Union of crowns
|Thanks to painstaking preparations before the
death of Queen Elizabeth, James I acceded to the throne of England,
in 1603, with little opposition. In theory, his claim was not
indisputable. Being a 'foreigner' was a disadvantage to a potential
king, as well as to his subjects - and lawyers promoting the
claim of James's cousin Arabella Stuart argued that as an alien,
born in Scotland, he was not entitled to inherit English land.
||James's Scottish background caused alarm among
some of his English subjects. The Scottish monarchy and aristocracy
were perceived by them to be more autocratic than the English
equivalents. Fears that James might turn out to be a 'foreign'
despot surfaced briefly when, at Newark, on his triumphant progress
south from Edinburgh, he ordered the execution of a cutpurse
without trial. But, reassuringly, the incident was not repeated.
Pros and cons
To some people in England, even James's peaceful foreign
policy was open to criticism as un-English, set against the
fiercely anti-Spanish policy that had evolved under Elizabeth
and found expression in popular heroes like Sir Philip Sidney.
Against this view, James promoted the idea of Britain and
a British nation. At the time of his accession there were
concerted attempts to show that, far from being a new foreign
ruler, James represented the re-establishment of an ancient
line of kings. Just as the Norman kings had used Arthurian
romance to establish their connection with a line of 'British'
kings that predated the invading Saxons, so the family tree
drawn up for James in 1603 linked him to King Alfred and a
line of Saxon kings that dated from before the Norman invasion.
James I's family tree
(243k) | Transcript
Hopes and fears
In an address to Parliament, James sought to show that Britain
was a governable entity that had been artificially divided
but which could be re-established by 'the away taking of that
partitional wall'. James's mixed religious background, his
'foreignness' and the apparently contradictory legislation
of his early reign made the rights of individuals in the proposed
kingdom of Britain the subject of speculation and dispute.
As well as fears of losing rights and place among those who
had profited under Elizabeth, came the expectations of those
who had suffered under her. James appeared to raise hopes
of greater toleration among Catholics only to dash them again,
leading to the disillusionment that erupted in the
Gunpowder Plot in 1605. In a letter detailing the tortures
to be used when interrogating Guy Fawkes, James linked the
plotters with those who had poured scorn on his British project
at the time of his accession.
There were external pressures on the rights of the subject,
too. The establishment of the colony at Jamestown in Virginia
raised the question of who the colonists should be, how they
should be governed, and what rights they should enjoy. If
people were forced ('impressed') to go to Jamestown, there
was a danger that the new colony would be seen as just another
means of suppressing the liberties of his subjects at home.
The domestic impact of 'Imperial Britain'
'Beastly idleness', 1612
(206k) | Transcript
|While the fear of impressment lingered
at home, the Spanish perception was of a 'voluntary and loose'
English colony in Virginia, too independent and, despite James's
peaceful foreign policy, too far away to avoid the temptations
of piracy. The royal court also feared that the colonists would
be too idle to fend for themselves and that it would be beyond
the power of the Crown to control them. Shakespeare's The
Tempest, written at this time and taking the voyages to
Bermuda as one of its major sources, explores these misgivings
- not least the fear that, faced with idle plenty, the colonists
would become 'decivilised' and forget their rights and responsibilities
|Whatever his views on the colonists, John Chamberlain
- a prodigious 'intelligencer' who wrote news reports in the
form of letters - foresaw in Virginia the possibility of something
more than a branch of empire. He envisaged a place where people
would live and work in their own right, rather than simply as
a source of income for the Crown: 'I heare not of any other
riches or matter of worth, but only some quantitie of sassafras,
tobacco, pitch and clap-board, things of no great value unless
there were more plenty and nearer hand. All I can learne of
yt is that the countrie is good to live in, yf yt were stored
with people, and might in time become commodious, but there
is no present profit to be expected.'
back to top of page