The Catholic Esmé, Seigneur d’Aubigny, was visiting Scotland to deal with a dispute over the earldom of Lennox. The 37 year old father of four was an instant hit with the young king. James was fascinated by Esmé’s sophistication and the two would sit up late laughing and drinking. Esmé gave James affection and James responded with devotion. Esmé encouraged James to write to his mother
Esmé was able to re-order the Scottish court on the French model and encouraged James interest in poetry. In return Esmé joined the Privy Council and was made Earl of Lennox on 5th March 1580 and on 5th August 1581 he was made Duke of Lennox. At the same time as he was upsetting the Scottish nobles by his rise Lennox was propitiating the Scottish burghs[i].
Lennox was persuaded by James to change his religion in an attempt to reduce hostility to his Catholic favourite. The English envoy Sir Henry Widdrington was horrified by Lennox’s growing power[ii];
‘He [James] can hardly suffer him out of his presence, often times he will clasp him about the neck, with his arms and kiss him.’[iii]
The Kirk went further;
‘The Duke of Lennox went about to draw the King into carnal lust.’[iv]
Basilikon DoronIt is impossible to know whether Lennox and James, or indeed any of the King’s future favourites knew each other in carnal lust. But, despite James’ advice in the Basilikon Doron[v], addressed to Charles, condemning homosexuality as a sin;
‘That ye are bound in conscience never to forgive,’[vi]
James was well known for his blasphemous oaths and failure to live up to much of the advice he gave Charles
Earl of Lennox
Lennox’s boon companion James Stewart was made Earl of Arran; the two men persuaded James to have Morton tried for his part in the murder of James’ father. Found guilty Morton was executed on 2nd June 1581.
The Kirk and its supporters viewed the triumvirate of Lennox, Arran and James with disfavour, especially as Lennox encouraged James to believe that the church was encroaching on his authority.
Elizabeth made a formal approach to James demanding that he remove ‘the professed Papist’ Lennox. Although normally wary of offending Elizabeth James ignored her demand.
Kirk and king fell out over James’ choice of Robert Montgomery as Bishop of Glasgow. The nominee was unacceptable in the eyes of the Presbyterian general assembly. On the 22nd August 1582 James was kidnapped by the Earl of Gowrie in what became known as the Ruthven raid.
Ruthven CastleJames was forced to issue a proclamation against Lennox and Arran. The Master of Glamis ignored James’ tears of humiliation and loss, saying;
‘Better that bairns should weep than bearded men.’[vii]
The heartbroken James wrote a heartfelt poem bemoaning his loss as Lennox returned to France[viii], whilst his subjects railed against Lennox who had, according to Andrew Melville, held the king,
‘In a misty night of captivity and black darkness of shameful servitude.’[ix]
Those opposing James and Lennox did so more for political purposes rather than moral indignation. Lennox had been spending money like water and Gowrie was owed £33,000[x]. The regime cut James’ household expenses claiming;
"Havand respect to the order of the hous of your hieness goudsire King James the fifth of worthie memorie and to the possibilitie of your majesties present rents,"[xi]
The Gowrie regime was supported, somewhat ineffectually by Elizabeth and the French court, hoping to influence the choice of James’ bride, offered Gowrie a pension[xii].
But the Earls of Gowrie and Mar and their supporters did not enjoy the heady experience of power long. They moved James around the country but the backlash was headed by James’ supporters. A consortium of lairds including the earls of Atholl, Huntly[xiii], Montrose, Crawford and Rothes rescued James from his kidnappers in July 1583.
The Gowrie regime and their followers were dismissed from court and James was finally in control. In May 1584 Gowrie was executed after conspiring again against James and at this point the Casket Letters fell into government hands.
The King’s Mother
20 year old JamesOne of the biggest problems facing James upon his assumption of power was the vexed issue of his mother, still a prisoner in England. When his mother’s emissary, Monsieur de Fontenay, visited James’ court in August 1584 he was astonished that James asked no questions about his mother;
‘Neither of health, nor of the way she is treated, nor of her recreation nor of any similar manner.’[xiv]
Fontenay judged James;
‘Three qualities of mind he possesses in perfection: he understands clearly, judges wisely and has a retentive memory……….overconfident of his strength and scornful of other princes.’[xv]
Mary by Nicholas HilliardBut James had been so indoctrinated in his youth that he had no filial feelings for his mother, viewing her solely as a threat to his throne. He was able to deride Buchanan for the lies told in his Detectio and in his Basilikon James castigated Moray for his unnatural rebellion against his half-sister, but James’ upbringing had assured that he was unable to love his mother. And Mary’s messenger, Patrick Gray[xvi], saw which way the wind was blowing and switched over to support James.
James was profligate and spent money with abandon; Elizabeth paid him a total of £58,000[xvii] in the years from 1586 to her death. Mary’s hope that her son would invite her home[xviii] was dashed by the Treaty of Berwick signed on 6th July 1586, which granted James a pension of £4,000 per annum[xix]. It is believed by some that the treaty was meant to soften the blow of Mary’s death.
The question of religion also reared its ugly head; a decision taken during James’ minority to allow a limited form of episcopacy was not to the taste of Andrew Melville, an ecclesiastical leader who believed that the Scottish church should follow the true Presbyterian model without bishops.
Andrew MelvilleIn 1561 a form of bishops or superintendants had been allowed but in 1581 this was reversed under Melville’s influence. Melville held that it was up to the clergy to;
‘Teach the magistrate [James].’[xx]
But in 1584, after Gowrie’s fall, the monarch was reaffirmed as head of the church. As Archbishop of St Andrews, Patrick Adamson’s influence expanded whilst that of Melville’s diminished; he fled to England after being summonsed to be tried for seditious preaching.
The Extremist lairds, exiled after the overthrow of the Ruthven coup, were returned to Scotland by Elizabeth. They challenged Arran’s power and James was forced to remove Arran from his post as chancellor. Although obliged to pardon the exiles, James was still able to hold his kingship above them.
The Death of Mary
Following her involvement in the Babington Plot, an attempt to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne, the stage was set for Mary’s final scene. On 25th September 1586, less than three months after the signing of the Treaty of Berwick, Mary was transferred to Fotheringhay castle to await trial. Thirty six commissioners assembled there on 11th October to try Mary, who declared that
‘It seemeth strange to me, that the Queen should command me as a subject, to submit my self to a Trial. I am an absolute Queen, and will doe nothing which will be prejudicial to Royal Majesty, or to other Princes of my place and rank, or my son.’[xxi]
Nevertheless the trial took place on 15-16th October after an intervention by Elizabeth. Mary denied all the charges but the result was a foregone conclusion. Before the commissioners were able to give their verdict a message from Elizabeth arrived proroguing the outcome to the Star Chamber at Westminster. There on 25th October Mary was found guilty and on the 29th parliament ratified the verdict and pressed for Mary’s execution.
Contemporary sketch of Mary's executionThe warrant for the execution was finally signed on 7th February 1587 and Mary was told to prepare for death the next day. It is possible that James communicated to the English that he would not sacrifice the alliance between the two countries in the event of his mother’s death.
When he was informed of his mother’s death by her servants James cut all communication between Scotland and England. Elizabeth sent her cousin Sir Robert Carey to James; he carried a letter from Elizabeth in which she swore that she had signed the death warrant on the understanding that it was only to be used in the event of an invasion force. Carey was forced to wait at the border for days before James agreed to see him.
The Early Stuarts – Godfrey Davies, Oxford University Press 1987
Elizabeth & Mary – Jane Dunn, Harper Perennial 2003
King James – Antonia Fraser, BCA 1974
Mary Queen of Scots – Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1978
Robert Cecil – Alan Haynes, Peter Owen Publishers 1989
Walsingham – Alan Haynes, Sutton Publishing 2004
After Elizabeth – Leanda de Lisle, Harper Perennial 2006
Mary, Queen of Scots – Alison Weir, BCA 2003
[iii] After Elizabeth – de Lisle
[vii] King James - Fraser
[viii] Dying in Paris in May 1583
[ix] King James - Fraser
[xii] A yearly pension of 100,000 crowns for the state, 2,000 crowns personally, and a lump sum of 10,000 crowns
[xiii] Later Marquess of Huntly
[xiv] King James - Fraser
[xv] After Elizabeth – de Lisle
[xvi] Also known as the Master of Gray, originally a supporter of Mary
[xviii] Offering her acknowledgement of James as King of Scotland, something she had never done; Mary claimed that she was forced to abdicate her throne
[xx] King James - Fraser
[xxi] Elizabeth & Mary - Dunn