Story type: Essay
It was usual, in the reign of James the First, when they compared it with the preceding glorious one, to distinguish him by the title of Queen James, and his illustrious predecessor by that of King Elizabeth! Sir Anthony Weldon informs us, “That when James the First sent Sir Roger Aston as his messenger to Elizabeth, Sir Roger was always placed in the lobby: the hangings being turned so that he might see the Queen dancing to a little fiddle, which was to no other end than that he should tell his master, by her youthful disposition, how likely he was to come to the crown he so much thirsted after;”–and, indeed, when at her death this same knight, whose origin was low, and whose language was suitable to that origin, appeared before the English council, he could not conceal his Scottish rapture, for, asked how the king did? he replied, “Even, my lords, like a poore man wandering about forty years in a wildernesse and barren soyle, and now arrived at the Land of Promise.” A curious anecdote, respecting the economy of the court in these reigns, is noticed in some manuscript memoirs written in James’s reign, preserved in a family of distinction. The lady, who wrote these memoirs, tells us that a great change had taken place in cleanliness, since the last reign; for, having rose from her chair, she found, on her departure, that she had the honour of carrying upon her some companions who must have been inhabitants of the palace. The court of Elizabeth was celebrated occasionally for its magnificence, and always for its nicety. James was singularly effeminate; he could not behold a drawn sword without shuddering; was much too partial to handsome men; and appears to merit the bitter satire of Churchill. If wanting other proofs, we should only read the second volume of “Royal Letters,” 6987, in the Harleian collections, which contains Stenie’s correspondence with James. The gross familiarity of Buckingham’s address is couched in such terms as these:–he calls his majesty “Dere dad and Gossope!” and concludes his letters with “your humble slaue and dogge, Stenie.” He was a most weak, but not quite a vicious man; yet his expertness in the art of dissimulation was very great indeed. He called this King-Craft. Sir Anthony Weldon gives a lively anecdote of this dissimulation in the king’s behaviour to the Earl of Somerset at the very moment he had prepared to disgrace him. The earl accompanied the king to Royston, and, to his apprehension, never parted from him with more seeming affection, though the king well knew he should never see him more. “The earl, when he kissed his hand, the king hung about his neck, slabbering his cheeks, saying–‘For God’s sake, when shall I see thee again? On my soul I shall neither eat nor sleep until you come again.’ The earl told him on Monday (this being on the Friday). ‘For God’s sake let me,’ said the king:–‘Shall I, shall I?’–then lolled about his neck; ‘then for God’s sake give thy lady this kisse for me, in the same manner at the stayre’s head, at the middle of the stayres, and at the stayre’s foot.’ The earl was not in his coach when the king used these very words (in the hearing of four servants, one of whom reported it instantly to the author of this history), ‘I shall never see his face more.’”
He displayed great imbecility in his amusements, which are characterised by the following one, related by Arthur Wilson:–When James became melancholy in consequence of various disappointments in state matters, Buckingham and his mother used several means of diverting him. Amongst the most ludicrous was the present. They had a young lady, who brought a pig in the dress of a new-born infant: the countess carried it to the king, wrapped in a rich mantle. One Turpin, on this occasion, was dressed like a bishop in all his pontifical ornaments. He began the rites of baptism with the common prayer-book in his hand; a silver ewer with water was held by another. The marquis stood as godfather. When James turned to look at the infant, the pig squeaked: an animal which he greatly abhorred. At this, highly displeased, he exclaimed,–“Out! Away for shame! What blasphemy is this!”
This ridiculous joke did not accord with the feelings of James at that moment; he was not “i’ the vein.” Yet we may observe, that had not such artful politicians as Buckingham and his mother been strongly persuaded of the success of this puerile fancy, they would not have ventured on such “blasphemies.” They certainly had witnessed amusements heretofore not less trivial which had gratified his majesty. The account which Sir Anthony Weldon gives, in his Court of King James, exhibits a curious scene of James’s amusements. “After the king supped, he would come forth to see pastimes and fooleries; in which Sir Ed. Zouch, Sir George Goring, and Sir John Finit, were the chiefe and master fools, and surely this fooling got them more than any others wisdome; Zouch’s part was to sing bawdy songs, and tell bawdy tales; Finit’s to compose these songs: there was a set of fiddlers brought to court on purpose for this fooling, and Goring was master of the game for fooleries, sometimes presenting David Droman and Archee Armstrong, the kings foole, on the back of the other fools, to tilt one at another, till they fell together by the eares; sometimes they performed antick dances. But Sir John Millicent (who was never known before) was commended for notable fooling; and was indeed the best extemporary foole of them all.” Weldon’s “Court of James” is a scandalous chronicle of the times.
His dispositions were, however, generally grave and studious. He seems to have possessed a real love of letters, but attended with that mediocrity of talent which in a private person had never raised him into notice. “While there was a chance,” writes the author of the Catalogue of Noble Authors, “that the dyer’s son, Vorstius, might be divinity-professor at Leyden, instead of being burnt, as his majesty hinted to the Christian prudence of the Dutch that he deserved to be, our ambassadors could not receive instructions, and consequently could not treat on any other business. The king, who did not resent the massacre at Amboyna, was on the point of breaking with the States for supporting a man who professed the heresies of Enjedius, Ostodorus, etc., points of extreme consequence to Great Britain! Sir Dudley Carleton was forced to threaten the Dutch, not only with the hatred of King James, but also with his pen.”
This royal pedant is forcibly characterised by the following observations of the same writer:–
“Among his majesty’s works is a small collection of poetry. Like several of his subjects, our royal author has condescended to apologise for its imperfections, as having been written in his youth, and his maturer age being otherwise occupied. So that (to employ his own language) ‘when his ingyne and age could, his affaires and fascherie would not permit him to correct them, scarslie but at stolen moments, he having the leisure to blenk upon any paper.’ When James sent a present of his harangues, turned into Latin, to the Protestant princes in Europe, it is not unentertaining to observe in their answers of compliments and thanks, how each endeavoured to insinuate that he had read them, without positively asserting it! Buchanan, when asked how he came to make a pedant of his royal pupil, answered that it was the best he could make of him. Sir George Mackenzie relates a story of his tutelage, which shows Buchanan’s humour, and the veneration of others for royalty. The young king being one day at play with his fellow-pupil, the master of Erskine, Buchanan was reading, and desired them to make less noise. As they disregarded his admonition, he told his majesty, if he did not hold his tongue, he would certainly whip his breech. The king replied, he would be glad to see who would bell the cat, alluding to the fable. Buchanan lost his temper, and throwing his book from him, gave his majesty a sound flogging. The old countess of Mar rushed into the room, and taking the king in her arms, asked how he dared to lay his hands on the Lord’s anointed? Madam, replied the elegant and immortal historian, I have whipped his a—-, you may kiss it if you please!”
Many years after this was published, I discovered a curious anecdote:–Even so late as when James I. was seated on the throne of England, once the appearance of his frowning tutor in a dream greatly agitated the king, who in vain attempted to pacify his illustrious pedagogue in this portentous vision. Such was the terror which the remembrance of this inexorable republican tutor had left on the imagination of his royal pupil.
James I. was certainly a zealous votary of literature; his wish was sincere, when at viewing the Bodleian Library at Oxford, he exclaimed, “Were I not a king I would be an university man; and if it were so that I must be a prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would have no other prison than this library, and be chained together with these good authors.”
Hume has informed us, that “his death was decent.” The following are the minute particulars: I have drawn them from an imperfect manuscript collection, made by the celebrated Sir Thomas Browne.
“The lord keeper, on March 22, received a letter from the court, that it was feared his majesty’s sickness was dangerous to death; which fear was more confirmed, for he, meeting Dr. Harvey in the road, was told by him that the king used to have a beneficial evacuation of nature, a sweating in his left arm, as helpful to him as any fontenel could be, which of late failed.
“When the lord keeper presented himself before him, he moved to cheerful discourse, but it would not do. He stayed by his bedside until midnight. Upon the consultations of the physicians in the morning he was out of comfort, and by the prince’s leave told him, kneeling by his pallet, that his days to come would be but few in this world. ‘I am satisfied,’ said the king; ‘but pray you assist me to make me ready for the next world, to go away hence for Christ, whose mercies I call for, and hope to find.’
“From that time the keeper never left him, or put off his clothes to go to bed. The king took the communion, and professed he died in the bosom of the Church of England, whose doctrine he had defended with his pen, being persuaded it was according to the mind of Christ, as he should shortly answer it before him.
“He stayed in the chamber to take notice of everything the king said, and to repulse those who crept much about the chamber door, and into the chamber; they were for the most addicted to the Church of Rome. Being rid of them, he continued in prayer, while the king lingered on, and at last shut his eyes with his own hands.”
Thus, in the full power of his faculties, a timorous prince
encountered the horrors of dissolution. Religion rendered cheerful the abrupt night of futurity; and what can philosophy do more, or rather, can philosophy do as much?
I proposed to have examined with some care the works of James I.; but that uninviting task has been now postponed till it is too late. As a writer, his works may not be valuable, and are infected with the pedantry and the superstition of the age; yet I suspect that James was not that degraded and feeble character in which he ranks by the contagious voice of criticism. He has had more critics than readers. After a great number of acute observations and witty allusions, made extempore, which we find continually recorded of him by contemporary writers, and some not friendly to him, I conclude that he possessed a great promptness of wit, and much solid judgment and acute ingenuity. It requires only a little labour to prove this.
That labour I have since zealously performed. This article, composed more than thirty years ago, displays the effects of first impressions and popular clamours. About ten years I suspected that his character was grossly injured, and lately I found how it has suffered from a variety of causes. That monarch preserved for us a peace of more than twenty years; and his talents were of a higher order than the calumnies of the party who have remorselessly degraded him have allowed a common inquirer to discover. For the rest I must refer the reader to “An Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James I.;” in which he may find many correctives for this article. I shall in a future work enter into further explanations of this ambiguous royal author.
[Footnote 1: Buckingham’s style was even stronger and coarser than the text leads one to suppose. “Your sowship” is the beginning of one letter, and “I kiss your dirty hands” the conclusion of another. The king had encouraged this by his own extraordinary familiarity. “My own sweet and dear child,” “Sweet hearty,” “My sweet Steenie and gossip,” are the commencements of the royal epistles to Buckingham; and in one instance, where he proposes a hunting party and invites the ladies of his family, he does it in words of perfect obscenity.]