The Murder of King James I by Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell

the murder of king james iThe plaster and the powder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. Over the intervening period these rumours have been dismissed by historians, partly on the grounds of lack of real evidence and partly as a result of developments in the field of forensic medicine, which suggest other, natural causes for his death. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions. They set out to prove that the allegations played a major role in the downfall of Charles I, and were still exerting a political influence many decades after the event, all through the period of Cromwell’s Protectorate, through the Restoration, and on to the final demise of the Stuart dynasty.

The authors start by examining the relationship between James, his son Charles, and Buckingham, favourite of both Royals. They show how Buckingham had worked his way up on the basis of favours granted by James to a position of extraordinary power and influence, a position which his contemporaries felt he abused. Through marriage and patronage, Buckingham had advanced many of his family and friends and this was thoroughly resented. Buckingham was also close to Charles and, by the time of James’ death, he was seen as exerting too much influence over the new King.

James VI and I by Daniel Mytens
James VI and I by Daniel Mytens

The authors then go into the actual circumstances of James’ death in great detail. They use an interesting technique, to examine the same event or period from a variety of different perspectives. So they look at the medical practices in place at the time, the medical protocols put in place by the King’s chief physician, letters written by a courtier giving the layman’s view of events in the sickroom. Then they discuss the aftermath – how the King’s death was immediately mythologised as a ‘good’ death – i.e., that he died sure in his Protestant faith, and how this view was spread to the populace. They look at the evidence, and subsequent rumours, relating to Buckingham’s behaviour in the sickroom, when he apparently gave the king a ‘plaster’ – some kind of poultice – and a potion, without the full sanction of James’ doctors. And they look at how this was the period when the practice of autopsies was in its infancy and how that played into the rumours.

Prince Charles, later Charles I by Daniel Mytens
Prince Charles, later Charles I by Daniel Mytens

This approach of coming at the thing from various angles gives a slow and thorough build-up to an extremely detailed picture, and it’s the approach they take with each section of the book. The other main participant in the ‘story’ is George Eglisham, who put in print the rumour that Buckingham had in fact poisoned James, in his pamphlet The Forerunner of Revenge. Starting with a biography of Eglisham, they circle through printing and distribution methods, the growing use of propaganda on both sides of the religious divide, how this division has to be seen in a European rather than simply British context, and so on. They then follow the journey of the pamphlet, arguing that it and the rumours it contained played a crucial role in the failed Parliament of 1626, a role not given due weight by more recent historians. And they suggest that the pamphlet maintained its important influence throughout Charles’s reign and beyond, with his defence of Buckingham’s role making Charles seem complicit in his father’s murder in many eyes. This, they suggest, helped to define the public attitude to the Stuart dynasty through the rest of the century, and they show how the pamphlet was frequently re-edited and re-produced to further the schemes of various factions, with Eglisham being represented as everything from the disaffected Catholic that he actually was through to being some kind of Protestant hero when it suited.

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham by Michiel J van Miereveld
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham by Michiel J van Miereveld

As any regular reader of the blog will know, I am a bit of a history and politics geek, and I found the story the authors told fascinating. However, I will say this book is much more academic in style than most of the history I’ve reviewed, therefore a tougher read. It is a brick, coming in at about 550 pages plus notes, and goes into a great depth of detail, including extensive quoting from sources – I’ve barely touched on the ground it covers. It is very well written, though – thoroughly explained and convincingly argued, and free of academic jargon, so still quite accessible to the general reader. Personally I found it an immersive experience, at some points feeling that I knew the players and politics of the period of and just after the ‘murder’ better than I do the contemporary political scene. Although I’d say it’s perhaps geared more towards an academic than a general audience, it certainly isn’t necessary to have an existing knowledge of the period going in – my knowledge of the Stuart era could be described as sketchy at best, and I found the authors gave me all the information I required to understand the background to the events they describe. In fact, as well as the specific arguments of the book, I feel I now have a thorough grounding on the general political history of the period. The book is also extensively illustrated throughout, particularly with the frontispieces of the various books and pamphlets to which the text refers, which is extremely helpful in understanding the authors’ explanations of their symbolic features. So, with the proviso that it’s not what I’d think of as a light, casual read, highly recommended.

Alastair Bellany is associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England. Thomas Cogswell is professor of history at UC Riverside. His books include The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621-1624.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

(P.S. I forgave the authors for the book title since in the first line of the introduction they give him his proper title of King James VI and I. 😉 )

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50 thoughts on “The Murder of King James I by Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell

  1. (P.S. I forgave the authors for the book title since in the first line of the introduction they give him his proper title of King James VI and I. 😉 )

    I was about to say.

  2. I wondered what you’d make of that title, FictionFan 😉 In all seriousness, it sounds like an absolutely fascinating book. And I’m impressed that the authors make and support their arguments effectively without getting too jargon-y for ‘the rest of us.’ What’s more, the major point they make – the impact of the stories told – is compelling. There are certainly plenty of cases of rumors or stories (or even deliberate disinformation) being used to further political careers and so on. No reason that couldn’t be the case here. Fascinating stuff, and sounds like one of those books to savour on those cold autumn and winter evenings.

    • Haha! I was ready for war but they sneakily won me round! Yes, I love that academic authors seem to be trying to reach out to ‘ordinary’ readers these days by writing much more accessibly than in the past.

      The stuff about how the rumours were manipulated and re-used by opposing sides to suit their own purposes was fascinating. And the more widespread use of printing meant that somehow the Stuart era felt much more modern to me than the Tudor one ever does. It took me forever to read this one, but really because there was so much in it to absorb…

  3. I love a good historical romp but this sounds like it might be slightly too far over the academic side for me to really get into. That said, I am perfectly prepared to buy a copy, read a bit and then leave it lying around to make visitors think I am super clever. I suppose I could try a bit harder than that, all the dastardly plots and politics are difficult to resist.

    • Haha! Yes, I admit a shelf full of hardback history does look good! And sometimes actually reading them just makes the covers look a bit tatty… 😉 I did find this one fascinating but it’s definitely not romp material. It took me about six weeks to read it, I think – couldn’t manage more than about twenty pages a day. And my brain felt like it had had a strenuous workout… required lots of additonal chocolate to restore my energy levels!

    • Yes, the whole Stuart era and all the Oliver Cromwell stuff is a bit of a mystery to me. I think we get taught a lot about the Tudors at school, but I feel as if we weren’t taught much about the Stuarts… unless I just slept through those classes… 😉

  4. FF, you do such a great job on these historical reads, but I must confess they’re not my cup of tea! Perhaps I had to read too many biographies during school; perhaps, being a journalist, I had to deal with too much reality on a day-to-day basis. Whatever. Now when I read, I gravitate more toward fiction (and since that’s my “genre” of choice to write, perhaps that’s a good thing!!)

    • I love fiction, as you know, but I really enjoy mixing up my reading – low boredom threshold! But it’s only in the last few years that I’ve read so much history and biography – never really had either the time or the inclination when I was younger. And generally speaking they’re so much better written now than they used to be… 🙂

  5. I thought this sounded a good one. Apart from anything else, the whole use and development of printed propaganda in this period is fascinating and scary.

    • Yes, indeed, and they went into that aspect in a huge amount of depth, right from the printing through to how it got distributed and used. Hate to say it, but this is another one I do think you’d enjoy…

  6. Okay, here it is: I’m, the sudden, Buckingham. Don’t you think so? *poses* That is so me. I think.

    I suppose poison was the only way possible with James. After all, I’m not sure a knife could make its way through all that clothing, you know!

    • *laughs lots* Yes! A definite resemblance! You should get an outfit like that for the next video…

      *laughs some more* They did tend to wear an awful lot, didn’t they? No wonder they needed people to help them dress. I’m pretty sure his cloak is velvet, you know, you know…

      • But what’s that thing he’s wearing about his neck? That’s horrid looking! Looks like some sort of rag used for dusting. Or a flower. He looks like a Who from Whoville!

        Why did they wear so much stuff! Maybe if they were in the Bahamas (or Mars) they would’ve gone with fewer garments. It probably is. And he’s probably an honorary girl, too. So there you are.

        • Who is a Who from Whoville?!! *laughs lots* There’s a sentence I never expected to say! It’s a beautiful lace collar – you’d look lovely in one! And look at all those pearls!

          I guess they didn’t have central heating. Plus they knew how good velvet looks on a man! Oooh, you can’t have the King of Scotland running about dressed like John Carter – the poor man would get chilblains!

          • *laughs* That’s a great sentence, I say. It’s an odd lace collar, I’ll give you that. Goodness, you’re right! Those are pearls. Wow. Nah, only girls wear pearls and you have to know that!

            Chilblains…what’s that? I hope he doesn’t get them, though. But you’re right, the weather is a bit harsher in Scotland. Or colder.

            • But I still don’t understand! *stamps foot* Well, yes, it’s true only girls wear them nowadays, but that’s just ‘cos men have lost their sense of style! You have to admit he looks fab…

              It’s… sorta… sore bits you get from the cold. We’re having a storm at the moment, but it’s not as exciting as they promised it would be…

        • You…you…!! *growls ferociously* (*laughing lots and lots* I gave up and googled and got lots of images of people with weird faces – presumably characters from Whoville. But in amongst them were images of poor Stephen King – how mean!! But funny…) Oh you do! And he does not! But that doesn’t mean you can grow a beard like his…

          No, we’re having incredibly warm weather for November. Wind, rain and hailstones – looks like some of the roads are flooding… *sighs*

  7. Fascinating and I too am glad the authors gave James his proper title in the intro – wonder why they didn’t do it in the book title though? Hm? Anyway, that said, I know little about James and this period but would like to know more, maybe I slept through those lessons at school too 😉 And you make it sound so very tempting but its a big book to take on if it turns out not to be for me. Hm?? Maybe I’ll eventually be able to get it out from the library!? Great review!

    • Odd isn’t it? I wonder if it was the authors’ decision or the publisher’s? I guess the book is very firmly about his time in England but still…

      Thank you! 🙂 Yes, it’s definitely one that I found required a pretty big committment both in time and concentration. I think the library is a good plan…

    • Definitely fascinating – it took me ages to read because it was so full of stuff I could only cope in small batches but by the end I really felt as if I was living as much in 17th century England as in 21st century Scotland! Worth the effort, if you ever happen across it and have the time… 🙂

  8. I’ve just finished my Masters looking at this period – why wasn’t this published a year earlier, it would have been perfect research! Weirdly all that work hasn’t put me off at all, so I will definitely be reading this, it sounds fascinating!

    • Did you? For some reason I kinda missed the Stuarts when I was studying history. I have a gap in knowledge between the Tudors and the 19th century. But if you already know this period well, I’d think you’d get even more out of this one than I did – hope you enjoy it! I’d love to hear what you think of it…

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