- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006


By Leanda de Lisle

Ballantine, $25.95, 368 pages, illus.


History often takes on a sense of inevitability that locates events within a logical pattern of causality. Where Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss repeatedly invoked the “best of all possible worlds,” conventional narratives present their view of the past as the only possible world.

Leanda de Lisle takes a different tack in exploring how Scotland’s James VII gained the English throne after Elizabeth I died in 1603 and thereby united the two kingdoms under a single crown. Far from an uneventful transfer of power from a dying queen to her lawful heir, Ms. de Lisle recounts with verve a story of intrigue and uncertainty.

“After Elizabeth” is a fine book that refreshes an old story by recovering the multiple possibilities of a moment in time. The son of Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots seemed an obvious heir when the last Tudor died childless.

Mary Stuart was also a granddaughter of Henry VII of England through his daughter Margaret who had married the Scots king as part of a treaty. Mary Stuart went to the executioner’s block in 1587 largely because she had become the focus of plots against Elizabeth.

Indeed, Catholic rulers who considered Elizabeth as no more than Henry VIII’s bastard daughter by Anne Boleyn viewed Mary Stuart at England’s legitimate queen. So long as her Protestant son James maintained good relations with Elizabeth and her advisors, he became the logical king-in-waiting.

His accession, moreover, would bring the long-sought aim of uniting Britain under one ruler, but by inheritance rather than conquest. If Elizabeth refused to acknowledge James openly, she had good political grounds because the acknowledged heir provided a natural focus for ambitious men who might challenge her own authority.

This old, familiar story follows the logic of subsequent developments, but it also skips over key facts that Ms. de Lisle brings out. Henry VIII’s will, backed by an Act of Parliament, excluded James from the throne, while an older law from Edward III’s reign precluded the accession of a king born outside the “allegiance of the realm of England.”

Englishmen disliked Scots, and Ms. de Lisle notes the image of Scotland in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as a wild, backward, and lawless country. Other claimants stood in the wings, including Arbella Stuart, James’ first cousin.

The Spanish infanta Isabella had a strong claim as a descendant of Edward III’s younger son John of Gaunt through both the Portuguese and Spanish royal families. Lord Edward Beauchamp had a stronger claim as both a Tudor and another descendant of Edward III.

The prospect of competing claims to the throne that had caused so much upheaval during the 15th century Wars of the Roses lingered in the background, and some claimants had foreign allies willing to intervene on their behalf.

Different powers had their preferred candidates, and the English themselves had different views shaped by religious confession and personal ambition. Ms. De Lisle also makes a strong case for the persistence of an English Catholic interest that, even where it outwardly conformed to Elizabeth’s religious settlement, would welcome a Catholic ruler to succeed her.

Failure shadowed Elizabeth’s final years. The Virgin Queen, whose realm had defeated Spain’s invincible armada in 1588, had not aged well. Much of her reign had been spent deferring problems she could not solve.

By the late 1590s, those challenges could no longer be postponed. Elizabeth became less adept at manipulating her advisors and favorites, a problem brought home by the Earl of Essex’s revolt in 1601. Many by 1600 had begun looking to her successor for their future security, but that person remained unclear.

Elizabeth’s death caught James’ rivals by surprise. He moved quickly after a messenger arrived with hopes of securing his own fortune by winning the new king’s favor. James offered English Catholics the prospect of toleration, while promoting the idea of a general reunion of Christendom after the upheavals of the Reformation.

James outmaneuvered both foreign and English rivals. Opponents faced a fait accompli. Courtiers bid for the new king’s favor once he crossed the border. On his way to London through his new realm, he dispensed knighthoods and other favors with a generosity that the parsimonious Elizabeth had never shown.

While later accounts presented James as an uncouth, vulgar man who relied on unsavory favorites and squandered money, Ms. de Lisle points out his formidable talents. James was Scotland’s most successful king, managing by guile to balance factions within its turbulent politics and extend royal authority to bring order through his realm.

A physically awkward man who had suffered a brutal childhood, James also had an exceptional education that enabled him to engage theological debates that underpinned politics. He learned kingship in a rough school that served him well in securing England’s throne. If Henry IV of France’s dismissal of James as “the wisest fool in Christendom” stuck, Ms. de Lisle and academics like W. B. Patterson show that James’ wisdom carried more weight than his occasional foolishness.

Though he won the crown, James neither accomplished his aims nor fulfilled all expectations. Although he succeeded in the preservation or religion and peace, opponents blocked his attempts to formally unite the two kingdoms. Scotland and England remained separate realms under a single crown until 1707.

Catholics who hoped James would end Elizabethan laws against them and offer full toleration faced disappointment that led an alienated faction to support the famous Gunpowder Plot in 1605. That failed attempt, which, when fit together with earlier plots during Elizabeth’s reign, made serious concessions to Catholics impossible.

It also underlined the security of James’ hold on England’s throne. Ms. De Lisle notes the irony of how reputations change. Elizabeth died a tarnished icon, but eventually James suffered much more from historians. As James noted himself in “Basilikon Doron” written to instruct his son in kingship, “a king is as one set up a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures, all the people gazingly do behold.”

James’s personal flaws and the political failures of the first two Stuarts marred his image just as they burnished Elizabeth’s memory. Gloriana thus came to outshine both her immediate heir and the ill-fated Charles I.

William Anthony Hay, an historian at Mississippi State University and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.”

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