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Response to Review no. 334

I am grateful to Professor John Cramsie for his characteristically insightful, generous and knowledgeably nuanced review of my King James. My comments are intended merely to add to the points for discussion which he raised.

First, I’d like to emphasise that the book is not simply aimed at students – although I hope they will find it helpful – but explicitly sets out to make the reign accessible to the general reader. As Professor Cramsie rightly notes, the process of giving lectures and tutorials is invaluable in enhancing an author’s understanding of how best to convey a complex subject to non-experts. But I deplore the increasing tendency of historians to think that they can produce only two categories of publication: books for students or complex works of scholarship for fellow-specialists. We have a professional obligation to convey our own fascination with history, and our understanding of its vital role in shaping our modern world, to the widest possible audience. The immense success of authors like David Starkey and Simon Schama, in tying-in high quality books with their popular television series, has proved that there are hundreds of thousands of people willing to tackle some serious reading. I hope my own book may even help to inform discussion on the institutions and policies of the contemporary United Kingdom, since I emphasise the remarkable creation of the new pan-British state in 1603. This was a crucial development in the history of the whole British isles. England and Britain are not the same thing, although some English people (and all too many Americans) still tend to think so.

The question of the Scottish religious legacy that James VI and I bequeathed to Charles is of course a complex one. I had no intention of “forgiving” Charles for his 1625 act of revocation, his anglocentric coronation at Holyrood in 1633 and his introduction of the new Laudian-style canons and prayer book of 1636-37. It would be absurd to blame James for everything that happened after 1625. However, there is a very good case for arguing that the suspicion and apprehension that Charles I’s policies aroused were not completely novel responses. The actions of King James had already caused grave disquiet. In 1638 the Covenanters openly deplored ‘the great rent that entered into the kirk’ with the introduction of James’ Five Articles of Perth, which divided parishes and set laymen and clergy alike against the ecclesiastical policies of the Scottish crown. It is worth underlining the problematic nature of the Jacobean ecclesiastical legacy, because there has been an enormous emphasis recently both on the supreme importance of religion, and on the personal defects of Charles I – his secretiveness and poor judgment, his inner insecurities and lack of informed interest in the world outside his court. This estimate of the king is valuable and perceptive but must not be taken too far. Recently, Jonathan Scott in his provocative and brilliant book England’s Troubles (1), discussing the successive crises of the seventeenth century, has noted that the preferred verdict in any air crash enquiry is ‘pilot error’: preferred, because it saves further expensive and time-consuming analysis; indicates that there is no need to scrutinise the plane itself for possible structural defects; and last but not least, generally lets everyone else off the hook. Pointing the finger at Charles I without acknowledging the complexity of the religious situation inherited from his father seems to me very close to a verdict of ‘pilot error’.

Professor Cramsie discusses the key question of the style of Jacobean government and properly takes issue with any interpretation that merely accuses the king of idleness. However, he thinks that my phrase, ‘ability and complacency’, describing one aspect of James’ character, ‘comes closer to the mark but still understates James’ activism as king’. The problem here is that James’ dual reign was a very long one, from 1567 to 1625. There is an enormous amount of archival evidence illustrating the adult king’s activism and diligence in reading and replying to the paperwork he demanded from his privy councillors. But the activism tailed off markedly in the last decade, 1615-25, and there is abundant contemporary evidence and comment pointing to James’ weakening grip on important business. Secretary of State Winwood told the envoy from Savoy in 1616 that the king would never read his over-lengthy position paper, ‘for the half of his kingdom’ – yet James had formerly paid particular attention to all matters of foreign policy. Other courtiers told the Venetian ambassador in 1619 that the king’s willingness to tackle his paperwork had declined noticeably since the death of Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury in 1612. The rise to real power, and not just court prominence, of the favourites – Robert Carr, later earl of Somerset, and then George Villiers, later duke of Buckingham – owed a good deal to James’ desire to shed much of the burden of administration. Buckingham in particular, as Roger Lockyer showed in his 1981 biography of the duke, took over large areas of previously royal business, and was hated all the more for his pains. James’ early activism as king can certainly be demonstrated from the archival evidence, but it did not last throughout his reign. In the last crucial decade, 1615-25, particularly when faced with the need to construct a foreign policy to cope with the complexities of the Thirty Years War, James too often relied on his long experience, together with his complacent assumption that a purely dynastic solution (the Spanish match) would resolve the crisis. He did not master the complexity of the situation and refused to listen to others. As late as August-September 1620, when his son-in-law’s Palatinate dominions were collapsing before a Habsburg invasion, he still maintained that there was no need for him to set aside his hunting. ‘All these troubles will settle themselves, you will see that very soon’, he impatiently told envoys.

Lastly, I wholeheartedly agree with Professor Cramsie’s emphasis on our need to escape both from the hostile anglocentric historiography that previously dominated accounts of James’ reign, and from worn-out frames of reference. Thankfully fresh research is in progress across many aspects of the king’s rule. Jacobean studies, which once seemed so turgid in comparison with the lively scholarship devoted to Elizabethan England or Caroline Britain, are now flourishing again.


1. For a review of Jonathan Scott’s book on these pages, please click ‘The Translation of a Monarchy’.