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  • James VI and I. Ideas, Authority, and Government
  • Alexander Courtney
James VI and I. Ideas, Authority, and Government. Edited by Ralph A. Houlbrooke. Aldershot: Ashgate. 2006. xiv, 198 pp. £55.00. ISBN 0754654109.

In the introduction to this volume of essays, Ralph Houlbrooke refers to James VI and I as 'A scholar's king par excellence': James stands out as a uniquely eloquent communicator of ideas about kingship, articulated through a variety of media, but at the same time he 'remains in many respects an engimatic figure' who, through his 'inconsistencies and complexities', continues to pose interpretative problems. This collection strikes a judicious balance, taking James seriously as a skilful and, in some respects, successful politician, while also acknowledging the divisiveness of his policies, especially, in religious matters, and the troublesome legacy bequeathed to his successor. This even-handedness is finely replicated in Houlbrooke's own chapter, a concise historiographical survey of James's political reputation from 1625 to the present. This essay is both valuable in itself and a fitting introduction/conclusion (it can be read as either) to a book which takes as its themes James's ideas and policies in presentation, implementation, and reception.

The book is not an exhaustive study of those broad themes, but then neither does it claim to be. Six (at least) of its ten chapters are on aspects of James's religious politics, policies and political writing. There are also chapters by Peter Roberts on James's patronage of the stage, and Susan Doran on his diplomacy concerning the English succession during the 1590's.1 Parlimentary politics, by contrast, receive very little attention. What might seem, when expressed in that way, an imbalance, is in fact extremely refreshing. Early-Stuart historiography has, arguably, been too parliament-centred and, if we want to understand Jacobean kingship more fully, the study of James's self-presentation and rule as a 'christian king' -and his subjects' critical perceptions of him in that role - is vital.

James's own writings are a fruitful source in this respect. Focussing upon James's Trew Law of Free Monarchies, Basilikon Doron, and his first speech to the parliament of England of 19 March 1604, Professor Cramsie presents a reading of these texts as 'three performances of imperial kingship' (p. 58). Clearly inspired by the works of John Guy, Cramsie argues that James 'thrust himself into the negotiation and renegotiation of imperial kingship initiated by his predecessors', drawing particular attention to the parallels between Henrician and Jacobean statements of royal temporal and ecclesiastical supremacy. As an effort to transcend 1603 as a dividing line between the Tudor and Stuart political historiographies and to connect James's reign into a 'longue durée' (p. 60) of claims and counter-claims as to the nature and extent of kingly power over Church and state, this is commendable. There remains, however, the problem that James himself did not write of 'imperial kingship' or imperium in any of [End Page 414] these three texts, despite Cramsie's repeated use of these words for him. James's own concept of 'free monarchy' may be effectively synonymous with Tudor 'imperial kingship', of course, but exploration of this divergence of vocabulary between a Scottish king and his new English subjects would, I suspect, have proven fruitful.

Astrid Stilma and Jane Rickard examine some of James's less conventionally 'political works'. Dr Stilma offers a subtle and convincing analysis of James's epic poem The Battle of Lepanto and its translation into Dutch by Abraham van der Myl. The poetic celebration of a catholic naval victory by a professedly protestant king has led many, then and since, to accuse James of political opportunism and duplicity. Stilma undermines such readings of the poem, seeing it, as its Dutch translator did, as a clearly protestant work which treated the victory over the Turks as a forerunner of the final defeat of popery by the true (protestant) faith. In the Dutch provinces rebelling against Philip II, such a message would go down well, although Britain's peace with Spain after 1604 would undermine hopes that James would become a 'champion' of their cause. Jane Rickard's chapter, on...


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Archived 2008
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