James I., the First Stuart King
Under the Tudor rulers, the English people submitted to arbitrary rule because great dangers threatened both church and state. In the time of the Stuart Kings, these dangers were past. The attempt of the Stuarts to rule despotically led, therefore, to a series of quarrels between King and Parliament which resulted in civil war, the execution of one King, the expulsion of another, and the final loss by the Stuarts of the crowns of both England and Scotland.
In England, Mary Stuart's son was known as James I., though he continued to be James VI. of Scotland. He was well educated, shrewd, witty, and a lover of peace; but he lacked dignity, was physically a coward, and could never say "No" to his favorites. A foreigner at his court, in Scotland, gave this description of him:
"He speaks, eats, dresses, and plays like a boor. He is never still for a moment, but walks perpetually up and down the room. His walk is sprawling and awkward, and his voice loud. He prefers hunting to all other amusements, and will be six hours together on horseback. He is very conceited, and he underrates other princes."
His great learning, together with this foolish conduct, led a French statesman to call him "the wisest fool in Christendom."
One of James's first acts was to try to unite the two kingdoms of England and Scotland into one. Englishmen, however, were jealous both of the favors which James showed to this Scotch subjects and of their trading rights. The attempt failed, and it was not until a hundred years later (1707) that England and Scotland were united under one Parliament.
The religious question gave James I. most trouble. English Puritans expected James to support them, because he came from a Presbyterian country. But James was so greatly displeased with Presbyterianism in Scotland that, when one of the English Puritans mentioned the word "presbyter," he burst out:
"If this be all your party have to say for themselves, I will make them conform to the Church, or I will harry them out of the land."
By this attitude James pleased the bishops, but made all Puritans his opponents.
Some small bands of Separatists took the King at his word, and left England for Holland. After a few years (1620) they passed to America, and founded Plymouth Colony. Virginia also, was founded in King James's time (1607), but this was from motives of gain, not religion. Under James's son, Charles I., the colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland were founded.
We cannot tell the story here of these first beginnings of a new world of English-speaking peoples across the sea; but we must not forget that it was one of the greatest events of that time.
Catholics, too, had hoped that King James would relieve them from the oppressive laws which Elizabeth had made against their religion. When this hope was disappointed, plots were formed against the King. Sir Walter Raleigh—a famous man of Elizabeth's reign, who was no Catholic, but was disappointed at not being taken into James's service—was accused and convicted of being engaged in one of these plots, and for thirteen years he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Then he was allowed to set forth on a gold hunting expedition to South America. When he failed in his quest, and attacked the Spaniards, King James had him put to death under his old sentence. Before laying his head upon the block, he felt the edge of the axe:
" 'Tis a sharp medicine," he said, "but a sure cure for all diseases."
A more important plot, due to Catholic discontent, was formed by a man named Guy Fawkes. With some others, he succeeded in storing thirty barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the Parliament house; and he planned to blow up King, Lords, Commons, ministers, and all, at the opening of Parliament. The plot, however, was discovered, and Guy Fawkes and his helpers were executed. The memory of the event was long preserved by the annual celebration of "Guy Fawkes day," when stuffed figures of Fawkes (whence comes our slang word "guy") were burned. Until recent years, school children in England learned these verses:
King James had very lofty ideas of the powers of a King, and said some very foolish thing about them. He believed in the "divine right" of Kings—that is, that they received their powers from God, and are responsible to Him alone, and not in any way to their subjects.
But, unfortunately for James, he had even more need of the good will of Parliament than Elizabeth had. He squandered his revenues so recklessly, on his pleasures and favorites, that he was constantly in need of new taxes. Parliament, however, showed itself firmly resolved not to vote him money until grievances of which they complained should be removed. From this, and other causes, it resulted that James quarreled with every Parliament that he summoned, except the last one.
James took the position that Parliament owed all its powers and privileges—such as the right of free speech, and freedom from arrest for what might be said in Parliament—entirely to the graciousness of the King. He forbade them "to meddle with anything concerning our government or deep matters of state." Their business, in short, was merely to vote him the money he needed.
Parliament, on the other hand, asserted, in a famous declaration which they caused to be written in their journal, that "the liberties, privileges, and jurisdictions of Parliament are the undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England," and that they had a right to debate all matters which concerned them as subjects.
James thereupon dismissed his Parliament, and with his own hands tore this declaration from their journal. It was easy to tear out the record; but it was difficult to move the people from what they believed to be their constitutional rights. Besides quarreling over Puritanism, taxes, and privileges, James and his Parliament held different views concerning foreign affairs.
From 1618 to 1648, Germany was wasted by a terrible religious war, between Catholics and Protestants, called the Thirty Years' War. England was interested in this, not only because England was a Protestant country, and so sympathized with the Protestant cause, but also because King James's daughter Elizabeth had married a German Protestant prince, who lost his lands in the course of the war. King James wanted to aid his son-in-law to recover his lands, but thought the best way to do this way by making a treaty with Spain, which was aiding the Catholic powers. So, long negotiations were carried on for the marriage of his son, Prince Charles, to a Spanish princess. Parliament, on the other hand, bitterly hated the idea of a Spanish marriage, and wanted to strike a vigorous blow at Spain through a naval war. This would not only help their fellow Protestants in Germany, but at the same time win for themselves rich prizes, and further their trading and colonizing ambitions.
In the end, James found that his plans for a Spanish alliance were impossible. He broke off negotiations, and in his last Parliament, which assembled in 1624, he invited the very "meddling" with foreign affairs which he had formerly forbidden. War was then declared against Spain. For the first time, since the early days of his reign, King James and his subjects were in harmony.
James died the next year. He left to his son the difficulty of dealing with the many problems which he had raised by his weakness and folly, but had not known how to solve.