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The British side of the year 12 course will kick off with looking at King James I. The two articles by
Jenny Wormald and Roger Lockyer will give you an overview of James and his reign.
Please read the articles and answer the following questions in full sentences, with as much detail
and explanation as you can.
This work will be collected in the first lesson in September.
How might James’ childhood have affected his personality and adult life?
What kind of problems did James face in his early years as King of Scotland?
What was James’ style of leadership as King of Scotland in the 1580s and 1590s?
What were James’ views on kingship?
Why do you think Wormald (author of the article) argues that ‘his Scottish kingship was not
in any way a trial run for kingship of England’?
What changes did James implement and how were these received by the English?
Why do you think James wanted to be known as ‘King of Britain’ rather than ‘King of
England’ and why did people oppose this idea?
Why were ‘Anglo-Scottish relations within the new composite kingship of Britain…inevitably
How successfully did James deal with tensions in the Church and religious diversity in
What were James’ aims in foreign policy and how successful was he in achieving them?
Why do you think James is ‘most famous for his favourites’?
How does the Lockyer article suggest that James and Parliaments clashed?
According to Lockyer, why were James’ finances such an important issue?
How positively do Wormald and Lockyer portray James in these articles? Explain your
Published on History Today (
Home > James VI & I
James VI & I
By Jenny Wormald
Published in History Today Volume 52 Issue 6 June 2002
James I
Jenny Wormald reviews the career of the man who was King of Scotland for fifty-seven years and
King of England for twenty-two, and whose great dream was to create a unified kingdom of Great
Portrait of James by John de Critz, c. 1606
The union of the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603, which might be regarded as a defining
moment in the history of the British Isles, could hardly have had a more inauspicious starting point.
The future James VI of Scotland, who occupied his throne for almost fifty-eight years and who was
also James I of England for twenty-two, was born in Edinburgh on June 19th, 1566. The happy event
of the birth of a male heir to the Scottish throne was somewhat marred when his mother, Mary
Queen of Scots, bitterly snarled at the father, Henry Lord Darnley, that ‘he is so much your son that I
fear that it will be worse for him hereafter’. As events turned out, it would not be worse, but only
because the baby in question had infinitely more ability than either parent. His mother was obsessed
with the succession to the English crown, about which she continually nagged and whined despite
the fact that Elizabeth was still a young woman of child-bearing age and expected to marry; and she
had been embroiled in scandal, when six months pregnant, with the murder of her Italian musician
and secretary David Rizzio (who was not in fact the Queen’s lover but certainly too much in her
favour, as representative and ultimate victim of her predilection for the foreign servants who staffed
her household).
James’s father was an irresponsible lightweight who had captured Mary’s devotion when, on his
return from England to Scotland in 1565, she had nursed him through measles. The devotion had
long-term political consequences but was personally shortlived, and as Scottish politics in Mary’s
brief reign were dominated by the Queen’s emotions rather than any political intelligence, the first
year of James’s life saw a kingdom of remarkable strength and success spiral down into sexual
scandal and political mayhem. In December 1566 Darnley failed to attend the splendid baptism of
his son, preferring to spend his time writing to foreign powers about the failures of his wife. In
February 1567, he was murdered, strangled or smothered as he tried to escape following the
spectacular explosion of Kirk o’ Field; quite a number of the political nation were involved but the
man generally suspected of the murder was James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, who was also thought
to be the Queen’s lover and was certainly protected by the Queen, and subsequently became her
Mary’s marriage to Bothwell brought her to her final disaster: in July 1567 she was forced to
abdicate, in favour of her son James. The future king of Britain, then a year old, thus became king of
This inevitably meant a long minority. The Scots had plenty of experience of minorities; this was the
seventh since 1406. But it was complicated by the abnormal situation that the previous monarch
was still alive, making a nuisance of herself in England and never giving up hope of coming back to
rule in Scotland. The reign began with minor and dreary civil war between King’s and Queen’s men
which dragged on until 1573, enlivened only by the presence of English troops helping the King’s
Men at the siege of Edinburgh castle, who were ordered by their notoriously parsimonious monarch
to crawl round the foot of the castle rock collecting cannon balls for re-use. (The Scots also took part
in this dangerous enterprise; but Elizabeth had to pay them.) But the English support for the young
king also symbolised a shift in Scottish foreign relations, away from the Auld Alliance with France
towards the ‘auld inemie’, England; for Protestant Scotland now looked to her Protestant neighbour
to the south. The most abiding legacy of the minority was religious problems within Scotland, for it
gave the reformed kirk, with radical ideas about church and state that firmly rejected any notion of
royal supremacy, more than twenty years headstart before the King could begin to impose his
control – which he first attempted to do in the early 1580s, with increasing success after he had
escaped in 1583 from the control of a presbyterian group of nobles, the Ruthven Raiders, who had
seized him the previous year.
From the King’s point of view, therefore, in the 1580s and 1590s ‘kingcraft’ meant primarily
establishing his authority over Andrew Melville (1545-1622) and his followers on the extreme
presbyterian wing of the kirk, who were far more threatening to him than any aristocrat, however
powerful. It also meant careful management of Parliament – necessary anyway but particularly so
because of those within it who supported the Melvillians. He also had to re-establish the prestige of
monarchy, which had been sadly dented by the antics of his mother. He was a towering success in all
these areas. The fight with the Melvillians was prolonged and bitter, and made all the more difficult
by the kirk’s use of its great propaganda weapon, the pulpit, to attack the King openly, and the fact
that for most of the 1590s Melvillian strength meant that there were no bishops appointed in the
church, on whose support he could have drawn in both Parliament and the general assembly of the
kirk. Moreover in England, Elizabeth, for all her increasingly paranoid hatred of her own Puritans,
was willing to add to James’s problems by allowing his Puritans haven and even a voice in the
London pulpits. But James carefully manipulated the General Assembly and cultivated the
moderates in the kirk, taking an increasingly tough line against the presbyterians whom he warded,
argued ferociously with, and even dared to laugh at; and when the kirk inspired a riot in Edinburgh
at the end of 1596, he threatened to move his government from his capital city. All this made his
victory inevitable. In 1600, three parliamentary bishops were appointed, and full diocesan
episcopacy was restored in 1610, while in 1606 Melville and his associates were summoned south to
a second ‘Hampton Court Conference’, and then packed off into exile.
Parliament was used from 1584 to enhance his royal standing; the attacks of his erstwhile tutor,
George Buchanan, on his mother and his dangerous contractual views of kingship, were banned, as
was speaking against the King and his predecessors; meanwhile, to add to the dignity of Parliament
and therefore that of the crown, the King designed robes for its Riding, the ceremonial procession
through Edinburgh which marked the beginning of a parliamentary session. Throughout the 1590s, a
series of acts imposed increasingly tight control of business; and the King took part personally in
Parliament’s deliberations.
Also from the early 1580s, James’s instinct for lofty kingship, allied to his passion for being a poetand scholar-king, brought his court back to a level that could impress fellow monarchs. Impoverished
though Scotland was, James had nothing to learn about the game of kings, the rivalry in cutting a
dash. His court became the centre for a dazzling circle of poets whose leading figure was the King,
writing his own poetry as well as a treatise on the rules for Scottish poetry. In the same period he
began his theological writings, which in the future were to mark him out as a theological scholar of
note, who could attract to his court after 1603 such noted figures as the Frenchman Isaac Casaubon
(1559-1614), and in Scotland would give him additional clout in his battle with the Melvillians. By the
late 1590s, he was engaged in the European debate about the nature of kingship, with The Trew Law
of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599) making a contribution to the argument for
divine right kingship that was all the more compelling for being written by a king. Meanwhile, after
witches had claimed to threaten his life in 1591, James wrote Daemonologie (1597), the royal
expert’s final statement of his belief in witchcraft with undertones of scepticism about individual
women accused of witchcraft. And although, as king of England, he never acted in the glorious
masques written for his court by Ben Jonson, in Scotland in 1588 he wrote and performed in one of
his own, for the wedding of his then favourite, George Earl of Huntly. He also invited to his
Edinburgh court English actors, musicians and masquers, thus creating a British court culture in
Scotland; in 1603, he recreated this in England when his Scottish court poets accompanied him
James’s interest in British culture led him, after 1603, to become a much more generous patron than
Elizabeth had been, but it was in no sense a matter of subduing Scotland to the subservient place in
his vision of becoming king of England. Unlike his mother, James was a genuine king of Scotland. He
endlessly infuriated Elizabeth by his refusal to dance to her tune because of his hopes of the English
succession. It was no subservient king who persuaded the English Queen to pay him a virtually
annual pension amounting to £58,000; and while she refused until the end of her life to name her
successor, she came very close to it in 1587 when she executed Mary, and she was certainly
prepared to pay heavily in 1588 when James was less than co-operative about the threat from the
Armada. His Scottish kingship was not in any way a trial run for kingship of England; modern scholars
of Anglocentric persuasion may make the mistake of thinking that it was, but his English subjects
never made that mistake. James was king of Scotland for almost fifty-seven years. For the last
twenty-two years of his life he was, as he saw it, king not of England but of Britain.
It is, therefore, important to assess his Scottish kingship in its own right. As king of Scots, a casual,
laid-back, scholarly, politically able and witty monarch, ruling a small kingdom but one which, in
terms of its religious problems and government institutions, posed as many problems for its ruler as
the greater kingdoms of Europe, James had been astonishingly effective. He succeeded not least
because he had to establish his kingship after (as he himself said) a lack of effective rule since the
death of his grandfather James V in 1542, and after the disasters of his mother’s reign. His success in
Scotland however, was to create huge problems for him when he went south in 1603. On the one
hand, after fifty years of petticoat government in England and mounting uncertainty over the
succession to the throne, there was enthusiasm south of the Border for the fact that there was at
last an adult male king, Protestant and with heirs. On the other, his English subjects, including the
Earl of Northumberland (who clearly expressed his views in a letter to the King before 1603), the
leading Elizabethan politician Robert Cecil and his counterpart in the church Richard Bancroft,
assumed that James would allow Scotland to sink into the background while he learned his trade as
king of England. They were horribly wrong. It was a terrible though understandable misjudgement,
based in part on an unwillingness to acknowledge the unpalatable fact that England’s sporadic
attempts to annex Scotland since the late thirteenth century had resulted in the uniting of the
kingdoms under a Scottish, not an English, king. The English also found it hard to accept the high
confidence of sixteenth-century Scotland, with its determinedly European perception of itself,
compared to the low morale of England that had been reduced, after the final defeat in the Hundred
Years’ War in 1453, to being an offshore island rather than a major European power. Sixteenthcentury England had resorted to a desperate pride in being English: in 1559, John Aylmer, future
bishop of London, even claimed that God himself was English. The contrast between the jubilant
Scots of 1603 and their worried English counterparts could hardly have been more stark.
The English were right to worry. The accession itself might have been a great relief because it went
through without challenge, from within England or abroad. But it was also wholly abnormal. The
new King of England was in Edinburgh, and it would be some weeks before he reached London. Cecil
and his supporters, dominant in Elizabeth’s last years, were therefore forced to wait impotently in
London while rivals intent on fixing their interest with the King were free to stream north to meet
him; hence Cecil’s farcical suggestion that the new King could sneak south to his brother Lord
Burghley’s seat at Burghley in Northamptonshire, to be welcomed and ushered into his capital.
James’s dusty reply, that he was not going to deny York, the second city of the kingdom, its chance
of a party, was the warning note that the new King had no intention of being treated as an
apprentice in need of training. Yet seven years later, in the Parliament of 1610, the MP and common
lawyer Nicholas Fuller was claiming that it was the duty of the Commons to tell the King of England
what, by the laws of England, he could do.
Already, before he arrived in London, James had made it clear that it was his style of kingship that
would now be imposed on England. He broke the narrow Cecilian monopoly by extending the
number of the very small Elizabethan Privy Council, releasing a principal supporter of the Earl of
Essex, the Earl of Southampton, from the Tower, and going on in 1603 to create Henry Lord Howard,
out of favour under Elizabeth, Earl of Northampton, a year before he made Cecil Earl of Salisbury. He
gave Scotsmen place on the Council and in household offices. And within a month of his arrival in
London, his response to English hostility to his efforts to create a genuinely Anglo-Scottish household
was to make his Bedchamber, the inner sanctum where that great prize, access to the King, was at
its most available, entirely Scottish. He was, though, in an impossible position. Naturally he could not
turn his back on his Scottish servants. But these servants only added to the frenzied search for place
and office in court and government, when demand already outran supply. By the end of 1604, he
had accepted that giving Scotsmen offices was too offensive to the English; but his solution, to give
them money instead, was equally offensive, especially in the light of his own hopeless extravagance
born of his inability to say no to importunate suitors. As the royal debt mounted, it was all too easy
for the English (other than Cecil) to blind themselves to the underlying fiscal weakness of the crown,
and ascribe it simply to James’s generosity to the Scots; and as he retained his Scottish Bedchamber,
grousing about Scots favoured at court at the expense of the English continued.
The English resentment was made worse not only through James’s insistence in remaining King of
Scotland, but his insistence in refusing to be king of England; he was king of Britain. In 1604 his first
English Parliament denied him that title, and he assumed it by proclamation. This looked like an alltoo-arbitrary act by a king already known as an exponent of divine-right theory. Worried MPs
produced impassioned papers against the name, on the theme that the ancient and glorious name of
England would be forgotten, and foreigners would not know who they were. What the English
wanted was to absorb Scotland into the English hegemony; neither the King nor the Scots agreed. In
the teeth of intense opposition, the King pressed on with his demand for an incorporating union,
which dominated the political scene until 1607.
Or did he? This divine-right King was in fact a man of remarkably flexible political mind, a negotiator
of considerable skill. He began with huge demands – and then scaled them down. What he got was
not full union of the two kingdoms, but free trade, naturalisation and the repeal of all hostile laws;
and then he began to speak tactfully of England as the more powerful nation. What did not happen
in his reign was that Scotland was reduced to provincial status. It was a notable achievement.
James’s rule of Scotland as an absentee king was also remarkably successful, Until his death in 1611,
George Earl of Dunbar acted as his link-man, a genuinely Anglo-Scottish politician moving between
Edinburgh and London. There was no successor to Dunbar. But James kept up a regular and detailed
correspondence with his Scottish government; and, to his good luck, all its members other than
Dunbar had served him in the 1590s and lived on until the 1620s, so that the problems of absentee
kingship were substantially reduced by personal knowledge.
The King had promised to return to Scotland every three years. He returned only once, in 1617. The
reason was not neglect or indifference, but the difficulty of persuading the English that such a
journey was necessary; in 1617 he managed it, despite his favourite Buckingham and other English
courtiers kneeling before him in his bedchamber pleading with him not to go. It was in no small
measure his continued and genuine interest in his northern kingdom which was responsible for
ensuring that the Union of the Crowns would last.
Anglo-Scottish relations within the new composite kingship of Britain were inevitably strained. In
other ways, notably in the church, tensions were reduced after 1603. James had none of Elizabeth’s
fearful paranoia about Catholics and Puritans. Theological debate, not the imposition of conformity,
was what interested him; he was never afraid of differences of religious opinion. He had already
written to a horrified Cecil before 1603 that he regarded persecution as the sign of a false church,
and that Rome was their mother-church, however ‘clogged with many infirmities’. That attitude was
the basis of the wholly erroneous idea, put forward by some Catholics from the seventeenth century
to the present day, that Cecil staged the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 , in order to force James into
taking a tougher line with the Catholics. Remarkably, despite the fact that this attempted
destruction of the royal family, Parliament and various foreign dignitaries came close to success,
James consistently refused to blame the English Catholics as a whole for a plot dreamed up by
thirteen fanatics; and the number of Catholics executed in his reign was less than one-sixth of those
who died in the last two decades of Elizabeth’s.
At the other end of the religious spectrum, Puritans had a far easier time under James than under
Elizabeth; they were accommodated into his church. The encounter with the English Puritans at the
Hampton Court Conference of 1604 showed James that he was dealing with men of a very different
complexion from the Melvillians of Scotland. His famous outburst, ‘no bishop, no king’, had no real
relevance to the English situation; it was a sudden explosion, in the heat of debate, which referred
back to his Scottish experience. The followers of the Dutch anti-Calvinist theologian Arminius were
also accommodated. Arminians as well as Calvinists got bishoprics, for the King’s priority was an
effective bench of bishops rather than conformity to one theology. Such a casual approach by a
confident king, so different from Elizabeth’s or Charles I’s, had a great deal to be said for it. James
himself was a Calvinist; but the structure of the English church was more acceptable to him than the
hybrid episcopal-presbyterian polity of the Scottish kirk, with whom he clashed again in 1617 when
he tried to introduce what were regarded as Anglican practices that undermined the purity of
hardline Scottish Calvinism. Yet James brought from Scotland two ideas which he had shared with
his Scottish Puritans: an insistence on a well-educated and well-paid clergy, and a new translation of
the Bible. Perhaps the most fitting monument for King James, and the one he himself would have
wanted, is the glorious prose of the Authorised Version.
What, sadly, was not a monument was the Thirty Years’ War. James – Rex Pacificus, with his motto
‘blessed are the peacemakers’ – inherited from his Stewart ancestors a high sense of his European
importance, combined with the awareness that this was better demonstrated through diplomacy
than through war. And as a king with a family, he could enter, as Elizabeth could not, into the
dynastic politics of Europe. In 1604 he ended the Anglo-Spanish war which had dragged on
ingloriously after the Armada. Thereafter, he made friendship with Spain the cornerstone of his
policy; his daughter Elizabeth was married to the Calvinist Frederick Elector Palatine, but for Charles
he wanted a Spanish match. When, in 1618, Frederick’s hare-brained acceptance of the crown of
Bohemia lost him both the Palatinate and Bohemia and plunged Europe into war, James refused
military help. It brought him intense criticism, as Protestant king and kinsman, but his efforts to
negotiate a settlement by bringing Spanish Hapsburg influence to bear on the Holy Roman Emperor
were far more intelligent than the rush to war. He failed: in 1623 the Spanish match collapsed, the
King had nothing else to offer, and the war-party in England got its way. The result was England’s
short-lived and dismal involvement and, much more importantly, a prolonged and extremely bloody
James is, of course, most famous for his favourites. In fact modern historians and particularly literary
critics have made much more of this than contemporaries did. Like James, Elizabeth had male
favourites, who played a prominent part in factional politics. Unlike Elizabeth, James had children,
thus fulfilling as she had not one of the fundamental duties of kingship. Bi-sexuality was not a
problem; the King might have male favourites, but what really mattered was that he had male heirs.
There were four main favourites, two in Scotland, two in England, of which the last was the
notorious Buckingham. But James’s favourites were not simply pretty boys; to have the King’s
favour, they had to be men of political stature and usefulness.
James reigned at a time when multiple kingdoms were repeatedly coming into existence. The list of
those which did not last is far longer than those which did. Of the successes, the union of Castile and
Aragon was one; the kingdoms of Britain were another. His reign saw the creation of a union which
is still with us today, even if recently its form has changed. After 1625, there was never any serious
effort to dismantle it. In 1603, centuries of hostility ensured that the English and the Scots disliked
one another intensely. By 1625, they were learning that it was possible to live together. Successful,
flexible and effective kingship had ensured that. James’s Scottish subjects had never doubted his
ability. His English ones came more and more to appreciate it, curious and profoundly different
though it was from his long-lived predecessor’s. Even if, in life, he was James King of England,
Scotland, Ireland and France, he was in fact what he wanted to be: James the creator of Britain.
For Further Reading
Maurice Lee Jr., Great Britain’s Solomon (University of Illinois Press, 1990); J. Goodare and M. Lynch,
eds, The Reign of James VI (Tuckwell Press, 2000); B.R. Galloway, The Union of England and Scotland,
1603-1608 (John Donald, 1986); R. Mason, ed., Scots and Britons (Cambridge UP, 1994); B.P. Levack,
The Formation of the British State (Oxford UP, 1987); B. Bradsahw and J. Morrill, eds., The British
Problem, c.1534-1707 (MacMillan, 1996); W.B. Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of
Christendom (Cambridge UP, 1997); K.M. Brown, Kingdom or province? Scotland and the Regal
Union, 1603-1715 (MacMillan, 1992).
Jenny Wormald is C.E.Hodge Fellow & Tutor in Modern History, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
Source URL:
James VI and I By Roger Lockyer
Published in History Review Issue 34 September 1999
Roger Lockyer takes a fresh look at the much-maligned James VI of Scotland, who became the first
Stuart king of England.
James VI of Scotland and I of England has had a bad press. It began with Sir Anthony Weldon, who
held a minor post in the royal administration until he was sacked for writing a scurrilous tract about
Scotland, the King's native land. Weldon took his revenge by producing the Court and Character of
King James I, a piece of sensational journalism which would never have seen the light of day but for
the breakdown of censorship in the 1640s. This became a best-seller, and James was thereafter
regarded as little better than a buffoon, unworthily spanning the gap between the glorious Virgin
Queen and the tragic royal martyr. This traditional view survived well into the 20th century. Only in
the 1970s did historians start looking afresh at the surviving evidence of James's reign in both
Scotland and England. As they did so, they became aware that there was a great deal to be said in
his favour.
Divine Right
James is often dismissed as the proponent of an absurd theory of 'divine-right monarchy', but his
ideas on the subject were in fact common currency throughout Europe, where it was taken as
axiomatic that kings were appointed by God to rule His people. The nature of royal authority became
a hotly disputed issue in the second half of the 16th century, when France was torn apart by wars of
religion in which both protestants and catholics claimed that kings could be called to account for
their actions, and even put to death. In practice, this was a recipe for perpetual anarchy, and the
only way out seemed to be that of asserting the absolute authority of the monarch and insisting that
he must be obeyed.
The role of monarchy in Scotland
James knew from his own experience how the absence of effective royal rule could open the way to
violence and disorder. He was a mere 13 months old when the enforced abdication of his mother,
Mary, Queen of Scots, set him on the throne and for many years he was used as a pawn in the power
struggles of the Scottish nobility. Not only this. He was placed under the tutorship of George
Buchanan, who had a poor opinion of monarchy and maintained that tyrannicide was justified when
kings ruled badly. If James had been as feeble a creature as tradition has it, he would have been
crushed by the circumstances of his upbringing. But he used the education which his formidable
tutor gave him to develop his own opinions. In 1598 he produced The True Law of Free Monarchies,
in which he argued that kings, being appointed by God, were responsible to Him alone and not to
‘the people’ or any other human institution.
Buchanan’s low view of monarchy was widely shared in 16th century Scotland. The protestant
church, or Kirk, had only been able to establish itself by supporting a revolt against James’s catholic
mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, and its leaders never doubted that God spoke through them rather
than any secular ruler. One of the most forceful of these leaders was Andrew Melville, who told
James to his face that he was merely ‘God’s silly [i.e. simple] vassal’ and informed him that ‘there is
two kingdoms in Scotland. There is Christ Jesus the King, and his kingdom the Kirk, whose subject
King James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member'.
James, who was well practised in concealing his private thoughts, preserved an outward calm, but
when, a year or two later, he set to work on the Basilicon Doron – a philosophical treatise written for
the guidance of his son and heir, Prince Henry – he warned him to be on his guard against 'some
fiery-spirited man in the ministry' who 'fed themselves with the hope to become Tribuni plebis
[tribunes of the people]: and so, in a popular government, by leading the people by the nose, to bear
the sway of all the rule'.
Anglo-Scottish unity?
James had shown great skill, as well as courage, in manoeuvring between the Scottish factions, and
by the time he ascended the English throne he had reduced the nobility to obedience and tamed the
presbyterian Kirk. He had every reason to assume that his success in Scotland would be replicated in
England, but the two countries were dissimilar. Scottish law, based upon the imperial law of ancient
Rome, was significantly different from English common law. The Scottish Parliament, which met for
only a few days at a time and was under the control of royal councillors, bore no more than a
fleeting resemblance to its English counterpart. The presbyterian Church of Scotland, even with the
bishops imposed upon it by James, was far removed in its doctrine and practices from the Church of
England. Moreover, the two nations were old enemies, and suspicions were entrenched on both
sides. James took it for granted that God had chosen him to combine Scotland and England into the
single entity of Great Britain, but when he called upon the English Parliament to create a union of
states he was rebuffed. English nationalism was a potent force, and the very fact that their new
sovereign was a Scot, unfamiliar with English ways, added to the determination of members of the
Commons to preserve the rights and liberties won for the English by their ancestors.
There was nothing fatuous or shameful about James's desire to unite his two kingdoms. Moreover,
the record of debates in the House of Commons makes it plain that members were not solely
motivated by the desire to preserve their rights. Prejudice, bigotry and ignorance were also
powerfully at work. It is to James's credit that he rose above these, but his far-sightedness was not
matched by his subjects. The noble objective of creating Great Britain was sacrificed on the altar of
Little Englanderism.
Finance and friction
Mutual suspicion between King and Parliament contributed to mutual misunderstanding, and this
was increased by the financial pressures on the crown. Galloping inflation during the 16th century
had eroded the royal revenue, and by 1603 it no longer covered the costs of government. Either
Parliament must reendow the crown, or prerogative sources of income would have to be expanded.
Members of Parliament, however, had to take into consideration the views of their constituents,
who were opposed to taxation, especially after James brought to an end the costly war with Spain.
They could take refuge from reality by arguing that royal extravagance rather than inherent
weaknesses was the cause of the crown's poverty.
James was undoubtedly extravagant. After his abrupt transition from the poverty of Scotland to the
apparently limitless wealth of England he gave away capital sums and pensions as though there were
no tomorrow. What made matters worse in the eyes of his English subjects was that most of James's
largesse was directed towards his fellow Scots. Since the majority of offices in the new 'British'
administration were reserved for the English, it was only fair that the Scots should receive a higher
proportion of the financial benefits. English taxpayers, however, were not interested in fairness.
They regarded the Scots as sponges upon the English state, and James himself as an improvident
dispenser of the royal revenues. Rather than re-endow the crown, they urged him to put his house in
James in fact did so. The change became apparent after Lionel Cranfield, a future Lord Treasurer,
entered the royal service in 1618, but as early as 1610 James had assured members of Parliament
that 'that vastness of my expence is past which I used [in] the first two or three years after my
coming hither That Christmas and open-tide is ended'. If members had taken him at his word they
might have made a more positive response to Robert Cecil's far-sighted proposal for a Great
Contract, whereby the crown would surrender wardship, purveyance, and a number of minor
revenues in return for regular and permanent taxation. The Commons, to give them credit, were not
entirely negative, but they drove so hard a bargain that even if the proposal had been carried
through it would have left the crown little better off. However, after consulting their constituents
during the summer recess in 1610, the Commons declined to put into effect the provisional
agreement they bad earlier accepted, and the project collapsed.
The Commons might have been more receptive to Cecil's proposal if he had not already expanded
the crown's resources by enlarging the number and range of Impositions. These were taxes on trade
levied by virtue of the royal prerogative, and although they were confirmed as legal by the
judgement in Bate's Case in 1606 they remained a bone of contention down to the eve of the Civil
War. Impositions brought in some £70,000 a year, which was as much as a parliamentary subsidy,
but they were capable of indefinite expansion. Indeed, by the closing years of Charles I's reign they
were worth a quarter of a million pounds annually. Members of Parliament were understandably
apprehensive that if James could raise the equivalent of a subsidy every year without the hassle of
holding a parliamentary session, he would follow the example of many of his fellow rulers and
dispense with representative assemblies altogether. This was not James's intention, and he never
gave up hope of establishing harmonious relations with his parliaments. To this end, he was
prepared to make concessions. He offered to accept a statute which would deprive the crown of the
right to levy any more Impositions, unless these were authorised by Parliament. He also promised to
give up existing Impositions if Parliament provided an acceptable alternative. However, the
Commons were unwilling to compensate the King for what they continued to regard as illegal
taxation. Moreover, they demanded that Impositions should be clearly and definitively abandoned
before they committed themselves to the Great Contract or any similar proposals. In other words,
they wanted James to trust them to fulfil their side of the bargain, while refusing to show the same
trust in him.
Religion and resistance
Money – or the lack of it – was not the only cause of disharmony between the King and the political
nation. Religion was another. There could be no doubting James's commitment to protestantism,
and this went down well with his new subjects. But they were unclear about his exact attitude, and
differed in their responses. Many of the bishops feared that James would be too inclined towards
presbyterianism, and sought reassurance on this point. Puritans, on the other hand, hoped he would
permit a greater degree of diversity for those ministers who regarded the wearing of distinctive
vestments and participating in ceremonies such as signing with the cross in baptism and using the
ring in the marriage service as ungodly. James, who was always at heart a reconciler, summoned a.
conference of bishops and puritan leaders to Hampton Court at the very outset of his reign, to try to
find a common position on disputed issues. In many respects the Conference was a success, but
although a number of concessions were made to the puritans, James demonstrated his commitment
to the established Church and his determination to enforce conformity to its doctrines and practice.
These were defined by the Canons drawn up by Convocation in 1604 and promulgated by James in
his capacity as supreme governor of the Church. Most ministers, even if they were of puritan
inclination, found it possible to reconcile their consciences with the canonical requirements, but
there remained a small group for whom compromise was out of the question. James initially took a
hard line against these non-conformers, assuming that English puritans, like their Scottish
counterparts, were tainted with republicanism. But as he moved around southern England on
hunting expeditions, meeting the principal landowners, he came to realise that his fears were
unfounded, and he moderated his approach. In the end, about 80 ministers – less than one per cent
of the total – were ejected from their livings.
Parliament took up the cause of the 'deprived ministers', but James would not yield on this issue. He
believed, with good reason, that the Church needed stability above all things and. that the toleration
of non-conformity would weaken it internally. James was also unimpressed by the Commons'
criticism of the episcopate. Unlike Elizabeth, he took great care over the appointment of bishops and
made sure they reflected the diversity of attitudes and opinions within the Church. Following the
death of Whitgift, he chose the Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Bancroft, formerly Whitgift’s chaplain, was a disciplinarian who had played the principal part in
drawing up the 1604 Canons. Under him, the Church continued on the course that Whitgift had laid
down. In 1610, however, Bancroft died, and many people assumed that James would appoint his
favourite preacher, the high-church Lancelot Andrews, as the new Archbishop. But Bancroft had
recommended as his successor a conforming puritan, George Abbot, and James went along with this.
He was already familiar with Abbot, who had been chaplain to his close friend and servant, the
Scottish Earl of Dunbar, and in 1608 had played a key role in reconciling the Scottish Kirk to
episcopacy. Abbot was far more acceptable to the broad range of ministers within the established
Church in England than Andrewes would have been, and James’s choice of him as Archbishop led to
a marked decline in puritan agitation.
It was no mean achievement on James’s part to hold the Church of England together and make it, in
fact as well as well as theory, the Church of the English people. This balancing act became more
difficult in the closing years of the reign, when the outbreak of religious war on the continent
polarised opinion within the political nation. James was determined to keep Britain out of the
conflict while he pursued diplomatic initiatives designed to restore peace in Europe. He was
supported in this aim by the high-church or Arminian faction among the clergy, who, knowing their
general unpopularity, looked to the King to protect them, and offered him unquestioning loyalty in
return. The anti-Arminians, on the other hand, who were the vast majority, demanded that James
should take the lead in uniting the protestant states of Europe in a crusade against Spain and the
Papacy. James did his best to dampen down controversy by forbidding the public discussion of
thorny issues, but control of events was slipping out of his hands. Fortunately for him, he died in
1625, before the Jacobean consensus had completely broken down.
While James's commitment to the Protestant Church won general support, his reluctance to
persecute Roman Catholics was widely condemned. James regarded the fragmentation of
Christianity which had come about as a consequence of the 16th-century Reformation as a tragedy,
and he longed to restore unity to Christendom by means of interlocking marriage alliances. He
arranged for his daughter, Elizabeth, to marry Frederick, Elector Palatine, one of the principal
protestant princes in Germany. At the same time he was negotiating to arrange a match between his
son and a daughter of the King of Spain, regarded in England as the archetypal catholic sovereign.
While the first part of his strategy was successfully accomplished, the Spanish match was never
achieved. Yet in the hope of promoting it, James relaxed the enforcement of' the penal laws against
English catholics. This alarmed his protestant subjects and led to the bitter break-up of the 1621
James's relative tolerance towards English catholics, and his willingness to accept limited diversity
within the established Church so long as outward conformity was maintained, make him a far more
attractive figure to us than the bigoted fundamentalists who were prominent in the Commons and
reflected public opinion in the country at large. Yet rulers take a considerable risk if they pursue
policies which are too far out of line with those which their people favour. James was adept at
obscuring his aims, and the divergence between his rhetoric and his actions played a key role in this.
Yet in his defence of monarchy and his pursuit of the middle way in religion he showed not only a
tenaciousness but a courage which belie the conventional view of him as a timid coward.
Royal favourites
In Jacobean Britain, James was the ruler, and this remained the case even where his notorious
favourites were concerned. There is no doubt that he chose his male favourites on account of their
looks and sexual appeal, but while they may have dominated him emotionally they never did so
politically. Robert Kerr, whom James created Earl of Somerset, was of little or no political
significance. George Villiers, who ended up as Duke of Buckingham, was far more important in this
respect, but during James's reign he never attained the Prime-Ministerial position he occupied under
Charles I. His initial appointment, as Lord Admiral, gave him responsibility for the navy, which he
took seriously – reforming naval finances and administration, and initiating a programme of regular
ship-building. In the broader sphere be acted as James's agent, not least in negotiating with Count
Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador. By using him in this way, James deflected a great deal of the
hostility aroused by unpopular policies towards Buckingham rather than himself.
There are indications that by 1621 Buckingham was beginning to question some of the King's
assumptions. But not until 1623, when he accompanied Prince Charles on the journey to Madrid
which was supposed to clear the last hurdles in the way of the Spanish Match, did he become aware
of the true nature of the power struggle in Europe. He returned home determined that Britain
should take the lead in forming an anti-Habsburg alliance, but he could not bring this about unless
James agreed, and the King clung to his pacifist convictions. Although James allowed himself to be
pushed into taking a bellicose stance, his cautious nature held him back from a full commitment.
This was in many ways unfortunate, and there is a case for the argument that Charles I's reign would
have got off to a better start if James had died in early 1624 rather than a year later. But there is no
case for asserting that in the closing years of' his reign James was clay in Buckingham's hands.
James's achievements can be summed up in a few words. He defended the role of monarchy while
never attempting to subvert the law or established rights; he maintained the established Church;
and he kept his nations at peace at a time when many other states were convulsed by war. He was
not a heroic figure, nor did he ever become an icon, as Elizabeth had done. But his long reign of 58
years in Scotland and 22 years in England and Ireland was far more than an inglorious interlude.
Further Reading:
•Kenneth Fincham (ed) The Early Stuart Church 1603-1642 (1993)
•S.J. Houston James I (1995)
•Maurice Lee Great Britain's Solomon: James VI and I in his Three Kingdoms (1990)
•Roger Lockyer Buckingham (1981)
•Roger Lockyer James VI & I (1998)
•L.L. Peck (ed) The Mental World of the Jacobean Court (1991)
•Conrad Russell Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629 (1979)
•J.P. Somerville Politics and Ideology in England 1603-1640 (1986)
•Jenny Wormald 'James VI & I: Two kings or one?' in History, 68 (1983)
Roger Lockyer is Emeritus Reader in History at the University of London. He is author of The Early
Stuarts (Longman, 2nd edition, 1999).
Source URL:
The Emancipation of the
Russian Serfs, 1861: A
Charter of Freedom or an
Act of Betrayal?
By Michael Lynch
Published in History Review Issue 47 December 2003
Russia Civil Rights, Social
Michael Lynch takes a fresh look at the key reform of
19th-century Russia.
A 1907 painting by Boris Kustodiev depicting the muzhiks listening to the proclamation of the Emancipation
Manifesto in 1861
In 1861 serfdom, the system which tied the Russian peasants irrevocably to
their landlords, was abolished at the Tsar’s imperial command. Four years
later, slavery in the USA was similarly declared unlawful by presidential order.
Tsar Alexander II (1855-81) shared with his father, Nicholas I, a conviction
that American slavery was inhumane. This is not as hypocritical as it might
first appear. The serfdom that had operated in Russia since the middle of the
seventeenth century was technically not slavery. The landowner did not own
the serf. This contrasted with the system in the USA where the negro slaves
were chattels; that is, they were regarded in law as the disposable property of
their masters. In Russia the traditional relationship between lord and serf was
based on land. It was because he lived on his land that the serf was bound to
the lord.
The Russian system dated back to 1649 and the introduction of a legal code
which had granted total authority to the landowner to control the life and work
of the peasant serfs who lived on his land. Since this included the power to
deny the serf the right to move elsewhere, the difference between slavery and
serfdom in practice was so fine as to be indistinguishable. The purpose behind
the granting of such powers to the Russian dvoriane (nobility of landowners)
in 1649 had been to make the nobles dependent on, and therefore loyal to, the
tsar. They were to express that loyalty in practical form by serving the tsar as
military officers or public officials. In this way the Romanov emperors built up
Russia’s civil bureaucracy and the armed services as bodies of public servants
who had a vested interest in maintaining the tsarist state.
The serfs made up just over a third of the population and formed half of the
peasantry. They were most heavily concentrated in the central and western
provinces of Russia.
Why was it necessary to end Serfdom?
In a number of respects serfdom was not dissimilar to the feudalism that had
operated in many parts of pre-modern Europe. However, long before the 19th
century, the feudal system had been abandoned in western Europe as it moved
into the commercial and industrial age. Imperial Russia underwent no such
transition. It remained economically and socially backward. Nearly all
Russians acknowledged this. Some, known as slavophiles, rejoiced, claiming
that holy Russia was a unique God-inspired nation that had nothing to learn
from the corrupt nations to the west. But many Russians, of all ranks and
classes, had come to accept that reform of some kind was unavoidable if their
nation was to progress.
It became convenient to use serfdom to explain all Russia’s current
weaknesses: it was responsible for military incompetence, food shortages, over
population, civil disorder, industrial backwardness. These were oversimplified
explanations but there some truth in all of them: serfdom was symptomatic of
the underlying difficulties that held Russia back from progress.It was,
therefore, a particularly easy target for the intelligentsia, those intellectuals
who in their writings argued for the liberalising of Russian society, beginning
with the emancipation of the exploited peasants.
As often happened in Russian history, it was war that forced the issue. The
Russian state had entered the Crimean War in 1854 with high hopes of victory.
Two years later it suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Allied armies of
France, Britain and Turkey. The shock to Russia was profound. The nation had
always prided itself on its martial strength. Now it had been humiliated.
Alexander II’s Role
By an odd twist of fate, defeat in the war proved of value to the new Tsar.
Although he had been trained for government from an early age, foreign
observers had remarked on how diffident and unsure he appeared. The war
changed all that. Coming to the throne in 1855 in the middle of the conflict,
Alexander II was unable to save Russia from military failure, but the
humiliation convinced him that, if his nation was to have stability and peace at
home and be honoured abroad, military and domestic reforms were vitally
necessary. The first step on that path would be the removal of serfdom, whose
manifest inefficiency benefited neither lord, peasant, nor nation. Alexander
declared that, despite Russia’s defeat, the end of the war marked a golden
moment in the nation’s history. Now was the hour when every Russian, under
the protection of the law, could begin to enjoy ‘the fruits of his own labours’.
Alexander was right in thinking the time was propitious. It had long been
appreciated that some land reform was necessary. To the social and economic
arguments were now added powerful military ones. The army was the great
symbol of Russia’s worth. As long as its army remained strong Russia could
afford to ignore its backwardness as a nation. But the Crimean defeat had
undermined this notion of Russia’s invincibility. Few now had reasoned
objections to reform. Serfdom was manifestly not working. It had failed to
provide the calibre of soldier Russia needed.
So it was that in 1856, the second year of his reign, Alexander II (1855- 81)
announced to the nobles of Russia that ‘the existing condition of owning souls
cannot remained unchanged. It is better to begin to destroy serfdom from
above than to wait until that time when it begins to destroy itself from below’.
These words have often been quoted. What is less often cited is his following
sentence: ‘I ask you, gentlemen, to figure out how all this can be carried out to
completion.’ Alexander was determined on emancipation, but he shrewdly
judged that – by making over to the landowners the responsibility for detailing
how this was to be done – he had made it very difficult for them either to resist
his command or to blame him if their plans were subsequently shown to be
faulty. This was evidence of the remarkable power and influence that the tsar
exercised as absolute ruler.
Over the next five years, thousands of officials sitting in a range of committees
drafted plans for the abolition of serfdom. When their work was done they
presented their proposals to Alexander who then formally issued them in an
Imperial Proclamation. When it was finally presented, in 1861, the
Emancipation statute, which accompanied the Proclamation, contained 22
separate measures whose details filled 360 closely printed pages of a very large
volume. Alexander declared that the basic aim of emancipation was to satisfy
all those involved in serfdom, serfs and land owners alike:
Called by Divine Providence We vowed in our hearts to fulfil the mission
which is entrusted to Us and to surround with Our affection and Our
Imperial solicitude all Our faithful subjects of every rank and condition.
Betrayal of the Peasants?
Impressive though these freedoms first looked, it soon became apparent that
they had come at a heavy price for the peasants. It was not they, but the
landlords, who were the beneficiaries. This should not surprise us: after, it had
been the dvoriane who had drafted the emancipation proposals. The
compensation that the landowners received was far in advance of the market
value of their property. They were also entitled to decide which part of their
holdings they would give up. Unsurprisingly, they kept the best land for
themselves. The serfs got the leftovers. The data shows that the landlords
retained two-thirds of the land while the peasants received only one-third. So
limited was the supply of affordable quality land to the peasants that they were
reduced to buying narrow strips that proved difficult to maintain and which
yielded little food or profit.
Moreover, while the landowners were granted financial compensation for what
they gave up, the peasants had to pay for their new property. Since they had no
savings, they were advanced 100 per cent mortgages, 80 per cent provided by
the State bank and the remaining 20 by the landlords. This appeared a
generous offer, but as in any loan transaction the catch was in the repayments.
The peasants found themselves saddled with redemption payments that
became a lifelong burden that then had to be handed on to their children.
The restrictions on the peasants did not end there. To prevent emancipation
creating too much disruption, the government urged the peasants to remain in
their localities. This was easy to achieve since, for obvious reasons, the great
majority of the ex-serfs bought their allotments of land from the estates where
they were already living. It was also the case that the land available for
purchase came from a stock of land granted to the village and was then sold on
to individual peasants.
A further aid to the authorities in maintaining control was the reorganisation
of local government, which was one of the key reforms that followed in the
wake of emancipation. The government, through its land ‘commandants’
(officials appointed to oversee emancipation) insisted that the mir (the village
commune) become the focus of life in the countryside. The motive was not
cultural but administrative. The mir would provide an effective organisation
for the collection of taxes to which the freed serfs were now liable; it would
also be a controlling mechanism for keeping order in the countryside.
Arguably, after 1861, the freed Russian peasant was as restricted as he had
been when a serf. Instead of being tied to the lord, the peasant was now tied to
the village.
What all this denoted was the mixture of fear and deep distaste that the
Russian establishment traditionally felt towards the peasantry. Often
contemptuously referred to as the ‘dark masses’, the peasants were seen as a
dangerous force that had to be kept down. Beneath the generous words in
which Emancipation had been couched was a belief that the common people of
Russia, unless controlled and directed, were a very real threat to the existing
order of things. Whatever emancipation may have offered to the peasants, it
was not genuine liberty.
The Significance of Emancipation
Emancipation proved the first in a series of measures that Alexander produced
as a part of a programme that included legal and administrative reform and
the extension of press and university freedoms. But behind all these reforms
lay an ulterior motive. Alexander II was not being liberal for its own sake.
According to official records kept by the Ministry of the Interior (equivalent to
the Home Office in Britain) there had been 712 peasant uprisings in Russia
between 1826 and 1854. By granting some of the measures that the
intelligentsia had called for, while in fact tightening control over the peasants,
Alexander intended to lessen the social and political threat to the established
system that those figures frighteningly represented. Above all, he hoped that
an emancipated peasantry, thankful for the gifts that a bountiful tsar had given
them, would provide physically fitter and morally worthier recruits for
Russia’s armies, the symbol and guarantee of Russia’s greatness as a nation.
There is a sense in which the details of Emancipation were less significant than
the fact of the reform itself. Whatever its shortcomings, emancipation was the
prelude to the most sustained programme of reform that imperial Russia had
yet experienced (see the Timeline). There is also the irony that such a
sweeping move could not have been introduced except by a ruler with absolute
powers; it could not have been done in a democracy. The only comparable
social change of such magnitude was President Lincoln’s freeing of the negro
slaves in 1865. But, as a modern Russian historian (Alexander Chubarov, The
Fragile Empire, New York, 1999, p.75) has provocatively pointed out: ‘the
[Russian] emancipation was carried out on an infinitely larger scale, and was
achieved without civil war and without devastation or armed coercion’.
Yet when that achievement has been duly noted and credited, hindsight
suggests that emancipation was essentially a failure. It raised expectations and
dashed them. Russia gave promise of entering a new dawn but then retreated
into darkness. This tends to suggest that Alexander II and his government
deliberately set out to betray the peasants. This was certainly the argument
used by radical critics of the regime. It is important to consider, however, that
land reform always takes time to work. It can never be a quick fix. Alexander’s
prime motive in introducing emancipation was undoubtedly the desire to
produce results that were beneficial to his regime. But this is not to suggest
that he was insincere in his wish to elevate the condition of the peasants.
Where he can be faulted is in his failure to push reform far enough. The fact is
that Alexander II suffered from the besetting dilemma that afflicted all the
reforming tsars from Peter the Great onwards - how to achieve reform without
damaging the interests of the privileged classes that made up imperial Russia.
It was a question that was never satisfactorily answered because it was never
properly faced. Whenever their plans did not work out or became difficult to
achieve, the Romanovs abandoned reform and resorted to coercion and
Emancipation was intended to give Russia economic and social stability and
thus prepare the way for its industrial and commercial growth. But it ended in
failure. It both frightened the privileged classes and disappointed the
progressives. It went too far for those slavophiles in the court who wanted
Russia to cling to its old ways and avoid the corruption that came with western
modernity. It did not go far enough for those progressives who believed that a
major social transformation was needed in Russia.
There is a larger historical perspective. It is suggested by many historians that,
for at least a century before its collapse in the Revolution of 1917, imperial
Russia had been in institutional crisis; the tsarist system had been unable to
find workable solutions to the problems that faced it. If it was to modernise
itself, that is to say if it was to develop its agriculture and industry to the point
where it could sustain its growing population and compete on equal terms
with its European and Asian neighbours and international competitors, it
would need to modify its existing institutions. This it proved unable or
unwilling to do.
Therein lies the tragedy of Emancipation. It is an outstanding example of
tsarist ineptitude. Its introduction held out the possibility that Russia could
build on this fundamentally progressive measure and modify its agricultural
economy in such a manner as to cater for its vast population, which doubled to
125 million during the second half of the 19th century. But the chance was lost.
So reduced was the peasant as an agricultural worker by 1900 that only half of
his meagre income came from farming. He had to sustain himself by
labouring. So much for Alexander II’s claim that he viewed the task of
improving the condition of the peasants as ‘a sacred inheritance’ to which he
was honour bound.
Issues to Debate
To what extent did defeat in the Crimean War provide Alexander II with an
ideal opportunity to introduce major reforms?
In what ways were the Russian peasants better off because of Emancipation, in
what ways worse off?
Do you accept the view that the Emancipation of the Serfs was symptomatic of
the unwillingness of the tsarist system to embrace much needed root and
branch reform?
More by Michael Lynch
1. Read the article and make notes under the following headings:
a. What was serfdom?
b. What is Tsarism?
2. Create a glossary of key words from the article including (use a dictionary for
a. Serf
b. Emancipation
c. Mir
3. Prepare for a discussion in the first lesson on the ‘issues to debate’ section.
Research some supporting evidence from outside of the article to further your
4. Buy the following text and read in preparation for the new school year;
a. The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by S. A. Smith