The Stuart monarchy

James I of England

Elizabeth reigned until 1603, when she was succeeded by her Protestant relative, James, King of Scotland, a member of the Stuart family. More on James' mother, Mary Queen of Scots?

James as King of England

  • Having been brought up as a Protestant, and as a strong opponent of his mother's Catholicism, James faced opposition in England from the Catholic families who resented another Protestant ruler
  • In 1605, a group of conspirators placed barrels of gunpowder under the House of Parliament, hoping to blow up the King and his senior ministers
  • However, the plot (still known today as the Gunpowder Plot) was discovered and the conspirators arrested and executed. One of them, Guy Fawkes, gives his name to the ‘guy' still burnt on bonfires in England on Guy Fawkes' Night every year – November 5th.
More on Shakespeare and James I: In the play he wrote the next year, Macbeth, Shakespeare pays a compliment to King James, who traced his descent from Banquo, a noble opponent of Macbeth in the play. Shakespeare also introduces allusions to the Gunpowder plot; for example, a medal was produced to commemorate the King's escape, which had on it the image of a snake under a flower. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth says to her husband: ‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.'

Law and punishment

James IIn James' England, the King was, in theory, not in absolute control, as he had judges and magistrates to apply his laws. However, James believed strongly in his ‘divine right' as a ruler (see also Religious/philosophical context: Divine right of kings) and that his will should be seen as supreme.

There were ‘strict statutes and most biting laws', such as the Duke refers to in Act I, sc iii of Measure for Measure. The death penalty could be applied for what would today be regarded as minor offences, and public whippings and hangings were common. Miscreants could also be branded, have their ears cut off, or be set in the stocks or pillory. James I himself believed in witchcraft, and under his rule many so-called witches were executed by hanging or burning.

Although Measure for Measure is ostensibly set in Vienna, it actually reflects the legal system in England at the time. The audience learns that there is a system of local constables and that penalties for breaking the law involve whipping, imprisonment and beheading.

Marriage laws and customs

Although the Church expected people to marry using a religious service, and the Book of Common Prayer set out a service of Holy Matrimony (marriage), there were also other forms of betrothal and marriage recognised by English common law, and it is these forms which are relevant to the plot of Measure for Measure:

  • ‘Sponsalia per verbi de praesenti' literally meant ‘espousal (i.e., marriage) by the word given at the present time'. Those who made this promise to each other were regarded as legally married, whether or not they then went through the consecration of a church marriage. By this arrangement, Juliet and Claudio regard themselves as married; as he explains to Lucio:
Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order.
  • Angelo and Mariana were betrothed by ‘sponsalia per verba de futuro', which was an agreement to marry in the future. This agreement could be put aside if certain conditions, such as an agreed dowry, were not fulfilled:
    • Because Mariana lost her dowry, Angelo wanted to break the agreement, but rather than admit it was because of money, he pretended that Mariana had stained her reputation.
    • However, those who entered into a ‘de futuro' agreement could not break it if their relationship was physically consummated. Hence the idea suggested by the Duke that Mariana could complete her marriage if she could get Angelo to sleep with her. As the Duke tells her:
He is your husband on a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together ‘tis no sin.
  • Although technically it was a sin to have sexual relations before being married in church, nevertheless we can see that morally the Duke has a point: in comparing Claudio and Angelo, we see that Claudio is far more honourable than Angelo, even though the latter had a legal right to break the contract.
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