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James I & VI and his male ‘favourites’

448px-Portrait_of_King_James_I_&_VISamantha Smith examines James VI & I’s relationships with his ‘favourites’

“And yet I cannot content myself without sending you this billet, praying God that I may have a joyful and comfortable meeting with you, and that we may make at this Christenmass a new marriage, ever to be kept thereafter; for God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you, then live a sorrowful widow-life without you. And so God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your sweet dad and husband.

My only sweet and dear child

James R”

This rather touching love letter was written by James in 1624 towards the end of his life and a reader may at first be inclined to think this was directed towards his wife, Anna of Denmark. However Anna had died in 1619 and the letter was in fact written to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, James’ last and most enduring favourite.

James’ sexuality has been the subject of much debate in his own lifetime and since and it was a work colleague that actually asked me the question “how gay was James I?” because it isn’t that straightforward. Of course the term “gay” would not have been used in the context of homosexuality in Early Modern Britain. In fact same sex-love was described as sodomy.  Sodomy was seen as an act of heresy and as a crime so to have described James in these terms would have been very dangerous and difficult to prove. However James was not the first King to have been suspected of such a crime: Edward II was known for his “friendship” with Piers Gaveston and the rumours of Edward’s murder by red hot pokers only emphasised the suspicions that sodomy was practiced by the King.

The only thing about James’ sex life that we can say for certain is that he had matrimonial relations with his aforementioned wife as they produced seven children; four of which died in infancy. The rest is speculation. James had several close relationships in his life but I am going to concentrate on what I believe are the three most important: Anna; Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; and George Villiers. However before I examine these three we have to mention two people whom he never knew but who probably had a significant impact on his life: his mother, Mary Queen of Scots; and his father, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Their violent, tempestuous lives and relationships must have impacted on the young James who was brought up by the strict Scottish Protestant Kirk. His father had his mother’s secretary murdered in front of her when she was pregnant and his mother promptly retaliated by arranging Darnley’s own death after which she eloped with her Scottish lover, Bothwell, who she later accused of abducting and raping her. Mary escaped to England where she was eventually executed by her cousin, Elizabeth I, the woman James was to succeed to the throne of England. Therefore James’ relationship role models were not that great!

With this in mind, it would be easy to say that James hated women because of his mother and that his formative years had been spent in a very masculine world but this was not the case: he had a genuine affection for Anna and was also happy for his male favourites Carr and Buckingham to marry. He lavished affection on Buckingham’s wife and children. When he was due to marry Anna and she became delayed by storms he gallantly battled the elements himself to fetch her home and seven children is no mean feat for a man often accused of being a homosexual. Anna had in fact miscarried shortly after their marriage in 1590 which demonstrates that the couple’s marriage was fully consummated right from the start – although it wasn’t until 1594 that she finally gave birth to a son, Henry. But it was this birth that led to problems between the royal couple as Anna had hoped to raise Henry herself but James dictated that the young boy be brought up in Stirling under the care of the earl of Mar. Although the couple had several other children, this event was seen as marking a breakdown in the trust between the two and by 1607 James’ most significant other was Robert Carr.


Robert Carr became a gentlemen of the bedchamber in 1607 and was widely recognized as the royal favourite. How far their relationship went is difficult to know. Carr had constant access to James and the king was known to touch Carr affectionately in public. However the intensity of James’ feelings for Carr come to light, I believe, when Carr became embroiled with Frances Howard and the Overbury affair. In 1609 Carr and Frances fell in love but Frances was already married to Robert Devereux, third earl of Essex. Frances accused Essex of impotency and demanded a divorce. James supported his favourite. However Carr had a friend, Thomas Overbury, who wasn’t too keen on the marriage, so James tried to arrange for Overbury to be posted abroad. When Overbury refused he was imprisoned in the Tower. Frances and Carr married in 1613 after her divorce (whereby she agreed that Essex was only impotent with her). At this point Carr had all he could wish for: he was created earl of Somerset and Lord Chamberlain and the king declared that Carr was “his friend, whom he loved above all men living”. However Carr became increasingly difficult towards his patron and refused to sleep in the king’s bedchamber, which as gentleman of the bedchamber he was bound to do. James found this hard to forgive and there are much passionate outpourings from James whereby he declares that he loves Carr but will not be shunned by him. Carr was playing a foolish game because two men were to prove his downfall: Overbury and George Villiers.


George Villiers had been introduced to James in 1614 and he was described as “the handsomest-bodied in England; his limbs so well compacted and his conversation so pleasing and of so sweet a disposition” and another contemporary found “everything in him full of delicacy and handsome features”.  Portraits of Villiers emphasise his long slim legs. Also in his favour was the support of Anna who had disliked Carr and was willing to back Villiers to oust him. Tellingly as Carr withdrew his services from the royal bedchamber Villiers himself was made a gentleman of the bedchamber and it is believed he shared the night with the king at the end of 1615 when the royal court stopped at Farnham. Villiers referred back to this visit in a later letter to James where he asks himself “whether you loved me now….better than at the time which I shall never forget at Farnham, where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog”.

Carr may still have kept his court positions if the Overbury affair had not reared its ugly head. Overbury had died in the Tower during his imprisonment there but in 1615 Carr and his wife were accused of murdering him. It was reported that when Carr left the king to face the accusations “the King hung around his neck, slabbering his cheeks”. To cut a long story short Frances admitted the accusations and Carr was found guilty of conspiracy to murder. Instead of facing the death penalty for their crime, they were exiled to the country… It is believed that it was because James was grateful that Carr had not split any secrets in court. However could it be that James was also worried that come the execution Carr might have done a Catherine Howard in reverse? “I come here today to die Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, but I would rather die as the wife of the King”?! Who knows but whatever the case Carr kept his life and his secrets but never regained the affections of the king dying in obscurity in 1645 outliving both James and the man who replaced him.

George Villiers enjoyed a meteoric rise to a Dukedom and even succeeded in remaining as a royal favourite when James died in 1625. By this time he was firm friends with Prince Charles although there was never a real suggestion that he shared any sort of sexual relations with him. Villiers and James had always remained close and the Villiers family were very much entwined with the royal family. In fact when Villiers was murdered in 1628 his sons were placed in the royal nursery and brought up with Charles’ own children.

We can never know for sure whether Carr and Villiers shared sexual relations with James but the intensity of the feelings James has for them suggests something more than just friendship. James’ reaction to Carr shunning his bedchamber implies a possessiveness more worthy of a jilted lover than a king to his servant. And what of Villiers letter to James concerning the bed’s head? And finally James’ letter to Villiers where he talks of a marriage and addresses Villiers as his wife? And what of Anna and the seven children? At Carr’s marriage in 1613 a masque was performed, composed by Thomas Campion in which married love between a man and a woman was compared against a male-male relationship:

Some friendship between man and man prefer,

But I th’affection between man and wife.

What good can be in life,

Whereof no fruits appear?

How can man perpetual be

But in his own posterity.

Perhaps James was aware of his posterity hence the children and this might also explain why he allowed his favourites to marry and have children of their own because he believed in the need to ensure their own future.  Whatever James was he was a man who craved affection and love but also a king who needed to do his duty and ensure the succession.


Suggested Reading:

The Cradle King: A Life of James VI & I – Alan Stewart

James VI & I – Roger Lockyer


About Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith is a part-time PHD student at Birkbeck studying the publication of 16th/17th Century State letters in 1653. She works full-time as an regulatory accountant for a French bank and in her “spare” time she volunteers at the Tower of London assisting Visitor Services. This allows her in indulge her love for the Tower ravens!

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