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A King’s “Impossible” Dream

ISSUE:  Winter 1999
King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom. By W. B. Patterson. Cambridge University Press. $59.95.

This is a book about a pipedream which contributes substantially to the ongoing rehabilitation of the dreamer. The visionary in question is that affable and exasperating royal intellectual James VI and I, the first king of Great Britain. After reading this exhaustively-researched study, one senses that W. Brown Patterson shares the king’s vision, even to the extent that his optimism, like that of his royal subject, causes him to overlook some of the obstacles that made this dream an impossible one.

Contemporaries did not know what to make of James—the “wisest fool in Christendom”—and many historians have shared that bewilderment. Peace loving, tolerant of religious dissent, witty, pedantic, malodorous and all too obviously fond of handsome young men, James seemed miscast as a ruler in an era when kings were expected to embody militancy and religious orthodoxy. His reputation was further besmirched by the fatal incompetence of his son and heir Charles I, whose ill-starred attempts at bellicosity and the enforcement of orthodoxy plunged his kingdoms into civil wars which climaxed in regicide. With seemingly perfect hindsight, historians have assumed that the seeds of the demise of Charles’ government were planted in his father’s reign. Such an interpretation may be correct to the extent that the fiscal demands of warfare were the immediate cause of the crisis of 1640, and the spendthrift James had not devoted sufficient attention of the financial health of the state. Nor was the father particularly skilled at parliamentary management, a science the son regarded as unworthy of a king. But James would never have been so foolish as to bankrupt his government in the sorts of wars his son provoked. This pacific wisdom supplies Patterson, a professor of history at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his main subject.

James was born to the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots in 1566, as the lines of religious division opened in Europe by the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic response were hardening. Although christened in a Catholic ceremony (regarded by Scottish historians as his mother’s last political success), he was heir to a Scottish kingdom which was in the process of becoming Calvinistically Protestant, the result of a revolt against French influence in 1559—60. He became king, as the puppet of a Protestant faction which deposed his mother, before reaching his first birthday. By the time he began effectively to rule in his own name in the mid-1580’s, he had undergone a political education involving civil war, several assassinations of leading political figures (including his uncle and grandfather), and his own kidnapping. His aversion to war and violence was born of experience, and Patterson ably guides the reader through the tangled web of Scottish politics, stressing James’ interest in settling chronic feuds (albeit Patterson seems unaware of substantial literature on this subject) and his steadfast refusal to reject Catholic courtiers like the earl of Huntly, even when the latter were clearly implicated in treason.

But James’ tolerance of Catholics was not due to a lingering attachment to the faith of his mother. He took to heart the theological Calvinism of his tutor George Buchanan, even while rejecting Buchanan’s political theory (in sum, that monarchy was elective). At times, James even seemed to accept the Presbyterian vision of a Church governed from the bottom up by its own ministers and elders, provided the king was recognized as the ultimate secular authority in both church and state. It was this sticking point (the king as head of the Church), which eventually caused him to turn against the ultra-Presbyterian party led by the minister/academic Andrew Melville. Starting in the late 1590’s, James sought to rebuild the Episcopal system in Scotland, appointing respected churchmen as bishops to govern the Church and moderate the Presbyteries. By then James was also the leading candidate to succeed his cousin Elizabeth as ruler of England, so in resurrecting Scottish Episcopacy he was moving the Scottish and English churches into closer alignment. His vision of a British Christian Church united in essentials would soon, according to Patterson, become a vision of a reunited universal Christian Church.

Shortly after succeeding to the English throne, James brought to an end the long war with Catholic Spain which had left the English crown heavily in debt. While this peace made good fiscal sense and reflected James’ aversion to war, it was not popular in an England which had become accustomed to viewing Spain as the embodiment of evil. James’ possession of the three British kingdoms (England, Scotland, and Ireland) made him Europe’s leading Protestant ruler, and many looked to him as a potential religious crusader. On the other hand, if he could make peace with Spain, Europe’s leading Catholic power, then surely Europe need not have become embroiled in the bitter confessionally-tinged conflicts which historians examining the first two decades of the 17th century have come to see as nearly inevitable. It is here that Patterson reminds us of the importance of banishing teleology from the study of history. We tend to see most peaceful overtures of the time as doomed because we know that the devastating Thirty Years War (its very name a product of hindsight) would break out in 1618. But they did not seem doomed to James or to many of his contemporaries. Their mistake was assuming that Spain could rein in Catholic hotheads like Ferdinand of Styria (Holy Roman Emperor after 1619) or Maximilian of Bavaria. Likewise, James in the end had little control over the actions of his son-in-law Frederick V of the Palatinate, head of the German Evangelical Union, whose ill-advised acceptance of the Bohemian throne touched off the war.

But Patterson argues that James’ goals involved more than simply peace, as elusive as that turned out to be. Recognizing that religion was “the most volatile and intractable issue” in European politics, he sought a general reunion of all major Christian churches, using the first four councils of the church as a basis for agreement. He was even willing to give the papacy an important role in such a reunited Church, provided the pope did not claim any political powers, such as that of deposing monarchs. This reunited Church would be supranational by definition, and would have to recognize the growth in the powers of autonomous, sovereign states (and their rulers) which had taken place since the Reformation. It would also encompass the Greek Orthodox Church, with which James and George Abbot, his archbishop of Canterbury after 1610, forged ties. James spoke and wrote about this reunion, and patronized scholars, such as Hugo Grotius, Isaac Casaubon, and Pierre du Moulin, who shared in his vision. But one cannot help but wonder whether Patterson reads too much into statements by James that may have been motivated first and foremost by the needs of diplomacy. When assuring Henry IV of France (himself no stranger to religious prevarication) that he would be happy to consider a conversion to Catholicism if the pope would first call a general council including representatives from Protestant churches, James was probably just providing diplomatic cover for the friendly relationship between Catholic France and Protestant Britain, making these ties more palatable to critics in both kingdoms. He could have made such a promise in full confidence that no such council would ever be summoned (and thus he would never face the considerable problem of convincing his own English and Scottish churches to send representatives). But Patterson, ever optimistic, is more inclined to see James as primarily concerned with bringing about this reunion. While not necessarily accepting the label placed on James’ beliefs, this reader was more convinced by the judgment of the Austrian Jesuit Richard Haller, cited by Patterson, that it “has always been customary for heretics to cover up their obstinacy with the demand for a council.”

As the head of Europe’s most important Protestant kingdom, James could exert more influence on Calvinists and (to some extent) Lutherans than on the papacy, and it is in this area that Patterson’s account is more convincing. The French Huguenots’ Synod of Tonneins in 1614 received an emissary from James, who (along with du Moulin, an influential Huguenot pastor) hoped it would, by settling differences among Calvinists, provide the first step toward a union of major Protestant churches. A plan endorsed by James for such a reunion was presented at the synod, but never really got anywhere. James sent a delegation to the better-known (and truly international) Synod of Dort in 1618. This meeting is usually recalled for its condemnation of Arminianism and its use by Maurice of Orange, stadholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, against his domestic rivals, particularly Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, advocate of Holland. Patterson looks beyond the noise generated by these controversial issues to present a more positive view of the synod’s accomplishments, with particular attention to the moderating influence of the English delegation after the Arminians had been driven off. Instead of restating the traditional view of conflict and polarization, Patterson opines that the synod’s decrees were “a moderate expression of a biblical theology which originated in the European-wide Reformation a century earlier.” That may well be, but by firmly condemning Arminianism, the strand of Calvinist thought most likely to appeal to Catholics and Lutherans, the delegates at Dort did not do much for Christian unity.

Patterson also takes the negotiations for a marriage between Charles, prince of Wales and the Infanta Maria of Spain, which blew hot and cold in the late 1610’s and early 1620’s, more seriously than do many historians. On this score few doubt James’ sincerity; it is the motives (or, more precisely, the real willingness) of the Spanish crown which have been questioned. But in Patterson’s account, the negotiations nearly succeeded, with James’ insistence on Spanish help in recovering the Palatinate for his son-in-law Frederick as the final stumbling block. The unannounced visit of Prince Charles and the Duke of Buckingham to Spain in 1623, often treated by historians as a quixotic comedy, becomes in Patterson’s hands a significant gambit. Here, Patterson’s subject is more diplomacy than ecumenicism; James’ reunion plans do not seem to have figured much in the marriage strategy, although a Spanish marriage doubtless would have improved the position of Great Britain’s Catholics.

What one does see, in the discussion of the Spanish marriage negotiations and elsewhere, is Patterson’s thoroughness. He has worked on this book for two decades, and has explored every possible angle, including some that seem rather tangential. In the era of the 180-page monograph so favored by cost-conscious publishers today, scholars will be grateful to Patterson (and Cambridge University Press) for the comprehensiveness of this work. If at times Patterson seems determined to share every detail he has uncovered, or repeats himself unnecessarily, this is nevertheless a book which will define its particular subject for a long time.


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