King James I and his favourites

‘And therfore in two points haue ye to take good heed anent your court and household: first in choosing them wisely; next, in carefully ruling them whom you haue chosen’[1] King James VI of Scotland warned his son in 1599. This sentence stood out to me for reason of sheer hypocrisy as I carefully flicked through Worcester Cathedral’s copy of the monarch’s written works. It was advice that the King himself would fail to follow as James’ reliance on a succession of charismatic favourites came to dominate his court, politics and private life for the next quarter century.


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


In March 1607, a young Scottish courtier was thrown off his horse at a tilt match and broke his leg. Robert Carr[2] (Karr), the twenty-one year old son of Sir Thomas Karr of Ferniehurst had dramatically come to the royal attention. James was ‘struck with the person of the unfortunate adventurer’[3] and allowed him access to the royal physicians. The King personally oversaw his care, visiting the invalid daily and teaching his new protégé Latin. After Carr recovered he was made a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, a Knight of the Garter and, in 1613, Earl of Somerset. Carr soon proved unpopular, condemned as ‘a compound of every vice that can disgrace human nature’[4], his Scottish heritage, dismissive attitude towards Queen Anne and his dominance over the supposedly shared position of Secretary of State ruffled aristocratic feathers. It was Carr’s comparatively low birth, attitude and mismanagement of government that created resentment rather than his sexuality. This was not unusual; favourites, both male and female, both romantic and platonic, were tolerated by the establishment so long as their involvement in public affairs was minimal. Edward II’s lover Piers Gaveston was murdered in 1312, blamed for the systematic failings in the King’s government, whereas Edward IV’s rumoured relationship with Henry, Duke of Somerset was ignored.

Carr’s own downfall would come in 1614. The year before he had engaged in an affair with Frances Howard, daughter of the Duke of Suffolk and current wife of the Earl of Essex. They had passionately fallen for one another and desired to get married. This put Somerset into conflict with some of the oldest and grandest members of the nobility, the sovereign’s traditional right-hand men, as well as Sir Thomas Overbury – once a close friend of Carr. Overbury wrote and circulated a poem entitled ‘A Wife’ explaining the virtues a man should require in his spouse, which he implied that Frances was lacking. When he was found poisoned, suspicion instantly fell on the recently wedded Carrs and both were found guilty of murder. Carr would live out the rest of his days in exile in the countryside until his death in 1645.

‘The tallness of his stature, the beauty of his person, the gracefulness of his carriage and thee sweetness of his disposition’[5] recommended George Villiers to the anti-Carr faction. The son of a Leicestershire MP who had left his family drowning in debt, Villiers came to court with little money and even fewer prospects. Those plotting to oust Carr quickly maneuvered the attractive and charismatic Villiers into the royal presence. He was first made a cup bearer in 1614 and then a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. James was instantly taken with Villiers calling him sweet Steenie[6], sweetheart and his dear child and wife. When challenged over his suggestion that Villiers receive the Earldom of Buckingham, James defended his appointment by comparing his relationship with Villiers to Jesus’ love for St. John.[7] They slept together and James even had a secret passageway connecting their chambers built at his palace at Apethorpe. Their relationship probably was not sexual, however, owing to James’ strict religious beliefs.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Queen Anne’s death in 1619, Francis Bacon’s orchestrated fall in 1621 and James’ increasing senility[8] left Villiers in total control of the court and country. In 1622, the French ambassador relayed home that an increasingly unworldly and drunken James had proclaimed that he’d rather be Villiers’ friend than the King.[9] James spent most of his time playing with and indulging Villiers’ children, whilst their father took over governance.

Sensing that James was waning, Villiers begun to cultivate a relationship with Charles, Prince of Wales. Their relationship, however, was broadly parental rather than romantic. Villiers supported Charles’ desire to marry Henrietta Maria of France rather than the Spanish Infanta Maria Anne and the pair encouraged parliament to request a more aggressive anti-Hapsburg[10] foreign policy. This was in defiance in James’ neutral position in the Thirty Years War (1618-38), symbolising the decline in the King’s authority. When James died in 1625, Villiers was at his bedside, leading to accusations that Villiers had poisoned him. The favourite would continue as Charles I’s chief minister until his assassination in 1628 after a succession of military humiliations.

When the French Whig historian Rapin de Thoyras compared James I’s relationship to parliament as akin to that of Edward II or that of Richard II[11], he – consciously or not – drew attention to James’ favourites. Edward had relied on Gaveston and Despenser, Richard on Oxford and Suffolk and James on Carr and Villiers. James’ love for these two men dominated his final years and helped shape a defining time in British history as the Civil War edged closer.

Mollie McCarthy-Evans


[1] The Basilikon Doron (2nd Book) or His Majesties’ instructions to his dearest sonne Henry Prince of Wales by James VI/I (1599)

[2] Robert Carr was not actually James’ first favourite. His first was Esmé Stuart, Duke of Lennox who came to Scotland in 1579. He’s another fascinating character but this post focuses only on his post-1603 favourites.

[3] Raymond’s History of England to Summer 1785 by George Frederick Raymond

[4] Ibid.

[5] A General History of England by Thomas Carte (1755)

[6] A reference to St. Stephen who was said to have the face of an angel

[7] ‘The Stuarts’ by J.P. Kenyon (Glasgow, 1989), p.51

[8] James’ symptoms have been put down to a range of causes, from depression to the genetic metabolic disease porphyria

[9] ‘The Stuarts’ by J.P. Kenyon (Glasgow, 1989), p.57

[10] The ruling house of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire

[11] Rapin de Thoyras’ History of England, Volume VII (1725)

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