God's Secretaries The Making of the King James Bible
By Adam Nicolson
Harper Collins Publishers Copyright © 2003 Adam Nicolson All right reserved. ISBN: 0060185163
A poore man now arrived at the Land of Promise
And the LORD magnified Solomon exceedingly in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal maiestie as had not bene on any king before him in Israel.
I Chronicles 29:25
Few moments in English history have been more hungry for the future, its mercurial possibilities and its hope of richness, than the spring of 1603. At last the old, hesitant, querulous and increasingly unapproachable Queen Elizabeth was dying. Nowadays, her courtiers and advisers spent their lives tiptoeing around her moods and her unpredictability. Lurching from one unaddressed financial crisis to the next, selling monopolies to favourites, she had begun to lose the affection of the country she had nurtured for so long. Elizabeth, should have died years before. Most of her great men - Burleigh, Leicester, Walsingham, even the beautiful Earl of Essex, executed after a futile and chaotic rebellion in 1601 - had gone already. She had become a relict of a previous age and her wrinkled, pasteboard virginity now looked more like fruitlessness than purity. Her niggardliness had starved the fountain of patronage on whichthe workings of the country relied and those mechanisms, unoiled by the necessary largesse, were creaking. Her exhausted impatience made the process of government itself a labyrinth of tact and indirection.
The country felt younger and more vital than its queen. Cultural conservatives might have bemoaned the death of old values and the corruption of modern morals (largely from Italy, conceived of as a louche and violent place), but these were not the symptoms of decline. England was full of newness and potential: its population burgeoning, its merchant fleets combing the world, London growing like a hothouse plum, the sons of gentlemen crowding as never before into the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, plants and fruits from all over the world arriving in its gardens and on its tables - but the rigid carapace of the Elizabethan court lay like a cast-iron lid above it. The queen's motto was still what it always had been: Semper eadem, Always the same. She hadn't moved with the times. So parsimonious had she been in elevating men to the peerage that by the end of her reign there were no more than sixty peers in the nobility of England. Scarcely a gentleman had been knighted by the queen for years.
That drought of honours was a symptom of a kind of paralysis, an indecisive rigidity. None of the great issues of the country had been resolved. Inflation had transformed the economy but the Crown was still drawing rents from its properties that had been set in the 1560s. The relationship between the House of Commons and the queen, for all her wooing and flattery, had become angry, tetchy, full of recrimination. The old war against Spain, which had achieved its great triumph of defeating the Armada in 1588, had dragged on for decades, haemorrhaging money and enjoying little support from the Englishmen whose taxes were paying for it. The London and Bristol merchants wanted only one outcome: an end to war, so that trade could be resumed. Religious differences had been buried by the Elizabethan regime: both Roman Catholics, who wanted England to return to the fold of the Roman Church, and the more extreme, 'hotter' Protestants, the Puritans, who felt that the Reformation in England had never been properly achieved, had been persecuted by the queen and her church, fined, imprisoned and executed. Any questions of change, tolerance or acceptance had not been addressed. Elizabeth had survived by ignoring problems or suppressing them and as a result England was a cauldron which had not been allowed to boil. Later history - even in the seventeenth century itself - portrayed Elizabeth's death as a dimming of the brilliance, the moment at which England swopped a heroic, gallant, Renaissance freshness for something more degenerate, less clean-cut, less noble, more self-serving, less dignified. But that is almost precisely the opposite of what England felt at the time. Elizabeth was passé, decayed. A new king, with wife, children (Anne was pregnant with their sixth child) an heir for goodness' sake, a passionate huntsman, full of vigour, a poet, an intellectual of European standing, a new king, a new reign and a new way of looking at the world; of course the country longed for that. Elizabeth's death held out the prospect of peace with Spain, a new openness to religious toleration, and a resolution of the differences between the established church and both Catholics and Puritans. More than we can perhaps realise now, a change of monarch in an age of personal rule meant not only a change of government and policy, but a change of culture, attitude and belief. A new king meant a new world.
James Stuart was an unlikely hero: ugly, restless, red-haired, pale-skinned, his tongue, it was said, too big for his mouth, impatient, vulgar, clever, nervous. But his virtues, learned in the brutal world of Scottish politics, were equal to the slurs of his contemporaries. More than anything else he wanted and believed in the possibilities of an encompassing peace. He adopted as his motto the words from the Sermon on the Mount, Beati Pacifici, Blessed are the Peacemakers, a phrase which, in the aftermath of a European century in which the continent had torn itself apart in religious war, would appear over and over again on Jacobean chimneypieces and carved into oak testers and overmantels, crammed in alongside the dreamed of, wish-fulfilment figures of Peace and Plenty, Ceres with her overbrimming harvests and luscious breasts, Pax embracing Concordia. The Bible that is named after James, and whose translation was authorised by him, was central to his claim on that ideal.
Excerpted from God's Secretaries by Adam Nicolson
Copyright © 2003 by Adam Nicolson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.