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scoturday night fever
Or, Part (VI/)I of the saga of Royal Mess King James VI/I.
Honestly cannot believe I haven’t done a newsletter about this particular individual before. My bad.
I also want you to know that I tried my damnedest to get this to fit into a single email, but it simply could not be done. We are back in two-parter territory, friends, there’s just no way around it. That’s because our subject this week is…
King James VI/I of Scotland/England, A Certified Messy Bitch Who Lived for Drama!
Our story begins in Scotland in 1566, when James was born to Noted Schemey Legend Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, one of the shittiest men this publication has ever covered. Queen Elizabeth I was named his godmother, a very strategic play on Mary’s part and one that will come up again later.
Darnley, as many of you will recall, was blown up in a ludicrous explosion when James was seven months old because he was an asshole and everyone hated him. For details, see a lengthy previous newsletter (below).
Even though Darnley and James only occupied the same earth for a couple months, the fact that Darnley is his dad explains literally everything I am about to tell you. The Darnley genes are STRONG WITH THIS ONE.
James’s mother Mary was arrested for a variety of reasons, including a strong suspicion that she blew up Darnley. (Did she? I mean, I would have.) And because it is generally frowned upon for rulers of countries to be ruling from prison, James became the King of Scotland in July 1567 at the ripe old age of Baby.
You Named My Boyfriend After the Loch Ness Monster?
James’s half-uncle, also named James, served as regent for a while, until he got shot in the streets of Edinburgh and died. This is fortunate for two reasons. First, because he was a shitty double-crossing misogynist who could not be trusted, and I don’t like him. Second, because I need to keep the number of people named James in this story to the bare minimum.
Lots of Baby James’s regents kept dying or being forced to resign under mysterious circumstances for the next 10 years or so. This is because Scotland was, generally, a disaster. There had been like half a dozen baby kings in the past twenty years. Everyone was attacking and betraying everybody and murdering regents and installing new babies on the throne. It was a time. The fact that Baby James survived to become Toddler James is impressive, honestly.
James was allowed to start ruling in his own name in 1579, at the age of 13. If you have ever met a 13-year-old boy, I bet you can guess how badly this is going to go. Basically his first action as Boy King was to fall head-over-heels in love with a man named Esmé Stewart, a courtier who was apparently ridiculously good-looking, except I have a hard time picturing him as anything but Renesmee the vampire child from Twilight.
James was extremely obvious with his teenage affection, pining after Esmé and giving him all the best lands and titles and heaps of money. The Scottish parliament was so annoyed by this that they kidnapped James, then aged 16, and put him in what was essentially Horny Jail before driving Esmé out of the country.
Guess how much James enjoyed this. The answer: not at all.
Once James got himself un-kidnapped in 1583, he set about ruling Scotland with an iron fist, passing harsh laws to prevent people from taking away his power again. Which, like, say what you will about James (and I’m going to), but if I was a recently kidnapped king I would also probably try to make a law about it.
The next few years passed relatively uneventfully. (I mean, other than Queen Elizabeth executing James’s mom, which he did zero things to stop. Fuck you, James.) Through the 1580s and 1590s, James continued to rule Scotland and did not get kidnapped again. A few more people did try to stab him, because Scotland, but they missed, so no harm done.
Mostly, James minded his own business. And when I say “minded his own business,” I mean it in the Darnley sense: spending absolute ass-loads of money on drinking and partying and nice clothes, while trying to hook up with every hot Scottish courtier who would pay attention to him.
If James had not been king, he could have happily carried on being a fuckboy for his whole life while doing minimal damage. Unfortunately for a lot of people, he was king, so his councilors made him get married. Their choice was Anne of Denmark, who was nine years James’s junior and probably about to be sorely disappointed in her choice of husband.
Anne was supposed to sail to Scotland to meet her husband in 1589, but bad weather delayed the crossing, so James made the decision to travel to Norway and go pick her up himself. In the middle of that same giant storm! To which professional sailors had just said “nope, absolutely not sailing in that!” Which sure was a fucking move, I will say! James turned up safely in Scandinavia, somehow without shipwrecking, although he did accidentally blow up a man with a cannon upon landing because of who he was as a person.
Scandinavia just so happened to be in the middle of a giant ongoing witch panic at this time, with Denmark in particular arresting witches left and right. So James took one look at all the Protestant whackos who were busily executing women for little to no reason and said “Oh, I love this, let’s bring this home as a wedding present to me.” As soon as he and Anne got back to Scotland, James started holding witch trials, during which he arrested more than 70 people and tortured them until they confessed to using witchcraft to create the storm that had held up Anne’s ship.
The whole witch-hunt thing went on for the next ten years or so, with James becoming increasingly unhinged about it. He wrote a book called Daemonologie in 1597 that explained how people could identify and destroy demonic forces and witches and werewolves and shit. I’ve read this book. It’s fucking insane.
*Lion King Voice* It’s the Circle of Fiiiiiiife
Meanwhile, James still had to be ruler of Scotland when it came to things that did not involve witches. Specifically, his main goal was to get the highland clans under his military control. He did this by putting together a crack team of soldiers whom he whimsically named the Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife.
Every single time I read the words “Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife,” I start singing the Knights of the Round Table song from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I don’t know why. The vibes align.
Alas, the Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife were not this whimsical in real life, as their primary purpose was to colonize the Hebrides and murder people. They weren’t terribly successful, and eventually James gave up trying to murder the entire native population of northern Scotland. One presumes the kick lines started afterward.
This brings us about 1603, when Queen Elizabeth I of England is actively dying of such old-timey problems as being 70 years old in the 17th century.
Aside: I physically must tell you that when Elizabeth was dying and her counselor Sir Robert Cecil told her that she really must go to bed for her own good, she looked him dead in the eye and told him “‘Must’ is not a word to use to princes, little man.” As I’ve observed how much I hate Sir Robert Cecil in other newsletters recently, you’ll all understand how this delights me.
Elizabeth was, famously, childless, and she had to decide who was going to rule England after her so the country wouldn’t descend into civil war and bloodshed. Again. So in a turn of events that frankly I find wild, Elizabeth decided to pick James—yes, her godson, but also the son of the woman she had executed for treason about 25 years earlier.
The traditional story has always said that Elizabeth declared James her heir on her deathbed, with her dying breath, and James immediately set forth for London to pay homage to the monarch and become King of England. As of like two weeks ago, we now know that the deathbed story is bullshit and a lie James made up after the fact to sound legit. This is the least surprising revelation I have ever heard.
Anyway, James cruised down to London and was crowned king of England in July 1603. That’s why he’s the Fifth Third Bank of English monarchs: he’s King James I of England and King James VI in Scotland, simultaneously.
Plots! Plots! Plots Plots Plots Plots!
Basically from the moment he set his ass on the throne, James was the subject of countless plots to remove him as King of England. This is because England literally could not go 11 minutes during this time without plotting regicide. I could explain the boring dynastic and religious problems behind this, but that is not the point of this newsletter. The point is murder and mess and schemes and nonsense, so let’s get into all that.
In 1605, a little fucker you may have heard of named Guy Fawkes showed up on the scene and tried to kill James and everyone associated with him by blowing up the House of Parliament. Fawkes and his men packed the basement of Parliament with gunpowder, which did not work but was a good try. I’m honestly a little grumpy this didn’t work because can you IMAGINE if both Darnley and Darnley’s asshole kid died by getting their houses blown up. Legendary behavior.
(This period of instability is also sort of the reason Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, a rabbit hole I am absolutely not going down, because this newsletter is a million words long already as it is. Ask me about it later. I’m fun at parties.)
Because Guy Fawkes and his supporters were Catholics, James used the Gunpowder Plot as an excuse to get real loud about his religious opinions. He had Parliament pass the Oath of Allegiance, which basically came down to “I would prefer you all not be Catholics, but if you are Catholic you have to absolutely swear that you think I’m more important and legit than the Pope.”
He also decided to commission his own translation of the Bible, so everyone was using the same version and nobody had an off-brand version that included the verse “Thou shalt blow up King James VI/I during the opening of Parliament, for I am the Lord your God, Amen.”
Yes, this is the origin of the King James Bible. Honestly 50% of the modern church can be explained by “the King of England was a weirdo.” (The other 50% can be explained by “Renaissance Popes were even weirder.”)
OK, friends. I am approaching the email length limit for Substack and there’s at least three affairs and a poisoning I have yet to cover, so I’m going to call it here for this week.
Join me back in a fortnight for the rest of Gay Mess: King James Version. Until then, be well, and please channel your inner Jacobean disaster to rename your group chat something at least as chaotic as the Gentlemen Adventurers of Fife,