The English King Who Treated Himself With A Harem Of Male Courtiers

When he succeeded Elizabeth I, James I changed the monarchy forever, but some people prefer to focus on what happened in his bedroom.

When it comes to the history of the English monarchy, there's a wide array of peculiar personalities that have become icons. One of those really interesting figures is James VI of Scotland, I of England who, in a period of 22 years on the English throne, brought many changes to the monarchy and changed its course (though his son would take care of ending it and became the first executed monarch in Europe). Being a monarch for basically all of his life (after his mother was forced to abdicate in his favor when he was only one year old), he believed in the idea of the King’s divine right to rule, so he saw it as a huge responsibility he had to fulfill properly. He was famous for being the main target of the Gunpowder Plot, for his many views on politics, tobacco, and witchcraft, for taking the country to a relative peace, and for promoting the creation of the first Anglican, bible, but also for being the most homophobic monarch ever. However, there’s way much more to James’s life than what most biographies tell.

King James I of England and VI of Scotland - John de Critz (c.1606)

One way to understand history is by looking at the documents from each period, and when it comes to Jacobean England, these are highly informative and interesting. In one compilation of tracts called A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts on the Most Interesting and Entertaining Subjects, (I actually had to leave out a part of the title since long titles were really popular back then) a guy who calls himself Tom Tell-Troath gives one of many accounts about the King's predilection for handsome young men. 


“Grand Signor in his seraglio; have lords spirituall for his mates, lords temporall for his eunuchs, and whom he will for his incubus. There may he kisse his minions without shame, and make his grooms his companions, without danger: who, because they are acquainted with his secret sins, assume to themselves as much power and respect as catholick princes use to give their confessors.” 

James of England - Daniel Mytens (1621)

According to many reports, apparently, King James wasn't worried about people finding out about his sexuality, even though it made people very uncomfortable. In fact, this makes many wonder how was it that he felt so open about his sexuality at a time when anything other than the "norm" was condemned by society. I mean, back then, relationships between men were considered sodomy, and they were punished with death. So, how did he manage to get away with it? 


One of the main possible reasons (and I say possible since historians claim that there’s not enough evidence to confirm his sexuality) is that the term sodomy didn’t apply to him. Sodomy was understood as a transgressive moral behavior related to depravity, and King James didn’t act in that way. He was more of a hopeless romantic who gave his heart to the people he loved. Moreover (and perhaps more importantly), he was seen by his subjects as a fair and just ruler, so using that term for him would make people see sodomy as something as less monstrous than the Church wanted. Still, this doesn’t mean his relationships with his favorites weren't seen as strange from the man who came to be called Queen James. 

James I of England - Paul van Somer (1620)

Going back to the earlier quote and linking it to the title, when Tom Tell-Troath refers to James as a “Grand Signore in his seraglio” he’s describing him as an Ottoman Sultan in his harem (seraglio) because he was constantly hanging out and going to parties and events with a group of young courtiers, and as in any harem he, of course, had his favorites, who became not only the objects of envy, but also the target of many assassination plots. 


One of his first favorites (possibly) was Esmé Stuart, Duke of Lennox, a French courtier he met in 1580, when he was only fourteen years old. Tracts at the time claimed that Lennox was the one who dragged young King James into a life of lust, and according to letters exchanged by them, it seems that he was James’ first important love, not only because of what they shared intimately, but also because he introduced him to a world of sophistication and elegance that he didn’t have in the more austere Scotland. Due to some political issues involving conspiracy and treason, Lennox was abducted and forced to flee the country, thus ending his relationship with James. 

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset - John Hoskins

Years later, when James was crowned King of England after the death of Elizabeth, he moved to London for his coronation. A young and resourceful Scottish man by the name of Robert Carr had been selected to be a page in the procession, but he was dismissed at the last minute. However, James never forgot his face. Years later, at a festival, the young Carr had a terrible accident on his horse. James, who remembered him perfectly, ran to help him, something that was absolutely against royal protocol. It’s even said that he carried him in his arms and asked for the best physicians to tend to him. Not only that, he would visit him constantly to follow up on his recovery. Once he was perfectly healed, he made him a Gentleman of his Bedchamber. Over the course of many years, he was strongly favored by James, who would ultimately name him Earl of Somerset. As it had happened with Lennox back in Scotland, other courtiers weren’t very happy with the idea of a peasant being so favored, and even becoming a nobleman, which led to many plots against him being set in motion.


George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham - Peter Paul Rubens (1625)

Many different circumstances jeopardized Carr’s rank in the King’s harem, but he was only "dethroned" by the man considered the most beautiful man in the realm. This young man, who had been carefully selected by Carr’s detractors (they even raised money to buy him a new wardrobe to impress the King), was George Villiers, best known as the Duke of Buckingham (after James gave him that title), and considered to be James' one true love. In 2004, archaeological excavations were conducted in Apethorpe palace, revealing a secret passage between James’ bedchambers and Buckingham’s private suite. This has been taken as a confirmation of their intimate and strong relationship. If this isn’t enough evidence, there are also many letters exchanged between them that can only be interpreted as romantic. Take a look at this extract of one of the many letters James sent to Buckingham:

“I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts, which are more than ever one man had, that was not only all your people but all the world besides setting together on one side and you alone on the other, I should to obey and please you displease, nay, despise them all”


Portrait of James I - John de Critz (c. 1606)

Their relationship was so obvious that, in 1617, a moral debate was conducted at the Privy Council, in which they asked King James to explain the nature of his relationship with Buckingham, and the members of the council expressed their concerns about it. James, being the honest and open person he was, but also making use of his highly elevated language (he was also a poet after all), accepted his love for Buckingham, but in a very smart move that would shut up everyone talking behind his back.

“You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George.”


King James VI of Scotland - Unknown artist (c. 1590s)

To sum things up, the thing is that even though there’s a lot of information regarding this, most historians and biographers deliberately avoid or ignore the matter of King James’ sexuality. We could argue it could be just a rumor, but actually, there are many accounts from James' time that tackle the subject. Whenever James made political decisions that his detractors weren’t happy about, they would use his relationships as evidence of his weakness and vulnerability. However, it’s important to remember that he was a monarch who fulfilled his duties. He achieved foreign peace after years of war with Spain; he took the throne during a particularly difficult and intense religious conflict and managed to solve most of it; he promoted art and culture avidly; and most importantly, he secured the succession line by having seven children (of whom three reached adulthood). His sexual preference was completely unrelated to his work as a statesman and monarch. As Michael Young claims in his book King James and the History of Homosexuality, one of the main reasons why many historians deliberately chose to avoid the matter had to do with a fear of hurting his image, but doesn't concealing it make the story weaker? For me, his "harem" stories are only an interesting and fascinating aspect of the King's life, who is still considered one of the smartest monarchs England has ever had.


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