Securing the succession in England

by Janet Dickenson

In the aftermath of the fall of the Earl of Essex in February 1601, James VI of Scotland was left without a clear route to the English throne. He was profoundly distrustful of Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, having absorbed the account made of him by Essex and his friends. In a letter of 8 April 1601 to his ambassadors in England, the Earl of Marr and Edward Bruce, James wrote of Cecil as being effectively ‘king’ in England and decried the ‘base instruments’ about the queen such ‘as abuse her ear’. James instructed his ambassadors to ‘plainly declare to Mr Secretary and his followers, that since now, when they are in their kingdom, they will thus misknow me, when the chance shall turn, I shall cast a deaf ear to their requests’. There was, however, an underlying reality that he would, in order to succeed to the English throne, need to establish some form of relationship with the English regime and key members of that regime. With Essex gone, this effectively meant Cecil.

Fortunately for James, Cecil was in agreement with him, both that James was the next in line, and that they needed to establish some form of relationship. This was successfully achieved via the mediation of Marr and Bruce and, crucially, Lord Henry Howard. Howard was uniquely suited to the task, being both a former friend of Essex as well as a man who shared James’ darkly labyrinthine view of the inner workings of Elizabethan politics. At times Howard strained the king’s patience with what James described as his ‘ample, asiatike and endless volumes’, but his account of a world in which Cecil struggled to manage the dark machinations of Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cobham proved highly effective in persuading James of Cecil’s usefulness as well as his trustworthiness. Cecil and James entered into their own correspondence, establishing the basis for the working relationship that was to endure until Cecil’s death in 1612.

The overwhelming impression that emerges from Howard and Cecil’s correspondence with James is of the king’s extreme anxiety over the succession, something highlighted in Susan Doran and Alexander Courtenay’s work on this subject. In essence, the succession question, as seen through the correspondence that passed between the three men, was all about soothing James’ fears and building the relationships that would sustain his confidence in Howard’s and Cecil’s ability to smooth his path and serve him once he was king of England. It was also about what to do whilst he was waiting. The question of Elizabeth’s position as queen and obstacle to the fulfillment of James’ ambition was one that needed to be approached with caution.

Howard was extremely outspoken about the degree to which his loyalties were committed to the heir. He fulsomely ended a letter of August 1602, ‘Thus praying on my knees for the preservation of your Royal Majesty, as the apple of the eternal eye, not only from all harm … but from all signs and tokens of harm which threaten further off, I humbly take my leave, and most affectionately kiss your gracious and sacred hands, resting ever more yours than it is possible for you to conceive or imagine’. It would have been easy for Cecil to have followed suit, promising his devotion to James without qualification or caveat. He was, however, painfully concerned to make it clear that his loyalty and service to Elizabeth would come first until her death. In a letter to James of October 1601, he redrafted the ending several times. Having experimented with telling James that he was ‘after Caesar, yours above all’ and ‘yours to command above all’, Cecil settled for the more direct and carefully formulated statement that he would ‘ever remaine in humblest affections after one, and her alone, at your Majesties commandment’. Cecil’s clarity about his order of priorities provides striking evidence of Elizabeth’s continued hold on the loyalty of the most prominent member of her government and suggests the key to the stability of her reign during the early 1600s, something which eventually resulted in the smooth transfer of power to James himself, her unacknowledged heir.


J. Bruce, ed., Correspondence of King James VI of England with Sir Robert Cecil and other in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth with an appendix containing papers illustrative of transactions between King James and Robert Earl of Essex. Principally published for the first time from manuscripts of the most hon. The Marquis of Salisbury, K.G. preserved at Hatfield, Camden Society old series, 78 (London, 1861)

The Secret Correspondence of Sir Robert Cecil with James VI, King of Scotland  (Edinburgh: Privately printed, 1766)

Alexander Courtney, ‘The Accession of James VI to the English Throne, 1601-1603’, unpublished M. Phil. thesis (University of Cambridge, 2004)

Susan Doran, “Loving and Affectionate Cousins? The Relationship between Elizabeth I and James VI of Scotland 1586-1603”, in Susan Doran and Glenn Richardson (eds) Tudor England and its Neighbours (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 203-34

Susan Doran, “James VI and the English Succession” in Ralph Houlbrooke (ed.) James VI and I: Ideas, Authority and Government (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

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