King James I and the Great North Road
A meandering but triumphant journey south along the Great North Road marked the start of the reign of King James I in 1603. It was his first visit to England and he was impressed by its countryside, prosperity, and fine houses. He was given a warm welcome. He established many connections which remained important to him. A number of places where he stayed were re-visited many times during his reign.
With no direct heir, the succession to the English throne after Elizabeth had been uncertain. She was reluctant to accept the recommendation of James by her secretary, Robert Cecil. It was only on her deathbed in March 1603 that she finally gave way.
Sir Robert Carey was dispatched to Edinburgh on 24th March on the day of Elizabeth’s death. He carried a sapphire ring that was the prearranged proof of the queen’s demise. His first overnight stop was at Doncaster, his second at Widdrington in Northumberland (his own home). He suffered a fall on the third day but arrived in Edinburgh that evening ‘be-blooded and bruised’ and was able to greet James as King of England, Scotland and Ireland.
There followed a frantic week of fund raising, diplomatic manoeuvring and public announcements (James assured his Scottish subjects that he would return every 3 years though in fact he returned just once).
James reached Berwick on 6th April. The shared crown offered the prospect of an end to five centuries of bitter border disputes so, unsurprisingly, it was a very popular prospect at the border town. His arrival was marked with loud canon fire and he was presented with a purse of gold. He went on to stay with Carey at Widdrington Castle.
Widdrington Castle, near Morpeth
At Newcastle, James was treated to a banquet at the palace of Bishop Tobie Mathew. The bishop made his mark; he was made Archbishop of York and Lord President of the Council of the North just three years later.
James arrived in York on 14th April.
He went on to enjoy an extended stay at Worksop Manor, an impressive mansion owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury and probably designed by Robert Smythson, who had worked on Burghley. There is a retrospective report that during James’ visit, part of the floor in the Great Chamber had fallen down.
Near Grantham he was the guest of Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland at his seat, Belvoir Castle.
Belvoir Castle after re-building following the Civil War, with distant views of 1.Bottesford 2.Newark upon Trent 3.Staunton 4.Long Billington 5.Lincoln Minster 6.Denton 7.Sidebroke 8.Barrowby 9.Grantham. Simon and Nathaniel Buck, 1730
On 27th April James stopped at Sir Anthony Mildmay’s house at Apethorpe 10 miles west of Peterborough. To secure favour with the new King his host presented James with an expensive Barbary horse. A keen huntsman, James returned to Apethorpe 10 times. He encouraged Mildmay’s successor, Fane, to modernise the estate and allowed him to create a 300 acre deer park within Rockingham Forest.
Apethorpe Great Hall. Image Credit – Historic England
At Hinchingbrook he stayed at the home of Oliver Cromwell (uncle of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell) describing his stay in his own words as his best reception since he had left Edinburgh. Presents for the king included:
“a cup of gold, goodly horses, deepe-mouthed hounds, divers hawkes of excellent winge,”
while a deputation of the heads of Cambridge University, clad in scarlet gowns and corner caps, attended to present a learned speech in Latin. In return, James I on his Coronation Day made Sir Oliver a Knight of the Bath.
He stayed one night in Royston following the Old North Road to his new capital. Again he was struck by the potential for hunting and liked the town. He returned a few years later, purchasing a number of inns and houses and establishing a favourite though relatively low profile royal residence.
Robert Cecil arranged for the new king to break his journey south at Theobalds House near Cheshunt. A year later James wrote to Cecil requesting stags for him to hunt in the woods and park. In 1607 James acquired Theobalds for his wife, Anne of Denmark, in exchange for Hatfield Palace.
According to the eminent lawyer and Master of Requests, Sir Roger Wilbraham, the king travelled,
“all his way to London entertained with great solemnity and state, all men rejoicing that his lot and their lot had fallen in so good a ground. He was met with great troops of horse and waited on by the sheriff and gentlemen of each shire, in their limits; joyfully received in every city and town; presented with orations and gifts; entertained royally all the way by noblemen and gentlemen at their houses …”.
As a newcomer to England James was keen to establish allies and build on the hopes many had for his reign. Lawrence Stone suggests that some 900 men were knighted in the first 4 months alone.
A list by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, of the “Knights of the Bathe” made at the coronation of James I on 25 July 1603
As the king approached London on 7th May (a careful 9 days after the funeral of Elizabeth) he was greeted by the Lord Mayor and Alderman at the top of Stamford Hill. This spot where James first saw the city was later commemorated by a famous inn, “The Three Crowns.”
His coronation as James I of England was held at Westminster Abbey on 25th July. He was the first Scottish king for over 300 years to be crowned sitting on the Stone of Scone (contained within the Coronation Chair).
Public celebrations were deferred until March 1604 because of an epidemic of bubonic plague. This is said to have killed a fifth of London’s citizens: the new king ordered that the sick should isolate for 6 weeks; he also encouraged fund raising for afflicted families. Things improved the following spring and there was enthusiasm to proceed. Gilbert Dugdale described the lavish events to mark his accession:
‘fire workes on the water’ and magnificent ‘Pageants’ that were staged on huge wooden arches throughout the city.
There were 7 triumphal arches – imposing constructions, wide enough to span the street, around 25m tall and elaborately decorated with statues, paint and gilding. The arches, funded by London’s multinational merchants, represented different regions, creating a symbolic world tour.
Four of the Triumphal Arches – “Londinium”, “New Arabia”, “The Italians”, “Bower of Plenty”