James died after a protracted period of illness and the crown was handed on, without demur, to his and heir Charles, his fourth child and only surviving son.
James has been much criticized as a monarch and as a person but the facts remain that his 57 year reign as monarch of Scotland was the longest of any of his 42 odd predecessors and also the most peaceful, on a per year basis.
From the Battle of Langside in 1568 when his mother’s final attempt to hold onto the Scottish throne was decisively defeated, to the opening salvo of the First Bishops War in 1639, when his son’s cack-handed attempts to enforce contentious forms of religious worship upon his unwilling subjects led to open civil war in his homeland, there were no major military engagements fought anywhere Scotland, beyond long-standing, local disputes.
So in 1639 when disenchanted Scotsmen felt compelled to pick up weapons to oppose King Charles in there were none alive who had previously wielded such, other than those who had gained experience in distant foreign wars.
When you consider the turmoil of previous reigns and the turbulent bloodshed that the next seventy years would see throughout the three kingdoms, this is an achievement of some note.
And it is the comparison between the smooth handling of his reign, both north and south of the border versus the many and manifest failings of Charles that James’ abilities as a monarch stand most markedly.
The widely held historical view of James is not complimentary. Infamously described as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’, as having a tongue too big for his mouth and ‘preferring the company of men’ he stands pilloried as ugly, homosexual and unable to competently discharge his responsibilities as head of state.
It makes you wonder to what extent each of us has our view of a particular period of history shaped by the images available. There are many portraits of James throughout his reign and he is represented in an attractive manner in none of them. From his earliest portrayal with his mother, dressed in apparel strangely matching hers, through the many depictions during his reign where undue emphasis might seem to put on his less appealing physical features.
It all compares poorly to the extensive glamorous and heroic portraiture of Charles I generated throughout his reign by his court painter, Anthony van Dyck. Perhaps this was simply Charles’ good fortune.
Similarly who is not familiar, even subconsciously, with Alec Guiness’ depiction of the troubled Charles in the 1970 film Cromwell. Whereas James’ only depiction in cinematic drama is limited to the occasional TV mini series.
Whatever James’ shortcomings as a monarch it is unarguable that he presided over predominantly peaceful times. This is testified to by the cultural flourishings seen during his reign; the development of drama with Shakespeare and Bacon and their like and the publishing of the eponymous King James Bible to name but two.
Whereas under Charles we see turmoil, political schism, civil war waged separately and together throughout the three kingdoms under his charge. In Scotland his unshakeable belief in the rectitude of his view regarding divine worship led to the drafting and the signing of the National Covenant, its subsequent supercession by the Solemn League and Covenant, the then inevitable Covenant Wars and thence to that infamous period in Scottish history still referred to as the Killing Time. A gross misrepresentation of the facts which is so widely held to be true even to this day that men are driven to blog about it!
James was the first incumbent of the unified throne: the first head of state of two kingdoms which had been at war for a great deal of the previous millennium to one degree or another. A daunting prospect for even the most gifted of his forebears yet he managed to run the thing calmly and peacefully. When Charles succeeded in 1625 the whole operation had been up and running smoothly for 22 years but before he was done he had lost wars with both his Parliaments and met his end on the executioners block with his charge in ruins around him.
If Charles was to prove a less capable monarch how did they compare as men? To what extent did the value the efforts and service of those around them? Perhaps in James’ case the peaceful nature of the times meant there were no challenges to him in this area. Men rose and fell in his favour, such as the Earl of Carr and his replacement by the Duke of Buckingham. However, to lose the King’s favour in these times resulted only in loss of status and financial opportunities.
With Charles the opportunities to behave weakly in the treatment of those who served him led to such unfortunates being flung under the proverbial bus: with bothThomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud beheaded as a direct result of their service to their king. Montrose’s remarkable efforts in Scotland during the 1644-45 campaign to defeat the forces of the Scottish Parliament and restore Charles to his throne met with little acknowledgement and he too met his end through execution.
On balance then, however you judge the wisdom of James taking up the position of the first monarch on the unified throne, he made a far better job of it than his generally higher-rated offspring.
Perhaps, gentle reader, you have a view you would like to share.