The Succession Of James I
On March 24th 1603 the Tudor monarch Queen Elizabeth died heirless and without having named a successor. Within eight hours of this event James the VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England and his reign saw an extended era of peace until his death in 1625. However, the inevitability of the event to modern eyes was far less certain to those living in Shakespeare’s time where the acceptance of a foreign monarch on the English throne was treated with much scepticism.
After Elizabeth had passed up the chance of marriage with the Duke of Alcenon in the years 1579-80 it became apparent that the Tudor line would become extinct at her death. Due to the high levels of speculation regarding the succession in 1586 Elizabeth made it treasonable in parliament to discuss it, but in refusing to name her successor she made the problem worse. At this time there would have been strong reasons for not naming a successor as the next in line for the throne was her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, who was not only a foreigner, but a Catholic, which was unacceptable to the Protestant establishment in England. To complicate matters further there was a law dating back to Edward III which precluded all those who were born ‘outside the allegiance of the realm of England’ from ascending the throne.  More recently, Henry VIII had written in his will that the crown should not pass to any of the Stuart household owing to a personal enmity he had with them.
It was this climate in which James made his bid for the throne. Under the rules of primogeniture he was the leading candidate. Out of a dozen or so potentials however, only two others had any realistic chance of succeeding. Edward Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, was one. However the marriage of his parents had been secret, which meant his legitimacy was far from secure. The other was Arabella Stuart, a relation of James’s, but whose Protestant credentials were dubious, as the Pope himself had recommended her to English Roman Catholics as Elizabeth’s proper successor. 
In order to gain support, James sought out the influential Cecil family, however they were unwilling to hear his overtures and so he instead courted Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex and one of the ‘favourites’ of Queen Elizabeth. The Earl proved useful to James, but Essex’s short lived rebellion on the 8th February 1601 ultimately proved fatal. James then attempted to win over Robert Cecil, the Queen’s First Secretary, this time with success, and with his help he began to pave the way to his smooth succession.
In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, written before James came to the throne, one can see parallel’s between the events in the play and the genuine concerns in England of having a foreign monarch. Stuart Kurland has noted that, ‘the political world of the play is informed by the uncertainty engendered by James VI’s manoeuvres and threats to secure the English succession.’  At the end of the play, the line of the Danish kingdom has been extinguished only for a foreigner (Fortinbras) to succeed. As James was married to Anna of Denmark, it was thought in some quarters that if James was to attempt a military intervention to secure the throne then he could rely on the forces of Christian IV of Denmark who was his brother in law.
In the end no military means were required to secure the throne, and when Shakespeare wrote King Lear after James’s succession the focus fell more on kingship, rather than on the legitimacy of his succession. Lear is the most powerful of all Shakespeare’s British Kings, as, at the start of the play he is firmly established as the king of a united Britain. This reflects James’s own ambition to become the ruler of a fully united kingdom, and although he was officially titled James the VI of Scotland and James I of England, he unofficially gave himself the title of King of Great Britain. Indeed, he approached the parliament in 1607 to form a closer political union, but his requests were ultimately rejected.
The names of the Dukes in King Lear were also deliberately chosen by Shakespeare in reference to the Stuart household. James had recently made his sons Henry and Charles the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany. Albany is especially significant because it was an old title specifically linked to the Stuarts.  In the play Albany is an honest man who realises too late the machinations of his devious relatives and strives to restore the natural order of things. At the end, after the extinction of the royal line of Lear’s house, there is hope for the monarchy in the figure of Albany, a figure from Scotland, who has a chance to reunite the fractured kingdom. In this he represents everything that James VI and I hoped to achieve with his own succession.
1. Leanda de Lisle, After Elizabeth: How James, King of Scots won the Crown of England in 1603
(London, 2005), p. 31 Return to text
2. Alan Stewart, The Cradle King: A Life of James VI and I. (London, 2003), p. 20 Return to text
3. Stuart M. Kurland, ‘Hamlet and the Scottish Succession?’ Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Vol., 34 (1994), p. 293 Return to text
4. Andrew Hadfield, ‘The Power and Rights of the Crown in Hamlet and King Lear: ‘The King – The King’s to blame’’, The Review of English Studies Vol. 54 (2003), pp. 566-586. Return to text