King James I — The First King of America

June 19, 1566–March 27, 1625

King James I followed Queen Elizabeth I on the English throne. During his reign (1603–1625), the two most significant of the early English colonies in America were established — Jamestown and Plymouth.

King James I of England, Portrait, Somer

This portrait of King James I of England was painted by Flemish artist, Paul Van Somer around 1620. Image Source: Royal Collection Trust.

King James I and His Connections to Colonial America

King James I played a significant role in the establishment of Colonial America, especially the Southern Colonies and the New England Colonies.

Persecution of Puritans and Separatists

King James I ascended to the English throne in 1603 and expressed his intention to put an end to church reform movements and deal harshly with critics of the Church of England, who were generally referred to as “Non-Conformists.” Some of these people were Separatists and they escaped to the Netherlands where they were allowed to freely worship, eventually settling in Leiden.

The Virginia Company

On April 10, 1606, King James I granted a charter that created two companies — the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth — to establish English colonies along the east coast of North America. 

Jamestown

Jamestown was founded to find gold and silver and establish a trade route to the Pacific Ocean. Many of the colonists were unprepared for the harsh reality of life in the New World. However, the settlement survived, due to the efforts of Captain John Smith and others.

Landing at Jamestown, Illustration
This illustration depicts the colonists landing in Virginia in 1607. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Second Virginia Charter

A second charter was issued for Virginia in 1609 which expanded its territory. It was the first  “sea to sea” charter because it extended the western border to the Pacific Ocean. It also gave the Virginia Company the authority to make laws, as long as they did not violate existing English laws, setting a precedent for colonial governments in the American Colonies.

Newfoundland and the Cupid Colony

Newfoundland was first explored by John Cabot in 1497. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed it for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth I. The first colonization attempt took place in 1610 when John Guy established a colony at Cuper’s Cove, which is known today as Cupids.

Third Virginia Charter

James issued a third charter in 1612 that extended the boundaries of the colony to include Bermuda. A new joint stock company was created to fund the colonization of Bermuda, which was known as the Somers Isles at the time. The company was called the Somers Isles Company and was led by Sir Thomas Smythe. Eventually, settlers from Bermuda emigrated to the continent and helped establish the Province of North Carolina.

House of Burgesses and the Headright System

The Virginia Company issued the “Great Charter of Virginia” in 1618. It established the House of Burgesses and the Headright System. The Headright System was used by the other Southern Colonies, and a modified version, known as the Patroon System, was used by the Province of New York.

Captive Africans in Virginia

The first captive Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619. According to some accounts, there were already 30 Africans working in Jamestown as indentured servants. However, the Africans that were purchased in 1619 are often considered to be the first slaves in the Province of Virginia.

Plymouth and the Growth of New England

On November 3, 1620, King James I granted the “Great Patent of New England” to the Council for New England, which gave the Council the power to govern the territory of New England in America. This led to the establishment of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Mayflower Compact, Ferris
This painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris depicts the signing of the Mayflower Compact. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Virginia Becomes a Royal Colony

In 1622, the Powhatan Confederacy attacked Jamestown and New Town in Virginia, starting the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The incident led King James I to revoke the colonial charters and Virginia became a Royal Colony in 1624.

The Early Life of King James I

Son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland

  • King James I was born on June 19, 1566, at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland.
  • He was the only son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
  • His mother’s cousin was Queen Elizabeth I of England.
  • Lord Darnley was assassinated, and Mary Stuart married James Hepburn, Earl Bothwell, one of the alleged assassins
  • Scottish nobles demanded her resignation and she fled to England.
  • James was proclaimed James VI of Scotland at just one-year-old.
  • In England, Mary was accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and was eventually executed.

John Knox, the Scottish Reformation, and Presbyterianism

  • James was educated as a Presbyterian and followed the teachings of John Knox.
  • Knox was a Scottish minister, theologian, and writer who was a leader of the Scottish Reformation (1546). He was the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
  • During the Scottish Reformation, Scotland adopted a Calvinist theology and broke away from the Catholic Church.
  • Presbyterianism is a Protestant religion based on the principles of John Calvin.
  • Presbyterian theology emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Young James

  • George Buchanan served as a tutor to young James.
  • James spoke his Scottish language, along with Greek, Latin, French, and English.
  • He was an accomplished speaker and writer, which helped him gain a reputation as a capable ruler and leader.
  • James enjoyed hunting but was known to be a reckless horseman and afraid of weapons.
  • He was particularly afraid of knives and always wore heavy clothing as protection.

King James of Scotland Becomes King of England

  • King James faced manipulation from the Scottish nobility during his early years as king.
  • In 1589, he married Anne of Denmark and had three sons and four daughters.
  • Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603, and the English throne passed to her oldest living male blood relative, which was James.
  • When James took the throne, he became King James I of England.
  • Although he was the monarch of both Scotland and England, the nations were not united because they had separate Parliaments and church systems.
  • King James I moved to London, which surprised his new subjects.

King James I and Conflict with Puritans

Hampton Court Conference

  • In 1603, Puritan leaders sent the Millenary Petition to King James I, which he received while he was on his way to London.
  • The petition asked for changes to the practices and procedures of the Church of England.
  • James responded by holding the Hampton Court Conference, which included leaders from the Church of England and the Puritan movement.
  • The conference discussed changes to church government and the Book of Common Prayer, along with a new translation of the Bible.
  • James agreed to a new translation of the Bible, which is known as the King James Version. Over time, it replaced the Geneva Bible.
  • However, James was frustrated with the Puritans, and declared he would make them conform or he would “harry them out of the land.”

King James Version of the Bible

  • King James I appointed six committees, which included 54 scholars, to prepare the new translation of the Bible.
  • They used previous English Bible translations, and the best Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts and manuscripts. 
  • The completed King James Version was first published in 1611.

King James I Embraced the Church of England

  • King James I surprised Calvinist Protestants and Catholics by supporting the Church of England.
  • He was a believer in the philosophy of the “Divine Right of Kings” and being the head of the Church of England gave him power.
  • He shocked Calvinists who opposed the role of Bishops in the church by saying, “No Bishop. No King.”
  • James issued the Book of Sports, allowing recreational activities on the Sabbath, which angered English Puritans and Separatists.

Scrooby Separatists Move to Leiden

  • During the reign of King James I, heightened persecution of Puritans, Separatists, and other religious dissenters by the Church of England led some to escape from England.
  • A congregation of Separatists from the town of Scrooby decided to leave England. 
  • The group included Pastor John Robinson, William Brewster, and William Bradford.
  • They escaped to Amsterdam and later moved to Leiden.
  • After living in Leiden for a decade, they made arrangements to move to Virginia.
Scrooby Manor House in 1907
Scrooby Manor House, where the Separatists held their religious meetings, in 1907. Image Source: The Pilgrims by Frederick Alonso Noble.

Sir Walter Raleigh and the Main Plot

Sir Walter Raleigh had been a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and was responsible for the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. He also played a significant role in the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) and was hated by the Spanish.

  • In 1603, Raleigh was accused of being involved in the “Main Plot,” a scheme to assassinate King James I, which intended to place Lady Arabella Stuart on the English throne.
  • Raleigh was linked to the plot through his association with Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham.
  • Cobham worked to raise money to fund an army to challenge the King. 
  • Although Cobham denied Raleigh was involved, James had him imprisoned anyway.
  • Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London for 13 years.

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

  • In November 1605, Catholics devised a scheme to assassinate King James I and destroy Parliament during the Opening of Parliament.
  • The plan was organized by Robert Catesby, a devout Catholic.
  • A member of Parliament received an anonymous tip about the plot, and Guy Fawkes was found with a stockpile of gunpowder.
  • James distanced himself from Catholic supporters after the plot was exposed.

King James I Orders the Execution of Sir Walter Raleigh

  • King James I released Raleigh from prison in 1617 and authorized him to lead an expedition to the New World to find El Dorado, the legendary city of gold.
  • One of the conditions Raleigh agreed to was he would not engage in hostilities with Spain, which would violate peace agreements.
  • During the expedition, some of Raleigh’s men attacked a Spanish outpost.
  • Upon his return to England, the Spanish Ambassador demanded that he be arrested.
  • James I had Raleigh arrested and beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster Palace on October 29, 1618.
Sir Walter Raleigh, Portrait, 1590
Sir Walter Raleigh. Image Source: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The 30 Years’ War (1618–1648)

  • The Twelve Years Truce was agreed to in 1609 and temporarily ended fighting between Spain and the Dutch Republic.
  • During the 12 years, the Netherlands became a haven for religious dissenters.
  • As the Twelve Years’ Truce between Spain and the United Provinces of the Netherlands came to an end, tension increased in Europe.
  • The Thirty Years’ War started in 1618 and eventually engulfed Europe.
  • Parliament clashed with James I because he refused to involve England in the war, even though it meant potentially saving his son-in-law, Frederick V of the Palatinate, who was also known as the “Winter King.”

Effects of the 30 Years’ War

  • Leading up to the expiration of the Twelve Years’ Truce, the Scrooby Separatists made arrangements to leave Leiden and move to Virginia.
  • The 30 Years’ War was one of the most destructive wars in early European history and altered the political landscape in Europe.
  • Much of the Holy Roman Empire was devastated.
  • In the Netherlands, Italy, France, and Spain, there were significant casualties and destruction of property.
  • The war altered the status of many European nations and contributed to the decline of Spain and the dominance of France.

King James I and the Develoment of English Colonies in America

  • King James I focused on the development of England’s American colonies.
  • Under his rule, the Virginia Company was granted a charter for the establishment of Jamestown.
  • He allowed the Scrooby Separatists to move to Virginia, where they established Plymouth, the first permanent English settlement in New England.
  • He also encouraged Puritans to move to Plymouth.
Plymouth Colony in 1622
This illustration depicts Plymouth Colony in 1622. The Pilgrims by Frederick Alonso Noble.

King James I and Tobacco

  • Despite his dislike for tobacco and his publication of an anti-tobacco pamphlet, he supported the Virginia Company’s efforts to expand and increase tobacco production in the colonies.
  • Writing about smoking tobacco, James said it was a “custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and, in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”

King James I and the Shadow of Queen Elizabeth I

  • King James I faced unfair comparisons to his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, who had left behind a larger-than-life image and significant debts.
  • In 1610, James I proposed a deal with Parliament, offering to guarantee an income from tax revenue in exchange for relinquishing unpopular royal prerogatives such as granting monopolies and single-item customs revenue.
  • When Parliament rejected this proposal, James I resorted to raising money by creating the title of Baronet and selling it to ambitious families who had a good social standing.
Queen Elizabeth I, Portrait, Gower
Queen Elizabeth I. Image Source: Wikipedia.

King James I and the Divine Right of Kings

King James I held a strong belief in the concept of divine-right kingship, which he documented in a treatise intended for the instruction of his son. James wrote:

“Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only…”

King James I and William Shakespeare

  • King James I was a strong supporter of the arts in England.
  • He funded efforts to transform London into a Renaissance court.
  • Soon after he took the throne, James started to sponsor William Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became known as the King’s Men. 
  • Shakespeare celebrated the new king with Macbeth, which was written around 1606.
  • James was believed to be descended from Banquho the thane of Lochquhaber, the historical counterpart of Shakespeare’s Banquo, the friend whom Macbeth betrayed and murdered.

Later Years of King James I

  • In his later years, James I faced increasing health issues related to porphyria, a painful hereditary chemical imbalance.
  • He indulged excessively in food and drink, often to a degree considered disgusting.
  • His reign earned him the nickname “the wisest fool in Christendom.”

Death and Succession

  • King James I died on March 27, 1625, at Theobald’s Park, Hertfordshire.
  • He was succeeded on the English throne by his son, Charles Stuart, who became King Charles I.

King James I Accomplishments and Achievements

Despite facing unpopularity during his reign, James I achieved several significant accomplishments:

  • King James I united England and Scotland under a single monarchy.
  • He worked to prevent English colonies from becoming targets in the Catholic-Protestant conflicts in Europe.
  • James I attempted to reform medieval royal finance and promoted Britain as a cultural center of the Northern Renaissance.
  • Under his reign, the the first permanent English settlements in North American were established.

King James I APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study King James I, Jamestown, and the Pilgrims for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

King James I APUSH Definition

King James I, also known as James VI of Scotland, ascended to the English throne in 1603, succeeding Queen Elizabeth I. His reign marked the beginning of the Stuart dynasty in England. James I is perhaps best known for commissioning the King James Version of the Bible, a landmark English translation that became widely influential. He also faced challenges from Parliament, particularly regarding his beliefs in the divine right of kings and his attempts to assert royal authority. James’ reign set the stage for later conflicts between the monarch and Parliament and influenced the development of English governance and religious thought. He was an advocate of English colonization in the New World, and Jamestown and Plymouth were established during his reign.

King James I APUSH Video

This video from Timeline discusses the reign of King James I of England.

NOTE: This is not a comprehensive biography of the life and reign of King James I of England. It is intended to provide an overview of his association with the 13 Original Colonies in America and to provide a glimpse at other key moments in his life.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title King James I — The First King of America
  • Date June 19, 1566–March 27, 1625
  • Author
  • Keywords King James I, Hampton Court Conference, Jamestown, Newfoundland, Plymouth, Puritans, Pilgrims, Separatists, 30 Years' War, Sir Walter Raleigh, Main Plot, Gunpowder Plot, King James Bible
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 8, 2024

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