King James I & VI of England and Scotland (1566-1625) has a curious likeability for people interested in human oddity. King Henry IV of France called him “the wisest fool in Christendom” ; the King who was clever at everything except governing his country. Nevertheless, James was one of Scotland's ablest monarchs. He was taken less seriously in England, however, because of his Scottish accent, his dishevelled appearance, and his doting on young male favourites - especially near the end of his life, when he became senile.


James (to the right) was born on June 19, 1566. He was only thirteen months old, when he was crowned King of the Scots. His father, the immature, vain and stupid Henry Stuart of Lennox (1545-1567), had been murdered shortly after James’ birth. His mother, the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), remarried Patrick Hepburn of Bothwell (±1535-1578). Both may have been involved in Henry’s death and, as a result, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her only son on July 24, 1567. She fled to England, where she was imprisoned. In 1587, Mary was condemned to death on the charge of supporting a Catholic plot to overthrow the English Queen Elizabeth. James, who had never known his mother, made only some mild protests, because he didn’t want to jeopardise his succession to the English throne. Thus, Mary was beheaded. Her last husband had fled to Denmark, where he had become mad in confinement.

As a child, James was looked after by different families. He seems to have been a bookish boy, spending long periods alone. George Buchanan was appointed as James’ tutor. He was an extremely nasty old man, who hated James’s mother, and never missed an opportunity to tell James about her “wickedness”. He did, however, give James a very thorough, if old-fashioned, education. The daily routine started before breakfast with Greek, and then proceeded via Latin and history to music, mathematics, geography, astronomy and public speaking. At the age of 8, James was already schooled in French and Latin and could “read a chapter of the Bible out of Latin into French and out of French into English as well as few men could have added anything to this translation”.

James was brought up in exclusively male company. Girls were explicitly excluded from his presence. He grew up lonely and unloved amid treachery and brutal violence. In those days, Scotland was dominated by gang warfare between its great nobles. Of the four regents, that reigned Scotland during James’ childhood, only one died of natural causes. When James was 11, in 1578, the last regent, the grim James Douglas, Earl of Morton, handed over power to James himself, hoping to attract less criticism, when he controlled the government from behind the scenes.

Early Love Life

James’s first male favourite was the sophisticated Esmé Stuart1 (±1542-1583, to the right), who had spent most of his life at the French court. He arrived in Scotland, shortly after James’s 13th birthday. James immediately had a crush on him, appreciating Esmé’s “emminent ornaments of body and minde”. To James it seemed that paradise had come on earth, when this beloved “Phoenix”, as he called him in one of his own poems, actually returned his affections. Esmé encouraged young James to hunt and hold wild parties, instead of governing the country. He first became Gentleman of the Bedchamber, but soon he replaced the Earl of Morton, who was executed in 15812. Esmé was made Duke of Lennox that same year. His boon companion, James Stewart, was created Earl of Arran. These two debauchees “foully misused” James’s tender age. Esmé exercised enormous political power, and dominated Scotland for 3 years. Many Scottish nobles resented his influence, and one of them, William Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie, kidnapped James in August 1582. Humiliated and lovesick, James met their demands with tears. After 10 months, he managed to slip away, while on a hunting expedition, and escape. This episode made James permanently cautious of strangers, and afraid of assassinations.
Esmé had died in France3, but Arran was soon reinstated as a member of the King’s council. In 1585, he was replaced by a new favourite, charming Patrick of Gray. He had been send to England to negotiate an alliance. James was also said to have hung around the neck of Francis, Earl of Bothwell, whom he frequently embraced tenderly in public, until he became tired of his wild pranks, and send him in exile. George Gordon, Earl of Huntley, and known as “The Cock of the North”, was also kissed in public by James. He made him captain of the guard, and lodged him in his own chamber. Gordon was eventually rewarded with the title of Marquis. He became involved in several catholic plots and a murder, until James sent him abroad in 1595. Another favourite was Alexander Lindsay, whom James called “Sandie”.

After consulting the English Queen Elizabeth, James proposed to Princess Anne of Denmark (1574-1619, to the right), and wrote her a stream of love poems. When she was held back by the weather from sailing to Scotland in 1589, James went to fetch her for himself, and stayed away six months. When he returned, he was lucky to find his throne safe. For a while, James imagined himself in love with his fair, teenage bride. They both enjoyed poetry and she possessed the social graces and interests he lacked, thus enlivening the court. Anne’s masques, however, bored James, and soon she turned out to be an enormous spendthrift. Over the years, Anne went through 9 pregnancies, although only 3 children survived infancy: Henry Frederick (1594-1612), Elizabeth (1596-1662), and Charles (1600-1649). Anne was a loving mother and James was a family man, too. He doted on his children, although he never quite managed to gain their confidence or admiration.


Due to the insecurity and loneliness of his childhood, James was easily influenced by fear and flattery. Slowly, however, he began to develop a balancing act, playing off one Scottish faction against another, while keeping friendly with the English Queen Elizabeth, whose heir he was4. He ruled Scotland as a shrewd and canny monarch, and proved to be more than a match for the wily Scottish nobles. In August 1600, James claimed he was attacked in Gowrie House. In the following struggle James Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie, and his brother, Alexander, were both killed. They belonged to the family that had kidnapped James in 1582.

On March 23, 1603, the English Queen Elizabeth died, and within 3 days James received the news. He left Edinburgh on April 5, and had reached London by May 7. His wife and children followed later. In August, James and Anne were crowned. In 1604, James concluded peace with Spain. Afterwards, he managed to maintain peace for a long time. When he tried to relax the laws against Catholics, however, he was opposed by Parliament. Some Catholic conspirators dug a tunnel into the cellars of the Parliament building with the intention of blowing up the Houses of Parliament during a State opening, when the King was present. One of them warned his brother, who was an MP, and who informed the guards. The conspirators of this “Gunpowder Plot” were tracked down and executed. Gradually, James came to listen more closely to his advisers than to Parliament. He left the details of the administration of his Kingdom to the Privy Councils of both his countries. His chief minister was Robert Cecil (1563-1612). James called him “Little Beagle”5, and made him Earl of Salisbury.

James became one of the most intellectual rulers Britain has ever had. James published his first book, a treatise on how to write poetry, when he was nineteen. His publications “Trew law of Free Monarchies” and “Basilikon Doron” contained both philosophical musings and practical advice about ruling a country. His cleverness, however, was of a theoretical kind; he had little grasp of reality. A new translation of the Bible, supervised by King James himself, was published in 1611. The theatre flourished as James had a taste for satire, low comedy and burlesque. He patronised Shakespeare, who wrote his most famous plays and sonnets. Dutch experts, skilled in the reclamation of swampy land, using dykes and ditches, were invited to turn East Anglia into farmland.

Strange Habits

James (to the right) enjoyed cock-fighting and bear-baiting. He objected to the “poore to cutt downe and carey awaye my woodes out of my parkes and grounds”, because he loved riding and hunting. While at the hunt, James did not dismount to relieve himself, but defecated in the saddle, so that by the end of the day he was in a filthy state. Meanwhile, he was completely reckless and enjoyed a bloody kill. As soon as a stag was brought down, James eagerly dismounted to cut its throat. Then he would rip its belly open, put his hands, and sometimes his feet, inside and smear his companions with blood. Still, his custom was to have only one bath a year.
James had not been able to walk properly until the age of 5. Invariably, "he leaned on other men’s shoulders, his walk ever circular, his fingers always fiddling with his codpiece" 6. Like his father and younger son, James had notably spindly legs. Therefore, Frederick Holmes suggests that James’s legs may have been affected by a hereditary neuromuscular disease.
James conversation was usually a garrulous stream in which long-winded theories mingled with homely endearments and coarse jokes. His speech was quite unintelligible with a Scottish accent. His protruding tongue seemed too large for his mouth, and gave the impression that he ate liquids rather than drank them, slobbering his drink down his chin and onto his clothing.
James was of medium height and weight, but appeared larger, because he wore bulky clothing, padded to protect him from the daggers of possible assassins. As King of England, he bought a new suit every 10 days. He was never corpulent, eating simple meals, fruits and vegetables. He liked wine, but he was rarely drunk. He rarely drank water, and, by his own description, his urine was usually quite concentrated. He had occasional bouts of abdominal pain, when passing dark or bloody urine. It was sometimes accompanied by fever. He also had melancholy episodes, particularly at times of stress. Bouts of diarrhoea and gastrointestinal distress marked periods of stress later in his life. His physician wrote: “He often had turbid urine and red like Alicant wine”. In June 1613, he described “bloody urine, with read sand, soon feculent and with thick sediment”. He had the same symptoms in October 1615. The pain was usually in his left flank and was of varying severity, sometimes keeping him from attending his duties for several days at a time. Like some of his descendants, James most likely suffered from the hereditary disease porphyria, although he may also have had a chronic kidney infection. He didn’t wash his hands; he just wet his fingertips, rubbing them with his napkin7.
James also suffered from a chronic chest infection, possibly tuberculosis, and thoroughly disliked smoking: “A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs”.


James had short flings for James Hay, whom he created Earl of Carlisle, and for Philip Herbert, whom he created Earl of Montgomery. In the spring of 1607, at the vulnerable age of 40, James bestowed his affections on Robert Carr (to the right), a young, tall and handsome Scot8. Carr was thrown off his horse, breaking his leg, and James insisted that his own physicians take care of him. He visited him regularly. After his recovery, James began to treat Robert Carr in public with the same exaggerated, gross affection as in private. He appeared everywhere with his arm round Robert’s neck, constantly kissing and fondling him, lovingly feeling the texture of the expensive suits he chose and bought for him, pinching his cheeks and smoothing his hair. They even kissed lasciviously in public. Soon, Robert Carr was made Gentleman of the Bedchamber. In 1611, he was created Viscount Rochester.
In May 1612, Robert Cecil died. In November 1612, James’s talented eldest son, Henry Frederick, died, too. His death made James physically ill. He came to depend even more on his favourite. Robert Carr was made Lord Treasurer of Scotland in 1613 and received the title Earl of Somerset. Carr encouraged James’s extravagance, helped him raising taxes, and encouraged an alliance with Spain. When he fell in love with the already married Francis Howard, James helped to arrange her divorce. By the end of 1613, both James and Anne attended their wedding. In 1615, Carr’s involvement in a murder scandal came out. By that time James had already reproached him for “your long creeping back and withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber, notwithstanding my many hundred times earnestly soliciting you to the contrary” 9.

By then, James had already met his last and greatest love, dashing George Villiers (1592-1628, to the right). By all accounts, George had great charm and stunning good looks. James was soon hopelessly in love with him. In August 1615, George Villiers confessed that he “gave in to the King’s importunity”, also hinting at activity in bed10. At that time, sodomy was against the law. James himself officially condemned it as one of the sins that cannot be forgiven11.
George’s rise started in 1615 with his appointment as Gentleman of the Bedchamber. The next year, he became Viscount Villiers. He was created Earl, Marquis and finally Duke of Buckingham in the period 1617-1623. George became Lord High Admiral of the navy in 1619. In 1620, he married - with James’s blessing - the rich heiress Katherine Manners, a daughter of the Earl of Rutland. George also managed to secure a title and advantageous marriage for his brother, John Villiers, who suffered from periods of insanity.
“Christ had his John,” James said, “and I have my George.”  Villiers wrote flatteringly to James: “I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts, which are more than ever one man had”. He also carefully cultivated Prince Charles, securing his favour and affection, too. By 1624, they had become close companions with Charles, too, addressing Villiers in his letters as “sweetheart”.

Last Years

Though old and ailing, James wrote more bad verse, and still dined and gossiped with his friends, making unseemly jokes. His weak legs started aching more and more, and the pain seemed to be settling in his joints. Swelling of both feet was occurring as early as 1616, when it continued for more than 4 months. Finally, the arthritis extended to his knees, hands, and shoulders. He was often not able to walk more than very short distances. Never known for his clean habits, James now washed only occasionally, and had a somewhat dishevelled appearance. He lost weight and became thin and wasted; his cadaverous appearance became more marked over the years. Hiccupping, sneezing and belching, with sores on his lips and a bad breath, James became ever more repellent.
Queen Anne had long suffered from dropsy. In March 1619, she died after a long illness. James became quite depressed after her death12, and lost interest in the affairs of state. He was prematurely becoming senile. Frederick Holmes suggests that, possibly as a result of his heart rhythm disturbances, James may have had a series of small strokes, not recognised by those who attended him, resulting in dementia. He was unable to concentrate for long on anything important. He became irritable and behaved childish. Business became more burdensome, decisions more difficult, fears more acute, and emotions more overpowering. He was agitated by constant mistrust of everyone, and a perpetual fear for his life. He was sometimes swearing, at other times weeping. In 1623, the Venetian ambassador wrote that James was reduced to “profound lethargy and stupid insensibility”.
James doted on his only surviving son, calling him “Baby Charles”, and his favourite, whom he called “Steenie”. George Villiers exploited his intimate relationship with the demented King. Assisted by Prince Charles, he managed to keep persons with opposite political views from James’s presence. His influence stretched from day-to-day matters of government to the negotiation of foreign policy. Had James been in full possession of his faculties, Villiers would never have achieved such power. Around December 1622, James wrote to George: “I am now so miserable a coward, as I do nothing but weep and mourn, for I protest to God, I rode this afternoon a great way in the park without speaking to anybody, and the tears trickling down my cheeks, as now they do, that I can scarcely see to write. But alas, what shall I do at our parting?”

In the autumn his hands became so crippled with arthritis that James could not sign his name. With Christmas he was ill. Early 1625, when London was once again infested with bubonic plague, James retired to Hertfordshire. There, he became seriously ill with recurrent attacks of fever and diarrhoea. He gave in to melancholy. Soon, he had difficulty swallowing and speaking. On occasions, he had convulsions. When the royal physicians gave up hope, George Villiers and his mother tried a remedy of their own, which let to rumours of poisoning. James grew worse, and died on March 27.

Copyright © 2008-2013 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


1   Esmé Stuart's father was a brother of James’s grandfather. Esmé had a wife and children, who remained in France.
2   During his regency the Earl of Morton introduced a primitive guillotine to Scotland; he was eventually executed by it himself. His wife, Elisabeth Douglas, became mad.
3   Later, when James had become King of England, Esmé’s son Louis became James’ representative in Scotland.
4   Both his father and mother descended from Elizabeth’s aunt, Margaret Tudor.
5   Beagles were dogs with very short legs.
6   A codpiece (to the right) was a small bag that was attached to the front of the crotch of men's trousers to provide a covering for the genitals. As time passed, codpieces were shaped to emphasize the male genitalia, and eventually became padded and bizarrely shaped.
7   Bingham explains that the sensitiveness of James’s skin, a possible symptom of porphyria, made him wiping his fingers in stead of washing his hands.
8   Robert Anglicised his Scottish name “Ker” to “Carr”.
9   James granted Carr a pardon in 1624, but they never saw each other again.
10   George Villiers wrote: “I shall never forgett at Franham where ye Bed’s hed could not be found betwene your Master and his Doge.”
11   During James’s reign, however, only 6 men were indicted of sodomy, and only one convicted.
12   James wrote after Anne’s death: “So did my Queen from hence her court remove, and left off earth to be enthroned above”.


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