James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 8 : Early Foreign Policy

James was also determined to stamp his authority over the Kirk, whose most vociferous defender was Andrew Melville, who had taken on Knox’s mantle as Scotland’s premier religious radical and was Moderator of the General Assembly. Once free of the Ruthven Lords, James was determined that there would be no more nonsense (as he saw it) about the King and the civil government being required to take the advice and guidance of the Kirk.

In 1584 parliament passed what became known as the Black Acts. Under this legislation, the presbyteries were condemned and the King was acknowledged as having supreme power over the Church, together with the right to call General Assemblies.

In a further show of independence, James again entered into correspondence with his Guise relatives and also wrote to the Kings of France and Spain and, in surprisingly polite terms, to the Pope. Presumably irritated by Elizabeth’s interference, he was sounding out the possibility of foreign support against his tiresome neighbour. James also talked expansively about his support for his mother whom he claimed was wrongly imprisoned and whom he would always support.

Simultaneously he was assuring Elizabeth’s ambassador, Sir Robert Bowes, that Mary’s Catholicism made her unfit to rule in either Scotland or England. The French soon became aware that his support for Mary did not go so far as wishing for her return to his own detriment. In some ways this accorded with their own views – despite regular complaints from France, Spain and the Pope about Mary’s treatment there was never any real intention to take meaningful action against Elizabeth.

Whilst Arran was still James’s Chief Minister, he also had a new confidant, Sir Patrick Gray. Gray had once been a confidential servant of Mary’s but he had become convinced that there was no hope for her and that his best interests lay with promoting an agreement between James and Elizabeth. In 1584 Gray was commissioned to go to the English court with proposals for an alliance. He was in a prime position to share Mary’s innermost secrets with Elizabeth and her ministers.

Gray obviously proved persuasive, or else the declining relationship with Spain caused by Elizabeth’s somewhat reluctant support of Philip II’s Protestant rebels in the Netherlands, made an agreement with James highly desirable. Elizabeth agreed to pay the impecunious King a pension of £4000 per annum.

This was undoubtedly a practical decision for James, as the Act of Association that had been pushed through the English Parliament by the factions most hostile to Mary enacted that anyone who benefited from an act of assassination against Elizabeth would be automatically debarred from the throne even if they had had no hand in it. Thus any plot to free Mary and put him on the throne would automatically negate James’s rights. Although had Mary actually become Queen this Act would have been rapidly overturned, the reality was, that by 1584 Mary’s chances of a successful coup were fading.

Mary, deeply hurt by this defection of her son, attempted to disinherit him and name Philip II as successor to her rights to the English crown – not quite so far-fetched as it sounds as Philip had a good dose of Lancastrian blood.

As Gray became more important in James’s counsels, Arran’s influence with the King began to wane. Scenting blood, his many enemies sought to strike. An ideal opportunity occurred when Francis Russell, the son of the Earl of Bedford, Elizabeth’s Lieutenant in the North, was killed in a border raid on one of the regular truce days. The offender was Sir Thomas Ferniehurst, one of Arran’s appointees. There is no evidence at all that Arran was involved, however it became convenient to hold him responsible.

James, concerned by the prospect of the loss of the English alliance, passed some 24 hours in deep distress, before ordering his Chancellor’s arrest. After a week, James gave orders for his release, but shortly afterwards the exiled Earls of Angus and Mar together with those others involved in the Raid of Ruthven who had been kicking their heels in England, marched on Stirling Castle with sufficient troops to persuade James that it was time for Arran to retire. He was stripped of the chancellorship and sent into obscurity.

James now pardoned the former exiles but felt no obligation to be as accommodating to the Kirk, especially when the Lords showed little enthusiasm for the radicalism of Andrew Melville and his colleague, John Gibson. Melville was encouraged to travel to the Highlands to try to root out Jesuit priests whilst Gibson was informed by the King that James ‘[gave] not a turd for [his] preaching’ and sent to prison for criticising James’s maintenance of bishops within the Church as ‘tyranny’.

With Arran in retirement, the chancellorship was granted to John Maitland, a brother of Maitland of Lethington who had been Mary’s secretary. James’ Council was now composed of a wide range of his nobles from all factions. This, together with his pension from England, although it was not paid with any great regularity, made him more secure on his throne than he had ever been.

James VI & I

James VI & I

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