‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’: James I and his Aversion to Smoking

Fags, Tabs, Ciggies and Snout: Whatever form it takes, and whatever you call it, tobacco smoking has never been more unfashionable. Since irrefutable evidence linking tobacco use to various unpleasant and frequently terminal medical conditions emerged in the mid-20th Century, less and less of us are puffing away. Yet theories which regarded smoking as being unhealthy emerged hundreds of years before hand. Indeed, no less than a King of England (and Scotland, too) took pen to paper to outline his disgust with the filthy habit.

King James I certainly was disgusted. In 1604 he published his A Counterblaste to Tobacco, describing smoking as a ‘savage custom’, ‘hateful to the nose’ and ‘making a kitchen of the inward parts of man, soiling and infecting them with an unctuous and oily kind of soot.’

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First page of ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Tobacco had been popularized in England by Sir Walter Raleigh in the late 1570s. Raleigh, a some-time favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, had a far more acrimonious relationship with her successor, James. James blamed him for introducing the foul weed into the royal court, as well as deeply disliking him personally. Raleigh stank of smoking, smoking stank of Raleigh, and James wasn’t having any of it. Not only would he denounce the practice through his words, he would attack it in a far more effective manner too: with taxes – £1 for every 3lbs of tobacco imported was an extortionate amount.

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King James VI and I. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

James also opposed smoking for more practical measures than suspicions about its health effects and his personal enmity with Sir Walter. In the early 17th Century, tobacco was only grown in the parts of the Americas controlled by England’s arch-nemesis, Spain. The English upper-classes, through their addiction, were squandering the nation’s limited reserves of bullion and lining the pockets of Spanish merchants.

One way around this problem was to attempt cultivation in Virginia, then claimed by the English. The first batch produced there arrived in London in 1612, and proved an instant success on account of the smoothness of the smoke and its delicate taste. More and more tracts on tobacco appeared in England which opposed James’ Counterblaste by purporting a wide range of health benefits derived from smoking. By the middle of the 17th Century, England was a land obsessed with its pipe.

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Virginia, 1607. From Worcester Cathedral Library’s 1625 edition of ‘Purchas’ Pilgrims’. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Such a move would have a profound impact on the other side of the Atlantic too. Early English settlement of North America had been marked by a series of disasters – the first wave, to Roanoke Island, had disappeared without a trace. Jamestown, the second site to be settled, was barely holding its own against the forces of disease, bad weather, starvation and hostile natives. In the absence of any profitable mines or chance of meaningful trade with the natives, it was imperative that Jamestown should find a commodity that it could sell back to the old country. Tobacco would prove to be just such a commodity, and it ensured a financial life-line was in place for the fledgling colony.

Jamestown would not ultimately prosper, and was abandoned in the 18th Century. Yet it provided the crucial beachhead for the further English colonisation of North America, with tobacco doing a booming trade. Its cultivation was an intensive agricultural operation requiring a large workforce, and producers found that they could cut costs by importing slaves from Africa. That process would continue on into the 19th Century, after cotton had replaced tobacco as America’s most important export, and has left behind a legacy which lasts to this day.

James would have to wait over 350 years before his message finally started to come through. It remains a matter of conjecture whether his opposition to tobacco use was motivated by his genuine concerns about the health effects of smoking, or though his personal antipathy with Sir Walter Raleigh. However, before we imagine James to be a scientific genius way ahead of his time, note that in our 1616 omnibus edition of The Works of James I, Counterblaste is sandwiched between tracts that demonstrate his fondness for hunting (and burning) witches. Truly does James continue to live up to this epithet of ‘the wisest fool in Christendom.’

Tom Hopkins

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