Lockdown and luxury: the court of James I

Published 22 July 2020

Although his accession to the English throne was marred by plague, the Scottish Stuart brought with him vibrant art and culture, says Clare Jackson.

  • Following Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, James VI of Scotland arrived in London, welcomed as the ‘Bright Star of the North’. But within months, England’s new King James I issued a Book of Orders prescribing measures to confront an epidemic of bubonic plague sweeping the country which eventually led to the death of a fifth of London’s citizens. Insisting that households with the sick must self-isolate for six weeks, James also promoted collections to raise funds for afflicted families.

    Over four centuries later, as Britain confronts its current epidemic, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on King James is postponed until further notice. The show, which was to offer an object-based approach to the court culture of the first monarch to rule Scotland, England and Ireland, may not be experienced in its original form, given the uncertainty of borrowing all of these works at a future time.

  • Attributed to John de Critz, James VI & I

    Attributed to John de Critz, James VI & I, 1604.

    Oil on canvas. 140 x 95 cm. © National Galleries of Scotland.

  • As King of Scotland, James’s artistic patronage had facilitated a flourishing Renaissance court culture. The baptismal celebrations for the King’s heir, Prince Henry – held at Stirling Castle in 1594 – provided symbolic confirmation of Stuart dynastic fecundity, in contrast to Tudor barrenness. Fourteen new outfits were designed for James and his Danish queen, Anne, crafted from imported plush, satin and taffeta from Genoa, velvet from Lucca, and cloth of silver and gold in a rainbow palette. The baptismal banquet included a 40ft-high galleon, with ‘herrings, whiting, flounders, oysters, whelks, crabs and clams – all modelled in sugar’, according to one account of the festivities.

    After James moved south in 1603, court culture remained cosmopolitan and characterised by conspicuous expenditure, encompassing lavish portraits of the King by the Flemish-born painters, John de Critz the Union Jack flag and emblematic jewellery, including the Mirror of Great Britain. This rhombus of three diamonds, two pearls and a large ruby, with the 105ct ‘Sancy’ diamond as a pendant drop, featured in paintings such as De Critz’s portrait of 1604.

    But then, as now, nothing could be taken for granted. A year after publication of what we now know as the King James Bible in 1611, James’s charismatic heir, Prince Henry, died from typhoid fever. Religious divisions, already evidenced by the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, led to James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, being ejected as Queen of Bohemia in 1620, as what became the Thirty Years’ War devastated continental Europe.

    When James died in March 1625, he was succeeded as King of Great Britain by his second son. But the triumphal entry into London and coronation of the new King Charles I were delayed by another outbreak of bubonic plague in England’s capital. Once again, theatres and shops were closed, businesses stood still and families retreated indoors.

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