Charles James Stuart was born on June 19th, 1566 at Edinburgh Castle. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband Lord Darnley. James’s arrival into the world coincided with a period of extreme religious and political unrest in Scotland. His mother’s Catholic faith had brought her into conflict with the powerful Protestant Presbyterians. After James’s birth, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, who became James VI of Scotland at the age of one. A succession of regents acted as caretaker rulers until 1581 when, at the age of 15, James took control in his own right.
After the enforced abdication of his Catholic mother, James’s guardians ensured that he was educated in a strict Calvinist tradition. This move was calculated to further alienate the young King from his mother’s religious beliefs, while at the same time securing the success of the Scottish Reformation.
From quite early on, the King of Scotland set his sights on the English throne (as the grandson of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, he had a legitimate claim to it). If Elizabeth I of England were to die childless, James was the most likely successor. With a view to gaining favour with the ageing queen, James signed the Treaty of Berwick with her in 1586. The treaty agreed that, should either country be invaded by the King of Spain’s Catholic forces, the other would come to its aid. The fact that the Treaty survived intact even after Elizabeth executed James’s exiled mother the following year was indicative of the extent of James’s ambitions for the English crown.
James married Anne of Denmark in 1589. The union produced seven children, of whom only three (Henry, Charles and Elizabeth) survived into adulthood.
The King of England
When Elizabeth I died in 1603, James finally realised his long-held ambition to ascend to the throne of England. Remarkably, given the age-old rivalries which existed between the two nations, James’s succession was one of the smoothest transitions to power in English history. Perhaps it was James’s reputation for being a tolerant and fair-minded king, or perhaps the English were weary after almost a century of religious strife – whatever the reason, James VI of Scotland became James I of England largely unopposed. England and Scotland were now united, albeit only symbolically, under a common monarch. Interestingly, James appeared to lose all interest in his native land after 1603, returning to Scotland only once, in 1617.
The Gunpowder Plot
There was one event, however, that marred his peaceful ascension to the English throne. In 1605, a plot to blow up the Palaces of Westminster during the official opening of Parliament was uncovered. Orchestrated by a small group of disaffected Catholic noblemen, this would-be act of terrorism became known as the Gunpowder Plot. Luckily, the scheme was uncovered at the eleventh hour and its orchestrators, including Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby, apprehended. If successful, the new King and other members of the royal family would have been massacred, along with prominent members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. James’s deliverance from this terrorist plot was celebrated by the lighting of bonfires throughout the land, a tradition which continues to this very day.
James I’s reign was notable for the political and religious stability he brought to his adopted lands. He also left a profound cultural legacy, thanks to his commissioning of the King James Bible. A literary masterpiece, this version of the Bible would have an incredible impact on the development of the English language. James also presided over the first tentative steps of British imperial expansion – he sanctioned the beginnings of the colonization of America, with the first British settlement named Jamestown in his honour.
James I died on March 27th, 1625.
The Gunpowder Plot: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press, is available in various digital formats
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