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on the whole so free from vice of every description, that
even that ' good old-gentlemanly vice,' avarice, could not
be imputed to him, inasmuch as he gave away all he got
or rather took, with that profusion of generosity which
men are so apt to display in giving away what belongs to
other people.

Although some evidence respecting the darker features
of King James's character was not accessible when Hume
wrote his history, there was evidence enough accessible to
Hume to give the lie direct to the character which he has
drawn of James. Most of the letters published by Lord
Hailes, which disclose some of the most repulsive features

' Some remarkable cases of this kind are printed in Pitcairn's Criminal
Trials in Scotland. Of one of these cases, remarkable for its atrocity, Mr.
Pitcairn says : * Had mention been made of this fact in any private corres-
pondence of the period, or in contemporary memoirs or annals, it would
have been at once discredited by all, as an unprincipled libel on the character
of our British Solomon j ' iii. 359.

HUME. 171

of King James's character, were printed from the MSS. in
the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh, of which Hume was
librarian. He says, in his short autobiography : 'In 1752,
the Faculty of Advocates chose me their librarian, an
office from which I received little or no emolument, but
which gave me the command of a large library. I tlien
formed the plan of writing the history of England.' It
appears from his own statement that Hume wrote the
portion of his history of England which extended from
the accession of the House of Stuart to the death of
Charles I. in about two years — a period of time quite in-
adequate for the examination of the materials which were
then accessible, even if the writer had come to that ex-
amination with an unbiassed mind, which Hume, from
his own account, does not appear to have done. For he
says he thought the accession of the House of Stuart ' an
epoch when the misrepresentation of faction began chiefly
to take place.'

When we recollect that Adam Smitli has described his
friend David Hume as approaching as nearly to the idea
of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature
of human frailty will permit, we can only account for the
manner in which Hume has di-awn the character of James I.
by supposing that its darker and more repulsive features
may have appeared to him to require more conclusive
evidence for belief in them than was accessible, at least
to a man of his indolent habits, when he wrote his history;
and that Hume moreover was, as I have said, though an
active and fertile thinker, an indolent reader.



If the contrast is great between David Hume the
philosopher and David Hume the historian, great also is
the contrast between Walter Scott the novelist and
Walter Scott the historian. For in a historian something
more is requisite than a power, however absolute, over
words. Such a power is quite distinct from the power of
evolving truth out of a complicated mass of evidence.
And if it should be said that Sir Walter Scott only pro-
fessed to write a history of Scotland for young persons, it
may be answered that the inculcation of truth is, if pos-
sible, a more paramount duty in those who write for the
young ; inasmuch as erroneous statements are in that
case less likely to be corrected, and the consequent erro-
neous impressions received in youth are likely to remain
through life. I have therefore selected a few pages of
Sir Walter Scott's 'History of Scotland,' relating to an
event in the reign of James VI. of Scotland, as the text on
which the following essay is a commentary. I have also
had occasion to refer to some passages of his novels and
historical romances ; and I have made some observations
towards the beginning of the essay on an event in England
under the reign of Elizabeth which has formed the sub-
ject of one of his romances — an event respecting which
some very curious evidence has been published since


Sir Walter Scott wrote the romance of ' Kenilworth ' and
the historical notes to it, which evince — as his notes both
to his poems, and his novels, and romances, always do —
great historical and antiquarian learning.

Sir Walter Scott had studied the history of James VI.
of Scotland and James I. of England mucJi more carefully
than Hume. Indeed Scott had made that period of the
history of Britain an especial and ftwourite study ; as
he showed by his edition of ' Somers's Tracts ; ' and also
by a work in two vols. 8vo. published at Edinburgh in
1811, entitled, ' Secret History of the Court of James
the First,' and consisting of a republication in a uniform
shape of Francis Osborne's ' Traditional Memoirs,' Sir
Anthony Weldon's ' Court and Character of King James/
' Aulicus Coquinarise,' Sir Edward Peyton's ' Divine Catas-
trophe of the House of Stuart,' and one or two other
scarce works, with notes and introductory remarks by
the editor — known to be Sir Walter Scott, thoui>;h the
publication is anonymous. That Scott had studied the
character of King James far more carefully than Hume is
manifest from his notes to the two publications above
mentioned, and also from a note to the Introduction of
1831 to the 'Fortunes of Nigel,' in which note he says :
*The learned Mr. D'Israeli, in an attempt to vindicate
the character of James, has only succeeded in obtaining
for himself the character of a skilful and ingenious advo-
cate, without much advantage to his royal client.'

And yet the portrait of the character of King James
drawn by Sir Walter Scott, though an elaborate work
of art, is untrue to the original in some important
features. Sir Walter Scott, in his portrait of King James's
character in his ' History of Scotland ' as well as in his


' Fortunes of Nigel,' while he has given him some virtues
which he did not possess — as where he speaks of ' the
placability and gentleness of his disposition ' ^ — has denied
liim some talents which he did possess, as where he des-
cribes him, on the occasion of Lord Glenvarloch^s mar-
riage, as ' ambling about the room, mumping, laughihg,
and cracking jests, neither the wittiest nor the most
delicate, but accompanied and applauded by shouts of his
own mirth, in order to encourage that of the company.'
Now while Scott, who had never seen King James,
professes to be acquainted with the 'placability and
gentleness of his disposition,' M. de la Boderie, the
French ambassador, who lived five years at his court,
an intelligent observer, says of James, in reference to an
application on the ]jart of Henry IV. of France on behalf
of a brother of the slain Earl of Gowrie, ' Chi offende non
perdona ; and if ever prince was of that humour, this is
so.''-^ On the other hand Sir Anthony Weldon, who
certainly did not write to eulogise or compliment King
James, says, in his ' Character of King James,' ' He was
very witty, and had as many ready witty jests as any man
living, at which he would not smile himself, but deliver
them in a grave and serious manner.' ^ In that solemn
gravity with which he delivered his witticisms, he appears
to have resembled Swift. And Sir Walter Scott's repre-

^ History of Scotland, contained in Tales of a Grandfather, vol. i. p. 336,
Edinburgh, 1846.

"^ Ambassades de M. de la Boderie, en Angleterre, sous le regne de Henri
IV, et la minorite de Louis XIII, depuis les annees 1606 jusqu'en 1611,
5 torn. 1750, torn. iii. p. 108. It will be found necessary to quote more fully
this dispatch of La Boderie in a subsequent page of this essay ; these few-
words being cited merely for illustration of the inaccuracy of Scott's ch.aracter
of King James.

^ Character of King James, at the end of the Court of King James, by Sir
Anthony Weldon : London, 1651.


sentation of him as laughing loudly at his own bad jokes
is the more remarkable as drawn by a man who had
himself published an edition of Weldon's book.

But though King James's reasonings in such works as
his 'True Law of Free Monarchies' exhibit neither a
strong nor a sharp understanding, he must have possessed
mental quahties besides the wit attributed to him by
Weldon. When we come to the examination of the plot,
of which the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury was but
one incident, we see, as in the old usurer Trapbois, that
the cunning of a man of limited understanding, when
apphed with intense pertinacity to the pursuit of one
object, and accompanied with the most unbounded and
the most unscrupulous use of falsehood, may prove an
overmatch for the sagacity even of the ablest men of his

At the beginning of the seventeenth century England
had many advantages not possessed by Scotland. Besides
a richer soil and a milder climate, England had her

* Mr. John Bruce, in a paper contributed to the Transactions of the Society
of Antiquaries in 1649, entitled Observations on the Trial and Death of
William, Earl of Gowrie, a.d. 1584, and on their connection with the Gowrie
Conspiracy, a.d. 1600, by John Bruce, Esq. F.S.A., says of King James's
narrative of what he calls the ' Gowrie Conspiracy,' that he is inclined * to
accept the narration of the king, with such qualifications as will occur to
everyone who considers that it was no doubt partly written for him ; and
that, 80 far as it was strictly his own, it was the after-account of a vain,
talkative person, by no means distinguished for courage or truthfulness.' As
regards 'courage' and 'truthfulness,' this may be a correct estimate of
James, But the words ' a vain, talkative person ' convey a total misappre-
hension of the character of James I.— a misapprehension which I shared
myself before I read Mr. Amos's Great Oyer of Poisoning, and examined
carefully the evidence as to James's real character. That evidence fully
bears out the character of him on the envelope of his letters to Sir George
More, Lieutenant of the Tower, in the handwriting of the early part of the
seventeenth century, ' that he [King .lames] was tlie wisest to work his
own ends that ever was before him.'

176 i:ssAys on historical truth.

Magna Charta, and a system of laws formed, not like that
of Scotland, on the model of the code of ' Imperial Rome,*
where the maxim was, ' What pleases the prince has the
force of law ; ' ^ but laws in theory, at least, assumed to
have emanated from the free will of a free people. I say
theory, because if it was more than a theory it might well
be supposed that such a mockery of justice as the following
pages show legal proceedings in Scotland to have been — at
least, where the Crown was concerned — at the beginning
of the seventeenth century, would not be paralleled
by similar proceedings in England. This supposition,
however, is proved by the evidence which the researches
of late years have brought to light to be erroneous ; and
this evidence shows how far England had at that time
followed the rest of Europe towards that state of slavery

1 ' Sed et quod Principi placuit, legis habet vigorem, quum lege Regia,

quae de ejus imperio lata est, populus ei et in eum omne imperium suum et

potestatem concedat. Quodcunque ergo Imperator per epistolam constituit,

vel cognoscens decrevit, vel edicto prsecepit, legem esse constat.' — Instit.

Lib. i. Tit. ii. § 6. Sir Walter Scott, in the Fortunes of Nigel, makes a clerk

of the roval kitchen quote with reference to .Tames I., these words : — 'Regis

ad exemplar, totus componitur orbis.' Scott probably did not know from

whom the quotation was taken, and may have met with it somewhere in

this inaccurate form. He quotes also, in St. Ronan's Well, part of it thus :

* So saving, he pushed back his chair from the table, and — regu ad exemplar

after the pattern of the Laird, all the company rose.' Scott made an apt

enough application of the words to King James as well as to the Laird of

St. Ronan's, both of them as great tyrants in their way as the Roman

emperors to whom they were first applied were in theirs. The passage in

Claudian —

' Componitur orbis

Regis ad exemplum, nee sic inflectere sensus

Humanos edicta valent, ut vita regentis.'

viii. CI. Claudiani, Honorii, Augusti, panegyris, vv. 300, 2.

gives a vivid idea of the state of the world in the fourth century. Of the
effect of ' vita regentis ' twelve centuries later, the Courts of Philip II. of
Spain of Henry HI. of France, and of James I. of England, furnish examples.
The case of Bacon is a frightful example ; respecting which see a note near
the be^^inning of the essay on Sir Thomas Overbury, in this volume.


and degradation to whicli the world had been reduced
under tlie Eoman miperial despotism. The Borgias, the
Medici, the Valois, and the Habsburgs, sliowed themselves
not altogether unsuccessful imitators of Tiberius, Caligula,
Nero, and Domitian. And we may conclude that England
was in a very different position then from that in which
it is now — when Ben Jonson, King James's court poet,
ventured in one of his extravagant panegyrics of James
to place James and Domitian in such juxtaposition as in
a free country and with a free press might have led to
strange conclusions. The lines are these : —

* Martial, thou gav'st far nobler epigrams
To thy Douiitiau, than I can my James ;
But in my royal subject I pass thee,
Thou fiattered'st thine, mine cannot flatter'd be.'

There is an event of James's reign, after his accession to
the crown of England — the murder of Overbury — which,
from the extreme artifice employed to involve it in darkness,
forms a case that ' has puzzled the nation down to the
present day,' ^ and must be admitted, in addition to the
Gowrie affair, as, if not a proof of the truth, at least, an
illustration of the meaning of the words of the writer of
the memorandum on the envelope of the letters in King
James's handwriting to Sir George More, Lieutenant of
the Tower, that King James ' was the wisest to work his
own ends that ever was before him ; ' and that in a certain
line of intellectual exertion he was not an unworthy pupil
of such geniuses as the Borgias and the Medici. It is this
which makes James's character such a puzzle. All his
pretensions to learning are quite consistent with the cha-
racter of a drivelhng pedant, in which most of his writings

' Amos's Trial of the Eai'l of Somerset, p. 494 : London, 1846.



and public speeches display him. And though his other
qualities of timidity and subjection to his favourites made
one of his countrymen compare him to a ' Jack Ape,'
there was under all this in the character of James a
degree of capacity for compassing his ends — call it cun-
ning, craft, or what you will — that seems strangely incon-
sistent with a folly at other times bordering on idiocy.

This, the true character of James, so different from the
character of him commonly given, explains what Count
Tillieres, the French ambassador, says, which would
otherwise appear quite improbable, if not incredible, at
least quite unintelligible, in a dispatch of May 22, 1622 :
' Everybody is indignant at this government, everybody
murmurs at these proceedings, everybody hates and
despises the king in an incredible manner ; hut^ at the
period when he was more in the possession of his faculties^
he had so divided the great men among themselves, their
courage is so sunk, that nothing but the uttermost
climax of the evil can unite and as it were wake them
from a lethargy.' ^ The words I have marked in italics
indicate a man of a certain genius for government by
the arts of the Borgias and the Medici — a man certainly
very different from the mere pedant and driveller Scott
has painted as the representative of King James. The
reports of other ambassadors ^ agree substantially with
those of Tillieres. The letters to Sir George More, Lieu-
tenant of the Tower, already referred to, which are all in
King James's own handwriting, and written upon a matter

* Tillieres in Raumer, ii. 270, 271. See also Tillieres in Raumer, ii. 268,
269, 273, 274. Raumer's History of the 16th and 17th Centuries, English
Translation, London, 1835.

'-* See the dispatch of Vallavasso, the Venetian envoy, Feb. 24 and March 1,
1623 ; in Eaumer, ii. 279.


^-Somerset's dark hints that James dared not bring him
to a pubhc trial — tlie urgency of which called for the ut-
most exertion of his intellectual faculties, are both in style
and reasoning strongly distinguished from almost all
James's published writings and sj)eeches.

The portrait drawn by Sir Walter Scott of the character
of Queen Elizabeth, though also an elaborate work of art,
is as untrue as his portrait of King James. There was
more resemblance between the reigns of Elizabeth and
James I. than is commonly supposed. Both reigns were
marked by that feature of Caesarism, the power of favour-
ites. In that age there was no way of rising into the
hisher remons of social hfe but throudi court favour;
and what sort of persons might thus rise is well expressed
in the words Scott puts into the mouth of Lambourne in
' Kenilworth : ' ' Were it not for this accursed custom [of
hard drinking] I might climb as high as Varney himself.'
And in balancing the claims of different forms of govern-
ment it may be well to remember under what form
of government it is possible for such men as Varney and
Lambourne to rise to any degree of power. In that age
also there was no appeal against the acts, and no escape
from the power, of a king or queen and their minions.
Amy Eobsart had as little chance of escape from Elizabeth
and her minion Kobert Dudley as Alexander Euthven
had of escape from James. But Elizabeth had a stronger
head than James, though his was much stronger for
compassing his ends than is commonly supposed; and
Elizabeth took good care that there should be no such re-
hearing of the evidence as to the death of Amy Eobsart,
as that of the evidence as to the death of the Euthvens.

It is observable, however, that in ' Kenilworth ' Sir

y 2


Walter Scott has reproduced more accurately the court
atmosphere in which his scenes are enveloped than in
' The Fortunes of Nigel.' In the latter he indeed hints at
the dark practices of sorcery and poisoning, but in
' Kenilworth ' he has introduced them to such an extent
that the reader rises from the perusal of the work with a
sort of feeling such as might be produced by breathing
for a time an atmosphere ' soiled,' to borrow Scott's own
words, * with the fumes of calcined arsenic' The words,
too, which Scott puts into the mouth of Varney give a dark
but not untrue picture of the favourite of Elizabeth — a
picture darker in some of the touches than any picture of
the worst favourites of James. ' The course my lord
holds is no easy one, and he must stand provided a tall
points with trusty retainers to meet each sort of service.
He must have his gay courtier, like myself, to ruffle it in
the presence-chamber, and to lay hand on hilt, when any
speaks in disparagement of my lord's honour.' ' Ay,' said
Foster, ' and to whisper a word for him into a fair lady's
ear, when he may not approach her himself.' ' Then,' said
Varney, going on without appearing to notice the inter-
ruption, 'he must have his lawyers to draw his contracts,
and to find the way to make the most of grants of church-
lands, and commons, and licenses for monopoly ; and he
must have physicians who can spice a cup or a caudle ;
and he must have ruffling swordsmen, who would fight
the devil.' Now this goes somewhat beyond either
Somerset or Buckingham ; though Somerset had undoubt-
edly a hand in poisoning Prince Henry, and Buckingham
was believed by many to have poisoned King James.
The words of Mrs. Turner, speaking, shortly before her
execution, of the court of James, are surely applicable
to that court also where they planned the murder of


Amy Eobsart : ' It is so wicked a place, as I wonder the
earth did nut open and swallow it up. Mr. Sheriflf, put
none of your children thither.'

Some critics have dilated on the inferiority of Scott's
English to his Scotch stories ; but the horrors of the condi-
tion of Amy Robsart, placed under the absolute dominion
of perhaps the worst man of that bad time, are depicted
with a quiet, but not on that account less terrible, power.
The story is indeed very painful ; for not even all the
healthy cheerfulness of Scott's temperament could prevent
its being a most mournful tale — more so even than that of
of ' The Bride of Lammermoor.' But the stamp of im-
mortality has been imprinted on what the Tudor queen and
her minion hoped to bury in everlasting oblivion, and ' the
phantom of the murdered Amy Eobsart is sure to arise
at every mentionof the earl's name.' ^

Sir Walter Scott does not seem to have been aware of
one fact, which was within his reach when he wrote ' Kenil-
worth ; ' namely, that King Edward the VI. recorded
in his Journal, under date of 4th of June 1550, that
* Sir Eobert Dudley, third [surviving] son to the Earl of
Warwick married [in presence of the court at Sheen, or
Eichmond] Sir John Eobsart's daughter.' The only facts
relating to the question of her sudden death on the 8th of
September 15G0, at Cumnor, of any weight as evidence,
were not within the reach of Sir Walter Scott, and are,
firstly, the words in the letter of De Quadra wliich Mr.
Froude first brought to light and published in his History
— ' they were thinking of destroying Lord Eobert 's wife ' —
which De Quadra gives as communicated to him by Cecil
in a familiar conversation ; and secondly, certain letters

* Motley'3 History of the United Netherlands, vol. i. p. 3G8 ; London,


preserved among the manuscripts in the Pepysian
Library at Cambridge, between Eobert Dudley and T.
Blount, an agent of his at Cumnor, respecting the coroner's
inquest held upon Amy Eobsart or Lady Eobert Dudley,
wliich Mr. Craik first brought to light and published in
his ' Eomance of the Peerage.' ^

These letters relating to the coroner's inquest are five
in number : three from Dudley, and two from his agent.
The first letter from Dudley thus commences : — ' Cousin
Blount, immediately upon your departing from me, there
came to me Bowes, by whom I do understand that my
mfe is dead, and, as he saith, by a fall from a pair of
stairs. Little other understanding can I have of him.
The greatness and the suddenness of the misfortune doth
so perplex me vmtil I do hear from you how the matter
standeth, or how this evil should light on me, considering
what the malicious world will bruit, as I can take no rest.'
He then prays Blount to call a coroner's inquest, and to
charg-e the coroner to make choice of the discreetest and
most substantial men for the juries. The letter thus con-
cludes : 'From Windsor this ninth of September in the
evening, your loving friend and kinsman, much per-
plexed, E.D.' Then follows this postscript : ' I have sent
for my brother Appleyard, because he is her brother,
and other of her friends also, to be there, that they may be
privy and see how all things do proceed.' The letters
from Dudley are remarkable as evincing no sorrow for
his wife's death, but great anxiety about the probability
of his being suspected to have murdered her. All affec-
tion for his unhappy wife appears, from the whole tenor
of his letters, to have been long dead ; and there are
indications of this having been to her a source of deep

^ Vol. i. Appendix No. 1.


sufToring. Blount, in his first letter, tlius reports what
he heard from a female attendant of the lady : — ' For
herself, she said, she was a good, virtuous, gentlewoman,
and daily would pray upon her knees ; and divers times
she saith that she hath heard her pray to God to deliver
her from desperation,' The correspondence also confirms
the only other evidence known to exist, a letter in her own
handwriting — published by Mr. Wright from the Har-
leian MSS. ^ — expressive of affection and simple trustful-
ness — respecting the character of the ill-starred Amy
Eobsart. But what light do these letters throw on the
question of the manner of Amy Eobsart's death ? I do
not agree with Mr. Craik's opinion that : ' such a corres-
pondence may claim to be regarded as something much
more curious and important than even the depositions

Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 14 of 40)