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James I of England and religious issues

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James VI and I (James Stuart) (June 19, 1566 – March 27, 1625), King of Scots, King of England, and King of Ireland, faced many complicated religious challenges during his reigns in Scotland and England.

In Scotland, he inherited a developing Reformation kirk, or church, which was attempting to rid the country of the remnants of Catholicism in the form of bishops, dioceses, and parishes and establish a fully Presbyterian system, run by ministers and elders. However, James saw the bishops as the natural allies of the monarchy and frequently came into conflict with the kirk in his sustained effort to reintroduce an episcopal polity to Scotland.

On his succession to the English throne, James was impressed by the church system he found there, which still adhered to an episcopate and supported the monarch's position as the head of the church. On the other hand, there were many more Roman Catholics in England than in Scotland, and James inherited a set of penal laws which he was constantly exhorted to enforce against them. James exercised a degree of religious tolerance until the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, after which he reinforced strict penalties against Catholics; but he later returned to a tolerant approach to religious conformity.[1] His policy of seeking a Spanish Match for his son, Charles, prince of Wales, produced widespread opposition, particularly in the Commons, where members feared a revival of Catholic power in the country and a threat to the Protestant monarchy and state.


On James's arrival in London, the Puritan clergy presented him with the Millenary Petition, allegedly signed by a thousand English clergy, requesting reforms in the church, particularly the reduction of traditional rituals, which they regarded as remnants of popery.[2] James, however, equated English Puritans with Scottish Presbyterians and, after banning religious petitions, told the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 that he preferred the status quo,[3] with the monarch ruling the church through the bishops, as in the primitive church before the bishops of Rome turned into popes.[4] He therefore resolved to enforce conformity among the clergy, a decision which led in the short term to about ninety ejections or suspensions from livings and in the longer term to a sense of persecution among English Puritans.[5] A notable success of the Hampton Court Conference was the commissioning of a new translation of the Bible, completed in 1611, which became known as the King James Bible, considered a masterpiece of Jacobean prose.[6]

James, who took an interest in the scholarly decisions of the translators, often participated in theological debate. In 1612, for example, he wrote a tract against the unorthodox Dutch theologian Conrad Vorstius, a follower of Jacobus Arminius.[7] At about the same time, he interviewed a dissenter called Bartholomew Legate, who told him he had not prayed for seven years: James was so appalled that, with the collusion of Lancelot Andrewes and other bishops, he had Legate burned at the stake, along with Edward Wightman, the last executions in England for heresy.[8] Another dissenter, the General Baptist leader Thomas Helwys, appealed to James for liberty of conscience and separation between church and state, only to be sent to prison, where he died by 1616.[9]


The Gunpowder Plot, the third Catholic conspiracy against his person in three years, forced James to reconsider his tolerant policy towards English Catholics; and for a while he sanctioned stricter measures to control them. In May 1606, Parliament passed an act which could require any citizen to take an Oath of Allegiance, entailing a denial of the pope's authority over the king.[10] James believed that the Oath was merely concerned with civil obedience, a secular transaction between king and subject; but it provoked opposition in Rome and in Catholic countries, where any denial of papal authority was deemed heretical.[11] In early 1606, the Venetian ambassador reported James as saying: "I do not know upon what they found this cursed doctrine that they are permitted to plot against the lives of princes".[12] The Oath did not make James a persecutor of Catholics; he insisted no blood be spilled and that subversive Jesuits and seminary priests should simply be asked to leave the country.[13] He regarded persecution, he wrote to Cecil, "as one of the infallible notes of a false church".[14] In practice, James proved lenient towards Catholic laymen who took the Oath of Allegiance,[15] and he tolerated Catholicism and crypto-Catholicism even at court. A crypto-Catholic was someone who outwardly conformed to Protestantism but remained a Catholic in private. Henry Howard, for example, was a crypto-Catholic, received back into the Roman church in his final months. Before ascending the English throne, James had assured him he would not persecute "any that will be quiet and give but an outward obedience to the law."

Scottish church

In Basilikon Doron, James called the Scottish Reformation "inordinate" and "not proceeding from the prince's order".[16] He therefore attempted to bring the Scottish kirk "so neir as can be" to the English church and reestablish the episcopacy in Scotland, a policy which met with opposition from the Scottish Parliament and General Assembly.[17] In 1610, the boundaries of pre-Reformation dioceses were re-established, and in 1618, James's bishops forced his Five Articles of Perth through a General Assembly; but they were widely resented and resisted.[18] James was to leave the church in Scotland divided at his death, a store of future problems for his son.[19]


  1. In 1606 new penal laws were brought in, adding an oath of allegiance to distinguish between loyal and disloyal Catholics like those involved in the Gunpowder Plot. The Gunpowder Plot produced a new wave of anti-Catholicism; but when the urgency passed, enforcement slackened. After that, James would have no more laws, accepting that you could not force people in matters of faith. Krugler, pp 20–24.
  2. Croft, p 156; For example, the petition asked for the abolition of confirmation, wedding rings, and the term "priest", and that the wearing of cap and surplice, "outward badges of Popish errours", become optional. Willson, p 201.
  3. When Puritans spoke against ceremonies because they had been used when England was Catholic, James said shoes had been worn when England was Catholic, so why didn’t Puritans go barefoot? Willson, p 200. When an unmarried Puritan speaker objected to the phrase "With my body I thee worship" from the marriage service, James replied: "Many a man speaks of Robin Hood who never shot his bow". Stewart, p 197.
  4. If bishops were put out of power, “I know what would become of my supremacy,” James objected. ”No bishop, no King. When I mean to live under a presbytery I will go to Scotland again.“ Willson, p 198, p 207.
  5. “In things indifferent,” James wrote in a new edition of Basilikon Doron, "they are seditious which obey not the magistrates". Willson, p 201, p 209; Croft, p 156; "In seeking conformity, James gave a name and a purpose to nonconformity." Stewart, p 205.
  6. Willson, pp 213–215; Croft, p 157.
  7. Willson, p 240.
  8. Willson, pp 240–241. "Both men emerge as the victims of a complex series of events: the king's desire to be seen as orthodox in the light of the Vorstius affair; the in-fighting for control of the ecclesiastical establishment on the elevation of George Abbot to the archbishopric of Canterbury; and the campaign of the emerging anti-Calvinist group around Bishop Richard Neile against puritans". Atherton and Como, pp. 1215–1250.
  9. In A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity, Helwys declared that "men's betwixt God and themselves," and the king cannot judge "between God and man...Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them." Watts, p 49; Solt pp 145–7
  10. Stewart, p 225.
  11. James's chief concern was security. So long as the pope was allowed to sanction and encourage civil action against any monarch he chose to excommunicate, that monarch would be vulnerable to attack from subjects who regarded the pope, not the monarch, as their supreme leader. The Oath, therefore, was designed to discover which of James's Catholic subjects were potentially disloyal. James justifed the Oath at length in his Triplici nodo, triplex cuneus. Or An Apologie [explanation] for the Oath of Allegiance, printed in 1608. Stewart, pp 225–7.
  12. Willson, p 227; Stewart, pp 225–6.
  13. In an address to judges in 1608, James instructed that those who refused to leave be dealt with flexibly, unless they resorted to violence. Bacon recorded James's exact words as "No torrent of blowd: poena ad paucos" (penalties to the few). Croft, p 161.
  14. Quoted by Croft, p 161.
  15. Willson, p 228.
  16. Croft, p 163, p 165.
  17. In March 1605, Archbishop Spottiswood wrote to James warning him that sermons against bishops were being preached daily in Edinburgh. Croft, p 164.
  18. The Five Articles of Perth were: only bishops could carry out confirmations; the five pre-Reformation Holy Days were to be reinstated (Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Whitsunday); everyone was to receive communion kneeling; private communion was to be permitted for the sick or infirm; private baptism likewise. Croft, p 166; Willson, p 320.
  19. Historians have differed in their assessments of the kirk at James's death: some consider that the Scots might have come round to the Five Articles eventually; others that James left the kirk in crisis. Croft, p 167.


  • Atherton, Ian; and David Como (2005). The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England. English Historical Review, Volume 120, December 2005, Number 489, 1215-1250. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Croft, Pauline (2003). King James. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-61395-3.
  • Krugler, John D. (2004). English and Catholic: the Lords Baltimore in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801879639.
  • Solt, Leo Frank (1990). Church and State in Early Modern England: 1509-1640. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195059794
  • Stewart, Alan (2003). The Cradle King: A Life of James VI & I. London: Chatto and Windus. ISBN 0-7011-6984-2.
  • Watts, Michael R (1985). The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198229569.
  • Willson, David Harris ([1956] 1963 ed). King James VI & I. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. ISBN 0-224-60572-0.

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