James VI and I: The Man Behind the Myth

Chapter 4 : The Dancing King: did James have mobility issues?

The Young James Said To Be Unable To Walk Until He Was Six
The young James, said to be unable to walk until he was six

As the Court and Character claims, ‘His legs [were] very weak, having had (as was thought) some foul play in his youth, or rather before he was born, that he was not able to stand at seven years of age, this weakness made him ever leaning on other men’s shoulders, his walk was ever circular.’ This had led numerous medical historians to conjecture on the chronic illnesses James might have lived with (ranging from porphyria to Asperger’s syndrome and Lesch-Nyhan disease: a genetic deficiency which can cause behavioural abnormalities). Did James really have issues with mobility?

The answer here is ‘yes, and no’. The Weldon text appears, given its reference to the king having been unable to stand in his youth, to have been drawn from what James himself told his doctor, Théodore Turquet de Mayerne. According to Mayerne, the king had indeed stated – in middle age – that he had been carried in his nurses’ arms until he was six (not seven). Yet if he was not misremembering (and it is curious that Queen Anna claimed much the same thing about herself, and their son Charles I had, again, the same supposed early deficiency reported), it appears to have done him no lasting harm (as it did Anna and Charles no harm). In 1579, James would enjoy the services of a dancing master and was witnessed, by Henry Killigrew, dancing ‘with a very good grace.’[iii]

When Fontenay visited James in 1584, however, he added to his description that ‘He never stays still in one place, taking a singular pleasure in walking up and down, but his carriage is ungainly, his steps erratic and vagabond, even in his own chamber.’ Does this imply that that the king had, by his teenage years, acquired a disability? In truth, the answer is no: the ambassador in fact supplied his own reason for the king’s agitated, excited (James was then striving to take control of his own destiny following Lennox’s death, and in the teeth of competing factions) gait: ‘He loves the chase above all the pleasures of this world, living in the saddle for six hours on end . . . he has a feeble body even if he is not delicate.’ The truth is that James, even in his youth, was a hunting addict, and his ‘vagabond step’ in his teenage years was that of a restless young man who spent too long being bounced around on horseback. Certainly, in his prime – in his mid-thirties, for example, when he attained the English throne – there are no reports of any abnormalities. On arriving in York in 1603, he famously rejected a coach in favour of going on foot, with the words, ‘I will have no coach, for the people are desirous to see a king, and so they shall, for they shall see as well his body as his face.’[iv]

For convincing proof that the king did eventually develop mobility issues, we must turn once again to his later years. In the mid-1610s, Dr Mayerne noted of his royal patient that:

pains many years since have invaded first the right foot, which had an odd twist when walking, and from a wrong habit of steps had a less right position than the other and grew weaker . . . Afterwards occurred various bruises from . . . frequent falls from horseback, from the rubbing graves and stirrups and other external causes which the King ingeniously discovered . . . in the year 1616, this weakness continued for more than four months with oedematous swelling of the whole skin of both feet.’[v]

We might deduce from this that James, in the last ten years of his life – after over a decade of high living, endless sojourns at the chase with concomitant falls, and a growing penchant for alcohol – did indeed develop mobility issues. He was not, however, disabled to any notable extent for the majority of his life, any more than was Henry VIII always obese – and the image of him loping and shambling around is a rather cruel lampooning of what he became in his dotage: an old, sick man, perennially plagued with what was then simply labelled ‘gout’.

[iii] CSP, Elizabeth, 10, 1481.

[iv] Bingham, James I, p. 11.

[v] Holmes, The Sickly Stuarts, pp. 46–47.