King James VI & I’s journey from Scottish to English throne

James VI & I in his thirties

On the 25th July 1603, King James VI of Scotland arrived in London to be crowned King James I of England.

His journey from Edinburgh had taken over a month, and he entered the capital at the head of a triumphal procession to huge crowds.

He had already been king of Scotland for 35 years, but now that Elizabeth I had died James had just become king of England, Wales and Ireland.

Little Arthur

James became king of Scotland when he was just thirteen months old.

From birth, James had one of the strongest claims to the English throne thanks to his great-grandmother Margaret Tudor, the granddaughter of Elizabeth Woodville, The White Queen.

Margaret had been the sister of Henry VIII of England and aunt to Elizabeth I. There were now so few Tudors that her cousin James VI was her closest heir.

At his baptism at Stirling castle the Scots hailed him around a specially ordered round table as "Little Arthur," the future king of a united Britain, just like King Arthur of legend.

The English ambassador was offended by the premature claim, as Elizabeth was only in her mid-thirties and still had time to produce an heir.

First king of England and Scotland

The first Union flag, 1606
  • James VI & I joined England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in a personal Union under one monarch.
  • He referred to England as "South Brittainne" and Scotland as "North Brittainne"
  • In 1606 the earliest version of the union flag was used on ships, the English St. George's cross over the Scottish saltire.

But she never did. Elizabeth died childless 35 years later, and on the night of Sunday 26th March 1603, James was informed that he had just become James I of England. Just days later he left for London to claim his new throne.

Start Quote

There was huge relief that the Stuart succession went unchallenged.”

End Quote Jenny Wormauld Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Triumphal journey

A vast entourage of Scottish dukes, earls and lords accompanied the king when he left Edinburgh on the 4th April 1603, and their journey to the English capital took over a month.

Dr Steven Reid, a historian at the University of Glasgow, explains the journey "could be done, as an exhausted Sir Robert Carey [who brought the news from London] proved, in two days with a continual changeover of fast horse."

But James was in no rush.

There were two reasons for this, explains Reid.

King James wanted "to meet his new people and to progress through the country, but he also wanted to stay out of London until the funeral service for Elizabeth was over and the city had time to mourn - it would have been impolitic for him to have taken part in this."

Leanda de Lisle, author of 'After Elizabeth', says the English nobles "spent a fortune entertaining the king along with the enormous train of Scots who had followed him south looking to make their fortunes."

His camp was added to by "English courtiers who were hoping to find favour with their new monarch."

Bonfire Knights

The king followed the historical route between Edinburgh and London down the east coast, passing through Berwick, Newcastle, Durham, York, Doncaster, Newark and Royston, among other towns.

He was welcomed by his new kingdom with feasts, fireworks and bonfires. In York, wine was poured into the streets from the gate to the Minster.

In return, the king pardoned prisoners, even paying for those who were jailed for debt, and "doled out knighthoods with a more than lavish hand" according to his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Jenny Wormald.

However, James relied on advice from his Scottish nobles, and the lawyer Roger Wilbraham (who would later serve in James' court) wrote that bribes were being taken in exchange for recommending would-be English knights to the king.

King's Justice
King James VI & I in parliament King James addresses Parliament at Westminster

His pardons were not a universal carte blanche, either.

Those imprisoned for murder or treason were not freed, and Leanda de Lisle points out that "the hints he had made about allowing Catholics freedom of conscience to practise their religion were proving to be a con, with Catholic prisoners excluded from the royal pardons."

His instant justice alarmed some, however, as "in Newark he ordered the execution of a cutpurse without trial," explains de Lisle.

"Queen Elizabeth's godson, Sir John Harington, who had supported James's accession commented of this: 'if the wind blows thus, why may not a man be tried before he has offended'?"

But the crowds were undeterred, covering the roadside fields in great numbers and even injuring one another in their frenzy to catch a glimpse of the new king.

Early impressions amongst nobles were also good. Wilbraham said the king was "of the sweetest, pleasantest and best nature that ever I knew, desiring nor affecting anything but true honour."

Swarms and plague

James arrived outside London on the 7th May, meeting the Lord Mayor on Stamford Hill before heading into the city.

Over 100,000 extra people came to London and 40,000 tried to attend court, "swarming" the new king, according to Wilbraham, in an effort to demonstrate their good wishes and loyalty to him "at every back gate and privy door, to [the King's] great offense."

According to his Oxford biography entry: "even the plague which hit London in April 1603 apparently failed to undermine the prevailing mood, although it killed nearly a quarter of the capital's population."

James was welcomed in parliament by a speech which lauded him for being a mature and experienced King with a wife "to breede and bring fourth kings."

Crown and crowds
James VI & I coronation James' coronation took place in Westminster Abbey

James' English coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on the 25th July 1603.

The public celebrations were delayed until 1604 due to plague, and by then the king's reticence to engage with the public was noted.

Contemporary Historian Arthur Wilson wrote in 1653: "He was not like his predecessor, the late Queen of famous memory, that with a well-pleased affection met her people's acclamations."

James, when he was amongst the people, "often dispersed them with frowns."

Scotland's lot

What about the Scots? Their king had left the country, and although he promised to return at least every three years, he only did so once in the remaining 22 years of his reign.

However Dr Reid says: "For your average Scot, unconnected with the court, it probably would have little impact."

For the nobles that went south with him, life was good. Reid adds: "For many of the nobility, following James south was an opportunity to increase their patronage from the crown."

Even after he had been king in England for ten years "six of the seven gentlemen of the bedchamber and every groom were Scottish," says Reid.

"Having access to the king's inner chamber like this provided wealth, influence and patronage which irritated the English nobility."

Treason and Plot
Guy Fawkes caught in parliament Guy Fawkes caught during the gunpowder plot.

Despite the apparently smooth succession and grand entrance into England, James survived two conspiracies in the first year of his reign.

Leanda de Lisle says these plots were arranged by groups of Protestants who "felt cut off by him from royal favour, and with it from money and power" and Catholics who "realised that James' hints that he would give them freedom to practice their religion was a lie."

Two years later, Guy Fawkes was caught and executed for attempting to kill the king in the gunpowder plot.

King James VI & I survived these attempts, however, and went on to rule as the first king of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales until his death in 1625.

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