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James I.

IT was usual, in the reign of James the First, when they compared it with the preceding glorious one, to distinguish him by the title of Queen James, and his illustrious predecessor by that of King Elizabeth! Sir Anthony Weldon informs us “that when James the First sent Sir Roger Aston as his messenger to Elizabeth, Sir Roger was always placed in the lobby: the hangings being turned so that he might see the queen dancing to a little fiddle, which was to no other end than that he should tell his master, by her youthful disposition, how likely he was to come to the crown he so much thirsted after;”—and indeed, when at her death this same knight, whose origin was low, and whose language was suitable to that origin, appeared before the English council, he could not conceal his Scottish rapture, for, asked how the king did? he replied, “Even, my lords, like a poore man wandering about forty years in a wildernesse and barren soyle, and now arrived at the Land of Promise.” A curious anecdote, respecting the economy of the court in these reigns, is noticed in some manuscript memoirs written in James’s reign, preserved in a family of distinction. The lady, who wrote these memoirs, tells us that a great change had taken place in cleanliness, since the last reign; for having rose from her chair, she found, on her departure, that she had the honour of carrying upon her some companions who must have been inhabitants of the palace. The court of Elizabeth was celebrated occasionally for its magnificence, and always for its nicety. James was singularly effeminate; he could not behold a drawn sword without shuddering; was much too partial to handsome men; and appears to merit the bitter satire of Churchill. If wanting other proofs, we should only read the second volume of “Royal Letters,” 6987, in the Harleian collections, which contains Stenie’s correspondence with James. The gross familiarity of Buckingham’s address is couched in such terms as these:—he calls his majesty “Dere dad and Gossope!” and concludes his letters with “your humble slaue and dogge, Stenie.” He was a most weak, but not quite a vicious man; yet his expertness in the art of dissimulation was very great indeed. He called this King-Craft. Sir Anthony Weldon gives a lively anecdote of this dissimulation in the king’s behaviour to the Earl of Somerset at the very moment he had prepared to disgrace him. The earl accompanied the king to Royston, and to his apprehension, never parted from him with more seeming affection, though the king well knew he should never see him more. “The earl when he kissed his hand, the king hung about his neck, slobbering his cheeks, saying—For God’s sake, when shall see thee again? On my soul I shall neither eat nor sleep until you come again. The earl told him on Monday (this being on the Friday). For God’s sake let me, said the king:—Shall I? shall I?—then lolled about his neck; then for God’s sake give thy lady this kisse for me, in the same manner at the stayre’s head, at the middle of the stayres, and at the stayre’s foot. The earl was not in his coach when the king used these very words (in the hearing of four servants, one of whom reported it instantly to the author of this history), ‘I shall never see his face more.’”

He displayed great imbecility in his amusements, which are characterised by the following one, related by Arthur Wilson.—When James became melancholy in consequence of various disappointments in state matters, Buckingham and his mother used several means of diverting him. Amongst the most ludicrous was the present.—They had a young lady who brought a pig in the dress of a new-born infant: the countess carried it to the king, wrapped in a rich mantle. One Turpin, on this occasion, was dressed like a bishop in all his pontifical ornaments. He began the rites of baptism with the common prayer-book in his hand; a silver ewer with water was held by another. The marquis stood as godfather. When James turned to look at the infant, the pig squeaked: an animal which he greatly abhorred. At this, highly displeased, he exclaimed,—“Out! Away for shame! What blasphemy is this!”

This ridiculous joke did not accord with the feelings of James at that moment; he was not “i’ the vein.” Yet we may observe, that had not such artful politicians as Buckingham and his mother been strongly persuaded of the success of this puerile fancy, they would not have ventured on such “blasphemies.” They certainly had witnessed amusements heretofore not less trivial which had gratified his majesty. The account which Sir Anthony Weldon gives, in his Court of King James, exhibits a curious scene of James’s amusements. “After the king supped, he would come forth to see pastimes and fooleries; in which Sir Ed. Zouch, Sir George Goring, and Sir John Finit, were the chiefe and master fools, and surely, this fooling got them more than any other’s wisdome; Zouch’s part was to sing bawdy songs, and tell bawdy tales; Finit’s to compose these songs; there was a set of fiddlers brought to court on purpose for this fooling, and Goring was master of the game for fooleries, sometimes presenting David Droman and Archee Armstrong, the king’s foole, on the back of the other fool, to tilt one at another, till they fell together by the eares; sometimes they performed antick dances. But Sir John Millicent (who was never known before) was commended for notable fooling; and was indeed the best extemporary foole of them all.” Weldon’s “Court of James” is a scandalous chronicle of the times.

His dispositions were, however, generally grave and studious. He seems to have possessed a real love of letters, but attended with that mediocrity of talent which in a private person had never raised him into notice. “While there was a chance,” writes the author of the dialogue of Noble Authors, “that the dyer’s son, Vorstius, might might be divinity professor at Leyden, instead of being burnt, as his majesty hinted to the Christian prudence of the Dutch that he deserved to be, our ambassadors could not receive instructions, and consequently could not treat on any other business. The king, who did not resent the massacre at Amboyna, was on the point of breaking with the States for supporting a man who professed the heresies of Enjedius, Ostodorus, &c., points of extreme consequence to Great Britain! Sir Dudley Carleton was forced to threaten the Dutch, not only with the hatred of King James, but also with his pen.”

This royal pedant is forcibly characterised by the following observations of the same writer:

“Among his majesty’s works is a small collection of poetry. Like several of his subjects, our royal author has condescended to apologize for its imperfections, as having been written in his youth, and his maturer age being otherwise occupied. So that (to employ his own language) ‘when his ingyne and age could, his affaires and fascherie would not permit him to correct them, scarslie but at stolen moments, he having the leisure to blenk upon any paper.’ When James sent a present of his harangues, turned into Latin, to the Protestant princes in Europe, it is not unentertaining to observe in their answers of compliments and thanks, how each endeavoured to insinuate that he had read them, without positively asserting it! Buchanan, when asked how he came to make a pedant of his royal pupil, answered, that it was the best he could make of him. Sir George Mackenzie relates a story of his tutelage, which shows Buchanan’s humour, and the veneration of others for royalty. The young king being one day at play with his fellow pupil, the master of Erskine, Buchanan was reading, and desired them to make less noise. As they disregarded his admonition, he told his majesty, if he did not hold his tongue, he would certainly whip his breech. The king replied, he would be glad to see who would bell the cat, alluding to the fable. Buchanan lost his temper, and throwing his book from him, gave his majesty a sound flogging. The old Countess of Mar rushed into the room, and talking the king in her arms, asked how he dared to lay his hands on the Lord’s anointed? Madam, replied the elegant and immortal historian, I have whipped his a——, you may kiss it if you please!”

Many years after this was published, I discovered a curious anecdote:—Even so late as when James I. was seated on the throne of England, once the appearance of his frowning tutor in a dream greatly agitated the king, who in vain attempted to pacify his illustrious pedagogue in this portentous vision. Such was the terror which the remembrance of this inexorable republican tutor had left on the imagination of his royal pupil.*

James I. was certainly a zealous votary of literature; his wish was sincere, when at viewining the Bodleian library at Oxford, he exclaimed, “Were I not a king I would be an university man; and if it were so that I must be a prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would have no other prison than this library, and be chained together with these good authors.”

Hume has informed us that “his death was decent.” The following are the minute particulars; I have drawn them from an imperfect manuscript collection, made by the celebrated Sir Thomas Browne:

“The lord keeper, on March 22, received a letter from the court, that it was feared his majesty’s sickness was dangerous to death; which fear was more confirmed, for he, meeting Dr. Harvey in the road, was told by him that the king used to have a beneficial evacuation of nature, a sweating in his left arm, as helpful to him as any fontanel could be, which of late failed.

“When the lord keeper presented himself before him, he moved to cheerful discourse, but it would not do. He stayed by his bed-side until midnight. Upon the consultations of the physicians in the morning he was out of comfort, and by the prince’s leave told him, kneeling by his pallet, that his days to come would be but few in this world—‘I am satisfied,’ said the king; ‘but pray you assist me to make me ready for the next world, to go away hence for Christ, whose mercies I call for, and hope to find.’

“From that time the keeper never left him, or put off his cloathes to go to bed. The king took the communion, and professed he died in the bosom of the Church of England, whose doctrine he had defended with his pen, being persuaded it was according to the mind of Christ, as he should shortly answer it before him.

“He stayed in the chamber to take notice of everything the king said, and to repulse those who crept much about the chamber door, and into the chamber; they were for the most addicted to the Church of Rome. Being rid of them, he continued in prayer, while the king lingered on, and at last shut his eyes with his own hands.”

Thus in the full power of his faculties, a timorous prince encountered the horrors of dissolution. Religion tendered cheerful the abrupt night of futurity; and what can philosophy do more, or rather can philosophy do as much?

I proposed to have examined with some care the works of James I.—but that uninviting task has been now postponed till it is too late. As a writer his works may not be valuable, and are infected with the pedantry and the superstition of the age; yet I suspect that James was not that degraded and feeble character in which he ranks by the contagious voice of criticism. He has had more critics than readers. After a great number of acute observations and witty allusions, made extempore, which we find continually recorded of him by contemporary writers, and some not friendly to him, I conclude that he possessed a great promptness of wit, and much solid judgment and acute ingenuity. It requires only a little labour to prove this.


That labour I have since zealously performed. This article, composed thirty years ago, displays the effects of first impressions, and popular clamours. About ten years I suspected that his character was grossly injured, and lately I found how it has suffered from a variety of causes. That monarch preserved for us a peace of more than twenty years; and his talents were of a higher order than the calumnies of the party who degraded him have allowed a common inquirer to discover. For the rest I must refer the reader to “An Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James I.;” in which, though I have introduced a variety of irrelevant topics, the reader may find many correctives for this article.


* See the manuscript letter whence I drew this curious information in “An Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James the First,” p. 61.


Editor’s Notes

I am obliged to ‘verstegan,’ and to Örjan Bergman of the Norrköpings Stadsbibliotek for both (independently) supplying me with a few words from this article that were illegible in my copy of the Curiosities.


 § A footnote is appended to this article in later editions of the Curiosities, further to the quote from Buckingham’s letter ‘your humble slaue and dogge, Stenie:’

Buckingham’s style was even stronger and coarser than the text leads one to suppose. “Your sowship” is the beginning of one letter, and “I kiss your dirty hands,” the conclusion of another. The king had encouraged this by his own extraordinary familiarity. “My own sweet and dear child,” “Sweet hearty,” “My sweet Steenie and gossip,” are the commencements of the royal epistles to Buckingham; and in one instance, where he propses a hunting party and invites the ladies of his family, he does it in words of perfect obscenity.

 ¶ This article is much revised from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. Some material has been added in the above, relative to earlier versions of the piece, but more that was formerly present has here been omitted. The article originally began with the following paragraphs:

The following discriminative characters of James the first and his Sons, I shall rescue from oblivion. I transcribe them from a forgotten periodical paper, the British Journal, No. 59. November 2, 1723.
“Great men can never be too well-bred. We are naturally quick-sighted enough to see the difference between us and them; and can only be reconciled to it by their treating us as if there was none; but supercilious pains taken on their side, will surely create distress and enmity on ours. We think they owe us a part of amends for being greater than we; and if they can pay us with affability and condescension, they pay easily, and have no occasion to complain.
“Cæsar was never forgiven for receiving the Roman magistracy sitting. Some passionate expressions of King Charles I. against the Parliament, did him more mischief, than all his former encroachments upon the constitution, as those expressions created personal enemies, and a fear and distrust of his spirit and sincerity.
“His father, still less capable of supporting the dignity of a crown, and of preserving the affections of his people, had such a mild mixture of timidity, pride, and familiarity, that many of them hated him, more despised him, and yet none feared him. He would sacrifice his reputation with his people to the titillation of a poor pun, and manifest his passion for absolute power rather than smother a wretched witticism or a quaint conceit, worthy a country schoolmaster. When he began to bluster, and called himself the oldest King in Europe, and he trow’d the wisest, and would be master of the purses of his subjects, but when the parliament answered him with spirit, then they had an humble sermon from him, larded with scraps of Latin, upon the duty and restraints of a Sovereign, and logic was chopped, and distinctions were now made on that head
“His private conversation was low and cheap, and when the crown was off, the king was never seen. His tongue never lay still, and his usual themes were far unworthy of royalty. He delighted in sifting metaphysical questions, and in discussing dark points in divinity, and in smutty and familiar jokes; and it was usual for him to fall upon men with rude language and ill breeding. His condescension to others was as full of meanesses, and the obscenities and fulsome stile of his letters are below the lowest mechanic; it was impossible to know and reverence him. Those who were raised by him, treated him with contempt, and hectored him when they could not wheedle him. And it was usual with him to give and take such language, as no gentleman would give or take. He was particularly free of his oaths and his kisses; practices beneath a great or a grave man. He was so ignorant of his character, and so fond of logic, that from a great king he descended to be a disputant on one side of a squabble of divines. His reputation abroad was as low as at home. He talked much of king-craft; but his maxims, which he was always uttering, were poor ones, and foreign princes derided him. In their treaties with one another, they either took no notice of this keeper of the balance of Europe, or always outwitted him. In his own negociations with them they over-reached and baffled him, even to wantonness; and treated his long letters, and his learned labours with small regard.
“King Charles II. had much more sense and many more accomplishments. He had the parts and address of a fine gentleman; but he was too witty for a king. He had many pleasant stories, and told them well. He made many good jests, and diverted his friends over a bottle. But the monarch suffered in the merry companion, and his good-nature was the occasion of many ill-natured railleries. His great familiarities with his subjects, made them very familiar with the dignity of the diadem, and thus it was that he underwent so many jests that were made upon him. The freedoms which his own dear friends the wits ueed with their sovereign, and their sarcasms upon so great a prince, are astonishing.”

Where D’Israeli writes, above, that ‘James [...] appears to merit the bitter satire of Churchill,’ he formerly stated that ‘it no where appears that he merits the bitter satire of Churchill:’ a significant change which recognises James’s apparent homosexuality. In an addendum to the 1793 2nd edition of the Curiosities’ ‘Volume the Second,’ D’Israeli writes ‘I am sorry to be informed that I must retract my observation […] A letter in the king’s own hand, to ‘Stenny,’ preserved in the British Museum, contains evidence which it is in vain to deny.’ In his poem ‘Gotham,’ Churchill had written ‘Lies were his playthings, parliaments his sport;/Book-worms and catamites engross’d the court.’ One other rhetorical flourish employed by D’Israeli in his 1793 version of this piece, but absent here, ran on from the question ‘can philosophy do as much?’

Montaigne and la Fontaine, who wrote very philosophically on death, did not die like philosophers. The first raised himself, when expiring, with fervent devotion to the host! And the other, after his death had on a hair shirt!