Note: This article deals with the period of James VI’s life until he also became King of England in 1603.
James was born at Edinburgh Castle on 19 June 1566 after a difficult birth for his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. He was soon placed in the care of the Earl of Mar and his wife Annabella Murray and was moved for protection to Stirling Castle where he lived throughout his childhood. On 17 December 1566, Mary arranged a lavish christening celebration for him, which was held at the Chapel Royal at Stirling.
By the time of the christening Mary was estranged from her objectionable husband, Henry Stuart Lord Darnley, and was seeking a divorce. When this could not be achieved without prejudicing the legitimacy of her son, she decided to make a go of the marriage, but keeping him under her control, as he was plotting to usurp the throne. The nobles advising her wanted him dead. When this had been effected, Mary was persuaded the marry the known organiser, the Earl of Bothwell, thus becoming implicated in a crime that she had played no part in. This resulted in her imprisonment at Lochleven Castle. She was forced to abdicate, so that, on 28 July 1567, the infant James became King and was crowned on the following day at Stirling. Although Mary managed to escape from Lochleven, the Scottish nobles defeated her hastily gathered army at the Battle of Langside outside Glasgow and she was forced to flee across the border into England, where Elizabeth retained her under house arrest for the remainder of her life.
Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray became Regent for the infant King. He worked hard to restore order, but, in 1570, was assassinated by Mary’s supporters. His successor as Regent was James’s grandfather the Earl of Lennox who was himself assassinated at Stirling in 1571. His bleeding corpse made a lasting impression on his five-year-old grandson. The Regency was then given to James’s guardian, the Earl of Mar, but on his death in the following year the Earl of Morton most efficiently established control. After six years of authoritative government, he had become unpopular and, in 1578, there were moves to encourage the twelve-year-old James to take control. James had fallen under the thrall of his father’s cousin, the good looking Esmé Stuart, who arrived from France with a secret plan the kidnap James and to send him to France to achieve his conversion to Catholicism. He arranged for Morton to be accused of playing a part in Darnley’s murder resulting in his execution in 1581. James showered Esmé with gifts and made him Duke of Lennox, but plans for a Counter-Reformation was thwarted by the Earl of Gowrie and the 2nd Earl of Mar, who, in 1582, kidnapped James and took him to Ruthven Castle, in what became known as the Raid of Ruthven. Although Esmé was forced into exile, a fellow favourite, Captain James Stewart, who had been made Earl of Arran, rescued the King, forcing Mar and Gowrie to leave Scotland. Although they raised a force in England and recaptured Stirling, Gowrie was ambushed while mustering troops in Dundee and was accused of treason and executed. Without his vital support, Mar was forced to give up Stirling and to return to England.
Although Arran remained in authority and continued to have James’s respect, his position was undermined by a third favourite, the Master of Gray, who sought control for himself. He had been employed by Mary’s supporters in France to find a way to implement the ‘Association’ which was a plan place her back on the Scottish throne in joint rule with James. James had developed a taste for government on his own and had no desire to share the throne with his mother. Gray double-crossed Mary and came to London to persuade Elizabeth to support James’s Government is she would assist him in removing Arran. He encouraged her to send Mar and his fellow exiles back to Scotland where they again captured Stirling and forced Arran into exile. At last the Protestant lords were back in authority. No one trusted the devious Gray and, in 1588, Sir Richard Maitland of Thirlestane was given control of a Government dominated by Reformers, with Mar becoming Lord High Treasurer. With Thirlestane having powerful support from the Kirk, James, now aged twenty-two, found that he had no influence on church and government policy. He wanted the Kirk to appoint bishops to bring it into line with the Church of England, and to provide him with the means to order its affairs, but they were strongly resisted.
In 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay, after being implicated in a plot led by Sir Anthony Babington to place her on the English throne. James had prevented his adamantly Catholic mother from returning to Scotland. When his mother was to be executed he paid lip service to seeking to save her, but was not disappointed to have her rival claim to his crown removed.
In 1589, James married Anne of Denmark by proxy. When she set out from Copenhagen to Scotland, her ship nearly foundered in a huge storm and she returned home. James sailed to collect her himself, and spent a winter of festivities in Denmark. While there, he took an interest in witchcraft, particularly as the Danes blamed witches for starting the storm which nearly wrecked Anne of Denmark’s ship. On their return to Scotland, James held a witch-hunt in Scotland resulting in more than one hundred of them being rounded up for trial at North Berwick.
In an effort to weaken the authority of his own Government, James started to provide clandestine support to a group of Catholic Earls in northern Scotland bent on achieving a Counter-Reformation with Spanish support. Although he remained dogmatically Presbyterian, one of his motives was to make him acceptable to Catholic heads of state on the Continent as a future King of England. He had to be quick-footed to avoid being implicated in their treasonable activities. When Elizabeth gained wind of what he was doing, she financed Francis Stewart-Hepburn 5th Earl of Bothwell to raise an army to challenge him. With Bothwell popping up in unexpected places, he became known as the Wizard Earl, seriously frightening both James and Thirlestane, who both also accused him of witchcraft. Most nobles were sympathetic with Bothwell and helped him to evade arrest. Eventually the English felt they had done enough and withdrew their support for him, forcing him to retire to Italy, but James’s fear of him remained.
Coming as she did from a respected Royal family, Anne of Denmark enhanced James’s position as the claimant to the English throne, but she was extremely extravagant and put pressure on Scotland’s already depleted exchequer. Much of its problem was caused by James himself, who offered generous preferment to those surrounding him. Yet his largesse bought him loyalty. The birth of Prince Henry Frederick in 1594, followed by a string of other children, brought the Crown much needed security and put paid to rival claims among members of the Scottish nobility to be his heir. Sadly, to universal distress, the able Prince Henry died in 1612, leaving his less able brother Charles as James’s heir.
In 1595, Thirlestane became ill and James was at last able to have him removed from office. He started to install a new breed of Government advisers. He progressively swept away members of noble families, who considered that Government appointments were theirs by right, and appointed replacements on merit. He was also better able to harness the Kirk to his authority, but it continued to resist the appointment of bishops.
To demonstrate his new style of kingship, James produced a number of treatises, particularly Basilicon Doron to give advice on how to govern. This was addressed to Prince Henry, but was eagerly sought after by the English, anxious to understand his approach to Government and his views on his divine right to govern.
One confusing episode in James’s last years in Scotland was the so-called Gowrie conspiracy in 1600, during which he claimed to have fought off an attempt to assassinate him by the young 3rd Earl of Gowrie and his brother the Master of Ruthven, who were killed by James’s companions after he gave the alarm. The only reported evidence of what happened was provided by James and this can be shown to be completely implausible. It is much more likely that James gathered a group of his closest associates to arrange the death of Gowrie and Ruthven, whose family were still owed a large sum of money by the Scottish exchequer. This had been advanced by the first Earl at the time of the Raid of Ruthven. James had no intention of repaying the debt and, when their estates were attainted, it was conveniently forgotten. None of James’s close colleagues ever revealed the true story of what had happened, and received signal benefits for having kept their mouths shut.
During the last three years of his reign, James made great efforts to establish his rights to become Elizabeth’s heir. When the Earl of Essex started a revolt against the English Government, Mar was sent to offer him covert support. By the time of Mar’s arrival in London, Essex had been executed, and Robert Cecil sent the Earl of Northampton to tell Mar not to become involved. In a coded correspondence Cecil advised James that he was the only logical choice as Elizabeth’s heir, but she would not recognise him in her life time. On her death on 24 March 1603, James was welcomed by the English with open arms. He now set out on a triumphal progress to London, being feasted by neighbouring landowners as he travelled south.