The first Stuart king of England and his queen
Updated 12 June. As a result of the Coronavirus global pandemic, we have taken the difficult decision to close Banqueting House until March 2021. We apologise for any disappointment this may cause. Please read our statement
James I: a religious reformer and obsessed with witches, a keen patron of architecture and the arts, and an early anti-smoking campaigner.
Anne of Denmark: assertive and independent, a dynamic patron of the arts who constructed a magnificent court.
James’ early life was one of constant conflict and he had been taken hostage by religious groups on two occasions.
Following the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, her son became James VI of Scotland. He united the thrones of England and Scotland when he succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603.
At that time, James and Anne had three young children: Henry, heir apparent, who died in 1612, Elizabeth, and Charles (later Charles I).
There had not been a royal family for the past 44 years. Spinster Elizabeth I had become dour and reclusive in her old age, her palaces half empty and the court had lost the shine of her youth.
The arrival of the generous, scholarly James, his cultured wife and his young family was eagerly anticipated.
Image: James I of England and VI of Scotland, © National Portrait Gallery, London
James and Anne were married in 1589, when she was just 14.
On her journey to Scotland she was marooned in Norway and James made the chivalrous decision to travel out and rescue her.
In their early life in Scotland, Anne showed an independent streak.
She was not afraid to challenge her husband and manipulated political factions to achieve her own ends.
Once in England, she threw her energy into patronage of the arts, creating a cultural salon that attracted leading painters, writers and thinkers.
Image: Anne of Denmark by John De Critz the Elder, © National Portrait Gallery, London
James and Anne had five children in all; only three survived infancy. Further tragedy befell the family when Henry, Prince of Wales, died unexpectedly in 1612, leaving Charles as heir to the throne.
From an apparently happy and loving relationship, the King and Queen drifted apart. James’s private life was shadowed with rumours concerning his male favourites and possible lovers, notably Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
Image: James I and his royal progeny, ©National Portrait Gallery, London
Alongside his religious writings James published a series of books and pamphlets on the subject of witchcraft and ancient dark magic. His most famous book Daemonologies (1597) describes the acts of demons, werewolves, and vampires and how they should be persecuted under Christian law.
His obsession with witches (who he believed acted in groups and were hell bent on murdering him) is thought to have led to hundreds of (mainly) women being put to death. He also disliked tobacco, especially tobacco smoking. His Counterblaste to Tobacco (1606) was one of the first anti-smoking pamphlets.
The foiled gunpowder plot we commemorate every 5 November was meant to blow up James I and his Parliament in 1605.
The King stayed at the Tower of London after he arrived in his new kingdom in 1603. He was the last monarch to stay at the fortress and particularly enjoyed watching the cruel animal displays there.
He had the lions den refurbished, so that visitors could look down in to a semi-circular yard lined with dens and with a drinking trough at the centre. This was less out of a concern for their welfare as for his own enjoyment. His favourite sport was to bait the lions with vicious mastiff dogs.
Hampton Court Palace was the setting for the religious conference of 1604 which led to the King James Bible.
James passionately studied modern and ancient theology and proved to be an articulate writer on the subject. He once said if he were not king he would like to have been a ‘university man’.
It was here that Shakespeare’s acting company, The King’s Men, first performed for the King.
Despite their differences, both James and Anne adored the masque. This was an extravagantly-costumed theatrical performance, blending poetry, propaganda, music and dance. One of their priorities when they succeeded to the throne was to commission a suitable venue for masques to be performed at Whitehall Palace.
The existing Banqueting House at Whitehall had been constructed for Elizabeth I. It was only intended to be a temporary structure, built in 1581 and was now showing its age.
Image: Mezzotint of James I and Anne of Denmark, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017. Detail used as header image.
James commissioned a new banqueting house from architect Robert Stickells, but James was hugely disappointed with the finished building. It was used for the first masque in 1608, but in 1619 it burnt down in a fire.
The calamity give James the chance to commission a building that properly suited his needs, and he turned to brilliant designer and friend of the Queen, Inigo Jones.
The banqueting house fire began when two cleaners let a candle fall against some scenery.
London-born Inigo Jones was highly regarded at court as Anne’s set designer and architectural advisor. While travelling Europe as a painter, he worked for Anne’s brother, Christian IV of Denmark.
It is likely that this connection got Jones the dream job as Anne’s masque designer and ultimately, the commission to build a new banqueting house.
When it was finished in 1622, the new building stood out for miles around, then in contrasting layers of honey-coloured and pinkish brown stone, a stunning sight for Londoners.
Image: The Banqueting House, the only building that survived the disastrous Whitehall Fire of 1698
Anne was criticised for her frivolity – her enjoyment of garments and jewellery was at odds with James’ straightforward, logical nature.
She pursued pleasure and spent extravagantly in her time as queen. The masques Anne requested glorified her position and she delighted in her image alongside mythological goddesses. Against a staunchly Protestant nation and king, Anne quietly converted to Catholicism. This aroused fears in how the royal children and heir would be raised.
When Anne died, she and the king had not shared a household in ten years. James was superstitious of everything related to illness and death, so kept a wide berth during the queen’s decline and funeral. However, he felt great sadness following her death and wrote melancholy verses to express his sorrow.
Image: Anne of Denmark, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Anne died at Hampton Court Palace in 1619 and James I died in March 1625, aged 58.
Towards the end of his life, James was known as a slobberer and semi-incoherent speaker – his tongue was too big for his mouth. He was also known as the ‘wisest fool in Christendom’, but he was far wilier than his ‘fool’ tag suggests. James I was the most academically gifted monarch, being both stoic and practical. He had once hoped to bring peace to Europe but had to settle with peace between England and Scotland.
He united the thrones of Scotland and England, changing the direction of English history. As the patron of Inigo Jones’s dazzling Banqueting House, he made an important contribution to English architecture.
Perhaps his finest legacy is the The King James Bible, published in English in 1611. This was the authorised version of the Bible in English, translated by bands of scholars. It was a hugely influential outcome of the 1604 Hampton Court conference, called by the King to debate differences in religion.
Image: James I and VI (1566-1625) c1620. The King's new Banqueting House can be glimpsed in the background, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
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