NQ Scottish History

Personal Rule of James VI

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The first six or seven years of the personal rule of James VI, 1585–1592, was a period of relative peace between the monarch and the Kirk. Relations between James VI and the Kirk appear to have deteriorated after 1592, culminating in open conflict in 1596, but from 1597 James VI asserted his authority over the Kirk with the consent of the majority of ministers. At the same time, the extreme Presbyterians or ‘Melvillians’ (as they are known by later generations) were marginalised.

A constant source of friction between James VI and the Kirk was his unwillingness to take firm and decisive action against the Catholics in Scotland. Nevertheless, relations between the monarch and the Kirk improved in 1589. In that year the king took action against the Catholic nobles who rebelled in March 1589. Then James VI married a Protestant princess, Anna, a daughter of the Danish king. In 1590 James VI addressed the General Assembly and received a long ovation from the ministers and lay members present.

The Melvillians wanted to subject the monarch to the authority of the Kirk. These extreme Presbyterians wanted a theocracy where the Kirk would rule over all religious, social and political matters. James VI considered himself to be head of the Kirk and this brought him into conflict with the Melvillians.

James VI believed in the divine right of monarchs to rule. In The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) James VI set out his view that since monarchs were ordained by God no human institutions could restrain a monarch’s powers. He believed that tyrants must be endured as they are imposed by God, and God alone can punish tyrants. This belief conflicted with the Melvillians’ views as they believed that the monarch was just an ordinary member of the Kirk and not the head or ruler of the Kirk. Some Protestants believed it was their religious duty to assassinate tyrants.

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The so-called ‘Golden Act’ (1592) recognised the recovery of Presbyterian influence within the Kirk but it did not reduce the power of the monarch. The term ‘Golden Act’ was coined in the 17th century, probably to contrast this law with the Black Acts (1584).

James VI was determined to extend the power of monarch and the bishops over the Kirk, and he sought to have bishops recognised as moderators of Presbyteries and for their power to be extended to cases of excommunication and the deposition of ministers. Presbyteries could hear appeals from Kirk Sessions, delegate commissioners to General Assemblies, examine candidates for the ministry, visit parishes and approve schoolmasters. Elders were excluded from Presbyteries and the monarch had the power to say where and when General Assemblies would meet.

In 1594, pressure from England and the rebellion of the Catholic Earl of Huntly forced James VI to act. A military expedition forced the Earls of Huntly and Errol to flee abroad and James VI agreed that they should not be allowed to return without the king’s permission, subject to the Kirk’s approval. However, in 1596 both earls returned without permission and the king refused to act. A religious riot in December of that year forced James VI to flee from Edinburgh but this event only strengthened the king’s resolve to exercise greater authority over the Kirk.

James VI insisted that the General Assembly should meet in Perth or Aberdeen, where he could expect more support from the ministers present. James VI attended every General Assembly from 1597 to 1603.

In 1597 Andrew Melville was deposed as rector of St Andrews and in 1600 James VI appointed three bishops to parliament. In 1598 James VI published The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, in which he argued that a monarch is directly appointed by God and, as such, cannot be held accountable to any earthly power, including the Kirk. In his Basilikon Doron (1599) James VI advised his son to allow no meetings of the Kirk without his approval.