James I and his favourites: sex and power at the Jacobean court

As LGBT History Month draws to a close Dr Paul M. Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-1629 Section discusses the nature of relationships between James I and his favourite courtiers, his sexuality and how this affected his ability to maintain unquestionable dominance as the monarch…

‘James I slobbered at the mouth and had favourites; he was thus a Bad King.’ This line from Sellar and Yeatman’s classic spoof history, 1066 And All That probably remains many people’s abiding impression of England’s first Stuart monarch. Both elements of the description are accurate, as it happens. The dribbling was a side-effect of James’s abnormally large tongue. However, the second issue requires more explanation. There was nothing particularly unusual about a 17th-century king having favourites. This was a standard mechanism by which trusted royal servants were promoted and rewarded. It allowed monarchs to look beyond the country’s traditional rulers, the hereditary nobility, and inject much-needed fresh blood into their governments. When the system worked well, it generated few complaints. James’s predecessor, Elizabeth I, had a series of favourites during her long reign, and with the exception of the 2nd earl of Essex, whose career ended messily on the scaffold, she proved adept at managing them. The queen’s favour could be withdrawn at any time if an individual offended her, and this uncertainty ensured that they never entirely forgot their dependence on her. And although Elizabeth’s principal favourites exerted considerable influence, and constructed substantial client networks, it was recognized in the country at large that the queen retained ultimate power.

Under James, this pattern changed, and the term ‘favourite’ took on new connotations. The king continued to promote particular courtiers and ministers in the usual fashion, but within this select group a few men were chosen specifically because James found them physically attractive. Notwithstanding a 30-year marriage which featured ten pregnancies, the king was homosexual. In an age when the act of sodomy was a capital offence, and people took seriously the bible’s strictures against ‘unnatural acts’ between men, this was bound to be controversial, though again context is important here. James had been king of Scotland for over three decades when he was nominated as the childless Elizabeth’s successor in 1603, and the queen’s leading ministers were almost certainly aware of his preferences, which had already caused disquiet north of the border. However, any anxieties over this issue were outweighed by the fact that he had the strongest hereditary claim to the throne, was a staunch Protestant, and had two healthy sons. In short, James was the best available guarantor of political and religious stability in England, and this trumped any other considerations.

Similarly, if his new subjects wanted to complain about him, there was no shortage of targets. James was physically unprepossessing, cowardly, and ruinously extravagant. He neglected government business in order to go hunting, drank far too much, and (probably the worst sin from an English perspective) was unmistakeably Scottish, with a heavy accent that most of his listeners struggled to understand.  In effect, he would have been unpopular regardless of his sexual orientation, so for most people it was probably a cause for concern – but not necessarily the most important one. In any case, there was absolutely nothing they could do about it. As king, James was legally above criticism of any kind, which was classed as sedition and firmly suppressed. And in that highly privileged position, he behaved as he saw fit. The more lurid stories about his sexuality all date from long after his death, when the monarchy itself was under attack, and they should accordingly be treated with caution. Nevertheless, he seems to have been fairly uninhibited in his displays of affection towards any young man who caught his eye, and as word of this behaviour spread, so did private speculation about how far these relationships went.

Even so, it would be completely inaccurate to suggest a universal mood of moral outrage. The political system of the day dictated that the monarch was the ultimate source of all power and influence, so James could not simply be avoided by those who found him distasteful. Rather, his courtiers learnt to exploit his weaknesses for their own ends. Attractive young men thought likely to appeal to the king were recruited by senior politicians, and paraded around court, in the hope that they would become a means of manipulating James. This was how the most notorious favourite of all, George Villiers, began his career, advised and bankrolled by the 3rd earl of Pembroke and the then archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot. The earl and the prelate were aiming to bring down the king’s existing favourite, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, who was closely allied to a rival court faction. However, such tactics could backfire. Carr was indeed superseded by Villiers, but once the latter was secure in James’s affections, he rejected the influence of his sometime mentors, and pursued his own agenda. The resultant feud between Villiers and Pembroke disrupted English politics for the next decade.

James was always exceptionally generous towards his favourites, showering them with money, lands and titles. But in the case of Villiers, with whom he became totally and permanently besotted, the king went further than ever before, eventually creating him duke of Buckingham. Dukedoms were normally reserved for members of the royal family, so the elevation of Villiers, the younger son of an obscure squire, caused particular outrage. More disturbing, however, was the emotional hold that Villiers developed over the king. By the final years of his reign, an ailing James was so desperate to retain his favourite’s affections that he became almost incapable of opposing Villiers’ wishes. The duke nominated and destroyed ministers, and endlessly interfered in politics to protect his own interests. This above all was what generated anger at court and around the country. In the early 17th century  monarchs’ sexual peccadillos were to some extent excusable, so long as they continued to provide strong leadership. But James’s passion for Villiers, heartfelt as it undoubtedly was, restricted the exercise of his royal authority, and diminished his credibility as head of state. And in the eyes of his contemporaries, that made him a Bad King.


Further reading:

  • Also see the sister piece to this blog by Paul M. Hunneyball, James I and the duke of Buckingham: Love, Power and Betrayal
  • Michael B. Young, King James and the History of Homosexuality (Fonthill Media, 2nd edn., 2016)
  • David M. Bergeron, King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire (University of Iowa Press, 1999)

The History of Parliament’s project the House of Lords 1604-29, which sheds further light on these issues, is scheduled for publication next year.

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