The King Who Would Be Queen
King James I inherited Queen Elizabeth’s glories, but he viewed the job of monarch in a completely different way. Where Elizabeth sold herself as the British spirit personified, James saw himself as God’s spirit humanized. He was a firm believer in the myth of the divine right of kings and practiced his belief with great fervor.
James I came to England from Scotland so he was a wee bit ignorant of the laws of the land and how they were to be applied. Queen Elizabeth may have carried with her a vain, regal bearing, but she respected her people. (Well, as much as any monarch respects anyone “below” them.) James I, on the other hand, carried respect for no one but himself. The flawed reign of James I can be attributed directly to his utter arrogance and view of himself as beyond all reproach and criticism. He outlined quite clearly that as he had been appointed by God he was to be awarded the respect of the divine.
Perhaps the most egregious and long-lasting mistake that James I made was to assert his dominion over all property and people. This assertion stood in stark contrast to what had been the standing law that even the monarch could not take away a person’s property except through due process. James I alienated not only the people but Parliament as well with his utter disregard for British customs and traditions.
All of this may possibly have been overlooked, but James I compounded these errors in judgment by spending money in extravagant ways and flaunting his homosexuality. (Yes, it’s true, all those people who have those bumpers stickers flaunting their belief that the King James version of the Bible is the only authentic version are worshiping a Bible commissioned by a king who was actually more of a raving queen!) King James I basically came to view the position of monarch not as a leader, but as way to enjoy all the fruits and benefits left him by his much greater predecessor Elizabeth.
The erosion of trust and confidence between James I and Parliament stemmed from the oppositional difference in opinion over what a king was. James I fully believed in his divine right to power; he believed he was the final and ultimate arbiter of all laws and rulings. Even this belief might have been dealt with through compromise if James had merely kept his beliefs to himself and acted on them when action was predicated. Instead, James I constantly took it upon himself to lecture Parliament on his beliefs and demand that they accept and act upon this belief.
Over the course of his reign James’ every action seemed to deepen the divide between monarch and Parliament, but that divide and the different opinion over the role that Parliament should play in governance came to a head when James demanded a subsidy to pay for war. The result was a demand of conditions which James I found to be a disgraceful disrespect of his role as king. King James was utterly astounded that Parliament didn’t realize that whatever he asked for was supposed to be given without question or conditions.
Parliament moved to declare a definition of its role, equating its role with that of James as being a divine birthright of every Englishman. The deep divisions over how much power the monarch actually possessed and how much say over his power the Parliament could express would prove to be a source of contention that would far outlast the reign of James I. By insisting upon nearly absolute power, James succeeded only in laying down a foundation of breakdown between the king and Parliament that was to come to a head after his death.
Had King James I possessed the wisdom to practice but not preach his beliefs, the results could conceivably have been different. It’s not hard to imagine a more popular and intelligent ruler such as Elizabeth accomplishing at least part of what James wanted.