Sunday, December 31, 2006

Book Review : The Cradle King : A Life of James VI & I by Alan Stewart (Chatto & Windus 2003)

It is difficult to know what to make of James VI. He was "the wisest fool in Christendom", a would-be intellectual who forced his unreadable tracts and doggerel poetry on his subjects. He was a dribbling drunkard who let his pretty favorites rule whilst he spent most of his time out hunting. He was a lavish spendthrift who never managed to balance his household budget, and who sowed the seeds of the English Civil War though his negligence and the subsequent necessity to increase taxation. And, worst of all, he wasn't Elizabeth...

And yet, this was the King who managed to successfully overcome the disadvantage of his mother's execution for Treason, his disqualification from the succession under the terms of the Will of Henry VIII which passed over the Stuart line, and his ineligibility for kingship as a foreigner under English Common Law. He set out to become the King of England, and he succeeded.

As King of England and Scotland, however, his reign was characterised by peace whilst most of Europe was racked by religious turmoil; by a certain degree of religious tolerance in an intolerant age (although James tried unsuccessfully to push an Episcopalian settlement on an unwilling Church of Scotland) and by economic growth which followed the stagnation of the final years of Elizabeth's reign. When he died, the uneasy consensus he had achieved didn't last and the country descended into Civil War, since the one skill of James that Charles lacked was the ability to compromise.

It is true that James' intellectual faculties declined in the latter part of his reign. Yet in his early years he was both learned and a lively debater who could hold his own with the finest minds of his age. His writings, much derided after his death, were actually very successful - his book of advice on Kingship addressed to his son, the Basilikon Doron, sold 16,000 copies, an astonishing number of books in the 17th Century. And in his "Counter-blast to Tobacco" he wrote that smoking is "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless" - proving that he - or Maitland, who was certainly responsible for some of James' poems - was capable of turning a phrase.

Alan Stewart has written a balanced, sympathetic account of the life of James, looking upon him more favourably than many have done, but recognising his faults as well. James is presented as a faintly ridiculous figure, fawning over favourites, having poems written in his name, a tremendous windbag, frequently drunk. In 1621, his horse stumbled and he was cast through the ice into the New River at Theobalds, so that "nothing but his boots were seen". Once rescued, the French Ambassador commented that the only ill-effect was that it had "put so much water into his wine".

Yet he takes care to point out the harsh reality of his childhood - his father murdered before he was born, his mother cast off her throne and imprisoned, James himself frequently at risk from the turbulent Scots lords and incarcerated for his first eleven years whilst being beaten by George Buchanan his tutor. No wonder there were emotional scars. His relationship with both his own son Charles, and with his final favourite, Buckingham, was both close and touching yet also faintly ridiculous.

One can't help feeling that what James lacked most of all was the aura of majestas which Elizabeth had and which Henry VIII had had before her. Despite his spending, he just couldn't cut a kingly character - he was too shy, too uncouth, too Scottish. Yet when one reviews his legacy - the successful union of the crowns and the maintenance of a legitimate, peaceful monarchy whilst at the same time the religious issue was contained, one must reflect that perhaps he wasn't such a fool after all.

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