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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.
Powhatan 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 - opens new window
James I's family tree
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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.

Colonial dilemmas

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' - opens new window
The domestic impact of 'Imperial Britain'
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'Beastly idleness' (map), 1612 - opens new window
'Beastly idleness', 1612
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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 as citizens.
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.'

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