The Wisest Fool

James VI of Scotland and I of England, was a complex man and in this very welcome biography Veerapen explores the nuances of James’s character, showing that the king’s emotional and psychological state strongly influenced his reign. The cold and even abusive childhood, deprived of love and gentleness, that Veeapen describes can only make us pity the young king, but Veerapen shows that rather than brutalising the boy, it made James desperate for family life of his own – he had a heart that wanted to love, yet how he expressed that love was often misplaced, so far as the political and social necessity of his times demanded. Veerapen covers this extremely well throughout the book - although I would perhaps question his dismissal of James’s first affair of the heart, with the Duke of Lennox, as an entirely cynical ploy by the duke whose his adherence to Calvinism even on his death bed suggests to me that his motives were more nuanced.

The jockeying for power and position in the first part of James’s reign, while he was subject to a regency government was insanely complicated: the plots, the backstabbings, the betrayals, and the politicking make Game of Thrones seem tame, so Veerapen’s wealth of experience as a writer of fiction is extremely beneficial here, carrying the narrative forward by focusing on the essential points in a clear and comprehensible manner.

Veerapen also sensitively explores James’s relationship with his wife, Anna of Denmark, from the first honeymoon days, when they did their marital duty and made every effort to love each other, through the filling of the royal nursery, to the slow death of companionship after they had moved to England, when they lost two infants, and James became enamoured of Robert Carr. The grief they endured with the loss of their beloved son, Prince Henry Frederick (whose upbringing had been a bone of contention), is also delicately handled.

Politically, James sought to steer a careful path between competing factions – one of his earliest acts as King of England was to bring an end to the long-running Spanish war, yet he did not wish to seem soft on Catholics, particularly after the Gunpowder Plot. Later, he tried to avoid entanglement in the ongoing European religious conflicts by arranging the marriage of his daughter, Elizabeth, to the Protestant hope, the Elector Palatine, while sending his new heir, Charles, to Spain to court the Infanta.

James has, in the past, been ill-served by historians, but Veerapen’s balanced and minutely researched account redresses this lack, and anyone reading it will learn an enormous amount from it, about the king himself, his court, and the competing philosophies of monarchical power in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Tudor Times received a review copy from the publisher.