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Friday, August 2, 2013

Shakespeare and the Young King James

443 years ago, at the end of July 1570, the 4 year old King James VI of Scotland got a new tutor, George Buchanan.

George Buchanan

Buchanan would have known the young James before he was a man, and what he wrote about his time as a tutor gives us a fascinating glimpse of the future King of England and Scotland.

Buchanan was one of three people who were arguably closest to the boy King, besides the people in charge of his welfare, the Earl and Lady Mar.

Buchanan was one of the greatest intellectuals in Europe at the time. He was already 64 years old when he became James’s tutor, and had lived and traveled all over Europe.

At one time, he had a pupil named Michel de Montaigne, in Bordeaux. Montaigne would of course go on to write his Essays, which are widely considered to have influenced Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet, in 1601.

For most of Buchanan’s life his opinion of the Church of England and the Catholic Church was evolving. He was very critical of Catholicism, but it was not until he was about 60 years old that he made his decision to renounce Catholicism and join the Protestant Church.

It was during this same time that he was the tutor of Mary, Queen of Scots -- who would give birth to James in 1566, and would abdicate the throne in 1567, thus transferring the crown to her 13-month old son, James.

When James became King of Scotland, there were those who were worried that he would be influenced by his mother Mary’s ardent Catholic faith.

One of the reasons, it would seem, that Buchanan was chosen to tutor the young King, was to educated him as a good Protestant, and beat the Catholic out of him.

Buchanan was known as a stern taskmaster, and had no objection to physically abusing his students, including King James.

King James, in 1574, when he was 8 years old

It would seem that James was an unruly and disobediant student. In Alan Stewart’s excellent book, The Cradle King, he describes how the young James did not learn Buchanan’s lessons well.

Buchanan sought to teach James about “antiquity” and the “study of piety” but the boy King did not “hold his peace” and was often severely whipped on his backside.

In fact, when Buchanan wrote his book Baptistes in 1576, he dedicated it to King James, who was 10 years old at the time.

In the dedication, Buchanan warned James against the “miseries” and “tortures of tyrants, even when it seems they flourish most.”

Buchanan, it seems, was well aware of what kind of king James could become as an adult, and he was afraid that Scotland would suffer “miseries” as a result.

It would also seem that Buchanan could tell, as early as 1576, that he might himself be blamed for whatever “tortures” King James might later subject his kingdom to. 

In the same dedication, Buchanan wrote: “I want this little book to be a witness to posterity, if ever at any time impelled by evil counsellors or by the license of rule overcoming right education you act otherwise, that must be attributed to for a fault not to your teachers but to you, who will not have conformed to their admonishing correctly.”

Translation: if James ever become a tyrant, it’s not his teacher’s fault -- it James’s fault!

From what I have read, Buchanan is a remarkable character in the life of King James. 

He was something of a father figure to James, whose real father was something of a mystery -- was it Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (murdered in a garden by an explosion of gunpowder) or was it James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (who killed Darnley in the garden)?

Buchanan was the man most responsible for educating and shaping the mind of a very troubled child, who happened to be the King of Scotland.

Buchanan died in 1582, long before King James claimed the throne of England in 1603.

Little did he know that his ill-tempered and misbehaving pupil would become one of the most influential and important Kings in the history of England.

Shakespeare was familiar with Buchanan and his books. He probably read Buchanan's book, Rerum Scoticarum Historia, as a source for Macbeth -- which was written during the reign of James.

James McAvoy in a recent production of Macbeth

I wouldn't be surprised if Shakespeare read Buchanan's Baptistes, and while reading the dedication, Shakespeare would have understood full well what Buchanan had been afraid of.

Buchanan had been right to worry about the tyrannical nature of the boy James, who did go on to subject England to some of its worst miseries and tortures.

It was the same miseries and tortures that led Shakespeare to write Macbeth -- a bloody play for bloody times.


David B. Schajer

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