Book review: The Wisest Fool, by Steven Veerapen

Steven Veerapen PIC: Kirsty Anderson
Steven Veerapen PIC: Kirsty Anderson

James VI of Scotland and I of England lacks the glamour of some of the other Stewart, later Stuart, monarchs. He is not a Romantic figure and his life wasn’t tragic, so he has had less attention from writers. But he was more interesting than his mother Mary and his son Charles I, and at least as interesting as any of the five Jameses before him, and he was to my mind the most successful of the Stuart kings. Years after he had inherited the English crown and removed to London, he said that he governed Scotland with his pen more easily than his predecessors had done with the sword; and so indeed he did.

It was a cousin, Henry IV of France, who called him “the wisest fool in Christendom”, a clever gibe – memorable enough for Steven Veerapen to take it as the sub-title of this intelligent, well-researched sympathetic and admirably readable biography – but it is one of these snappy epigrams which is not even half-true. James wasn’t always wise, but he was intelligent; he was sometimes silly, but not a fool.

He was the best-educated king either Scotland or England has ever had. This was thanks to his tutor, the great Humanist George Buchanan. Buchanan, a slippery customer himself and a historian who was both brilliant and dishonest, was a harsh master, but a great teacher. Buchanan taught him that his mother, Mary, was a wicked woman complicit in the murder of her husband Darnley, the young king’s father. James, a king when still a baby, had a miserable and often frightening childhood. The only person who seems to have been sympathetic was his paternal grandfather, the Earl of Lennox. James would give his sons Lennox names, Henry and Charles. He grew up craving affection, but unlike many who are emotionally needy – his great-uncle Henry VII for instance – he gave affection to others, to his wife, Anne of Denmark, his children and to the young men he fell in love with in middle-age.

It took him years to establish his authority in Scotland over scoundrelly and vicious nobles and over the bigots of the Kirk, but he managed it. As a young man he feared witchcraft and wrote a book about the dangers of demonology, but later he saw sense, deplored witch trials and concluded that most professed witches were only silly, deluded old women.

Unlike most kings of the time he was a man of peace. He ended England’s expensive and unnecessary war with Spain, and later had the good sense to keep his kingdoms out of the terrible war which would last for 30 years. Then, though he had difficulties with Parliaments, these were no more than Elizabeth had had in the last years of her reign. To James we owe the Authorised Version of the Bible, and his Court, if disorderly, was also a promoter of culture, notably the theatre and painting. He made mistakes of course, as all governments do. The Plantation of Ulster, which created troubles that still simmer today, was one, though the transfer there of some of the wildest Border clans contributed to the pacification of the old Anglo-Scottish border.

I don’t think the English ever quite understood him or, indeed, he them. He had little of the dignity on which the Tudor monarchs had insisted. He spoke loosely and ambled about the palace telling stories and making jokes while sipping wine (too much and too often in his later years.) But he was very human, often impatient and careless in speech. For all that, he was generally a canny politician who, unlike all the Stuarts except his grandson Charles II, knew when to give way.

He was the only monarch of either Scotland or England who can be called an intellectual and the only one of our kings and queens who might have been a university professor (and indeed he called himself “the schoolmaster of the realm.”) But I have long thought that in his unbuttoned humanity he might in a very different life have been a Scots comic like Will Fyffe or Chic Murray, a man easy to laugh at and with. Steven Veerapen has done the old boy justice. This is a very engaging book.

The Wisest Fool, by Steven Veerapen, Birlinn, £25