Reign of James VI in Scotland

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Reign of King James VI

When Mary Queen of Scots (see separate story) fled to England and threw herself on the mercy of her cousin Queen Elizabeth, she had become despised as a monarch in Scotland.

However, her escape left a huge void in Scottish government. Her son, James, was only 13 months old, and a struggle was still going on between Catholics and Protestants for the country's soul.

Despite the fact that he was still only a tiny baby, James was crowned King of Scots at the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling. It was Scotland's first ever Protestant coronation and to show the supremacy of the new faith, John Knox preached the sermon during the ceremony.

Because James VI was little more than a babe in arms, the old time-honoured Scottish tradition of appointing a regent to rule in his name was used. However, Scotland was such a violent place at the time and so full of political intrigue that none of the appointees lasted particularly long.

Almost as soon as Mary had gone, the nobles of Scotland decided that her half brother, the Earl of Moray, should be appointed as his official guardian. However, Moray only lasted for three years before he was shot dead by a rival, James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, as he rode through the streets of Linlithgow.

The next regent was the Earl of Lennox, the father of Mary's second husband, Lord Darnley. But Lennox was also to quickly become a victim of events.

Despite her absence, Mary still had strong supporters among the nobles of Scotland, who held Edinburgh Castle and even had their own parliament in opposition to the Protestant James. As Regent, Lennox commanded the more valid parliament in Stirling.

Unfortunately this also made him a target for Mary's supporters, who were known as the Queen's Men. When two of them, Kirkcaldy of Grange and Maitland of Lethington, attacked Stirling in an attempt to seize the young King, Lennox tried to stop them and was shot in the process. The young James actually looked on as he was carried into the palace dying..

Lennox's successor was John Erskine, Earl of Mar. he, too, died within months, this time from sickness. The fourth and last regent was James Douglas, Earl of Morton, who received the job just before John Knox finally died in 1572.

Of all the regents, the shrewd and ambitious Morton lasted the longest and made the most impact on Scotland. He drove Mary's supporters out of Edinburgh Castle with the help of English guns and rebuilt it in the form we know today.

Morton also decided to dabble in the affairs of the Scottish Kirk by appointing a new archbishop and bishops who were put in place to ensure that church monies, of tithes, were passed to the state.

This appeared to almost be an attempt to impose the Episcopal form of worship found in England on Scotland, and it rankled both with the ministers and their congregations.

The Kirk fought back through Presbyterians such as Andrew Melville, who had studied Calvinism in Geneva and began to draft a Second Book of Discipline restating the original aims of the Reformation.

The book brought a new harshness to Presbyterianism, instructing ministers to wear grey, making non-attendance at communion a crime, closing alehouses on a Sunday and condemning witches to burning at the stake.

The book also challenged the authority of James who, while not subscribing to the Catholicism of his mother, favoured an Episcopal form of government with the King at its head. He also believed strongly in the divine right of kings - in other words, that monarchs were ultimately answerable only to God.

James' response was to the Second Book of Discipline was to pass the Black Acts of 1584, which made the king supreme in all church matters and forced ministers to submit to his will.

However James soon found himself with more pressing and personal problems. In 1579, his cousin Esme Stewart arrived from France and James is said to have fallen in love with him immediately. Ever since their meeting, history has always judged James VI to be a homosexual.

Certainly Esme would have known all about homosexuality - he had been Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the depraved Henry III of France before setting sail for Scotland. James is said to have publicly kissed him, and quickly reinforced his affections by making him the new Duke of Lennox.

James' nobles were horrified. They worried that Lennox could be a Catholic infiltrator and recognised that Stewart could cause real problems. But the worst was yet to come.

In December 1581, Lennox arranged for regent Morton to be accused of complicity in the murder of James' father, Lord Darnley, who had been slaughtered while Mary was still on the throne. Morton was arrested and executed in Edinburgh - ironically, by a guillotine-like device of his own invention called The Maiden (a copy is displayed at the Museum of Scotland).

The Protestant nobles recognised the threat that Stewart was causing, so they forged a cunning plan to get rid of him. In 1582, when James was on a hunting trip, he was given hospitality by the Earl of Gowrie.

The next day, Gowrie refused to let the king go until he ordered Esme to leave Scotland.. Reluctantly he did so, and Lennox returned to France where he soon died of a broken heart. Only after he had died did James gain his freedom again by escaping. Gowrie was then quickly executed for his treachery.

James had better luck in his relationships when he married Anne of Denmark in 1589. But he was still not secure. In 1594 an uprising by the Catholic Earl of Huntly challenged his authority by taking on and defeating the King's forces at Glenlivet, though the military victory was not followed up.

James was, however, no fool. Far from it: he was constantly aware that he had a strong claim to the throne of England if, as now seemed certain, Elizabeth died childless. But he continued to face problems at home

The Earl of Bothwell attempted to attack him no less than four times, escaping after every attempt, and in 1600, James was snatched outside Perth by the brother of the Earl of Gowrie, Alexander Ruthven, after being duped into looking at a hoard of gold coins.

James managed to shout out of a window to his supporters, who burst in and rescued him after a struggle. Ruthven and Gowrie were killed, and then, bizarrely, their bodies taken to Edinburgh for "trial" by parliament before being hung, drawn and quartered.

No-one knows the real reason for the affray James may have genuinely been seized as part of an attempted coup or it may have been that he was attempting to seduce Ruthven. Another possibility is that the king, who was never particularly rich, owed the Gowrie family sterling 80,000. Killing off the Earl effectively wrote off the debt.

James was a wily and shrewd character, and continued to press his claim to the throne of England. South of the border, his talents were recognised. He had governed Scotland relatively well, tamed the notorious Scottish nobility, kept the clergy in check and even failed to raise much of a protest when his mother was executed by Elizabeth.

In March 1603, his efforts paid off. Elizabeth died and one of her senior officials, Sir Robert Carey, was sent north with the offer of the crown of England.

It was an honour which James, roused from sleep with the news, did not even have to think about accepting. Within days, he had packed and set off with his court for London.

For the first time in history, the crowns of England and Scotland were united. And, as everyone knows, it has been that way ever since.


Meanwhile...

  • 1589 Galileo Galilei becomes Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pisa

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