Vox Populi: National Opinion and the Union Question in the Union of Crowns

Dr Karin Bowie is delivering the third lecture in the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies’ Vox Populi series tonight. The subject of her talk is National opinion and the union question in the Union of Crowns.

Page from speech

Excerpt from speech of 21 March 1609/10, with reader annotations (Sp Coll Bf72-e.5: item 4)

This therefore seems like the perfect opportunity to remind all our readers, old and new, about a volume of speeches by King James VI (and I) held here in Special Collections. I first highlighted this book in 2003 – which was, of course, the four hundredth anniversary of the 1603 Union of the Crowns, when James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, thus becoming the first king of Great Britain.

Our book contains nine different items bound together, including first editions of six speeches made to parliament by King James. Originally printed between 1604 and 1621 and focusing on practical matters of legislation and policy, these constitute an invaluable primary resource for the understanding of James as a ruler.

What is even more interesting about our book are the annotations in the margins of several of the pamphlets. These have been made by different readers in the 17th century and provide a unique insight into contemporary opinions of James as king.

The first speech in the volume is that made by James in the House of Lords at the opening of his first Parliament on 19 March, 1604.

Excerpt from speech

Excerpt from James’ speech of 19 March 1603/4 (Sp Coll Bf72-e.5: item 1)

On this occasion, James delivered a general exposition of the general principles guiding his policy, including the issue of the Union of England and Scotland, an undertaking dear to his heart. His speech from 1607 is also devoted to the Union. James’s greatest wish was to leave behind him at his death ‘one worship to God, one kingdom entirely governed, one uniformity in laws’. The failure to bring this about was probably his greatest disappointment.

Page from speech

Excerpt from speech of 21 March 1609/10, with reader annotations
(Sp Coll Bf72-e.5: item 4)

By 1610 James was hoping to be granted a long-term financial settlement by Parliament. His speech on 21 March shows his eagerness to retain the good will of the House of Commons. Although uncompromising about divine-right kingship, he stresses his respect for the common law and assures his hearers that he has no intention of using the ‘absolute power of a King’ to alter the existing form of government in England: he asserts that a good king does not abuse his power, but rules according to the laws of the land.

The section where James describes his views on the state of monarchy seems to have been of particular interest to one of the early readers, who sums up James’s argument as ‘God and king compared’, referring to chapters in other books for comparison. Other comments include attacks on James’s gifts to favourites and ‘scotishemenn’. James’ profligacy was a constant source of concern throughout his reign. Undoubtedly a spendthrift – especially in comparison with his predecessor, Elizabeth – his extravagance was a frequent cause of dispute between himself and parliament.


Reader’s response to speech by James I (Sp Coll Bf72-e.5: item 4)

James had continuing difficulties with his parliaments, the first ending acrimoniously in 1610. As the reader notes at the end of this speech, ‘I take it that the king brake up this parliament … in displeasure without doinge of anythinge’. However, it is not true that ‘hee would never have more parliaments’ as stated here. In fact, parliament was reconvened in 1616. James had hopes that this parliament would overcome previous misunderstandings and that it would become the parliament ‘of love’, but in reality it became even more fractious then its predecessor and James brought it to an abrupt end: it has become known as the ‘Addled Parliament’.

Portrait of James VI

James VI (frontispiece from SM 1248)

Other speeches in the volume refer to the gunpowder plot of 5 November, 1605 and James’s administration of the law of England.

James died in 1625. Contemporary opinions of his rule differed widely: while Henry IV of France labelled him as ‘the most learned fool in Christendom’, John Locke referred to him as ‘that Learned King who well understood the Notions of things’. For many years he was disparaged by historians as a political failure. His reputation, however, has been reconsidered more favourably in recent years. He is now seen more as an enlightened Renaissance king, who successfully pursued peace by relying on strong monarchical power in a period of religious conflict. That he was the most intellectual and scholarly of all British monarchs is undisputed. But if you want to form your own opinion, we highlighted some of the other works we have in Special Collections relating to James VI in our last Vox Populi blog.

Karin’s talk is tonight at 17.30 pm in room 412 of the Boyd Orr Building. The seminar is free and open to all, but if you can’t make it, you can also read an abridged version in today’s Scotsman newspaper.

Categories: Library, Special Collections

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1 reply


  1. Vox Populi – The Referendum of 1997 « University of Glasgow Library

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