Queenly devotion. S J Houston on a fine new study of a homosexual king
David Loades Hambledon, 410pp, £25
The Cradle King: a
Most biographers of Elizabeth I, when assessing her achievements, agree that she was undoubtedly a great queen. Professor Loades, whose biography of Elizabeth is readable, searching and wise, does not dissent from this tradition. His narrative draws on a deep knowledge of the personalities and politics of Tudor England, yet he keeps the focus sharply on the queen herself.
James VI & I has received much less attention than Elizabeth, and always suffers by comparison. Although recent scholarship has improved his reputation, assessments of his kingship are generally unfavourable. Alan Stewart's agreeable biography fits, rather tentatively, within this tradition of writing about King James. However, a strong case can be made for him. A starting point would be the mess left by Gloriana. Although a century of inflation had seriously eroded the crown's income, Elizabeth refused to increase royal rents, customs and taxation in line with real values, thereby preserving her popularity while displaying an irresponsible indifference to the well-being of the kingdom under her successor. By 1603, many of the fiscal and administrative problems that should have been tackled by Elizabeth were intractable, making it all too easy to attribute the failure of financial reform entirely to James's extravagance.
James quarrelled with his parliaments. Elizabeth had failed to define the constitutional relationship between crown, Lords and Commons, preferring instead to surround her powers with a haze of equivocation. James preferred plain speaking. But although he felt it necessary to proclaim the theoretical basis of divine right absolutism, he did not practise what he preached. His natural common sense kept breaking through his rather pedantic theoretical pronouncements.
To James, parliament was not a major feature of government. This is not to say that he planned its destruction, as some MPs believed. His attitude simply reflected the truth that all important decisions were taken outside parliament. Pragmatic, manipulative and shrewd, the king balanced court factions and imposed his will.
James's care of the church was exemplary. He shares with Elizabeth credit for establishing the Church of England as a via media between the extremes of Rome and Geneva. During the troubled 1630s, people would look back nostalgically to James's reign as the golden age of the English church, when the sublime King James Bible had been written, clerical standards improved and bishops properly managed.
James's rule brought political and religious stability to his kingdoms. Focused on the national interest, he spared his subjects the heavy costs of a war with Spain for which the House of Commons clamoured. His faults were venial, not mortal. Feckless extravagance and tolerance of the excesses of his male lovers turned his court into a gaudy pageant of gay sex and violence that irredeemably damaged his reputation.
Alan Stewart's full and fascinating account of the king's early life shows how James's character and political skills were shaped in Scotland. Like Elizabeth, during her childhood and adolescence, James underwent traumatic experiences whose effects were never entirely erased. At about the same age (14), their sexuality was awakened in circumstances that, today, would merit a visit from social services. Elizabeth became part of a menage a trois involving Catherine Parr and her husband Thomas Seymour. There were romps in Elizabeth's bedchamber when Seymour "struck her buttocks familiarly". There was an incident in the garden when Catherine held Elizabeth while Seymour cut her dress in ribbons. Then, in September 1548, Catherine died, and Seymour's advances, which Elizabeth never discouraged, became serious. But instead of marriage, Elizabeth suffered imprisonment and Seymour was beheaded. The experience left Elizabeth with a life-long fear of scandal and dishonour; and, interestingly, with a tendency to flirt with men who physically resembled Seymour.
In Scotland, James's lonely existence was transformed in September 1571 by the arrival of his handsome French kinsman, Esme Stuart, who was 24 years his senior. For the first time in his life, James was treated like an adult and made to feel he really was a king. He was captivated and rewarded his kinsman by making him first Earl and then Duke of Lennox. He was the only duke in Scotland. Soon it was suggested that Lennox had "foully misused his tender age" and "provoked" the boy to the pleasures of the flesh. In 1582, their passionate relationship came to an abrupt end. James was lured into Ruthven Castle by the Earl of Gowrie and forcibly detained until he agreed to send Lennox back to France.
The intensity of James's relationship with Lennox provides a psychodrama of extraordinary resonance. The king's emotional dependence on beautiful male courtiers remained a feature of his personality for the rest of his life. At first, these men were older than James, but as he aged they became much younger. Only Buckingham, the last favourite, aroused the intensity of feeling occasioned by the first.
For a scholar whose previous books include Close Readers: humanism and sodomy in early modern England, Alan Stewart is surprisingly reticent about the king's sexuality. This is a pity because, despite being married and the father of seven children, James's liking for attractive men was an important dynamic of court politics and deserves a full, detailed explanation.
S J Houston's most recent book is James I (Seminar Studies in History, Longman)