When Mary Queen of Scots delivered a baby boy, naming him James in memory of her father, her cousin Elizabeth I in England heard the news with resignation. James would be yet another contender standing in the long queue waiting to sit on the English throne at her death.
But despite being the only son of the Scottish monarch, James’ life would not be one of luxury and extravagance. In fact, most of his life was the exact opposite.
Being the only son of Mary Queen of Scots and the ruler of Scotland since he was thirteen months old seems incredible enough on its own, but James’ early childhood years were lonely ones, full of murder and intrigue.
He knew of the mistakes his mother had made. It seems she was prone to making mistakes. He knew the story of his handsome father, Henry Stuart Lord Darnley, who was three years younger than his mother, brought up conscious of his status and his own claim to the English throne through Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s elder sister. After the death of Margaret’s first husband James IV of Scotland, she had married Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. From that marriage, there was one surviving daughter who in turn delivered a baby boy. Henry Stuart Lord Darnley. As a descendant of a daughter of James II of Scotland as well, Henry was in the front of the line for the throne of Scotland and a good chance for the English throne to boot.
And his father had plenty to offer his mother. He was brought up conscious of his status and inheritance. He was well educated speaking Latin, Scottish Gaelic, English and French and he excelled in singing, lute playing and dancing. He was strong, virile and athletic, a good horseman with a passion for hawking and hunting and he had a sound knowledge of weapons. Who could forgive her for snapping him up?
The marriage both infuriated Elizabeth I and made her very nervous. It was, after all, the marriage between her two strongest claimants to the English throne and Darnley was the natural choice for many of Elizabeth’s enemies because he was male, English born and a Catholic.
But Elizabeth need not have worried. With all of his father’s accomplishments, he would have been a real catch except for one major flaw. He had a mean, violent streak in him, which was aggravated by his drinking problem. It’s no wonder this impulsive marriage was a disaster from the beginning and with news of his mother’s pregnancy; Darnley decided the honeymoon was over. It meant their child would be in front of him in the queue to the throne and more than likely, he would never become the king. If you joined the dots together, it’s pretty safe to consider the possibility that the throne was all he ever wanted from the beginning.
Within months of his birth, his mother had been implicated in the death of his father and had announced her marriage to the most likely suspect of the murder. The biggest mistake of all.
In England, Elizabeth I was livid as the updates filtered back to her.
It wasn’t just Elizabeth who was adding two and two together, the Scottish nobles were doing the same thing as well. As the realisation suddenly hit them that his mother was probably involved in his father’s murder, they knew a decision had to be made. Without too much delay, a council informed her that she would have to abdicate and as a finishing touch, they informed her that after she abdicated, she was then to be imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle ready for the charge of murder to be heard in a court of law. There was nothing she could do, they informed her. It was a done deal.
Things went from bad to worse with his mother’s desperate attempt to escape. After abdicating, she’d left him in the care of her half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray, while she had fled to England in the dead of night to escape the consequences. Instead of sanctuary, his mother had found herself spending the last nineteen years of her life in Elizabeth’s prison, plotting endlessly for her cousin’s murder. Eventually, Elizabeth had had enough. His mother’s position as Queen of Scotland had made no difference at all to England when the crime was the attempted assassination of their queen. The expected punishment for treason had been beheading and Elizabeth had not wavered at the end.
To him, these stories were wild, romantic tales told by men sitting around a fireplace with a tankard of ale in their hands while the bitter cold winds blew snow in from the north. James was unaware that those same men were determined that the wild stories they told held just the right amount of danger to ensure he would remain submissive and pliant. The stories were meant to show James what would happen if he didn’t comply. What they actually did was fill James’ heart with a desperate longing for the shadowy figure of his mother. She was a figure he had no hope of ever remembering since she left Scotland when he was only thirteen months old, never to be seen again. Despite this, or possibly because of this, those old men failed. James desperately wanted her to return to Scotland at any cost.
Scotland was ripe for a change when Mary fled to England and there seemed no end to the ruthlessness that men were prepared to go to. As a consequence, James had seen four of his regents die horribly one after the other. When he was four years old, his uncle, the Earl of Moray, had been assassinated and James’ care had been transferred to his paternal grandfather Matthew Stewart, 4thEarl of Lennox. Two years after that, his grandfather was shot dead in a skirmish with Mary’s supporters and replaced by the Earl of Mar who in turn was poisoned at a banquet given by James Douglas, Earl of Morton two years later again. Morton lasted for ten years until James’ second cousin, the then current Earl of Lennox, established himself as James’ dominant male ‘favourite’ and convinced James to have Douglas executed for the overdue complicity in his father’s murder fifteen years before. For a sensitive young man, not even out of his teens, James had been surrounded by death and intrigue for most of his life.
By then, the juicy carrot of the English throne had been dangled in front of him and James wanted it more than anything else. After all, it was his due as the great-great-grandson of Henry VII. But that same carrot was also being dangled in front of another member of the Stuart clan: his cousin Lady Arabella Stuart.
For some time, from around 1592, Arabella was being considered as one of the serious candidates to succeed Elizabeth I. Arabella’s father Charles Stuart, 1stEarl of Lennox, and James father, Henry Stuart Lord Darnley, had been brothers and both brothers were great-grandchildren of Margaret Tudor – James through Margaret’s first marriage to James IV and Arabella through Margaret’s second marriage to Archibald Douglas. This made them both great-great-grandchildren of Henry VII and both with equal rights to the English throne. Everything depended, of course, on Elizabeth’s choice of heir and it could have gone either way.
At 17 years of age, Arabella had many childbearing years ahead of her while at 26 years of age, James was displaying little interest in women and the government was beginning to show signs of uneasiness as male favourites came and went at a steady pace. Things weren’t looking very rosy for James at this stage.
Then Arabella made a big mistake. Word had reached Elizabeth that Arabella was making plans to marry Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, the son of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, eldest brother of Jane Seymour and Elizabeth was far from pleased with her choice.
It wasn’t the fact that the Seymours were a powerful family who had rightful claims to the English throne. And it wasn’t the fact that while Edward’s father had been regent for her young brother, Edward VI, people were suspicious at the speed with which he accumulated his wealth and power. Both were bad enough. But it was more Edward Seymour’s predisposition for clandestine marriages that made Elizabeth hesitate.
Of course, Arabella denied any intention of marrying Edward without Elizabeth’s consent but the damage had already been done.
During all of this, James was feeling pretty buoyant. Only months before his mother’s death in 1587, under the threat of losing his ‘heir apparent’ status, he had been “requested” to sign a treaty with England assuring them of his allegiance and support and he had willingly signed. Having done everything Elizabeth had asked of him, he was quietly confident that Elizabeth would keep her word. By signing the treaty, he had cleared the way for his succession to the English throne after Elizabeth’s death, no matter whom his cousin Arabella married. Even still, it was touch and go for a while.
In 1603, James’ prayers were answered when Queen Elizabeth died in the early hours of 24th March and he was informed that he would indeed be the next King of England as James I.
By the time James inherited the throne, England had changed dramatically from when the Tudors had first laid claim to the realm. Spain was no longer a threat and the nobility were beginning to feel their own strength. England felt secure enough to take a hand in their own management without relying on the opinion and wishes of a sole monarch, much less a barbaric Scottish one.