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Welcome to Episode #70 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he did so as the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and brought with him a tumultous history and risk for civil war. In an example of the King’s extraordinary gift at diplomacy and unification, he also brought into England his ability to stabilize conflict and unite warring parties around his position as King. 

At 39 years old, when William Shakespeare was at the height of his career as a playwright in London, the new King would officially patronize Shakespeare’s company, and include the bard, the Burbages, and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men in his campaign to win the heart of England and unify the three nations. 

Here to help us explore the story of what it was like for William Shakespeare when Elizabeth died and King James came to the throne, as well as the religious reformations that defined the cultures of these nations, and divided the Scottish Kirk from the Church of England ideologically, is our special guest Dr. James Loxley. 

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Dr. James Loxley is Professor of Early Modern Literature in the department of English Literature at Edinburgh. He has written widely on renaissance poetry and drama, with a particular focus on Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell, and on the literature, politics and culture of the civil war period. His current research focuses on a collaborative project digitally mapping Edinburgh’s literary cityscape, and a cultural history of the relations between England and Scotland in the early seventeenth century.

We are delighted to have him visit with us today to share with us the moment in Shakespeare’s life when he found himself finally under the official patronage of the English monarchy.

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Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
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In this episode, I’ll be asking James about :

  • Was James’ ascension normal and anticipated by the nation in 1603? I mean, normally the crown would pass to the son of the monarch but since Elizabeth did not have children, why was James selected?
  • After the massive fight and potential for outright civil war when Elizabeth became Queen in the first place, why did she choose the son of Mary Queen of Scots? Why was there no war when James became King, given that both nations would be given cause for revolt? 
  • Was this Reformation similar to the English Reformation? How divided were the two nations religiously in 1603? 
  • … and more!

From Scotland am I stol’n, even of pure love, 
To greet mine own land with my wishful sight. e.

Henry VI

Henry VI Part 3, III.1

Portrait of James VI/I by John Critz c. 1605 Housed at the Museo de la Trinidad. Public Domain. Source

James VI of Scotland is James I of England

In Scotland, James I was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the fierce rival against Elizabeth I for the English monarchy. It was a sheer act of powerful diplomacy and quiet agreements behind closed doors which assured James VI of Scotland (Son of James V of Scotland) could seamlessly become James I of England. 

He is called James VI/I because he was the first monarch of England to be King of the two nations at once. This was the first time the land was unified under one banner, the first time there was an attempt to create a unified Britain. As such, the two nations both claimed their own rightful hold on the crown and required a name for the King in each place, to continue the succession in the line of royal histories of both separate nations. 

Even today, the Queen of England has a different coat of arms in Scotland than she does in England, even though she is Queen of both countries. This balance between individuality for the nations holding hands with the concept of a unified kingdom began under James VI of Scotland/ I of England in 1603. 


The owner and lead historian at British History Tours, Philippa Brewell, takes us inside the royal court of Elizabeth I with a look at what “court” actually meant in the 16th century. 

When I came hither to transport the tidings, 
Which I have heavily borne, there ran a rumour 
Of many worthy fellows that were out; 
Which was to my belief witness’d the rather, 
For that I saw the tyrant’s power a-foot: 
Now is the time of help; your eye in Scotland 
Would create soldiers, make our women fight, 
To doff their dire distresses.


Macbeth, IV.3

The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England. It was named after a previous owner. Probably painted from life, this portrait is the source of the face pattern called “The Mask of Youth” which would be used for authorized portraits of Elizabeth for decades to come. Recent research has shown the colours have faded. The oranges and browns would have been crimson red in Elizabeth’s time. Housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Source

James VI of Scotland was Elizabeth’s Choice

Elizabeth I did not have any heirs, so when it came time to nominate a successor, there was not an obvious next person. This issue of a successor, or heir, for Elizabeth dominated much of her reign, with everyone demanding she produce an heir. Firm til the end, Elizabeth refused to marry, refused to have children, and with her death, the Tudor Dynasty ended.

At her death, there was a collective question mark over the nation about who her successor needed to be. While many people were considered “Contenders” and more still appeared as the neccesity for a new ruler came drawing nigh, but it was Elizabeth herself who worked rather under cloak of silence to establish a peaceful transition to the new monarch at her death, likely motivated to see a peaceful reign follow her own after the tumultous, tragic, rise to the throne she herself had experienced with her sister Mary. 

When speaking of him, Elizabeth I would call James VI “our cousin in Scotland” Technically, he had a claim to the Tudor throne having been decsended from Henry VII on both his mother and father’s side. His parents were grandparents of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, who been married to Henry IV of Scotland in 1503. James I had a claim to the title on both sides, which could only strengthen his position as a good choice for successor, because it limited how many detractors he could have over his legitimacy.

Other suitable thing about James included the fact that he was Protestant, which was a rarity in terms of contending monarchs at the time.

Given the religious turmoil Elizabeth I worked so hard to smooth over, a Protestant was a safer bet for England. 

Additionally, he was an adult King, with relevant skills and experience. He was what has been called a cradle King originally, being born in 1566 he was King from a very young age, but had began ruling in his own right around age 16. He was smart, well educated, a keen strategist, a committed student of government, and during his reign in Scotland, he proved his diplomacy and skills at unifcation when he tamed the two most powerful groups there in Scotland. He was a proven unifier. 

He was married and his wife had children, heirs for England. 

Not only was he a strong choice for Elizabeth, James VI himself spent many years and diplomatic effort courting England and her powerful members to position himself as the next King of England.

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


Stands Scotland where it did?


Macbeth, IV.3

Official signature of James VI of Scotland/James I of England. Source

James I was not a surprise for England

While the traditional narrative tells of Elizabeth I naming James as King from her deathbed, it was hardly a surprise for the nation. 

The success of James I, and his rise to the throne without the advent of civil war is a testament to his support from Elizabeth’s chief statesmen, which Elizabeth herself worked for years to secure.

James VI of Scotland becoming King of England was a shift in the reign of England that had been long prepared.

For the country, there was not a sense of uncertainty. While there may have been some understanding that Elizabeth had the right, up until her deathbed declaration, to change her mind, for most there was not this idea of things being up in the air, or undecided. Everyone knew Elizabeth had established a plan and a succesor in James I. She did this on purpose so that when she did die, no one would stand up and try to claim the throne. 

For his part, James also did a tremendous amount of diplomacy work, networking, and courting of English nobles to make sure the event was smooth for both of the nations.

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Hail, king! for so thou art: behold, where stands 
The usurper’s cursed head: the time is free: 
I see thee compass’d with thy kingdom’s pearl, 
That speak my salutation in their minds; 
Whose voices I desire aloud with mine: 
Hail, King of Scotland!


Macbeth, V.8

Portrait of the Father of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, John Knox. When James VI came to the throne, Knox openly called for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (James VI’s mother, who had been removed on suspicion of murdering her husband). Exiled, Knox took refuge in England from 1549-1554. Source

Scottish Reformation Under Mary Queen of Scots

The Scottish Reformation took place while Mary Queen of Scots was not in a position to govern the kingdom personally, but very much during her reign. In the 1550s,there was a grassroots movement strongly associated with John Knox which banded together Protestant nobles in a genuine revolt against Catholic establishments. It was so large, the government could not stop them. It was so large, in fact, that in 1560, it was the English fleet which stepped in to prevent Scotland from using French troops for this purpose. By 1560, the Scottish Kirk, which is comprable to the national church, was changed to Protestant. 

England and Scotland were both Protestant, and this created a bond between them. The unification behind the banner of Protestantism was appealed to by both sides of James I reign when seeking to support union overall. 

Despite their unity and bond around both being Protestant, the realities of how the Reformations played on in each nation were very different from one another, creating two Protestant churches that were quite unique.

England’s Reformation had been orchestrated by the government and mandated for the people, whereas in Scotland, the rise of Protestantism was a movement of the people who overthrew the wishes of the government. 

This dynamic difference had lead to very different kinds of churches. Church of England had the monarch as its head, governed by bishops who were controlled by the monarch. 

The Scottish Kirk, was a kind of ground up organization, created with royal resistance, and that was very focused on the authority of individual parishes and organizing them to produce the national church. It was Presbyterian. (In the United States today we have Presbyterian Church of America was descends from the Scottish Kirk)

Doctrinally they were both Calvinist, but in terms of how they saw themselves within society, they were significantly different. The Church of England aligned with government, and was subordinate to the monarch. 

As an example (albeit after Shakespeare), the Scottish satirist and poet Andrew Marvell looked at the King of Scotland and told him directly that he did not have any authority over the Church. In England, the reigning monarch was the authority of the church. 

Books and Resources James Recommends:


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