Queer Kings & Queens: Was James I & VI gay?

The sexuality of King James VI of Scotland & I of England has been long debated by historians. He is long held as an example of an openly gay king parading his lovers for all the court to see. Meanwhile, his passionate love letters to his ‘male favourites’ are held up by those who disagree as an example of how language between men was more affectionate than we are used to in the modern day. Accepting that he was gay, however, contributes to the trend of erasing bisexual people in history. James may have had relationships with men but we would be remiss to overlook the fact that his wife had nine pregnancies by him.

Did he have relationships with men though, or was James just particularly affectionate with his favourites? After all, most kings in history have favourites that they elevated without having their relationship or sexuality questioned. So what is it about James that raises these questions?

James had an unusual upbringing and an even more unusual early reign. He was born to Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Before James was a year old, his father had been murdered, possibly by Mary who was then forced to abdicate for (among other things) her potential role in said murder. As he turned a year old, he was taken from his mother and would never see her again. At just thirteen months old, he was proclaimed King of Scotland and entrusted to a regent, one of four before he became King in his own right aged thirteen. That is not to say that at thirteen he was free to rule without influence. The early years of his reign were dominated by the first of his so-called male favourites, Esme Stewart. A relationship that alienated the Scottish nobility to the point that they went so far as to kidnap the king to separate them. 

Esme Stewart, Duke of Lennox

Twenty four years the senior to King James, his cousin Esme Stewart was born and spent most of his life in France. Esme belonged to a specific line of Scottish nobility that had been long honoured by the King of France and mostly kept to their French estates. He inherited his father’s title, Seigneur d’Aubigny, married and had five children before he visited Scotland to witness the young King James’ formal accession as an adult ruler. 

James was only thirteen years old and had been praised for his chastity seeing as he seemed to have little interest in philandering and instead sought the company of young men. Something which was considered a positive in the boy. All this changed however when he was introduced to his thirty-seven year old cousin, Esme, and instantly became infatuated. 

James VI (right) painted with his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. This painting shows James three years after he met Esme Stewart.

Within a short time, Esme was the established favourite at James’ court. The young James showered him with affection and honours and didn’t keep it private. In public, he was known to act ‘amorously’ embracing Esme, and kissing him whenever he could. He showered him with gifts, among them some of the jewels that had belonged to his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. One of the jewels was known as the ‘Great H of Scotland’. Comprised of a large diamond and a ruby on a gold chain, the jewel had been made from the Crown Jewels of France as a gift to Mary. She wore it on her wedding day to the Dauphin of France, was allowed to keep it after his death, and we mention it here because it’ll be significant later. 

Among other honours, James created Esme Earl of Lennox and then Duke of Lennox, which made Esme the only Duke in Scotland, invoking the ire of the other lords who resented the sudden rise of a man who also held allegiances in France. The same lords feared that Esme’s influence might affect the king politically or convert the king to Catholicism. Even when Esme converted to Protestantism the rumours persisted to the point that James eventually issued a statement denying them. He said nothing, however, of the ‘carnal behaviour between them’ that also dominated any news of the court. By that point, Esme’s position was so well known that Queen Elizabeth of England had a personal correspondence with him. 

A portrait of Esme Stewart painted after his death

In August 1582, the lords who had opposed Esme’s rise gathered together calling themselves the ‘Lords Enterprisers’ and endeavoured to separate the two lovers. Surprisingly, they succeeded. In what’s now known as the ‘Raid of Ruthven’, James went out hunting and was offered a place in Ruthven Castle to rest. When he tried to leave the following day, he found his way barred. Thus began a year of imprisonment. The Lords kept him under guard and ensured there was a standing force to fight off any attempt made by Esme to rescue him. 

During their separation, James and Esme managed to establish a secret line of communication and exchanged letters in which James held out continuing hope of rescue. For his part, Esme was never able to gather together the support necessary to take on the force guarding the king. In the meantime, the Lords Enterprisers bombarded James with reasons why Esme should not hold the position and affection that he did. One of the bishops involved berated the king so harshly during a service that James burst into tears. 

In September 1582, James was forced to denounce Esme and banish him to France. The Lords Enterprisers maintained their control over James (and kept him there for a further eight months) and told him to expect Esme to convert back to Catholicism as soon as he returned home. Esme made sure to return the Great H of Scotland before he left in January 1583. James later had the component jewels broken down and recast as ‘The Mirror of Great Britain’ making it one of the very first elements of the British Crown Jewels. 

The two maintained their correspondence though, which bemoaned the enforced distance and continued to declare their mutual love however the exchange was brief. Having remained a Protestant, much to the chagrin of the French, the Lords Enterprisers, and his wife, Esme fell suddenly ill. His death came so quickly, the Scottish court sent out messengers to discern whether it was a rumour or not. For his part, Esme commanded that his heart be delivered to James but not immediately because he knew how badly the news would be taken. The embalmed heart found its way to the king some weeks later, without the knowledge of Esme’s widow, a fitting tribute to all the very many times Esme had signed that his heart belonged only ever to James.  

James wearing ‘The Mirror of Britain’ on his hat

Unsurprisingly, James was devastated and in response to the loss composed a poem; ‘Ane Tragedie of the Phoenix’. The poem is significant for several reasons. For a start, Scotland didn’t have a reputation for literary excellence. Or literary anything for that matter. Scotland was not a Renaissance court, there were no notable artistic or literary patrons blazing a trail and attracting other masters of their craft. When James produced the poem, he was the first to set a trend and actually establish himself as a literary figure. 

In Phoenix, James goes all out in lamenting the loss of Esme. That the poem is about Esme Stewart is undeniable. The prologue is written as a double acrostic with the first and last letter of every line spelling ‘ESME STEWART, DUKE’ (albeit ‘DUKE’ is spelt with the usual lack of uniformity typical to the period). The reader is then told the tale of a beautiful Phoenix who is driven away from the narrator by other birds who envy her beauty. She dies soon after and the narrator is left with nothing but sexually suggestive imagery and ashes. Incidentally, in the aftermath of Esme’s death, James sent for a casket that he knew Esme kept all their letters in. What he didn’t know, was that after his death, Esme had ordered the contents of the casket burned. When James opened it, the only thing inside was ash.

The prologue of Ane Tragedie of the Phoenix demonstrating the acroustic spelling out Esme’s name

Anne of Denmark

As to the causes, I doubt not it is manifestly known to all how far I was generally found fault with by all men for the delaying of so long of my marriage. The reasons were that I was alone, without father, or mother, brother or sister, King of this realm and heir apparent in England. This my nakedness made me to be weak and my enemies strong. One man was no man, and the want of hope of succession bred disdain. Yes, my long delay bred in the breasts of many a great jealousy of my inability as if I were a barren stock. These reasons and innumerable other, hourly objected, move me to hasten the treaty of my marriage; for as to my own nature, God is my witness I could have abstained longer than the weal of my country could have permitted. I am known, God be praised, not to be intemperately rash nor flighty in my weightiest affairs, neither use I to be so carried away with passion as I refuse to hear reason.

A letter from James I addressed to the people of Scotland regarding his marriage

Inevitably, James had to contract a marriage and his choice of bride fell to Protestant Europe. In 1589, the twenty three year old James was betrothed to fourteen year old Anne of Denmark. They were married by proxy in the same year, though James’ relationship with the Duke of Lennox as well as his sexual preferences were hidden from his new bride. 

Anne set off for Scotland shortly after the proxy marriage but repeated storms drove them back and prevented the crossing. In Scotland, James didn’t know if his bride had even survived the bad weather and called for national fasting and prayer. He sent out search parties and twelve days later one of his lords reported that he had seen Anne’s ship but had been separated from it by another storm. It took another month before a letter from Anne reached James explaining that she had taken refuge in Norway and would attempt to make the journey again in Spring the following year. 

Undeterred, James set off himself, sailing to Norway to retrieve Anne in person. He arrived in Oslo and met Anne on the 19th November, eighty-eight days after Anne attempted to make the initial journey. They were married in Oslo four days later, by a Scottish lord who conducted the service in French so it could be understood by both parties. The newly-weds remained on the continent for a further month, visiting Anne’s family and attending the wedding of her sister, Elizabeth, before they returned to Scotland for the New Year. 

Their relationship went through periods of loving affection and bouts of hostile antagonism. In the early years, James was a considerate husband and supported Anne when pressure began to mount on the couple to produce an heir. The first years of the marriage remained childless but in 1594, five years after the wedding, Anne was delivered of their first son. In total, Anne and James had seven children together but only three survived to adulthood. Anne suffered three miscarriages, one of which was brought on during an argument with her husband, which permanently damaged their relationship. 

Anne of Denmark painted shortly before she and James began living separately

While Anne was pregnant with their first child, James is thought to have taken a lover in an affair that might have lasted two years. He wrote poems lamenting the absence of his mistress who has been identified as Anne Murray, one of his wife’s ladies in waiting. These two brief poems are the only evidence of the affair and as such are the only reason the affair is consigned to a paragraph about Anne of Denmark rather than a section alone. We can’t even say for certain that the lover was Anne Murray, only that he mentions a ‘Lady Glammis’ in one of the poems and Murray’s husband’s title was Lord Glamis. With the exception of his wife, this is the only apparent instance of James’ involvement with a woman.

When James was invited to take the throne of England in 1603, he did so immediately and without Anne by his side. She followed later but the two lived largely separate lives. From 1607, the two didn’t share a residence let alone a bed. Some suggest this was because Anne had recently miscarried and lost their youngest child. She felt as though she had done her duty as a wife even as she continued in her duty as a queen. Others use the observations of Anne’s chaplain that James was “chaste” and Anne couldn’t stir him to engage in their bed, to suggest that the two were simply a bad match in the bedroom. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the two broke off any kind of sexual relationship in 1607, the same year that James met a certain Robert Carr. 

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset

Robert Carr was a minor gentleman who accompanied the Scottish court to England when James acceded the throne. Four years later, a tournament was held to celebrate his accession in which Carr participated. During the event, he was thrown from his horse and broke his leg as he landed. The king sent his personal physicians to attend him which wasn’t considered strange, as the man had been injured at the king’s tournament. It also wasn’t unusual for the king to visit him once during his recovery. Repeated visits raised a few eyebrows but when he decided to take it upon himself to teach Carr Latin, those who may have seen the relationship with Esme Stewart probably started panicking. 

From that point on, the two were inseparable. In no time at all, Carr was established as the king’s favourite and was given almost every title that James could throw at him. In the following seven years Carr was created a gentleman of the bedchamber, Viscount Rochester, Knight of the Garter, Privy Councillor, Lord Treasurer of Scotland, Earl of Somerset, Lord Chamberlain, Keeper of the Privy Seal, and Secretary of State for England. That is to say nothing of the grants of land, jewels, and minor honours. 

His infatuation with Carr and Carr’s responding affection alienated the King’s court and his family. James’ relationship with his wife deteriorated and she was known to openly hate and denounce Carr. His relationship with his son and heir also became strained as James devoted his entire attention to the man “whom he loved above all men living.” 

Although he was happy to reap the rewards of every position James was prepared to throw at him, Carr simply didn’t have the capacity to actually execute them. Considering that he was the most powerful man next to the king, it offered considerable opportunities for other courtiers to undermine him when he eventually and inevitably screwed up. To prevent against this, Carr hired an assistant who was better suited to the administration work than he was. In what was not the most sensible decision of his life, Carr hired his lover. But, wait! I pretend to hear you cry in disbelief, wasn’t the king his lover? Yes, yes he was. But unbeknownst to James, he was not the sole occupier of Carr’s affections. When he’d met James, he was engaged in at least two other relationships with men and he’d maintained one of those relationships even after establishing himself in the king’s bed. 

Robert Carr in 1611, the year of his creation as Viscount Rochester

The gentleman in question, Thomas Overbury, was discreet but apparently not discreet enough. The king became jealous of the two and in April 1613, suggested that Overbury might be better suited to an administrative position in a foreign court. The furthest he could possibly have been sent was Russia and guess where James wanted him to go? Overbury declined and found himself in the Tower for his refusal. Fearing for his life, Overbury began a stream of communication with Carr asking him to secure his release. As the months passed, Overbury became increasingly desperate and his letters took a more threatening turn. Overbury suggested to Carr that it would be in his best interests to have him released before he could tell the king everything Carr had revealed over the last eight years in bed together. I’ll point out, that this isn’t an example of flowery language or paraphrasing. He quite specifically refers to the secrets Carr had revealed while sharing a bed with Overbury, his lover.

After months of imprisonment, Overbury wrote to Carr and informed him that he had documented everything he should probably never have been told, sealed it, and handed it to a trusted friend who had specific instructions on when to reveal it depending on what happened to Overbury next. 

After five months in the Tower, Overbury died. Carr was thrown into a panicked frenzy and immediately began a search for the letter that potentially damned him. As it happens, he was damned anyway. An investigation into Overbury’s death revealed that he’d been poisoned and it was quickly determined the culprit was Carr’s wife, Frances Howard. Frances was a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, part of the most powerful of courtly families, and she could be the subject of books and analysis herself. For our purposes though, it’s enough to say that she hated Overbury which you may have picked up from her murder of him. 

Even though the evidence suggested that Carr was unaware of the plot, he was inevitably implicated through his involvement with both the victim and the murderer. His protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears among courtiers who had been long waiting for Carr to slip up. Carr’s fall from favour was swift and complete. Even James thought he was guilty and wrote him letters urging him to confess. If he confessed, James could pardon him and the affair could be put to rest. This likely didn’t come from a place of concern for his lover, so much as a fear of being implicated himself. It had been James who had put Overbury in the Tower in the first place, and he likely didn’t want any connection with the sordid plot not even by inference. 

During Carr’s trial, Overbury’s letters were used as evidence, if not of murder then at the very least dereliction of duty and abuse of the trust put in him by the king. Had Carr been cleared of any involvement in the murder he would still have been ruined by this evidence against him. As it happens, he was found guilty though later his charges would be reduced and he was ruled an accessory after the fact rather than having any actual involvement in the poisoning. He, Frances, and four others that had been recruited by Frances were found guilty and sentenced to death. The four were hanged but James commuted Carr and Frances’ sentence to imprisonment in the Tower before eventually allowing them to retire to their estate. 

In the aftermath, Carr and James exchanged many letters but the relationship was done. The two met one last time for a final leave taking and despite some passionate kissing, the two would never contact or see each other again. For James, there was no lamenting the loss of a great love. He had in fact, already moved on. 

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham

In 1614, James was on progress and stayed at Apethorpe Hall where his eye was caught by twenty-one year old George Villiers. Villiers was minor gentry. His father was a successful sheep farmer and provincial Knight, but despite these inauspicious beginnings, Villiers served as an immediate focal point for the dissatisfied nobles who opposed Carr’s position at court. Carr saw it for what it was and immediately moved to block any attempt to put Villiers at court but the rival faction could afford to be patient. They gathered support, including that of the reluctant queen, and bankrolled a whole new wardrobe for Villiers. They placed him at court, allowing him to show off his excellent dancing skills, and the queen secured him a position as Gentleman of the Bedchamber. It was a happy and convenient coincidence that as Villiers arrived at court in 1615, Carr was falling out of favour. 

James was quickly enamoured and he wasn’t the only one. There are several documented instances of courtiers becoming smitten with Villiers, and at least four Bishops wrote down their feelings for him. William Laud, who would go on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in his diary several instances where he fantasized or dreamed about Villiers. 

That night, in my sleep, it seemed to me that the Duke of Buckingham came into bed to me, where he behaved himself with great kindness towards me. After that rest, wherwith wearied persons are wont to solace themselves. Many also seemed to me to enter the chamber who saw this

Extract from the diary of Rev. William Laud

As with Esme and Carr before him, Villiers saw a relatively rapid rise in power and position. His appointment as Gentleman of the Bedchamber was followed by that of Master of Horse, then Baron Whaddon, Viscount Villiers, Knight of the Garter, Earl of Buckingham, Marquess of Buckingham, and finally, Duke of Buckingham in 1623. His elevation to the dukedom made him the only Duke in England who wasn’t a royal in his own right. He was also granted other positions including a seat on the Privy Councils of England and Scotland, and Lord High Admiral. 

Villiers repaid the faith shown in him by actually excelling in the positions he was given. He completely overhauled the British Navy and unlike Carr, promoted family rather than other lovers, into positions of prominence. Naturally, this drew the disaffection of other courtiers and the fall of the Howard family for their association with the poisoning of Overbury cemented Villiers’ family as the dominant power at court. Villiers however, doesn’t seem to have fallen into the trap of abusing the king’s trust or taking his favour for granted. He remained affectionate and loving towards the king throughout their lives together. At times, this was a cause for embarrassment for the court who never quite got used to the excessive displays of affection between the king and his young favourite. James was a little over twenty five years older than Villiers and heading for his sixties which made their displays distasteful to those who witnessed them. 

Villiers painted in the year of James’ death

The catalogue of letters that passed between Villiers and James demonstrate a range of nicknames between them. “My dear, sweet child.” “Sweet boy.” “Steenie,” (one of James’ nicknames for Villiers, based on St Stephen who was said to have the ‘face of an angel’). “Dad.” “Gossip.” But two instances of particular note, are firstly the many, many times Buckingham calls himself James’ ‘dog.’ 

The sexual connotations cannot be overlooked especially when he refers to himself as a dog specifically in bed with James. His most common sign off in his letters was “Your Majestie’s most humble slave and dog,” which has far more sexual connotations than the usual sign off of ‘servant’. The second nickname we can’t ignore is when they refer to each other as husbands. Some of their letters actually consider the implications of what they mean by this, exploring the idea that their love, the love between a man and a man, might be more pure than that than could exist between a man and a woman. 

I shall lose no time in hastening their conjunction in which I shall please him, her, you, and myself most of all, in thereby getting liberty to make the speedier haste to lay myself at your feet; for never none longed more to be in the arms of his mistress. So craving your blessing I end.

Your humble slave and dog,

Steenie

Letter to James from Villiers, dated early March 1623

Their relationship continued in this way until James’ death in 1625. They practically lived in each other’s bedchambers and recent work at Apethorpe Hall discovered a previously unknown passageway that linked the king’s chambers to Villiers’. There are conflicting reports of where Villiers was when James died. Some say he was in France on a diplomatic mission though it’s more likely he was at the king’s bedside nursing him through his final illness. Given that Villiers’ trips abroad were few, far between, and usually against James’ wishes, it’d be reasonable to go with the stories of Villiers holding the king’s hand and being the last thing that he saw before he departed this life. 

Did James I & VI have sexual relations with men?

There is a large body of historical thought that insists that these relationships with men were standard for the time. For years, many historians have maintained that James’ language in his letters to his male favourites was flowery but typical. They also point to James’ detractors who never resorted to accusing the king of ‘sodomy’ and that James, a staunch Protestant, condemned what he considered a “horrible crime which ye are bound in conscience never to forgive.”

This would seem to be evidence enough that James couldn’t possibly have been involved in homosexual relations, but it rests heavily on the assumption that a relationship between two men intrinsically involved penetrative sex. This, of course, isn’t the case, and it involves far less mental gymnastics to suggest that James condemned sodomy and had sex with men than it does to absolve him of it altogether. If we want to do this for James, there are several facts that need to be explained away:

  • He was openly, physically affectionate with his ‘male favourites’ to the point where his court was embarrassed. The court frequently referred to their passionate kisses, embraces, and carnal behaviour.
  • He practically lived with his favourites in his own bedchamber where they also slept, in his bed. 
  • He wrote numerous letters in which he extolled the virtues of his men-friends. This included their looks, physical attributes, and how excellently formed their man-parts were.
  • He referred to his final ‘just good friend’ as his husband.
  • He lived with these men rather than his wife. 
  • His letters to these men and the poems he dedicated to them are absolutely filled with erotic imagery and sexual references. 
  • He walked around with portraits of these men beside his heart, claiming that he loved them above all others living, and gifted them portraits of himself in return.
  • By his own admission, he delayed his marriage for as long as possible and could have delayed it forever except for his obligation to secure his line.

Many, many historians have suggested that all of the above can be explained as standard masculine affection though I would argue that if even one of those points had existed between the king and another woman then we would not be trying to determine the specifics of their relationship. We would assume she was the man’s mistress and indeed, James’ favourites, wielded power in the same way a mistress did at court, more so even because as men they were able to hold positions in their own right. 

But the real point I want to end on is that the entirety of James’ relationships with men are reduced to overt friendliness but nothing more despite the excessive, and it is excessive, evidence to the contrary. However, the man wrote one poem referencing his love for ‘Lady Glammis’ and an entire love affair complete with sex has been assumed, and a mistress identified, from nothing more than these few words. Regardless of whether you consider James I & VI gay, bisexual, or anything on the LGBTQ+ rainbow, the double standard when looking at his concrete relationships with men versus a potential reference to Anne Murray is obvious. 

4 thoughts on “Queer Kings & Queens: Was James I & VI gay?

  1. IMO, as with Edward II and his illegitimate son, the evidence connecting James to a mistress is a more reliable indication of his orientation than the pregnancies of their respective wives. After all, a king needs to have children by his wife to secure the succession, but a mistress (or a bastard child) is not required.

  2. James’s dad, Henry, was homosexual and his son Charles was probably homosexual… There’s nothing wrong with being gay… There’s a lot wrong with letting your lovers run the Navy when they haven’t got a clue, though…

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