Age of Invention: Jacobus Rex
It’s late March 1603, and an exhausted messenger arrives in Edinburgh bearing a sapphire ring. He has ridden for over two days straight, over hundreds of miles, and his hair and clothes are matted with blood — on the way he had fallen from his horse, a hoof striking him directly in the head. It’s a miracle he’s alive, but he knows it has been worth it. He is the very first to tell you that your childless first cousin twice removed — the killer of your mother, whom you never knew — is finally dead. You, King James VI of Scotland, are James I of England as well.
In this, the fourth instalment of my series on the early history of patent monopolies, we’ll delve into the challenges of James’s accession to the English throne — his profligacy, need for friends, and the country’s precarious finances, that serve as an important backdrop to how the patent system evolved. It’s a tale of frenzied courtiers, savvy politics, and some extraordinary corruption. (If you’d like to catch up, here are Parts I, II, and III). To stay up to date, make sure to subscribe:
James’s accession was a frenzy. From the very moment of Elizabeth’s death, her entire patronage network was turned on its head. Her chief ministers, the Privy Council, were relatively safe. Some of them had been corresponding with James for years. But they could only look on, anxiously, as a rush of would-be cronies went north to meet their new king. The exhausted messenger with the sapphire ring, Sir Robert Carey, was just the first. Carey had been related to Elizabeth I on her mother’s side —he was her first cousin once removed. (Carey’s grandmother was the “other Boleyn girl”, played by Scarlett Johansson in the 2008 film — although there’s no solid evidence, it’s not totally impossible that Carey was actually related to Elizabeth on her father’s side instead...) But that family connection meant nothing now that the queen was dead.
The sudden reset of the source of all patronage meant that the earlier the access to the new king’s person, the greater the chance of gaining his favour. Carey may have angered the Privy Council by riding ahead of their formal letters to James, but his exertion won him an on-the-spot appointment as a gentleman of the bedchamber, and his wife became a lady in waiting to James’s queen. The Careys were soon charged with the care of the royal couple’s younger sickly child, and when that child eventually became Charles I, Carey was made Earl of Monmouth. Not a bad result for a head wound and a two days’ ride, though I’m sure the horses would disagree. An old proverb about England was that it was “a paradise for women, a purgatory for servants, and a hell for horses” — something that James’s accession really put to the test. One teenage noblewoman reported how she and her mother killed three horses in a single day, pushing them hard despite the heat, in their rush to meet the new queen.1
Just as courtiers flocked to James, however, the king wanted to win friends and allies too. So he handed out favours like confetti. Before he had even reigned a single year, he had created 934 knighthoods — already more than the 878 that Elizabeth I, her generals, and her lord deputies in Ireland had created over the course of her entire 45-year reign.2 One morning, during his journey down to London, James knighted more people than Elizabeth had in her first five years — all before he’d even had his breakfast.3 The sheer volume of new knighthoods prompted Francis Bacon — one of about 300 to be knighted in London ahead of the coronation — to call it a “divulged and almost prostitute title”.4
The same went for peerages. Elizabeth, over her long reign of almost half a century, had created only 18 new titles. James, before he had even been crowned, had already created 12 — mostly turning knights into lords, and raising some lords into earls.5 Along with the honours came grants of land, annual pensions, and one-off gifts — not only to James’s new English courtiers, but to his old Scottish favourites too. James’s arrival was an explosion of largesse. (Not all were happy about the relative loss of favour, of course. As I mentioned in a post for subscribers a few weeks ago, at least one pro-invention courtier got involved in a treasonous plot against the new king and ended up losing his head.)
James’s largesse even extended to policy. As he triumphantly marched into London, he issued a proclamation to immediately suspend all of Elizabeth’s patent monopolies, to be re-granted pending review. (This did not apply to patents for trading corporations or guilds.) Rather than leaving the validity of patents to be tested in the common-law courts, at great legal cost to those affected, he would have his Privy Council systematically examine them first, only allowing them if they were in the public interest. He characterised it as a continuation — even a “perfecting” — of Elizabeth’s partial measures a couple of years earlier, which we discussed in Part II. With his proclamation also condemning various other unpopular things, like high court fees, his new subjects were overjoyed.6
But the honeymoon was not to last.
James, at first, was like a child with a credit card, giving gifts and spending without restraint. Unlike the unmarried, childless old Elizabeth, he had a wife and children too, who would each need servants, retainers, and luxuries of their own. The royal family’s baptisms, dowries, weddings, and other expensive festivities all tended to add up. It was spending to match the dignity and honour of their newly enlarged realm, and appearances mattered. One of his first major initiatives, the rebuilding of timbered London with brick, was at least partly motivated by how it looked to foreign ambassadors.7 And after all, it seemed like he could afford it. England was a much, much richer kingdom than Scotland — its population was over four times as large,8 and it was much more urbanised too. London’s population was about six times larger than that of Edinburgh, and its wealthy merchants were a reliable source of loans.9
Yet while England’s economy was large and growing, the Crown’s finances were not. Elizabeth’s England had been a kingdom under continual siege from the Spanish Empire, racking up debts from costly military adventures in Ireland too. Although Parliament had voted for extraordinary taxes to help cover the costs, they were far from enough. The English Crown was already running a large deficit, and the country was feeling heavily over-taxed.
James may have been a spendthrift, but he was no fool. This was a Scottish king, after all, who at the tender age of 17 had defeated a kirk- and English-backed noble coup, escaping his captors and ruthlessly putting them down. Having come to that throne when only thirteen months old, he had nevertheless asserted his independence from regents early on. He knew how to rule.
So James quickly eliminated the most important financial drains. He arranged for peace with Spain, for example, and was lucky that his accession coincided with the end of war in Ireland. The treaty to formally end the Tyrone Rebellion had been signed less than a week after his accession. The news of the old queen’s death had been kept quiet by the English commander, the baron Mountjoy, until the ink on the treaty was dry —a grateful James promptly made him an earl. Yet despite these big reductions in one-off expenditure, the costs of the enlarged court were high and ongoing, and the debts and deficits remained. James’s ministers in England became concerned at how they would pay for any fresh crisis without a surplus to back it up.10
James’s early largesse was soon twisted to more profitable uses, including even his grants of titles. During his journey south, James had been angry with members of his Scottish entourage when they began selling introductions to him. But in this corruption he apparently sensed a business opportunity, as the following year he was handing out transferrable rights of nomination to knighthoods, effectively spawning a secondary trade. The going rate among courtiers for the “making of six knights” in 1606, for example, was about £373 — in today’s money, over a million.11 James then started to consider the creation of new ranks, so that he could sell them directly to the recipients — something he did in 1611 when he created the new position of baronet. By 1615, even a peerage could be had for sale.
In the search for cash, James became especially receptive to new projects and policies, happily reneging on the spirit of his original reforms. Even his suspension of Elizabeth’s monopoly patents was to take on another light: it was yet another opportunity to dispense patronage cheaply, and perhaps sell a few too. Within just a few years, having paid their bribes to the king or his cronies, the hated patentees and their abuses were back. Indeed, the monopoly problem was to become even worse than before. Next time, we’ll see just how bad it got.
Anne Clifford, The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford, ed. V. Sackville-West (William Heinemann Ltd., 1923), p.7
Elizabeth created 37 knighthoods in her first five years, Ibid. James appointed 48 before breakfast at Belvoir Castle, during his journey south: see John Nichols, The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities, of King James the First, vol. I (J.B. Nichols, 1828), pp.90-3
A letter from Bacon to Robert Cecil in July 1603, quoted in A. Chambers Bunten, Life of Alice Barnham (1592-1650) (Oliphants Ltd., 1928), p.11
Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641, Abridged Edition (Oxford University Press, 1967), p.48 for Elizabeth’s number, and Nichols, p.xxix for James’s twelve.
e.g. his 234th proclamation: “proceeding with brick, is greatly applauded and approved, as well by ambassadors of foreign nations, as others”
The population of England at a little over 4 million. Stephen Broadberry et al., British Economic Growth, 1270-1870 (Cambridge University Press, 2015), p.29. I’ve not found proper estimates for Scotland, but in 1700 to account for the two kingdoms’ union to create Britain, they roughly just add another million. Scotland’s population was probably lower than a million in 1600, and usually speculated to be anywhere between 0.5 and 0.8 million, but such estimates are rough and ready at even the best of times. T. M. Devine and S. G. E. Lythe, ‘The Economy of Scotland under James VI: A Revision Article’, The Scottish Historical Review 50, no. 150 (1971), p.95.
I take most historical city population estimates from here, as they tend to be fairly in accord with historians’ estimates. But by far the best estimates and discussion for London are to be found in Vanessa Harding, ‘The Population of London, 1550–1700: A Review of the Published Evidence’, The London Journal 15, no. 2 (November 1990), pp.111–28. So that’s 35,000 for Edinburgh compared to 200,000 in London, though Edinburgh may even have had as few as just 10,000 according to Devine and Lythe.
John Cramsie, Kingship and Crown Finance Under James VI and I, 1603-1625 (Boydell & Brewer, 2002), pp.68-74