James VI and I: The Man Behind the Myth

Chapter 3 : The Great Unwashed: was James dirty, boorish, smelly, and slovenly?

James Vi And I In His Old Age
James VI and I in his old age

Central to the Court and Character, and thus to the popular conception of James, is his supposed lack of cleanliness. It is alleged, first of all, that he lacked table manners and had a tongue too large for his mouth. On the latter score, there is absolutely no evidence beyond this single text: the idea that James was a dribbling fool is pure satire. In fact, he spoke well and often – and in his native Scots, Latin, Greek, French, and English. Indeed, his trouble, on the whole, was not that he had trouble making himself understood (whether due to a mythical over-large tongue or his native accent) but that he was entirely too given to the baroque speeches of the period. Numerous surviving tracts of his words – to parliament, for example – survive, and James grasped any and every opportunity to speak publicly, in his own inimitable style and with all the classical references and high phraseology one would expect of an educated student of George Buchanan. It is likely that, in his final months, he suffered numerous strokes – but James, in his prime, was a garrulous scholar, as fond of a beautifully-turned phrase as he was of the sound of his own voice.

On the former point – that James lacked manners – there is some evidence, albeit from his youth. In 1584, the French ambassador Fontenay wrote the following of the young king: ‘his manners are aggressive and very uncivil, both in speaking, eating, clothes, games and conversation in the company of women.’ [ii] This is understandable. James, at the time, was a teenager, and by all accounts a renegade one. He was then experiencing his first love – his cousin, Esmé Stewart, 1st Duke of Lennox, who, to howls of horror from the Scottish Kirk, reportedly led the king in drinking, swearing, and sexual vice. Prior to his marriage – or rather between Lennox’s period of power and the arrival of Anna’s civilising influence – James ruled a distinctly ‘laddish’ Scottish court. Throughout their marriage, the queen would attempt to restrain his drinking and carousing, but with limited success. Her theatrical patronage would be more influential, and James (again, contrary to popular belief) would show himself no slouch in manipulating the politics of the playhouse. Though he is castigated as a boorish philistine for falling asleep during performances, it is worth noting that this happened only on discrete occasions when those performances were, according to spectators, tedious; when it came to quality drama, such as Shakespeare’s, the king was an avid patron. Nevertheless, on the charge of poor manners, James was probably guilty. It is perhaps no surprise that the image of ‘Bluff King Hal’ – that is, the enduring but faulty image of Henry VIII as a roister-doister merrily tossing the bones of his meat to his waiting dogs – dates not from Henry’s reign but from the Jacobean era (notably Samuel Rowley’s When You See Me, You Know Me [1605]). That was probably pure King James.

If he could be unmannerly, what, then of his supposed lack of cleanliness? Again, we have Weldon’s ‘he never washed his hands’ to thank. What is overlooked if one takes this depiction as accurate is the general dearth of bathing common to the period. Full baths were not prescribed for daily or even monthly cleanliness among the upper classes; they were used medicinally (with contemporary medical textbooks, such as Thomas Moulton’s This is the myrrour or glasse of health, holding that bathing risked opening the pores to infection: scrubbing one’s hands with cloths was the suggested healthy alternative). Yet it does not follow that James was either filthy or smelly. Like Elizabeth I before him, he had access to the nation’s best perfumes and laver-waters, and his linen underclothes would have been refreshed constantly. The satire in the Court and Character is probably not even meant to indicate that James was physically unclean, but that he was too cowardly (the text’s favourite insult) to indulge in either medicinal baths or careful hand-washing, even when his failing health invited him to do so (and the corresponding invite is made to readers to consider that a monarch who is too cowardly to care for his body natural will have little care for the body politic).

One further piece of evidence – external to the Court and Character – supposedly supporting the alleged dirtiness of James and his Scottish court comes from the diary of Lady Anne Clifford (later Countess of Dorset, but at the time of writing an excitable teenager). On viewing the incoming Scots following James’s accession, Anne noted in her diary that many of them were plagued with lice. She was not writing of James, but rather of the muck-splattered courtiers who had spent days and weeks on the road south, often spilling into the fields as accommodation at the various country houses where the royals dwelt proved limited. Yet this tiny scrap of evidence, taken out of context, has been applied to the king – if for no other reason than to give credence, presumably, to Weldon’s enduring but mythical codpiece-scratching. On balance, we can discount wholesale the idea that James – except, perhaps, when he returned from a long day’s riding – was any dirtier or more smelly than his royal peers and predecessors. The image of the befouled, lice-ridden sovereign is and was satire – and it was the job of satire to exaggerate – in this case for political reasons – to grotesque proportions.

[ii] Ashton, James I, p. 2.