Reign of James I

Elizabeth's heir

James IHaving no children, at the end of her reign Elizabeth nominated James I, son of Mary, Queen of Scots (and descended from Henry VII's daughter Margaret), as the next king of England. He had already been King of Scotland for 36 years when he became King of both countries, ending centuries of antagonism. However, James' attempt to create a full governmental union proved premature.

James I's achievements

  • James I was an able theologian and ordered a new translation of the Bible which became known as the Authorised Version of the Bible
  • James himself was fairly tolerant in terms of religious faith, but in 1605 the Gunpowder Plot (an attempt by Guy Fawkes and other Catholic conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament) resulted in the re-imposition of strict penalties on Roman Catholics
  • As an arts patron, James employed the architect Inigo Jones to build the present Banqueting House in Whitehall, and drama, in particular, flourished at his court.

The problems of James I's reign

Divine right of kings

James I believed that kings took their authority from God and in the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, monarchs were seen as being God's deputies on earth, having a ‘divine right' to rule. The monarch had absolute power and an attack on him or her, even a verbal one, was considered to be treason. (See The Winter's Tale > Religious / Philosophical context > Divine right of kings.)

Although there were meetings of Parliament, as there had been for hundreds of years, Parliament did not convene unless summoned by the king; this practice continued through the reign of James I and beyond. For most English (and European) citizens of Shakespeare's day, the ruler was accepted as head of the nation by divine appointment.


Despite James I's assertion of his God-given right to rule, there was still discontent and resistance over a number of issues:

  • Finance - Unlike many of his predecessors, James was unable to put royal finances on a sound footing, and so was often in dispute with his parliaments
  • War - In Europe, the spreading impact of the Thirty Years War (between 1618-48) meant that on James' death in 1625, the kingdom was on the edge of war with Spain
  • Favourites - James I had a number of favourite courtiers, to whom he gave titles and power. The most important ones were Robert Carr, who was knighted in 1607, then made Viscount Rochester in 1611, and George Villiers, who became Earl of Buckingham in 1619. James tended to rely on his favourites, who flattered him, rather than on Parliament or existing nobles. This caused resentment and, quite often, led to poor advice.

Dashed social and economic expectations

There were further social and economic factors leading to discontent in the higher classes. Under Elizabeth I there had been an increase in the education of young men, enabling them to attain positions of responsibility and consequent wealth. Yet by the seventeenth century there were not the positions for them equal to their expectations. In 1611 Francis Bacon wrote to the King:

‘There being more scholars bred than the state can prefer and employ, … it needs must fall out that many persons will be bred unfit for other vocations, and unprofitable for that in which they were bred up.'

Those who expected advancement at court were often disappointed. Reward was not always obtained through merit, but often by flattery.

An unfavourable attitude towards court life can be seen in The White Devil. Much of Flamineo's cynicism seems to be linked with his poverty and lack of status. In Act 1 Sc 2 Flamineo complains to his mother:

‘I would fain know where lies the mass of wealth
Which you have hoarded for my maintenance'

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