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Virginia’s Father: King James I

by Bruce P. Lenman

There is no doubt Sir Walter Raleigh invented the name Virginia. Raleigh, or Ralegh, as he usually spelled his name, initiated the attempts to establish an English colony in North America in territory that imperial Spain regarded as part of its empire and described sweepingly as Florida. Ralegh’s first and abortive colony in 1585 was essentially a privateer base. His second attempt in 1587 was a serious effort to establish a permanent settlement, though it failed. In between the attempts, Ralegh received such marks of favor from Queen Elizabeth as knighthood and permission to call the newly settled land Virginia in her honor, for she never married and was “the virgin queen.” This had the virtue of making an end of the linguistic muddle over names into which Ralegh knew he and his colonists had fallen because of ignorance of the local Algonquian language. The English had been using absurd terms like Wingandacoia, whose origin was native, but whose meaning is still obscure.

Ralegh has no role in the continuous history of the plantation that grew to become the Old Dominion of Virginia. His colonists, including the holding party his cousin Sir Richard Grenville left on Roanoke Island in 1586, were all active in what is now North Carolina. He planned latterly to move the second group of colonists to somewhere on Chesapeake Bay, but they disappeared before it could be done. Though the later Virginia Company of London tried to find survivors and to take advantage of their hard-won experience, they failed, which accounts for some disastrous decisions in the early history of colonial Virginia.

The father of Virginia was not the handsome English courtier Ralegh. It was the man who, under heavy Spanish pressure, had Ralegh’s head cut off in 1619-King James VI of Scotland and, from 1603, James I of England and Ireland. He was not handsome.

Portrayed here by John de Critz or

Portrayed here by John de Critz or Marcus Gheerhardt the Younger, it appears James I inherited few of his father Henry Stuart’s good looks.- Colonial Williamsburg

The son of Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, James had more brains than his parents put together, but none of their startlingly good looks. Mary and Darnley were tall, with long, elegant legs. James had short, bowed legs. He was most comfortable on a horse. He would walk supporting himself on the shoulders of two courtiers. His homely face often wore an apprehensive look, and his personal manners were gross. He could not help having a too-large tongue that made him slobber when he ate or drank, but his personal hygiene was based on an aversion to water that confined washing to the tips of his fingers. Before Fidel Castro, James was a contender for the position of longest-winded politician ever. He harangued his English Parliament for hours. Unusually for a king, he was a voluminous writer, so we know exactly what he felt relations between himself and his subjects ought to be.

In a 1597 pamphlet, The True Lawe of Free Monarchies, James said the reciprocal relationship between a rightful and righteous king and his dutiful subjects was based on the fact that the king was “a naturall Father to all his Liegis.” James meant this literally, as he did when he said that “the proper office of a King towardes his subiectes agrees with the office of the head towards the bodie.” To James, royal authority was fatherly and a people only constituted a body politic by virtue of submission to their ruler.

By 1603, Elizabeth, the once glamorous Gloriana, had become an unpopular old woman with a reputation for meanness. Most Englishmen welcomed the ascension of an open handed adult male ruler. There was a great surge in patriarchal theories of politics, arguing that the male head of household was the model of all righteous authority.

James was clear that after 1607 he was the father of all Virginians and the head of the body politic they belonged to, which was England. The word colony was not used as much as the term plantation, because Virginia was England planted in America.

After 1603, James ruled three realms. Multiple dominions were common in Europe. United under one monarch, the individual kingdoms kept their identities in a sensible compromise between unity and autonomy. Their laws and customs were the guarantors of their traditional liberties. James most unusually wanted his ascension to the English throne to be followed by an incorporating union between England and Scotland.

Modestly, he called on his first English Parliament in 1604 to pass on “the blessings, which God hath in my person bestowed upon you all,” by legislating for such a union. His believed he was the husband of his kingdoms, inflicting on the English legislature at Westminster embarrassingly explicit, disorganized speeches about the difficulties of sleeping with two wives in one bed. He admitted, disarmingly, that he seldom had time beforehand to think about the content of speeches.

Nobody really wanted his union. In Westminster the opposition was led by a future treasurer of the Virginia Company, Sir Edwin Sandys, who said that he thought the proposal entirely unnecessary. By 1607, when Virginia was being born, the Jacobean Anglo-Scottish union was in its final death-throes at Westminster, a situation that James deemed an insult to him, and to God.

His fallback position was to encourage parallel developments in politics and religion in the three kingdoms and the intermarriage of their aristocracies to decrease national antagonisms. Parallel developments included colonies.

Irish colonies were established in the huge delta of the River Amazon. They were responsible to his Irish Privy Council, neighboring English colonies to his English one. Famously, toward the end of his reign in 1621, James granted vast territories in what are now the Maritime Provinces of Canada to Sir William Alexander, later earl of Stirling, to establish a Scottish colony, Nova Scotia. Alexander said that in an age of New England, France, and Spain, Scots would not support attempts to set up overseas plantations “unless . . . they might likewise have a New Scotland.”

Virginia is named for Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, the last of the Tudor monarchs and her cousin James I’s immediate predecessor.- Colonial Williamsburg

Virginia is named for Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, the last of the Tudor monarchs and her cousin James I’s immediate predecessor. - Colonial Williamsburg

James said his subjects had a right to settle in the Americas wherever a Christian prince did not already effectively occupy, as distinct from claim, the territory. It was an admirable position, but he did not always stand up for it. The Irish and English Amazon colonies were destroyed by the Portuguese, who were detested by the local tribes, and who had never occupied the area. The only argument they would heed was an effective counter attack, but the king of Portugal between 1580 and 1640 was the Spanish monarch, whom James was desperate to appease. Nothing was done.

The Spaniards normally killed other Europeans they found in the Americas. The birth of Virginia was possible because of the terms on which James had managed to conclude the deadlocked Elizabethan war with Spain in the Treaty of London of 1604. Because Spain needed peace more than England, the principal Spanish negotiator, the constable of Castile, had reluctantly to agree to drop from the treaty all mention of Spain’s exclusive claims in the Americas. That did not mean that Spain accepted the English colony.

Spanish reconnaissance expeditions, scouting out the land before military action, were dispatched to the Chesapeake in 1605 and, significantly, also in 1609. The constable hoped to see all the English colonists hanged, but the resources of imperial Spain were strained even by the cost of its most northerly garrison at St. Augustine. Spain’s best bet after 1607 was to bully, wheedle, or con King James into abandoning his Virginian “children.”

This looked possible in 1608, when his vanity and delusions about being the great arbiter of Europe were tickled by insincere Spanish talk about marrying his heir, Prince Henry, to a Spanish princess or infanta, and making Henry regent of a reunited and reconciled Netherlands. The Dutch in the northern Netherlands had long been in rebellion against their Spanish overlords. The Spaniards, however, overplayed their hand by abusing the crews when they captured English ships bound for Virginia. By 1609 they had so alienated English opinion that it was clear Virginia had become a matter of national prestige for which even England’s near-pacifist Scots monarch would have to fight.

That diplomatic shield was vital for Virginia, especially after the crippling Indian uprising in 1622. A critic of the Virginia Company reported in 1623 that he had found “not the least piece of fortification” around its principal settlement, Jamestown. The company said that there were a few cannon and wooden palisades, but the report was probably right in saying one small enemy warship could easily have flattened the place.

Because he issued his two charters in 1606 and 1609 to the Virginia Company, James I was committed to protecting the settlement. It lay within Elizabethan grants that had reverted to the crown when Ralegh, whom James loathed, was convicted of treason in 1603. It is fair to ask what else James did for Virginia.

Sir Walter Ralegh-he never spelled his surname with an “i”-took over from his brother the patent to the Virginia colony and dispatched the first settlers.- Colonial Williamsburg

Sir Walter Ralegh-he never spelled his surname with an “i”-took over from his brother the patent to the Virginia colony and dispatched the first settlers. - Colonial Williamsburg

He put no assets into it. He was a financial desperado, creating massive deficits by compulsive spending and gifts to favorites like George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. When the Virginia Company, even after reorganization and the charter of 1609, did not make a profit, James granted it the privilege of running a lottery. This lasted until parliamentary objections to monopolies led to its lapse after 1621.

In 1612 one pessimist said Virginia would probably fail less because of the Spanish ambassador’s endless ravings on the subject to James than because of “the extreme beastly idleness of our nation.” He said deserters from Virginia slandering the plantation back in England hurt the Old Dominion more than the lottery helped. The colony had nearly died out in the winter of 1609-10. James’s ambassador in Madrid, Sir John Digby, reported in 1612 that the Spaniards were moved to contempt by news of the lottery, and determined somehow to destroy Virginia. The Spanish ambassador in London in late 1612 was urging Philip III of Spain, unrealistically, to strike before the Virginian colony could put down roots.

By 1613, however, a spy with access to Spanish confidential sources obtained proof that most of James’s senior counselors were in receipt of Spanish pensions. There was a danger that Virginia might be betrayed by the Jacobean regime.

James became so worried about the pro-Spanish influence in his Council that he concealed from it sensitive communications from his ambassador in Madrid. Yet as late as 1623 he was anxious for a marriage between his heir, Prince Charles, whose elder brother Prince Henry had died in 1612, and a Spanish infanta. Before the negotiation collapsed, Charles and Buckingham briefly placed themselves in the power of Spain by making a foolish and dangerous trip to Madrid.

The earl of Southampton believed the royal menagerie might help the cause of Virginia. He reported in December 1609, “The King is eager to have one of the Virginia Squirrels that are said to fly.” James loved exotic animals. He failed to catch a white hind seen roaming in the Grampian Mountains in Scotland. In 1623, however, Spain got the king’s erratic attention by sending an elephant and camels to England.

Native Americans were exotic, though not unfamiliar. North American Indians and Eskimos had been brought to London since the reign of Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry VII. In September 1603 a plague-ridden London had seen “Virginians” demonstrate their skill in handling their dugout canoe on the River Thames, sponsored by James’s first minister, Lord Salisbury. They may have been Algonquians from the Chesapeake. James was a renaissance humanist scholar, taught by the greatest Latin poet of the day-the Scotsman George Buchanan. Basic to classical and renaissance thought was the distinction between civilization and barbarism. To James, who regarded most Gaelic-speakers in Scotland and Ireland as barbarians, North American tribesmen were like barbarous Highland clansmen.

Nevertheless, such people could have leaders whose obvious nobility enabled James to relate to them. Thus in Scotland James wanted the MacGregors, who had no chief to control them, “ruit oute and extirpat.” Clan Gordon was no problem. James favored its chief, Lord Huntly, as he did the earl of Tyrone in Ulster, despite the earl’s nine-year war with Elizabeth. The Council of the Virginia Company in London always insisted that there was no king in Virginia save King James, but Powhatan, the great Tidewater Indian ruler, was often referred to as an emperor and the normal English translation of Indian terms for chief was king.

When Christopher Newport came to Virginia with the third reinforcement vessel of 1608 in September, he had with him a copper crown and instructions to seek out Powhatan and crown him with it-which he did in November-making Powhatan “King James his man.” James assumed that a pagan ruler should submit to a Christian one, but Powhatan was clearly to be a cooperative regional prince, like Huntly or Tyrone.

In 1616 Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas-converted to Anglicanism and baptized “Lady Rebecca,” because in Genesis 25:23 the Lord said of another Rebecca, “Two nations are in thy womb”-came to London with her husband, colonist John Rolfe, and their baby son. Received lavishly by the royal court and the citizens of London, she “carried herself as the daughter of a king,” and was treated with respect by James and his nobility before her death on the eve of her return to Virginia in early 1617.

Cape Charles, which guards the northern entrance to the Chesapeake, is named for Charles I, son of James I, who inherited from his father the failing Virginia venture.- Colonial Williamsburg

Cape Charles, which guards the northern entrance to the Chesapeake, is named for Charles I, son of James I, who inherited from his father the failing Virginia venture. - Colonial Williamsburg

James was, on his own terms, benign and liberal. For a few desperate years after 1611, martial law had to be imposed on the Virginia plantation by Governor Thomas Dale to discipline the colonists for the sake of their sheer survival. Nevertheless, the royal charters promised the colonists the full freedoms and privileges of Englishmen, which is what they were, and access to the common law, the guardian of those liberties.

Virginia was an Anglican church-state, with the bishop of London an influential member of the company’s council, but King James’s spirit was ecumenical. His devotion to peace and respect for Christians of a different persuasion-absurdities to most contemporary kings or popes-meant that the reunification of Christendom was his dearest, and most impractical, wish. The Anglican establishment in Virginia in his reign was informal, with no elaborate ritual, and was no persecutor.

James secured the forfeiture of the charter of the Virginia Company in 1624, but only because there was no alternative. A takeover in 1618 by a group of gentry and nobles led by Sir Edwin Sandys and the earl of Southampton failed to make the company solvent, but led to vicious factional fighting. The Indian uprising of 1622 and subsequent war destroyed the company’s viability. James sent the colonists obsolete armor from the Tower of London, England’s chief ordnance store, believing that it would not be obsolete against Powhatan’s archers.

When he personally tried to conciliate the company’s warring factions, however, the job proved so frustrating that he rebuked Sir Edward Sackville for impudence. James would have liked them to surrender their charter voluntarily, and would have given them a revised one, but company holdouts refused the deal. They tried to raise trouble in the English Parliament, denouncing the Spanish ambassador Gondomar, who was no Virginia well-wisher, and his successors for “using their utmost efforts to destroy the plantation.” The king said he had the matter in hand, and asked the House of Commons not to get involved. It agreed, though suspicious that “by such means any business might be taken out of the hands of Parliament.”

Modern remembrances of James I: the Jamestown Ferry slides down the James River past Jamestown Island bound for James City County. - Dave Doody

Dave Doody

Modern remembrances of James I: the Jamestown Ferry slides down the James River past Jamestown Island bound for James City County.

When the Court of King’s Bench ruled the company’s charter forfeit for non-compliance with its terms, rumor said that “the popular nature of the government having displeased the king,” one hundred soldiers would be sent as a garrison. James could not afford the soldiers, and the General Assembly set up in Virginia in 1619 survived. Like James’s other legislatures, it met occasionally, when needed. England was a monarchy, normally run by its king, and Virginia, after 1624, was run by the governor he appointed.

James was initially violently hostile to tobacco, associated with Ralegh. The king’s authorship of the anonymous A Counterblaste to Tobacco of 1604 was soon common knowledge. What grieved his fatherly humanist heart was that loyal Christian subjects should, on a whim, debase themselves by smoking like Devil- worshipping Indian barbarians. So, denouncing its effect on the health, morals, and finances of the lieges, he compared its “black, stinking fume” to “the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.” He soon realized, when Rolfe proved tobacco was the paying cash crop in Virginia, that he could use income from it, negotiating eventually for a third of the company’s importation by weight. Businessmen like Sir Arthur Ingram warned the company not to offer cash when James was too broke to make allowances if prices collapsed.

He and the company leaders so misunderstood Virginia’s climate they persuaded themselves tobacco cultivation was only a necessary interlude before healthy products like silk, flax, hemp, and wine started to flow from the Chesapeake. They never did.

Gradually James’s name and those of members of his family spread over the map of Virginia. From 1607 there was Jamestown. A manuscript map of 1608 showed King James his River, which by 1635 was on a printed map as the James River. Capes Henry and Charles are named for his sons. A map of 1651, drawn by a woman, Virginia Ferrar, showed Elizabeth City near Point Comfort, named after James’s daughter. By 1673 a map showed counties called Henrico and Charles City.

His great favorite Buckingham flattered the sentimental James by addressing him as “Dad.” Virginia could have had a much worse dad than this shambling Scots eccentric with his great strengths and preposterous weaknesses.


Bruce Lenman, a history professor at the University of St. Andrews in Fyfe, Scotland, contributed “Tea and Circumstance” to the spring 1996 journal.



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