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's 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 (1606), 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 Divine right of kings) and that his will should be supreme.

There were ‘strict statutes and most biting laws', such as the Duke refers to in Act I scene 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.

In The Winter's Tale Leontes calls Paulina a witch, and also threatens both Hermione and Perdita with burning. Through examining Leontes' irrational despotism, Shakespeare shows how important it is that rulers should be guided, not by their own whims but by heavenly laws. Although James believed in the divinely-appointed power of kings, he was a devout man who saw himself as following God's decrees.

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