Secret correspondence of James VI

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The secret correspondence of James VI of Scotland was communication between the Scottish king and administrators of Elizabeth I of England between May 1601 and the Queen's death in March 1603. In this period it was settled that James would succeed Elizabeth, but the diplomatic result was kept secret. James's accession to the thrones of England and Ireland is known as the Union of the Crowns.

The embassy of the Earl of Mar[edit]

The Earl of Mar and Edward Bruce, Commendator of Kinloss, went to London as ambassadors in February 1601,[1] attempting to secure the throne of England for James VI. The Scottish ambassadors expected to negotiate with the Earl of Essex, but he was executed on 25 February 1601 before their arrival in London.[2] Their first set of instructions are known from a summary by Essex's servant Henry Cuffe who was condemned to hang.[3]

James VI then gave his ambassadors new instructions that they should "walk surely between the precipices of the Queen and the people", and encouraged them to go forward in private negotiation and secure the individual support of key towns and ports.[4] Although Mar and Bruce gained the confidence of Robert Cecil and an understanding on the succession was reached, their success was kept secret.[5]

At a meeting at the Duchy of Lancaster House on the Strand, Cecil requested James would not seek an English parliamentary recognition of his claim to the throne, and that future correspondence with the Scottish ambassadors should be a secret from Elizabeth herself. Until the death of Elizabeth I two exchanges of letters between England and Scotland were kept up, the usual communication and the "secret correspondence".[6]

The letters[edit]

The private letters to Scotland were written by Robert Cecil and Henry Howard. James's letters were written by Mar, Kinloss, and perhaps Mar's kinsman, Thomas Erskine of Gogar.[7] Some of the letters were sent to England as if they were meant for the Duke of Rohan in France, and so arrived in England to be added to the 'diplomatic bag'. The 18th-century historian Thomas Birch suggested that a Scottish representative in London, James Hamilton, was involved in sending the letters to Scotland. Hamilton had kept a school in Dublin, and later James made him Viscount Clandeboye.[8] James Hamilton was accredited by James VI to reside in London, by his letters to Elizabeth and Robert Cecil on 4 August 1600. James said that Hamilton would be a "remaining agent" the equivalent of George Nicolson in Edinburgh.[9]

James VI of Scotland criticised Henry Howard's verbose writing style.

The English diplomat Henry Wotton later gave an anecdote that Elizabeth had once noticed mail arriving from Scotland. She demanded to see it, Cecil made to open the satchel (which Wotton calls a 'budget') but told the Queen it was filthy and smelled bad, and she could have the letters after they were aired.[10] It remains unclear if Elizabeth was actually unaware of any detail of Cecil's negotiations.

(Henry Wotton himself came to Scotland in September 1601 from Florence. Posing as an Italian called Octavio Baldi he met James and remained in character for three months. James discussed Wotton's arrival with Edward Bruce, his brother George, and the Earl of Mar. The English resident George Nicholson was unaware that the "Italian" was Wotton.[11] Wotton later wrote that his mission was from Ferdinando de' Medici to advise James of a poison plot against him and bring a gift of antidotes.)[12]

Some of the letters, as was quite usual in diplomatic correspondence, employed numbers to refer to individuals, Robert Cecil was '10', James was '30', Howard '3' and Bruce '8.'[13] By June 1602, James wrote of how Cecil and his colleague '40' had "so easily settled me in the only right course for my good, (and) so happily preserved the Queen's mind from the poison of jealous prejudice."[14]

During this time a separate 'public' correspondence between Elizabeth and James continued. The historian J. D. Mackie thought the tone of the public letters was now more cordial than in previous years.[15] The irregular subsidy which Elizabeth paid to James (in cash or jewellery) was also increased.

James criticised Howard's writing style, writing in May 1602 comparing, "my own laconic style" with Howard's "ample Asiatic and endless volumes".[16] The 19th-century historian Patrick Fraser Tytler noted the excessive flattery used by Howard and the effort made to exclude others from the discussions. Although James did notice and challenge Howard's attempts to direct his actions with regard to other channels of communication, Tytler summed up their success;

"At all events, nothing could have been more secretly or adroitly managed than the whole correspondence between Howard, Cecil, and the Scottish king. No one had the least suspicion of the understanding that existed between the trio."[17]

J. D. Mackie noted amongst those unaware of the letters; the English resident agent in Scotland George Nicholson, the Master of Grey, an intriguer who served the Duke of Lennox, and James's own secretary James Elphinstone, 1st Lord Balmerino. One person outside the circle came to know of the letters, and wrote to the Bishop of Durham in March 1602 that James VI had kept up a correspondence with Robert Cecil for six months, but still disliked him. The Bishop sent the letter to Robert Cecil. By examining the handwriting of this report, J. D. Mackie thought the poet William Fowler was its author.[18]


  1. ^ Masson, David, ed., Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol.6 (1884), p.204 & footnote.
  2. ^ Bruce, John, (1861), p.xxix.
  3. ^ Yorke, Philip, ed., Miscellaneous State Papers, vol.1 (1778) pp.372-376: Birch Thomas, ed., Memoirs of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth,vol. 2, A. Millar (1754) pp.512-514
  4. ^ Dalrymple, David, Lord Hailes, Secret Correspondence, (1766), pp.1-12, James to Mar, 8 April 1601.
  5. ^ Houlbrooke, Ralph Anthony, James VI and I: ideas, authority, and government, Ashgate (2006), p.40.
  6. ^ Bruce, John (1861), p.xxxv.
  7. ^ For Thomas Erskine, see Hailes (1766), p.97, 102, 111, 137, 209.
  8. ^ Mackie, vol.1 (1969), p.xvii, p.xxxvii: Birch, Thomas, Life of Prince Henry, London/Dublin (1760), p.232
  9. ^ Mackie, J. D., ed., Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.13 part 2, Scottish Record Office (1969), p.674-5
  10. ^ Bruce, John (1861), p.xxxix, citing Wotton, Henry, Reliquiae Wottonianae, (1672), p.169.
  11. ^ CSP. Scotland., vol. 13 part 2 (Edinburgh HMSO, 1969), p. 876 no. 714
  12. ^ H. Wotton, Reliquiae Wottonianae, 2nd ed. (1654), pp. 29-35
  13. ^ See Bruce, John (1861), pp.15-32, for examples with these numbers.
  14. ^ Bruce, (1861), 15, modern spelling
  15. ^ Mackie, vol.1 (1969), p.xvii.
  16. ^ Hailes (1766), p.116.
  17. ^ Tytler, P.F., History of Scotland, (1879), vol.4 chpt. 12, p.307.
  18. ^ Mackie, J.D., ed., Calendar of State Papers Scotland vol.1 (1969), p.xvii & fn.2 citing HMC Cecil, vol.14, pp.211-2