In the 21st century, royal visits are often quite brief events, with high-speed travel, and an emphasis on public appearances and social events, rather than affairs of state. Four hundred years ago the picture was very different, as Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section explains…
In March 1603, following the death of Elizabeth I, her cousin James VI of Scotland became James I England as well. Just two weeks later the king crossed the Anglo-Scottish border into his new realm, vowing to come back every three years. In fact it would be another 14 years before he returned to Scotland, and the timing of this visit was dictated not by some political emergency, but by much more personal considerations. James had become king of Scotland in July 1567, shortly after his first birthday, and so the year 1617 was the 50th anniversary of his accession. Moreover, he had recently become Scotland’s longest-reigning monarch (the previous record-holder, William the Lion, had ruled for just under 49 years), and he meant to celebrate these landmark events in style.
It would be fair to say that James’s enthusiasm for this great northern ‘progress’ was not widely shared. One basic problem was his very status as a 17th-century king. A 21st-century British monarch serves as a largely symbolic head of state, and can travel about relatively freely with no impact whatever on the workings of government. However, James was in a very real sense the ruler of Great Britain, whose approval was required for all matters of policy and patronage. While his ministers were accustomed to him disappearing off on brief hunting trips, a more elaborate expedition such as a summer progress entailed a substantial number of courtiers, advisers and even bishops trailing around the country in the king’s wake, with all the logistical complications that this entailed. For his visit to Scotland, James envisaged being away from London for around six months, and for much of that time he would be difficult to contact quickly, should some emergency develop.
And then there was the prospective cost of this trip. In a context where the English exchequer and Scottish treasury were already struggling – and mostly failing – to balance the books, James’s travel plans imposed an entirely unwelcome additional financial burden on both governments. The Scottish privy council, which received roughly a year’s advance notice, was instructed to repair the principal royal residences, none of which had been properly maintained for decades, and prepare accommodation at Edinburgh for up to 5,000 visitors. The desperate councillors were obliged to introduce an emergency levy of £200,000 Scots (more than £2 million in today’s money), so the first intimation that many of James’s Scottish subjects had of his imminent arrival was an unexpected tax demand.
Nevertheless, the king intended his much wealthier kingdom of England to cover the bulk of the costs. There, supplementary taxation was out of the question, following the failed Parliament of 1614, and instead the city of London and the farmers of the customs were approached for a loan of £200,000 sterling (more than £26 million today). Raising such a massive sum at short notice proved so difficult that, in early March 1617 the English privy council literally begged James on their knees to postpone the progress for twelve months, all to no avail. The king was by now denouncing opponents of the trip as traitors, and was determined to press on.
Accordingly, on 15 March the expedition set off, with James accompanied by favoured English and Scottish courtiers, all the principal officers of the royal household, one secretary of state, three bishops, eight chaplains, the king’s bodyguards, and over 70 other court servants, including pages, ushers, cupbearers, trumpeters and physicians. Naturally all the more senior figures in the party took their own personal servants, and the numbers were further swelled by other Scots resident in England who seized the opportunity to visit their homeland in style. More than 60 wagons were used to transport the royal luggage, while larger items were sent north by sea, since James was determined to create the most magnificent impression, and took with him not just his clothes but also furniture, wall-hangings and plate to decorate the Scottish palaces during his brief stay.
Unsurprisingly, this massive train moved slowly. Travelling north via Lincoln, York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed, James spent two whole months on the road before reaching Edinburgh. On his birthday, 19 June, he spent the night at his birthplace, Edinburgh castle, though he normally resided at the more comfortable Holyrood palace while in the Scottish capital. He also found time to visit Dunfermline, Falkland, St Andrews, Dundee, Perth, Stirling, Glasgow and Dumfries, and of course to go hunting at regular intervals. James took a smaller group of attendants with him for these subsidiary trips, leaving the bulk of the English courtiers to feast and revel in Edinburgh. If the king’s instructions were carried out, there were also displays of traditional Scottish sports such as football and bowls.
However, there was also business to attend to. Despite all of James’s assurances to the contrary, he hadn’t returned north simply for reasons of nostalgia. As the Scottish government suspected all along, he had a political agenda as well as a social one, which soon became clear. The king’s attempt to achieve a formal union of his two principal kingdoms had failed a decade earlier, but he still hankered after greater uniformity of government between England and Scotland. After 14 years down south, he also firmly believed that the English system was superior, and didn’t hesitate to say so. Opening a session of the Scots Parliament in June, he tactlessly informed the assembled members that he aimed to reduce the ‘barbarity’ of Scotland to the ‘sweet civility’ of England. He then proceeded to push through changes to local administration and the Scottish kirk, all designed to promote English practices. In another unprecedented move, five of his English courtiers were admitted to the Scottish privy council, including his controversial male favourite George Villiers, earl (later duke) of Buckingham. At Holyrood palace the church services were conducted along English lines, the Anglican ceremonial scandalizing the Presbyterian Scots.
By the latter stages of the tour, these tensions were spilling over into quarrels between English and Scottish courtiers. James spent the actual 50th anniversary of his accession, 24 July, in Glasgow, and then headed south again. As he passed through the Borders, there were reports of an assassination attempt on Buckingham, who had replaced an earlier Scottish favourite, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset. The return journey, via Carlisle, Chester, Coventry and Windsor, proved a little quicker, as many of the English courtiers peeled off to make their own way home. However, it was still mid-September by the time the king reached London. The final bill for the Scottish government was nearly £230,000 Scots. The English financial tally is not known, but was undoubtedly much higher. Unsurprisingly, James never attempted to repeat this trip, and the lasting legacy of his jubilee tour was mounting suspicion in Scotland of Stuart royal policy, which would come to an explosive climax under his successor, Charles I.
W.A. McNeill and P.G.B. McNeill, ‘The Scottish Progress of James VI, 1617’, Scottish Historical Review, lxxv. 38-51
Calendar of State Papers Domestic, 1611-18 [online resource: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/jas1/1611-18 ]
Biographies of George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, and Charles I (as prince of Wales) feature in our recently published volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).