James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 4 : Coming of Age

James had had a sniff of control, and, as he reached his thirteenth birthday in summer 1579, he began to flex his muscles.

James left Stirling that autumn and made his first formal entry into his capital city of Edinburgh. The day was an occasion of spectacle and pageantry – tableaux of Scotland’s kings, and of Solomon granting wise judgement, greeted him. The city dwellers were treated to free wine and, probably less popularly, Latin speeches. At his side was the man whom James had turned to as an antidote to the odious Morton – Esmé Stuart, Sieur d’Aubigny. Esmé was from the branch of the Stuart family that had settled in France during the fifteenth century, and served the French crown as soldiers and diplomats. He was also first cousin to James’ father, Lord Darnley.

At the age of 37, Esmé was too old to be James’ friend in the usual sense, but before long the young king became completely devoted to him. Described as charming, and by the Catholic Bishop of Ross as ‘comely’, and of ‘marked prudence’ he was also, having been brought up in France, Catholic. This fact alone would have led to disapproval from the Kirk, but the ministers were also upset by his ‘great ruffes’ and ‘side bellows' (exaggerated trunk hose). There has been much speculation about whether James’ relationship with this much older man was what we might nowadays call ‘inappropriate’, but given that the child had been starved of any real affection or parental love, it is not hard to conceive that his hero-worship of his glamorous cousin might have been quite innocent of any sexual element.

Morton felt his influence waning, as Esmé was granted the earldom of Lennox (his elderly uncle, the previous earl, was persuaded to accept the title of Earl of March in exchange). He also succeeded to the offices traditionally held by the Lennoxes, including custody of the great fortress of Dumbarton Castle.

Following the entry into Edinburgh, James had declared to the Estates that he was of age to govern himself, and dismissed Morton to retirement. The English were alarmed at this turn of events – their picked man had been forced out of office, to be replaced by a French Catholic. Lennox’ conversion to Calvinism in May 1580 was seen as a cynical move to gain power. His enemies probably wronged him in this, as he remained true to the Protestant faith for the rest of his life.

In a vain effort to restore Morton and English influence, a plot was allegedly hatched, with Elizabeth and her minister, Burghley’s, connivance, to kidnap James and assassinate Lennox. More openly, Elizabeth hinted to James that he might be chosen as her heir – but that consorting with French Catholics was not the way to clinch the matter.

Whether the plot really existed in any meaningful way, is moot. Morton was thoroughly disliked, and not just by James. Lennox is credited (if such be the word) with the plan that eventually dispatched him. On 1 st January 1581, one of Lennox’ adherents, Captain James Stewart (whose sister, Margaret, was John Knox’ widow), burst into the Privy Council chamber and denounced Morton as one of the murderers of Lord Darnley.

Morton vehemently denied the charge, but was arrested and taken to Dumbarton. He was brought back to Edinburgh for trial on 1st June, at which he admitted having been an accessory before the fact, but insisted that Bothwell had been the prime mover. He was found guilty. James refused to read his letters, although he did commute the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering to something swifter, and the earl was executed by an early prototype of the guillotine.

Shortly after, Lennox’ earldom was raised to a dukedom (the only one in Scotland not conferred on a prince of the royal family) and Captain Stuart became Earl of Arran, in place of the Hamilton Earl who had been insane for many years. For the next few years, Lennox and Arran were chief amongst James’ advisors.