NQ Scottish History

The English Succession


Portrait of Elizabeth I, Queen of England
James VI was Elizabeth I of England's closest royal relative. They were direct descendants of Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England. However, foreigners were forbidden from inheriting English lands, and the succession statute of 1544 failed to name any heir after Elizabeth and her children (if any). The will of Henry VIII prevented his Scottish relatives from succeeding to the throne.

Technically, under Henry VIII’s will the English crown should have passed to Edward Seymour, Viscount Beauchamp, although some argue that the true heir was Lady Anne Stanley in 1603. Also, a statute of 1585 insisted that if any claimants plotted against Elizabeth I all of their legal rights were forfeited. Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed in 1587 for her involvement in Catholic assassination plots against Elizabeth. As Mary's son James VI could be excluded from the succession as he would have gained from the death of Elizabeth.

James VI had a cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart, who was another descendant of Henry VII but English-born and therefore exempt from the 1351 statute forbidding monarchs not born in England. Then there was the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain. In 1588, Philip proclaimed that his daughter's descent from Edward III made her the rightful Catholic queen of England. However, James VI had the advantage of being an experienced monarch who had gained control over the Kirk and the Scottish nobles.

Payments to the Scottish King

James VI was always short of money to spend on personal projects or to grant gifts to friends and favourites. In 1586 a treaty was signed between Scotland and England, and parallel negotiations led to James VI being promised an annual subsidy by Elizabeth I. The Scottish king received £4000 sterling (£36,000 Scots) as his first subsidy. However, the English queen never committed herself to a fixed annual payment, although James VI received regular payments until shortly before the death of Elizabeth I.

Records show that the payments were irregular and unpredictable, and the Scottish monarch had to ‘earn’ his subsidy by being of ‘value’ to Elizabeth I in one way or another, eg in 1594 James VI received £4000 sterling when Elizabeth heard news that Huntly and the Catholic earls had received gold from the Spanish to subsidise their rebellion. It should be noted that no payment was made in 1587 when Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed.

The English called the payment a ‘gratuity’ or pension, and the Scots called it an ‘annuity’ (claiming that James VI was entitled to an income from his grandmother’s estates in England, ie Margaret Douglas, Lady Lennox).

Between 1586 and 1602 James VI received £58,500 sterling. This money would have been spent in many ways, eg paying off debts in England, buying goods in England, paying for a royal guard, financing military action against the Catholic earls and providing gifts for royal favourites. However, most of the money did not pass through the hands of government officers and detailed records were not kept.

The English subsidy contributed to the unequal relationship between James VI and Elizabeth I. So long as he hoped to succeed Elizabeth I on the English throne he had to maintain good relations between the two kingdoms.

In 1596 James VI's efforts to have himself declared heir apparent to the English throne culminated in the Treaty of Berwick, a formal alliance with England. However, so long as she lived, James VI had to ‘earn’ his regular subsidies from Elizabeth I. This money could then be used to support a royal court in Scotland made up largely of nobles and courtiers who wanted James to succeed to the English throne.

The Views of James VI

The court of James VI was home to a group of poets whose leading figure was the king. James VI wrote his own poetry as well as a set of rules for Scots poetry.

In 1588 he wrote and performed in a masque to celebrate the wedding of his then favourite the earl of Huntly. He wrote Daemonologie (1597) where he outlined his beliefs on witchcraft. In the late 1590s, James VI engaged in the debate about the nature of kingship by writing The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598). In the Basilikon Doron (1599) James VI argued in favour of the divine right of kings to rule.

Who would be the Heir?

The Earl of Essex was the favourite of Elizabeth after 1589. He was secretly committed to the succession of James VI. But in 1601 Essex lost Elizabeth I's favour and following a failed rebellion was tried and executed. Essex had been a privy councillor and an ideal informant on English policy.

At the same time Elizabeth I remained silent on the succession. However, following the death of Lord Burghley, his son Sir Robert Cecil became the queen's principal Secretary of State and the most influential privy councillor. Essex's rebellion convinced Cecil that the succession must be settled before Elizabeth's death rather than leave the matter open.

In April 1601 James VI sent two envoys south and Cecil indicated his willingness to co-operate. An exchange of coded letters began, although a secret correspondence with a foreign monarch was an act of treason.

In March 1603 Elizabeth I refused to eat and then took to her bed. Cecil prepared the proclamation announcing the transfer of the crown to James VI and sent it north for the king's approval. The English ports were closed, and extra watchmen patrolled the London streets. Catholics were kept under surveillance, and Lady Arabella Stuart was held captive at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. However, neither the unmarried Arabella nor the childless Isabella enjoyed much support. After being ruled for 40 years by the unmarried Elizabeth I, James VI was a married man with two sons and a daughter.

An Accession Council met and proclaimed James VI, King of Scots, as James I, King of England and Ireland. On 5 April 1603 James VI and his wife, Anna, left Edinburgh promising that they would return in three years, and they were crowned on 25 July 1603 at Westminster Abbey.