Jacobean Court Perspectives on New World Colonization: 1603 – 1625

Roanoke Map
Map depicting the coast of present-day North Carolina and Roanoke island, drawn by John White, c. 1585.

To say that the English settlement of the New World was an easy task would be to severely understate the difficulties they met, if not outright fallacious. Starting under Elizabeth, the English experienced the failure of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony at Roanoke in 1587 and the abandonment of Bartholomew Gosnold’s fort and trading post at Cuttyhunk Island (Massachusetts) in 1602. Granted, the English were successful over time at their Jamestown settlement in Virginia starting under James VI and I’s rule, but the ensuing century is merely a tale of abandonment, consolidation, and abysmal failure for English colonization of the North American continent.

In spite of this record of failure, the court of James VI and I continued to fund efforts of colonization in the New World, even going so far as to shift the method from individual, royally funded settlements to placing it under a joint stock company, i.e. the Virginia Company in 1606. Several questions follow as to why James continued to invest English resources into what had only been a failed venture, including: What was the interest of the court in maintaining the colonization of what had been proving to be predominantly useless land? What were the benefits of owning such property? What effect did the rivalry with Spain have on the motives of the English? At a time when the union of the kingdoms of Scotland, England, and Ireland was at the forefront of James’s initiatives, why focus on the New World? Was the creation of an imperial identity, i.e. British identity, a purposeful bi-product of this predominantly English enterprise? Each of these questions hones in on the central theme of Jacobean interest in the New World, and that’s what we must ask ourselves: Why did the English hold interest in failed enterprises?

The initial interest of the court, like as in so many other things, lied in finances. Roger Lockyer notes that James VI and I inherited a debt from Elizabeth of roughly £300,000; could no longer rely on the lands that once made up the bulk of royal wealth; had to compensate for a system that had not adjusted to meet the needs of inflation nor to levy proper customs duties; and coupled with the necessary appearances of court and maintain three households, the crown was in debt at over £1,000,000 by 1603.[1] Despite constant subsidies from Parliament, James continued to run an annual deficit of £140,000 – he thus needed every potential financial avenue available. In 1606, seeking to secure riches similar to those the Spanish had uncovered in the New World, James created the Virginia Company. Establishing the Jamestown settlement in 1607, this served as an opportunity to obtain financial gains that would offer fiscal solvency to the Crown – yet the high risk nature of this investment, based on previous experiences with attempted colonization, and the weakness of royal finances caused James to invest little-to-nothing in the Virginia Company.[2] However, the tobacco returns that eventually came out of this colony, earlier promoted by Sir Walter Raleigh during his failed expeditions, provided huge dividends to both the company and its investors. Although colonies had failed, the market for tobacco, along with a profitable demand, was created. Even in its fledgling state under Elizabeth, Sir Walter Cope notes, “…we made title to certayne mynes in the West Indies, Twelve Millions brought in in one yeare in the Queen’s tyme”.[3] The economic possibilities, and craving for financial stability in the Jacobean court, was undoubtedly a strong factor in the continued colonization into the New World.

A secondary factor, although intertwined with the economy, was to ensure continued dominance over Spain militarily. Spain was, initially, the undoubted master of the New World prior to English and French ascendance: Spain dominated Native peoples, seized valued assets, and eliminated any and all competitors. The Spanish claim to complete control over extra-European territories, according to Elizabeth Mancke, was not only outright rejected by the English but was actively challenged through settlement and colonization. It should be noted that Spain claimed dominance via Papal interdict, a pontifically asserted claim that the Spanish and Portuguese had sole claim over the Western Hemisphere – clearly an authority that the English were unwilling to recognize, much less accept.[4] Without a secure outpost in the New World, and knowledge of the potential economic windfall from the already proven tobacco trade, the English required a colonial foothold that was strong enough to defend itself from Spanish attacks, while still producing the necessary goods. Thus, Virginia became the mainstay of the English colonial strategy in the New World.

A third reason that James’ court focused on New World colonization was in an effort to reinforce the union of Great Britain that he so desperately sought. In 1604, James proposed an order for union between England and Scotland that was ultimately defeated in the House of Commons several years later, with great resistance to a formal union being presented amongst both the English and the Scottish. Bruce Lenman notes that after the failure of James’s call for union, “His fallback position was to encourage parallel developments in politics and religion in the three kingdoms and the intermarriage of their aristocracies to decrease national antagonisms. Parallel developments included colonies.”[5] Lenman is not speaking strictly to the colonization of Ireland, but the imperial policy as a whole. A single force of colonization breeds a specific type of unity of the home front, with each of the three kingdoms James oversaw taking part. It forces the colonizers to act as singular units, disregarding the natural differences they perceive amongst themselves and leads them to identify as a single entity: British. Perhaps James was more purposeful in his active pursuit of statecraft, of unifying the Atlantic archipelago through this enterprise than most records state.

In what may have been one of the greatest gambles in English history, James continued the exploration and settlement of the New World to secure political, military, and economic gains over his counterparts in Continental Europe. For the sake of fiscal solvency, in the interest of political dominance, and in the name of unity in the British Isles, James VI and I’s push for colonization served the best interests of his Crown and people.

-Nicholas Sawicki


[1] Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain, (Edinburgh: Pearson Limited Edition, 2005) 254-256.

[2] Lenman, Bruce. “History.org: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Official History and Citizenship Website.” Virginia’s Father: King James I : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. Accessed November 5, 2015. http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/autumn01/jamesi.cfm.

[3] David Matthew, The Jacobean Age (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1938), 192, citing Parliament Notes by Sir Nathaniel Rich, v, p. 516.

[4] Jack P. Greene, ed., Exclusionary Empire: English Liberty Overseas, 1600-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 31.

[5] Lenman, Bruce. “History.org: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Official History and Citizenship Website.” Virginia’s Father: King James I : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. Accessed November 5, 2015. http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/autumn01/jamesi.cfm.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s