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In the Beginning,James.
Orphaned, bullied, lonely, and unloved as a boy, in time theyoung King of Scots overcame his troubled beginnings to ascend the Englishthrone at the height of England’s Golden Age. In an effort to pacify risingtensions in the Anglican Church, and to reflect the majesty of his new reign,he spearheaded the most important literary undertaking in Western history—thetranslation of the Bible into a beautiful, lyrical, and ...
In the Beginning,James.
Orphaned, bullied, lonely, and unloved as a boy, in time theyoung King of Scots overcame his troubled beginnings to ascend the Englishthrone at the height of England’s Golden Age. In an effort to pacify risingtensions in the Anglican Church, and to reflect the majesty of his new reign,he spearheaded the most important literary undertaking in Western history—thetranslation of the Bible into a beautiful, lyrical, and accessible English.
David Teems’s narrative crackles with wit, using athoroughly modern tongue to reanimate the life of this seventeenth centuryking—a man at the intersection of political, literary, and religious thought,yet a man of contrasts, dubbed by one French king as “the wisest fool inChristendom.”
Warm, insightful, even at times amusing, Teems’s depictionof King James has all the elements of a grand tale—conspiracy, kidnapping,witchcraft, murder, love, despair, loss. Majestieoffers an engaging new look at the world’s most cherished, revered, and influentialtranslation of Sacred Writ and the king behind it.
“Engrossing and entertaining…a delightful read inevery way.” – Publishers Weekly
The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. -Tom Clancy
The cool round mouth of a gun presses soft against the queen's belly. Not a bad start for a piece of fiction, but it is hardly the beginning you would expect in the biography of a king. Stephen King, maybe. It could easily be a scene from Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, or even Macbeth, but Shakespeare is only two years old. Still, the odd figure King James makes in history begs such a start.
The truth is, if you spend any time with the Stuarts, you might find yourself staring somewhat dumbfounded at the whole odd tribe, which includes not only our king but also those Stuart kings before him, the "former lions" of his blood (if there actually were any lions-a few hyenas maybe, a jackal, a few toads). One Stuart king, James II of Scotland (1430-1460), was blown up by his own cannon. Another, James IV (1473-1513), "connived at the deposition and murder of his own father." Charles I of England (1600-1649) to this day suffers the distinction of being the only English king executed by the very people he governed. The reality is rather dark, and yet it cannot help but entertain.
Then there's mom and dad.
Considering the parents he had-the lovely but unwise, charming but unlucky Mary Queen of Scots, and her second husband, the dashing, spoiled, rash, overconfident, dangerous, and severely misinformed Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley-while conception is no real surprise, it is a wonder our king survived birth at all.
Historian David Willson gives Darnley (dad) no quarter whatsoever, saying that he was "not only stupid, but vain, insolent, treacherous, and debauched." And either to drown his rages, to ignite them, or to simply dull the agony of being himself, he also drank heavily and frequently.
Willson is not much kinder to Mary (mom). While commending her beauty, her enchantments, her "high spirits and reckless daring, her fondness for war and manly sports, her soaring ambition, and the burning passion of her loves and hates," he also says that as a ruler, she was "beneath contempt. Frivolous, extravagant, careless, emotional, utterly self-centered, lacking in judgment and temper, unmindful of the interests of her country, she looked upon the world largely as it advanced or retarded her personal aspirations."
By the time baby James was ten months old, one parent was dead already-that is, dad-a house blown up with him still in it. He had been convalescing from a complex of ailments, among them syphilis, at the old provost's lodgings in a place called Kirk o' Field,5 a familiar location he chose himself on the outskirts of Edinburgh within the city walls. Other than a few attendants, he was friendless, laid up in a house with a spirit disposed against him, a house that belonged to Robert Balfour, whose brother Darnley had once plotted against.
Those who knew Darnley were surprised he lived as long as he did, that he actually made it to the age of twenty-one. The blast, or so it was thought, deposited him half-naked in the yard, under a pear tree. His valet, William Taylor, lay only a few yards away, his nightshirt bundled around his waist and his head face down on his arms. It was an odd sight that suggested it might not have been the blast that killed them at all.
Either way, Darnley was dead. Somebody made sure of that. There was evidence as well that he was strangled before the house detonated under him. According to one source, Darnley may have suspected some treachery (there were plenty with reason enough to be treacherous), or perhaps smelled the gunpowder and was let down from a window by rope and chair. Either way, there was no formal investigation carried out whatsoever.
Other than his own mother and father, few shed any tears for the syphilitic and inebriate Darnley.
Because he was dead, somebody gained something, somewhere. So now we cry "conspiracy!" That brings us to the other parent.
Bad boys, bad boys
Not long after Henry's death, Mary was taken away and imprisoned at Lochleven. Perhaps marrying the main suspect of Darnley's murder (James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell) three months after the incident was a bad choice. And then only after he abducted and raped her. Of course, less than a month after the alleged rape, Mary created Bothwell Duke of Orkney. (The change in title was a matter of elevation. One was expected to marry closer to one's own altitude. Mary had a thing about height.) They married three days later, on 15 May 1567. Bothwell's divorce from his first wife, Anna Rostung from Norway, had only been finalized eight days before that, on 7 May 1567. Anyway, Mary was pregnant, with little Bothwell twins. With any other family, that might sound strange.
Mary Stuart was one of those unfortunate women who seem to fall for the same kind of guy over and over-the bad boys. The Earl of Bothwell, hardly an improvement over Darnley, was "high in his own conceit, proud, vicious, and vainglorious above measure, one who would attempt anything out of ambition." But Bothwell had only one eye on Mary. The other was on the crown. It is a temptation difficult to manage, or resist. Power, or that sparkle of earthly majestie, is as much the poison as it is the aphrodisiac. It is also a continuing theme in the love life of the Queen of Scots. Her passion, as imperious as it always was, allowed her few options. It always tended to overrule wisdom.
Not long after Darnley's murder, Mary's former mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, understanding the delicate balance of women in high places, and in spite of the chafe between the two of them, wrote to Mary, as did Elizabeth I. Both of them pleaded with her to act, to accuse somebody, somewhere, to make at least a show of vengeance, to put some distance between herself and the murder of her husband. A bit of misdirection, anything. Mary did nothing. Or at least nothing that might have been mistaken for wisdom.
Because she did nothing, the accusations began to spin feverishly around Edinburgh streets. And, of course, the spew was aggravated and exploited by the Scot firebrand John Knox* and his fellow pulpiteers. Any chance they were given, at the faintest slip, they all started barking. One popular image, raised on a placard, was that of a topless mermaid with a crown on her head. Below the mermaid was a hare within a circle of swords. The image was easy enough for the people to understand. The mermaid was a common symbol of a prostitute. The hare was part of the Hepburn (Bothwell's) family crest.
In spite of these follies, and before any harm could come to the infant prince, the Confederate Lords took action against Mary at Carberry Hill, just outside Edinburgh. On their banner was a painting of a half-naked corpse under a pear tree and a small child (representing James) praying. A text read, "Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord."
There was no real action to speak of. Bothwell fled the country. Mary, making a show of arms, dressing up and playing the warrior queen, was apprehended and imprisoned. Being led through the Edinburgh streets, as she was, a vindictive mob cried out, "Burn the whore!" Not long after that, Mary was forced to abdicate her throne, and sign a voluntary demission, surrendering her crown to her son.
Of course, to say Mary was imprisoned needs a bit of explaining. It wasn't prison life as we might imagine, with the usual foul language, metal food trays, and the orange jumpsuit. She was confined nonetheless. Lochleven was accessible only by water, which made it a kind of Alcatraz. But that is where the comparison ends. Lochleven was a castle, and with but a few exceptions, Mary enjoyed all the amenities of her station.
She had serving maids and men to attend her. Her rooms were decked with tapestries, and golden chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Her chairs were upholstered with crimson velvet and cloth of gold. She slept in a large canopied state bed. Her sheets were linen, and were changed daily. As recorded in her household accounts, she enjoyed two courses at dinner and supper. Each course included sixteen separate dishes. That is thirty-two dishes at each meal, sixty-four each day.
As the years went on, and the imprisonment took on a greater severity, she was denied these excesses. And the official word was not "imprisoned" but "secluded." This was the beginning of Mary's long and tragic career as political chess piece, convenient to the Spanish, to the French, to select Englishmen, to Rome, even to the Scots, to the benefit of all, except for Mary herself.
James was eleven months old at the time. He would never see his mother again. Some might say this was to his good fortune. One can only speculate what being raised by the Macbeths might have been like, or what kind of prince might have crept out from beneath their shadow. Still, ask any mother what she thinks.
Beautiful, but shy of harness
To be fair, Mary didn't always go for the bad boys. Her childhood promised something altogether different. Henry II, the king of France, said once, "The little queen of Scots is the most perfect child that I have ever seen." By an arrangement made by Henry when Mary was six years old, she was, at fifteen, married to Francis Valois (the Dauphin of France). As a matchmaker, Henry's motives were more strategic than anything else. With Mary's claim to the English throne, he saw the making of a Franco-British empire.
Francis was fourteen. Two years later, Henry II died and Francis became Francis II, King of France. Mary was now queen consort of France. She had been crowned queen of Scots at nine months old at the death of her father, the debauchee, James V, who never saw his child, dying, as he did, six days after she was born. He was heartsick that she was not a boy. "The Devil go with it!" he prophesied, "It will end as it began. It came from a woman and it will end in a woman." He was right. The House of Stuart, a line of Scottish and English monarchs, began with Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce (Robert I of Scotland) and ended with Anne of Great Britain, covering a span of more than three hundred years (1371-1707).
Little Mary became marriage goods. Having eyes for Scotland, Henry VIII wanted to secure Mary for his son Edward. But Henry never really had a way with women in spite of his series on HBO. Mary's mother hid her the best she could, eventually sending her to France to be contracted to the Dauphin.
Francis and Mary were happy together. Mary was abnormally tall. Francis was abnormally short. She was articulate. He stuttered. She was older than Francis. It was the kind of marital dynamic Mary seemed to thrive in. All the dominoes, all the little tricks of fortune fell right and pleasant for them. Life seemed to glow with a nimbus of soft light, that is, until Francis died of an abscess in his ear two years after being crowned king. Mary and her mother-in-law were not friendly at all. There was too much bristle between them, so Mary went back home to Scotland, a country she truly despised.
She was nineteen, experienced, widowed, and quite Catholic, about to rule a hostile, fragmented, complaining, and quite unCatholic Scotland. Alison Weir describes the Scots at the time as "a proud and tenacious people. Foreign visitors praised them as courageous warriors, but also found them to be uncouth and lawless, hostile to strangers and inordinately quarrelsome. Their way of life was seen as primitive." Scotland was not France.
But there was always a touch of wild about the Queen of Scots. Perhaps it was the return to her native Scotland that set it loose. Like the legend of England's Arthur, perhaps the spirit of the land was not so different from that of its true queen-beautiful, but shy of harness.
A young Jane Austen, most sympathetic to the Queen of Scots, refers to the "openness of her heart" that got her in trouble, and kept her in trouble. Like her son, Mary is a writer's dream, and her story as well seems to straddle that divide between fiction and nonfiction.
Though I use the word delicately, they were crazy for each other. At least for a very short but enthusiastic season. She was twenty-three. Darnley was nineteen. Both were lovely. Both were tall. Height was important to Mary. At five feet eleven inches, she was taller than just about everybody. Darnley was six feet one inch. Some sources add another inch or two. He had big blue eyes and full lips. Mary once said of Darnley that he was "the lustiest and best proportioned long [tall] man that she had ever seen."
Others didn't speak of him with quite the ardor the queen did, but nonetheless they described him as attractive, that he "resembled more a woman than a man. For he was handsome, beardless, and ladyfaced." Alison Weir describes Darnley as "astoundingly good looking."
Both Mary and Henry were passionate. Both were attractive. And like Shakespeare's Juliet, Mary had the power and the brains between them. She would have fared much better had she possessed wisdom to season her intelligence. Her luck turned out to be no better than Juliet's.
Her decision to marry Darnley, like most everything she did, was also counter to the wishes of her cousin Elizabeth, who kept tabs on everything Mary did.
In spite of the soft insistence of Mary's ambassador, Maitland, Elizabeth never formally declared the Queen of Scots heir to the English throne. And you can't blame her. A "second," that is, the next in line, the immediate heir, can be dangerous. Most of Europe considered Mary Stuart's own claim to the English throne stronger than Elizabeth's. Indeed, they considered Mary the true queen. A papal bull issued in 1570 didn't help. This document excommunicated Elizabeth and threatened English Catholics with the same excommunication if they maintained allegiance to the "pretended" queen, the "heretic and favourer of heretics" Elizabeth. Not to mention this bull endangered her life, and with the promise of reward.
Elizabeth never let Mary out of her sight (figuratively speaking, of course, for the two never met in real life).
But if Mary had more power and brains than Darnley, Elizabeth had more than both of them, and guarded her own possession (the throne of England) with care, with savvy, and, of course, with the collective skills of Francis Walsingham and William Cecil.
Elizabeth forbad Mary to marry Darnley. After all, like Mary, Darnley had some claim to the English throne as well, and would only strengthen the Queen of Scots' bid. This particular ban, like many that Mary suffered from Elizabeth, went unheeded. Ruled more by her passions, she did as she pleased. The illusion of power was much stronger than her ability to command it, as the English queen did. Elizabeth even sent an old friend and somewhat reluctant Robert Dudley to Scotland as a suitor to Mary. With Dudley as husband, Elizabeth thought, she could have an accurate accounting of her capricious northern queen. She always called Dudley her "eyes."
Excerpted from Majestie by David Teems Copyright © 2010 by David Teems. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 27, 2012
Posted October 5, 2011
I really enjoyed learning about King James and the making of the KJB. It reads more like a novel and is filled with interesting facts. As Publishers Weekly says, "A delightful read in every way." I totally agree.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 23, 2011
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Posted February 18, 2011
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