I must confess it took me several months to read the 42 pages of King James VI and I’s treatise on the ideal monarch, Basilikon Doron (The King’s Gift). James composed this gift for his eldest son and heir, Prince Henry, as a practical guide on how a king should govern wisely and judiciously. My stumbling blocks were not so much the sixteenth-century Scots spellings where u’s are written as v’s and vice-versa (enuie, neuer, vundestand), as my deep unease with James’s unshakeable conviction that anointed kings are tantamount to gods:
God giues not kings the stile of Gods in vain
For on his Throne his Scepter doe they swey
My reading was slowed as well, by the flagrant inconsistency between James’s stated principles and his own historical record. Given what we know of his craving for effusive flattery in the later years of his reign, his condemnation of this vice comes across as nakedly hypocritical: “Choose for servants men of known wisdom, honestie and good conscience, but especially free of that filthie vice of flatterie, the pest of all princes…” And of course I bridled at Basilikon Doron’s description of how the perfect relationship between a king and his consort ought to unfold. Even allowing for historical relativism, James’s opinion of women’s capabilities is here damningly restrictive: “command her as her Lord, cherish her as your helper, rule her as your pupil, and please her in all things reasonable; but teach not to be curious in things that belong her not: Ye are the head, she is the body; it is your office to command and hers to obey…suffer her never to meddle with the Politic government of the Commonwealth, but hold her at the Economic rule of the house, and yet all be subject to your direction.”
As an antidote to the rigid, often troubling views James advances in Basilikon Doron, I turned to Marianne Moore’s poem, “The Plumet Basilisk”, dedicated to a most remarkable lizard found in Costa Rica, southern Mexico and Panama. Also known as the plumed basilisk, this “living firework”, as she describes him, can run on top of the water, as agile there as on land. “He leaps and meets his/likeness in the stream. and king with king/helped by his three-part plume along the back, runs on his two legs.”
“One of the quickest lizards in the world,” Moore calls the basilisk. “If beset, he lets go, smites the water, and runs on it…” In his firework quickness on land and water, “the basilisk portrays/mythology’s wish/to be interchangeably man and fish.” Had James VI and I been more open to such supple interchangeability, conceiving of himself as both man and king rather than god and king, England might have been spared the bloodiest internecine conflict in its history, and the regicide that brought down the House of Stuart.
Prince Henry, for whom James wrote Basilikon Doron, died at age 16, a brave, soldierly, graceful young man adored by the people. Had he lived to become king, Henry might well have moderated his father’s unyielding doctrines on a king’s equivalence with god. His younger brother Charles, who succeeded James as Charles I, was to carry the divine right of kings espoused in his father’s treatise to such lengths England was plunged into civil war and Charles himself beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s executioners.
Is it fanciful to wonder if Charles I’s obdurate resistance and refusal to compromise with Parliament was rooted in a failure of the imagination? Convinced of his own divine right to rule absolutely, in accordance with his father’s indoctrination, he was unable to envision another legitimate form of governance.
“As near a thing as we have to a king,” Marianne Moore calls the mind’s crucible of human imagination where all transformative thought is born. It is an insight that might well have helped James leaven his own unyielding vision of what kingship means and averted the years of horrific suffering that were its direct consequence.