Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Doubtful Triumph of James VI and I, May 7th 1603

By Mark Patton.

When, on the 24th March, 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died without issue, the Crown of England, as had long been planned, passed to her cousin, James VI of Scotland. James had been in secret correspondence with Elizabeth's Chief Minister, Sir Robert Cecil, and, on hearing of Elizabeth's death, he left Edinburgh on 5th April, taking the road south towards London. He was clearly in no hurry, accepting hospitality along the way from numerous English aristocrats, presumably with envoys from the English and Scottish courts riding up and down the road for less leisured discussions along the way. Eventually he reached Cecil's home at Theobald's Palace, near Cheshunt, where he stayed for some days.

Theobald's Palace, from The Gentleman's Magazine, 1836 (image is in the Public Domain).

The people of London were keen to greet their new king, but he was less enthusiastic about spending time among them. He entered the city with his retinue on 7th May. It is unclear what pageants had been arranged, but, whatever they were, he seems to have cancelled them, passing hastily along Bishopsgate and Cheapside on his progress towards the Palace of Whitehall. Perhaps he was concerned about his security (his mother had, after all, been executed by the English), or perhaps he was worried about contracting the plague, which had claimed many lives in London during the preceding months.

James VI and I, by Paul Van Somer, c 1620, Royal Collection (image is in the Public Domain).

James I (as he was in England) was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 25th July. It was customary for a new monarch to process through the city from the Tower of London to Westminster on the day of the coronation, and a pageant had certainly been arranged for this, with the construction of five triumphal arches by the theatre-set designers of London (considered as the "body" of the ceremony) and a text (considered as the "soul") by the playwright, Thomas Dekker, to be performed by actors, together with the children of city dignitaries, but this, also, was cancelled at the king's insistence.

Dekker's text for the pageant (image is in the Public Domain).

The pageant finally took place on 15th March 1604 (in our terms - at the time, the new calendar year did not begin until 25th March, hence the discrepancy in the dates printed on the documents), although it is unclear whether the king processed from the Tower, or from Theobald's Palace. Two additional arches were commissioned, and a new text from Ben Jonson for scenes to be enacted in front of them.

Ben Jonson, by Abraham Van Bleyenberch, National Portrait Gallery (image is in the Public Domain).
Jonson's text for the pageant, with the king styled as a Roman emperor (image is in the Public Domain).

Eighty joiners, sixty carpenters, six turners, six labourers and twelve sawyers were employed to build the ceremonial structures. Two actors rode out to greet the king, one dressed as Saint George, the other as Saint Andrew. Another actor (probably a boy, but dressed as a woman in "antique robes"), representing "The Genius of the Place" greeted him on his entry to the city.

"I am the place's genius, whence now springs
A vine whose youngest branch shall produce kings
This little world of men, this precious stone,
That sets out Europe: this (the glass alone),
Where the neat sun each morn himself attires,
And gilds it with his repercussive fires,
Altar of love and sphere of the majestic,
Green Neptune's minion, but whole virgin worth ...
Not frighted with the threats of foreign kings,
But held up in that gowned state I have,
By twice twelve fathers politic and grave,
Who with a sheathed sword and silken law,
Do keep, within weak walls, millions in awe."

The echo of John of Gaunt's speech in Shakespeare's Richard II may have been unconscious on Dekker's part: Sir Robert Cecil attended a private production in 1595, but Dekker is more likely to have seen it performed at The Globe in 1601.

Wood-cut of one of the Triumphal Arches through which the king's procession moved. This one is recorded as having been paid for by Italian merchants resident in London. British Museum (image is in the Public Domain).
Wood-cut of another of the Triumphal Arches, this one topped with plants and flowers to represent "The Garden of Abundance." British Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

The whole pageant was styled as a Roman Triumph, with "a select number of aldermen and commoners, like so many Roman aediles," being presented to the king as having undertaken the work to prepare it. Ovid and Virgil were quoted, and the name of Londinium invoked. In all likelihood it was influenced by Albrecht Durer's monumental depiction of the (wholly imaginary) "Triumph" of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, produced almost a century earlier.

Scene from "The Triumph of Maximilian I, by Albrecht Durer, 1512-1528, Albertina, Vienna (image is in the Public Domain).

A note is appended to Dekker's text. "To the Reader. Reader, you must vnderstand, that a regard, being had that his majestie should not be wearied with teadious speeches: a great part of those which are in this booke set downe, were left vnspoken: so that thou doest receive them here as they should have been delivered, not as they were."

Perhaps, after all, King James (who, like every good Renaissance prince, had surely read Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars) found his undeserved Triumph as tedious as the Emperor Vespasian found the one he had earned on the battlefield.

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. I understood that James VI was met by the Mayor and aldermen at Stamford Hill, and they escorted him to the Charterhouse for a few days, where the first council meeting was held. This progression must have taken place a few days later???

    1. I don't have the precise dates for this, but I suspect that the first progression did, indeed, take place a few days later. There seems to have been a concern (perhaps more on the part of James's advisers than of the King himself) to observe the protocols of a Roman Triumphator (which fits with the Charterhouse being technically outside the City in Smithfield, which was, like Rome's Campus Martius, a place of military training and exercises).

    2. Fascinating ... I knew both Charles II and James II chose to be crowned on St. George's Day, which probably was an auspicious date to them, but that James VI's advisers would want him to follow Roman tradition is wild. Do you know if this was a Tudor thing, or a Scottish belief?

  2. It's not a Tudor custom at all, but probably an indication that the realm was under new management.


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