James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 15 : Taming Scotland

By 1595, James was 29 years old. He had survived kidnaps, assassination attempts, armed conflict and, in his own eyes, witchcraft. He now had a son (Prince Henry Frederick) to succeed him, and from this point onward, he would brook no further disobedience. According to a proclamation published in that year ‘..he will be obeyed and reverenced as a king, and will execute his power and authority against [anyone]’.

James had relied heavily on Maitland as his Chancellor. Maitland, a servant of the state in a similar mould to Sir William Cecil south of the border, had been unpopular, seen as usurping the rights of James’ nobles to order the government. Following his death, a group of eight ministers undertook most of the administration – all from the ranks of the lower nobility, and initially charged with improving the miserable royal finances. James was so broke that he wrote one day that the kitchen staff had run away and refused to cook supper, because their wages had not been paid.

Whilst retrenchment was effective for a short period, the good work was not kept up and James fell into deeper and deeper debt.

Further troubles arose when it became apparent that Queen Anne, brought up as a Lutheran, had become not a good Calvinist, as might have been hoped by the Kirk, but a secret Catholic. She was denounced publicly by David Black, minister of St Andrew’s in October 1596 and when James remonstrated with him, he insisted that, when in his pulpit, he was subject only to God. James, seething, bided his time, but eventually achieved his aims. In December 1596, following riots stirred up by radical ministers in Edinburgh outside the Tolbooth where James was meeting with the Lords of Session, the King declared that he, the Queen and the whole court would no longer be resident in Edinburgh, as it was not fit to house a King.

Horrified at the idea of the loss of trade that this would bring, the more moderate burghers of the city distanced themselves from the firebrands and offered the King their apologies and paid a handsome fine without complaint.

The General Assembly of the Kirk agreed to send representatives to Parliament, to show that it accepted temporal control by the King. These representatives, who were to be drawn from the best-educated ministers were to be called ‘Bishop’: they were quite different, James claimed, from Catholic or Anglican bishops, but the principles of hierarchy and of ecclesiastical submission to the Crown, at least in political terms, had been established. Three new Bishops were created by James, to join the Kirk in Parliament, although they had no authority within the Kirk.

James also made some progress on taming the lawlessness of the border country between Scotland and England, which had been a thorn in the side of both countries for generations. His careful courting of Elizabeth was helpful here as it resulted in the setting up of an Anglo-Scottish Commission to deal with the problem in 1597, which it did with some success.

During these years of relative peace, James spent more time writing, and amongst other things, produced the work ‘Basilikon Doron’, a treatise written for his son, Henry Frederick, on the duties and art of kingship.

The Gowrie Conspiracy

However, into this haven of peace erupted another scene of violence, the truth behind which has been argued over for centuries. In summary, James was at the house of the Earl of Gowrie and his brother, Lord Ruthven. In a private room with Ruthven, James cried out ‘treason’. One of his attendants, Ramsay, entered the chamber, to find James in a struggle with Lord Ruthven. Ramsay killed Ruthven, and in the ensuing mayhem as all of James’ attendants and Gowrie raced to the scene, Gowrie too was killed. The Ruthven brothers were accused of treason, as were their younger brothers who had been absent, found guilty and subject to the forfeit of all of their lands. Their bodies were hanged and quartered, and the heads placed on the Mercat Cross.

These are the bald facts, but at the time, and ever since, it has been wondered whether James set out to murder the Ruthvens in revenge either for their father’s murder of David Riccio back in 1566, or for the kidnapping of James himself (see chapter 6). Certainly the King’s account of the matter sounded far-fetched and inconsistent, but, as he pointed out himself, if he wanted the Ruthvens dead, there were far less risky methods he could have chosen and he certainly had no personal history of violent action. Besides, Ruthven was considered to be a favourite of the King, and his sister, Beatrice, was one of Queen Anne’s favourite attendants.

On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that if Ruthven really wanted to kill James, that he would have been overpowered by the King. In any event, a murder of the King would have been unlikely to have passed without comment by the population – surely the Ruthvens would have been caught and hanged?

James made good use of the events – with the Gowrie lands forfeited, his £80,000 debt was also nullified. He also ordered public thanksgivings and recalcitrant members of the Kirk, who seemed to have believed James had planned the whole thing, were replaced with more malleable ministers.

A very detailed explanation of the plot and the possible interpretations may be found here.

James VI & I

James VI & I

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