James VI and I: “Great Britain’s Solomon” or the “Wisest Fool in Christendom”?

The Union of the Crowns of 1603 was an historic event: James VI of Scotland, England’s neighbor and neutral ally since 1560, acceded the throne of England after Elizabeth I’s death, making him James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland. Since James’ rule now extended over three different kingdoms, he aimed to find a way to unify them in order to ensure a solid footing during his reign. However, there have been varying opinions of how effective James was at doing this, but also how competent a king he was in the first place. These varying of opinions are evident when looking at the vastly different epithets that James earned, ranging from “Great Britain’s Solomon” to the “Wisest Fool in Christendom.” These diverging historiographical viewpoints raise the obvious question as to why there are so many varied opinions concerning James and his effectiveness as a ruler.

Upon analyzing James’ rule and his attempt at unifying these kingdoms, historians have come to different conclusions concerning James and his reign. Jenny Wormald highlights these differences in opinions among her fellow historians. She notes how English historian Lawrence Stone thought very negatively of James, and said blatantly that, “As a hated Scot, James was suspect to the English throne from the beginning, and his ungainly presence, mumbling speech and dirty ways did not inspire respect.”[1] Stone goes on to attack James’s personality, citing his alleged homosexual tendencies and drunken ways, along with the fact that, when hunting, he “did not dismount in order to relieve himself, and so habitually ended the day in a filthy and stinking condition.”[2] While all of these negative descriptions of James are purely physical and personal in manner, they are all associated with poor kingship. Stone ends by questioning whether the monarchy itself would have been preserved after such an embarrassment of a king.

While Stone’s opinion of James VI and I is less than flattering, Wormald goes on to cite Gordon Donaldson, a prominent Scottish historian, whose views contrast with Stone’s. He noted how James was, “A man of very remarkable political ability and sagacity in deciding on policy and conspicuous tenacity in having it carried out. He may not have been the ablest of the Stewarts, but he was assuredly the most successful of his line in governing Scotland and bending it to his will.”[3] Not only does Donaldson praise James as a successful and capable ruler of Scotland, but he also counters those who scorn him, by noting how James was responsible for accomplishments such as, “peace with Spain, the pacification of Ireland and the first permanent colony in America…the problems with Gloriana never solved were solved by this king from Scotland.”[4] Donaldson argued that the English never fully appreciated James, and this was most likely due to the fact that he was from their foreign kingdom of Scotland.

Wormald furthers this assumption when she notes how, even though historians before 1603 were not fully positive regarding James and his physique, they always highlighted how his policies in Scotland were effective at unifying the country and maintaining peace. However, after 1603, when James assumed the rule of England, a spotlight is cast upon James’ physical imperfections, causing them to be highlighted to the extreme.[5] This could be viewed as the English’s way of mocking and attacking James, due to their disdain for having a Scot on the throne. Rather than objectively viewing his performance as king and ruler, some English historians seem to hanker on James’ personal, hygienic choices as their measure of determining his effectiveness as king.

Maurice Lee Jr. has a more tempered view of James’ rule. He notes how James was a good king with positive intentions, but also brings to light James’ main flaw as ruler: England could not be governed the same way as Scotland. James thought that he could bring over policies that had worked in Scotland, and then implement them in England. In reality, Lee notes how, “It was unfortunate for James that the qualities required in England were silence rather than discourse on matters of theory and leadership, and firmness and diligence rather than caution and flexibility in the operation of a much more elaborate governmental machine.”[6] Lee analyzes James’s rule of both Scotland and England, and comes to the conclusion that James did not understand that there had to be a shift in policy when it came to ruling England.

The reason for Lee’s partiality in the matter, and for his solid understanding and sound opinion of James VI and I, is mostly because he neither favors England nor Scotland. Stone and Donaldson each reflected their own natural origins when putting forth their assessments of James’s reign, which led to inherent biases for their native countries in their opinions. Without making sweeping generalizations, in the case of James’ rule, the partiality among some historians for their native homelands seems to be the main reason for the varied opinions of his reign, resulting in a bias that perhaps got in the way of their professional judgments.

-Michael Manukian

Reference:

[1] Lawrence Stone, Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642 (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

[2] Stone, Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642.

[3] Gordon Donaldson, Scotland, James V-James VII. The Edinburg History of Scotland, Vol. III (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1965).

[4] Donaldson, Scotland, James V-James VII.

[5] Jenny Wormald, “James VI and I: Two Kings or One?” History 68 (1983): 188.

[6] Maurice Lee, Great Britain’s Solomon: James VI and I in His Three Kingdoms (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 89.

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