘On the moneth of May’ likewise turns classical allusions to good effect, including the memorable line ‘Of sadd Saturnus tirrar of the trees’. Jack has pointed out the indebtedness of this poem to one of Desportes's,7 but James's adaptation is very free: a much closer translation, resulting in another distinguished sonnet, is his rendering of Saint-Gelais's ‘Voyant ces monts de veue assez lointaine’ (“Amatoria” 5). His rather touching naturalisation of the poem by the change of ‘ces monts’ to ‘the Cheuiott hills’ is far from the most important of his modifications to the original. The French poem opens non-committally with ‘Je les compare à mon long desplaisir’; James anticipates the result of the comparison in:

The Cheuiott hills doe with my state agree
In euerie point excepting onelie one.


He elaborates on ‘Haute est leur chef, et haut est mon desir’ by introducing a contrast between the height of cloudes and that of skies, embellishes Saint-Gelais's ‘grands vents’ with a characteristic onomatopoeia by making them ‘hurle with hiddeous beir’, and relates the points of comparison in ‘Ils sont sans fruict, mon bien n'est qu'aparence’ at least somewhat more closely by his use of ‘no fruicts … no grace’. And for once the use of a personal pronoun as a rhyme-word in the final couplet does not sound bathetic: in ‘That snowe on them, and flames remaines in me’, if anything the word-order renders the antithesis more strikingly than in the original ‘Qu'en eux la neige, en moy la flamme dure’.

That James should have embarked on a project as ambitious as a translation from Du Bartas, even ‘the easiest and shortest of all his difficile, and prolixed Poems’, is a further measure of his youthful poetic ambition. Though the French poet has no longer the reputation, in his own country or elsewhere, which he had among his contemporaries, it is easy to recognise the qualities in his work that appealed to James: the devoutly Protestant orientation of his thought, his erudition and firmly intellectual approach, his grandiose choice of subjects. As a fluent speaker and reader of French, too, James would no doubt have been intrigued by Du Bartas's neologisms and linguistic experimentation. But little can be said in praise of James's “Uranie.” The movement of his pentameters is inflexible and plodding compared to the alexandrines of his original, and his use of couplets instead of Du Bartas's abba quatrains has a dismally confining effect on the expression of his thought. The translation is close, at times almost literal:

Exerce incessament et la langue, et ta plume
Exerce but cease thy toung and eke thy pen


Chacun reuereroit comme oracles vos vers
Echone your verse for oracles wolde take


Qui, sage, le profit auec le plaisir mesle
Who wysely can with proffit, pleasure ming. …


The only instances in which he shows any degree of linguistic enterprise are the very rare cases where he simply adopts a word, until then not naturalised into Scots, from the original (such as macquerel or mignarde), or alters the meaning of oweryere (normally in Scots ‘left over from last year’) to make a calque on surannée, rendering ces fables surannées as ‘those oweryere lyes’. Flashes of inspiration such as the rendering:

Car il vaut beaucoup mieux n'estre point renommé
Que se voir renommé pour raison de son vice


For better it is without renowme to be
Then be renowmde for vyle iniquitie


—where the terser and blunter Scots considerably increases the force of the statement—are outnumbered by infelicities such as the rhyme of ‘Parnass’ with ‘lyke as’, or rhyme-enforced syntactic distortions like ‘It that the hevinly court contempling bene’ (56).

The fourteeners which James used for his second translation from Du Bartas, The Furies, at least move with greater fluency than his pentameters; but to counter this advantage they intensify the tendency to line-padding which constantly bedevils his poetry. ‘Puisses-tu quelque jour reprendre ta couronne’ becomes ‘Mot thou win home thy crowne againe, The which was reft away’ (Exordium, 43-4); and the exigencies of metre and rhyme compel him to eke out ‘From Edens both chas'd ADAMS selfe And seed …’ (11-12), rendering ‘Bannit des deux Edens Adam et sa semence’, with ‘… for his pretence’ (in both versions the line rhymes with ‘offence’). More creditable additions to the original are James's augmentations of Du Bartas's lists of mutually attractive and mutually antipathetic beings with examples of his own: this piece of esoteric learning clearly aroused his interest.

An examination of James's translations of Du Bartas suggests, rather oddly, a great opportunity lost through the accidents of spatio-temporal contiguity. Du Bartas is a fascinating and highly individual representative of the exuberant literary and linguistic efflorescence which French, like English but unlike Scots, was enjoying in this period; and his verbal inventiveness—his use of technical terms, onomatopes, new compounds and derivations, Gasconisms—is in principle characteristic of a gifted poet consciously participating in a new and lively movement in his national literature. The finest Scottish poets of the reigns of James III and IV, and of the present century, made enthusiastic and effective use of all these devices. And Du Bartas's fondness for lists and catalogues, the precision and detail of his visual and other sensual images, his combination of factual and scientific knowledge ostentatiously displayed with a pervasive sense of numinous awe and delight, all are features which have a habit of recurring in Scottish poetry. If this French poet had been translated by Douglas, or MacDiarmid, what masterpieces of Scots verse might the sympathy of tastes and talents have produced! But alas, he only got James, who could render his meaning with unimpeachable competence, but whose language is barren compared to that of his model.

Of greater interest are the two original long poems in James's early collections, Phoenix and Lepanto. The former, if once again the poet's execution does not fully measure up to his intention, certainly is among his most competent works. The difficulty, already mentioned, of assessing James's poems apart from their known origins in events of his life is particularly pressing here, since much of the merit of the poem inheres in the careful allegorical presentation of Esmé Stewart's career in Scotland as the story of James's Phoenix; and the description of the bird's beauty, the emphasis on the cruelty and malice of her attackers, and the pathetic picture of her fleeing vainly for protection to the speaker of the poem, are undoubtedly made more poignant by the historical fact of the boy king's helpless grief and fury at the dismissal of his adored cousin. However, the poem has other commendable features. The carefully-balanced preliminary meditation, with its parallel listing of Fortune's blows and the consolatory reflections for each of them, is well-conceived as an introduction, though not all readers would find particularly admirable the sentiment of:

For death of frends, althought the same (I grant it)
Can noght returne, yet men are not so rair,
Bot ye may get the lyke.


The narrative flows steadily in unfailingly regular verse—lack of clarity is never one of James's faults—enlivened by such touches as the account of the Phoenix's glorious colours and the hyperbole:

                                        … whill she did shame
The Sunne himself, her coulour was so bright,
Till he abashit beholding such a light.


A moral point is effectively underscored by anaphora in:

Lo, here the fruicts, whilks of Inuy dois breid,
To harme them all, who vertue dois imbrace.
Lo, here the fruicts, from her whilks dois proceid,
To harme them all, that be in better cace
Then others be.


And James attains to real eloquence in the four apostrophising stanzas beginning:

O deuills of darknes, contraire unto light,
In Phœbus fowle, how could ye get such place,
Since ye are hated ay be Phœbus bright?


The cumulative effect of the rhetorical questions and exclamations here is to produce a passage of unusual power.

A more impressive poem, and one of the few in either of James's early collections for which a reader does not have to make continuous allowance for the poet's youth, is Lepanto. Prolix it is, and prone as always with James to unsubtle and bathetic passages; but as a Protestant scholar-poet's narrative account of one of the great battles of the sixteenth century it is a fine achievement. The racy fourteeners bear the reader along at an exciting pace; the story is competently told, incidents being selected, balanced and commented on with considerable skill; the alternation of narrative passages with other material (for example, the description of Venice (97-112), the classical ‘autumn’ passage (345-56), or the list of artisans and their activities (431-40)) makes for an interesting variety of tone. James's gift for onomatopoeia is again in evidence:

Like thunder rearding rumling raue
          With roares the highest Heauen:


his insistence on the noise of the battle is indeed one of the most noteworthy features of his description of it. The simple language at times acquires an almost ballad-like quality, as these two examples show:

With willing mindes they hailde the Tyes,
          And hoist the flaffing Sayles. …


The foming Seas did bullor vp,
          The risking Oares did rashe,
The Soldats peeces for to clenge
          Did shoures of shotts delashe.


There is also evidence of careful structural arrangement. The poem opens with an authorial apostrophe, a scene in Heaven, and a scene in Venice; and concludes with a similar sequence in reverse order, mourning in Venice now giving place to rejoicing and hostile confrontation between Christ and Satan to an angelic chorus of praise. A further Heavenly episode occurs at a pivotal point in the story, before the joining of battle; shortly before it a speech by a Christian commander is quoted, shortly after it a speech by a Turk. Authorial interventions are placed to mark new phases in the narrative: the short passage concluding the account of the sorrowing city of Venice, the introduction to the lengthy battle sequence with its engagingly honest disclaimer:

No, no, no man that witnes was
          Can set it out aright,
Then how could I by heare-say do,
          Which none can do by sight:
But since I rashlie tooke in hand,
          I must assay it now,
With hope that this my good intent
          Ye Readers will allow:


and the dramatic interruption of the vigorous passage describing the wholesale slaughter:

O now I spie a blessed Heauen,
          Our landing is not farre:
Lo good victorious tidings comes
          To end this cruell warre.


The fervour of religious partisanship in Scotland and all Europe at this period makes it natural that Lepanto should have provoked violent political and religious controversy, but the fact is that James's theological standpoint is stated as clearly as it could possibly be, and is admirably moderate and enlightened. The final chorus angelorum contains an extended series of variations on the theme expressed in the lines:

For since he shewes such grace to them
          That thinks themselues are just,
What will he more to them that in
          His mercies onelie trust?


and the line put into the mouth of God:

All christians serues my Sonne though not
                    Aright in everie thing


could hardly be bettered as a concise encapsulation of a wholly respectable moral and religious position. In the present age, when the context of the poem is less likely to arouse strong feelings, the work itself can more easily be appreciated on its own merits; and the verdict must be that James has written a thoroughly good and enjoyable poem.

Another attractive poem in a different vein is “A Complaint of his mistressis absence from Court.” James's ability, on occasion, to write genuinely musical verse is in evidence here: the opening lines with their unusually intricate sound-patternings show a degree of technical expertise to which he rarely attained, and at other points in the poem, too, alliteration and vowel harmony are again skilfully applied:

Inflam'd with following fortunes fickle baite …


The Sunne his beames aboundantlie bestowes …


When the image of the sea voyage through sunshine and storm is dropped the quality of the writing flags somewhat; but interest is added to the latter part of the poem by the characteristic Castalian mannerisms: the quasi-correction in ‘The like, ô not the like bot like and more’ (43), the anaphora with its pointedly contrasting third element in ‘Whose comelie beautie … Whose modest mirth … Whose absence …’ (47-9), the sequence of similes in:

The Court as garland lackes the cheefest floure
The Court a chatton toome that lackes her stone
The Court is like a volier at this houre
Whereout of is her sweetest Sirene gone …


complemented in the last line of the stanza by the ordered sequence ‘Our light, our rose, our gemme, our bird’ (56).

“A dreame on his Mistris my Ladie Glammis” is less felicitous as poetry: the relentless fourteeners, admirably suited for fast-moving narrative, are much less so for a meditative poem of this kind. Yet it is of interest in demonstrating James's propensity for expressing his knowledge in poetic form: the discussion of dreams, the extended account of the properties of the amethyst, and the interpretation of the tablet show at any rate considerable ingenuity in arranging the products of his learning and imagination into verse, and the poem can be read with pleasure as an interesting discourse. Perhaps the most extreme instance in all James's work of a poem written purely to display his knowledge in witty form is “A Satire against Woemen,” where, the title notwithstanding, the anti-feminist matter is restricted to two stanzas, preceded by no fewer than six in which every single line enumerates a characteristic of some living thing. This stichomythic bestiary is a minor literary tour de force.

The possibility has been raised that James might have been a better poet if his gifts had been less circumscribed by his own conception of how poetry should be written. To some extent this is supported by two of the few poems written in the latter part of his reign, the “Elegie written by the King concerning his counsell for Ladies & gentlemen to departe the City of London according to his Majesties Proclamation,” and the “Answere to the Libell called the Comons teares.” These are not ‘poetic’ in the conscious and prescriptive sense of most of his earlier work: they contain neither classical allusions (except a cleverly-applied reference to Caesar's wife) nor decorative language, and make no parade of learning. They are, however, pointed, forceful and at times witty compositions, expressing the king's argument in forthright fashion.

In the first, James gives free reign to his satirical propensities, employing such weapons as word-play, as in these two examples:

& to be kept in fashion fine & gay
care not what ffines your honest husbands pay


Visite the sicke & needy & for playes
play the good huswifes. …


He uses sarcastic overstatement: ‘the world hath not a more deboshed place’ (20), and understatement:

your husbands will as kindly you embrace
without your jewels or your painted face. …


And the conclusion is menacingly epigrammatic:

and ye good men 'tis best ye gette these hence
least honest Adam pay for Eves offence.


James in the second poem falls into his old habit of verbosity; but though the sentiments of the poem can hardly have been gratifying for those at whom it was directed, surely few kings have ever delivered so scathing a dismissal—through the medium of verse—to their critics:

Kings walke the milkye heavenly way
but you by bye paths gad astray.
God and Kings doe pace together,
but vulgars wander light as feather.


There is no sign in this poem of the sad, senile figure that James had, by some accounts, become in the last years of his reign. The king who aimed such shafts as:

Whereto you must submitt your deeds
or be puld vp like stinkinge weeds


And to no vse were Counsell Tables
if State affaires were publique bables


was still the man who, in one mood, had written the Basilikon Doron with its unique blend of exalted pride in his God-given calling and shrewd common sense in the methods of putting it into practice, and in another had modestly but devastatingly demolished the vaunting even of ‘Belouit sandirs maister of oure airt’.

A reading of James's poems and his observations on poetry in Scotland prompts the disconcerting question: to what extent was he aware of the great achievements of his compatriot makars of the earlier Stewart period? That some at least of the poetry and song of pre-Reformation Scotland had survived to contribute its influence to a poet such as Montgomerie has been clearly demonstrated, notably by the recipient of the present volume;8 but the fact that the works of, say, Henryson or Dunbar were there for James to read does not prove that he had read them. His poetic models, as has always been recognised, were French and Italian rather than Scottish; and the one contribution which he by his actual example made to the subsequent course of poetry in Scotland was the introduction of the Petrarchan sonnet form. The only Scottish poet, other than his contemporaries, whom he mentions by name is David Lyndsay; and in more than one respect his writing suggests a curious ignorance, rather than mere ignoring, of Lyndsay's predecessors. Would the language of his seasonal descriptions have been so tame if he had modelled it on Dunbar or Douglas; would his “Schort Poem of Tyme” have been so banal if he had read Henryson's The Preiching of the Swallow or The Testament of Cresseid? (The line ‘The mous did help the lyon one a day’ is hardly evidence that the version of the fable he had in mind was Henryson's.) These questions can evoke nothing but guesses; but a much more definite one also arises: would he have argued with Hudson that Virgil was ‘inimitable to vs, whose toung is barbarous and corrupted’,9 or proclaimed ‘I lofty Virgill shall to life restoir’ (Sonnet 12.10, in Essayes), if he had been acquainted with the Eneados? His reference in a letter to Du Bartas to his ‘douleur que ce pais n'a esté si heureusement fertil que d'avoir produict un tel colosse ou arc triomphal’10 is of course primarily an expression of his enthusiasm for the recipient's work; but would even this have taken the form of a direct denial of the existence of half a dozen Scottish poets of the late fourteenth, fifteenth and earlier sixteenth centuries whose merits are comparable at least to those of Du Bartas if he had been familiar with their works? The sentence in his Reulis and Cautelis ‘Thairfore, quhat I speik of Poesie now, I speik of it, as being come to mannis age and perfectioun, quhair as then [the meaning of ‘then’ is not specified] it was bot in the infancie and chyldheid’ is taken by Craigie11 to be a contemptuous dismissal of his Scottish predecessors; but the present writer finds it inconceivable that a man possessing any degree of poetic sensitivity or patriotic pride—and James incontrovertibly had both—would have rejected the superb national poetic achievement from Barbour to—with reservations—Lyndsay en bloc if he had been to any serious extent acquainted with it. That this argument is not purely intuitive is shown by his manifest admiration for Montgomerie, who is in his poetic assumptions and techniques the direct heir of the Makars.

James in his youthful zeal may indeed have seen himself as a poetic revolutionary in Scotland; but that he consciously rejected, on literary grounds, the work of his Scottish predecessors seems to me less likely than another possibility: that he was an early and illustrious victim of the Protestant syndrome memorably exposed and excoriated by Fionn MacColla: the unthinking and uninformed attribution of ‘darkness and ignorance’ to all periods between classical antiquity and the triumph of Protestantism.12 Barbour, James I as poet, Holland, Blind Harry, Henryson, Dunbar, Douglas: all these were representatives of the Christendom which, to James and his government—and, more importantly, to Buchanan and the king's other early mentors—was founded on superstition and idolatry; and therefore their works had probably never been allowed to form any part of James's education. Lyndsay, because of his vigorous campaigning for reform at least from within the Church, would be the only one of the pre-Reformation poets who was not beyond the pale; but even in his case, James's use of the phrase ‘of old’ in reference to his work (Phoenix, 24)—if it has any importance other than as a rhyme tag—is rather oddly applied to a poet whose death preceded James's birth by less than a dozen years, and suggests that James perceived a gulf between himself and Lyndsay which the chronological gap is hardly sufficient to explain. It is surely not without significance, too, that James's favourite among his contemporary French poets was a Huguenot.

If the argument of the preceding paragraph is correct, it is a striking instance in support of the theory that the Reformation has had a long-term effect of steadily and cumulatively weakening the Scots' awareness of their national culture and sense of national identity.

James's poetry is of considerable importance to students of his life and reign. No serious reader could regard it simply as evidence for his supposed vanity and pedantry: if those qualities are visible so too are humaneness, piety and, regarding his own poetic skill, an unmistakeably genuine modesty; and it is of course true that displays of learning are commonplace in mediaeval and Renaissance poetry, and that James's being one of the few monarchs to proclaim his Divine Right in print does not mean that the belief itself was his own idiosyncrasy. But his work deserves to be considered as literature too: in a period when the Scottish poetic scene gives, on the whole, the impression of a fair number of good or very good practitioners rather than a few great ones, he is fit to be mentioned in company with the Aytons, Fowlers and Alexanders of his court. James was clever and witty, he had ideas worthy of expression in verse, he had an ear for rhythm and sound-patterning, and his concept of poetry was high and serious. These qualities were not sufficient to make him a great poet or even a consistently good one; but the best work that can be salvaged from his poetic oeuvre show him to have been not only an effective patron, but a not unworthy practising member, of the Castalian Band.


  1. See Jenny Wormald, ‘James VI and I: two kings or one?’, History, LXVIII (1983), 187-209.

  2. The edition of King James's poems used is that prepared for the Scottish Text Society by James Craigie, published as Numbers 22 (1955) and 26 (1958) of the Third Series, hereafter ‘Craigie, 1955’. This edition presents different early texts of several of James's poems on facing pages. Since textual questions are not the concern of the present paper, quotations in such cases have been taken from the more standardised version: normally a printed as contrasted with a manuscript text. On the contemporary response to James's own poetry, see Craigie, 1955, 274-80.

  3. See The Works of Guillaume De Salluste Sieur du Bartas, ed. U. T. Holmes, J. C. Lyons and R. W. Linker, 3 vols (Chapel Hill, 1935-40), III, 506.

  4. Ibid., I, 203.

  5. But see R. D. S. Jack's discussion and bibliography, ‘Poetry under King James VI’, in The History of Scottish Literature. Volume I: Origins to 1660, ed. R. D. S. Jack (Aberdeen, 1988), 125-40.

  6. For example, see Caroline Bingham, The Making of a King: The Early Years of James VI and I (London, 1968), p. 153, and Antonia Fraser, King James VI of Scotland, I of England (London, 1974), p. 397.

  7. A Choice of Scottish Verse 1560-1660 (London, Sydney, Auckland and Toronto, 1978), p. 173.

  8. See Helena Mennie Shire, Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under King James VI (Cambridge, 1969).

  9. Thomas Hudson's Historie of Judith, ed. W. A. Craigie, STS Third Ser. 14 (Edinburgh and London, 1941), 3.

  10. Holmes et al., The Works of du Bartas, I, 203.

  11. Craigie, 1955, xiii.

  12. See his At the Sign of the Clenched Fist (Edinburgh, 1967), pp. 130-2.

Jenny Wormald (essay date 1991)

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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 formulate a doctrine of absolute monarchy were written by a Scot in Scotland, and by a man who suffered from the drawback of being himself a King.1

Thus in 1928 did J. W. Allen debar James VI from serious consideration, because of the twin disabilities of Scottishness and royalty. Much more recently, and much more surprisingly, this political theorist received even more dismissive treatment from Quentin Skinner, whose Foundations of Modern Political Thought, published in 1978, omitted the king's works entirely from his list of primary sources, mentioned him only four times in the course of the book, and coped with the ‘Scottish problem’ in the index by referring to him simply as ‘James I, King of England’. Yet, even if we were not now far removed from the perception of James VI and I as the pedantic buffoon, beloved of Sir Anthony Weldon and Sir Walter Scott,2 it would still remain true that the writings of a king have a peculiar, indeed a unique importance. Not since Alfred had a ruler combined the practice and the theory of kingship in his own person; and if all political theory, to a greater or lesser degree, is a response to immediate political reality, the view from the throne has its own peculiar fascination and relevance to the debate about that fundamental question which underlies all theory, the nature and source of power. It would be an unwise historian, in this age of revisionism, who attempted to resurrect 1603 as a crucial milestone on the road to civil war. Yet it was the date chosen by Dr Sommerville as the starting-point for his compelling analysis of Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640, that thought-provoking work which, as Dr Christianson has pointed out in his recent review, offers both ‘a perspective not entirely dissimilar to the old whig interpretation’ and ‘the best formal analysis of English political theory in early Stuart England that has ever appeared in print’.3 So if 1603 is not the essential prelude to the battlefield, it still has its place in the history of ideological conflict.

This is surely because the mental world of the English court—and the world beyond the court—were jolted on to a new level of theoretic debate simply because of a foreign king whose leisure pursuits included not only the normal royal enthusiasm for hunting (if, as they saw it, to an obsessional degree) but the very abnormal one of writing books. It was an aberration made all the worse because, as Nicholas Fuller said in the parliament of 1610, he was ‘in truth very wise yet is he a straunger to this government’, so that the Commons had to take to themselves the awesome responsibility to be ‘true to the King and true to ourselves, and let him know what by the laws of England he may do’. This was not, of course, just an ‘ideological’ comment. It related to that potential flashpoint, impositions; and it was made on 22 May, in response to the deeply worrying speech by the king on 21 May. The crunch comes in Fuller's insistence that the reason why the Commons had to remind the King of England about the laws of England was that ‘the king speaks of France and Spain what they may do’; and the same point was made by Thomas Wentworth, citing Fortescue on the difference between France and England, ‘in that … by the law of England no imposition can be made without assent of parliament as in France etc. etc’.4

It was of course quite clever of Fuller and Wentworth to single out these frightening creatures, the Catholic and arbitrary kings of France and Spain. But they were only partially quoting. For what James had said the previous day was that ‘all kings Christian as well elective as successive have power to lay impositions, I myself in Scotland before I came hither, Denmark, Sweden that is but newly successive, France, Spain, all have this power. And as Bellarmine abuses me in another sense solus rex Angliae timet, so shall solus rex Angliae be confined? Besides to call in question that power which all your kings have ever had, which two women have had and exercised, I leave it to yourselves to think what dutiful subjects ought to do in it’.5 And there is the huge distinction between king and English MPs. The MPs argued their case on the basis of Fortescue and English law. The king, in asserting his, moved in a huge sweep from Scotland round the other major continental monarchies, Catholic and Protestant, and even threw in a reference to Bellarmine before arriving at English government—and petticoat government at that.

What could better illustrate the problem: the deep, and probably unbridgeable ideological gulf between a traditional attitude memorably satyrized in Flanders and Swann's song, ‘The English are best’ and the approach now translated into the English political world, which was grounded in continental, and Scottish, theories of kingship, as well as Scottish practice. Because of that approach, of course, tactlessness was writ large virtually every time James opened his mouth in England; and tactlessness hardly made for mutual trust. This was sad, because at the political level, there was actually much less to frighten the English in their king's understanding of his role than his language suggested. It was indeed unfortunate that James picked up English constitutional rhetoric with such enthusiasm and then turned it into a constant reminder of his passionate interest in an ideological debate which was very definitely not English. It masked all too effectively the king's ability to separate when necessary his love of theorizing from his firm grasp of the real world of politics. The Commons leapt like hungry trouts at the gaudy fly of continental theory. They paid no attention to the much less colourful little fly also cast by the king in his speech: his unwelcome complaint that ‘fourteen weeks have now been spent in the parliament, yet you cannot allege nor say that for the principal errand you have bestowed so many days, nay scarce half so many days as weeks have been spent in the parliament’.6 The theorist had a very practical point to make to the castigators of his theory.

Therein surely lies the supreme irony. For not only was James naturally unaware that his unusual leisure pursuit would provide wonderful evidence for the whig historians of later centuries. He was also unaware that it would deeply disturb his English subjects, for two reasons. First, it is highly doubtful if the two great works on kingship written in Scotland were primarily designed to inform his future English subjects of their king's extreme views of his kingship. Second, it is arguable that his major misreading of his kingdom of England lay not so much in his assumption that it was the land flowing with milk and honey, as in his expectation that there he could indulge the pleasure of talking political ‘shop’ as well as the theological ‘shop’ which he had enjoyed in Scotland. For the English took themselves all too seriously. They made the mistake of taking their new king too seriously also.

To illustrate this, let me begin with the mental world of Scotland. For what has never been given sufficient emphasis is that not only was it highly unusual for a king to write books. It was remarkable in the extreme for a Scottish king to do so, not because of a lack of an intensive and up-to-date education—James was, after all, taught by one of Europe's leading scholars, George Buchanan—but because before the sixteenth century there had been, in sharp distinction to England, virtually no tradition of political theorizing: no Magna Carta, no Provisions of Oxford, no theoretic justification such as accompanied the depositions of Edward II and Richard II, no Fortescue or Thomas Smith, and certainly no history of demands by those Scottish lairds, whose English equivalents sat in the lower house of parliament, for rights and privileges. And whereas only Richard III and Henry VII are missing from the line of seven English kings from Edward III to Henry VIII (and to the list can be added Henry VI's son Edward Prince of Wales) who were the recipients of at least one letter of advice to princes,7 Scottish kings were not. There were, in the fifteenth century, Scottish contributions to the speculum principis genre, such as the anonymous poem known as The Harp which contained the singular advice that the king should choose his councillors because of ability rather than birth; Gilbert Hay translated the pseudo-Aristotelian Secreta Secretorum, but this was a work commissioned not for a king but by the Earl of Orkney; and only John Ireland's Merroure of Wisdome, which drew heavily on five sermons preached by Gerson to Charles VI, was actually intended for a king, James IV.8 But for the clearest example of a specific connection we have to wait until a king himself turned writer, when James VI produced his manual of Scottish kingship for his son Henry.

This does not mean that Scotland was wholly without political theory. A country which produced a document as moving and dramatic as the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 can hardly be dismissed as lacking ideological awareness. But the Declaration is itself an excellent guide to the nature of Scottish political theory. It was an appeal to the pope, John XXII, by the barons of Scotland that the ban of excommunication on their king, Robert Bruce, should be lifted, and Robert recognized as ruler of an independent kingdom, in no way subservient to England. To illustrate their utter resistance to English claims of overlordship, they asserted that if Robert—the king who had led them to freedom—were to depart from this cause, they would depose him and choose another in his place.9 This was indeed resistance theory. But it was hypothetical resistance not to a tyrant but to a deserter, in one particular circumstance. Even more important, it was a theory drawn up in order to persuade a foreign power. It admirably demonstrates how different was the Scottish approach from the much more internalized attitude of the English; for the English explained things to themselves. And the Scottish approach had not substantially changed when the next great burst of theorizing took place in the 1560s, provoked by the crisis created by Mary Queen of Scots. Once again, the Scots were explaining themselves to a foreign power, this time Elizabeth.

By then, however, there were two new elements. First, the theorizing of King James was not Scotland's earliest experience of continental ideas being brought to bear on Scottish kingship. For sound political reasons—the fright the Scots had had when the succession to the Crown collapsed in 1290, and the sustained and aggressive English attempts at colonialism which followed—succession by primogeniture had been emphatically established. The Crown was entailed twice in the fourteenth century, in 1318 and 1371, according to rules of primogeniture, and never again was there a dynastic threat to the Scottish royal house. One might, indeed, ruminate in passing on the curious fact that the much more sophisticated kingdom of England so signally failed to sort out that most fundamental issue of how men became kings that it plunged itself into political mayhem in the fifteenth century. Meanwhile, and more to my purpose, there was another kind of crisis going on in Europe: papal mayhem, and the Conciliar Movement. And it was conciliarist theory which belatedly threw its shadow across accepted norms of Scottish kingship in the early sixteenth century. For one of the great latter-day conciliarists was the Scot John Mair, theologian and historian, teacher at Paris and subsequently principal of the universities of Glasgow and then St Andrews.

Mair wrestled with the problem of the source and nature of authority, not always consistently, but in the end clearly enough assigning to the ruler—ecclesiastical or secular—a role subordinate to and contained by the state. He recognized the need for, or at least advantages of, a prince of sorts; for, as he said, republics tended to be short-lived. And on occasion he did seem to veer towards assigning very considerable power to the ruler; as J. H. Burns has pointed out, his argument that it was best to have a monarch who would not only guide but, having taken counsel of wise men, decide, whether they agreed or not, might have been stated by Bossuet. But when he faced the question of whether the supreme power which is absolute and belongs only to Christ could ever be brought down to earth, his answer was that there was indeed a power which was not just superior but supreme—potestas fontalis—and that power was vested in the community. And the state, and the monarchy, which he used to illustrate this most fully was Scotland; in his History of Greater Britain, this concept was applied with ruthless logic to argue for the power of the state over the king, the right of deposition, and the elective nature of kingship.10 As a political theorist Mair was more influential in the academic circles of Europe than in his native country. But if his impact was relatively limited, there was another's which was not. Mair's greatest European pupil was John Calvin. His greatest Scottish one was George Buchanan, future tutor of James VI. Both turned against the teachings of their master. Yet by a different route, Buchanan did arrive at conclusions about power in the state very similar to Mair's.

Buchanan's theory, particularly as applied to Scotland, derived more directly from a contemporary of Mair, Hector Boece, another luminary of Paris, principal of the new university of Aberdeen, and friend of Erasmus. Boece produced the same answer, by way not of logic but of an invented source, Veremundus, and an equally invented line of forty kings, each deposed because of their vicious lives, by the people of Scotland. And while the cool and logical Mair had little influence, the much more riotous Boece—far more popular in his own day, when he was given the royal patronage denied to Mair—was a wonderful source. None of it particularly mattered in the first half of the sixteenth century. But Boece's writings came to matter very much indeed in the late sixteenth century. He provided the witches for Macbeth; and he provided, for Buchanan, the necessary basis for the ‘Ancient Constitution’ of Scotland, by which ‘the people’ elected and deposed kings. The fact that the ancient Scots apparently got the choice wrong forty times over seems to have worried no one. Much more to the point, Buchanan could use ideas of Mair (without, as it were, adequate footnotes), and reinforce them with the supposed facts of Boece, to demonstrate to Elizabeth that the people of Scotland were justified in deposing Mary in 1567; and he could then go on to add his weight to the contractual theories advanced by the Huguenot writers of the 1570s.11 He could also, of course, teach—indeed, hammer—such theories into his own great pupil, King James.

The second, and, for the Scots, crucial new element was religion. For Mary's unique—and uniquely irresponsible—stance as a ruler who insisted on one religion for herself while allowing, and even paying for, another for her subjects, created a uniquely radical strand in Scottish reforming thought from the beginning, in the assertion of the superiority of the spiritual over the temporal power, and the extension beyond the natural leaders of secular society of the right and duty of resistance. The leading figure here was, of course, John Knox, with his appeal in 1558 to the nobility to ‘hear the voice of the Eternal your God’ and fulfil their divinely ordained role to act against an ungodly magistracy; and if they failed, Knox appealed beyond them to the commons, so that ‘vox populi’, invoked in England in 1327 to justify the deposition of Edward II, was now introduced to Scotland as the defender of the true religion against idolatry—except that when that defence turned into iconoclasm in Perth in May 1559, Knox's commons promptly became ‘the rascal multitude’.12 Yet despite the fright which the reforming leaders had when seeing ‘vox populi’ in action, they, like Buchanan, continued to appeal in the most general terms to the people; in practice, both were looking to the nobility, but they never limited the responsibility for action against ungodly rule to the lesser magistracy, as continental theorists like Beza and Philippe Du Plessis-Mornay did. Thus Knox could reduce Mary to stunned silence by insisting on his right to dictate her choice of husband as a subject born within the realm. And in the General Assembly of 1564, the former Dominican and minister of Edinburgh, John Craig, followed up a lengthy debate between Knox and Mary's secretary Maitland of Lethington about the right of the ministers to remove Mary, by citing the debate he had been present at in the university of Bologna in 1553, when it had been successfully held that all rulers could be deposed by their subjects if they broke their oaths to them; in answer to a ‘claw-backe of the corrupt court’ who objected that Bologna, being a commonwealth, was irrelevant to the kingdom of Scotland, he argued that ‘everie kingdome is a commoun wealth … albeit everie commoun wealth is not a kingdome’, and came close to Ponet by asserting that in each, the negligence of the people as well as the tyranny of princes might mean that laws contrary to God could be made, and yet that people or their posterity ‘could justlie crave all things to be reformed, according to the originall institutioun of kingdoms and commoun wealths; and suche as will not doe so deserve to eate the fruict of their owne foolishnesse’.13

The Scottish context of Basilikon Doron and the Trew Law was therefore, from the point of view of their author, confusing and potentially very dangerous. In the long term, he inherited a kingdom in which, in theory and in practice, politics had been very low-key. Mainly because of their personal strength and ruthlessness, his Stewart predecessors between 1424 and 1542 had ruled with great authority, but the repeated minorities which beset the Stewart dynasty had militated against the move towards absolutist rule, with its ideological underpinning, already detectable in the French and Spanish kingdoms by the fifteenth century. This did not mean that the other end of the ideological spectrum, the elective and contractual theories of Mair and Buchanan, in any way disturbed the theoretic basis of a monarchy so firmly grounded, since the early fourteenth century, in the principle of primogeniture. But there was another aspect of Scottish political life which did more closely correspond with their ideas. One important consequence of the intermittent exercise of royal rule was that the localities remained unusually autonomous, by the standards of the major kingdoms of the sixteenth century; and they were presided over by men whose local power and influence were, from the mid-fifteenth to the early seventeenth century, given formal written recognition in the numerous bonds and contracts made between lords and their followers.14 Mair and Buchanan did not significantly change, let alone dictate, the realities of Scottish politics (even in the sensational events of January 1649, it was the English, not the Scots, who were to agree with Buchanan that a people could bring a tyrannous king before the courts, try him, condemn him and kill him). Rather, they were subsuming the Scottish contract, as it had existed in practice at least since the fifteenth century, into their political theory. But the very existence of these contracts, as the fundamental means of social control, created a context in which contractual theories of kingship, when pushed hard for immediate political motives, could evoke vibrant echoes. More than that, they enabled the Scots of the late sixteenth century to move naturally towards a convenanting theology. It was the heirs of both theorists and politicians of the sixteenth century who were to draw up that supreme example of the Scottish bond, the National Covenant of 1638. More immediately, however, James also suffered from his short-term inheritance.

He can hardly be said to have been fortunate. He succeeded a ruler who was politically discredited and personally scandalous, but who was still alive, and wanted her throne back. In particular, he was vulnerable to aspersions on his legitimacy because of Mary's supposed affair with David Rizzio. Hence Henry IV's famous sneer at the Scottish Solomon, son of David, and the insults hurled at him in Perth on 5 August 1600, the day of the Gowrie conspiracy, as the ‘son of seigneur Davie’; these things may give us a clue to his curious choice of phrase in the Trew Law, when describing the effect on the law of the conquest of England by the ‘bastarde of Normandie’.15 He was educated—savagely—by the man who was Mary's most outspoken and vicious critic, and whose personal attack on her had been subsumed into a political theory which made James's power ultimately dependent on the will of the community; as the first coinage of his reign succinctly put it, ‘pro me si mereor in me’ (for me; against me if I deserve it), the phrase referring to the sword on the coins. At his coronation, when he was aged thirteen months, it was promised on his behalf that he would uphold the Protestant faith, and this, to the Protestant reformers, undoubtedly meant acting as the godly magistrate under their direction. Between them, his mother, his tutor, and the leading Protestants had reduced his position, at least in theory, to one of a subservience which would have been unacceptable to any of his predecessors, and was certainly unacceptable to him.

Basilikon Doron and the Trew Law have been castigated as unoriginal, even dismissed as stating no meaningful theory.16 In one sense, they were unoriginal, as they were bound to be. For there was nothing new about the question whether power could be absolute and, if so, whether it was vested in the monarch or the community, even if in the late sixteenth century the focusing of the ruler's sacerdotal power as something precise and potentially immense had brought a new intensity to the debate. James had learned the contractual theory from Buchanan. But he was also aware of something very different; for by 1577 the royal library contained a copy of Guillaume Budé's Institut du Prince, and it also contained Bodin's République, and both offered him an answer utterly opposed to Buchanan's. How soothing it must have been to turn from the thunderings of Buchanan, with his terrifying stories of what had happened to wicked kings—which gave James nightmares years later—to assertions such as ‘Maiestie or Soveraigntie is the most high, absolute, and perpetuall power over the citizens and subiects in a Commonweale …’.17 But when, twenty years later, James adopted in his own writings the theories of the ‘absolutists’ rather than the ‘contractualists’, he was, in the Scottish context, doing something very original indeed. For he gave to Scottish monarchy an ideological base wholly different from anything in the past; and he gave it not just as a theorist, but as the man who had to translate theory into practice. And it is this which explains the difference between Basilikon Doron and the Trew Law.

Space does not allow discussion of the practice, the subtlety and skill with which James restored royal authority in the state, and gained ascendancy over the extremists in the church, the hard-line group of Presbyterians known, from their leader Andrew Melville, as the Melvillians.18 But the chronology of the gradual imposition of the new ideological base can be briefly sketched in. As Ian Stewart has shown, the ‘Buchanan’ propaganda of the first coinage gave way to royal propaganda, and the dates are instructive. In 1578, the year when the last of James's regents, the harsh and Anglophile Earl of Morton, fell from power, with the eleven-year-old king cheerfully asserting his ability to rule, and showing the first signs of saying no to Elizabeth, the coins for the first time used the famous Scottish motto ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’ (no one may meddle with me with impunity); ten years later, his coins announced ‘florent sceptra piis regna his Iova dat numeratque’ (sceptres flourish with the pious; God gives them kingdoms and numbers them); and in 1591, the new gold piece gave the name of Jehovah in Hebrew, with the inscription ‘te solum vereor’ (Thee alone do I fear), while the silver had a pair of scales over a sword, declaring ‘his differt rege tyrannus’ (in these a tyrant differs from a king).19 Meanwhile, other propaganda methods had been brought into use. In 1583, when James, unlike in 1578, was genuinely emerging from his minority, he asserted his intention to be a ‘universal king’, above faction.20 It was an intention which was to be fulfilled—to the fury, inter alia, of Cecil in the first decade of his English rule. In 1610, he burst out furiously to Sir Henry Yelverton that ‘it fareth not with me now as it did in the Queen's time … for then … she heard but few, and of them I may say myself the chief, the king heareth many, yea of all kinds. Now as in hearing too few, there may be danger, so in hearing so many cannot be but confusion’;21 but confusion to Cecil was, and had long been, for James, the intelligent assertion of the over-riding authority of the king.

Moreover, the ruler who was to upset his English Commons by high-handed statements about his power, deliberately invoked the authority of his Scottish parliament in order to establish the authority of the king as he understood it. In 1584, parliament gave its support to enhancing royal prestige, when it passed two acts dealing with the king's estate. The first ‘perpetuallie confirmis the royall power and auctoritie over all statis alsweill spirituall as temporall within this realme in the persoun of the kingis maiestie our soverane lord his airis and successouris’, who will be ‘Juges competent to all persounis … of quhatsumevir estate degrie functioun or conditioun … spirituall or temporall’. The second promised the full rigour of the law against any who uttered calumnies ‘to the dishonour hurt or preiudice of his hienes his parentis and progenitouris’, and specifically called in for suppression Buchanan's De Iure Regno apud Scotos and his History of Scotland; it was James's view of kingship, not Buchanan's, to which his subjects must now subscribe. But along with this went an attempt to repair the damage done by Mary not just to the prestige of monarchy but to Scottish government as a whole; her misuse of parliament was now to be rectified by the king's assertion of the ‘honour and the auctoritie of his supreme court of parliament continewit past all memorie of man unto thir dayis as constitute upoun the frie votis of the thrie estatis of this ancient kingdome’.22

In practice, the authority of the supreme court of parliament was both built up and contained with immense skill. In the great parliament of 1587 the dignity of parliament was given considerable emphasis; this included its visual dignity, for James, following a precedent set by James II, took it upon himself to design clothes fitting for MPs, and the opening and closing public ceremony of the Riding of Parliament through Edinburgh undoubtedly became in his reign a splendid affair. At last an effective system of shire elections was introduced, which both met the rising aspirations of the lairds to turn up and give their voices, and at the same time imposed limits on the numbers who could actually do so.23 And meanwhile in a series of acts in 1587 and the parliaments of the early 1590s, control of composition, notably of that crucial committee the Lords of the Articles, and control of business were relentlessly extended. It was effective; and yet it did not produce the kind of tension which marked James's dealings with his English parliaments. Perhaps there was a considerable safety-valve in the fact that James had not yet adopted English rhetoric; only after 1603 did his Scottish parliaments discover that their ‘soverane lord’ had greatly elevated his style, and now expected them to regard him as ‘his sacred majestie’; more generally, only after 1603 were there signs of unease about what his sacred majesty, remote in England and raising the level of the actions of royalty as well as its language, was up to.24

Before 1603, his achievements did not of course solve all problems. But they marked a significant move towards the creation of a new Scottish context, after the troubles and confusions of the previous two decades. During the twelve years after the 1584 parliament, the king gradually translated the claims made there into practice. After 1596, apart from the extraordinary and quixotic Gowrie affair, his control of church and state was becoming irresistible. And after 1596, he settled down to write about it.

The texts of both his political tracts are well known. Neither is a long work; the Trew Law in particular is very short, so much so that it has recently been reprinted under the surprising title of The Minor Prose Works of James VI and I. Both are highly readable. And both are firmly set within the context of Scottish kingship. There the similarities end. The Trew Law deliberately—perhaps even defiantly—takes up the familiar Scottish theme of contract, and gives it a twist; the subtitle The Reciprock and Mutuall Dutie betwixt a free King and his naturall Subiectes has nothing whatsoever to do with a contract which may be broken by the inferior party if the superior does not fulfil his part. It was a new interpretation of ‘reciprock’. It also rewrites Scottish history. Boece's forty kings, so crucial to Buchanan's theory, no longer exist. But the arguably historical figure of Fergus, fifth-century King of the Scots of Dalriada, is invoked to prove that ‘as our Chronicles beare witnesse’, this king from Ireland and his successors settled in a country ‘skantly inhabited’ and ‘skant of civilitie’, and therefore kings in Scotland ‘were before any estates or rankes of men within the same, before any Parliaments were holden or lawes made; and by them was the land distributed (which at the first was whole theirs) states erected and decerned & formes of government devised & established. And so it follows of necessitie, that the Kinges were the authors & makers of the lawes, and not the lawes of the Kings’. It was an appeal to history and logic of which Mair would surely have approved, even if his own logical approach—that despite rules of primogeniture, the first king must have been elected—resulted in a very different conclusion. Indeed, James himself allowed for Mair's idea, when he insisted that his Scottish ‘model’ was not universal. In other societies ‘in the time of the first age’, men were chosen to rule and protect their fellows. But not in Scotland, which stands somewhere between such societies and others, which were ‘reft by conquest from one to another, as in our neighbour countrie in England, (which was never in ours)’. The parenthetical clause looks somewhat specious, for James had already acknowledged that Fergus arrived with his followers from Ireland and ‘maid himself maister’. But the inconsistency could be resolved by the fact that he clearly saw Fergus and his followers, unlike the Saxons or the Normans, as coming in peaceably, to be welcomed by the few existing barbarous inhabitants; it was a particular and very muted kind of ‘conquest’, in which Fergus introduced law and government where previously there had been none, whereas the Conqueror ‘changed the lawes (and) inverted the order of governement’.25 His argument against Buchanan's theory therefore remained valid. But if this theory was to be answered on historical and logical grounds, that of Knox and Melville meant scripture; and Samuel's terrible warning to the Israelites about what their insistence on having a king would bring down on them was duly rehearsed.

This may appear a less than happy method of asserting divine right—as unhappy, indeed, as the forty mythical kings as props for the authority of the people—but it certainly established the case that what the Lord gave, the people must accept. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Trew Law of Free Monarchies was an unequivocal defence of the theory of the divine right of kings. And inasmuch as it was written by a king, it raised the possibility, and indeed, especially among his English subjects, the spectre, that this was the thinking of a man who was in a position such as Mair and Buchanan could never be, of translating theory into practice. But one does not need to turn only to James's political actions to find that fears about his understanding of his office were often exaggerated. We only have to read the end of his book. His most terrible warning was not to subjects who must accept the will of God. It was to the monarch. The tyrant would not escape punishment:

but by the contrary, by remitting them to God (who is their only ordinary judge) I remit them to the sorest and sharpest Schoolemaister that can be devised for them. For the further a king is preferred by God above all other ranks and degrees of men, and the higher that his seate is above theirs: the greater is his obligation to his maker … The highest benche is sliddriest to sit upon.

Indeed, the absolute insistence on the providence of God led him to acknowledge the loophole in his own theory. The evocative homeliness of the ‘sliddriest benche’, so typical of much of James's writing, gave way to the compelling need, equally typical, to explore the full implications of his argument; and in one of the most deliberately powerful passages in the book, he went on:

neither thinke I by the force & argument of this my discourse so to perswade the people, that none wil herafter be raised up, and rebel against wicked Princes. But remitting to the justice and providence of God to stirre up such scourges as pleaseth him, for punishment of wicked kings (who made the verie vermine & filthy dust of the earth to bridle the insolency of proud Pharaoh).

It may then ‘please God to cast such scourges of princes and Instruments of his furie in the fire’. But the hand of God could reach out to punish the tyrant even in this life, and would surely punish him in the next. There were to be men in England who felt that this king was slipping out of human control. The Trew Law tells us about the awesome control imposed on the king who was controlled only by God.26

Basilikon Doron is very different. It is a manual of kingship, firmly set in the speculum principis genre. Indeed, the immediate model may have been the work believed to be Charles V's Political Testament to his son Philip; certainly an Italian version of it was sent to James in 1592 by an Italian scholar and fugitive from the Inquisition, Giacomo Castelvetro, who had turned up in Scotland in 1591, hoping for the job of the king's Italian teacher.27 In any event, it is a practical handbook and emphatically not a statement of highly developed political theory. Only in the first section, called ‘A Kings Christian Duetie towards God’, is there an overt nod towards divine right: ‘for that he made you a little God to sitte on his throne, and rule over other men’.28 But it is a very little nod; most of the section is about the king and his God. In the second part, ‘A Kings Duetie in his Office’, it becomes very clear that James's major concern, in developing the theory of the Trew Law and in setting out his advice here, was the Melvillians, those ‘vaine Pharasaicall puritanes’, who will cry ‘Wee are all but vile worms, & yet wil judge and give law to their king, but will be judged nor controlled by none: Surely there is more pride under such a ones black-bonnet nor under great Alexander's Diademe.’ He had reason to know. He also had reason to know of both the dangers and the advantages of aristocratic power, and advised his son to harness the one and use the other, as indeed he had done with considerable success. His lack of understanding of economic matters comes out in his moan—the eternal moan of the ‘layman’—about high prices and poor quality as the fundamental problem. His passionate desire for peace is equally apparent, although he admits and advises on unavoidable war. His discussion of marriage would of course send any modern self-respecting feminist into paroxysmic fury, but is in fact, by contemporary standards, a moderate and reasonable account, leavened with humour and a certain affection.29 And the third part, on ‘Indifferent Things’, deals with the ideal lifestyle of a king: moderation—the same keynote—in all things, in food, language, recreation, even armour which provokes the unashamedly unheroic, if eminently practical comment that it should be light for easier ‘away-running’. Hunting is highly praised; silly pedantry condemned.30 What above all informs this remarkable book is not its theory of kingship. It is its low-key and admirable commonsense and wit.

Both works, however, posed considerable problems. Naturally James while King of Scotland was of considerable interest to the English; and the accounts of English diplomats give us a clear picture of a very effective ruler, controlling factions, controlling parliaments, asserting his will. So far, so good. But he was also the author of books which laid down a view of kingship, from the controlling of property to the making of law; and that was anything but good. Elizabeth believed, as much as James did, in kingship by divine right, and had no hesitation in warning her subjects off areas which were reserved to the monarch; but she was ‘mere English’, and she never offended English susceptibilities by making the claims, and showing an indifference to the rules, which the king from Scotland was to do.31 It is inconceivable that she would ever have insisted, as James did in his famous exchange with Sir Edward Coke, that in effect he could be ‘judge competent’, as the 1584 act had said, because ‘the law was founded on reason, and that he and the others had reason as well as the (English) judges’; and he then went on to make matters worse by retorting, when Coke pointed out that for all his great endowments, English law demanded long study and experience, that this put him under the law ‘which is treason to affirm’.32 It did not help very much that Basilikon Doron could on occasion be pressed into service by those whom James made profoundly uneasy; in 1610 Nicholas Fuller cited its advice to Prince Henry to be careful not to impoverish his subjects—something which in practice James appeared all too guilty of doing. It is a nice illustration of Maurice Lee's reminder that ‘Basilikon Doron, like scripture, can be used for many purposes’.33 But on the whole, the translation of James's Scottish writings into the English context, reinforced by some of James's own assertions after 1603, contributed to, if they did not wholly create, an atmosphere of unease. Yet it can be argued that this was not so much, as the English thought, because the king did not understand them. It was because they did not understand the king.

Few authors write only for themselves; and it may appear inconceivable that James, who was not a modest man, could have done so. Yet, as I shall suggest, it does appear that, at least at the time of their conception, neither of James's tracts was designed for an open readership, and neither was written with an English readership particularly in mind. In later years, James did write for his public; the Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance and the Premonition to all Christian Monarchies are obvious cases in point. But these were very different works, deliberately designed to refute papal claims and therefore naturally composed for a European market. This was not the case with the Scottish writings. Indeed, there are various clues about James's approach to writing—and to controversy—which suggest that the political tracts of 1598-9 should be viewed, initially at least, as the product of a mind at work rather than a closed and fixed one having already determined on the theme he had decided to lay before the world. Not the least of these clues is the manuscript of Basilikon Doron itself, a delightful piece of evidence of an author searching for words and ideal expression of arguments, scribbling, scoring out, scribbling again—and the whole lovely mess, which would call down the wrath of any tutor were a student to present it as an essay, bound up in purple velvet, and stamped in gold leaf with thistles, the Scottish emblem, and the royal initials, as befitted a king. There is also James's justification for a piece of early writing, his Paraphrase on Revelations (1588), which is ‘asvell to teache my self as others’.34 And it is arguable that the Reulis and Cautellis of Poesie (1585) and the Daemonologie (1597) were written in a state of anything but certainty, the first because of the dawning awareness that he could not match the great circle of poets in the Scottish court, the second because of the dawning fear that even if witchcraft existed, many of those who had died for it in Scotland had not been witches.

We have, then, a picture of a man who turned to writing to clarify his thought, who found writing a release; as Bishop Goodman later said of him, ‘he did love solitariness, and was given to his study’.35Basilikon Doron and the Trew Law do not absolutely parallel the Reulis and the Daemonologie, but they should surely be seen in similar terms: that is, they were written for refreshment and for pleasure, for the sheer delight in temporarily shutting the door on a world which, in his early years, had posed so many problems, but which were now being overcome, and could now be analysed by the pen. Basilikon Doron was certainly written for Prince Henry. But both were surely written primarily for King James. It may even be that he was following in the footsteps of two great rulers of the past who had turned to writing; for the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Alfred's Boethius and Augustine were composed because of the awareness of these men that the vanity and pride that might too easily accompany great power must be controlled by internal contemplation. Much more prosaically, there was also the consideration that Basilikon Doron would greatly upset the Melvillians; as indeed, when they became aware of it, it did.36

It is not only the appearance of the manuscript of Basilikon Doron which is suggestive of an author not principally motivated by the desire to rush into publication. The Trew Law was anonymous when first published in 1598; the author called himself ‘C. Philopatris’ (a hybrid which is, incidentally, hardly a tribute to Buchanan's teaching of the classics!). Moreover, the passage describing the effect of the Norman Conquest on English law and government was, as James can hardly have failed to be aware, one which touched on a somewhat raw English nerve. James was not averse to the occasional assumption of Scottish superiority, such as his change of New Year's Day to 1 January in 1600, to bring Scotland into line with ‘all utheris weill governit commoun welthis and cuntreyis’, though he must have realized when he said this that his hoped for succession to the country which, unlike well-governed ones, retained 25 March, could not be much longer delayed.37 But that was very different from the pointed contrast between Scotland and the conquered, subservient England; and this surely indicates that this book was not intended as a means of trumpeting to his future subjects his political theory of divine right. The fact is that we make too much of the Trew Law because it sounds very familiar. But it was not the final and comprehensive statement of the deeply convinced and unshakeable divine right theorist, bound by the confines of his own theory. We only think that because after 1603, James expressed his ideas, and refined them, a great deal more than he had done in Scotland, in response to the English common lawyers. Before 1603, it was not even typical of his utterances. It was brought into being as a direct reaction to the secular theory of Buchanan and the much more dangerous religious theories and claims of the Melvillians.

Basilikon Doron was written in thorough-going Middle Scots, a fact which, as the editor of the Scottish Text Society edition, Dr James Craigie, rightly points out, is itself worthy of note; for already some thirty years earlier John Knox's History of the Reformation had been written in a version of Scots which showed distinctly anglicizing tendencies, the late sixteenth century witnessed a continuation of the process in both literary and non-literary writings, and James himself in his great plea for Union in 1607 used linguistic similarity as one of his arguments for the common ground between his kingdoms of England and Scotland. All this does suggest a very private approach when James wrote Basilikon Doron in 1598; indeed, the immense secrecy which surrounded it and the fact that James wrote what he called his ‘testament & latter will’ because he was in fear of death—as Charles V had been when he wrote his testament—were described to Cecil by his agent George Nicolson, who begged him to keep quiet about it.38 When the ideas began to emerge from the study for the first printing in 1599, the text was indeed anglicized; even so, James himself swore the printer, Robert Waldegrave, to secrecy, and only seven copies were produced, for designated people: his wife, his son, his son's tutor, the reasonably reliable Marquis of Hamilton, and the three northern Catholic earls who had caused him such trouble in the early 1590s but who were now cooperative subjects, Huntly, Erroll and Angus.39 And then in March 1603 the situation changed entirely. The book appeared on the London market.

I have previously described this—impressionistically—as ‘becoming a bestseller’; his new subjects wanted a sight of ‘the king's book’. But I had no idea of the scale of it until Peter W. M. Blayney, who has made a very detailed study of the printing of Basilikon Doron, told me of his findings and very kindly allowed me to make use of them. They are dramatic in the extreme. The Trew Law was also published in that year, after Basilikon Doron, and in two of the three printings the king's name did appear. But it was very small-scale compared to the huge success of Basilikon Doron. One copy of Waldegrave's Edinburgh edition was sent to London before Elizabeth's death on 24 March. Only four days later, on 28 March, the publisher John Norton and five partners ‘entered’ the work in the Stationers' Hall, thus registering their claim to copyright. By 13 April, eight 1603 editions were almost certainly out; at that point plague hit London—and the booktrade—and very little was produced from then until 30 May. Dr Blayney estimates that there were between 13,000 and 16,000 copies printed: up to 10,500 of the Norton editions, two pirate editions by one Edward Allde, who printed 3,000 and was fined on 13 April for doing so and for undercutting the price of the official editions, and in addition copies of the Waldegrave edition made available on the London market. The printer of all the official editions was Felix Kingston, who began by roping in other printers in order to get the sheets ready but then took over the enterprise almost exclusively. Norton himself, publisher of all eight editions, was a friend of Cecil; and, as Dr Blayney suggests, Cecil—no doubt anxious to please his new master—may have been involved in bringing the initial Waldegrave copy to London before Elizabeth's death and its registration with the Stationers' Company immediately afterwards. This friend in high places, however, did not save Norton from being up before the court of the Stationers' Company on the same day as Allde, 13 April, not for undercutting, but for overcharging. The king's book was undoubtedly a best-seller.

Whether it was a popular read is a quite different matter. Normally very few copies survive from the editions of books which capture the market: one or two from the first edition, a few more from the second, and so on. In the case of Basilikon Doron, a lot survives from each edition, and this suggests that it was bought, perhaps read once, and put on the bookshelf.40 This seems to me to raise a very interesting possibility. By March 1603, James does seem to have decided that his book should be made generally available to his future subjects; in the 1603 Edinburgh edition he referred to Elizabeth as being still alive, and apologised to his English readers for anything which might offend them in a text written originally for private purposes, commenting on Scottish affairs, and not intended for general publication.41 The highly significant fact is that the work he chose to make available was not the theoretic and potentially controversial Trew Law; that simply trailed in behind Basilikon Doron later in 1603. Although like the Trew Law, Basilikon Doron, as he now acknowledged, did contain things which might appear critical of the English, it was nevertheless the book brought into circulation because it was his account of the practical exercise of royal authority, realistic, moderate rather than arbitrary, compromising. That was the style of kingship which he wanted to demonstrate to his new subjects. If they did not read it, then it explains an error which has been remarkably persistent: the belief that an English king called James I wrote a book about absolute kingship called Basilikon Doron. The idea gains support from the fact that after the frenzied printings of the first two and a half weeks of the reign, there was virtually no interest in England for further editions. It was taken up on the Continent; some thirty translations into Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German and Swedish—as well as one in Welsh—were produced in James's lifetime. But it did not appear in England again until the publication of the Workes in 1616. So the English seem, on the whole, to have treated it as the equivalent of a coronation mug.42 But it was not a coronation mug. It was a guide to their new king. It was, in other words, not just a missed opportunity. It was an opportunity which James, the stranger, the incoming foreign king was keen to offer, as reassurance; and it went very badly awry.

The sad thing was that once this had happened, the problem could only be compounded. For James was certainly more than a solitary author. He was a delighter in controversy. In Scotland, it had been theological controversy—sometimes impassioned, even bad-tempered controversy, but always with the spice of enjoyment. There is a revealing little thumbnail sketch of a row between the king and one of the Melvillian ministers, John Davidson, in 1598—a row in which, incidentally, Davidson, like Andrew Melville himself on a much more famous occasion, clutched at the king's sleeve. It could hardly be said that they parted in agreement. But as they parted, ‘the king turned backe, and taking him by the shoulder, said, “Mr Johne, yee sall be welcomer with me becaus yee are plaine.”’43 Not the least of James's difficulties in the new world of England was that the English were not so plain.

Moreover, they took him too literally, at every turn. They failed to make allowance for bursts of irritation and visible exaggeration in the heat of argument, of which the exchange with Coke, and the famous outburst at Hampton Court are obvious examples. And, perhaps precisely because he was a notable political theorist as well as a leading political figure, they failed to make sufficient allowance for flexibility of mind—that flexibility which produced works as different in character as Basilikon Doron and the Trew Law within a year, and twelve years later, in the parliament of 1610, the very well-received speech of 21 March on the nature of monarchy which was far more acceptable than either, commanding ‘the great Contentment of all Parties’. This reaction, among MPs all too ready to show their touchiness, and the text of the speech itself, suggest that Dr Sommerville's view of it as ‘little more than pleasantries’ may be an understatement.44 It was surely more than that, a genuine assertion of James's belief that kingship did indeed involve vast powers, but that wise kings did not invoke them without concern for the law and for the bond between monarch and subjects. But I have already referred to a speech of 1610, made exactly two months later, which did not create contentment; flexibility included irritability and, with it, the tendency to emphasize theory when practice caused frustration. Inevitably that made it difficult for his English subjects—especially the English common lawyers—to distinguish between theory and practice.

There were even occasions when it was hard for them to see the theory for what it was. In the genial and hopeful atmosphere surrounding the opening of parliament in 1621, James took up the delicate question of the nature of monarchy and parliament. He told his parliament that ‘Things proper to yourselves are the making of laws in that nature as he [the king] shall call for them. The king, he is the maker of them and ye are the advisers, councillors, and confirmers of them …’. The very idea of the king as the maker of laws no doubt struck horror into his listeners. One wonders whether they had listened attentively to an earlier passage: ‘for kings and kingdoms were before parliaments … but when people began to be willing to be guided by laws, then came the first institutions of parliaments’.45 It was the appeal to logic expressed in very similar terms two decades earlier in the Trew Law. Indeed, if anything, it was a modified version of that earlier claim. But the modification was not enough. James was not claiming that he alone could ‘make’ law. But it was possible to interpret him as believing that he could; and that, to his English subjects, was profoundly disturbing.

Yet in reacting as they did, they missed not one but two crucial points about King James. It was not only that he never translated his most extreme theoretic claims into practice. It was also the fact that the political issue which concerned him most when he succeeded to the English throne was not divine right monarchy at all, but union. And this brings me finally to a much neglected figure, James's major ally in the union project, the great Scottish lawyer Sir Thomas Craig of Riccarton. Craig was an enthusiastic unionist, influenced not only by the king, but by the vision of union expressed by Protector Somerset in his influential Epistle of 1547.46 It was to be a union of equal partners. That meant asserting Scotland's antiquity and independence as a kingdom, as against the dismissive views of the vassal status of the Scottish kingdom most recently expressed by Holinshed. Craig gives us a wonderful little description of the eternal reaction of the Scot when faced with assertions of English superiority: having read Holinshed, ‘I found my Choler begin to rise, and that it happened to me exactly as Holinshed had foretold; for there is nothing, says he, which will vex a Scotsman more, or that he takes worse, than to tell him, that Scotland is a Fee-Liege of England.’ But he was concerned with far more than the defence of Scottish independence. This friend and legal adviser of the king was the one notable exception to the general rule that debate in Scotland was religious debate. His political theory was very moderate. An admirer of Bodin, he nevertheless stopped far short of Bodin's view of kingship; indeed, he managed to maintain good relations with James despite the fact that he could describe George Buchanan as ‘my very intimate friend’. For Craig, the law was of two kinds, mutable and immutable. The Prince could alter the first, for the good of the state; for it related to particular times and circumstances, and must change as they changed. But the immutable law is that which always binds the Prince, because he has sworn to observe it, by sacred oath; and ‘as God himself is invocated witness of the Oath given, so he will avenge the violation of it. The Prince has not made his promise to men, but to the Omnipotent God, who can and uses to require a strict account of it.’ And what did Craig mean by the Prince? ‘When I speak of a Prince, I mean a Prince in the Parliament or Great Court of the kingdom. For then he has the Rights of Majesty more eminently, because otherwise he cannot make a law, that obliges the subjects, nor impose Taxes upon them.’47 Despite the very different emphasis of the Trew Law and, indeed, many of the assertions James made to his English subjects after 1603, this view, advanced by a man close to the king, trusted and respected by him, was not one from which the king would have dissented. But neither was it a view which made its mark on his English subjects. The English translation of James's Scottish views was not a happy one. But that was not simply because the Scottish views were unacceptably extreme.

King James adored theological debate. In Scotland and England he got plenty of it. In Scotland, when he turned to political theory, he was, apart from Craig, a more isolated figure. When he entered the English world, he found a preoccupation with political issues which to him was both stimulating and entertaining. James's Scottish subjects were well aware that their king was a man of wit and humour. Even the hostile Anthony Weldon paid grudging tribute to that. But it is not something which James's English subjects—or later historians of King James I—have particularly appreciated. The difficulty was that royal enjoyment, even occasional tail-twisting, could only add to English worry.


  1. J. W. Allen, Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1928), p. 252. For the writings discussed here: Basilikon Doron of King James VI, ed. J. Craigie (Scottish Text Society, Edinburgh, 1944-50), 2 vols.; The Trew Law of Free Monarchies is in Minor Prose Works of King James VI and I, ed. J. Craigie and A. Law (Scottish Text Society, Edinburgh, 1982), pp. 57-82. Both are also printed, in English, in The Political Works of James I, ed. C. H. McIlwain (Cambridge, Mass., 1918; reprint, 1965), pp. 3-70; the introduction, pp. xv-cxi, is a masterly analysis of James's thought.

  2. Sir Anthony Weldon, The Court and Character of King James, in The Secret History of the Court of James I, ed. Sir Walter Scott (Edinburgh, 1811), II, pp. 1-20. Scott's own views are made all too clear in his novel The Fortunes of Nigel (Edinburgh, 1822).

  3. J. P. Sommerville, Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640 (London, 1986). P. Christianson, ‘Political Thought in Early Stuart England’, Historical Journal, 30 (1987), 960.

  4. Proceedings in Parliament, 1610, ed. Elizabeth Read Foster (New Haven, 1966), II, pp. 109, 108.

  5. Ibid., II, p. 102.

  6. Ibid., II, p. 101.

  7. Jean-Philippe Genet, ‘Ecclesiastics and Political Theory in Late Medieval England: The End of a Monopoly’, in The Church, Politics and Patronage in the Fifteenth Century, ed. R. B. Dobson (Gloucester, 1984), pp. 31-2.

  8. ‘The Harp’ is printed in Liber Pluscardensis, ed. F. J. H. Skene (Edinburgh, 1877-80), I, pp. 392-400. Gilbert of the Haye's Prose MS (1456), II, The Buke of the Ordre of Knychthede and The Buke of the Governance of Princis (Scottish Text Society, Edinburgh, 1909). J. H. Burns, ‘John Ireland and The Merroure of Wyssdome’, Innes Review, 6 (1955), 77-98. R. J. Lyall, ‘Politics and Poetry in Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Scotland’, Scottish Literary Journal, 3 (1976), 5-29. R. A. Mason, ‘Kingship, Tyranny and the Right to Resist in Fifteenth Century Scotland’, Scottish Historical Review, 66 (1987), pp. 125-51. Sally L. Mapstone, ‘The Advice to Princes Tradition in Scottish Literature, 1450-1500’ (DPhil., Oxford, 1986); I have much benefited from reading this thesis, and from discussions with Dr Mapstone.

  9. Sir James Fergusson, The Declaration of Arbroath (Edinburgh, 1970); A. A. M. Duncan, The Nation of Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath (Historical Association Pamphlet, 1970); G. W. S. Barrow, ‘The Idea of Freedom in Late Medieval Scotland’, Innes Review, 30 (1970), pp. 16-34.

  10. John Major, History of Greater Britain (Scottish History Society, 1892). My debt in this section to the work of Professor J. H. Burns is very clear: see Burns, ‘The Conciliarist Tradition in Scotland’, Scottish Historical Review, 42 (1963), pp. 89-104, and ‘Politia Regalis et Optima: The Political Thought of John Mair’, History of Political Thought, II (1981-2), 31-61; I also learned a great deal from his Carlyle Lectures on ‘Lordship, Kingship and Empire, 1400-1525’, given in the University of Oxford, 1988.

  11. Hector Boece, The History and Chronicles of Scotland … translated by John Bellenden, ed. T. Maitland (Edinburgh, 1821). George Buchanan, De Iure Regni apud Scotos (Edinburgh, 1579: facsimile reprint, Da Capo Press, Amsterdam and New York, 1969). Among the wealth of writing on these authors, see in particular A. A. M. Duncan, ‘Hector Boece and the Medieval Tradition’, Scots Antiquaries and Historians (Abertay Historical Society, Dundee, 1972), pp. 1-11; J. H. Burns, ‘The Political Ideas of George Buchanan’, Scottish Historical Review, 30 (1951), 60-8; H. R. Trevor-Roper, ‘George Buchanan and the Ancient Scottish Constitution’, English Historical Review, Supplement 3, 1966; R. A. Mason, ‘Rex Stoicus: George Buchanan, James VI and the Scottish Polity’, in New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland, ed. J. Dwyer, R. A. Mason and A. Murdoch (Edinburgh, 1982), pp. 9-33; and, most recently, the excellent new approach by D. Norbrook, ‘Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography’ in Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (Berkeley, 1987), pp. 78-116. For the development of theories of resistance, Q. Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 1978), II, part 3.

  12. John Knox, Appellation to the nobility and estates of Scotland and Letter addressed to the Commonalty of Scotland (both 1558) in The Works of John Knox, ed. D. Laing (Edinburgh, 1864), IV, pp. 469-520 and 521-38; the quotation is on p. 495. The reference to ‘the rascal multitude’ is in John Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. W. C. Dickinson (Edinburgh, 1949), I, p. 162.

  13. Ibid., II, pp. 82-3; David Calderwood, The History of the Kirk of Scotland (Wodrow Society, Edinburgh, 1842-9), II, pp. 277-9. John Ponet, A Short Treatise of Politic Power (Scolar Press facsimile, London, 1970).

  14. Jenny Wormald, Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent, 1442-1603 (Edinburgh, 1985). As king, James recognized and made use of the idea of contract for political purposes; he entered into bonds himself, and in 1587 he revived the idea of the General Band, which formally bound highland and border lords to take responsibility for their followers and tenants: Lords and Men, pp. 130, 153, 165. But unlike Mair and Buchanan, he did not subsume practice into his political theory; he was no ‘contractualist’. Not surprisingly, he shared his predecessors' belief in hereditary succession as the basis for his position as King of Scotland—and potential King of England: Trew Law, ed. Craigie, pp. 73, 80-1.

  15. Maurice Lee Jr, James I and Henry IV: An Essay in English Foreign Policy, 1603-1610 (Illinois, 1970), p. 10. Trew Law, ed. Craigie, p. 71.

  16. Allen, Political Thought, pp. 252-3.

  17. ‘The Library of James VI, 1573-1583’ is listed in Scottish History Society, Miscellany 1 (Edinburgh, 1893), pp. xi-lxxv; references to Budé and Bodin are on pp. xli-ii and lvi—there were two copies of Budé. An appealing aspect of this list is that it includes bows, arrows, a shooting glove and golf clubs (p. lxx): ‘mens sana in corpore sano’! Jean Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale, ed. K. D. McRae (Harvard, 1962), p. 84.

  18. M. Lee Jr, John Maitland of Thirlestane and the Foundation of the Stewart Despotism in Scotland (Princeton, 1959); Government by Pen: Scotland under James VI and I (Illinois, 1980); ‘James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland, 1596-1600’, Church History, 43 (1974), pp. 55-7.

  19. I. H. Stewart, The Scottish Coinage (London, 1967), pp. 92-6.

  20. Calendar of State Papers Scottish, VI, p. 523.

  21. ‘Mr Henry Yelverton, his Narrative of what passed on his being restored to the King's favour in 1609 …’, Archaeologia, 15 (1806), p. 51.

  22. Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, ed. T. Thompson and C. Innes (12 vols., Edinburgh, 1814-75), III, pp. 292-3, 296, cc. 2, 8; p. 293, c. 3.

  23. Ibid., III, p. 443, c. 16; pp. 509-10, c. 120, an act which revived legislation first passed in 1428 but never put into effect.

  24. For greater control before 1603, see, for example, ibid., III, p. 443, c. 16, and p. 530; IV, pp. 8, 56, 69, c. 28. In the second parliament held after his departure to England, the king tried to nominate the Lords of the Articles, probably unsuccessfully: ibid., IV, p. 280 (the record is mutilated here, and the king's list does not survive). James's visit to Scotland in 1617, when he spent twelve days sitting with the Lords of the Articles, produced something of a show-down. He was forced to concede that no more than eight from each estate, and from among the officers of state—the real point of the demand—would be elected to the Articles: ibid., IV, p. 527. Despite this, royal control of the Articles seems to have reached a new level in the parliament of 1621, when James was straining every nerve to push through his ecclesiastical policy and a new form of taxation; for the extent of royal manipulation in this parliament, Calderwood, History, VII, pp. 488-507.

  25. Trew Law, ed. Craigie, pp. 70-1. This description of the effect of the Norman Conquest on English law and government—reinforced by the point that the laws in England were written in a foreign language—was certainly touching on a somewhat raw English nerve: see Christopher Hill, ‘The Norman Yoke’ in Puritanism and Revolution (Penguin Books reprint, 1986), pp. 58-125; J. P. Sommerville, ‘History and Theory: The Norman Conquest in Early Stuart Political Thought’, Political Studies, 34 (1986), pp. 249-61. That being so, the passage may support the argument suggested on p. 50, that the Trew Law, when written, was not primarily directed towards an English readership.

  26. Trew Law, ed. Craigie, pp. 70, 71, 64-6, 81.

  27. According to Castelvetro, in his dedication to James, the king had asked to see this work. Whether it was genuine or not remains uncertain. There are, as Craigie has pointed out, certain similarities between Basilikon Doron and Charles V's ‘Instrucciones’ to Philip in 1543 and 1548; and James may well have known about these. But the Castelvetro manuscript was his holograph of the dubious ‘political testament’ of 1555. An English translation of this work by Lord Henry Howard was presented to Queen Elizabeth in the 1590s; and Castelvetro had ties with the English court. The literary link between two royal fathers, Charles V and James VI, writing for their sons, is therefore tenuous; more probably the manuscript given to James had only the spurious authority of Charles's name rather than the genuine one of his authorship. This does not, however, affect the idea that James saw himself as following Charles's example. Basilikon Doron, ed. Craigie, II, pp. 63-7; The Works of William Fowler, ed. H. W. Meikle, J. Craigie and J. Purves (Scottish History Society, Edinburgh, 1940), III, pp. cxxvi-xxxi; R. B. Merriman, The Rise of the Spanish Empire (New York, 1962), III, pp. 407-9; Karl Brandi, The Emperor Charles V (London, 1949), pp. 484-95, 582-6.

  28. Basilikon Doron, ed. Craigie, I, pp. 24-5.

  29. Ibid., I, pp. 39, 140-3, 82-93, 120-35.

  30. Ibid., I, pp. 174-5, 180-1, 188-91.

  31. This became immediately apparent at the beginning of the reign, even before James had left Scotland, in an exchange of letters between the king and the English councillors, in which James talked of the blessings of God, while the councillors, instructed to keep things going until his arrival, had to send messengers post-haste to Scotland to tell him the right form of words to authorise them to do so. Apparently English government ceased to function for a few days! Bodleian MS Ashmole 1729, ff. 41r-42r, 56r-v.

  32. S. R. Gardiner, History of England, 1603-1642 (London, 1884-9), II, pp. 38-9.

  33. Parliamentary Debates in 1610, ed. S. R. Gardiner, Camden Society o.s. 81 (London, 1861), p. 10. M. Lee Jr, ‘James VI and the Aristocracy’, Scotia, 1 (1977), p. 19.

  34. British Library, Royal MS 18 B xv (Basilikon Doron); 18 B xiv, f. 1 (Revelations).

  35. Godfrey Goodman, The Court of King James the First, ed. J. S. Brewer (London, 1839), I, p. 173.

  36. Basilikon Doron, ed. Craigie, II, pp. 8-15.

  37. Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, ed. J. H. Burton and others (Edinburgh, 1877-), VI, p. 63.

  38. Basilikon Doron, ed. Craigie, II, pp. 117, 6.

  39. Ibid., I, p. 13; II, pp. 7-8.

  40. I am deeply indebted to Dr Blayney for the information contained here, and for his permission to use it; and I should like to record the pleasure and fascination which his discussion of his discovery gave me.

  41. Basilikon Doron, ed. Craigie, I, pp. 21, 13, 14, 18.

  42. One manifestation of this is, however, a good deal more remarkable than the average mug. As a pleasing compliment to the king and his son Henry, the classical scholar and artist Henry Peacham produced two delightful books containing emblems illustrating quotes from Basilikon Doron, accompanied by appropriate classical tags; one, with pen-and-ink drawings, was dedicated to the king, the other, using water-colour, to Henry Prince of Wales: British Library, Royal MS 12 A lxvi and Harleian MS 6855, art. 13.

  43. Calderwood, History, V, p. 680.

  44. Political Works of James I, ed. McIlwain, pp. 306-25; Sommerville, Politics and Ideology, p. 134.

  45. Commons Debates, 1621, ed. W. Notestein, F. H. Relf and H. Simpson (New Haven, 1935), II, pp. 3-4. A similar note had been struck in the first speech James ever made to the English parliament, on 29 March 1604. In the opening sentences, he stated his view of parliament: ‘you who are here presently assembled to represent the Body of this whole Kingdome’. Later in the speech he was even more specific, when he talked of the ‘making of Lawes at certain times, which is onely at such times as this in Parliament’. There is no doubt that this is how he saw it. But he immediately followed it up by promising ‘that I will ever preferre the weale of the body and of the whole Common-wealth, in making of good Lawes and constitutions, to any particular or private ends of mine, thinking ever the wealth and weale of the Common-wealth to bee my greatest weale and worldly felicitie: A point wherein a lawful King doeth directly differ from a Tyrant.’ It might have been more tactful to resist the temptation to talk about his ‘special subject’ on this occasion; it was an intrusion of his personal role in the making of law which could too easily give rise to confusion and misinterpretation. Political Works of James I, ed. McIlwain, pp. 269 and 277.

  46. Edward Seymour, Protector Somerset, ‘Epistle or exhortacion to uniti & peace to the inhabitauntes of Scotland’, appendix to The Complaynt of Scotlande, ed. J. A. H. Murray (Early English Text Society, Extra Series 17, 18, London, 1872).

  47. Thomas Craig of Riccarton, Scotland's Sovereignty Asserted (London, 1695), p. 3. He wrote his rebuttal of Holinshed because ‘none of our Country-men had answered that Calumny, as if they seem'd to own the Truth of it by their Silence’: he himself would not have bothered, ‘except that learned men, such as Bodin, fell into this error’ (pp. 3-4). Bodin's opinion clearly mattered. In The Right of Succession to the Kingdom of England, in Two Books: against the Sophisms of Parsons the Jesuite, who assumed the counterfeit Name of Doleman (London, 1703), Craig took up the theme of royal power and the law, and cited with approval Bodin's distinction between mutable and immutable laws, which ‘pleases me much better than other distinctions’ (p. 129), while making clear the grounds for his disagreement. So far, indeed, did he emphasize the supremacy of law that, in the passage referred to here, he invoked the testimony of Jeremiah, ‘that God himself is bound, as it were, by Laws to observe his Covenant with Mankind’ (pp. 128-9). These works set out the position held by a man very much in James's confidence; the king undoubtedly knew about Craig's ideas. They were not published in his day, however, because the ease with which James succeeded to the throne of England made them unnecessary. But the battle went on. A century after Craig wrote Scotland's Sovereignty, an edition and translation by George Ridpath was produced in 1695 because, as Ridpath complained, English historians were still attacking the honour of Scotland, including ‘now by Mr Rymer Historiographer to his Majesty king William, who hath publish'd a Form of Homage said to be performed by Malcolm the Third King of Scots to Edward the Confessor for the Kingdom of Scotland’ (pp. x-xi); and this in turn provoked William Atwood's The Superiority and direct dominion of the Imperial Crown of England over the Crown and Kingdom of Scotland asserted. In answer to Scotland's Sovereignty asserted, tr. by G. Ridpath, 1695 (London, 1704). But this was, of course, all very topical because of a very different union.

Kevin Sharpe (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8550

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 man's bosom …’

—2nd Murderer, Richard III, I. iv. 133-9

Let not our babbling dreams afright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe.
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.

Richard III, V. iii. 308-11.

‘Private conscience’ and ‘public duty’ are in our usage terms that usually imply opposites. Though numerous events and controversies—politicians' sexual indiscretions, the publication of offensive books, the responsibility for riot and disorder—belie a simple distinction between them, we adhere to a belief in the separateness of private and public spaces. Indeed, commitment to that separateness and the idea of the ownership of the self are fundamental to both modern psychology and the modern state. Almost from the time that the word became respectable, the business of politics has been that of a negotiation between the individual and the State, private interests and public interests. Indeed, the acceptance and validation of a world of politics—of contest and party, lobby and propaganda—marked a recognition of the artificiality of the social state, and of a public morality that might differ from the ethical values that governed personal behaviour. Brave would be the historian who endeavoured confidently to assign an exact date to, or list of causes for, what were truly revolutionary developments. But we know that by the end of the seventeenth century, despite lingering pejorative associations, parties had become enshrined in the social and political life of the nation; that the Toleration Act signalled a degree of separation of Church and State; and that the language of ‘interest’ had gained respectability.1 Such developments, it has been suggested, were inextricably linked with a new attitude to the autonomous individual and a sphere of self-determination.2 By the end of the seventeenth century the conscience was defined as part of that sphere: as, in Locke's words, ‘nothing else but our own opinion or judgement of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own Actions’.3

Before the Civil War, however, such distinctions were not so readily made and ideas of conscience were correspondingly different and less individualistic. The normative texts of politics were the works of Aristotle and the Bible. Following Aristotle, it was held that the State was an ethical community and there was no contradiction between the good person, the good citizen, and the good ruler. The concept of the commonweal precluded clear delineation of the public and the private. The human body and ‘self’ were as much a part of the public as the ‘body politic’ was anthropomorphized. Because it was natural, the commonweal united all in one interest. Because all were members of a Christian commonweal that shaped its laws and codes according to God's decrees, there should no more have been contention over the ‘right course’ in public action than in private.4 There was one God, one Scripture, and therefore—in theory—one conscience for the commonwealth. Conscience was the inner law-giver, the ‘deity within us’, that element of knowledge of God that remained even in fallen man. Those who claimed God or Scripture spoke to them differently from the prescriptions of the commonweal were, it was held, betrayed by a false conscience or pretended to conscience, as they themselves knew, out of evil intent. Nor, in this model, was conscience at odds with duty. Both implied a moral obligation, that is an obligation to a shared morality. The Geneva Bible's translation of Eccles. 12: 13 enjoined: ‘Feare God and keep his commandments: for this is the duty of man.’5 Among God's commandments was obedience to divinely instituted authority. As the conscience was God's lieutenant in the soul, so the king was God's lieutenant in the commonweal, responsible for guiding the respublica Christiana according to the divine decrees. Loyalty to the king was an act of conscience as well as a duty and an interest. Resistance to the ruler was rebellion not only against God but against the self, the rise of ignorance and passion against the knowledge and reason which distinguished men from beasts.

Such ideal prescriptions had perhaps always been compromised by observed human experience: theological controversy, popular and baronial revolt, conflicting loyalty to family and ruler. But the rent of Christendom massively exacerbated the tensions and bequeathed to the era between the Reformation and the age of toleration fundamental practical and theoretical problems which could not be resolved nor even fully conceptualized within the prevailing paradigms. Many of those problems and questions—the nature of ‘true religion’, the extent of obedience to the prince, the relation of man to God and his fellows, the ends and organization of society and the State—were intimately bound up with and revolved around issues of ‘conscience’. As old vocabularies and value systems lived on in radically new circumstances, the very word conscience, once a symbol of unity, was deployed to defend violence, rebellion, and division. As a consequence a few thinkers, most notably Niccolò Machiavelli, advocated the radical course of freeing public life and government from religion and morality. But, to an age which still hoped for an ecumenical solution to the division of Christendom, Machiavelli's secular politics were anathema.6 Faced, then, with the enduring ideals of Christian humanism and the experience of religious division and contest, rulers and citizens had to define—and redefine—their own conscience. It is hardly surprising that in doing so they faced contradiction—not only from others, but also within themselves.

Often in early modern England the theatre staged (and attempted to contain) those contradictions. As our opening quotations remind us, Shakespeare glaringly presents a world in which conscience both preserves some of its unifying moral authority and yet lies at the mercy of ‘Machiavels’—illegitimate princes—who would subject it to personal ambition and force. It is no coincidence that, in the works of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, we encounter debates about conscience in plays self announcedly about kings.7 For many of the tensions and contradictions in early modern English society were examined through a notion which had an ‘important heuristic function in the period of transition from medieval to modern political thought’: the concept of the king's two bodies.8 On the one hand, in his mystical body, the king was the head, the reason, the conscience of the commonweal, exemplifying the oneness of private and public, duty and interest. On the other, in his natural body, the king was ‘but a man as I am’, as Henry V puts it, having but ‘human conditions’ and being subject to human frailties.9 The virtuous king was he who harmonized his natural to his mystical body, who subjected his passions to his reason, and so through his own example of wholeness applied holistic medicine to the body politic. Yet, even in the case of Shakespeare's good king, questions and tensions remained. The virtuous quality of sincerity required that the king display his ‘crystal heart’ to his subjects, but diplomacy and discretion, in Henry V's case even intercourse with his subjects, necessitated disguise and deceit. Though the king was responsible for his subjects, yet ‘he is not bound to answer the particular endings’.10 Similarly the king might keep the conscience and command the duty of the realm, ‘but every subject's soul is his own’ and it was for every subject to ‘wash every mote out of his conscience’.11 As Professor Goldberg reminds us, even this most heroic monarch and mirror for princes appears to different observers—within and outside the play—differently; ‘whether he is most Machiavellian or most pious has divided critical response to him’.12

Historians have similarly been as divided over their characterization of Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Was Henry VIII a ruthless manipulator of circumstance, or a man who sincerely governed himself as well as the polity according to his conscience? Was Charles I genuine in his claim to rule only for the weal of his people, or did he act—in both senses—only to establish his power as absolute? The historiographical differences of interpretation of ‘actual rulers’, like the critical disagreements about Henry V and other kings represented on the stage, owe much to the self-contradictions of the age and so especially of its rulers, particularly over questions of conscience and duty.13 In one case, we are fortunate to have a monarch who not only reigned during the period of the richest dramatic representations of these tensions, but also, in (what we would delineate as) both public and more private genres of writing, contributed to the debate of these issues. Indeed it was in 1599, the year of the first performance of Henry V, that James VI penned his own reflections on kingship, the Basilikon Doron or ‘His Majesty's Instructions to his dearest son, Prince Henry’.

James VI and I's most public pronouncements on kingship, as well as the Basilikon Doron, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, the Apology for the Oath of Allegiance, the Remonstrance for the Right of Kings, and the speeches to Parliament, have been easily available in C. H. McIlwain's The Political Works of James I since 1918. It is surprising that they have attracted little critical study as political theory or discourse.14 Perhaps even more regrettably, no study has been made of James's letters, devotional tracts, commentaries on Scripture, and, especially, his poetry as self-examinations and as self-explications of the king's person and concept of office. Central to any such investigation must be an understanding of James's perceptions of conscience and duty—his own, and his subjects' in a Christian commonweal—and of the contradictions within them.

In his most public and avowedly political works, James outlined what conscience and duty meant to him. No more for his subjects than for himself could they be divided. It was the duty of the people to obey their sovereign ‘in all things except directly against God’, and subjects were ‘bound to obey their princes for conscience sake’.15 ‘The bond of conscience’, James once wrote to James Hamilton in Scotland, was ‘the only sure bond for tying of men's affections to them whom to they owe a natural duty’.16 Herein, of course, lay the central problem of the early modern state: if conscience were the foundation of the duty of obedience to princes, yet conscience informed some subjects that the ruler acted ‘directly against God’, how could monarchy and the commonweal survive? James himself conceded that it was the duty of the clergy to encourage disobedience of commands contrary to God's—‘it is always better to obey God than man’—yet continued to maintain that there was no conflict, rather a harmony, between faith and allegiance.17 In part this seeming contradiction was resolved in theory by another: the notion of civil obedience. In the case of his Catholic subjects, the King separated their civil obedience from their conscience. Never believing that ‘the blood of any man shall be shed for diversity of opinions in religion’, James left them to their ‘opinion’, requiring only subscription to an oath of allegiance.18 That oath he regarded as the solution to the pull between conscience and the duty of obedience: ‘I never conceived the difference between real obedience and promise by subscription to obey.’19 However, the promise involved in an oath itself rested on one's obligation and accountability to God—in other words on conscience.20 In order to reconcile the conscience and duty of his Catholic subjects, James was forced to separate what he intrinsically believed should be inviolable—the civic and the religious.

For, whilst his defence of the Oath of Allegiance seemed to imply it, elsewhere James denied that the sphere of conscience could be separated as a personal realm outside the public. In A Premonition to All Most Mighty Monarchs he went so far as to refute the sacred secrecy of the confessional when the public interest was at stake.21 Most of all he was at pains to deny the Puritan claim to personal conscience, that is to a personal interpretation of what God ordained. Parity of conscience, he realized, would soon lead to equality (and hence anarchy) in the commonwealth.22 Conscience was not identical with mere opinion: sinners confused the dictates of conscience with those of appetite, and many did ‘prattle of’ a conscience they did not feel.23 True conscience was not opinion but knowledge, ‘the light of knowledge that God hath planted in man’.24 ‘Conscience not grounded on knowledge’, James once put it, ‘is either an ignorant fantasy or an arrogant vanity.’25 Knowledge of God came to man through Scripture, the principal tutor to the conscience. Therefore, ‘in making the Scripture to be ruled by their conscience and not their conscience by the Scripture’, the Puritans subverted conscience no less than they did authority.26

In matters of dispute, of course, the interpretation of Scripture rested with the Church. So, though on occasions he appears to regard conscience as an individual's personal negotiation with God, for the most part James believed in a ‘common quality conscience’ in which all (himself included) shared, rather than ‘distinct individual consciences’.27 Perhaps, he saw that acceptance of the idea of individual conscience ultimately threatened not only diversity of religious sects but moral and religious relativism. What most upset James about the teachings of Conrad Vorstius was his contention that God had ‘some kind of diversity or multiplicity in himself yea even a beginning of a certain mutability’.28 Against Vorstius no less than Montaigne, James reasserted a theoretical axiom of the early modern polity: ‘God is unity itself and verity is one.’29 But, though necessary, the belief in a common conscience of the commonweal was fraught with difficulties and inconsistencies. For in certain passages the King discerns the light of conscience in all men. God, he concludes in the second book of the Basilikon Doron, has ‘imprinted in men's minds by the very light of Nature the love of all moral virtues’ and an awareness of wrongdoing.30 Even malefactors retained, like Richard III's murderer, a sense of their own evil, a residual conscience which, as James described it in his Daemonologie, ‘haunted’ them, until ‘the purging of themselves by amendment of life from such sins as have procured that extraordinary plague’.31 But, if such were the case, why could not a man's conscience be autonomous? How was it that Puritans professed a conscience that was false or pretended, if God planted the light of his knowledge in all? Or, to put the question simply and fundamentally, why did all not agree about the right course for a Christian commonweal?

At times James wants to claim that they did. ‘You know in your conscience’, he told Members of the House of Commons in 1624, ‘that of all the kings that ever were … never was king better beloved of his people than I am.’32 But there is a silent ought to implicit before that ‘know’, a silent phrase that alone can bridge the gap between the theory of common conscience and James's experience, not least with his Parliaments, of fundamental disagreement. Whatever should be, conscience was not common to all. Their conscience led the Puritans to become a ‘sect’, as James described them, whose members ‘refuse to obey the law and will not cease to stir up a rebellion’.33 Theirs led the Powder Plotters into ‘denying the king to be [their] lawful sovereign or the anointed of God’.34 God had his own ways of expressing the dictates of true conscience. When Catesby and others were wounded when the powder for their plot exploded on them, James thought they were ‘wonderfully stroken with amazement in their guilty consciences, calling to memory how God had justly punished them with that same instrument which they should have used for the effectuating of so great a sin’.35 Yet it was the role of the State to lend some assistance even to ‘the wonderful power of God's justice upon guilty consciences’. Accordingly, Guy Fawkes was imprisoned (and, not mentioned, tortured) to help him to ‘advise upon his conscience’.36 Conscience may have been to James the foundation of his authority, but, paradoxically, his authority was an essential prop of a true conscience. To answer the cynic, then, who would dismiss the whole notion as a disingenuous disguise for power, we must look at how James interpreted conscience and duty when he turned to examine his own.

Too much that has been written about the King's theory of divine right has failed to grasp that James saw his position as God's lieutenant not as a power but as a duty—and an awesome duty, in the sense of religious observance as well as feudal obligation, at that. ‘Being born to be a king,’ he instructed Prince Henry, ‘ye are rather born to Onus than Honos: not excelling all your people so far in rank and honour as in daily care and hazardous pains in the dutiful administration of that great office that God hath laid upon your shoulders.’37 A king owned himself even less than private men. For the commonweal, James wrote in 1593, ‘I am born more than for myself’.38 Even as a parent, a king did not own his son. Henry was ‘not ours only as the child of a natural father, but as an heir apparent to our body public in whom our state and kingdom are essentially interested’.39 If the king's body and flesh were not his own, no more was his conscience. As in his mystical form he was head of the body politic, so the king's conscience was not only personal but the conscience of the realm. James was explicit about how his conscience was bound to the codes of the polity that it was his duty to rule—to law, justice, and equity. ‘Certainly,’ as he put it in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, ‘a king that governs not by his law can neither be countable to God for his administration.’40 ‘A King that will rule and govern justly’, he told his parliamentary audience in March 1610, ‘must have regard to conscience …’41

Now, our cynic (or Dr Sommerville) might point out that justice was the king's justice and that the laws too were—James himself used the possessive—‘his’. The conscience of the king's mystical self was then one and the same with his personal conscience and so autonomous and untrammelled. James, however, had sworn a coronation oath to see law, justice, mercy, and truth maintained, and felt himself as bound to execute that promise as were the Catholics by the Oath of Allegiance.42 It had been, he recalled in a speech of 1616, his principal care to keep his conscience clear in all points of his coronation oath.43 For an oath was to God as well as to the other party and so, as Bishop Sanderson was to put it, ‘not to be taken with a relucting and unsatisfied conscience’.44 That conscience was inextricably part of the honour of the king, ‘without which’, James proclaimed in 1607, ‘I have no being’.45 Indeed, so much was the king's conscience the realm's as much as the king's own that at times, it would appear, he came close to subordinating his ‘private conscience’ for the sake of the commonweal. Where his policy towards the papists was concerned, for example, ‘I must’, James acknowledged in a speech in the Lords, ‘put a difference betwixt mine own private profession of mine own salvation and my politic government of the realm for the weal and quietness thereof.’46 He did so because, ‘as I would be loather to dispence in the least point mine own conscience for any worldly respect than the foolishest precisian of them all; so would I be as sorry to straight the politique government of the bodies and minds of all my subjects to my private opinions …’47 In theory, of course, in the ideal commonweal there should have been no such disjuncture. The king's personal and public consciences should have accorded with each other and those of his subjects. The reality was otherwise. The reality of politics threatened the separation of the king's two bodies at a time when their conjunction was essential for—indeed was a device for—the cohesion of the body politic.48 It was not least because he fully grasped that necessity that James struggled to reconcile and to harmonize all those consciences: to be (as we shall argue) the crystal mirror in and through which his subjects could come to a shared knowledge of God.

In the first place, James went to some lengths to remove and deny any barrier between his private and public selves. Kings, he advised Prince Henry, should have no secret thoughts that they were afraid publicly to avouch. A prince ought to keep ‘agreeance and conformity … betwixt his outward behaviour and the virtuous qualities of his mind’.49 ‘By the outward using of your office … testify the inward uprightness of your heart.’50 ‘I never with God's grace’, he once wrote to Cecil, taking his own counsel, ‘shall do anything in private which I may not without shame proclaim upon the tops of houses.’51 Because discourse was ‘the true image’ of the king's mind (a ‘testament’ as he called the Basilikon Doron), it was important that monarchs spoke and wrote what they meant.52 Accordingly James vowed to his Parliament that he would promise nothing which he intended not to deliver.53 His ‘tongue should ever be the true messenger of his heart’.54 Today we would be inclined to interpret this as a claim to sincerity—something we tend to doubt in public figures, dismissing such talk as itself political rhetoric or strategy. And this is the point. James was intending more than to secure belief in his word. He was specifically opposing those Machiavels who sought to justify deceit and disguise as stratagems of power in an amoral political universe.55 And his counter-argument not only opposed Machiavellian premisses; it deployed to opposite purpose Machiavelli's own language. As a king James spoke ‘without artifice’; ‘as a prince’, he wrote to Elizabeth, perhaps choosing his self-description carefully, ‘it becomes me not to feign’.56 In 1621, subverting the metaphors of to follow that ‘alike Christian as politic rule to measure as I would be measured unto’.57 ‘Peace be with you’, James took as the fit ‘motto of a king’ because ‘the blessing of a God’.58

James's tracts, speeches, and letters contain constant applications of Scripture to issues and problems of State. Scripture was for him a text of State because the Christian and political realms were one and shared a discourse. ‘Let our souls be bound for our bodies,’ he urged in 1618, ‘our bodies for our souls, and let each come in at the General Sessions to save his bail, where he shall find a merciful judge.’59 No less than his actions, the King's words, his Works, were mediations of God's will’, as revealed in Scripture. Their function, as Bishop Montagu saw it when he introduced them to their readers in 1616, was to operate on men's consciences so that they might be ‘converted by them’.60 James described his own Basilikon Doron as a ‘discharge of our conscience’.61Basilikon Doron means the royal gift. James so described others of his works, dedicated to Prince Charles or the Duke of Buckingham. In a larger sense, they were, when published, gifts to all his subjects. For, by bringing readers closer to God, leading them to know him, James might indeed convert men by bringing them to the knowledge of God, which, when shared, united all in a Christian commonweal. The author (writer/authorizer) of the tag to the frontispiece to James's works was the earthly no less than the heavenly king: ‘Ecce do tibi animum sapientem et intelligentem.’62

A king who saw it as his duty to be an apostle as well as a prince, to mediate God's word and will, faced an awesome responsibility to ensure the uprightness of his own conscience. And, in the main, he faced it alone. It may be the duty of MPs ‘upon your consciences plainly to determine’ for ‘the weal both of your king and your country’.63 And the king had his counsellors, bishops, and chaplains close to his bosom. But these were men chosen ‘out of my own judgment and conscience’ who owed loyalty and service to their master.64 The acclaim of others could not be relied upon as a mark of the king's virtuous courses. Reputation, James once wrote, was but other men's ‘opinion’—and for that a prince should not risk his soul.65 Ultimately the keeper of the nation's conscience was alone—with his own, before God. In his epistle to the Reader of ‘His Majesty's Instructions to his … son’, James explained his resolution ‘ever to walk as in the eyes of the Almighty, examining ever so the secretest of my drifts, before I gave them course, as how they might some day bide the touchstone of a public trial’.66 Kings had, he put it in the Trew Law, ‘the count of their administration’ to give to God.67 Not only was that an account more strict than that any other servant owed his master; it was a count of each and every word and deed. Justice demanded of kings that, ‘as we reign by [God's] grace … we should turn all our energies and thoughts to His glory’.68 This was not rhetoric. Every day, James commanded his son, he should take the reckoning with himself, his conscience, and his God:

remember ever once in the four and twenty hours, either in the night or when ye are at greatest quiet, to call yourself to account of all your last days actions, either wherein ye have committed things ye should not, or omitted the things ye should do, either in your Christian or kingly calling: in that account let not yourself be smoothed over with that flattering Φὶλαμτὶα … but censure yourself as sharply as if ye were your own enemy.69

Never, he concluded ‘ever wilfully or willingly … contrare your conscience’. The king more than any must fear as well as serve God.70 ‘Let hell afright thee’, he advised his fellow rulers, ‘and let thy conscience describe it to thee’.71 When alone taking the count of his obedience and service to God, the king needed only to turn to Scripture—‘the statutes of your heavenly king’—to determine whether he had acted (as good kings should) as a true subject of his sovereign.72 ‘Would ye then know your sin by the law? read the books of Moses … Would ye know … Christ? looke the Evangelists.’73 With Scripture, especially the books of Kings and Chronicles, James told his son, he should be familiarly acquainted: ‘for there will ye see yourself (as in a mirror) either among the Catalogues of the good or evil kings.’74 Self-knowledge, conscience, the same as the knowledge of God, came from meditation upon His word, as in turn the King's Works written and enacted were the mirror in which subjects saw their God and themselves.

It is in this context that we must glance specifically (if briefly) at the more neglected of James I's writings: the king's own exegeses of and commentaries on scriptural texts. James called them ‘paraphrases’ and ‘meditations’. And they stand, indeed, as evidence of his personalizing the Scriptures, meditating upon their message to himself and communicating their meaning to his subjects. The King's Paraphrase upon the Revelation is an exegesis, a decoding of that most complex of biblical books and a specific application of its symbolic figurations to his own and his contemporaries' world. James deconstructs, as we would now say, the visions of Chapter 10, explaining how Christ was the Angel foretold and how the rainbow signified His covenant with his elect. Similarly the woman of Chapter 12 represents the Church, he explains, and the twelve stars stand for the prophets and the patriarchs.75 Throughout, James puts his own words as if they were spoken by St John and so joins, as if in a dialogue, the text of Revelation and his reflections upon it. As a consequence it is no less the King's than the apostle's words we read when he writes ‘and [God] said unto me, Write and leave in record what thou hast seen’.76 James saw much that was for the edification of himself. He read again, as Scripture in many places showed him, that ‘the hearts of the greatest kings as well as of the smallest subjects are in the hands of the Lord’. The book of the last things forcefully urged him: ‘Be watchful then and sleep no longer in negligence and careless security … revive your zeal and fervency.’77 His discursive dialogue with Scripture sharpened his conscience. As he turned to meditate on some verses of the fifteenth chapter of the first book of Chronicles (which he had, we recall, recommended to Prince Henry), he was reminded clearly of the first duty of kings.78 David after his victory over his enemies immediately translated the ark of the Covenant to his house, ‘whereof we [sic] may learn first that the chief virtue which should be in a Christian prince … is a fervency and constant zeal to promote the glory of God’.79 James applied his text closely to his place, comparing the elders of the Chronicles to the barons and burgesses of his kingdom and underlining his own responsibility for ‘choosing good under-rulers’.80 At all points the ‘opening up of the text’ was the basis for examining ‘how pertinently the place doth appertain to us and our present estate’, guiding the king, for example, on the lawfulness of Sunday sports.81

James's meditations on Scripture were a form of self-counsel, a didactic engagement with the commands in Scripture as a means of tutoring conscience. And not only his own. The meditation on the twentieth chapter of Revelations reads also like a sermon. Introducing his meditation upon the first book of the Chronicles, James expressed his desire that ‘these meditations of mine may after my death remain to the posterity and a certain testimony of my upright and honest meaning …’.82 Like the overtly Political Works (as McIlwain defined them) from which they have been artificially separated, James's paraphrases and explications of Scripture were a discharge of his conscience, an image of the king, at once a crystal and a mirror for all men as well as for magistrates.

Perhaps we see their public and, as well as personal, heuristic function most clearly in two little-studied works, the Meditation upon The Lords Prayer of 1619 and the Meditation upon the … XXVII Chapter of St Matthew of 1620. The first, though dedicated as a New Year's gift to the Duke of Buckingham, was ‘written by the King's Majesty for the benefit of all his subjects, especially of such as follow the court’.83 The meditation was a plea for Christian unity at a time of mounting tension and division; as in The Peace-Maker of 1618 James had called on the ‘monarchical bodies of many kingdoms’ to ‘be one mutual Christendom’,84 so he now urged all his subjects to join in the fellowship of the sacraments and prayer. The Arminians, he wrote, sought to rob God of his secret will; at the ‘other extremity’, ‘some puritans … make God author of sin’.85 Exposition of the prayer taught by Christ warned all to ‘trust not to that private spirit which our Puritans glory in’ but to remember, through the words ‘Our Father’, that ‘every one of us is a member of a body of a church that is compacted of many members’.86 James commends confession to churchmen for the clearing of the conscience and, through reflection on the Lord's Prayer, finds the ‘true visible church … now in this kingdom’ the best hope for salvation.87

The Meditation upon St Matthew began, James informed his son Charles, as a private reading ‘to myself the passion of Christ’.88 But, as he thought on the crown of thorns, James contemplated ‘the thorny cares which a king … must be subject unto as (God knowes) I daily and nightly feel in mine own person’.89 As he meditated further, ‘I apprehended that it would be a good pattern to put inheritors to kingdoms in mind of their calling by the form of their inauguration’ and ‘whom can a pattern for a king's inauguration so well fit as a king's son and heir being written by the king his father and the pattern taken from the king of all kings’. And so the work became for Charles what the Basilikon Doron had been for Henry, James's gift of knowledge of God to his son. Indeed, James informed the reader of his meditation that, if God gave him days and leisure, he intended to expand it to cover ‘the whole principal points belonging to the office of a king’.90 Meantime, the Meditation upon … St Matthew was a forewarning of the heavy burden of kingship: ‘make it therefore’, he instructed the prince, ‘your vade mecum’. As he laid out for his son the verses describing Christ's crowning with plaited thorns and mock coronation with sceptre of reed and the soldiers' laughing ‘obeisance’, James detailed the cares and duties of the prince who was to take his ‘pattern’ from Christ. The thorns, he explained, made a king remember ‘that he wears not that crown for himself but for others’; the reed sceptre instructed a ruler to correct gently and govern ‘boldly yet temperately’. In general, Christ's crowning passion reminded kings that they were ‘mixtae personae … bound to make a reckoning to God for their subjects' souls as well as their bodies’.91 ‘In a word,’ James concludes, ‘a Christian king should never be without that continual and ever wake-riffe care of the account he is one day to give to God of the good government of his people and their prosperous estate both in souls and bodies, which is a part of the health of his own soul.’92 As often with James, it was counsel to himself as well as to his son. Just as Pilate proclaimed Christ King of the Jews in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, so ‘upon St George's day and other high festival times the chief Herald Garter … proclaims my titles in … Latin, French and English’.93 We can almost hear James meditating with himself as he tells Prince Charles that the purple robe of office was to remind him ‘to take great heed of his conscience, that his judgements may be without blemish or stain’.94

Our final texts of the king's conscience have all but rested unexamined by historians—doubtless, not least, because they are poetry. James, however, was a major influence on the Renaissance poetry of Scotland, and both his poems and treatise on poetry are rich in evidence of his values and ideals. Like his paraphrase of Revelations, James's verse translations of the Psalms of David were a form of meditation on Scripture, by means of absorbing its meaning into his own words—a placing ‘before thy holy throne this speech of mine’.95 Translation, James decreed, did not license reinterpretation of Scripture; those who adulterated Holy Writ with their own opinions were accursed.96 The translator was a glass through which Scripture could be read, and poetry might be the instrument by which it was read most clearly.97 So the King of Scotland, through David, the King of Israel, addressed, as in prayer, his heavenly King, a ‘king that last for ever shall quaire all the nationis perish & decayes’.98 Through David, James learnt (as he taught) that the Lord was a lord of justice, that he abominated the ‘creuell and bloodthristie tyran’ and those false princes who ‘speake with pleasant lippes and dowble myndis’.99 He read that the Lord preserved his anointed king and bestowed his grace on the virtuous, ‘thaim of conscience iust & pure’.100 James therefore prayed for protection from his enemies without and from temptations of wickedness within; he asked ‘lett all my judgement ay proceid from thy most holy face’.101 Urging, as he was to do in the Basilikon Doron, ‘all princes sonnes yield to the lorde’, he vowed to place his trust ‘in Iehova's might’.102 Trust here meant not only his confidence but his responsibility, his kingdom. In the exercise of his office James, with David, knew the Lord would guide and ‘cousaile me’, as in turn he would give account to God how he had heeded His counsel:

the lorde doth iustice give unto the nationis sure
then judge me lorde according to my iustice great & pure(103)

James's Psalms, The Psalmes of His Maiestie as they were titled, were not his only poetical exercises that we should consider as meditations on God and self-examination of the royal conscience. Only when we recall James's admonition to his son to reflect upon God and take his reckoning with himself at quiet moments free from worldly business may we understand the significant epithet in His Maiesties Poeticall Exercises at Vacant Houres. In his translation of ‘divine’ Du Bartas's The Furies, a poem about the Fall, James advised that the reader (and reader/writer) might ‘see clearly, as in a glass, the miseries of this wavering world: to wit, the cursed nature of mankinde and the heavie plagues of God. And especiallie ❙ heere maye thou learne not to flatter thyselfe, in cloaking thy odious vices with the delectable coulour of vertue …’.104 In The Furies, we read how authority had once been natural and kings could rule, like Adam over beasts, not by force but with a wink or a nod. But disobedience to God had as its consequence the collapse of all natural hegemony, as well as the disintegration of order and harmony into chaos. The animals now formed ‘rebellious bands’ against Man:

Man in rebelling thus against
The soveraigne great, I say,
Doth feele his subjects all enarm'd
Against him everie way …(105)

Wolves, leopards, and bears now challenged the lion, king of beasts:

Most jealous of the right divine
Against their head conspire.(106)

Even kings themselves were stained by the Fall:

The King of beasts … of himselfe
Is not the maister now.(107)

Yet poetry, Sir Philip Sidney, had claimed, could bring fallen man closer again to God. As James himself summarized him: ‘a breath divine in Poets breasts doth blow.’108 Through The Furies, therefore, James learnt and taught the emptiness of man's ‘outward show’, the illegitimacy of princes who advanced themselves ‘by false contracts and by unlawfull measures’, and the wisdom of those who had ‘the feare of God ❙ Imprinted deepely …’ and who obeyed his will.109 Similarly, from his verse account of the battle of Lepanto we know James learnt and taught the duty of kings: to be God's generals against the devil, to prefer the ‘honour of the Lord’ before all else, and to be ‘volunteers of conscience’ in the Lord's ranks.110

In and through his poetry, which awaits a critical/political reading, James, as the poet Gabriel Harvey put it, ‘read a … lecture to himself’.111 He did more than tutor his own conscience, however. The ‘heavenly furious fire’ of poetry, he believed, might reignite the embers of conscience and knowledge of God in all men.112 Poets are ‘Dame Natures trunchmen, heavens interprets trewe’.113 So James offered instruction in the art of poetry as he penned advice on the art of kingship. And, in his Essayes of a Prentise in the Divine Art of Poesie, he prayed that he, as poet and king, might have the power to represent the wind, the seas, and the seasons, nature—the created works of a living God whom men through verse may come to know and follow:

For as into the wax the seals imprent
Is lyke a seale, right so the Poet gent
Doeth grave so vive in us his passions strange,
As makes the reader, halfe in author change
For verses force is sic that softly slydes
Throw secret poris and in our sences bydes
As makes them have both good and eville imprented
Which by the learned works is represented.(114)

David, Job, and Solomon had been poets as well as kings. The poet like the good king prayed to his God ‘That I thy instrument may be’, so that, as The Furies concludes, ‘this worke which man did write’ also ‘by the Lord is pend’.115 Poetry for James VI and I, like his devotional works, was a meditation with himself and God and a representation to his subjects of himself and God—his purest crystal. In purifying his own conscience, he equipped himself to teach; by teaching, he learnt. So the wise poet of Uranie was told:

In singing kepe this order showen you heir,
Then ye your self, in feeding men shall leir
The rule of living well …(116)

And, thus, the King published rules for poetry as well as for government, that ‘reading thir rules ye may find in yourself such a beginning of Nature …’. In the words of the sonnet to the reader, ‘Sic docens discans’.117

In early modern Europe, as circumstances challenged traditional beliefs, all rulers faced difficult choices. Either they accepted the realities and were forced to compromise long-held beliefs and codes, or they fought to reassert the paradigms and to reconstruct a shattered world. Even though faced with the obvious fact of religious wars in Europe and theological wrangles at home, James VI and I pursued hopes of, and policies towards, an ecumenical resolution to the divisions of Christendom. He endeavoured to make the Church of England a platform for the reunification of a truly Catholic church, a unum corpus of which all Christians could be members. In his own countries he sought to minimize dispute over theology and ceremony. And we now see that, as an essential part of his ambitious designs, he sought to lead his subjects to a knowledge of God's dictates, so that all might partake of a common conscience, as well as be members of one church and commonweal. He faced, inevitably, inconsistencies in his own exposition of his ideal, because the means to obtain his goal (a coincidence of private and public belief) were the goal itself. His only answer to the new challenges was the reassertion of the old ideals. James, however, went beyond reassertion; his Works were a strategy of reenactment. By his own example, he attempted to demonstrate that conscience was neither mere opinion, nor, as the ‘politics’ would have it, a disguise, nor yet the inevitable victim of force. And he tried to heal the divisions in the commonwealth, by resolving the disjunctures in himself—between his natural and mystical body, his person and office—ruling his own conscience and his kingdom, as he claimed, according to Scripture.

In the public sphere it is clear that he failed: religious differences and even moral positions continued to polarize. The King perforce took political decisions which accorded uneasily with his conscience. Furthermore, even in his own person James exemplified not only the ideals but also the failings he discussed, to the point that he became a microcosm of the human frailties that always threatened a Christian society. In his quest for the English Crown after Elizabeth's death, the young James acquiesced in his mother's execution, for all his formal protest, and so failed in the filial devotion he believed was owed to parents.118 Similarly, for all his injunctions to honesty, it would appear that he was prepared to mislead about his willingness to convert to Rome.119 More tragically still, the king who thundered against the vices of intemperance, drunkenness, and especially sodomy (a crime he exempted from pardon and which, he told Henry, ‘ye are bound in conscience never to forgive’) was a drunkard and homosexual.120 How, then, could James counsel his son not to commend what he did not practise or boast—as, in 1616, that ‘both our theorique and practique agree well together’?121 The simple answer would be that James was a straightforward hypocrite, but it would be too simple an answer. For James's denunciations of what were also his own sins were part of his meditations, and may have been a form of the confession that he recommended to others, for ‘amendment of life’. We cannot know how, in his private moments, James faced his God and himself. But knowing, as he told his son, that Christ did not come for the perfect, he found ‘in the religion we profess … so much comfort and peace of conscience’.122


  1. See S. Zwicker, ‘Lines of Authority: Politics and Literary Culture in the Restoration’, in K. Sharpe and S. Zwicker (eds.), Politics of Discourse: The History and Literature of Seventeenth-Century England (1987), 230-70; also pp. 5-7.

  2. M. McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (1987).

  3. J. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1824 edn.), 25.

  4. Cf. K. Sharpe, Politics and Ideas in Early Stuart England: Essays and Studies (1989), 11-14.

  5. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘Conscience’.

  6. Sharpe, Politics and Ideas, 25-8; F. Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (1964).

  7. As well as Richard III, Richard II, Henry V, Lear, Hamlet, and The Winter's Tale are obvious texts in which the king's conscience both faces dilemmas and is yet central to the integrity of the realm.

  8. See E. H. Kantorovicz, The Kings's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ, 1957), passim and p. 447.

  9. E. Forset, A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique (1606); D. G. Hale, The Body Politic (The Hague, 1971); Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, sc. i.

  10. Henry V, Act IV, sc. i.

  11. Ibid.

  12. J. Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore, Md., and London, 1983), 161. I am grateful to Jonathan Goldberg for his brilliant insights both in this work and in discussion.

  13. The historiographical disagreements are especially heated for early modern British history, not least because the period set itself contrary criteria of judgement.

  14. They find no place in Quentin Skinner's survey, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (2 vols.; Cambridge, 1978). See, however, L. Avack, La ragione dei re: Il pensiero politico di Giacomo I (Milan, 1974).

  15. The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, in The Political Works of James I, ed. C. H. McIlwain (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), 61; Apology for The Oath of Allegiance, ibid. 72; HMC, Salisbury, XV. 300, James I to Thomas Parry, Nov. 1603.

  16. The Letters of King James VI and I, ed. G. P. V. Akrigg, (1984), 166-7.

  17. A Remonstrance for the Right of Kings, in Political Works, 213.

  18. Letters, 204; Apology for Oath of Allegiance, in Political Works, 72 and passim.

  19. Letters, 223.

  20. See R. Sanderson, De juramento: Seven Lectures Concerning the Obligation of Promisory Oaths (1655), a work revised by Charles I.

  21. Political Works, 167.

  22. James I, A Meditation upon The Lords Prayer (1619), 18: ‘trust not to that private spirit or Holy Ghost which our Puritans glory in, for then a little fiery zeal will make thee turn separatist.’

  23. The Basilikon Doron of King James VI, ed. J. Craigie (2 vols.; Scottish Text Soc.; Edinburgh, 1944-50) i. 40, 124.

  24. Ibid. i. 40.

  25. James I, Flores regii, or Proverbes and Aphorismes … Spoken By His Majesty (1627), 104-5.

  26. Basilikon Doron, i. 16.

  27. OED, s.v. ‘Conscience’, history of usage.

  28. A Declaration Concerning the Proceedings with the States General of the United Provinces … in the Cause of D. Conradus Vorstius, in The Workes of The Most High and Mighty Prince James (1616), 365.

  29. Ibid. 372.

  30. Basilikon Doron, i. 160.

  31. James I, Daemonologie, in Workes of Prince James, 125.

  32. Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England, i (1806), 1376.

  33. Basilikon Doron, i. 16.

  34. A Discourse of the … Discoverie of the Powder Treason, in Workes of Prince James, 231.

  35. Ibid. 245.

  36. Ibid. 241.

  37. Basilikon Doron, i. 6-7.

  38. Letters, 25.

  39. HMC Salisbury, xv. 302.

  40. Political Works, 63.

  41. Ibid. 318.

  42. See The Ceremonies, Form of Prayer and Services Used in Westminster Abbey at the Coronation of King James 1st (1685).

  43. Political Works, 329.

  44. Sanderson, De juramento, 144, 197-8, 236, 269.

  45. Political Works, 298.

  46. Ibid. 274.

  47. Ibid.

  48. Cf. Sharpe, Politics and Ideas, 61-3, 68-9.

  49. Basilikon Doron, i. 15.

  50. Ibid. i. 200.

  51. Letters, 192.

  52. Basilikon Doron, i. 21-2.

  53. Political Works, 305.

  54. Ibid. 280.

  55. Though Machiavelli was not available in English until 1640, The Prince was translated into Scotch by W. Fowler, a Court poet, who contributed a celebratory verse to James's own collections of poems. See His Maiesties Poetical Exercises at Vacant Houres (Edinburgh, 1591), sig. 4; The Essayes of a Prentise in the Divine Art of Poesie (Edinburgh, 1585), sig. 3v; The Poems of James VI of Scotland, ed. T. Craigie (2 vols.; Scottish Text Soc.; Edinburgh, 1955-8), i. xxii.

  56. Commons Debates 1621, eds W. Notestein, F. H. Relf, and H. Simpson (7 vols.; New Haven, Conn., 1935), v. 85; Letters, 162.

  57. Letters, 181.

  58. The Peace-Maker, sig. A4.

  59. Ibid. sig. E4v.

  60. Works … of Prince James, epistle to the Reader.

  61. Basilikon Doron, i. 22.

  62. Serenissimi Potentissimi Principis Jacobi … Opera (1619), motto at foot of frontispiece depicting the figures of Religion and Peace.

  63. Political Works, 288.

  64. Letters, 261.

  65. The Peace-Maker, sig. D4.

  66. Basilikon Doron, i. 12.

  67. Political Works, 54.

  68. Letters of the Kings of England, ed. J. O. Halliwell (2 vols.; 1848), ii. 68.

  69. Basilikon Doron, i. 44.

  70. Ibid. 5, ‘The Argument’.

  71. The Peace-Maker, sig. C2.

  72. Basilikon Doron, i. 5.

  73. Ibid. i. 34.

  74. Ibid.

  75. Paraphrase upon The Revelation, in Workes of Prince James, esp. pp. 13-14, 19-21, 36-9, 63-4, 78.

  76. Ibid. 65.

  77. Ibid. 11, 56.

  78. A Meditation upon the XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX Verses of the XVth Chapter of The First Book of The Chronicles of The Kings, in Workes of Prince James, 81-90; see p. 92.

  79. Ibid. 82.

  80. Ibid. 83.

  81. Ibid. 86-7.

  82. Ibid. 81.

  83. Meditation upon The Lords Prayer. The full title includes this address.

  84. The Peace-Maker, sig. B1.

  85. Meditation upon The Lords Prayer, 42, 116-17.

  86. Ibid. 18, 22.

  87. Ibid. 62, 66, 15.

  88. Two Meditations of the King's Maiestie (1620), Epistle dedicatory.

  89. A Meditation upon the … XXVII Chapter of St Matthew or A Pattern for a King's Inauguration (1620), Epistle dedicatory.

  90. Ibid. Advertisement to the Reader.

  91. Ibid. 25, 50, 124, and passim.

  92. Ibid. 125-6.

  93. Ibid. 78-80.

  94. Ibid. 120.

  95. BL Royal MS 18 B xvi, fo. 9; Poems of James VI, ii. 11. James's father-in-law, the King of Denmark, had written too a manual of selected psalms which ‘was his continual vade mecum’ (Meditation upon The Lords Prayer, 96).

  96. Paraphrase upon The Revelation, 72.

  97. Bodl. MS 165 fo. 20.

  98. Psalmes of His Maiestie, in Poems of James VI, ii. 20.

  99. Ibid. ii. 11, 23.

  100. Ibid. ii. 42.

  101. Ibid. ii. 21, 26, 27.

  102. Ibid. ii. 9, 36.

  103. Ibid. ii. 14, 26.

  104. Poems of James VI, i. 98; James I, Workes of Prince James, 328.

  105. The Furies, ll. 224-7, in Poems of James VI, i. 126.

  106. Ibid. ll. 381-2, (i. 134).

  107. Ibid., ll. 1359-60 (i. 184).

  108. Poems of James VI, ii. 68.

  109. The Furies, u. 1167-8, 1451-2, 1461-2 (i. 175, 190).

  110. ‘The Lepanto of James The Sixth’, ll. 283, 317-18, in Poems of James VI, i. 216-18, and passim.

  111. Poems of James VI, i. 274. Cf. Goldberg, James I, 17-28. I am preparing an essay on ‘The Politics of James VI and I's Poetry’.

  112. Poems of James VI, ii. 70.

  113. James VI, The Essayes of a Prentise in the Divine Art of Poesie, ed. E. Arber (1869), 29.

  114. Ibid. 29.

  115. The Furies, ll. 29, 1515-16 (i. 114, 192).

  116. Essays of a Prentise, 37.

  117. James VI, An Schort Treatise Conterning Some Reulis … to be Observed … in Scottis Poesie, ed. E. Arber (1869), Preface to the reader, p. 55, Sonnet of the author, p. 56.

  118. See Letters, 81-2; Letters of Queen Elizabeth and King James VI of Scotland, ed. J. Bruce (Camden Soc.; 1849), 46; Goldberg, James I, 14-17.

  119. Letters, 308.

  120. Ibid. 315; Basilikon Doron, i. 64, 102, 122, 136, 168.

  121. James I, Workes of Prince James, 379.

  122. HMC, Salisbury, xv. 302.

Susan Campbell Anderson (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11142

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. per pound, a staggering increase of 4000 percent. Given the enormous popularity of smoking at the time, his decree was bound to be unpopular. At roughly the same time, an anonymous pamphlet, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, appeared in the bookstalls, and was quickly, and correctly, presumed to be James's handiwork.2 The shared focus of James's earliest fiscal policies and his first published work as king of England reflects a coherent political strategy. Just what that strategy was meant to accomplish, however, is less than obvious. Some have suggested that James hated tobacco in particular because it was the only vice to which he did not subscribe, and others that the plant became a means of focusing his hatred for its supposed “father,” Sir Walter Ralegh.3 But none of these admittedly worthwhile explanations seems sufficient in itself to account for his adoption of this particular cause. The vice argument is almost tautological; after all, it amounts to saying that James hated tobacco because he did not like it. Moreover, participating anonymously in a pamphlet exchange would have been a hopelessly oblique method of discrediting Ralegh.

In fact, despite the vehemence of the Counterblaste and traditional opinion to the contrary, it is not clear that James hated tobacco at all. On several occasions, roughly concomitant with the Counterblaste, for example, he closed letters to his “little beagle,” Lord Cecil, with affectionate salutations involving tobacco. “I bid you heartily farewell,” one such letter reads, “having enjoined the bearer to drink good pipes of tobacco to all your company.”4 Another missive, referring to his trusted servant Roger Aston, reads:

Now that the Master Falconer doth return, I cannot but accompany him with these few lines, although indeed I might very evil have spared him at this time, as well for running of the hawks as for being so fit a man for trying our hounds. Yet, since he will needs be gone, I pray you let him be saluted with a good pipe of tobacco. And I pray you put him out of his new custom, which is to drink nothing but ale after supper.5

Intriguingly, James posits tobacco as a remedy for a vice of which he himself was often accused, overindulgence in alcohol. He playfully opposes the two substances, alcohol and tobacco, as vice and redeeming virtue, respectively. The jocular tone is a far cry from that of the Counterblaste, which appears to reveal a hatred of both the plant and the most notorious of smokers, Ralegh:

It is not so long since the first entry of this abuse amongst us here, as this present age cannot yet very well remember the first Author, and the forme of the first introduction of it amongst us. It was neither brought in by King, great Conqueror, nor learned doctor of Physick.

With the report of a great discovery for a Conquest, some two or three Savage men, were brought in, together with this Savage custom. But the pity is, the poor wild barbarous men died, but that vile barbarous custom is yet alive, yea in fresh vigor: so as it seems a miracle to me, how a custom springing from so vile a ground, and brought in by a father so generally hated, should be welcomed on so slender a warrant.6

The James of the Counterblaste is outraged that tobacco appears to exist outside the realm of accepted authority. It is the discovery, not of a king or a doctor, but rather a mere explorer who, significantly, relies on report rather than real conquest, allowing threatening icons—strange plants and savage men—to speak for him. Tobacco and Ralegh are undoubtedly linked, but in a far more intricate way than hitherto acknowledged.

This seeming disjunction between James's public and private treatment of the subject of tobacco, however, can be resolved in part by recognizing James's faith in the written document as a means of both forming and articulating his own power and identity. Of his absentee rule over the country of his birth, James once said, “Thus must I say of Scotland … here I sit and govern it with my pen: I write and it is done.”7 Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that so many of his letters exist in holograph; for James, the process of active rule could be as simple as setting pen to paper. Indeed, James continued to write many of his own letters long after arthritis forced him to use a stamp to sign less important documents. His letters initiate or continue a process of exchange that both describes and determines the nature of James's relationship to his subjects, hence shaping his own public identity. Telling in this light is his preference for the singular pronoun “I,” as opposed to the royal “We,”8 for it indicates an understanding of the written document as the extension of the individual.9 Thus, if “James did not write his letters as additions to his literary corpus,”10 his personal letters nevertheless illustrate the very technique used in the Counterblaste. That James continually resorts to devices like proverbs and sustained metaphor indicates the strong literary bent of his correspondence. If his letters are not public discourse in the way his pamphlets are, they are not entirely private, either. Composed with a self-consciously perceived audience, they thus serve as a means of self-presentation. James's work, then, reflects an understanding that the world is constructed through language, or rather through the dialogic exchange of both utterances and material objects.

Consider James's letters to Robert Cecil, the earl of Salisbury. Despite the intermittent tensions that reportedly plagued their relationship, James's opening salutations invariably read, “My little beagle”: hardly, as many have noted, the expected or appropriate address for one's Secretary of State. The letters sometimes simply continue a hunting motif, in keeping with their composer's abiding interest in hunting, the reason for his absence and occasion for the letters in the first place.

Yet James often allows this hunting language to slip into a metaphor for his relationship with the State, and Cecil in particular. The term “beagle” establishes a sense of intimacy and affection, at the same time reminding Cecil of his inferior position with respect to the king: Cecil is a harmless, faithful servant who acts without autonomy in James's interest. Indeed, Cecil is not even one of the better sorts of hounds, and his endeavors are less noble than the ones James pursues while hunting bigger quarry at Royston and Newmarket. “I bid you heartily farewell,” one letter ends, “having so much mind for good large hounds in this rainy deep weather as I have forgotten all beagles till I come back to the chimney corner again to hunt a mouse.”11 Similarly, one letter, addressed on the outside “To the little beagle that lies home by the fire quhen all the good hounds are daily running on the fields,”12 apparently chides Cecil for neglecting his duties in the king's absence. Yet another links hunting with political action: “I thank my patient Beagle for stopping the suit at Gray's Inn. …”13 James frequently reminds Cecil that the bearer of the letters is Sir Roger Aston, referring to the latter not in his role as courtier and courier, but as Master Falconer, blurring further the distinction between governing and hunting. Thus, with a slip of the tongue—or rather, pen—James effectively transforms the hunt into a better sort of statecraft.

This trick of the pen, of course, answers complaints, sometimes explicitly acknowledged, that some people do not approve of his diversions and resulting absenteeism.14 James once praises Cecil's answers to the Bishop of York's reprimands:

I am thoroughly pleased with your answer; and specially concerning my hunting ye have answered it according to my heart's desire, for a scornful answerless answer became best such a senseless proposition.15

James seems to be aware of a dialogic protocol that insists that empty propositions be answered with empty words. Further references to Roger Aston both establish and belie the intimate tone of the letters:

Surely you have made a brave choice of him for presenting your ciphered letters unto me, for he himself can write nothing but ciphers. But in good faith he had almost put me in a fray at the receipt of them, for he came very grandie unto me while I was sitting at supper and whispered in my ear very quietly that he had letters from you unto me but he durst not give me them till I were all alone in my chamber, and left me to guess what kind of matter it could be.16

The king recounts a public display of his own need for privacy, aggrandizing himself and playfully deriding Cecil's “brave” choice of messenger. Aston essentially becomes a cipher for the letters themselves—after all, he is suited to the task because he can “write nothing but ciphers himself”—and so calls attention to both the medium and the means of exchange. Letter, letter writer, and letter bearer all become indispensable to this writer's self-presentation.

Clearly, then, the letters are an intricate process of negotiation. Simultaneously heaping praise and insult on his addressee, James asserts his authority through demeaning apostrophe, equivocal threats, patronizing jibes, and mock humility. He even manages to recognize his dependence on his subordinates, while at the same time turning his overspending into a courtly virtue and his hunting escapades into a type of penance. Of his financial problems, he writes,

It is true my heart is greater than my rent, and my care to preserve my honor and credit by payment of my debts far greater than my possibility. This cannot but trouble me at home and torture me abroad, for I confess though I have more exercise of body here, I have less contentment of spirit than at home, for there by conference I get some relief and here I do only dream upon it with myself. …17

Giving up his hunting would be the easy way out; instead, he would rather do exactly as he pleases and be admired for refusing to share the burden of responsibility with his ministers. His customary address to Cecil is in itself an effort to shape through language the identity of the other, through dialogue, and so reflexively on himself. Implicitly, James recognizes, as he does in his published writing, that his image as king is as much constituted in others as in himself. After all, what he finds most gratifying about Cecil's answer to the archbishop is that it is the same answer that he himself would like to have given. The difficulty is one of decorum: if he were to offer the rebuke himself, it would lose effect. Only the speech of the other can effectively articulate the kind of sovereignty James desires. To be what he would be, he must have others to speak for him, and this desire is the same impulse that leads him to attempt to control the vox populi with his populist pamphlet.

Another reason other scholars have neglected the complexity of James's relationship to the tobacco industry is simply that they have underestimated the importance of that industry in contemporary consciousness. As Jerome Brooks, the pre-eminent tobacco historian states,

Four and a half centuries now contain the record of tobacco—a complex and vivid chronicle of which some parts, being unexpected, are all the more dramatic. It is a global history of so composite a character that the subject of tobacco will be found in almost every field of intellectual and scientific inquiry. Indeed, no other product of the vegetable world has inspired such an abundant body of writing.18

His statement might seem hyperbolic, but today we live in a world in which tobacco is so much a part of the mundane that many of us no longer even notice its presence. Yet if one reads the literature inspired by tobacco when it was a marvelous new discovery, it quickly becomes clear that the commodity was a powerful part of the cultural moment. Nearly every major dramatist of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods mentions the tobacco user at some point,19 and representations of the plant abound in texts as varied as elite medical and botanical treatises, popular ballads, and paintings. If we are to understand why James would dedicate these two of the most significant public actions of his early tenure as king to tobacco, we must first recover the cultural moment when tobacco was as alien as a new world and as valuable as gold.

There is little disagreement among historians20 that the vast and extremely rapid spread of the plant itself received impetus primarily from two quarters: initially, from the scientific curiosity of botanists and physicians and later, from the increasing popularity of the habit of tobacco use itself. Natural philosophers began to cultivate the herb in their own physic gardens before 1560, and by 1570, tobacco appeared in English gardens.21 The curiosity about tobacco's scientific value was widespread; learned treatises touted the plant's curative value. Francisco Hernández, the Spanish court physician, had brought Philip II specimens from Mexico and there was a growing Portuguese interest in the weed's medicinal value.22 The French were especially aggressive in promoting its pharmaceutical use. Jean Nicot, ambassador to Portugal, was given credit for sending tobacco seeds to Catherine de Medici—then Queen Mother of France—in 1560 and was lauded for his use of tobacco poultices. This praise annoyed natural philosopher and explorer André Thevet, who had nurtured the plant in his own garden since his return from Brazil in 1556, and had hoped to turn his experience with the plant to his advantage.23 Significantly, then, tobacco literature found its roots, so to speak, in the houses of European royalty; it is fitting in that sense that James would offer his contribution many years later as a means of solidifying his sometimes tenuous position in the community of monarchs. While the plant quietly made its way around the world, and sailors carried their pipes, cigars, and leaf along marine trade routes to Africa and Asia, conventional wisdom about the topic grew out of elite discourse. For better or worse, the tobacco issue became inextricably tied to issues of class, power, and authority.

Sometime during this period, tobacco use reached England. Although the exact date of its arrival is not known, its spread was obviously hindered by poor relations with Spain, by then the primary producer of the commodity.24 The English were undoubtedly familiar with tobacco by the 1580's. In 1583, Edward Cotton asked the captain of his eponymous ship to bring some home from America,25 and Sir Richard Grenville purchased some for Ralegh in 1585.26 According to Hakluyt's Principall Navigations, Native Americans on the west coast of North America had presented tobacco to Sir Francis Drake's men, on the assumption that they were gods.27 Ralph Lane comments that when he and his fellow Roanoke settlers were rescued by Drake, the latter had just come from Santo Domingo, St. Augustine, and Cartagena. Lane also notes that planting was going well before Drake's arrival.28 Lane's account supports Joseph Robert's assumption that the ship was heavily laden with tobacco when it finally arrived in England, marking the first major shipment of tobacco and the beginning of widespread tobacco use in the country.29 Returned settler Thomas Harriot's words attest that both the habit and its fantastic reputation would be thoroughly appropriated by the English:

We ourselves during the time we were there, used to suck it after their manner, as also since our return, and have many rare and wonderful experiments of the virtues thereof: of which the relation would require a volume by itself: the use of it by so many of late, men and women of great calling as else, and some learned Physicians also, is sufficient witness.30

In the fifteen years or so following Drake's return from Roanoke, tobacco became a fairly common commodity. Travelers' references to the herb during these years began to give fewer descriptions of its properties and methods of use. The novelty of smoking may have begun to wear off, but its use had increased dramatically. According to one report, “before the end of the century, the demand for tobacco had grown to such an extent that English sailors were beginning to regard West Indian islands as valuable or otherwise according to the amount of tobacco they produced.”31 Demand continued to grow despite the fact that unadulterated commercial tobacco often drew its weight in silver, and could even draw its weight in gold.32 Tobacco clearly had become the precious commodity the Spanish had looked for in South America.

Obviously, Sir Walter Ralegh, commonly regarded as the father of English smoking, introduced neither the plant nor its use to England. Ralegh, however, was one of the first courtiers to take to smoking a pipe, and is seen as a major force in popularizing pipe smoking among the aristocracy.33 Regardless of the accuracy of this perception, even Ralegh's contemporaries distinguished him with a special link to tobacco. A marginal gloss in Hakluyt reads, “Sir Walter Ralegh was the first that brought Tobacco into use, when all men wondered what it meant.”34

Many historians sensibly point out that no one person could possibly be held responsible for this popularization. The novelty of both the act of smoking and the plant itself, the sometimes exhilarating effects of smoking, and the feeling of social fellowship35 produced by the sharing of tobacco made its popularity inevitable. Most obvious, and most overlooked by the historians of tobacco, is the simple fact—which we are only beginning acknowledge now—that tobacco is an extremely addictive drug, and thus a self-perpetuating commodity.

As recreational smoking became increasingly popular, fashion called for expensive, elaborate equipment, and although tobacco use spanned all classes, these apparatuses helped to signify those who belonged to a better class, much as certain types of dress did. Like the many upstarts who hoped to better themselves by breaking dress codes, many of those who adopted the practice of “cultured” smoking invited ridicule from those who felt they smoked by right of class. A properly equipped gallant would carry several “clays” (pipes) in a case, along with a special box containing tobacco, silver ember tongs, a pick, metal stopper, knife, scoop, and mirror.36 Ralegh himself had a gold case set with candles for lighting up.37

The better tobacco shops, often apothecaries, had separate sections for smokers, who could go sit behind a curtain and smoke a rented pipe for 3d. Because of tobacco's Native American origins, the telltale figure of the midget blackamoor with a huge cigar tucked under his arm became the sign for tobacco. Whether American or African—the two apparently indistinguishable in a contemporary English mind—the representation of non-Europeans carried similar connotations; both evoked images of transgression, savagery, and sexual liberty. Simultaneously, because the pipe's shape invited both phallic and vaginal associations, tobacco itself became a sign for something else: promiscuity. Tobacco use and sexual licentiousness were thought to be intimately linked; contemporary drama and pamphlets are riddled with tobacco users who smoke while wenching. This was one case where a cigar was not just a cigar; eventually, brothels even began to display the sign of the tobacco pipe.38

As smokers' habits became ridiculously extravagant, tobacco dealers fell into disrepute. At the same time, medical claims about tobacco's efficacy as a drug became more and more outrageous. In response, a concerted voice of dissent with respect to tobacco use arose for the first time in England. Sensible thinkers decided that no substance could possibly cure all ailments, and medical men who felt their control of the tobacco industry slipping away sought to keep tobacco use strictly in the therapeutic realm. Whereas for Ralegh, as Jeffrey Knapp and Stephen Greenblatt both discuss, tobacco had been a source of authority and a means of authoring himself,39 its rampant use now made it a means of undermining authority. The debate moved into popular discourse, and learned physicians found themselves either championed by common pamphleteers or forced to undertake their own defense in the bookstalls of Paul's yard. Tracts suddenly threatened that tobacco, if used without the appropriate supervision of a physician, could produce sterility, melancholy, vomits, and intestinal decay. They publicized the frightening results of autopsies of excessive smokers with oily, sooty lungs and blackened brains.40

The growing protests against tobacco were further fueled by the English public's awareness that Spain controlled virtually all tobacco trade. Since trade with Spain was tightly circumscribed, almost all the tobacco imported into England came through illicit channels.41 Not surprisingly, English, French, and Dutch piracy aimed specifically at the precious substance abounded;42 Drake's seagoing exploits, however, only served to whet English appetites for tobacco. In the minds of many, tobacco posed a threat to social, political, economic, and even religious stability; James could not have picked a more apt focus for his own experiment in self-fashioning.

The establishment of the colony at Jamestown stoked the controversy yet again. At first, this settlement, like Roanoke before it, seemed doomed to failure. Initially the colonists found no suitable staple crop,43 but John Rolfe managed to save the colony by importing seeds from the Spanish West Indies. Some intrigue must have been involved for Rolfe to have acquired the seeds. Spanish planters considered it treasonous to give away even a tiny number of the precious seeds to an Englishman; Spanish law by this time required that all Spanish tobacco be cleared through the port of Seville, and selling harvested leaf directly to foreigners was punishable by death.44

Fortunately for Rolfe and his companions, the seed, when planted in the new soil, produced a distinctive and highly satisfactory leaf, but Virginian leaders continued to be wary of the new staple. Governor Thomas Dale, fearing famine, decreed that tobacco could be raised only if two acres of corn accompanied it. The fear of famine influenced Virginia's governmental policy well into the 1640's.45 Rolfe's marriage to Pocahontas ensured the English the time and technology to perfect the crop; and when Rolfe returned to England, he too participated in the pamphlet war, apologetically addressing a treatise to the king extolling the virtues of Virginia, including “the principal commodity the colony for the present yieldeth.”46

Upon returning to Virginia, he found tobacco grown in every available nook and cranny.47 Captain Smith commented with embarrassment upon Governor Samuel Argall's arrival in 1617:

In Jamestown [Argall] found but five or six houses, the Church down, the Palizado's broken, the Bridge in pieces, the Well of fresh water spoiled; the store house they used for the Church, the market-place, and streets, and all other spare places planted with Tobacco, the Savages a frequent in their houses as themselves, whereby they were become expert in our arms, and had a great many in their custody and possession, the colony dispersed all about, planting Tobacco. Captain Argall not liking these proceedings, altered them agreeable to his own mind. …48

The threat of starvation was not the only aspect of tobacco that the governors of Virginia feared, then. Smith's account reveals a suspicion of commerce, a fastidious fear of the violation of boundaries: the threshold, the well, the altar, the border all undermined by tobacco, an American grotesque. Apparently, tobacco was a menacing tool by which the “frequent” Indians could corrupt an entire Christian community.

In Virginia, tobacco came to dominate every aspect of colonial life. In keeping with the interchangeability of tobacco and gold in London, tobacco became an alternative currency, and was even accepted in payment of taxes. Tobacco bought the first slaves and similarly paid the captain who brought a shipment of wives for the colonists who remained. Even clergymen demanded tobacco in lieu of a proper salary, giving Sunday sermons on the moral importance of raising and curing the herb correctly.49 The significance of tobacco's widespread acceptance as a form of currency cannot be overemphasized. Tobacco was not, as Knapp argues, simply a morally viable substitute for riches; it was money. That it was not just valuable, but actually a form of currency, meant that those who coveted it, craved it, and burned it indiscriminately could be perceived as committing the same sin of avarice as those—like the stereotypical Spaniard—who single-mindedly pursued gold. That tobacco was a corruptive object of obsession, or on the other hand, something that could benefit many, stems directly from its monetary significance, and is apparent in much of the literature discussed below.

Since the controversy surrounding tobacco use obviously continues today, it is hardly surprising that no clear consensus of opinion regarding the propriety of its use was reached in the short time from tobacco's discovery in the Americas until the end of the reign of James I. Nevertheless, the abundance of contemporary published material on the subject reveals that the debate was not simply a stalemate; instead, tobacco polemic continually hovered around a number of recurrent themes, constantly reworking those themes and recreating them anew as each polemicist sought to answer those who came before him. Thus, each pamphlet is both a product of its own agenda and a single utterance in a decades-long dialogue shaped by and shaping the discourse surrounding it.

Before tobacco was commonly in use in England—i.e., before the 1587 return of the first Virginians—Englishmen relied primarily on the translated reports of continental authorities for their information on the subject. John Frampton's Joyfull Newes ovt of the newe founde worlde, a heavily revised translation of the Spanish doctor Monardes's work, was available in London by 1577. As the English title of Thevet's 1568 treatise, The New founde Worlde, or Antarctike, wherein is contained wonderful and strange things, suggests, these reports portray tobacco as a miraculous and divine gift whose esoteric properties were virtually unbounded. Thevet calls it a “secrete herb,” which is “marvelous profitable for many things,” and which the Indians use for “secrete talk or counsel among them selves.”50 These works capitalize on the very sense of “wonder” and “marvel” that Stephen Greenblatt suggests was cultivated to justify the exploration and eventual appropriation of the New World.51 The early accounts describe tobacco almost exclusively in positive terms; dissent on its use in these early works is conspicuously absent.52

The minor poet Anthony Chute's treatise, Tabacco, published posthumously in 1595, is primarily a summarization of these earlier authorities; he relies mainly on the works of Monardes and Nicot to reveal tobacco's mysteries to an uninformed public. As with his sources, the mystical efficacy of the herb is a paramount theme. Adam Islip, the original publisher of the work, writes in his preface that Chute knew of tobacco both firsthand and “by private conference with men of learning, as by the strange and wonderful operations thereof. …” Yet by this time, tobacco use had become common enough in England for Chute to write of the virtues of Indian tobacco:

Indeed it would seem somewhat much for any man to say, that if the drying of [tobacco] were according to the care of them, who here with vs make it their trade to gain by, that we might attribute so much power to it, being dried after such a manner; but surely I cannot thine, but that coming from those poor people, where covetousness hath not taught the child to cut his fathers throat for gain, or to dissemble with any for profit, we may esteem it either as good as the green, or at least as that green which grows here in our clime, which reason persuades us is unapt to bring forth the herb in her natural heat and virtue being so hot and our soil so cold.53

To decipher Chute's garbled prose is no easy task. In short, Chute says that the unspoilt Indians can cure tobacco better than greedy European traders, imparting some sort of implicit virtue to the commodity; and that this tobacco, although cured, is just as good as any fresh tobacco found in England. To these comments he adds that the older authorities do not often discuss pipe use either because it is a fairly new practice or perhaps because it has been used to such extremes, since “every extreme virtue is a vice.”54

Of this implied abuse and the dissent it had already aroused, he complains,

I doubt not but some hath both done themselves wrong, wronged vs, and done other injury, who (if They had not heard of some whom unrespective drinking had harmed) would happily have been soon drawn to use it for their health, who now remaining reared with examples shun it as an inconvenience, which else they had entertained as a public good.55

The basic premises of the conflict over the tobacco trade had been established by this time, then; for although he praises tobacco strongly, Chute cannot ignore the avarice of the European tobacco trader, the corruption of the New World's innocence, or the growing problem of tobacco abuse.

By 1602, the offenses of tobacco users had become serious enough to prompt a full-fledged attack on tobacco use. A Work for Chimny-sweepers: or A warning for Tabacconists, published anonymously, describes itself as a “vain discourse of the pernicious and vulgar use, or rather abuse of Tabacco.”56 The work outlines eight reasons for the author's “dislike … of the use and practice of Tabacco,”57 and then gives a chapter supporting each with personal anecdotes and classical examples. Chimny-sweepers portrays vividly the stereotypical tobacco abuser, commonly known as a “tobacconist,” for the author accepts that he will “draw … no small hatred among our smoky gallants, who having long time glutted themselves with the fond fopperies and fashion of our neighbor Countries: yet still desirous of novelties, have not stuck to travel as far as India to fetch [them]. …”58

Almost immediately, A Defence of Tabacco: With a friendly Answer to the late printed Booke called Work for Chimny-sweepers, etc. responded to the previous pamphlet by refuting its eight contentions one by one. At one point the author states in mock exasperation, “I must needs think, that you were very near driven to the hedge for a stake, when you picked out this argument.” This particular tract is thought to have been written by Dr. Roger Marbecke,59 the queen's chief physician and a former provost at Oriel College, Oxford; naturally, the text is written in the disputatious style of a university wit and so is not without humor. Its author recognizes that, for all the vivacity of the interchange, the debate was, thus far, rather conventional. A poem dedicates the Defence in this way, playfully creating its author's name in an acrostic:

Much here is said Tabacco to defend,
And much was said, Tabacco to disgrace:
Read, mark, and scan: then censure in the end:
Both you are men, most fit to judge the case.
Esteem of me, as you in me shall find:
Crave pardon, first I do: and that obtained,
Know this, that no man shall with better mind,
Each where declare to you his love unfeigned.
Come what shall come, to this poor Indian toy:
Unto you both, I with immortal joy.

Marbecke, then, is not proposing a case as the champion of the irrefutable right to tobacco use. The plan is only a “toy” with which he performs an argumentative exercise; he then expects his readers to “read, mark, and scan,” to determine a winner. He calls his opponent “a man, well read, and of sufficient learning, and understanding,”60 and his later remarks confirm the detached mood of the treatise:

Loath I am, I confess, to intermeddle in any such matters: nevertheless, for so much, as modest, and scholarly disputations, and conference between such, as have been civilly brought up in schools, are not to be disliked: for that oftentimes they do much good, and give great contentment to the Reader if they be done with due regard, of time, place and person … everything is, as it is taken: and my hope is, that nothing shall be ill taken there, where all is well meant.61

Marbecke is willing to inject his voice into the debate, but the stakes in the contest do not seem to warrant raising his voice. At this point, the disputation reflected intellectual curiosity rather than social crisis.

But the intervention of the monarch in 1604 made playful detachment far more difficult, for James's A Counterblaste to Tobacco—his first, although anonymously, published treatise as king of England62—posed the abuse of tobacco as a political issue, and one which jeopardized the State itself. The Counterblaste depicts tobacco use as the predictable but undesirable result of the recent arrival of peace and wealth:

Our peace hath bred wealth: And Peace and wealth hath brought forth a general sluggishness, which makes vs wallow in all sorts of idle delights, and soft delicacies, the first seeds of the subversion of all great Monarchies.63

Many readers guessed the author's identity, for the pamphlet stressed the importance of the king as the physician to the body politic; and between the pamphlet and the king's controversial official policy towards tobacco, not to mention the establishment of tobacco plantations in England and Virginia, the immediacy of the issue became apparent in contemporary pamphlets. Pamphleteers could no longer afford to use their opinions on tobacco for mere entertainment. They had been warned implicitly that a public statement about the issue carried potential political consequences.

With the revival of the colonial endeavor in 1607, reports from Virginia described the Indian use of the plant with an invigorated sense of wonder, perhaps with a renewed need to justify the appropriation of new land. But given James's public position on the issue, these writers were forced to tread softly. John Rolfe's A True Relation of the State of Virginia (1615), deceptive in its hesitation to mention the crop, mentions first a store of other commodities from Virginia but later calls tobacco the “principal” one. His argument is constructed carefully, to counteract the familiar stereotype of the tobacco-crazed Virginian described by men like John Smith. He subtly seeks favor for tobacco by first combatting fears that Virginians might starve themselves in their greed for profit. He cites the many products of a fruitful land: maize, wheat, peas, beans, hemp, flax, silkworms, carrots, parsnips, and pumpkins, slyly adding, almost as an afterthought,

Likewise Tobacco (though an esteemed weed) very commodious, which there thriveth so well that (no doubt) after a little more trial and experience thereof, it will compare with the best in the West Indies.64

In a similar vein, he later points out the Virginian law that required settlers to plant food as well as tobacco. Rolfe clearly emphasizes the fact that for the Virginians, tobacco is necessary for the very survival of the colony. Of the two-fold system of food and tobacco production, he says:

… the Magazine shall be sure yearly to receive their Rent of Corn, to maintain those who are fed thereof, being but a few, and many others if need be, they themselves will be well stored to keep their families with an overplus and reap Tobacco enough to buy clothes, and such necessaries as are needful for themselves and household.65

Rolfe further states that, a short distance away from Jamestown, a group of twenty-five men “… are employed only in planting and curing Tobacco, with the profit thereof to clothe themselves, and all those who labor about the general Business.”66 By including these observations in his treatise on the state of Virginia as a whole, he makes a quiet case for tobacco to those at home, showing them that the herb can be transformed into the necessities of life.

But in the eyes of tobacco's opponents, the disease was growing uncontrollably. In The Honestie of this Age (1615), Barnabe Rich laments:

But amongst the trades that are newly taken up, this trade of Tobacco doth exceed: and the money that is spent in smoke is unknown, and (I thine) unthought on. … I have heard it told, that now very lately, there hath bin a Catalogue taken of all those newly erected houses that have set up the trade in selling of Tobacco, in London and near about London … upward of 7000 houses, that doth live by that trade.67

Rich claims that tobacco is sold and consumed everywhere, in apothecaries, groceries, chandleries, and private homes. I have been unable to trace the accuracy of this catalogue; the report may well be exaggerated, in which case it simply affirms even more strongly the alarm that this new tobacco culture excited among some.

In light of the ascendancy of Spanish tobacco and the encouragement given Virginians for their alternative product, it is no surprise that the second decade of the sixteenth century saw a rekindled interest in the tobacco debate. An Advice how to plant Tobacco in England (1615)68 proposes to keep English money out of Spanish pockets by encouraging Englishmen to grow tobacco themselves. Thus, most of the text is purely technical, specifying when to plant and how to care for the crop. But the treatise also identifies many contemporary misgivings surrounding the trade, most notably that of tobacco adulteration:

Now besides these harmful mixtures [added to imported leaf], if out English which delight in Indian Tobacco, had seen how the Spanish slaves make it up, how they dress their sores and pocky ulcers, with the some unwashed hands with which they slubber and anoint the Tobacco, and call it sauce per los perros Lutheranos, for Lutheran dogs; they would not so often draw it into their heads and through their noses as they doe: yea many a filthy savor they find therein, did not the smell of honey master it. …69

Like many of the pamphlets before it, An Advice cites the “masters” of the use of the weed, Thevet and Monardes, and gives countless medicinal applications for it.

John Deacon's Tobacco Tortured, or the Filthie Fume of Tobacco Refined (1616) attests that the English fervor for smoking was as avid as ever, for Deacon is vehement in his protest against it. He is not satisfied with castigating tobacco as an unclean and unhealthy habit; he insists, like James, that it represents a palpable threat to the State itself. The work is dedicated to the king, and directly echoes James dedication to the Counterblaste, asking the king, in his great knowledge of medicine, to prescribe remedies for the illnesses of the body politic. His tedious and dogmatic prose is arranged in the form of a classical dialogue and “proves” his thesis by a series of syllogisms. At the end, he sums up his argument in this way:

Now then … sith those the disordered courses of our graceless Tobacconists are every way exceedingly hurtful to their own proper persons, first by poisoning their bodies and souls, and then by procuring a prodigal dispending of their ancient patrimonies and other preferments; sith they are so unnaturally injurious to their own wives and children, by causing their needless poverty, and woeful complaints; sith they are so barbarously cruel towards their poor Tenants, for the chargeable supply of their unnecessary wants; sith they are so outrageously resolute upon the present spoil of other mens substance; with they are so fearfully opposite to the well settled peace of our country, with they are so stately repugnant to the good established laws of our land; with they are so dangerously occurring to the public peace of our sovereign Lord the King; sith they are so proudly rebellious to his Majesties sovereign power, sith they are such inevitable provocations to the untimely spilling of their own and other mens blood, of spoiling the present good blessing of God, of opening a fearful gap to foreign invasions of cruel massacres, of an extreme hazard to our happy Estate and most flourishing kingdom.70

To the adversaries of tobacco, its use had become treasonous, for the most part because the king despised it. To them it became a contagious disease to the human body, the body politic, and the body of Christ. Deacon appeals to Christian sensibilities in addressing his audience as “good Christian Readers”71 and in expressing concern for those who carouse too often to devote themselves to the church.

In the midst of this flurry of tobacco pamphlets, the pamphlet form itself did not go unnoticed. In 1617, Richard Brathwait published his Solemne Ioviall Disputation, Theoreticke and Practicke: Briefly Shadowing The Law of Drinking. Brathwait, a poet and onetime lawyer educated at both universities, capitalized on the polemic quality of the pamphlets to satirize publications objecting to drinking and smoking. It is divided into two sections; the second, entitled “The Age of Smoking,” is devoted entirely to tobacco. Like the preceding pamphlets, it contains an epistle dedicatory, several introductory poems, Biblical and classical marginalia, and a number of anecdotes. The preface of the tobacco section is addressed “To Whomever, whensoever, or wheresoever.”72 One passage reads:

That the Light of the Law admonisheth us, that some things are to bee daily and duly learned of us. Seeing then, that there is nothing, (so far as I know) more familiarly practiced, nothing more solemnly observed, than the Ceremonies of Bacchus. …73

Brathwait thus mocks the pamphleteers' dependence on classical and, even more notably, Christian learning to support their arguments. In a similar manner, he satirizes the pithy aphorisms which pervade the pamphlets, saying, “He that has lived to his time, is either a Fool or a Physician; he knows what is best for himself, which he observes as religiously as any Pagan in Christendom.”74 In an oblique and not entirely flattering reference to James, the narrator tells his fictional companions—tobacco merchants trying to enlist him to speak in their favor—“Alexander Severus would have smoked … and Xerxes would have pulled their skin over their ears; if these smoky Merchants … had vended, or vented those commodities in their time.”75 A Trinidadan tells him that tobacco seeds were thrown in a bed of gourds,

and in a months space the whole bed of gourds were into leaves of Tobacco changed. Whereat smiling, I have read [answered the narrator] all Ovid's Metamorphosis, and I find no such transmutation. No marvel (answered he) those were fictions, there true and native relations: besides, you are to know that Travellers in their surveys, assume a privilege above the authority of Authors.76

Both statements humorously reveal the faulty logic implicit in using classical authors as evidence for or against tobacco use, since the issue was so startlingly new.

Although neither side seems to have surpassed the other in the success of its argument, both share several recurrent themes. First, it is clear to both the proponents and opponents of tobacco use that the decision to plant, cure, trade in, or use the plant carries a real moral weight. As was shown above, John Rolfe went to great lengths to justify his choice to promote tobacco growth, while the authors of Tobacco Tortured and the Counterblaste make tobacco use tantamount to treason. Unlike James, and perhaps in direct response to his indictment, Rolfe proposes tobacco as an aid to the Commonwealth instead of a subversion of it. In aligning the crop with family values, hard work, and honest profit, he answers the fears of those who saw tobacco as an unnecessary luxury item.

In An Advice, even the simple act of pruning one's plants becomes a significant moral act:

… if you shall neglect [to prune], coveting to have many stalks, because many leaves, your Tobacco will be weak and worth nothing. …

And yet you must not so love your own as to take it green … otherwise, it may prove equally harmful with that which is sophisticate. I must also advise you not to slubber your English with Melrosarum, and other trumpery, as many of our own Artificers do, thereby to bring it to the Indian color; it is an impious practice to play with the health of men, and make profit by their destruction.77

The author's language goes far beyond the technical to project the ethical implications of such an act. He clearly illustrates the self-defeating nature of covetousness, an understandable admonishment given tobacco's value, and warns against vanity and self-love.78

Moreover, almost all of the pamphlets were intensely chauvinistic. Tobacco remained primarily a Spanish product, and therefore one to be derided. The pamphleteers distrusted not just Spaniards, but all foreigners. Tobacco Tortured warns of trafficking with corrupt nations, but even the English do not remain unscathed. As with Captain Smith's description of a tobacco-obsessed Jamestown, this chauvinism results from a fear of the grotesque violation of boundaries. True to the contemporary obsession with taxonomy, Deacon argues,

… from whence it cometh now to passe, that so many of our Englishmen's minds are thus terribly Turkished with Mahometan trumperies; thus treacherously Italianized with sundry antichristian toys; thus spitefully Spanished with superfluous pride; thus fearfully Frenchized with flaring net-works to catch English fools; thus huffingly Hollandized with ruffian like loom-works, and other like ladified fooleries. … According to the Italian proverb which portrayeth forth an Englishman thus. … An Englishman Italienate, is a very devil incarnate.79

Coupled with this chauvinistic tendency is a desire for insularity, and the need to insure that the world remain in certain categories, and thus remain in the realm of understanding. To overexpose oneself to the culture of another nation is to risk becoming something strange and unknowable. Marbecke insults the author of Chimny-sweepers by accusing him, “What needed you to have fetched your proofs out of France, to persuade that ill smells do offend? Every dunghill in England, and something else too, can testify that well enough.”80

It is when the pamphlets extend their chauvinism to include this fear that they become positively xenophobic. The commonly held suspicion towards tobacco's Indian origins ties in with this particular brand of xenophobia. Chimny-sweepers reads, “… at all times, at all hours, and of all persons, this Indian stranger most familiarly is received …”81; and James complains in the Counterblaste,

… shall we I say, without blushing, abase our selves so far, as to imitate these beastly Indians, slaves to the Spaniards, refuse to the world, and as yet aliens from the holy Covenant of God? Why doe we not as well imitate them in walking naked as they doe? in preferring glasses, feathers, and such toys, to gold and precious stones, as they do? yea why do we not deny God and adore the Devil, as they doe?82

The chauvinism and xenophobia of the pamphlets, then, are distinct, but often inseparable impulses.

Those two impulses do diverge, however, in An Advice. Its anti-Spanish sentiment is readily apparent in what has been shown so far of the pamphlet, but the author combines this sentiment with the belief in the noble Indian origins of the plant. Natural tobacco, he writes,

… is a deep yellow, or a light tawny: and when the Indians themselves sold it us for Knives, Hatchets, Bells and the like merchandise, it had no other complexion, as all the Tobacco at this day hath, which is bought from the coast of Guiana, from Saint Vincents, from Saint Lucia, from Dominica, and other places, where we buy it but of the natural people; and all these sorts are clean, and so is that of St. Domingo; where the Spaniards have not yet learned the Art of Sophistication.83

In contrast, the Spaniards “sophisticate,” or render impure and artificial, this natural, “wholesome” tobacco. The adulterated tobacco takes on a blackened color, which Englishmen in their ignorance see as a sign of quality; the connection between the older meaning of the adjective “sophisticated” and the more modern “culturally complex, fashionable,” is perhaps evident here. If they cannot obtain English tobacco, the pamphleteer advises his countrymen to use Indian leaf, “which colors are natural, and forbear the black which is foul, the dyed tobacco which is red, and the leaf brought in by the Portugals, and the like slubbered stuff,” for “he that wears the cloth to the end it was intended for, to wit, to defend himself from the cold, and wet, cares more for the goodness than the color.”84 Thus the two types of tobacco, and more particularly their colors, yellow and black, become emblematic of the bright, innocent, unspoilt New World in contrast with the dark, artificial, and rotten practices of the Old World, and of covetous Iberians in particular.

The Spanish exchange the leaf, not for necessities, as do the Indians; rather, “… nothing (some Silks, and Cloth of Silver and Gold excepted) but ready Money, and Silver plate could content them.”85 In saying so, the author, like Rolfe, aligns the Indians and the product with an ideology that values a Protestant work ethic above all else. In contrast, James, in asking of the “beastly” Indians, “Why doe we not imitate them … in preferring glasses, feathers, and such toys, to gold and precious stones,” considers them evil precisely because their ignorance of “civilized” ways leads them to pursue vanities. Contradicting his own policy regarding tobacco, he implies that the pursuit of treasure that has what he considers intrinsic value is in no way covetous.

Thus, a major contrast between the two camps becomes apparent. Both are well aware of the Indian origins of the plant; moreover, both seem to agree that those origins impart some quality, or lack thereof, to it.86 Supporters, like Chute and the author of An Advice, then, identify that quality as a virtue inherent in the “noble savage,” while opponents see it as a vice untamed by civilization and a result of the Indians' “devilish” religious practices. Marbecke answers the accusation made to this effect in Chimny-sweepers by implying that Englishmen, whose native drug is alcohol, are the real barbarians:

… me thinks it were a more charitable notion, to think [tobacco] came from God, who is the author of all good gifts, than from the devil. … Touching the taking of it by [Indian] priests, and by and by falling asleep thereupon & c. mark me but that whole discourse well: and ye shall see, it is taken & reported quite amiss; for indeed it maketh all for Tabacco. For take but Monardes his own tale: and by him it should seem; that in the taking of Tabacco: they were drawn up: and separated from all grosse and earthly cogitations, and as it were carried up to a more pure and clear region, of fine conceits & actions of the mind. … Marry, if in their trances, & sudden fallings, they had become nasty, & beastly fellows: or had in a most loathsome manner, falling spewing, and vomiting, as drunkards are wont to do: then indeed it might well have been counted a devilish matter, and been worthy of reprehension.87

Marbecke's sympathetic narrative anticipates the Rousseavian celebration of the noble savage, but his understanding of Native Americans is by no means anthropological. He does not offer an accurate assessment or representation of a alien culture. Instead, he merely considers tobacco against a background of theological, eschatological, and aesthetic concerns that are decidedly European. The entire conceit of the noble savage is an attempt less to understand a foreign culture in itself than to advance a favorable prejudice based on the cultural norms of the reader.

The pamphlets' shared reluctance to discuss the subject of tobacco without the citation of European authorities who befit the humanist tradition from which their writing springs, illustrates the same point. Knapp, for example, notices Chimny-sweeper's author's preoccupation with authority,88 and adds, “Beaumont involves tobacco in a rebellion … not only against religious or temporal authority but also … the authority of the classics.”89 Participants in the pamphlet war can only establish the meaning of tobacco by calibrating it against familiar texts and discourses. Neither those who attack tobacco nor those who defend it wish to acknowledge the possibility of alternative forms of discourse, which might threaten established cultural paradigms. To step outside the classical canon, to allow discourse without authority, was to acknowledge an uncontrollable, unknowable aspect of the universe—a prospect largely incompatible with Renaissance thought.

Yet, perhaps for the first time, an even obliquely reliable authority for a subject was impossible, for these men found themselves contemplating experiences without precedent. Although this aspect of their encounter with the New World thrilled those like Monardes, who found the experience “joyful news,” it also, as an unknown, inspired anxiety and prompted much of the retrenchment and xenophobia in the anti-tobacco pamphlets. Contemporary views of tobacco were, in many ways, a microcosm of the reaction to the New World as a whole; the tension between the impulses to embrace the discovery with joy and to run from it in terror continually played into the tobacco controversy. The very newness, the untouched quality that lent the plant and the world that fostered it their implicit virtue in the eyes of some, paradoxically denied the existence of both in classically oriented discourse.

The preface of the 1616 edition of James's Works, in which James's authorship of the Counterblaste was finally officially acknowledged, cogently illustrates the definition of authority that attaches itself to James. The bishop of Winchester, dedicating the volume to Prince Charles, invoked

… the King of Kings, God Himself, who, as he doth all things for our good; so doeth he many things for our imitation. It pleased his Divine wisdom to bee the first in this Rank, that we read of, that did ever write. He wrote, and the writing was the writing, saith Moses, of God.

R. S. Rait claims that this may have been written “to confute the belief that writing became not the majesty of a king.”90 But it is unlikely that, educated in the strongest humanist tradition, and thus practiced in composition, James felt the need to justify his already copious writings. Instead, the bishop's preface aligns the king, as God's anointed leader, in yet another way—he not only retains the power to govern his people, but also the God-like ability to create a new truth from chaos. The writing becomes the writing, or the word becomes Truth, simply from the power of the Utterer. Moreover, in writing as an example for imitation, God, and James, calls for a submission to these truths, allowing for no dissent among the faithful or loyal.

Both Jonathan Goldberg and David Norbrook note that James's anger at the publication of Spenser's Faerie Queene, which allegorizes Mary Stuart's execution in the story of Duessa, stemmed from his mistaken idea that it represented official Tudor propaganda. In short, James saw that any publication permitted by a monarch, as author of all things in that country, was, in effect, his or her personal opinion.91 Conversely, then, it was to James's advantage to publish the Counterblaste anonymously. Perhaps, in his eyes, a duplication of his opinion sent from elsewhere furthered the impression of his own authority over his kingdom. James probably would not have said that he needed those voices to support his cause, but rather that by illustrating proper submission to his authority, he could strengthen his own created version of the truth. This outside voice allowed James to create his own Other, obliterating all voices but his own.

James's attack on tobacco is among his most well-known and forcefully presented political causes precisely because of this understanding of the construction of power through dialogue. Although James's hatred of the habit may well have been genuine on a personal level, the tobacco trade also presented a dilemma that forced him to consider his own place as an authority figure. Goldberg certainly approaches this question in his study of authority and its representations in the Jacobean literary scene, yet he neglects to acknowledge explicitly and in all its richness the fundamental premise behind all of James's discursive practices—that James presented himself as an authority or author in every sense of the word. He presented himself not simply as one with a power to enforce obedience or influence the opinions of others, and not even simply as one entitled to power or entitled by God to acceptance by his subjects, but, in short, as one who is all of those things and a creative communicative force.

The tobacco trade, then, posed a number of threats to James's own sense of power. Here were an economic endeavor and a popular habit that, although widely known to displease the new king, threatened to continue indefinitely. As would be later pointed out in the 1616 preface to James's Works, one of the purposes of God's, and thus the king's, actions was to provide an example for imitation. In a country that had gone so long without a male sovereign, this ability would be a doubly conspicuous mode of establishing and maintaining power. Yet the culture that had grown up around tobacco use encouraged James's subjects to emulate others than himself, by definition conducting themselves in an ungodly fashion. A popular tradition that credited Sir Walter Ralegh with the establishment of this culture provided a personified, and thus more direct threat to the king's will; and Ralegh certainly did not escape unscathed from the Counterblaste.

Conversely, as smoking was happily (for James) a habit which he did not practice, it was certainly a safe subject for discourse.92 Goldberg sees the tract as a chance for James to “make the great out of small, to use the vice as a way of presenting himself as exemplary, the nation's savior, pure in his life, acute in his wit,” by showing up the logic of those who supported tobacco use.93 True as this point may be, James could prove himself exemplary only if he completely discredited tobacco use and users; to maintain complete authority, he could not allow for dual truths; he had to counter himself with himself. The tract is not, then, one of self promotion, but of negation and recreation of the other. In the end, in James's textual universe, only he remains.


  1. Quoted in Jerome E. Brooks, The Mighty Leaf: Tobacco through the Centuries (Boston, 1952), 56.

  2. See Brooks, 70, and James Halliday, “Blast and Counterblast,” Blackwood's Magazine 317 (1975): 327-338.

  3. Cf. Andrew Sinclair, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Age of Discovery (Hammersmith, England, 1984), who states the point most succinctly, “the king might hardly ever wash or change his clothes. He may drink too much whiskey, but he abhorred tobacco and the man who had brought it to England,” 98. More sophisticated discussions appear in Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature, (Baltimore, 1983), 26, and Jeffrey Knapp's fascinating examination of the Elizabethan tobacco issue, An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to The Tempest (Berkeley, 1988), chap. 4.

  4. James I, Letters, ed. G. P. V. Akrigg (Berkeley, 1984), 256. Spelling has been modernized in quotations from primary documents when possible, but, following Akrigg's lead, Scottish dialect has been left intact.

  5. Ibid., 252.

  6. James I, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, ed. Edward Arber (London, 1869), 100-101.

  7. Quoted, in G. P. V. Akrigg, introduction and notes to Letters by James I, 11. Evidently, this absentee rule was quite successful; with the aid of adept advisors, James was able to maintain relative peace and stability without visiting the country from his accession as King of England until 1617, a period of about fourteen years. Ibid., pp. 10-11, credits this success in large part to James's establishment of an efficient mail system; a letter could travel from London to Edinburgh in approximately one week.

  8. Ibid., 29.

  9. I am careful not to say that the written document is a totalizing substitute for the individual; rather, a written document is often perceived as such—hence, the fallacy of intent. The more accurate paradigm is far more complicated. A written document is a representation of the individual only inasmuch as the self exists in language, created (per Bakhtin) by dialogic utterance with an other.

  10. Akrigg, 30.

  11. James I, Letters, 252.

  12. Ibid., 260.

  13. Ibid., 255.

  14. Cf. Akrigg: “Some historians have exaggerated the effects of James's absenteeism at his sport; actually he was more in touch than they seem to realize. He had a Clerk of the Signet in attendance upon him, and papers despatched from Whitehall at the end of a day's work normally reached the King at Royston early the next morning,” 13.

  15. James I, Letters, 255.

  16. Ibid., 252.

  17. Ibid., 261.

  18. Brooks, 5.

  19. Ibid., 72. Jonson, Chapman, Marston, Nashe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Decker, Middleton, and Field to name a few—F. W. Fairholt, Tobacco: Its History and Associations (London, 1859), catalogues these references exhaustively. The conspicuous exception is Shakespeare, who seems to limit himself to less explicit social satire.

  20. The most impressive study of European tobacco use is by historian Jerome Brooks, The Mighty Leaf. See also C. M. MacInnes, The Early English Tobacco Trade (London, 1926), and Joseph C. Robert, The Story of Tobacco in America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1964). Sarah Augusta Dickson, Panacea or Precious Bane: Tobacco in Sixteenth Century Literature (New York, 1954) examines numerous references to tobacco in literature, but performs very little literary analysis. The only recent literary study to engage the subject seriously is Knapp, An Empire Nowhere, which devotes a chapter to Elizabethan literary representations of tobacco. Knapp reviews the medical benefits tobacco supposedly offered, and attempts to account for the popularity of tobacco in the 1590's, when England had no real New World foothold. England, he says, tried to compensate for its belatedness in the New World by using a strategy of anti-materialism; the “paradoxical combination of inconsequentiality and power,” (p. 135) enabled it to serve as a suitable synecdoche for Virginia, and allowed England to make claims to spiritual superiority in the New World. His argument is fascinating but problematic; he does not sufficiently account for tobacco's extremely high monetary value at the time. Furthermore, he rests a large part of his argument on a single passage in The Faerie Queene (3.5.32), without accounting for the ambiguity in the passage. When Belphoebe cures Timias with a magical plant, Spenser refuses to commit to the name of that plant, suggesting tobacco as only one of several possibilities. Although Knapp concentrates on Elizabethan literature and I discuss mostly the Jacobean tobacco phenomenon, I think in both cases it would be more accurate to say that rather than using anti-materialist strategies, the English simply substitute one kind of materialism for another.

  21. Brooks, 35-36.

  22. Robert, 4.

  23. Cf. C. T.'s Advice, C3r., which says Nicot brought the queen tobacco, but “Thevet vaunts that he sent it into France 10 years before Nicot's Embassage.” Brooks, 47, makes a convincing argument that the two men brought different species, Thevet bringing Nicotiana tabacum, used as commercial tobacco then and now, and Nicot, Nicotiana rustica, the more hardy plant used then medicinally but rarely grown today. Unfortunately for Thevet, history remembers his rival, for both the genus and its most toxic ingredient bear Nicot's name.

  24. Brooks, 51-52.

  25. Richard Hakluyt, The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, facs. ed. (1859; Cambridge, 1965), 188.

  26. Ibid., 735.

  27. Ibid., 643.

  28. Ibid., 746-747.

  29. Robert, 5.

  30. Hakluyt, 74-75.

  31. MacInnes, 29.

  32. See Robert, 5, and Sinclair, 98.

  33. Sinclair, 31. See also MacInnes, 31.

  34. Hakluyt, 541.

  35. Brooks, 29.

  36. Ibid., 66.

  37. Sinclair, 41.

  38. Brooks, 83-84. For a fascinating discussion of the pipe as an erotic icon in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, see also Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (London, 1987).

  39. See Knapp, chap. 4, and Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, 1980), chap. 4.

  40. Brooks, 42.

  41. MacInnes, 54.

  42. Brooks, 59.

  43. Robert, 7.

  44. Brooks, 58.

  45. Robert, 10.

  46. Ibid., 9.

  47. By 1618, London yearly imports of Virginian tobacco had grown to 20,000 pounds. The colony now could truly compete with Spain, and over the next ten years, Virginian leaf finally would take pre-eminence over Spanish; see Robert, 9, and Brooks, 55.

  48. John Smith, Complete Works, (1580-1631), ed. Philip L. Barbour (Chapel Hill, NC, 1986), 262.

  49. Brooks, 92.

  50. André Thevet, The New found worlde, or Antarcticke, wherein is contained many wonderful and strange things … contemporary trans. from the French (London, 1568), 49.

  51. See Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago, 1991), for a full treatment of this argument. I credit his Clarendon Lectures, delivered in March 1988 at Oxford University, for starting me out on this subject.

  52. Most notably, Phillip Stubbes's Anatomy of Abuses (1583) contains no mention of tobacco abuse.

  53. Anthony Chute, Tabaco (London, 1595), 2. Chute's patron, Gabriel Harvey, was a longtime enemy of Thomas Nashe's. Thus it is no surprise that Nashe denounces Chute, in his “Have with you to Saffron Walden,” (1596) for his “ignorance, his poverty, and his indulgence in ‘posset curd’ and tobacco” (The Concise Dictionary of National Biography: from the Earliest Times to 1985, 6 vols. [Oxford, 1992], 347-348). Chute's tortuous prose style makes him a deserving target for Nashe's derision.

  54. Chute, 4.

  55. Ibid.

  56. [Philartes], A Work for Chimny-Sweepers: or, A Warning for Tabacconists (London, 1602), A3r.

  57. Ibid., B1v.

  58. Ibid., A3r.

  59. [Roger Marbecke], A Defence of Tabaco: With a friendly Answer to the late printed Booke called work for chimny-sweepers, etc. (London, 1602), 57. See also the Concise Dictionary of National Biography, 1006-1007.

  60. Defence, 5.

  61. Ibid.

  62. Brooks, 70.

  63. James I, Counterblaste, 96.

  64. John Rolfe, A True Relation of the State of Virginia, ed. Henry C. Taylor, facs. ed. (1616; New Haven, 1951), 35.

  65. Ibid., 47.

  66. Ibid., 39.

  67. Barnaby Rich, The Honestie of this Age (London, 1615), 20-21.

  68. The author is identified only as “C. T.,” but the Epistle to Brathwait's later “Solemne Jovial Disputation” identifies him as a “doctor of Physick.”

  69. [C. T.], An Advice How to Plant Tobacco in England: and How to Bring it to Colour and perfection, to whom it may be profitable, and to whom harmful. the vertues of the Hearbe in generall, as well in the outward application as taken in Fume. with The Danger of Spanish Tobacco (London, 1615), B1r.

  70. John Deacon, Tobacco Tortured: or, the Filthie Fume of Tobacco Refined (London, 1616), 176.

  71. Ibid., A1v.

  72. Richard Brathwait, A Solemne Iovial disputation, Theoreticke and Practicke: briefly Shadowing the Law of Drinking (London: 1617), 87.

  73. Ibid., 1.

  74. Ibid., 67.

  75. Ibid., 87.

  76. Ibid., 90.

  77. An Advice, B3r. (emphasis added).

  78. The author is, of course, working within a long tradition, often represented in contemporary emblem books, that equates good husbandry with positive moral action.

  79. Deacon, 10.

  80. Defence, 25.

  81. Chimny-sweepers, B2r.

  82. James I, Counterblaste, 100.

  83. An Advice, B1r.

  84. Ibid., B4r.

  85. Ibid., A3v.

  86. As Knapp says, “the tobacco critic considers the imported weed pagan and earthly, qualities that infect England and lower its sights profoundly. A tobacco advocate like Beaumont counters that, with less persuasive claims to inherent value than gold, tobacco bespeaks the mind's power to create value, and so continues to alert the English mind … to its own abilities,” 137.

  87. Marbecke, 57-58.

  88. Knapp, 140.

  89. Ibid., 166.

  90. R. S. Rait, introduction to A Royal Rhetorician: A Treatise on Scottis poesie, A counterblaste to tobacco, etc., by James I (London, 1900), ix-x.

  91. See Goldberg, 2, and Norbrook, 137.

  92. Cf. Sinclair, Brooks, and Robert.

  93. Goldberg, 26.

Sandra Bell (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6573

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 Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599), both of which responded to the volatile political situation in Scotland by outlining the absolute and divine nature of the monarchy.1 James's lesser known poetical collections—The Essayes of A Prentise, in the Divine Art of Poesie (1584), and His Maiesties Poeticall Exercises at vacant houres (1591)2—are counterparts to the prose treatises in their attempt to legitimate the authority of the monarchy in a country where that authority was in doubt. The Essayes include the first treatise ever written on Scottish poetry: Ane Schort Treatise, conteining some revlis and cautelis [regulations] to be obseruit and eschewit [avoided] in Scottish Poesie. Vernacular poetry was a means by which James VI would affirm the monarch's place in Scotland's national cultural consciousness. Poetry became part of statecraft, reaching and convincing an audience in a manner not open to other forms of official discourse. An examination of James's long heroic poem Lepanto will gauge the success of the king's cultural policy.

Lepanto was written in 1585, entered in the Stationers' Register in London in 1589 (non-extant), and published in 1591 as one of the two poems of James's second collection of verse, the Exercises. It was republished in London in 1603.3 The subject of James's poem is the recent battle of Lepanto, fought in 1571 between a Catholic navy and the Turkish navy under Selim II. By 1570, the Turkish navy had captured all but the capital of the Venetian-occupied island of Cyprus (the capital fell just weeks before the battle of Lepanto). The Catholic league, under the leadership of Don John of Austria (illegitimate half-brother to the Spanish king), challenged and triumphed over the Turks in the Gulf of Lepanto on 7 October 1571; the battle itself lasted a few short hours.4

The Catholic success at Lepanto was seen by many to be more generally a Christian victory5; the government of Venice had appealed to all Christian princes for support, but only Venice, Spain, and the Papacy joined to form the league. James appears to have envisaged the victory as a Christian rather than specifically Catholic one, and therefore as safe subject matter.6 James chose the subject of Lepanto to rouse confidence in the newly created league of European Protestant princes. In the years just before the publication of Lepanto, the Catholics were an increasing threat, in Europe generally and within England and Scotland specifically; the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the intrigues of a number of Catholic Scottish nobles with the Spanish king, prompted James to arrange a league of European Protestant princes for mutual defense against the Catholic forces. He notes in the poem's preface that he was “to the writing hereof mooued, by the stirring uppe of the league and cruell persecution of the Protestants in all countries” (Craigie, Poems 1:198). Rather paradoxically, therefore, the king's praise of a Catholic victory in Lepanto is part of James's attempt to bind together the Protestant nations in the face of a Catholic threat.

In the poem, James attempts to circumscribe the Catholic victory in the recent historical battle of Lepanto by what he terms a “poetical comparison” (198): through the success of the Catholic Holy League, the king explores the possibilities open to the “right religion” of Protestantism. James ends his poem with passages explaining the comparison:

But praise him [God] more if more can be,
          That so he loues his name,
As he doth mercie shew to all
          That doe professe the same:
And not alanerlie [only] to them
          Professing it aright,
But euen to them that mixe therewith
          Their owne inuentions slight:
.....For since he shewes such grace to them
          That thinks themselues are just,
What will he more to them that in
          His mercies onelie [only] trust?
And sith that so he vses them
          That doubt for to be sau'd,
How much more them that in their hearts
          His promise haue engrau'd?

(ll. 957-64; 969-76)

In a battle of Catholics against Turks, God shows his mercy to the Christian navy; in a battle of Protestants against Catholics, God will surely side with the believers of the true faith, Protestantism.

James explains in his “Preface” that the “nature then of this Poeme, is an argument, a minore ad majus [from minor to major], largely intreated by a Poetike comparison” (Craigie, Poems 1:198). The majority of the poem is spent developing the minore; 940 lines describe the preparations for war, the sea battle itself, and the Christian victory over the Turks. James paints a compassionate portrait of the Christian civilians readying themselves for war, compassionate enough to move James himself to tears:

As Seas did compasse them about,
          As Seas the Streets did rin [run],
So Seas of teares did ever flowe,
          The houses all within.
As Seas within were joyned with howles,
          So Seas without did raire [roar],
Thair carefull cries to Heauen did mount
          Resounding in the aire.
O stay my Muse, thou goes too farre,
          Shewe where we left before,
Lest trikling teares so fill my penne
          That it will write no more.

(ll. 173-84)

Even Ali-Basha, leader of the Turkish navy, is given a “bolde and manly face,” though his “tongue did vtter courage more / Then had alluring grace” (ll. 518, 519-20). The bloody battle is outlined in detail, the Turkish navy losing only after Ali-Basha's head is fixed on the Christian galley mast. Don Juan, named the “Spanish Prince” (ll. 774, 797) or “General” (814), is victorious. Only the final ninety lines of the poem outline the poetic comparison which promises Protestant superiority. Despite James's claims that this is a Protestant poem, the imbalance between the purposed and apparent subject matter did not agree well with all of his readership.

James had chosen a battle whose hero was Don Juan of Austria, a contemporary Roman Catholic general and, as it happens, a one-time suitor of Mary, Queen of Scots. The king's Protestant readers feared—with some justification—that James was a closet papist. Considering the threat of Catholicism at the time and the continual suspicions of Scotland's Protestant lords, James's choice of hero could hardly appear acceptable to his Protestant readership. James over-estimated his readers' ability to remain dispassionate about religious differences, an ability he took for granted because of his extraordinarily mixed upbringing. Offering assurances to both his Protestant and Catholic subjects was one means—however unstable—James used to retain control in both Scotland and England; recognizing Catholic heroism in a Protestant poem is analogous to this method of ruling.7

In Lepanto, James's tolerance for Catholics is seen when God decides, in His mercy, to give victory to the Catholics over the “Infidels” (l. 82), for “All christians serues my Sonne though not / Aright in everie thing” (ll. 79-80). This echoes the sentiments of the Basilikon Doron, where James advises his son Henry to “learne wisely to discerne betwixt points of saluation and indifferent things, betwixt substance and ceremonies” (17). Although James clearly states the superiority of Protestantism in Lepanto, his tolerance for Catholics—his glorification of Catholics—was treated as suspect. If Lepanto were merely a poem written by a private man to praise God's mercy, the victory of Christians—albeit Catholics—over the heathen Turks might not have aroused such suspicion. However, a poem penned by a Protestant king in a Protestant cause which so conscientiously praises the valor and courage of a Catholic navy, could not but anger a Protestant readership.8

Meant to inspire readers with a desire for Protestant imperialism, Lepanto instead inspired controversy.9 Some of the negative reactions to James's poem can be discerned from “The Avthors Preface to the Reader” (1591), which James was forced to include to clarify the meaning of his “Poeticke comparison” (Craigie, Poems 1:198) and to rid his name of the suspicion of Catholic sympathies. As James states in the preface: “the special thing misliked in it, is, that I should seeme, far contrary to my degree and Religion, like a Mercenary Poet, to penne a worke, ex professo [in public], in praise of a forraine Papist bastard” (Craigie, Poems 1:198). The language of the “Preface” makes it clear that James is insulted that his intent could be so misread. The king annoyedly clarifies what he believes is already abundantly clear, and the references to the “beloued Reader,” so ready to find fault with the king, take on ironic undertones:

It falles out often, that the effects of mens actions comes cleane contrarie to the intent of the Authour. The same finde I by experience (beloued Reader) in my Poeme of LEPANTO: For although till now, it haue not bene imprinted, yet being set out to the publick view of many … it hath for lack of a Praeface, bene in some things misconstrued by sundry, which I of verie purpose think to haue omitted, for that the writing therof, might haue tended in my opinion, to some reproach of the skilfull learnednes of the Reader. …

(Craigie, Poems 1:198)

James explains how careful he was in the poem to avoid any implications of Catholic sympathies. He claims he names Don Juan “neither literally nor any waies by description” in the “Poetique Praeface” (1:198), and that the final “Chorus Angelorum” and the Epilogue should have made it clear that the poem was a “Historicke comparison” (1:200), meant to comment on the strength of the Protestant religion; if God allowed this victory to the Catholics, what might He not do for the Protestants?10 This is repeatedly stated in the angels' chorus and the epilogue:

since by this defeat ye see,
          That God doth loue his name
So well, that so he did them aid
          That seru'd [served] not right the same.
Then though the Antichristian sect
          Against you do conjure,
He doth the bodie better loue
          Then shadow be ye sure. …

(ll. 1021-28)

In his “Preface,” James shapes an understanding and learned audience to shift the blame of misinterpretation; any failing rests neither with his ability as poet or king, nor with his choice of subject, but with the reader, who is either too stupid to understand the poem, or who wilfully, maliciously misunderstands it. The equivocal nature of interpretation is not, James implies, the result of the uncertainty of poetic allegory, but of the insubordination of a malevolent readership, determined to misread and to question his authority.

Despite James's protestations that he intends Lepanto as an expression of Protestant superiority, the choice of a Roman Catholic victory as the subject is an excellent example of how James tries to play both sides of the religio-political division. While claiming to champion Protestantism, he still manages to describe in detail the humanity and courage of those who declared themselves Catholics. This did not, however, endear him to the Protestant subjects of a recently professed Protestant country. Rather than connecting monarch and nation—the purpose of James's cultural policy—Lepanto threatened to separate them. James's attempt to increase his authority by mythologizing the king and by assimilating himself into the country's national consciousness through poetry encounters opposition because of his subject matter, but also because of the medium of print. The next section will examine how the medium of poetry compounds the difficulties raised by the subject matter of Lepanto, and examine James's attempt to limit those problems.


Both of the king's collections of poetry are of political importance. James's first collection of poetry, the Essayes, were partly instigated by the political situation in Scotland. Poetry was one of the few media through which the young king could express his political opinions, unimpeded by his powerful regents. His regents saw poetry as a means to keep James diverted from political intervention; in 1584, the Earl of Arran urged the king to continue to spend his time “principally in amusement and recreation,” part of which was poetry.11 Perhaps because other forms of political expression were denied to the young James, poetry became the means through which the king entered politics. The publication of James's first collection, the Essayes in 1584, gloriously printed and bound, corresponds to James's acquisition of full political control, and is an example of his belief that poetry is an expression of political and national loyalties.

Despite the ostensible separation of poetry from politics in the preface to the Exercises in 1591, this second collection is equally involved in the politics of James's reign. In the preface, James complains that the burdens of politics had left him little time for poetry: “my burden is so great and continuall, without anie intermission. … Yea scarslie but at stollen moments, haue I the leasure to blenk upon any paper” (Craigie, Poems 1:98). While James here appears to separate poetry from his political duties, this collection, and Lepanto specifically, are not removed from James's political actions. Lepanto—like his other poems—derives from political will, expresses political intention, and results in both political difficulties and—as will be shown—successes.

James's collections are also written in a politically charged medium, poetry. In Scotland, poetical satire had long questioned the role of the monarch, and the flood of Reformation satires from 1560 to 1584—verse which directly questioned the monarchy—further politicized poetry.12 In order to regain political control, James needed to regain poetical control, and to create a monarch-centered court poetry to counter the criticism of the satires.13 Early in his reign, James established a court poetry in an attempt to define and limit both the use of poetry and the readers' responses. The “Castalian Band” first gathered in 1579 and comprised a number of musicians and poets, both Protestants and Catholics. James's patronage of the band members, and his kin relationship to a number of them—distant cousins—allowed James some measure of control over the direction of Scottish poetry. Despite his youth when the Band reached its height—James was eighteen—the king was the group's poetic leader, the “poetic lawgiver.”14 In the hope of advancement, and to guarantee the continuing need for court poets, the Castalians were willing to show the usefulness of poetry in promoting James's authority. Many of their poems uphold the king's absolute authority and divine right, and advance James's desires for the English crown and a peaceable Protestant imperialism.

While the Castalian Band did serve to create a body of Scottish poetry which upheld the monarchy, and which mythologizes James in the Scottish cultural consciousness, it was not without its own political difficulties. The Protestant lords feared the Catholic elements of the Band and took James into house arrest in 1583. Ten months later, James escaped and reinstituted the Band, with Alexander Montgomerie as his poetic tutor, whom the king named “belou'd Sanders, master of our art.”15 Montgomerie, arguably the most skilled member of the Band, was distant kin to James and Lennox (James's favorite); he was named an official member of the Royal Household in 1583 and granted a pension of five hundred marks a year.16 Montgomerie was also a Catholic, and—according to one's interpretations of his poems “I wald see mare” and “A Ladyis Lamentatione”—a supporter of the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots.17 One of James's main political weapons in Scotland was his ability to find a balance by opposing factions, and—as seen in Lepanto and in the constitution of the Band—the incorporation of both Protestant and Catholics allowed James to remain completely reliant on neither.

Montgomerie's Catholicism made him politically useful; it had recommended him to King Philip's court and James made use of that affiliation to keep the favor of Spain, should he need their help. Montgomerie was therefore permitted—or required—to travel overseas on the king's business in 1586.18 It was at this time, however, that Montgomerie's Catholicism ceased to be a benefit and became a threat. Mary was beheaded in England in 1586, and James separated himself from dangerous Catholic connections. Montgomerie was imprisoned by the English, who stopped his boat en route; he did not return to Scotland until 1589/90, and had meanwhile lost his pension and position at court.19 Montgomerie responded with a legal suit and an abundance of verse criticizing James and his court, but failed to recover his lost annuity.20 If James failed to recognize the dangers of the Catholic elements in his poem Lepanto, he did recognize them in his “beloved Sanders.”

The difficulties surrounding Lepanto are the result not simply of the Catholic content of either the poem or James's Castalian Band, but they also arise from the stigma associated with publication. To repeat a passage quoted above, James's readers were angered “that [he] should seeme, far contrary to [his] degree and Religion, like a Mercenary Poet, to penne a worke, ex professo, in praise of a forraine Papist bastard.” The king might argue that his religion is not compromised by writing of (or with) Catholics, but his “degree” is in danger once he collects and publishes his poetry. As Richard Helgerson points out, book writing and making had become a trade, one that was not necessarily equal in degree to the role of the monarch. Helgerson cites James Montague, Bishop of Winchester and the king's chaplain and editor: “‘Since that book writing is grown into a trade … it is as dishonorable for a king to write books as it is for him to be a practitioner in a profession’.”21 Despite his involvement in poetry and publishing, James appears to agree: “it becomes not the honour of my estate, like an hireling, to pen the praise of any man” (Craigie, Poems 1:200). Regardless of his protestations of innocence and his attempt to separate himself from controversy, James fixes himself in print, and once fixed, he is open to interpretation by anyone who can read. The mystery of monarchy, the unknowable and unquestionable nature of the king that James outlines in Basilikon Doron, is compromised by the king's attempt to express himself to his subjects in verse.22

Despite poetry's potential as a means of political control, James's cultural policy is subject to the equivocal nature of the medium in which it is expressed, and dependent on the acceptance of his audience, his subjects. The meaning of Lepanto cannot be contained by writing even more by way of a preface, and, try as he might, James cannot shape his audience to limit their interpretations of his work. The vagaries of author, reader, and medium ensure the need for the king's continual involvement, the continual rewriting of himself.

However, James's hopes for his poetic Renaissance face difficulties on at least two counts. First, James wishes to limit the nature of political poetry. Chapter 7 of his treatise on Scottish poetry ostensibly deals with “invention,” but James includes a warning to those poets who might, like their Reformation counterparts, wish to write about politics:

Ze man also be war [You must also be wary] of wryting any thing of materis of commoun weill, or vther sic graue sene subiectis [such grave subjects] (except Metaphorically, of manifest treuth opinly knawin, zit [yet] nochtwithstanding vsing it very seindill [seldom]) because nocht onely ze essay nocht zour awin [you try not your own] Inuentioun, as I spak before, bot lykewayis they are to graue materis for a Poet to mell in.

(Craigie, Poems 1:79)

James here objects to historical or political topics because they are not imaginative or fictional enough, and his insistence on the gravity of matters of the commonwealth implies that poetry and politics are two very separate realms. Jonathan Goldberg notes that while this section limits the poet, the parenthetical addition “reinvest[s] him with power anew. James returns to the poet the power of language that allows him to go beyond mere representation.”23 James recommends metaphorical poetry, an oblique approach to political expression, but on the condition that these “metaphors” are of subjects “of manifest treuth opinly knawin”; the key to the metaphors must be clear, obvious, not leaving the poem liable to dangerous misinterpretations. James's Lepanto is an example of such metaphorical poetry—in this case a poetic comparison or allegory—within which the key to the metaphor is made clear; James's “Chorus Angelorum” and epilogue explain that the poem which appears to praise Catholics actually praises Protestants. However, while a move to a metaphorical approach to political subject matter does remove the direct critical threat that the Reformation satires present, it opens poems and poets to misunderstanding. As James himself discovered with his Lepanto, the author's intent, hidden in allegory and analogy, can easily be misread; one's choice of metaphor—one's “poetic comparison”—is as telling as one's ostensible subject matter.

The second problem is posed by the stigma inherent in the medium of print, which compounds the difficulties of interpretation presented by allegorical poetry. As Helgerson states, one's image in print is “liable to hostile interpretation and even rejection,” and while it gives the writer-king authority, it also empowers the reader-subject.24 Print opens James and his poetry to a larger interpretative community, one to whom the king's allegorical keys are not necessarily clear.

Despite James's recognitions of the limitations of poetry, and of his attempt to curb the political applications of poetry by others, he appears to believe his own poetry is exempt from such stigmas; he is “above the law,” even the poetic laws of his own making. The relationship of monarch-subject is meant to inform the relationship of poet-reader, and the duty required of the subject should create an obedient and respectful reader. The publication of James's poetry is meant as an expression of the king's majesty, civility, and power. As Helgerson notes, James recognizes the medium of print as “a potent source of authority”: there is a “particularly intimate relationship between James's absolutist conception of royal power and the medium through which it was expressed.”25 Print allows the king to avoid public and theatrical shows, for which he had a great distaste, and at the same time gives him a medium through which to present himself to his subjects; it is, simultaneously, private and public. Print is one of the most economical, available, and powerful methods of stating one's authority, and James VI, like James IV before him, intended to make it a tool of government.26

Despite the ambiguous reception of Lepanto, it was James's most popular poem, and certainly connected monarch and nation in the eyes of his English and European readership. The fairly pedestrian level of James's verse, and the almost doggerel sound of the poem's broken fourteeners, were of no concern to other poets, who were far more interested in the king's having written at all.27 Gabriel Harvey's praise of Lepanto is a representative example of how poets praised James's success. Harvey writes:

I cannot forget the woorthy Prince that is a Homer to himselfe, a Golden spurre to Nobility, a Scepter to Vertue, a Verdure to the Spring, a Sunne to the day, and hath not onely translated the two diuine Poems of Salustius du Bartas … but hath readd a most valorous Martial Lecture vnto hiimselfe [sic] in his owne victorious Lepanto, a short, but heroicall, worke, in meeter, but royal meeter, fitt for a Dauids harpe—Lepanto, first of the glory of Christendome against the Turke, and now the garland of a soueraine crowne.28

Like James himself, Harvey legitimized poetry as an enterprise fit for a monarch: Lepanto is a heroical poem and one in which James reproduces the victories of Christendom peaceably, without human or economic cost. Also, while the king may write in meter, he uses “royal meeter, fitt for a Dauids harpe.”29

Sir Philip Sidney, in a letter of May 1586 to the Master of Gray, asks to be “in the gracious remembrance of your King, whom indeed I love” (qtd. in Craigie, Poems 2:234), and in his Apologie for Poetrie claims James as a patron of the arts:

Sweet poesy, that hath anciently had kings, emperors, senators, great captains … not only to favor poets, but to be poets. And of our nearer times can present for her patrons a Robert, king of Sicily, the great King Francis of France, King James of Scotland.30

Though Sidney and James never met, they are frequently mentioned together in poetic criticism, James appearing almost as a successor to Sidney, and his connection with Sidney only profited his own reputation:

Chaucer is dead; and Gower lyes in grave;
The Earle of Surrey, long agoe is gone;
Sir Philip Sidneis soule, the Heauens haue;
George Gascoigne him beforne, was tomb'd in stone
.....The King of Scots (now liuing) is a Poet,
As his Lepanto, and his Furies shoe it.

(Richard Barnefield; qtd. in Craigie, Poems 1:274)31

Again, in 1600, William Vaughan made a connection between the two: “Sir Philip Sidney excelled all our English Poets in rareness of stile and matter. King James the sixt of Scotland, that now raigneth, is a notable Poet, and daily setteth out most learned poems, to the admiration of all his subjects” (qtd. in Craigie, Poems 1:276). Foreign response to Lepanto was extensive and laudatory. In addition to the French translation by the Protestant poet Salust Du Bartas, there were translations into Latin, Dutch and German.32 If Lepanto caused the Protestant readership some concern within Scotland, it was accepted as a sign of James's civilized authority without Scotland.

The phrase “imagined community” describes the necessary relationship of developing nations and fictional representations.33 In the Renaissance, such representations are most often produced by the subjects of communities, not by their leaders. James, however, believes in the monarch's direct involvement with the affairs of his country; as he declares to his son Henry in Basilikon Doron, the king must “know all crafts: For except ye know euery one, how can yee controll euery one, which is your proper office?”34 In James's reign, one of these “crafts” is poetry. James's foray into the print market is an attempt to control the changing cultural consciousness of Scotland and to maintain the authority of the monarchy in his subjects' imaginations. This attempt met with limited success. James's Renaissance did create a circle of poets which supported the king's authority and policies, and James's own verse helped to establish him—within and without Scotland—as a powerful Scottish king ruling a civilized nation. However, not even a king's writing can overcome the politics of poetry or the stigmas of print, or can shape an accepting, docile readership. As the reception of Lepanto demonstrates, the imagined community is rarely of one mind.


  1. These treatises were reprinted in 1603 in England and read as an introduction to the new king. For English reactions to the treatises, see Jenny Wormald, “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, ed. Linda Levy Peck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 36-54; and James Doelman's “‘A King of thine own heart’: The English Reception of King James VI and I's Basilikon Doron,The Seventeenth Century 9, no. 1 (spring 1994): 1-9. For English reactions to James's religious writings, see Doelman's “The Accession of King James I and English Religious Poetry,” Studies in English Literature 34, no. 1 (1994): 19-40.

  2. A third collection, All the kings short poesis that ar not printed, was edited and arranged, as if for publication, by Prince Charles, the Groom of the Chamber Thomas Carey, and James himself. Craigie notes that this collection may have been intended for publication along with the 1616 Works, but it was not published until 1911. All three collections, and some uncollected verse, are found in Poems of King James VI of Scotland, ed. James Craigie, 2 vols. (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1955, 1958). Lepanto is found in 1:197-259.

  3. Publishing information available in Craigie, Poems 1:xlv-l.

  4. Historical information can be found in Craigie, Poems 1:liv-lx. As Craigie states, James had access to possibly three written sources for historical background.

  5. Emery Jones, “‘Othello’, ‘Lepanto’ and the Cyprus Wars,” Scottish Literary Studies 21 (1968): 48. Jones also notes that Shakespeare may have used the opportunity of Lepanto's 1603 publication in London to write Othello, also concerned with Venetians of this period, at about this time. There are no specific echoes of the king's poem in the play.

  6. James's poem emphasizes the generic nature of the “Christian” army: “Christian Princes” (190) lead a “Christian Nauie” (292), a “Christian Host” (358) of “Christian soules” (491). See Kevin Sharpe, “The King's Writ: Royal Authors and Royal Authority in Early Modern England,” in Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England, eds. Kevin Sharpe and Peter Lake (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993): “the poem gestures to an economic hope for a reunified republica Christiana which James cherished throughout his life” (129).

  7. James's balancing or juggling act with his Protestant and Catholic subjects in both Scotland and England is discussed in Jenny Wormald's “James VI and I: Two Kings or One?” History 68 (1983): 187-209. Wormald also outlines how James was increasingly cut off from Scottish methods of control once in England.

  8. It is odd that there are no complaints about James's respectful description of the Turks.

  9. R. D. S. Jack, “Poetry under King James,” in Origins to 1660, ed. R. D. S. Jack, vol. 1 of The History of Scottish Literature, ed. Craig Cairns (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1988), 1:133. Jack does not give specific examples of the “political furore” raised by the poem; however, that there was a controversy is clearly stated in James's own preface and in the need for a preface at all.

  10. J. Derrick McClure agrees that “James's theological standpoint is stated as clearly as it could possibly be” in “‘O Phoenix Escossois’: James VI as Poet” in A Day Estivall, eds. Alisoun Gardner-Medwin and Janet Hadley Williams (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1990), 105-6.

  11. Qtd. in Maurice Lee Jr., Great Britain's Solomon: James VI and I in His Three Kingdoms (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 127. Lee also states that Esme Stuart—who should become the Duke of Lennox, James's favorite from 1579-1582, and who would effectively rule Scotland in the last two years of that period—initiated, or at least furthered, James's interest in poetry. See also Calendar of State Papers Relating to Mary, Queen of Scots, eds. William K. Boyd and Henry W. Meikle, vol. 8, 338: in 1586, Thomas Randolf stated that James “still follows his hunting, riding, and writing ‘in miter’.”

  12. The main collection of Scottish Reformation satires is Satirical Poems of the Time of the Reformation, ed. James Cranstoun (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1891/93; reprint, New York: AMS, 1974). While many of the satires are directed specifically at Mary, Queen of Scots, a number question Scotland's need for a monarchy at all and are thus a threat to James's reign also. The satires spring from a long tradition of satirical verse, verse which flourished under the pens of William Dunbar and Sir David Lyndsay earlier in the sixteenth century.

  13. See Sharpe, “The King's Writ,” 118: “monarchs endeavoured in the new circumstances they confronted to re-establish their authority by a reassertion of their interpretative [sic] power over rival voices.” While Sharpe is more concerned with prose works, religious verse, and the new King James Version of the Bible, this also applies to James's secular poetry.

  14. Shire, Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under James VI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 99.

  15. In the King's poem “An admonition to the Master poet,” James named Montgomerie his “belou'd Sanders, maistre of our art” as well as “friend” (Craigie, Poems 2:122, ll. 2, 9). In his epitaph for Montgomerie, James called him “the prince of Poets in our land” (Craigie, Poems 2:107, l. 3).

  16. A brief outline of Montgomerie's history and connection to James is provided by Alan Westcott, ed., New Poems by James I (New York: AMS, 1911), xxvi-xxxiii (erroneously titled, as nearly all the poems were written before James went to England). An outline of Montgomerie's history and an analysis of his works can be found in R. D. S. Jack, Alexander Montgomerie (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985). Helena Mennie Shire supplies an overview of the Band, and also provides a history of Montgomerie and an interpretation of his greatest poem, The Cherrie and the Slae in Song, 80-99.

  17. Shire interprets the title of the first poem as “I would see Ma[ria] Re[gina]” (Song, 77-78); the poem was sent to James Lauder, servant to the imprisoned Mary. Jack connects “A Ladyis Lamentatione” to Mary in “The Theme of Fortune in the Verse of Alexander Montgomerie,” Scottish Literary Journal 10 (1983): 25-44. Montgomerie—a generation older than the king—was a poet in Mary's reign.

  18. George Stevenson includes an appendix outlining documents granting Montgomerie permission to travel in Poems of Alexander Montgomerie (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1887), Appendix D: 6. Two other Catholic poets, James Lauder and Hugh Barclay of Ladyland, were also sent overseas at this time. Shire notes that the “King could be ridding the court of dangerous elements, entrusting to ambiguous agents a subtly planned and double handed policy or setting his envoys a task that of its very nature was impossible to fill” (Song, 107), the task of appealing to Spain and England at the same time.

  19. David Daiches notes that the release of Montgomerie after the execution of Mary made him less of a threat, and that he “remained out of favour, all the more so since he was now associated with elements opposed to the King and his policy.” Literature and Gentility in Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982), 15.

  20. Litigations for the pension ended, unsuccessfully, in 1593. It appeared that the pension had been an illegal gift to begin with (see Jack, Alexander Montgomerie, 11).

  21. Richard Helgerson, “Milton Reads the King's Book: Print, Performance, and the Making of a Bourgeois Idol,” Criticism 29, no. 1 (winter 1987): 1.

  22. While it is arguable that prose is equally subject to the stigmas of publication, political tracts and speeches do not appear to have received the same criticisms as the more easily misunderstood figurative language of poetry.

  23. James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1983), 19-20.

  24. Helgerson, “Milton,” 6.

  25. Ibid., 3.

  26. On the political use James IV made of the printing press, see Michael Lynch: “The royal licence for the setting up of the first Scottish printing press by Chepman and Myllar in 1507, which specified ‘bukis of our lawis, actis of parliament, chroniclis, [and] mess buiks’ made it clear it was a means of promoting both the King's government and the image of kingship.” Scotland, A New History (London: Century, 1991), 258. Lynch also claims that “Like no government before it, that of James VI developed an elaborate propaganda machine that used a variety of channels of communication” (238). For information on the introduction and growth of the press in Scotland, see: Robert Dickson and John Philip Edmond, Annals of Scottish Printing (Cambridge: MacMillan & Bowes, 1890); Harry Aldis, A List of Books Printed in Scotland Before 1700 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 1904); and R. A. Houston, Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England 1600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  27. Of course, one cannot measure the sincerity of the praise, whether it was inspired by James's attempt or by the poets' hopes of later preferment.

  28. Craigie, Poems 1:274. Craigie's Appendix A provides twenty-seven examples of the praise inspired by James's poetry: see Poems, 1:274-80.

  29. This is not to be confused with the “Ballat Royal” meter, which James advocates for “heich & graue subiectis” in the Treatise. Lepanto is written in fourteeners, though each line is divided into two in the printing.

  30. Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Forrest B. Robinson (Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), 68-69.

  31. While the feminine ending might suggest that Barnefield did not intend this as a serious comment on James's skill, at least one contemporary took it seriously: in his Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598), Francis Mere cites the above two lines and claims that “‘Iames the 6, nowe King of Scotland, is not only a fauorer of Poets but a Poet, as my friend Master Richard Barnefielde hath in this disticke passing well recorded’” (qtd. in Craigie, Poems 1:275).

  32. The German translation includes the French text on the verso, the German on the recto. This indicates that in some circles James's reputation relied on Du Bartas's translation rather than on the king's original.

  33. See Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991). What Sharpe says of Tudor England is equally applicable to Stuart Scotland: “the power of crown and state depended largely upon its representation of authority” (117).

  34. The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles Howard McIlwain (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965), 38.


Aldis, Harry. A List of Books Printed in Scotland Before 1700. Edinburgh: Edinburgh, Bibliographical Society, 1904.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London: Verso, 1991.

Calender of State Papers Relating to Mary, Queen of Scots, eds. William K. Boyd and Henry W. Meikle. 8:338.

Cranstoun, James, ed. Satirical Poems of the Time of the Reformation. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1891/93. Rev. ed. New York: AMS, 1974.

Daiches, David. Literature and Gentility in Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982.

Dickson, Robert and John Philip Edmond. Annals of Scottish Printing. Cambridge: MacMillan & Bowes, 1890.

Doelman, James. “The Accession of King James I and English Religious Poetry.” Studies in English Literature 34, no. 1 (1994): 19-40.

———. “‘A King of thine own heart’: The English Reception of King James VI and I's Basilikon Doron.The Seventeenth Century 9, no. 1 (spring 1994): 1-9.

Goldberg, Jonathan. James I and the Politics of Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1983.

Helgerson, Richard. “Milton Reads the King's Book: Print, Performance, and the Making of a Bourgeois Idol.” Criticism 29, no. 1 (winter 1987): 1-26.

Houston, R. A. Scottish Literacy and The Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England 1600-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Jack, R. D. S. Alexander Montgomerie. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985.

———. “Poetry under King James VI.” In Origins to 1660. Edited by R. D. S. Jack, 125-40. Vol. 1 of The History of Scottish Literature. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1988.

———. “The Theme of Fortune in the Verse of Alexander Montgomerie.” Scottish Literary Journal 10 (1983): 25-44.

Jones, Emery. “‘Othello’, ‘Lepanto’ and the Cyprus Wars.” Scottish Literary Studies 21 (1968): 47-52.

Lee, Maurice, Jr. Great Britain's Solomon: James VI and I in His Three Kingdoms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lynch, Michael. Scotland, A New History. London: Century, 1991.

McClure, J. Derrick. “‘O Phoenix Escossois’: James VI as Poet.” In A Day Estivall. Edited by Alisoun Gardner-Medwin and Janet Hadley Williams, 96-111. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1990.

Montgomerie, Alexander. Poems of Alexander Montgomerie. Edited by George Stevenson. Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1887.

Sharpe, Kevin. “The King's Writ: Royal Authors and Royal Authority in Early Modern England.” In Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England. Edited by Kevin Sharpe and Peter Lake. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Shire, Helena Mennie. Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under King James VI. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Sidney, Sir Philip. An Apology for Poetry. Edited by Forrest B. Robinson. Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.

Stuart, James. New Poems by James I. Edited by Alan Westcott. New York: AMS, 1911.

———. The Poems of King James VI of Scotland. Edited by James Craigie. 2 vols. Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1955, 1958.

———. The Political Works of James I. 1616. Edited by Charles Howard McIlwain. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965.

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, 36-54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

———. “James VI and I: Two Kings or One?” History 68 (1983): 187-209.

Robert Appelbaum (essay date February 2000)

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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 / To conquer still,” Milton writes in his sonnet “To Lord General Cromwell”; “Peace hath her victories / No less renownd than warr.”1 Peace, under the pressure of rhetoric like this, can be a lot like war since it can be said to require militant vigilance; it may even have its own “victories,” as fully heroic and glorious as any that war may entail. War may be more often the subject of narrative literature than peace because war gives the teller more to tell. But many tales of war, going back to the first epics, may really be tales of peace: tales about where peace comes from, how it operates, and what it ultimately means. Such, in any case, is the state of affairs in King James VI and I's The Lepanto, a heroic poem over a thousand lines long first published in 1591 and probably written in 1585—James's most significant and widely circulated accomplishment as a poet.2 But The Lepanto tells its tale of peace in a complicated way, including not only the representation of what appeared to be a glorious military victory but also an implicit argument about the justice of just wars. It even participates in a European-wide effort to depict the Battle of Lepanto as a glorious victory, despite evidence that the battle was neither unambiguously heroic nor unambiguously triumphant. (In fact, although the allied Christian forces certainly won a battle over the Ottoman armada in 1571, virtually wiping out the enemy fleet, they were very possibly on their way that day toward losing a century-long war.) Moreover, the great hero of the battle and of James's poem, Don Juan of Austria, continued after Lepanto to make a name for himself in military expeditions where not the hated Turk but thousands of Christians were defeated and killed. So James's situation as a memorializing poet was highly complicated. My intention here, however, is not so much to resolve the complexities entailed in James's poem as to underscore them and to raise questions about what it might mean for someone like James—who was among other things, a man of peace—to write a heroic poem about someone else's victory (real or apparent) in someone else's war. Along the way I intend to raise questions about what it meant for a monarch to be writing heroic verse in the first place, doing so after the fashion not of great kings but of great poets writing in the service of great kings. I also want to consider the problem of what it may have meant in general for any poet of the Renaissance to have turned a single day's fighting—for the Battle of Lepanto lasted no more than a day—into an exemplary story of quasi-epic proportions. But I am mainly concerned with the meaning of war and peace in The Lepanto, and how (and why) James uses one to serve as an example of (or for) the other.

A large part of the issue here is what may be called James's self-professions. There were many such self-professions over the course of James's career, and they were not always free of controversy. Styling himself “King of Great Britain,” for example, at a time when the ruling elite in England had no desire to see England absorbed into a larger political entity was a self-profession that caused great unrest among the politically powerful segment of the population and provoked some of James's most long-abiding opposition in Parliament.3 But at least two self-professions held up over time, thanks in large part to the machinery of state mythology that James obdurately supported. One presented James as a Solomon among kings, a ruler of superlative learning, wisdom, and justice; the other presented him as a peacemaker. “The first … of the blessings, which God hath joyntly with my Person sent unto you,” James told Parliament in his inaugural address of 1604, “is outward Peace: that is, peace abroad with all forreine neighbours: for I thank God I may justly say, that never since I was a king, I either received wrong of any other Christian Prince of State, or did wrong to any: I have ever, I praise God, yet kept Peace and amitie with all.” The “second great blessing,” he went on to say, was “peace within,” peace that is between Scotland and England, now united in his person and rule after centuries of division, and even between the English houses of Lancaster and York, now united in his own blood as they had been in the Tudor monarchs before him.4

Beati pacifici, blessed are the peacemakers, had been adopted by James as his motto—another self-profession—soon upon arriving in England; James frequently saw to it that the iconography of peace should be associated with his reign, whether in ceremonies like court masques or in printed matter such as the frontispieces to the books published under his name. This particular self-profession was not adopted without some ambivalence, to be sure. “I know not,” James wrote, “by what fortune the diction of Pacificus was added to my title at my coming to England, that of the lion, expressing true fortitude, having been my diction before.”5 There was something suspiciously unmanly about being called a peacemaker. It was better to be known as a lion, signifying courage. Still powerful in the seventeenth century, as James himself well knew, were the traditional timocratic, masculinist values of aristocratic warrior culture, as well as the metaphorical belligerence of Christian militancy. Both of these, whether alone or in combination, would often enough explode into genuine belligerence between individuals, factions, and nations.6 And as he let the public know by the publication of his Basilicon Doron (1599), James did not intend his taste for nonaggression to mean that he would never be aggressive in the interest of his nation: “a honourable and just warre,” he wrote, “is more tollerable, then a dishonourable and disadvantageous peace.”7 Yet, James could also own up to his reputation as a peacemaker and claim his new motto as his just dessert. “I am not ashamed of this addition,” he added concerning his new “diction.” “For King Solomon was a figure of Christ in that he was a king of peace. The greatest gift that our Saviour gave his apostles immediately before his ascension was that he left His peace with them.”8

The principle of “peacemaking” or, as we say today, “pacifism,” lay at the heart of James's foreign and domestic policies and increasingly became the byword of his personal mythology.9 James had not only established a pacific government; peace was also to be, he was proud to say, his particular legacy—that profession of the self that should survive beyond the self, that “apparance of perpetuity or long continuance” that James understood to be attached to his person.10 Peace-making was to be a legacy through which James's progeny would govern and bestow “blessings” on the Christian world at home and abroad. In domestic affairs, he was sustaining a kind of sublime order, and passing it on peacefully through the body of his son.11 In international affairs he was following a policy which on at least one occasion he referred to as the via regia, a démarche among the competing states and factions of Europe, moderating their hostilities with the calculated sagacity of an independent negotiator.12 “O happy moderator, blessed Father,” Thomas Middleton wrote in a paean to the king called The Peace-maker (1618), which some have believed to have been written by James himself, so closely does it follow James's own program of self-professed pacifism—“not Father of thy country alone, but Father of all thy neighbors countries about thee.”13 In point of fact the Thirty Years' War was about to break out, but James still had hopes of resolving the conflicts through fatherly diplomacy. “Peace is the passage from life to life,” Middleton wrote, summoning his readers to an admiration of his king; “come then to the factory of Peace, thou that desirest to have life: behold the substitute of Peace on earth, displaying the flag of Peace, Beati pacifici.14

The business of professing oneself a man of peace could be complicated, however. Peace for whom? For everyone? And by what means? Any means necessary? How do honor, the existence of evil, national sovereignty, and religion fit into the picture? And what does peace look like when one has it, anyway? How does one express or represent peace?

Consider for a moment a pair of famous paintings meant to represent the making of peace by James VI and I, the two major end panels to Peter Paul Rubens's ceiling at the Banqueting House at Whitehall. They are part of a group of works that comprises the single greatest monument to the aspirations of James's reign—in politics, in culture, in religion. The paintings are solemnly, even sublimely eulogistic. But they are also puzzling.15

In one of the main panels, The Union of Scotland and England, James is shown active in life, seated on his throne, uniting his two kingdoms; in another, The Benefits of Government, he is shown bestowing blessings that come from a realm being at peace with itself. In the latter picture James presides over a scene where the Goddess of Peace is “hastening, reassuringly, into the arms of Plenty,” and Minerva is beating back an assault by War.16 But the particular power of Rubens's images is their sense not of beatitude or harmony but of exertion and energy. There is nothing peaceful about Rubens's allegories of peace. In The Benefits of Government, though Plenty is reaching to the arms of Peace, and Minerva is beating back War, the gestures are incomplete. Peace and Plenty have not yet embraced. War has not yet been cast off from the vicinity of the King and his seat of government. And James is shown to be directing the affairs of state with a somewhat frantic and ambiguous, if biblically majestic, gesture. The benefits of government are not yet realized in this picture; James is shown belligerently commanding the pacification of the realm.

The Union of Scotland and England portrays a still more disturbing scene. A seated but forward-leaning and gesturing James faces the spectacle of two women, Scotland and England, fighting over an infant, the naked Charles. The Goddess Britannia is attempting to crown the infant, but the two women seem to be contending over which of them will get to keep the child, each pulling on one of the infant's arms and one even trying to grab the crown out of Britannia's hands. Like Solomon passing judgment between the two women claiming the same child, King James is adjudicating the conflict, pointing a dagger toward the child. So far as James's legacy is the theme of the picture, the picture implies that James is wisely giving his son Charles to both kingdoms. But it is unclear what decision is actually being rendered in this particular scene; perhaps James is threatening, like Solomon, to cut the child in half. In the biblical story the threat to cut the child in half reveals which woman is really the child's mother and will get to keep him. While James is supposed to be unifying Scotland and England, the biblical allegory nevertheless suggests that the kingdoms cannot be united, that one mother country and not the other is going to have possession of the next king unless James succeeds in imposing his son on both of them regardless.

The complexities of Rubens's allegory can be construed with regard to the moral and political purposes of Rubens, James, Charles, or any number of advisers, including Inigo Jones, all of whom played a role in the design of the ceiling; it is difficult to settle on a single intention. Even the one sure instance of pacification in James's reign, the de facto union of England and Scotland, is mysteriously represented. For if James had ever promised an infant son to the realms of England and Scotland alike, it was not Charles but his elder brother Henry, the more popular and the more martial of the two brothers, whose place in the English imagination, after his death in 1613, Charles was never able to fill.17 As it has often been remarked about Stuart court masques, which in a certain sense the Rubens paintings supplanted, such productions were intended to be both representational and representative, both mimetic and exemplary. But it is difficult to say what these paintings were to serve as an example of, or what policies and modes of behavior these paintings were to serve as examples for. The pull of competing impulses and the moving drama of these allegories about a legacy of peace all but overpower the architectonic unity of their execution. And those impulses derive not only from Rubens's own complex reading or expert execution of the artistic and ideological project set before him but of complexities inherent to the project itself—to the various masters it was designed to serve, to the political tensions it was compelled to respond to, and in general to the perplexities of war and peace and of leadership and government which the paintings were supposed to solve.

Now the production and interpretation of The Lepanto would seem to present a much simpler situation. The Lepanto tells the straightforward story of Don Juan of Austria's leadership in the naval battle of 1571, when in a single day of fighting a Christian fleet of 208 galleys, sailing under the flag of a “Holy League” organized by Pope Pius V, the Spanish monarchy and the Venetian republic won a total victory over a rival Turkish fleet, capturing 180 out of 274 Turkish ships, freeing more than twelve thousand Christian galley slaves, killing over twenty-five thousand Turkish fighters, and taking approximately fifteen thousand Turkish fighters into captivity as slaves.18 The battle was already famous when James put his hand to it—the subject of chronicles in Spanish, Italian, and Latin and two or three briefer works in Italian and Latin that were James's primary sources.19 Thus the exercise that James undertook might seem to have been commonplace: turning a story of action, adventure, and heroic victory into suitable verse. Nor was the exercise without ample precedent. Heroic verse, the stepchild of epic, was among the more popular and esteemed forms of verse in the sixteenth century, and James does not fail to acknowledge Virgil and Homer as his chief models. A young man with artistic aspirations, who had already tried his hand at translations and lyrical poems, could scarcely select a more suitable subject matter or genre—especially, again, a young poet who was also a king.

There was only one problem, or pair of related problems. The hero of this poem was “a forraine Papist bastard,” as James confesses in his preface, written after some of his readers had already seen a manuscript version of the poem.20 Don Juan of Austria's Roman Catholicism and illegitimacy alike exposed James's work to reproach; moreover, Juan's next (and last) great military adventure had been a devastatingly successful Spanish expedition against Protestant forces in the Netherlands. Yet James had a ready if somewhat unusual response for his detractors. The poem, he wrote, was actually “an argument, a minore ad majus, largely intreated by a Poeticke comparison, beeing to the writing hereof mooved, by the stirring uppe of the league and cruell persecution of the Protestants in all countries” (p. 198). In other words, the story of the Pope Pius's Holy League of 1571 fending off a Turkish military operation under the leadership of Don Juan was an allegory for the Protestants' conflicts with the French Catholic League which had been “stirring up cruell persecution” since 1576 and especially in 1585, when James found himself “mooved” to write his epic. (This Catholic League in France—whose leaders had been affiliated with Mary Queen of Scots, James's own mother!—was bent on keeping the Protestant Henry of Navarre from the French throne in the likely event that the Catholic Henry III should die without leaving any male heirs. The league may also have had the more ambitious goal of eradicating Protestantism in France altogether, but the claim that it was persecuting Protestants “in all countries,” or even really in France, was an exaggeration.21) What James represented, then, in a victory of Catholics over Turks, was a dark conceit intended to be representative of the cause of Protestants against its persecution by Catholics. An example of holy war was meant to be exemplary of resistance to holy war. As for the second part of the objection, that his poem makes a hero out of a foreign bastard, James argues that his poem is neither obsequious nor biographically oriented; unlike Virgil or Homer, he has not “penned the whole Poeme” in the praise of a single hero but only brought the hero in when the narrative situation warranted.

Moreover, although the poem has some good things to say about “Don-Joan,” as James calls him, “what ever praise I have given to Don-Joan it is neither in accounting him as first or second cause of that victory, but only as a particular man, when he falls in my way, to speak the truth of him. For as it becomes not the honour of my estate, like an hireling, to pen the praise of any man: So it becomes it far lesse the highness of my rancke and calling, to spare for the feare of favour of whomsoever living, to speake or write the truth of anie” (p. 200). On the one hand, the poem is an allegory and means something very different from what it may seem to mean; on the other hand, it is a historically truthful representation and a truly praiseworthy historical figure will be represented accurately. A king should be magnanimous in praise; in fact, it is his prerogative, since, unlike a “hireling” poet, a king owes praise to no one.

James's responses are both logical and plausible. A Renaissance king of the type that James frequently claimed to be was indeed free to praise any man.22 And there was poetical justice in using the Turkish enemy in one story to stand for the Catholic enemy in another: the implied association, that Catholics were to Protestants as Turks were to Christians, bolstered James's assertion that the Catholic League in France was abhorrent. But the relationship of the historical to the allegorical in James's poem is still curious, even puzzling. In order to condemn Catholic persecution James chooses to tell the story of Catholicism's own greatest recent campaign against persecution. In order to respond to a case of mass victimization, James chooses to tell the story of a heroic individual leading an army of heroes. And in order to respond to religious persecution, James tells the story of a glorious military victory as if war were in fact a solution to the problem of persecution. But then James is in effect glorifying war, in spite of his commitment in other circumstances to peacemaking and pacifism.

It may be objected that James's pacifism in 1604 or 1619 need not have any bearing on the young king's attitudes toward war in the 1580s. However, most of what we know about the king suggests that he experienced a lifelong aversion to violence, and the poem itself, as I will show, expresses distaste for violence, too, even as it celebrates a violent victory.23 We also know that the French writers Pierre Ronsard and especially Guillaume Du Bartas, whom James was most fond of studying and imitating during the 1580s, were themselves noted for their pacifistic leanings.24 Ronsard had written a famous “Ode au Roy Henry II sur la paix faitte entre luy et le roy d'angleterre, l'an 1550,” and an even more famous “Exhortation pour la paix” in 1558, which inspired a whole generation of peace poems in France. This exhortation begins:

                    Non, ne combatez pas, vivez en amitié,
Chrestiens, changez vostre ire avecques la pitié,
Chàngez à la douceur les rancunes ameres,
Et ne trempez vos dars dans le sang de vos freres.(25)

Du Bartas, James's favorite poet, had similarly written a “Hymn to Peace” in 1580, and his popular collections, the first and second Sepmaines (1578 and 1584, respectively), parts of which James translated for publication, contained a great deal of pacifist sentiment, too.26

Just as important, James was also familiar at an early age with Erasmian humanism, which propounded an unmistakably pacifist message. “Peace, praised by the voices of the gods and men, … [is] the fountain, parent, nourisher, augmenter, and defender of all things, that [either] the air hath or the earth,” Desiderius Erasmus wrote in his Complaint of Peace (1521). “All Christian men's letters and books, whether thou read the Old or the New Testament, do sound nothing but peace and amity.”27 In his Education of a Christian Prince (1503), one of the models for James's Basilicon Doron, Erasmus had insisted that the “arts of peace” were considerably more important to any Christian prince than the “arts of war,” and he asserted that “Christ himself and Peter and Paul everywhere teach the opposite” of war.28

So the production and publication of The Lepanto recalls many of the kinds of interpretive complexities presented more overtly (and perhaps deliberately) in Rubens's Whitehall paintings. A man of peace is writing a poem about war. In writing about war he is writing about his desire for a certain kind of peace, although hinting (perhaps!) that a military solution is called for. In writing about war, moreover, he is deliberately co-opting the mythology, or at least the history, of those he may be claiming to be his enemies. The effect of the poem on its literal level is unambiguous: an epochal victory at sea through the wise and valorous leadership of Don Juan, the Papist bastard, is commemorated and celebrated in the language of a Christian epic: “At last the joyfull tidings” of the victory came to the Venetians; “Sing praise to God both young and olde” (lines 873, 881). But the allegorical implications of the victory of Lepanto are difficult to decipher and, even when deciphered, difficult to accept. James is adopting a Spanish and Italian story for a diverse audience in Scotland and abroad; the poem was soon published in several European languages, including Latin, and Du Bartas himself translated the poem into French. James is writing, moreover, as the ruling monarch of a Protestant nation with close diplomatic ties to both Protestant and non-Protestant nations (especially France, his mother's birthplace, where James was in close contact with both Protestant and Catholic partisans, as well as the still-Catholic court) and as a man already ambitious (in the years contemporary with the imprisonment and execution of his Catholic mother) to succeed to the throne of an even greater Protestant nation. But James was already partial to pacifism rather than militarism, and as soon as he acceded to that Protestant throne he would sign a peace treaty with Spain, which had been England's bitterest enemy for several decades. This treaty brought new opportunities for economic expansion to England but alienated its allies in France and Venice and, according to many observers then and now, gave away England's military and political advantages over Spain. Whether in life or in art, the via regia seems to have been strewn with perils. It seems to have required the distribution of good will and ill, of signs favorable and unfavorable, of political capital credited and debited, where one's intentions belied one's actions, and one might resolve conflict without ever experiencing the condition of resolution itself.

The end result is an always interesting miniature epic where various narrative impulses collide for sometimes clear and sometimes obscure purposes. Catholicism, Protestantism, war, peace, God's grace, and even Turkish infidels are all by terms celebrated within the context of a sea battle of unprecedented violence, about which James and many of his contemporary readers had to have been ambivalent. Still, the poem adheres quite well to the Aristotelian principle of the unity of action; if it raises unresolvable complexities regarding authorial intention, genre, allegory, and the ideologies of war and peace, it creates a sustained poetic effect and a sustained (if somewhat paradoxical) version of the ethic of humanist pacifism.


The ambiguity of authorial voicing in the poem follows from James's understanding of the nature of poetic inspiration, although it raises political difficulties for the king. James is not speaking in the poem simply “as himself,” whatever that might mean. Here, as in other early writings, including his Paraphrase of the Revelation (ca. 1584), James notes the dualities coincident with the writing of scholarly and poetic texts. In his official writings—in royal proclamations and speeches to the Parliament, for example—James would be less concerned about this particular complexity. Speaking as king, in his capacity as “speaking law,” James assumes a kind of monological unity between the meaning and the force of his words.29 But in his poetic and scholarly writings James is not writing in his official capacity as king, or not only in that capacity, and the meaning and force of his words are for that reason not necessarily the same. On the contrary, as soon as any of James's literary texts (in which he writes as either a poet or a man of letters) is released to the public, a rift develops between the author and his text, between the author's intended meaning and the public's actual interpretation.

The writer's competence as a poetic craftsman can bridge or widen this rift. Whatever he may assume about the rhetorical force of his official pronouncements, James the poet or scholar was humble about his ability to express himself as well as he would like. Writing about Du Bartas's poems, for example, James complains that although “I was moved by the oft reading & perusing of them, with a restles and lofty desire, to preas and attaine to the like vertue, … God, by nature hathe refused me the like lofty and quick ingyne, and … my dull Muse, age and Fortune, had refused me the lyke skill and learning.”30 There is no reason to think that James is not being sincere.31 He was well aware of his limits as a poet and scholar and aware that poetry and scholarship answered to standards which were independent of the social status of the writer and of the force that social status might contribute to one's language. In a very early poem, for example, he noted a difference between a “thought” kept to himself and a “word” pronounced in public, and advised himself to find ways of invention that would best preserve his intentions:

Since thought is free, thinke what thou will
O troubled hart, to ease thy paine.
Thought, unrevealed, can doe no euill;
Bot words past out, cummes not againe.
                    Be cairfull aye for to invent
                    The waye to gett thy owen intent.(32)

To the extent that he hoped to excel as a poet he expected to compete on an equal footing with other poets, according to the relatively autonomous standards of poetic discourse. If a king was a “speaking law,” a poet-king was, at bottom, only a poet. In fact, the relative autonomy of poetic writing was what attracted the king to it, since this autonomy allowed him to try on other identities and speak in other capacities.

James recognized that rifts could open between literary discourse and authorial intention precisely because literary discourse had its own rules. He was very much attracted to Du Bartas's and others' idea of divine inspiration, and deduced from it the principle that literary production often involved a form of split subjectivity, where the poet, so long as he was inspired, was no longer quite himself when he wrote but, rather, “parted” from himself, removed to a different plane of existence. In his translation of The Uranie (1584-85), for example, James writes that “All art is learned by art, this art alone / It is a heavenly gift,” strongly suggesting that poetry is an autonomous practice, divine in origin though human in application:

For man from man must wholly parted be
If with his age, his verse do well agree.
Amongst our hands, he must his witts resing,
A holy trance to highest heaven him bring
For even as humane fury maks the man
Les than the man: So heavenly fury can
Make man pas man, and wander in a holy mist.(33)

For his translation of Du Bartas's The Furies, James wrote a “Translator's Invocation” in which he alludes to the split subjectivity that he will have to exemplify if he is going to express the violent and inherently repellent material that a poem on “the furies”—the divine punishments of man—necessarily involves.34 Sometimes in parting from himself the poet finds himself capable of writing about violence and cruelty. The Lepanto, too, opens by invoking the Holy Spirit to “inflame” the author's pen “above [his] skill” (lines 17-24). At one point, while the woes of Venice on the eve of the formation of the Holy League are being recounted, the poet even invokes the muse to stop and move on to something else: “O stay my Muse, thou goes too farre.” The poet claims that the mourning he has been caused to write about will with “trikling teares so fill my penne / That it will write no more” (lines 181-84).

So if James writes and eventually publishes a poem about the Battle of Lepanto while sitting as the King of Scotland, he understands that its rhetorical force, such as it is, stems primarily from the language itself and from whatever expressivity divine inspiration and poetic alterity may have contributed to it. The royal poet is to be attended to as any other poet, speaking by way of divine inspiration and aspiring to the skills appropriate to poetic invention. The poem itself, by the same token, is to be attended to as any other poem, according to the conventions, ambitions, and limits of verse. Only, even if a poet is a poet and the poem a poem, the original problem of intention and invention is never entirely resolved. For as James is well aware, insofar as James the king takes responsibility for the authorship of a poem, he is not simply a poet; he is a poet in whom readers are interested because he is both a poet and a king. And the poem then is not simply a poem, since the construal or misconstrual of the poem reflects back on the king who wrote it and the foreign and domestic policies he represents. “It falls out often,” he begins in his preface to Lepanto, “that the effects of mens action comes cleane contrairie to the intent of the Author. The same finde I by experience (beloved Reader) in my Poëme of Lepanto” (p. 198). The danger, moreover, is as much political as it is literary. If the poem is misunderstood as a poem, it is also misunderstood as an act of meaning for which a king in his political capacity has taken responsibility. The poem itself, of course, is already political, since it is a parable about war and peace and religious persecution, and misconstrual may have a variety of unwanted political effects.

The problem is not readily soluble. For his part, James prefers that his poems speak for themselves, saying that adding “Commentarie” is a kind of “reproach of the skillfull learnedness of the Reader,” and a thing he would rather avoid lest he make the work “more displeasant” to that reader (p. 198). But how, then, is the allegory of the poem to be construed? In the end we find the poem related to its royal author in much the same way as the Whitehall ceilings are related to the king. The poems, like the ceilings, both refer to the royal author and stem from him: he wrote the poems (albeit in consultation with various sources and with long- and short-term, domestic and foreign, political goals in mind) just as he promoted the allegories of the ceilings (albeit, again, in consultation with a number of others, and, again, with a varied political program in mind). Yet the poems, like the ceilings, are meant to speak for themselves. It is the artistic image that we see, and that allows us to look backward (but only so far) to read the royal intention behind it. On the one hand, the artistic image speaks for and on behalf of the king. On the other hand, the artistic image obeys its own laws and speaks in its own voice. And it is this image with its own laws and its own voice that James wants his “skillfull” readers to construe.


Insofar as The Lepanto operates as an epic, it functions as an unambiguous (if not unambivalent) statement, so that the kinds of misconstruals James said his poem has suffered from ought not to have been expected, at least from diligent and competent readers. The epic's dark conceit may work against its literal tenor, but the epic tenor is palpable all the same. Epic form determines the shape and tone of the poem; it establishes the logic of its plot and the affective force of its message. In choosing the epic form, James has made a number of decisions about the significance of the battle. On a literal level, James has decided, the battle betokens a heroic, epic episode in recent history, and betokens it in a conventionally heroic and epic way.

Epic, as David Quint has recently redefined it, and especially an “epic of winners” like The Lepanto, tells a story of warfare and of “a power able to end the indeterminacy of war and to emerge victorious, showing that the struggle had all along been leading up to its victory”; the epic thus imposes on its material a “narrative teleology” within which a certain kind of justice is shown to prevail.35 Thus the Christian navy in James's poem is shown to have been destined to win the battle by divine decree; to have fought the battle for a divine cause, as argued by Christ himself in heaven as well as by a heavenly messenger on earth who stirs the Venetians and other Christians into action; and to have fought the battle valiantly and fairly, thanks in part to the heroism and leadership of an individual rising to the occasion of greatness. This conventional, epic end result is unmistakable; God's purpose has prevailed, and God's purpose has operated in the battle from beginning to end, ultimately revealing itself in full with the phenomenal victory of the Christians over the Turks. Following epic tradition, James even shows the Turks as worthy opponents of the Christian soldiers, although he also shows that their predations on Christian civilization were the aggravating cause of the battle. When the battle is about to begin, the Turkish leader Ali Basha visits all his host “with bold and manly face” and exhorts his men to action in the language worthy of a classic epic hero (line 518). But in the end the Turks finally manifest that “confusion and disorder” that characterize the losers of epic battles, “so that victory over them may be ascribed as a triumph of reason and meaning.”36 Courageous to the end, the Turks finally lose their battle sense and turn back in confusion when their general Ali Basha is beheaded, and Don Juan displays his head on a mast for all to see. “At sight whereof, the faithlesse Host / Were all so sore agast, / That all amas'd gave back at once” (lines 839-41). And thus the poet, having noted the swift victory over a suddenly distracted army, can end his poem by “exhorting all you Christians true / Your courage up to bend” (lines 1020-21). This example of epic victory serves the usual ends of such victory: the teleological legitimacy of a political regime and its place in history has been elucidated and confirmed, and the subjects of that regime have been accordingly consoled.

And yet (as James's own preface cautions us to reconsider the matter), in spite of the poem's epic treatment of it's subject, nothing in the chain of events that preceded, included, or followed the battle was in itself of epic or heroic significance. Relations between Muslims and Christians had been a complicated affair for centuries, involving cooperation, antagonism, and a good deal of mutual indifference. But in the sixteenth century, the major Christian states competed for international hegemony and so did the Ottoman state, which was the single strongest power in the Mediterranean basin.37 Clashes (as well as alliances) were all but inevitable. But when, in violation of treaties, though not entirely without provocation, the Ottomans wrested Cyprus from Venetian control at a great cost of Christian and Muslim lives, men like Pius V and Philip II reasonably inferred that the very survival of the Christian states in the Mediterranean was at risk. (At risk over the long term, it should be added: there was no immediate danger that Christianity as a religion was going to be exterminated.) The result was the forming of the Holy League, organized by Pius V to defend the common interests of the Roman Catholic states against the Ottoman Empire. Its first order of business was to retaliate for the Turkish reconquest of Cyprus. The immediate result of the Holy League's first offensive naval expedition was their total victory over the Turkish fleet, but it was not entirely clear what that total victory meant. One standard modern reading of the event, which was not unknown even in the sixteenth century, was that it did not mean much at all.38 Lepanto, it has often been said, was more a moral or symbolic victory than a real one.39 By 1572—within a year after losing the great battle—the Ottomans had already rebuilt their navy and were making new incursions on the Spanish protectorate of Tunis, overtaking the town for good in 1574. In 1573 the Venetians, working independently of the League, negotiated a separate peace with the Ottomans, ceding Cyprus and a large indemnity in return for the reestablishment of trade. Far from being a decisive victory in the campaign of Christianity against the infidel, the battle was but a temporary triumph in a sequence of events which ended in a loss of territory, wealth, and prestige for Spain, Venice, and the Christian confederacy alike, and an early dissolution of the confederacy itself. “This victory seemed to open the door to the wildest hopes,” Fernand Braudel writes. “But in the immediate aftermath of the battle, it had no strategic consequences.” Indeed, “historians have joined in an impressively unanimous chorus to say that Lepanto was a great spectacle, a glorious one even, but in the end leading nowhere.”40

Nevertheless, from the outset there was a drive to see in the Battle of Lepanto a historical moment of larger, even monumental significance. And it was to this drive that the young King of Scotland contributed his Lepanto. His was one of the first attempts not only to transform the battle into a subject of heroic poetry but also to use the model of the classic epic as the key for reconstructing the story. On the Iberian peninsula, apart from the relatively obscure (and unknown to James) epics by Juan Latino (1573), Hieronymo Corte Real (1578), and Juan Rufo (1582), and a canto in the second part of Alonso de Ercilla's well-known La Araucana (1578), Lepanto became the subject of popular ballads, written in the key of conventional romance.41 In this balladry, Don Juan takes the place of many another chivalrous knight fighting against infidels who are also understood in terms of the chivalric code. For all its journalistic realism and dramatic intensity, La Araucana, too, has a strong admixture of chivalric ideology, as the Turks momentarily take the place of South Americans, standing for the savagely noble enemy against which the Christian knight may put his honor to the test.

Fernando de Herrera, an educated court poet and cleric in Spain, by contrast, wrote a heroic poem on Lepanto which recalled neither chivalric romances nor classical epic but Judges, Chronicles, and Kings. In his Canción en albanza de la Divin Majestad por la victoria del señor Don Juan (1571), Herrara reconstructs the story as a “hymn” celebrating the power of a jealous God, a “God of Battles,” who overcame His enemies in the field, His “wrath” having “swallowed them up, as fire does the dry chaff.”42 In this account, the Turk is neither the worthy opponent of Renaissance epic nor the hated but chivalrous enemy of vernacular balladry. On the contrary, he is a “proud Tyrant” driven by “impious madness” to oppress the people of God and defy God himself. “Where is these men's God?” the Grand Sultan demands, noting his power over people throughout the Mediterranean, “Who is he hiding from?”43 The Sultan calls a council where he and his Levantine allies decide to “make a great lake of [Christian] blood,” “destroy them as a nation, together with the name of their Christ,” and “feast our eyes upon their death.”44 The victory against these satanic Asiatics, explained with little concern for narrative details, is wholly God's. “Today the eyes and grandeur of the proud man were humiliated, and You alone, Lord, were exalted; for your day is come.”45 In fact, in this hymn on “Don Juan's victory” Don Juan is never mentioned by name; he is only the “Christian prince” through whom God demonstrates his power.

Later on, in the seventeenth century, the heroic model would become a standard form for representing the event.46 But at a time nearer to the battle itself there was no particular reason for viewing it that way, and only a few attempted to do so. In book 1 of Don Quixote (1605), Cervantes, who had himself participated in the battle, is more tragicomically Machiavellian than heroic in his assessment of Lepanto. His character the Captive explains the event as a trial of military valor, where a number of men were able to prove their worthiness as soldiers, and “the world and all the nations learnt how wrong they were in supposing that the Turks were invincible on the sea.” In a single day, “the insolent pride of the Ottoman was broken for ever.”47 Long-term strategy with regard to the Ottoman Empire was thus revised, and real long-term success against it made more certain, because Christian soldiers had learned that they were pretty tough and could beat the Turks if they resolved to do so. But this vision of the battle as a definitive test of manliness, leading toward a greater resolve to fight in the future, is not quite heroic. Unlike the spokesmen of conventional heroic verse, Cervantes' Captive dissociates military valor from other manly virtues, and his story has nothing to say about the inevitable triumph of virtue over vice, whether in this life or the next. On the contrary, the Captive carries his story of Lepanto over to the defeat of the apparently virtuous Christians at Tunis and holds up as an example of valor the fact that during the Turkish siege of their fortress the Christian knights were slaughtered to the man.

The vision of Lepanto among the Venetians, although in a much different key, was not heroic in a conventional sense, either. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, Venetians inclined toward construing the event eschatologically. Adapting traditional millenarian and Joachimite doctrine, they saw the victory as a day, earlier forecast by Italian prophets, when the tide of history would turn, and the Byzantine Empire—Venice's ancestral kingdom—would soon be restored.48 The Venetian stake in this battle was evidently very different from what the Spanish, the Papal, or for that matter the Scottish court might imagine it to be: the Venetian account of Lepanto looked eastward to their future in a way that had become incomprehensible to the Western European powers since the end of the Crusades.

James's Lepanto, then, offered a distinctive reading of events against all the counterevidence that history could provide or counterexamples that other literary works could present; it contributed to the mythos of Lepanto by refashioning the events into a parable of epic heroism. Epic heroism is what the poem shows the battle to be an example of; the head of the enemy is displayed, and the story is over. And clearly, then, heroism is what poem is trying to be an example for. On this level of meaning The Lepanto is unambiguous. But that still leaves unresolved both James's claim that the poem is actually an allegory about the persecution of Protestants and the conflict between James's apparent pacifism and the poem's apparent glorification of war.


James hints at his dark conceit throughout the poem—sometimes heavy-handedly, sometimes subtly, and often with considerable ambiguity. At the conclusion of the poem, for example, he differentiates between “all Christians true” and those Christians who “serv'd not right” their God but received God's help anyway, since he “doth love his name / So well” (lines 1022-24). We find out that God “doth the bodie better love” that is the “bodie” of “Christians true,” than those Christians who are only the “shadow” of true Christians (lines 1027-28). Yet those Christians whose fortunes the poem has been documenting, the members of the Pope's Holy League fighting against the Turk—those Christians are the “shadow” Christians whom God loves less than others. Christians in name only, their story is but a shadow of the story of “true Christians,” that is, the Protestants, members of the church of true believers. This idea is suggested from the beginning. In the opening council in heaven between God, Satan, and Christ (with obvious allusions to the opening scene of Job), Christ complains that Satan has “inflamde” the “maddest mindes” of the “faithles Turkes” “Against them all that doe professe / My name with fervent fayth” (lines 51-56). To profess the “name” of Christianity is important in itself, we learn, when God the Father proclaims, “All christians serves [sic] my Sonne though not / Aright in everie thing” (lines 79-80). And he will now put an end to the Turks' oppression of “these Christians” so that it will be seen that “of my holie hallowed name / The force is great and blest” (lines 81, 83-84).

In this epic, evidently, the young poet is already trying to walk the via regia: he is at once condemning Catholics and acknowledging their ties to Protestants, allowing them a merited heroism while stipulating that theirs is but a shadow of Protestant heroism and, indeed, their faith but a shadow of Christian faith. “I could wish from my heart,” James said in 1604, “that it would please God to make me one of the members of such a generall Christian union in Religion, as laying wilfulnesse on both hands, we might meete in the middest”—although, of course, he cannot because of “the newe and grosse Corruptions of theirs,” which they refuse to renounce.49 “I protest to God,” he wrote in a letter to Robert Cecil in 1603, “I reverence their church as our mother church, although clogged with many infirmities and corruptions. … I only wish that such order might be taken as the land might be purged of such great flocks of them that daily diverts the soul of many from the sincerity of the gospel.”50 On the one hand the Catholics of Venice, Spain, and the Papal states are members of a “mother church” and “serve” the Christian God and His purposes on earth.51 On the other hand, they serve God poorly. They are but shadows of what James thought of as the “Trew, Ancient, Catholike and Apostolike faith, grounded upon the Scriptures and expresse word of God.”52 Furthermore, they can be dangerous. James never had any illusions but that the catholic ambitions of members of the Roman Church represented a danger to the equally catholic ambitions of Protestants, as well as to the independent national hegemonies of Protestant rulers. So the Catholics “shadow” the Protestants in various ways, for good and ill.

Finally, however, by way of what seems to be a stunningly unconvincing piece of choplogic, the Battle of Lepanto communicates in this poem an ostensibly unambiguous moral lesson: if God will do so much for his “shadow” Christians, concerned as He is merely to preserve “the name” of Christianity, think what he will do for the real Christians! Think what he will do for Protestants threatened by Catholic persecution! “Then though the Antichristian sect / Against you do conjure,” the poem concludes, addressing its Protestant audience (as Catholics can be “Antichristians” as well as worthy “shadows” in James's political theology),

He doth the bodie better love
                    Then shadow be ye sure:
Do ye resist with confidence,
                    That God shall be your stay
And turne it to your comfort, and
                    His glory now and ay.

(Lines 1027-32)

This choplogic, along with the dark conceit supporting it, is what the poem's early detractors overlooked. It is what James had to use his authorial and kingly authority in a preface to impose on the reading of the text, even though he preferred and indeed insisted that readers discover the meaning on their own. The situation is not perhaps all that different from that more famous and nearly contemporary epic, The Fairie Queene (1590-96). The latter too is a story drawn from epic convention, ostensibly glorifying violence and aggression which nevertheless communicates a post-epic, Protestant allegory and ultimately extols Christian rather than timocratic militancy.53 But leaving aside the problems of tenor and vehicle suggested by the parallels between The Faerie Queene and The Lepanto, the practical questions remain: In what way does James suppose that his reader is now to “resist” the incursions of Catholicism? And how does he suppose that learning about the Battle of Lepanto according to heroic models teach the reader to resist them?

Even if James glorifies the battle, he nevertheless disdains its violence. In the beginning of the poem he characterizes his subject matter as “a cruell Martiall warre, / A bloodie battel bolde, / Long doubtsome fight, with slaughter huge / And wounded manifolde” (lines 5-9). There is neither delight in nor awe of violence in this language, although there is a strain of a conventional teaser here too: get ready, the storyteller tells his readers, for a gory tale. In any case, as he begins to describe the actual battle the poet pauses, longer than seems entirely necessary, to excuse himself for presuming to write about an event he did not see and, meanwhile, registering some hesitancy at the task of imagining the violence and suffering of war. The poet does not stint from grisly details, to be sure, but he emphasizes three interesting things, which attenuate the militarism of the poem: first, the horror of warfare, especially so far as this was a battle where gunfire and cannonade played major roles in the combat, and even the “Fishes were astonisht all, / To heare such hideous sound” (lines 617-18); second, the almost mechanical valor of the soldiers on both sides, all of whom were willing to fight to the end; and third, the closeness the battle, the tide not turning until Don Juan finally captured the galley of Ali Basha. James is uninterested in military strategy or in the finer points of combat which led to the Christian victory. He is mainly concerned with the tableau of combat as a whole, the vast spectacle of warfare, of blood and smoke and unrelenting fury. Many things are “cruell,” “hideous,” “horrible,” and “bloodie” in this battle:

The Azure Skie was dim'd with Smoke
                    The dinne that did abound,
Like Thunder rearding rumling rave
                    With roares the highest Heaven,
And pearst with pith the glistering valuts
                    Of all the Planets seaven:
The piteous plaints, the hideous howles,
                    The greevous cries and mones,
Of millions wounded sundrie waies,
                    But dying all at ones,
Conjoynd with former horrible sound,
                    Distemperd all the aire,
And made the Seas for terrour shake
                    With braying every where.

(Lines 619-32)

As James claimed, although the victory belongs to Don Juan, the action does not revolve around him. When he finally appears in the decisive encounter with Ali Basha, it is against the backdrop of other Christians fighting similar fights and other Christians similarly poised now at the brink of success, now at the brink of failure, and not able to tell how the combat is going for either side.

It would be overreading the text to see in James's depiction of combat a kind of antiwar propaganda. Observations of the horror of war are also part of the epic tradition and can be used not to diminish but to highlight genuine acts of heroism. But when the “Spanish Prince” finally “did hazard” battle with Ali Basha, in James's account, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about his comportment, and, indeed, “Ali-Basha proov'd so well, / With his assisters brave” that initially Don Juan was beaten back. Only when he was “boldned with spite, / And vernisht red with shame” did Don Juan lead his men back into the fray, this time successfully. He fought to save his honor; so did everyone else. And as it happened, an anonymous “Macedonian soldier … / Great honor for to win” actually severed Ali's head from his body (lines 820-30).54 So, skipping over a great many details which to a military historian would tell the real story of how the battle turned out the way it did, from the complex characters of the participants (note how mechanically Don Juan's motives are characterized: he is “red with shame” and “boldned with spite”) to the convergence of tactics, firepower, manpower, and luck—skipping over all this, the poem shows that victory, simply, is won. Honor is won. The head of Ali Basha is displayed. There is no celebration of heroism per se. In fact, the battle is no sooner won than the scene immediately shifts to reports of the victory among the citizens of Venice, who sing a hymn in praise not of any particular heroes or of human heroism but of the grace of God.

Perhaps the “shadowing” of the Christians in this story attenuates their individuality and moral vigor. But to the extent that their heroism is compromised they provide poor models for the kind of vigorous faith James is evoking for Protestants. Indeed, when James exhorts his true Christians to “resist with confidence,” he is supposing that passive resistance may be a serious option. And if he is supposing that a more active resistance might be necessary, perhaps Protestants should wait with patience for their opportunity to resist; they should wait until the Antichrist presents Protestants with an opportunity for alliance and victory the way the Turk presented the members of the Holy League with such an opportunity. In other words, they should wait until the occasion arises for undertaking a just war.


“Let first the justnesses of your cause be your greatest strength” in the conduct of war, James advises his son.55 What was meant by “justnesse” in war was by then fairly clear.56 Apart from the jus in bello, rules for the just conduct of war, there was also a jus ad bellum, rules for the just instigation of war. The jus ad bellum can be distilled into four conditions: a government is justified in going to war (1) when the sovereignty of the government is certain, (2) when the government or its people has suffered a wrong at the hands of another sovereign government, (3) when warfare is the only means left to redress the grievance and assert the rights of the injured party, and (4) when the war is conducted with the “right intent: the restoration of peace.”57 The application of this doctrine was, of course, open to debate. If, for example, Spanish ships are attacked by Turkish or English pirates, does the government of Spain have the right to wage war against the government of Turkey or England or only to defend itself against pirates? Or if Spanish colonists in the New World are attacked by Native Americans, exactly what is the status, by turn, of the injured party, of the injuring party, and of the injury? Which party, in fact, is which?58 The doctrine seemed specifically to prohibit aggressive war—war waged for the sake of territory, wealth, or private motives like vengeance and fame. But even this prohibition was subject to several interpretations. In the context of his disputes with the Spanish over the Thirty Years' War and the stalled negotiations for settlement by marriage, Francis Bacon reminded James that a just, defensive war sometimes had to be waged preemptively and, therefore, offensively. “Neither is the opinion of some of the schoolmen to be received,” he wrote in a 1612 essay, referring specifically to Aquinas, “that ‘a war cannot justly be made but upon a precedent injury or provocation.’ For there is no question but a just fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is a lawful cause of war.”59 Moreover, the very ethic of personal and national honor to which James subscribed (even if he preferred to subscribe to it nonaggressively) demanded the exercise of a kind of Machiavellian virtù, not a militant defense of one's integrity but a militant expression of integrity. “No nation which doth not directly profess arms,” Bacon continued, “may look to have greatness fall into their mouths. And on the other side, it is a most certain oracle of time, that those states that continue long in that profession (as the Romans and the Turks principally have done) do wonders.”60 Much depended, ultimately, on what it was that one reckoned “peace” to be.

In this context, pacifism cannot be equated with passivity.61 James himself understood peacemaking to be an aggressive act, even in forming bonds of “firm and unchangeable friendship” and strict mutual “obligations.”62 Even Erasmus had recognized this.63 The right of a nation to make war was intimately connected to the right of the nation to exist as a sovereign state and the right of its legitimate rulers to enforce the law within its borders.64 And so in The Lepanto James is careful to show that the battle was fought fairly, in keeping with rules of jus in bello, and, more important, in keeping with the strictest rules of the jus ad bellum. Respecting the rules jus in bello and the conventions of epic conflict, James has his combatants fight with equal valor. In James's version, the Battle of Lepanto was an honorable battle fought in keeping with codes of honor.65 (In Herrera's version, by contrast, there is nothing honorable about the Turkish opponents to the Christians, and the victory itself expresses God's justice to the almost total exclusion of human effort and the honor that might be attached to it.) But again, the rules of jus ad bellum require a war to be fought not only honorably but strictly with the “right intent.” And James makes it clear that the Christian forces had the “right intent” from the beginning: the battle was fought and won because it was God's intention that it be fought and won.

“Ils faudrait des dieux,” Rousseau once said about the need for a supramundane principle if one wanted to warrant human law absolutely.66 In a similar vein, following both epic convention and biblical precedent, James opens The Lepanto with a council of the gods—God the Father, the Son, and Satan—in order to move the cause for war out of the realm of strictly human motives. “Even if there are some [wars] which might be called ‘just,’” Erasmus had remarked in The Education of a Christian Prince, “yet as human affairs are now, I know not whether there could be found any of this sort—that is, the motive for which was not ambition, wrath, ferocity, lust, or greed.”67 But by putting the cause of the war in the hands of the gods (and ultimately God) James removes this objection. Christ accuses the Turks with unjustly persecuting Christians, having been motivated to it by Satan, and Satan admits to this meddling in human affairs through Turkish imperialism, saying that the Christians deserve the grief that Turks are causing them. God settles the matter. “No more shall now these Christians be / With Infidels opprest” (lines 81-82). God then incites the Christians “to revenge of wrongs the Turks / Have done” (lines 91-92) but to respond to their difficult impasse reasonably. He has the Archangel Gabriel descend to Venice and spread the word among the people (James here defers to Venice's republican government) that the Venetians have tolerated oppression at the hands of the Turks too long, and it is God's will for them finally to take up arms. “They kill our Knights, they brash our forts, / They let us never rest” (lines 123-24). The Duke and the Senate, urged on by the people, meet and agree:

The Towne was driven into this time,
                    In such a piteous strait
By Mahometists, that they had els
                    Given over all debait;
The turke had conquest Cyprus Ile,
                    And all their lands that lay
Without the bounds of Italie,
                    Almost whole I say.

(Lines 141-48)

Although one may disagree with James's assessment of the Venetians' situation, it conforms entirely to the conditions of a just war. The sovereignty of the Venetian government is certain, its people have suffered a series of wrongs at the hands of another sovereign government, warfare is the only means left to redress the grievance, and the war is conducted with the intent of restoring peace. The Venetians fight with divine authority in response to an unambiguous provocation only to recover what is already theirs. What is already theirs, in short, is peace.

As Aquinas put it, peace is not just “concord” (concordium) but “ordered concord” (ordinatum). It is a “tranquility of order” (tranquillitas ordinis), a co-ordination of parts into a unified whole knit together by the “amity” and “obligations” that James often discussed. But in that case, being a positive value, an active rather than a passive condition, peace is inherently, albeit paradoxically, aggressive. Peace is not the mere absence of conflict but rather a condition of harmony actively enforced and actively expressed. And peace, therefore, can readily become a cause and justification of war.68 In fact, according to the idea of “right intent,” peace is the only justification of war.

If James's poem dwells on the details of “a bloodie battle bolde,” it also dwells on a vision of Venetian society—republican, communitarian, sovereign, God-loving, urbane, “a wondrous sight” to see (line 102). This vision of the Venetian peace is only a “shadow” peace with respect to its observance of the principles of “true Christianity” and perhaps something of a shadow, too, in its embrace of republican rather than regal government. Nevertheless, it provides the cause for the Battle of Lepanto. When the war is over, the Venetians draw together to thank God for the tranquillitas ordinis of their peace.

James's sensitivity to the idea that war must only be fought for the sake of restoring peace may have allowed him to celebrate a war whose long-term effects were negligible. He probably knew that the Christians gained no land by waging their war against the Turks. What they gained—in reality as in the poem—was only peace with honor, since the Christians had proven themselves by beating the Turkish fleet and asserting the right of Venetian Christians to be left alone and prosper. When it came time for the Venetians to enjoy the benefits of peace, which is to say when it came time for them to hasten into the arms of plenty, they simply signed a treaty (neither ignominiously nor disadvantageously from a point of view like James's) swearing off aggression in return for trade. But of course, it is before this enjoyment of peace's benefits, as in the scene dramatized by Rubens about the benefits of government, that James has his heroic poem come to an end. The rewards are deferred. If some narrative threads are brought to completion, others are left open, as if to leave the reader in a condition of unsatisfied desire, a condition of hopefulness and resolve, perhaps, but first of all, a condition of want.

In a sense, a nonmilitant restoration of peace was all James ever really wanted for the Protestant cause. Militant though he may have been in his conviction that Protestantism was the true church and destined to overcome the predations of the Antichrist, he mainly wanted Protestants to be left alone: “I only wish that such order might be taken as the land might be purged of such great flocks of them that daily diverts the souls of many from the sincerity of the gospel.”69 Protestantism would spread of its own accord, so long as individuals were allowed—and also not “diverted from”—a pursuit of the “sincerity of the gospel.”70 No ecumenist or internationalist (as Kevin Sharpe implies him to be), James believed in the peace of nations as the condition for evangelical militancy. But of course, believers in the Protestant faith (and for James this was one faith, admitting of no schisms while allowing some theological dispute) were not necessarily in conflict with Roman Catholics. Only when Catholics behaved with sufficient belligerence to disturb the peace of Protestantism, preventing their pursuit of the gospel, only then did Protestants have just cause to resist, so long as they resisted fairly. And in any case, in James's politics the integrity of the state as a secular entity, over and above any evangelical or catholicizing purposes that might be attached to it, is an end in itself. It too demands peace and is, in fact, a condition of peace and needs to be left alone, even if its rulers are wicked and its people heretical.71 The peace of a sovereign state, though it may conflict with the peace of the church of true believers, is a rival value, a rival peace, and hence a rival cause for aggression.

It was convenient for the young poet-king that the story of Lepanto involved a struggle with the one enemy that no one in his audience would have trouble reviling. Even Erasmus recognized that a war against the Ottoman Empire might on some occasion be necessary; when Ronsard called on Christians to embrace one another as brothers, he added without irony that those who needed an outlet for aggression could go fight against the Turks.72 So if James does not turn the Ottoman Empire into an evil and impious empire, he does deploy it as a symbol of that opposition to peace that a lover of peace may be forced to resist. Peace was always local for James, even if its locality, the true church, was sometimes mobile and in principle powerfully expansive. So love for the victories of peace might naturally engage the paradoxical languages of war with its cruel and bloody victories and its unambiguous celebrations of meaning. And it might do so even though, or, rather, because poems about war rarely mean what they really mean. James leaves us staring up at the ceiling of a painted room, wondering at its richly puzzling ambiguities, waiting for a final decision, a final coming of meaning, to be imposed. And that, too, a great waiting for meaning, in the interests of both war and peace, may be one of the things the poem is trying to mean.


  1. Roy Flannagan, ed., The Riverside Milton (Boston, 1998), p. 291.

  2. James Craigie, “Introduction,” in The Poems of James VI of Scotland, ed. James Craigie, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1955-58), 1:xlviii and passim. For an assessment of King James's accomplishments as a poet, see both Craigie's introductory remarks and G. P. V. Akrigg, “The Literary Achievement of King James I,” University of Toronto Quarterly 44 (1975): 115-29.

  3. See Bruce Galloway, The Union of England and Scotland, 1603-1608 (Edinburgh, 1986).

  4. James VI and I, Political Writings, ed. Johann P. Sommerville (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 133 and 136.

  5. Quoted in Harris D. Willson, King James VI and I (New York, 1956), p. 272.

  6. See Steven Marx, “Shakespeare's Pacifism,” Renaissance Quarterly 45 (1992): 49-95. “Militancy” as both metaphor and reality, with worldly as well as spiritual implications, is emphasized as a cause of aggression and revolution in Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origin of Radical Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), esp. pp. 268-99.

  7. James VI and I, Political Writings, p. 33.

  8. Quoted in Willson, p. 272.

  9. In his remarkable essay, “Just Wars and Evil Empires: Erasmus and the Turks,” Ronald G. Musto distinguishes between a “peacemaker” and a “pacifist” and warns against the anachronism implied in the latter term. “The labels ‘pacifism’ and ‘pacifist,’” he writes, “are meaningless in any context other than that of the internationalists of the early twentieth century by and for whom they were first coined” (in Renaissance Society and Culture: Essays in Honor of Eugene F. Rice, Jr., ed. John Monfasani and Ronald G. Musto [New York, 1991], pp. 197-216; this quotation, p. 198). “Peacemaker,” by contrast, is a word as old as the Bible and better describes the activism in pursuit of peace that has often been exemplified in both premodern and modern Christian societies. However, in his comprehensive study, The Catholic Peace Tradition (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1986), Musto frequently finds it difficult to describe even ancient movements without occasional recourse to the words “pacifism” and “pacifist.” And so I find it here.

  10. James VI and I, Political Writings, p. 137.

  11. The “sublimity” of James's state mythology is discussed in Robert Appelbaum, “The Look of Power: Ideal Politics and Utopian Mastery in Seventeenth-Century England” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1997), chap. 2.

  12. See G. P. V. Akrigg, ed., Letters of King James VI and I (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984), p. 284.

  13. Thomas Middleton, The Peace-maker, in Works, ed. A. H. Bullen, 8 vols. (London, 1886), 8:327. For a defense of Middleton's authorship, see Rhodes Dunlap, “James I, Bacon, Middleton, and the Making of The Peace-Maker,” in Studies in the Renaissance Drama, ed. Josephine W. Bennett et al. (New York, 1959), pp. 82-93.

  14. Middleton, 8:326.

  15. In my account of the paintings I am drawing upon the findings of a number of scholars: Per Palme, The Triumph of Peace: A Study of the Whitehall Banqueting House (Stockholm, 1956); C. V. Wedgewood, The World of Rubens, 1557-1640 (New York, 1967), and The Political Career of Peter Paul Rubens (London, 1975); Roy Strong, Britannia Inumphans: Inigo Jones, Rubens, and Whitehall Palace (London, 1980); Christopher White, Peter Paul Rubens: Man and Artist (New Haven, Conn., 1987); J. Newman, “Inigo Jones and the Politics of Architecture,” in Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Peter Lake (Stanford, Calif., 1993), pp. 229-56; Lisa Rosenthal, “The Banqueting House Ceiling: Two Newly Discovered Projects,” Apollo 139 (1994): 29-34, and “Manhood and Statehood: Rubens's Construction of Heroic Virtue,” Oxford Art Journal 16 (1993): 92-111. For the political complexities of James's, Charles's, and Rubens's involvements in diplomatic efforts to end the Thirty Years' War, see Willson (n. 5 above), chap. 15; Maurice Lee, Great Britain's Solomon (Urbana, Ill., 1990), pp. 261-98; and Simon Schama, “Peter Paul Rubens's Europe.” New Yorker (May 5, 1997), pp. 206 ff.

  16. Palme, p. 241.

  17. Strong's suggestion—that the child James is pointing to is neither Henry nor Charles but Great Britain itself—is ingenious but perhaps too ingenious. To the extent that the painting shows James bestowing the union of Scotland and England on a child who is about to be crowned, the painting cannot help suggesting the alternative idea that this child must also represent a real son, Charles or Henry or both.

  18. Jack Beeching, The Galleys at Lepanto (London, 1982), pp. 220-21. The variety of figures given for battle losses by different historians is discussed in Michael G. Paulson and Tamara Alvarez-Detrell, Lepanto: Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy: With a Critical Edition of Luis Vélez de Guevara'sEl águila del agua,a Play in Three Acts (Lanham, Md., 1986), pp. 27-28.

  19. See Craigie, “Introduction” (n. 2 above), 1:lix-lx.

  20. The Battle of Lepanto, in Craigie, ed., 1:198. Future citations will be included in the text, the preface by page number and the verse by line number. I will be following the “English” version of the text that Craigie reproduces, which is the actual work as printed by the Englishman Robert Waldegrave, who altered the Scots' spelling of James's manuscript and rearranged the verse from fourteeners to a ballad form, with alternating lines of eight and six syllables. I have silently changed “u” to “v” and “i” to “j” where appropriate and disregarded the printer's practice of capitalizing as well as italicizing proper names.

  21. R. B. Wernham, ed., The Counter-Reformation and Price Revolution, 1559-1610, vol. 3 of The New Cambridge Modern History, ed. G. N. Clark et al. (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 292-306; and Robert J. Knecht, The French Wars of Religion, 1559-1598 (London, 1989).

  22. See Kevin Sharpe, “The King's Writ: Royal Authors and Royal Authority in Early Modern England,” in Sharpe and Lake, eds., pp. 117-38, and “Private Conscience and Public Duty in the Writings of James VI and I,” in Public Duty and Private Conscience in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. J. Morrill, P. Slack, and D. Woolf (Oxford, 1993), pp. 77-100.

  23. For James's lifelong aversion to violence, see Willson (n. 5 above), pp. 273-74; and Akrigg, “Introduction” (n. 12 above), pp. 3-5.

  24. See James Hutton, Themes of Peace in Renaissance Poetry, ed. Ita Guerlac (Ithaca, N.Y., 1984), esp. pp. 80-168.

  25. Pierre Ronsard, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Jean Céard, Daniel Mènager, and Michel Simonin, 2 vols. (Paris, 1993), 2:807.

  26. “Ventuese ambition,” the section titled “La decadence” begins, e.g., “Chaud fuzil de la guerre, / Helas! combien de sang tu verses sur la terre. / O sceptres, ô bandeaux, ô throsnes haut montz, / Combien de trahisons, cruels, vous enfantez!” (The Works of Guillaume De Salluste Sieur Du Bartas, ed. Urban Tigner Holmes, Jr., et al., 3 vols. [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1940], 3:442).

  27. Desiderius Erasmus, Complaint of Peace, ed. William James Hirten (New York, 1946), p. 25.

  28. Desiderius Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince, trans. Lester K. Born (New York, 1936), p. 251.

  29. See Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Stanford, Calif., 1989), for an extended discussion of this issue, along with Sharpe, “Private Conscience,” esp. p. 89. I differ from both Goldberg and Sharpe by arguing that James's poetry operated under rules separate from James's other discourses and by finding a kind of dialogical principle, in Mikhail Bahktin's sense, struggling to operate in the former.

  30. James VI, Poems (see n. 2 above), 1:16.

  31. Sharpe discusses the sincerity of James's sincerity at some length in “Private Conscience.”

  32. James VI, Poems, 2:132.

  33. James VI, Poems, 2:23-25, lines 85-86 and 113-20.

  34. Ibid., 2:112, lines 6-12.

  35. David Quint, Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton (Princeton, N.J., 1993), p. 45.

  36. Ibid., p. 46.

  37. See Paul Coles, The Ottoman Impact on Europe (London, 1968); Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Sian Reynolds, 2 vols. (New York, 1972); Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (Oxford, 1993), and Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery (New York, 1995).

  38. For a contemporary expression of this reading, see Michel de Montaigne, “We Should Meddle Soberly with Judging Divine Ordinances,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford, Calif., 1958), p. 158.

  39. For a modern evaluation, see Wernham, ed. (n. 21 above), 3:252-53, 353-54. Also see Lewis, Islam and the West, p. 18.

  40. Braudel, 2:1103.

  41. Juan Latino, Austriadis libri duo (Granada, 1573); Hieronymo Corte Real, Felicissima concedida del cielo al señor don Juan d'Austria, en el golfo de Lepánto de la pederasa armada Othomana (Lisbon, 1578); Juan Rufo, La Austriada, in Poemas épicos, 2 vols., ed. D. Cayetano Rosell (Madrid, 1925), 2:1-136; Alonso de Ercilla Y. Zúñiga, La Araucana, trans. Charles Maxwell Lancaster and Paul Thomas Manchester (Nashville, 1945); Manuel da Costa Fontes, “Dona Maria and Batalha de Lepanto: Two Rare Luso-American Ballads,” in Portuguese and Brazilian Oral Traditions in Verse Form, ed. Joanne B. Armistead et al. (Los Angeles, 1976), pp. 148-57; Juan de Mendano, Silva de varios romances recopliados por Juan de Mendano (Madrid, 1966). For discussion of the heroic poems in Spanish and Latin, see Michael Murrin, History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic (Chicago, 1994), esp. pp. 182-96.

  42. Fernando de Herrera, Canción en albanza de la divin majestad, in Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, ed. and trans. Elias L. River (New York, 1966), pp. 113-14.

  43. Ibid., p. 116.

  44. Ibid., pp. 116-17.

  45. Ibid., pp. 118-19.

  46. See Paulson and Alvarez-Detrell (n. 18 above).

  47. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The Adventures of Don Quixote, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harmondsworth, 1950), p. 348. Thus Braudel also argues that the “moral” or “symbolic” victory at Lepanto had real long-term effects, marking “the end of a period of profound depression, the end of a genuine inferiority complex on the part of Christendom and a no less real Turkish supremacy”; see Braudel (n. 37 above), 2:1103. On Cervantes' tragicomic approach to Lepanto, see Stanislav Zimic, “Un eco de Lepanto en la ironia cervantina,” Romance Notes 12 (1970): 174-76.

  48. See Letizia Pierozzi, “La vittoria di Lepanto nell'escatologia e nella profezia,” Rinascimento: Rivista dell'Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento 34 (1994): 317-63.

  49. James VI and I, Political Writings (n. 4 above), p. 140.

  50. James VI and I, Letters (n. 12 above), p. 205.

  51. Venice, of course, was admired by Protestants for its independence from Rome and its own nascent proto-Protestant practices on an ecclesiastical and theological level. But it was Roman Catholic all the same.

  52. James VI and I, Political Writings, p. 140.

  53. On ideology and representation of warfare in Edmund Spenser, see Murrin (n. 41 above), pp. 136-37; and Richard Mallette, Spenser and the Discourse of Reformation England (Lincoln, Nebr., 1997), pp. 143-68.

  54. As Beeching and others tell it, however, the man who beheaded Ali Basha was a galley slave.

  55. James VI and I. Political Writings, p. 32.

  56. On the just war tradition as James would have known it, see James Turner Johnson, Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Secular and Religious Concepts, 1200-1740 (Princeton, N.J., 1975); Frederick H. Russell, The Just War in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1975); and Musto, Catholic Peace Tradition (n. 9 above).

  57. Musto, Catholic Peace Tradition, p. 104.

  58. This last question was a topic of particular concern to Francisco Victoria and Francisco Suarez. See James B. Scott, Spanish Origins of International Law (Oxford, 1934), which includes translations of some of Victoria's most important works on just war theory, including De jure belli (1557) and De Indis (1557).

  59. Francis Bacon, “Of Empire,” in Francis Bacon, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford, 1996), p. 377; Bacon is referring to the Summa theologica 2-

  60. Bacon, “Of True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” in Vickers, ed., p. 401. See also Bacon, Advertisement Touching a Holy War (1622), in Works, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denn Heath, 14 vols. (London, 1858-74), 13:171-228; and Considerations Touching a War with Spain (1624) in Certain Miscellany (London, 1629).

  61. See Musto, Catholic Peace Tradition, p. 9.

  62. James VI and I, Letters (n. 12 above), p. 384.

  63. See Desiderius Erasmus, On the War against the Turks, in The Erasmus Reader, ed. Erika Rummel (Toronto, 1990), pp. 318-33.

  64. Ibid., pp. 319, 322.

  65. This may also be a reason why James neglects to mention the fact that the Christian forces may have had a technological and strategic advantage in the battle.

  66. Quoted in Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1963), p. 183.

  67. Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince (n. 28 above), p. 252.

  68. For this doctrine, see Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica 2-; quoted and translated with valuable commentary in John K. Ryan, Modern War and Basic Ethics (Washington, D.C., 1933), p. 13. James discussed Aquinas's doctrine with his advisers and friends.

  69. James VI and I, Letters, p. 384.

  70. Ibid., p. 205.

  71. See Jenny Wormald, “‘Basilikon Doron’ and ‘The Trew Law of Free Monarchies,’” in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court, ed. Linda Levy Peck (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 36-54.

  72. Erasmus, On the War against the Turks, p. 333.

Peter C. Herman (essay date winter 2001)

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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 finds any number of studies on how Wyatt's or the Earl of Surrey's or Sidney's poetry somehow reflects and intervenes in contemporary politics, the fact that monarchs also regularly produced has seemingly gone unnoticed. This lacuna is particularly odd in James's case, for he not only published two books of poetry while king of Scotland, reprinted his Lepanto upon his accession to the English throne, and sponsored its translation into French and Latin, but his poetic accomplishments were widely recognized and celebrated (perhaps over-celebrated) during his life.


The sonnet James penned for Elizabeth sometime in 1586 especially demonstrates how a monarch could try to use verse as an instrument of diplomacy. Throughout much of that year James and Elizabeth haggled over the terms of the Anglo-Scots treaty, the primary sticking points being the size of James's pension and whether or not Elizabeth would sign an “instrument” guaranteeing that he would be Elizabeth's heir. In March, Elizabeth rejected James's request to sign this document with firm but gentle irony:

Tochinge an “instrument,” as your secretarye terme it, that you desiar to haue me signe, I assure you, thogh I can play of some, and haue bine broght up to know musike, yet this disscord wold be so grose as wer not fit for so wel-tuned musike. Must so great dout be made of fre good wyl, and gift be so mistrusted, that our signe Emanuel must assure? No, my deere brother. Teache your new rawe counselars bettar manner than to aduis you such a paringe of ample meninge. Who shuld doute performance of kinges offer? What dishonor may that be demed? Folowe next your owne nature, for this neuer came out of your shoppe. But, for your ful satisfaction, and to plucke from the wicked the weapon the wold use to brede your doubt of meanings, thes the be. First, I wil, as longe as you with iuel desart alter not your course, take care for your safety, help your nide, and shun al actes that may damnifie you in any sort, ether in present or future time; and for the portion of relife, I minde neuer to lessen, though, as I see cause, I wil rather augment. And this I hope may stand you in as muche assuranse as my name in parchement, and no les for bothe our honors.2

James, however, was not assured. The Scots King wanted something in writing, not a verbal promise of future “performance,” and James tactfully responded that he did not want a signed document for himself, but for others:

And as for the instrument, quhairunto I desyre youre seale to be affixit, think not, I pray you, that I desire it for any mistrust, for I protest before God that youre simple promeis uolde be more then sufficient to me, if it uaire not that uoulde haue the quole worlde to understand hou it pleacith you to honoure me aboue my demeritis, quhich fauore and innumerable otheris, if my euill happ will not permitt [me] by action to acquye, yett shall I contend by goode meaning to conteruayle the same at her handis, quhome, committing to the Almichties protection, I pray euer to esteeme me.3

James had a fit when he read Elizabeth's reply (now lost), reportedly turning various shades of red and swearing “By God” that had he known “what little account the queen would make of him, she should have waited long enough before he had signed any league, or disobliged his nobles, to reap nothing but disappointment and contempt.”4 Apparently James told Elizabeth so in a letter (sadly, also lost), but the queen replied in a more temperate fashion, wondering “how possiblie my wel-ment letter, prociding from so fauteles a hart, could be ether misliked or misconstred” and reassuring James of her esteem and constant care for him. Yet despite the sweet words, she refused to raise the offered pension, and she refused to sign the instrument, because such a document “fitted not our two frindeships.”5 James realized that he had gotten as much as Elizabeth would give him, and so he “digested all,” signing the treaty in July.

Now, according to G. P. V Akrigg, sometime during 1586 James wrote a letter to Elizabeth which included a sonnet, and because both are very important and as yet have passed without notice, I quote them in full:6

Madame and dearest sister,

Notwithstanding of my instant writing one letter unto you yet could I not satisfy my unrestful and longing spirit except by writing of these few lines, which, albeit they do not satisfy it, yet they do stay the unrest thereof while the answer is returning of this present.

Madame, I did send you before some verse. Since then Dame Cynthia has oft renewed her horns and innumerable times supped with her sister Thetis. And the bearer thereof returned, and yet void of answer. I doubt not ye have read how Cupid's dart is fiery called because of the sudden ensnaring and restless burning; thereafter what I can else judge but that either ye had not received it, except the bearer returned with the contrary to report; or else that ye judge it not to be of me because it is incerto authore. For which cause I have insert[ed] my name to the end of this sonnet here enclosed. Yet one way I am glad of the answer's keeping up, because I hope now for one more full after the reading also of these presents and hearing this bearer dilate this purpose more at large according to my secret thoughts. For ye know dead letters cannot answer no questions; therefore I must pray you, how unapparent soever the purpose be, to trust him in it as well as if I myself spake it unto you face by face (which I would wish I might) since it is specially and in a manner only for that purpose that I have sent him. Thus, not doubting of your courtesy in this far, I commit you, madame, and dearest sister, to God's holy protection, the day and dates as in the other letter.

Your more loving and affectionate
brother and cousin than (I fear)
yet ye believe.
James R.


Full many a time the archer slacks his bow
That afterhend* it may the stronger be.          *afterward
Full many a time in Vulcan'[s] burning stow*          *stove or furnace
The smith does water cast with careful ee.*          *eye
Full oft contentions great arise, we see,
Betwixt the husband and his loving wife
That sine* they may the firmlyer agree          *since
When ended is that sudden choler strife.
Yea, brethren, loving others as their life,
Will have debates at certain times and hours.
The winged boy dissentions hot and rife
Twixt his lets fall like sudden summer showers.
Even so this coldness did betwixt us fall
To kindle our love as sure I hope it shall.
Finis J. R.

Given the correspondence at the time between Elizabeth and James, it seems probable that this poem originated in James's desire to get beyond his anger at Elizabeth for refusing to sign the “instrument” and to ameliorate Elizabeth's annoyance at his persistence, the reference to “dissentions” and “contentions” echoing Elizabeth's reference to musical “disscord” in her letter of March, 1586. As such, James's sonnet represents more than an interesting diversion (when he first arrived in Scotland, Randolph reported that “the King still follows his hunting, riding and writing in metre”8). The poem argues that occasional strife only strengthens a relationship, and therefore he and Elizabeth are better allies for having had this argument. The sonnet thus demonstrates James using the medium of poetry to achieve a diplomatic goal, in this case, helping to smooth the relationship between Elizabeth and himself after their quarrels over money and the “instrument.”

Yet the poem fascinates for a number of additional reasons. First, the imagery in this sonnet and the rhetoric of the accompanying letter together demonstrate James's awareness of and desire to appropriate for his own benefit the politicization of erotic discourse permeating Elizabeth's court. The letter also demonstrates James's sensitivity to the importance of authorship, since he makes absolutely sure that Elizabeth knows that the sonnet comes from his pen, not “incerto authore,” and James ensures that Elizabeth knows that he has signed this copy with his initials. Finally, while I recognize the danger of basing an argument on a lack of response, Elizabeth's refusal to acknowledge James's effort, let alone write a verse reply even though she engages in a mock debate in verse with Sir Walter Ralegh at precisely this time, remains among the most intriguing aspects of this poem.

The fact that James writes Elizabeth a love sonnet using Petrarchan imagery is in itself important, for, as many, many critics have shown, from the 1570s onward the rhetoric of love in the Elizabethan court became deeply entwined with the rhetoric of politics. Not only love lyrics, but the language of love itself, as Marotti writes, “could express figuratively the realities of suit, service, and recompense with which ambitious men were insistently concerned as well as the frustrations and disappointments experienced in socially competitive environments.”9 Thus, for example, Sir Christopher Hatton could write to his queen “Madame, I find the greatest lack that ever poor wretch sustained. No death, no hell no fear of death shall ever win of me my consent so far to wrong myself again as to be absent from you one day … I can write no more. Love me; for I love you. …”10 Similarly, the erotic frustration of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella probably expresses the author's political frustrations, just as The Lady of May and The Triumph of the Fortress of Perfect Beauty refigure “the queen's relationship to her courtiers as well as with her relationship to Alençon.”11

James clearly knows about these developments, and in order to ingratiate himself further with Elizabeth, whose political and financial favor he depends on as much any of Elizabeth's courtiers, he evidently decided to try to write using the tropes of political Petrarchism in both his poetry and his prose, with unique results. In no other letter, either before or after, does James use allegory (“Dame Cynthia has oft renewed her horns and innumerable times supped with her sister Thetis,” meaning “it has been a long time since I sent the poem to you”12) or invoke “Cupid's dart” (which we will return to below). Additionally, this letter nuances Foucault's deconstruction of the author. The speaker's identity matters intensely to James since Elizabeth's silence might be explained by her not knowing the poem's source (unlikely, to be sure). As James writes, she might “judge it not to be of me because it is incerto authore [meaning James had not signed the original manuscript]. For which cause I have insert[ed] my name to the end of this sonnet. …” Yet remarkably, James's attempt to speak the erotic language of the Elizabethan court fails. Elizabeth ignored the poem the first time James sent it, and so far as we can tell she ignored it the second time as well. I want to offer two possible explanations for Elizabeth's declining to play along.

First, as both Marotti and Montrose point out, courtiers assimilated Petrarchan language so easily because the relationship between the lover and the beloved closely mirrors the relationship between the courtier seeking favor and a distant, withholding sovereign. The gender relationship between the lover and his beloved also mirrored (at least rhetorically) the relationship between the courtier and the queen, the male being in the subservient position of asking for favor, which the woman (i.e., Elizabeth) can give or withhold. In his sonnet to Elizabeth, however, James's monarchic status conflicts with his attempts write a conventional piece of Petrarchan verse that would entertain Elizabeth (hence making her more pliable to his political desires) for several reasons.13 Foremost, Petrarchan verse depends upon an unequal power relationship, be it between lover and rejecting beloved or courtier and withholding monarch. To be the speaker in a Petrarchan drama entails making oneself a “sub-ject,” meaning that which is thrown under. The problem is that the monarch by definition is never a subject. As a clever courtier of Louis XV put it when his monarch commanded him to think of a joke at the king's expense, “le roi n'est pas sujet” (“The king is not a subject”), and this witticism applies equally well to both James and Elizabeth, who—in theory at least—occupied the same exalted plane. That is to say, both James and Elizabeth considered themselves God's anointed on earth, subject to no-one other than God.14 Yet nearly all the examples James uses in his sonnet are not only explicitly hierarchical, but gendered as well. There is no mutuality between the “archer” or the “smith” (conventionally male) and their instruments, the early modern division of power between “the husband and his loving wife” needs no rehearsing, and the same gender relations obtain between lovers under the influence of “The winged boy.” To use mathematical symbols, archer:bow = husband:wife, and smith:furnace = male lover:female beloved. When, therefore, James writes, “Even so this coldness did betwixt us fall,” he does more than compare their political disagreements to a lovers' spat; rather, he implicitly compares his relationship with Elizabeth to a series of unequal relationships, with himself as the dominant partner. Given the poverty of James and his court as well as his status as a petitioner for the English throne, let alone English gold, Elizabeth might very well have decided not to respond because the poem implicitly figures her as an inferior, the bow to James's archer, the water to James's smith, the subservient wife to James as husband. The poem thus inverts the actual power relations between the two as well as serving to remind Elizabeth of the cognitive dissonance surrounding a powerful female monarch ruling “a stratified society in which authority is everywhere invested in men—everywhere, that is, except at the top.”15

Furthermore, Elizabeth's inferior position in James's poem contradicted Elizabeth's own deployment of her monarchic status in her verse.16 Whereas courtier verse enacts its politics from a subservient position—as Montrose puts it, “The otiose love-talk of the shepherd masks the busy negotiation of the courtier; the shepherd is a courtly poet prosecuting his courtship in pastoral forms”17—Elizabeth used verse as a vehicle to effect and transmit royal policy. For example, one aspect of Elizabeth's response to the problem of Mary Stuart and her plea to enter England was the covert circulation of “The Doubt of Future Foes” (1570), which, as Jennifer Summit argues, constituted a brilliant strategy for reassuring her court that she was ready and able to counter the threat posed by James's mother. Elizabeth, as George Puttenham writes, used the poem “to declare that she was nothing ignorant of those secret practices, though she had long with great wisdom and pacience dissembled it.”18 Even further, Elizabeth used the medium of verse and coterie transmission to assert her primacy in foreign policy:19

The daughter of debate, that eke discord doth sowe
Shal reap no gaine where formor rule hath taught stil peace to growe.
No forreine bannisht wigh shal ancre in this port,
Our realme it brookes no strangers force, let them elswhere resort.
Our rusty sword with rest, shall first his edge employ,
To polle their toppes that seeke, such change and gape for ioy.

The same paradigm obtains in her more recreational verse. In her response to Sir Walter Ralegh's no doubt playful lament at his losing his queen's favor (written in 1587), Elizabeth makes very clear that she, not Fortune, let alone any man, is in charge:20

          Ah, silly Pug, wert thou so afraid?
Mourn not, my Wat, nor be thou so dismayed.
It passeth fickle Fortune's power and skill
To force my heart to think thee any ill.
No Fortune base, thou sayest shall alter thee?
And may so blind a witch so conquer me?
No, no, my Pug, though Fortune were not blind,
Assure thyself she could not rule my mind.
Fortune, I know, sometimes doth conquer kings,
And rules and reigns on earth and earthly things,
But never think Fortune can bear the sway
If Virtue watch and will her not obey.
Ne chose I thee by fickle Fortune's rede,
Ne she shall force me alter with such speed
But if to try this mistress' jest with thee.
Pull up thy heart, suppress thy brackish tears,
Torment thee not, but put away thy fears.
Dead to all joys and living unto woe,
Slain quite by her that ne'er gave wise men blow,
Revive again, and live without all dread,
The less afraid, the better thou shalt speed.

The poem is a remarkable performance, and not the least reason is the contrast between Ralegh's position as a supplicant (e.g., “In vain, my eyes, in vain ye waste your tears; / In vain, my sights, the smoke of my despairs, / In vain you search the earth and heaven above, / In vain you search, for Fortune keeps my love”) and Elizabeth's superior position throughout her text. The poem begins with a command (“Mourn not, my Wat, nor be thou so dismayed”) and it concludes with Elizabeth instructing her courtier on how to prosecute his courtship (“Revive again, and live without all dread, / The less afraid, the better thou shalt speed”; my emphasis). In between, Elizabeth answers Ralegh's reminder that “Fortune conquers kings” by assuring him that she, the queen, is in fact more powerful than even fortune. Indeed, Elizabeth uses the bulk of the poem to assert her independence and power: “It passeth fickle Fortune's power and skill / To force my heart to think thee any ill”; “No, no, my Pug, though Fortune were not blind, / Assure thyself she could not rule my mind”; “Ne chose I thee by fickle Fortune's rede / Ne she shall force me alter with such speed” (all the emphases mine). While Elizabeth grants that Fortune “doth conquer kings, / And rules and reigns on earth and earthly things,” the admission is only partial: “Fortune, I know, sometimes doth conquer kings,” the implication being that this is clearly not going to be one of these instances. In sum, throughout this text Elizabeth writes from the position of a ruler, from the position of one who is appealed to, not the appellant. She is the one making decisions, never at the mercy of anyone or anything else. Consequently, by writing as if he were addressing an inferior rather than an equal, James thus made a tactless diplomatic blunder.

In addition, whatever James's intentions, the erotic rhetoric in the letter and the sonnet invokes connotations that probably resonated very badly for Elizabeth. In both texts, James adopts the persona of the amorous lover. In the letter, he compares his apprehension at the lack of response to not hearing from one's lover: “I doubt not ye have read how Cupid's dart is fiery called because of the sudden ensnaring and restless burning”; the poem culminates in a similar image: “The winged boy [Cupid] dissentions hot and rife / Twixt his lets fall like sudden summer showers. / Even so this coldness did betwixt us fall / To kindle our love as sure I hope it shall.”21 In virtually all their previous (and following) correspondence, however, James and Elizabeth consistently invoke close family relationships to describe each other. In no. XVI, for example, James begins by calling Elizabeth “madame and deirest sister” and concludes by calling himself “Your trewest and assured brother and cousin.”22 Elizabeth in turn replies by addressing him as “right deare brother” and “my deerest brother and cousin the king of Scots.”23 In an earlier letter, James even calls Elizabeth “Madame and mother,” signing himself as “your most loving and devoted brother and son, James R.”24

The letter with the sonnet begins as most of the others do—“Madame and dearest sister”—but then James does something very unusual by veering into erotic allegory and concluding with a more passionate ending than usual: “your more lovinge and affectionate brother and cousin than (I fear) yet ye believe” (as opposed to “your most louing and deuoted brother and sonn [no. XIV] or “Youre most louing and affectionat brother and cousin” [no. XXXII]) along with (re)enclosing a sonnet comparing himself and Elizabeth as lovers. While James doubtless intended Elizabeth to read this unprecedented use of erotic language as a witty invocation of common tropes and as a demonstration of his ability to “talk the talk” of the Elizabethan court, the concatenation of amorous and familial terms may well have sounded suspiciously like something that haunted Elizabeth from her earliest days: incest.

Elizabeth owed her existence to the putatively incestuous relationship between her father, Henry VIII, and Catherine of Aragon. Without that “scruple,” Henry VIII would not have married Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. But then, Anne herself fell, and Henry charged her with incest with her own brother, Lord Rochford (some even said that Anne was Henry's illegitimate daughter, making Elizabeth's mother guilty of double incest). And Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued for Elizabeth's illegitimacy on the grounds of Henry's affair with Anne's sister, Mary Carey, since the definition of incest also included marriage to a former mistress's sister.25 While Elizabeth regularly “portrayed herself in multiple kinships roles” when dealing with other monarchs,26 James actually was related to Elizabeth by blood.27 The references to “brother,” “sister,” and “cousin,” in other words, are not purely rhetorical. Consequently, when James shifts gears and suddenly starts comparing himself and Elizabeth to lovers, he raises an issue that Elizabeth would have found most unwelcome, since it constituted one of the prime grounds for the challenges to her legitimacy.

Furthermore, Marc Shell argues that “it is at the level of incest both spiritualized and secularized that Elizabeth as monarch later established herself as the national virgin queen who was at once the mother and the wife of the English people.”28 Therefore, when he writes “The winged boy dissentions hot and rife / Twixt his lets fall like sudden summer showers” or describes his agony at waiting for a response to “the sudden ensnaring and restless burning” of Cupid's fiery dart, James implicitly (and probably unwittingly) despiritualizes incest. It is one thing for a courtier, like Hatton, to use such terms when writing to Elizabeth. He was not actually related to her. But when James uses them, he sets in motion an entirely different set of connotations. Elizabeth evidently believed that the best response was to pretend nothing happened and James got the message. He never used such language with Elizabeth again.


Sir Philip Sidney died on 21 September, 1586, and about five months after that, in February, 1587, Alexander Neville edited a volume of Latin verse commemorating Sidney, Academiae Cantabrigiensis Lachrymae Tumulo Noblilissimi Equitis, D. Philippi Sidneii Sacratae.29 The publication of Neville's volume gave James another opportunity to use verse as an instrument of royal diplomacy (although more successfully, and certainly more appropriately). Neville's volume includes English and Latin versions of James's epitaph for Sidney as well as contributions from Lord Patrick Gray, Sir John Maitland, Colonel James Halkerston, Lord Alexander Seton and the Earl of Angus, none of whom are known today as poets, but all of whom were deeply involved with James's highly slippery diplomacy towards England. Significantly, James's mother, Mary, lost her head on February 8th, about two or three weeks before Neville's volume appeared, and I propose that her death constituted the precipitating factor in James's decision to deliver contributions from himself and his courtiers. The printer, John Windet, clearly added the Scots contributions after the compositor set the volume in type: unlike the rest of the volume, the pages with the Scots elegies are not numbered, the signatures for their poems start at “K” even though the final pages of Neville's preceding letter are signatures H3r-v, and the first poem after the Scots elegies, by G. H. (Gabriel Harvey?), is on—using the actual pagination—page 1, sig. A1v. Also, Windet or the compositor put the volume's title and an ornamental design on top of G. H.'s poem,30 and the page before, signature A1r, repeats the title page. Taken together, these details of book production suggest that the Scottish elegies arrived after Windet had completed the volume, which in turn suggests that the Scots wrote and published their poems less out of concern for the late Sir Philip and much more in reaction to Mary's recent execution.31

James's contribution, it must be admitted, is neither particularly distinguished nor deep:

Thou mighty Mars the Lord of souldiers brave,
And thou Minerve, that dois in wit excell,
And thou Apollo, that dois knowledge have,
Of every art that from Parnassus fell
With all you Sisters that thaireon do dwell,
Lament for him, who duelie serv'd you all
Whome in you widely all your arts did mell,
Bewaile (I say) his inexpected fall,
I neede not in remembrance for to call
His race, his youth, the hope had of him ay
Since that in him doth cruell death appall
Both manhood, wit and learning every way,
          But yet he doth in bed of honor rest,
          And evermore of him shall live the best.

But like the sonnet to Elizabeth, the fact of its royal author eclipses all aesthetic considerations. We have already seen James's concern for rendering explicit his authorship, and the typography suggests that James (or one of his ambassadors) and the printer collaborated on making sure that the reader knew that this sonnet constituted a monarchic performance. The poem comes first (thus indicating the social and political preeminence of its creator), and it appears in English (all the other elegies are in Latin or Greek). Windet further distinguishes James's elegy from the others by using italic type and slightly larger font than that used for the rest of the volume. Furthermore, Windet gives the following title:

interitum, Illustrisimi Scotorum
          Regis carmen

Whereas Windet ascribes all the other poems to a person (either through initials or full names), this one originates from an institution, less by “James Stuart” and more by the “Illustrisimi Scotorum / Regis,” the most illustrious King of the Scots. As such, the poem seems nothing more than a royal tribute to Sir Philip Sidney. The political and diplomatic resonances are, however, more complex.

Dominic Baker-Smith suggests that James's elegy for Sidney can be explained partly by their common interest in a “specifically Christian poetics.”32 Yet I know of no extant evidence suggesting that Sidney and James ever discussed poetry (despite their common interest in Du Bartas), nor do I know of any evidence proving that they ever met in person. Furthermore, Baker-Smith does not take into account the ideological gulf separating James and Sir Philip, in particular their different views concerning the role of the monarch. By at least 1580, James thought that a king should be absolute, ruling by divine right, and he expressed these views to Walsingham at their first meeting in 1583 (for which Walsingham roundly rebuked him),33 while Sidney sided more with Buchanan and the French resistance theorists. Nor was James, as we shall see, as hot a Protestant as Sidney might have liked. The mystery of why James would go to such trouble to write an elegy and to commission elegies for someone with whom he had deep ideological differences lightens when we remember the dictum that nations do not have friends, but interests.34

Baker-Smith, however, rightly notes that however much James actually mourned Sidney, the poem also serves the Scots king's desire to “commend his own name to those, in England and abroad, who looked for a fit successor to Elizabeth, one equipped to serve the Protestant interest.”35 In other words, James uses the occasion of Sidney's death to strengthen his claim to the English throne. Yet the matter is murkier than Baker-Smith allows, for if this poem shows James trying to ingratiate himself with Sidney's father-in-law, or more importantly, Elizabeth's trusted Privy Councilor, Walsingham, while implicitly advertising himself as Elizabeth's heir, he was also exploring his options with England's Catholic enemies. In sum, this poem should not be taken as a simple declaration of principle or ambition, as Baker-Smith suggests, but as one more example of the slipperiness of James's diplomatic maneuvering and his penchant for using verse to further his political goals.

While Sidney and James might very well have liked each other, the fact remains that their relations were more diplomatic than personal. Sidney's involvement with James dates back to 1585, when, as Roger Howell puts it, his name starts to “figure prominently in Scots affairs.”36 Specifically, Sidney was deeply involved with Walsingham's negotiations over the amount of Elizabeth's pension for James. For Sidney, his activities on James's behalf formed part of his Protestant activism, as a large grant “would not only strengthen the Protestant cause north of the border but it would also help to thwart the machinations of the continental powers.”37 And although neither Howell nor Baker-Smith mention it, Sidney knew enough about James's interests to send him a gift of bloodhounds (not poems), for which James instructed his English ambassador to be sure to thank him.38 While the negotiations for an Anglo-Scots alliance were ultimately successful (still, James did not get as large a pension as he would have liked, nor, more importantly, an unequivocal statement about the succession), we need to remember that Elizabeth consistently resisted those who were unqualifiedly in favor of James.

The reason why is not hard to find, for if James appeared to Sidney as pro-English and (no doubt) pro-Protestant, the king was also treating with the Catholic powers. In 1585 (the same year that Sidney sent James the dogs), the king not only refused to keep the Catholic Earl of Arran in prison and out of favor, but—as Walsingham writes with considerable disgust—the Jesuits and the Guise were in Scotland with their own offers for James's “loyalty”:

For myself I give over all hope of Scotland otherwise than by force. I see no reason to think that Bellenden and Maitland's credit (now that Arran and Gray are reconciled) shall be able to prevail to keep the King in good terms with her Majesty. There are lately arrived in that realm one Hay, general of the Jesuits of the Scottish nation and one Durye that hath written against the ministers in Scotland … They are sent from the Duke of Guise with very large offers unto the King. … I see so great treachery in that nation as I have no desire at all to have any extraordinary dealing with them.39

In another letter, Walsingham concluded that “The best is to deal warily with them all, for they are all born under one climate.” Elizabeth evidently agreed with her counselor, for, Walsingham reports, “I can by no means persuade her Majesty to write to Gray, neither will she, in respect of the jealousy had of the King's cunning and unsound dealing, yield unto him the pension promised.”40 We therefore cannot regard James's elegy as unequivocal evidence of James's devotion to Protestant humanism or of his undying devotion to the Leicester-Walsingham-Sidney faction's hostility towards Spain, as Baker-Smith argues,41 since James clearly adhered to one principle alone: his self-interest (we will return to James's dealings with Catholic powers below).

Of course, the “letting slip” of the Protestant pro-English Ruthven Lords (who had initially fled to England for protection in the wake of James's attack on the Kirk's power) completely changed matters, and he finally signed the Anglo-Scots alliance that Sidney and Walsingham, among others, labored to bring about on 5 July 1586. But when Walsingham brought to light the Babington plot which would lead to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, James once more consistently played a double game.

While reports famously vary as to James's reaction to his mother's death,42 James clearly tried to keep all his options open, not knowing “whether Protestant or Roman Catholic” would eventually win.43 James may very well have intended, as Baker-Smith argues, his elegy for Sidney as an implicit endorsement of the Anglo-Scots treaty, a reassurance that both he and his chief advisors remained committed to England, and this interpretation accords with James's secret understanding with Leicester that he would not break the alliance if his mother were executed, since that would mean losing the throne of England.44 Furthermore, James continued his friendship with Henry of Navarre and delighted in the company of his favorite poet, the very Protestant Du Bartas. Yet, at virtually the same time, James refused to receive Elizabeth's ambassador for several months, and he sent letters to Henry III, Catherine de' Medici, and the Guises asking for support.45 James's chancellor, Maitland, who also wrote in memory of Sidney, several months later made a speech in parliament vowing “vengeance for Mary's blood.”46 In consequence, while the Sidney elegy contributes to the making of the Sidney legend, it figures as much as another front in James's duplicitous diplomacy, an attempt to reassure—through the medium of verse—his English allies while he secretly negotiated with the enemies of his English allies.


The fact that James did not include either the epitaph on Sir Philip Sidney or the sonnet to Elizabeth in his books suggests that he considered these works topical ephemera rather than serious bids for poetic immortality. The Lepanto, however, is an entirely different story. James wrote this poem in 1585 and he not only included it in his 1591 volume, His Majesties Poetical Exercises, but appended a translation into French by Du Bartas. James then republished the Lepanto in 1603 and sponsored a Latin translation that appeared in 1604. Clearly, James considered this poem his masterpiece, yet the high estimation he accorded this work only partly accounts for its frequent reprinting. While the latter two appearances are both aspects of his monarchic self-presentation to his new kingdom, since they (obviously) coincided with his accession to the English throne, there is even more. The Lepanto partakes of three distinct (if overlapping) sets of contexts, and as we will see, this text performs very different political work in 1585, 1591 and 1603. Furthermore, James alters his authorial self-presentation in accord with these different contexts.47

According to the hierarchy of genres popular in the early modern period, the epic—or “Heroicall song,” as James terms it—ranks the highest. As Sir Philip Sidney puts it in the Apology, “all concurreth to the maintaining the heroical, which is not only a kind, but the best and most accomplished kind of poetry.”48 Consequently, writing an epic is a perfectly appropriate task for a poet-king (indeed, it might be the only genre worthy of a king). Yet in 1585, when James turned to this subject, there was nothing obvious about why James would find attractive either the subject matter or the prospect of writing martial, heroic poetry.

To be sure, the story of the Battle of Lepanto (1571) seems ideally suited for epic treatment: Don Juan, leading a fleet of 208 galleys sailing under the flag of a “Holy League” organized by Pope Pius V, the Spanish monarchy and the Venetian republic, destroyed the Turkish fleet in one day of fighting, and the victory of the Christian forces over the Islamic “Other” was very quickly transformed into the subject of chronicles in Spanish, Italian and Latin.49 Yet the victory did not mean very much strategically, as within one year the Turks had rebuilt their navy and were making “new incursions on the Spanish protectorate of Tunis, overtaking the town for good in 1574.”50 While, as Ferdinand Braudel writes, “This victory seemed to open the door to the wildest hopes,”51 and while in the seventeenth-century writers would depict this battle as a heroic event, people closer to the battle itself recognized that the hopes led nowhere52. Furthermore, given James's lifelong aversion to both figurative and literal military exploits (his son, Prince Henry, distinguished himself from his father by adopting an explicitly chivalric and bellicose persona53), the king's decision to write the poem in the first place and then republish it requires more explanation than ascribing it to a desire for writing an exciting story or demonstrating expertise in a variety of genres.

The ideological work behind James's composition of the Lepanto becomes clearer when one takes into consideration his very tenuous grasp on political power in 1585. The year before, James had parliament pass bills asserting “the royal authority in the state, both in theory and in practice,” no mean feat given the resistance, both in theory and in practice, of both the aristocracy and the clergy.54 The clergy were furious at James for ending the Presbyterian system in Scotland and a number had fled to England. The return of the banished Ruthven lords along with an army of 10,000 men added to James's troubles, and we have already noted the tense relations between the young king, Elizabeth, and Walsingham. “Estranged from Elizabeth, menaced by the exiled lords and ministers, and aware of discontent in Scotland,”55 James chose this moment to write an epic, and as Fischlin argues, the Lepanto could be construed as “an empowering literary response to the contingencies of sovereign rule by a monarch struggling to achieve a modicum of internal political stability. …”56 In other words, James composed and distributed the Lepanto as part of his (at times desperate) project of asserting monarchic authority within and without Scotland by representing himself through the highest, most “noble” genre. While it would be absurd to assert that James actually thought that he would become Elizabeth's heir and subdue his recalcitrant clergy and aristocracy by writing epic poetry, James likely intended his poem to strengthen his prestige by interjecting himself “into the literary pantheon that contributes to [monarchic and poetic] authority.”57

In addition to demonstrating James's attempt to add some luster to his crown by appropriating the cultural authority of the epic poet, the Lepanto also exemplifies James's sometimes clumsy, sometimes adept strategy throughout his Scottish reign of balancing Catholic interests against the Protestants. First, James calls Don John (in the poem, “Don Joan”) a “Generall great” (207), and depicts him as an ideal leader, who knows “the names of speciall men” and, somewhat like a nautical Henry V, rows about his troops, urging them on. James also highlights Don John's nationality, consistently referring to him as “the Spanish Prince” (481, 798), and once uses orthography to emphasize the point: “The SPANIOL Prince” (497). Given the presence of Spain in Scots affairs at this point, it would be hard not to read these references as a deliberate compliment, just as the Sidney elegy could be construed as a declaration of loyalty to the Protestant side. Complimenting the Spanish, however, potentially alienates the Protestants, but James takes them into consideration as well.

The poem itself splits neatly down the middle in its valuation of anti-Turkish forces' religion. On the one hand, in the main body of the epic, James pointedly refuses to condemn either Don John's religion or his nationality. In the Job-like scene at the start of the poem, Christ says to Satan:58

I know thou from that City comes,
          CONSTANINOPLE great,
Where thou hast by the malice made
          The faithless Turkes to freat [fret].
Thou hast inflamde their maddest mindes
          With raging fire of wraith [wrath],
Against them all that doe professe
          My name with fervent fayth.

(49-56; my emphasis)

Christ seems to care only about the profession of his name; none of the doctrinal quarrels dividing Christianity matter very much to him. Similarly, James consistently calls the anti-Turkish forces and the inhabitants of Venice Christians rather than Catholics, thus once more submerging or erasing doctrinal and theological differences in favor of a larger unity. Even God, while not endorsing all forms of observance, nonetheless declines to dwell on these distinctions in his answer to Christ:

All christians serves [sic] my Sonne though not
          Aright in everie thing.
No more shall now these Christians be
          With Infidels opprest

(79-82; my emphasis)

The Turkish conquest of Cyprus “moo'ved each Christian King / To make their Churches pray for their / Relief in everie thing” (150-52); urged on by Gabriel's rumor campaign, the town's population and the Venetian senate implore aid from “The Christian Princes” (190) in the conflict “twixt the Turkes / and Christians” (195-96); and the entire fleet, made up of Spanish and Italian ships, are a “Christian Navy” (292).

Yet the angelic chorus at the poem's end displays no such ecumenicism. Their odd argument (rather, James's odd argument) is that if God gives victory to such deficient Christians, indeed, to people who barely deserve the title at all, imagine what he could do for Protestants:

But praise him more if more can be,
          That so he loves his name,
As he doth mercie shew to all
          That doe professe the same:
And not alanerlie [only] to them
          Professing it aright,
But even to them that mixe therewith
          Their own inventions slight:
As specially this samin time
          Most plainly may appeare,
In giving them such victory
          That not aright him feare:
For since he shewes such grace to them
          That thinks [sic] themselves are just,
What will he more to them that in
          His mercies onelie trust?


One could dismiss these shifts in emphasis as another example of James's lack of rhetorical skill, but they are entirely consistent with his refusal to choose unequivocally between Catholicism and Protestantism, or—perhaps more to the point—between the Catholic powers of Spain and France and the Protestant power of England.

In 1580-81, Esmé Stuart, the Earl of Lennox, dominated James's thinking and affections, and while he might have remained ignorant of the details concerning Lennox's intrigues with the Catholic powers, he nonetheless absorbed their lessons well. As Willson puts it, “he stood on the periphery of them, understanding their general drift, and was introduced to the subtle courses of a double diplomacy.”59 And James soon acquired a nasty reputation for two-facedness. Elizabeth, for instance, exclaimed with no end of annoyance: “That false Scotch urchin! What can be expected from the double dealing of such an urchin as this?”60 James's strategy of playing Catholics off Protestants and vice versa intensified starting in 1584 and continued through 1585, exactly the period during which he composed the Lepanto. We have already noted James's highly tenuous grasp on power due to various domestic problems, and opportunely in 1584 James received a letter from the Catholic Duke of Guise offering friendship and protection. James regarded this letter as a means of shoring up his crumbling authority, and he responded so positively that the Spanish King, Philip, noted “He is quite ready to confess them himself”; Philip thought, in other words, that James would convert to Catholicism, a concept that James encouraged by writing to the pope: “I trust to be able to satisfy your Holiness on all other points, especially if I am aided in my great need by your Holiness.”61 At the same time, James was negotiating with Elizabeth over the fate of his mother, and in May 1585, just before he started the Lepanto, Elizabeth opened up negotiations for a league with Scotland.

Ultimately, James realized that his interests lay with England and Protestantism, not with Spain, but James also realized that he could gain even more by keeping both in play. Consequently, as Willson writes, “Even while he sought aid from Catholic powers he strove tenaciously to improve his relations with England.”62 Or one can reframe this strategy from the opposite perspective, i.e., that he strove tenaciously to improve his relations with the Catholic powers while seeking a treaty with England. The matter is more evenly balanced than Willson's rhetoric allows, for, as Willson himself points out, James's negotiations with foreign Catholic powers along with his refusal to curb his domestic Catholic lords served to enhance “his bargaining power with Elizabeth, formed a counterpoise to the Kirk, and offered hope of survival in case of Spanish victory.”63 At the time of its composition, therefore, the Lepanto intervenes in James's domestic and foreign diplomacy by exemplifying his attempts to keep all his cards in play. The main body of the text serves to assure the Catholic powers of his esteem for both their military heroes and their religion, and the Angelic Chorus serves to assure the Kirk and the English Protestants who happen to read this poem that James is really on their side. James, in other words, does not so much create a poetic attempt at forging a via media between the two opposing poles of Christianity as invent a strategy for maintaining maximum diplomatic advantage while avoiding a firm commitment to either side.

By 1591, however, when James published the Lepanto as part of his Poeticall Exercises, both the domestic and foreign contexts had shifted considerably. James had signed the treaty with England, the crisis over his mother's execution had passed, and James now clearly favored England and Protestantism. The formation of a moderate party within the Kirk made accommodating them easier,64 and James continued to advertise his preference for Protestantism through his disputation with the Jesuit, James Gordon, his marriage to the Protestant Anne of Denmark and his eventual containment of the Catholic northern earls with Huntly's defeat in 1589. While James continued to infuriate the Protestant powers with his refusal to repress completely the Catholic lords or to sever unequivocally his ties with Spain,65 he recognized that his interests lay with Protestantism and England, not Spain and Catholicism, and acted accordingly.

But the shift in contexts created a problem. As we have seen, the Lepanto carefully endorses both sides because this strategy made diplomatic sense at the time of the poem's composition. James asserts, as so many authors in this period do, that the poem has circulated in manuscript without his knowledge: “For although till now, it have not bene imprinted, yet being set out the publick view of many, by a great sort of stoln Copies, purchast (in truth) without my knowledge or consent …” (198).66 Even so, James concerns himself less with unauthorized transmission and more with unauthorized interpretation: “It falles out often, that the effects of mens actions comes [sic] cleane contrarie to the intent of the Author … it hath for lack of a Praeface, bene in somethings misconstrued by sundry” (198). In all likelihood, sundry have read the poem correctly, but now—in 1591—the original, evenly balanced meaning no longer serves James's interest, and so the “Author” adds a preface in an attempt to “guide” the reader to a more politically correct interpretation. Don John, whom the text unambiguously declares a Christian hero, James now calls “a forraine Papist bastard,” and he announces that “I name not DON-JOAN neither literally nor any waies by description” (198), even though James most certainly does name Don John both literally and by way of description. Furthermore, James explicitly denigrates Don John's military accomplishments and Catholicism—“Next followes my invocation to the true God only, and not to all the He and She Saints, for whose vaine honors, DON-JOAN fought in all his wars” (200). The preface, in other words, accommodates the change in political and diplomatic circumstances by trying to tip the poem's careful balance toward Protestantism, even if this means contradicting what the poem actually says.

We have already seen, in his 1586 letter to Elizabeth, James's sensitivity to the question of ascription, and James adopts a similar strategy in this text by highlighting his position as monarch. The (putative) misconstruction of the poem bothers James, but the offence against his royal dignity really annoys him:

And for that I knowe, the special thing misliked in it, is, that I should seeme, far contrary to my degree and Religion, like a Mercenary Poët, to penne a worke, ex professo, in praise of a forraine Papist bastard. … For as it becomes not the honour of my estate, like an hireling, to pen the praise of any man: becomes it far lesse the highness of my rancke and calling, to spare for the feare of favor of whomseover living, to speake or write the trueth of anie.

(198-200; my emphasis).

James invokes his degree, his estate, the highness, as he says, of his rank and calling to impose his interpretation on his poem. The references to the author's degree, estate, the “highness” of his rank and calling unmistakably mark the speaking “I” of the preface as a royal “I,” and James offers his interpretation/corrections not just as evidence of authorial intention (i.e., I—the king!—wrote the poem, so I know what it means better than you), but of the absolute monarch's will. As Goldberg suggests, in the preface “the powers of poet and king are parallel … They exercise the discourse of power and the power of discourse.”67 The position James adopts, in other words, is that of king, not simply author, speaking to the reader, with the implication that the reader better pay attention.

Yet, ironically, in doing so, James draws not just on royal authority, but on the growing authority of poetic authorship itself, and we can trace this development through an examination of the title pages, organization and page layout of his books. During this period, as Saunders noted, gentlemen simply did not publish poetry.68 Manuscript transmission was perfectly acceptable, even a mark of aristocratic identity. But because of the associations of print publication with the marketplace,69 and because of the omnipresence of what I call antipoetic sentiment and what Steven W. May terms “the stigma of verse,” publishing a book of one's poems “could damage rather than enhance social status.”70 As John Selden marvelously puts it:

'Tis ridiculous for a Lord to print Verses; 'tis well enough to make them to please himself, but to make them public, is foolish. If a Man in a private Chamber twirls his Band-strings, or plays with a Rush to please himself, 'tis well enough; but if he should go into Fleet-street, and sit upon a Stall, and twirl a Band-string, or play with a Rush, then all the Boys in the Street would laugh at him.71

The issue is not the supposed “stigma of print.” As May has shown, many Tudor and Stuart aristocrats had no problem with publishing volumes on topics as various as religious commentaries and the importance of mothers breastfeeding their own children.72 Moreover, while monarchs had published books before (Henry VIII in particular),73 and while they even wrote poetry from time to time, the fact remains that no monarch before James had their verses printed in a book for circulation as a commodity in the market-place, and the anonymity of the title page demonstrates the tentativeness with which James approached this precedent-breaking move. Even though the book of poems has a royal author, the printer presents it as an anonymous publication; the first page gives us the title—The Essayes of A Prentise, In the Divine Art of Poesie (1584; not insignificantly, the type gets progressively smaller and smaller, “Poesie” being nearly unnoticeable, and certainly subordinated to the more respectable term, “Essayes”74), as if the genre were an embarrassing admission. We are told that Vaultrollier printed the book “cum privilegio Regali,” but nowhere does the title page reveal that the regal one had also made (“fecit”) the book.75 The introductory sonnets reveal that key fact slowly and enigmatically, and even then the book's authorship is apparent only by the third sonnet (by “M. W.”), which concludes with this couplet: “O Phoebus then rejoyce with glauncing glore, / Since that a King doth all thy court decore” (sig. *iii).

With the publication, however, of His Majesties Poeticall Exercises, in 1591, James more readily announces his responsibility for his poetic text. The title page boldly declares that “His Majesty” wrote this book, with “Majesties” published in larger type than anything else and in boldface. Even so, the title page of the Lepanto marks something of a retreat, since it privileges (like so many of the title pages of playbooks do)76 the work over the author. Reversing the layout of the initial title page, now the first two syllables of Lepanto are printed in large, boldface letters. The reader now knows the name and rank of the text's author (“James the sixt, King of Scotland”), but the work takes precedence over the royal author. What accounts for this change from James's first book?

On the one hand, it could be argued that the shift in the layout of these title pages proves Goldberg's thesis, i.e., that we have an absolute monarch asserting his authority in the domain of authorship, thereby legitimizing authorship and removing, through the fact of his august presence, the “stigma of verse.” But by 1591, the category of “poet-author” had already started to accrue considerable authority on its own as a middle-class, commercial entity. Marotti suggests that the publication of Sir Philip Sidney's literary works in the early 1590s “fundamentally changed the culture's attitudes toward the printing of the secular lyrics of individual writers, lessening the social disapproval of such texts and helping to incorporate what had essentially been regarded as literary ephemera into the body of durable canonical texts.”77 Yet Marotti also provides evidence of this shift starting earlier. In the first edition of George Gascoigne's A Hundred Sundrie Flowers in 1573, like James's The Essayes of a Prentise, the title page omits Gascoigne's name. But in the second edition (1575), the printer gives this work an architectural frontispiece and retitles the work as The Posies of George Gascoigne. Given that Gascoigne himself likely had no say in this, evidently the printer considered it commercially advantageous to make the work's authorship explicit and give it a privileged position. The buying public, in other words, had started to become as interested in who wrote the work as in the work itself. This development, however, emanates from the market-place, not the aristocracy, where the notion that it is “ridiculous for a Lord to print Verses” would continue for some time yet. When, therefore, James allows his Scots printer, Robert Waldegrave, to advertise the book's royal authorship, he is not so much legitimizing authorship with his royal presence as seeking to appropriate poetic authorship's growing non-aristocratic prestige for himself. In other words, the king does not confer authority on authorship; rather, authorship confers authority on the king.

Edmund Spenser's construction of himself in the 1590 and 1596 editions of The Faerie Queene especially highlights this shift. In the first edition's dedication page, as Louis A. Montrose points out, “the relations between ruler and subject are graphically manifested,” the Queen's name in bold, capital letters while Spenser's appears “in the lower right-hand corner of the page, in much smaller and italicized type, with only the initial letters capitalized and his given name abbreviated to ‘Ed.’”78 In the 1596 edition, the printer no longer distinguishes between the ruling subject and the ruled author, as he uses the same size and type of font for both, thus signaling the rise in poetic authorship's cultural capital. “For Spenser,” Montrose writes, “the material process of reproducing and distributing his poetry in printed books was culturally empowering.”79

James clearly agreed, and I suggest that he wanted to arrogate for himself some of poetic authorship's cultural empowerment upon his ascension to the English throne in 1603. Consequently, in addition to the other festivities, he also reprints the Lepanto, this time using the London printers Simon Stafford and Henry Hooke (a Latin edition appeared one year later). Several small changes in book layout from the poem's original publication demonstrate how the printers wanted the reader to interpret the 1603 Lepanto as a monarchic performance.80 First, as the title page shows, Stafford and Hook print “Majesties” in larger type than anything else, and unlike the title page of the 1591 edition, not even a syllable break draws attention away from the poem's royal authorship. Second, whereas “The Lepanto” appears as the running header on the verso pages of the 1591 edition, in 1603 the printer changed this phrase to “The Kings Lepanto” (my emphasis, the running header of the recto pages, “Or, Heroicall Song” remained unchanged). In sum, James reprinted this poem in 1603 in order to appropriate for himself once more the cultural capital of poetic authorship, epic poetic authorship in particular, and so to further legitimate himself to a country not known for its high estimation of Scotland's cultural heritage.81


Like Elizabeth and like many courtiers during this period, King James VI/I wrote poetry for both pleasure and political advantage. Yet the difference is that James, like his royal predecessors, always writes as a monarch, never as a mere poet, and never from the subservient position of a courtier. Thus he reminds Elizabeth of his sonnet's royal authorship, knowing that the poem's meaning derives from the speaker's status, and thus he turns both his elegy for Sidney and the various manuscript and print versions of the Lepanto into vehicles for monarchic diplomacy and display. For James, no discourse exists separate from sovereignty. Ironically though, once James established himself on the English throne, his interest in book publication seems to vanish (he continues occasionally to write and distribute politically charged poems), and so, while the title page of his 1616 collected works constitutes the most elaborate construction to date of James as royal author (the full title is The Workes of the Most High and Mighty Prince, James, and on both the frontispiece and the title page, “The Works” and “James” are printed in the same size font—larger than the rest—and in boldface),82 he conspicuously omits poetry from this text.83 But while James published no verse after 1603, his sovereign discourse nonetheless initially depended upon his manipulation of verse, and as Antonio reminds both the good Gonzalo and his courtly audience in The Tempest,84 a play James may have seen twice, the end should not forget its beginning.85


  1. On James's prose, see, for example Wormald and Sommerville. While there are several recent editions of James's political writings, the only complete edition of James's poetry remains Craigie's. As for James's verse, as Sharpe notes, it “has received no historical and little critical evaluation” (1993, 127). Other studies include Goldberg, Sharpe, 1994, and Perry, 15-24. This critical neglect, however, is swiftly changing. See Appelbaum and the forthcoming articles by Bell and Fischlin.

  2. Elizabeth I and James VI/I, no. XIX, 30-31.

  3. Ibid., no. XX, 32.

  4. Ibid., 33.

  5. Ibid., no. X1, 34. Even so, Elizabeth adds that she “haue sent you a lettar that I am sure containes all you desired in spetiall wordes, I trust it shal content you” (34). To my knowledge, this letter has been lost, although Willson assumes that it contained “a revised statement concerning the succession” (72).

  6. James VI/I, 71-72.

  7. The annotations of obscure words are my own.

  8. Quoted in Willson, 72.

  9. Marotti, 398. See also May, 224-7 and passim as well as Montrose, 1980, 153-82.

  10. Quoted in Marotti, 1982, 399.

  11. Montrose, 1977, 26.

  12. I am grateful to Anne Lake Prescott for her help with this reference.

  13. See Perry's analysis of the tensions between James's status as monarch and Petrarchan poetics in James's early love poems (21-23).

  14. In no. XVII, Elizabeth explicitly endorses James's theory of absolute kingship: “Since God hathe made kinges, let them not unmake ther authorite, and let brokes and smal rivers acknowledge ther springes, and flowe no furdar than ther bankes. I praise God that you uphold euer a regal rule.” Elizabeth I and James VI/I, 27.

  15. Montrose, 1988, 31.

  16. On Elizabeth's verse, see Summit and Jordan.

  17. Montrose, 1980, 154.

  18. Cited in Summit, 413.

  19. Elizabeth I, 307-09. Starting in 1570, Elizabeth's “The Doubt of Future Foes” circulated in several manuscript variants, and the poem was published in two printed versions, George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie (1589, although probably written twenty years earlier) and Henry Harington's Nugae Antiquae (1769). The latter also included a prefatory letter, probably by James Harington, outlining the curious circumstances by which the poem started to circulate: “Herewith I commit a precious jewel, not for your ear, but your eye; and doubt not but you will rejoyce to wear it even in your heart: It is of her Highness own editing, and doth witnhess, how much her wisdom and great learning doth outweigh even the perils of state, and how little all wordly dangers do work no change in her mynde. My Lady Wiloughby did covertly get it on her Majesties tablet, and had much hazard in so doing; for the Queen did find out the thief, and chid for spreading evil bruit of her writing such toyes, when other matters did so occupy her employment at this time; and was fearful of being though too lightly of for so doing. But marvel not, good Madam, her Highness doth frame herself to all occasions, to all times, and all things, both in business, and pastime, as may witness this her sonnet. …” (Henry Harington, Nugae Antiquae, (London, 1769), vol. 1: 58-59). While presumably all versions result from the manuscript copied by Lady Willoughby, the different copies offer numerous significant variations in diction, grammar, and line length (e.g., in the Digby manuscript, we have “force” for “foes”). I reprint eight versions in Herman, forthcoming.

  20. I am indebted to Ilona Bell for providing the original impetus for this reading of the Raleigh-Elizabeth exchange.

  21. Akrigg avers that lines 11 and 12 “are unintelligible as they stand. Apparently the King, when copying his poem, carelessly left out some word such as ‘joys’ after ‘his’” (72). Craigie, however, using a later copy of the poem (he dates it from 1604) from a different source (Hatfield Mss., Historical MSS. Commission, Part XVI [1933], 393), gives exactly the same reading (James VI/I, 1955, 2:171), suggesting that “his” means “the lovers belong to Cupid” rather than referring Cupid's “joys” or whatever.

  22. Letters, 24-25.

  23. Ibid., no. XVII, 27-28.

  24. Akrigg, Letter 15 (3 August? 1585), 64.

  25. Shell, 1988, 109-10.

  26. Shell, 1993, 69.

  27. Henry VII's daughter, Margaret, was James's grandmother.

  28. Shell, 1988, 113. Shell expands this argument in the introduction to Elizabeth's Glass, 3-73.

  29. All citations will be to the facsimile reproduction of this text in Elegies for Sir Philip Sidney (1587).

  30. There are in fact two sets of “K” signatures, a fact which caused me no end of confusion when I tried to find James's poem.

  31. Baker-Smith, 94.

  32. See also Campbell, 45-49.

  33. Read, 2: 212-13. According to Willson, Walsingham “told James that his power was insignificant, that he was too young to judge affairs of State, that he should rejoice in such as friend as Elizabeth, and [most interestingly] that young kings who sought to be absolute were apt to lose their thrones” (51).

  34. Significantly, James's opinion of Sidney's poetic accomplishments shifted considerably after his accession. In 1618-19, well after James had any need to praise Sidney for diplomatic advantage, he told Ben Jonson that “Sir P. Sidney was no poet” (quoted in Craigie, 2: 234).

  35. Baker-Smith, 93-94.

  36. Howell, 106.

  37. Ibid., 106.

  38. Letter to Lewis Bellenden, dated 12 April 1585, in Akrigg, 62.

  39. Quoted in Read, 246.

  40. Ibid., 248.

  41. Cf. Baker-Smith, 95.

  42. See the summary of the various reports of James's reactions, which range from being entirely unmoved to implicitly swearing revenge for his mother's death in Stafford, 17.

  43. Ibid., 17.

  44. Ibid., 13, who relies on Cameron and Rait.

  45. Ibid., 18.

  46. Ibid., 21.

  47. My approach to the thematic significances of book production is deeply indebted to Kastan and Marcus.

  48. Sidney, 49.

  49. Craigie, “Introduction,” 1: lix-lx; Appelbaum, 9.

  50. Appelbaum, 22; Wernham, ed., 252-53; 353-4.

  51. Braudel, 1103; Appelbaum, 23.

  52. Michel de Montaigne, for instance, uses this battle as an example of why we should not use earthly events as indicators of divine will: “It was a notable Sea-battle, which was lately gained against the Turkes, under the conduct of Don John of Austria. But it hath pleased God to make us at other times both see and feele other such, to our no small losse and detriment” (172). Donald Frame translates these lines as: “It was a fine naval battle that was won these past months against the Turks, under the leadership of Don John of Austria; but it has certainly pleased God at other times to let us see others like it, at our expense” (160).

  53. See Strong, 115, and Herman, 1997, 2.

  54. Lee, 64.

  55. Willson, 51.

  56. Fischlin, 5.

  57. Fischlin, 8.

  58. All references to the Lepanto are to Craigie's edition, 1: 198-258, and I have silently adopted the modern usage of u/v and i/j.

  59. Willson, 39.

  60. Ibid., 39, who also cites these other examples of English exasperation to James's “diplomacy”: “‘The King's fair speeches and promises,’ wrote an English noble, ‘will fall out to be plain dissimulation, wherein he is in his tender years better practised than others forty years older than he is.’ He ‘is holden among the Scots for the greatest dissembler that ever was heard of for his years” (39). Indeed, reading over their correspondence and Walsingham's various reports of his negotiations with James, it is hard not to have the sense that during the early years of James's reign Elizabeth considered him an intensely annoying little twerp who exasperated her beyond measure. Even so, James did get what he wanted, perhaps using apparent weakness to his advantage.

  61. Ibid., 51.

  62. Ibid., 52.

  63. Ibid., 81.

  64. Ibid., 71.

  65. Even though James threw the Spanish agent, Colonel Semple, in prison after the defeat of the Armada (“with great Protestant zeal,” as Willson says), he nonetheless allowed him to escape (Willson, 84).

  66. Even though some of James's poetry made its way into two English miscellanies, Englands Parnassus and John Bodenham's Bel-Vedére, Or the Garden of the Muses (1600), (Perry, 24; May, 1980, 16-17), there is no evidence that the Lepanto underwent unauthorized manuscript transmission, which suggests that James is making up this scenario of uncontrolled transmission. Furthermore, James's poetry rarely appears in contemporary miscellanies, and an entry in Stephen Powle's commonplace book suggests that James rather tightly controlled the copying of his lyric verses. Concerning “In Sunny beames the skye doth shewe her sweete,” Powle writes that the poem was “Geaven me by Master Britton who had been (as he sayed) in Scotland with the Kinges Majesty: But I rather thinke they weare made by him in the person of the Kinge” (quoted in Marotti, 1995, 14).

  67. Goldberg, 18.

  68. Saunders, 139-64. May, 1980, 17. See also Helgerson, passim.

  69. On book publishing's movement from an elite to a mass market, resulting in the industry's loosing “its glamour” and becoming “an almost humdrum affair,” see Jardine, 135-80. While Jardine's point is to examine how “the staggering escalation in book production in the course of the sixteenth century was consistently driven by commercial pressures” (179-80), she also implicitly helps explain why aristocrats, who define themselves by their lack of involvement in commercial affairs, would shy away from publishing much themselves.

  70. On the Protestant roots of antipoetic sentiment and how attacks on poetry constitute a shaping presence in early modern poetic production, see Herman, 1996, passim; Wall, 26. Wall does not dispute the existence of Saunders' “stigma,” but she brilliantly elucidates the gender issues involved with “being a man in print.”

  71. Quoted in Marotti, 1995, 228.

  72. May, 1980, 15, 17.

  73. However, the title page of Henry's book attacking Luther hardly privileges its royal authorship. The first two words of the title, Libello Huic, are printed in bold letters, and are twice as big as the rest, Regio Haec Insunt. Underneath we have a table of contents, but Henry is not mentioned until the fifth item, “Libellus regius adversis Martinum” (the title page is reproduced in Williams, 86. In this case, the matter supersedes authorship in importance).

  74. One wonders if James intended a reference to Montaigne's Essais, first published in 1580-81.

  75. Cf. May, 1980, 16.

  76. See Kastan, 216-18.

  77. Marotti, 1995, 229-30.

  78. Montrose, 1996, 87.

  79. Ibid., 87.

  80. Even so, the reception of the 1603 Lepanto pales in comparison to the huge success of the 1603 Basilikon Doron, which went through eight editions in 1603 alone (Wormald, 51).

  81. In England, according to the Earl of Northumberland, “the name of Scots is harsh in the ears of the vulgar,” and the more sophisticated “feared ‘swarms of tawny Scots’ who, locust-like, would devour office and wealth.” The degree of contempt was so great that “the decapitated skull of a Scottish king was used as a flowerpot in the English royal conservatory” (Kishlansky, 78).

  82. As part of James's pacifism, he brackets the title with the figures “Religio” and “Pax,” Mars being a highly notable absence.

  83. Craigie notes, however, that a manuscript in the British Museum (MS.Add.24195), entitled All the kings short poesis that ar not printed, may represent “the intention, never carried out,” to publish a companion volume to the 1616 collected prose of James's poetry (“Introduction,” 2: xxiii). On the other hand, given that the manuscript was revised by Prince Charles and James's Groom of the Chamber, Thomas Carey and corrected by the king himself, it is equally plausible that they wanted this collection to remain private.

  84. According to Hallett Smith, Shakespeare's company performed the play at court in 1611 and in 1612-13 (1606).

  85. I am very grateful to San Diego State University's College of Arts and Letters for awarding me a Faculty Development Program, half-time leave grant which allowed me to research this essay as well as a CAL Micro-Grant which paid for the illustrations.


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