James I

Notes on the text

by Peter Keating


[Title] James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland). He succeeded to the Scottish throne, at the age of thirteen months, in 1567, on the enforced abdication of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots; and to the English throne on the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, thus uniting the two crowns.

[line 1] The child of Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. He plotted the murder of David Rizzio (or Riccio), Mary’s Italian secretary, in 1566. Darnley himself was murdered the following year, whether or not with Mary’s connivance has always been a matter of conjecture.

[line 2] shifty …shiftless: Kipling’s simple wordplay here neatly encapsulates his view that the transfer from the Tudor to the Stuart dynasty was an unhappy event for England, mainly because the Scottish monarchs involved were not up to the job. Mary, who never achieved her ambition to take over the English throne, was ‘shifty’ (i.e. devious, untrustworthy, treacherous). Her son, who possessed an undeniably legitimate claim to the English throne, was, unfortunately, ‘shiftless’ (i.e. lacking stability and strength of purpose, ineffective).

[lines 3-4] Bred up … wise in none: Although the young king was swiftly removed from his mother’s direct control, it was impossible for him ever to escape the influence of the ‘intrigues and plots’ in which she was involved right up to her execution in 1587, some of which even implicated her son, against his own wishes, while he was King of Scotland. Although James was protected by a series of Regents and given an exceptionally learned education, none of this was enough to turn him into a ‘wise’ ruler. James would appear to be a perfect illustration of the belief held by Kipling throughout his long career that book-learning, unless balanced by experience and knowledge of life, is liable to corruption.

[lines 5-6] Ungainly … pedantic: Commentators on James seem always to have agreed that his personality was a bewildering mix of seemingly contradictory qualities, a key factor, presumably, in his ‘shiftlessness.’ These two lines are Kipling’s attempt to list eight of those qualities. The passage by Fletcher in A School History which immediately precedes the poem is reasonably favourable to James: ‘He was a firm and very learned Protestant, a kindly man, though irritable and conceited. He saw a great deal farther than most of his subjects saw, but he never understood the temper of the English people.’

In the School History Kipling often takes a direct lead from Fletcher, but here he seems to ignore the cue. Instead, he takes an approach that is closer to Fletcher’s more detailed sketch in An Introductory History of England, vol., 2, 1907, p. 230, where James is first described as ‘tolerant, merciful, humorous, a lover of justice, free from rapacity or the grosser vices,’ but with these positive qualities immediately undermined in words that Kipling may well have noted: ‘He was a coward both physical and moral, a grossly incompetent manager of his own and the nation’s wealth, a blabber of secrets, eaten up with conceit and entirely devoid of kingly dignity.’

[line 7] The sight of steel would blanch his cheek: One of the charges often made against James was that he was a moral and physical coward, a tradition followed by both Kipling and Fletcher. In an age when monarchs were still expected to be warriors – and James’s task was, after all, the virtually impossible one of following Queen Elizabeth on to the English throne – he was in many respects unsuited for the role. This was probably not a matter of actual cowardice, but of him simply not possessing anywhere near the right image. He certainly was physically awkward and ‘ungainly’: he also suffered from an extreme timidity that made it difficult for him to face large crowds of people: the modern medical view is that he possibly suffered from some illness that was undiagnosable at the time, probably porphyria.

He genuinely disliked violence, an attitude inherited, it has been claimed, literally in his mother’s womb, as Mary, six months pregnant with James, was forced by Darnley to witness Rizzio’s murder. But, what perhaps most encouraged the belief that he lacked courage was his avowed policy, unusual among monarchs and leaders of the time, of always trying to seek peaceful, rather than violent, solutions to political and diplomatic problems. The use of ‘steel’ here would seem to be a specific reference to his campaigns to abolish feuding in Scotland and duelling in England.

[line 9 ] He was the author of his line: There may be a play on words, with James being historically significant as the first of a ‘line’ of Protestant monarchs in Scotland and first of the Stuart ‘line’ in England. But the main meaning is clearly that James was exceptional within the ‘line’ of monarchs (English or Scottish) in being a dedicated author. He was an accomplished poet and wrote many polemical works on a range of subjects, several of which are alluded to here – tobacco (line 8), witchcraft (line 10), and the divine right of kings (line 11).

It is curious, though, that Kipling makes no acknowledgement whatsoever of James’s most influential, if indirect, contribution to English literature – his commissioning of a new translation of the Bible. First published in 1611, the Authorised Version is still commonly known as the King James Bible. Kipling quoted from it endlessly throughout his career. His great admiration for its literary quality is expressed in his late short story “Proofs of Holy Writ”, where he toys with the idea that Shakespeare himself may have contributed to the translation.

[line 12] And left a son who – proved they weren’t!:  Kipling’s parting jibe against a man he clearly dislikes is suitably acerbic. James married Anne of Denmark in 1589. They had two sons, Henry and Charles. Henry, died at the age of eighteen in 1612, leaving his younger brother to succeed to the throne of England in 1625 as Charles 1. Charles inherited from his father the poor relations with the English Parliament that led eventually to the civil war and his own public execution, thus disproving, in the clearest possible way, his father’s conviction that ‘monarchs were divine.’

[P. K.]