The Jacobean equivalent of a coronation mug?
The re-printing of Basilikon Doron was timed with the coronation of King James VI and I
In the lead up to King Charles III’s coronation, shops are filled with merchandise and souvenirs, from chinaware and tea towels to socks, tote bags and even bootleg coronation t-shirts. The commercial, materialistic, and touristic aspects of coronations have been a persistent trend in British history. And British monarchs have long used their coronation and accession days to generate excitement and fervour amongst the general population. This was no exception in early modern Britain.
During Elizabeth I’s reign, her Accession Day on 17 November 1558 – which commemorated the day she became queen on the death of her sister Mary I – was an elaborate annual celebration, filled with tournaments, processions, the ringing of bells and even the burning of an effigy of the Pope. Themed tilts were all the rage, and knights from across the realm would dress up in costumes and decorated armour that flattered the queen. Her successor, James VI and I, who was the first to style himself as the King of Great Britain, would also use pageantry as a form of monarchical celebration. He was an avid Patron of the Arts, funding opulent masques at court and sponsoring theatres across the country, including Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men. Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) is one example of the impact that James’ patronage had on early modern English drama. The play explores divine kingship, witchcraft, and Scottish history, all of which were themes inspired by James’ reign and political ideas.
However, his accession to the English throne in 1603 was also marked by something new: the mass-production of James’ own literary works. Prior to his accession, James had been a prolific writer, composing poetry collections, anti-Catholic texts and overtly political books. Several of these works had been published whilst he was king in Scotland, but when he succeeded Elizabeth I, James had a majority of his works republished to coincide with his arrival in England.
The most popular and arguably the most important of these republished works was Basilikon Doron, or The King’s Gift, first published in 1599. Peter W. M. Blayney estimates that there were between 13,000 and 16,000 English copies printed in London and Edinburgh in spring 1603, which was a colossal print run in such a short period. The initial interest and high demand for the book saw the publisher employ three different printing houses in London to keep up with demand. 3,000 of these copies were pirated editions: England’s readers were clearly determined to get their hands on Basilikon Doron. However, Jenny Wormald argues that a large number of these copies were probably not actually read and suggests that Basilikon Doron might have even been ‘the equivalent of a coronation mug’. The public were undoubtedly eager to find out about their new king, but it is also likely that many purchased a copy as a way to commemorate the king’s accession.
It is not surprising to see why it was the most popular of all of James’ literary works, or why it might have served as the equivalent of a coronation souvenir. Basilikon Doron was written in the form of a private letter to the king’s son, Prince Henry, whilst James was gravely ill. The book is an instruction manual on how to be a good king, from just governance to proper kingly diet and sleep routine. After he overcame his illness, James had 7 copies printed in 1599 to distribute amongst his ‘trustiest servants’. When it was published for the public in 1603, it retained its intimate qualities as an instruction manual from a father (king) to a son (prince), but in preparation for a more general audience James added an address to the reader, a sonnet, and lengthened the text considerably. Evidently, despite its personal origins, James saw the opportunity to repackage his book and distribute it widely, serving to introduce himself and his ideas on kingship to his new subjects. For his subjects, it was an intimate encounter (though perhaps not as intimate as the modern Prince Harry’s Spare) with their new and foreign king.
Although Basilikon Doron had flourished in 1603, it was not printed again in English until 1616, when it was included in James’ complete works folio. However, in the immediate years after his accession, the book was translated into Latin, Welsh, French, German, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish. The translations indicate that the book saw continued interest as a political and Protestant work on the Continent, despite its apparent short-lived interest amongst English readers. Today, almost every library of repute in Western Europe has a copy of the Latin Basilikon Doron, highlighting its immense popularity, and further compounding the book’s significance to the spread of James’ ideas on politics and kingship. In the University Library of Uppsala, you will even find a copy that belonged to Sigismund III (1566-1632), the King of Sweden and Poland.
Therefore, in spite of the fact that many English copies were likely purchased as a kind of ‘Jamesian’ merchandise, the numerous translations and republications throughout the seventeenth century highlight its political importance to James’ reputation, and to wider ideas of monarchy on the Continent. Even prior to the digital age, monarchs were able to broadcast themselves to a wide-reaching audience in one form or another, and James is a particularly unique case on account of his extensive authorship and utilisation of print.
James VI and I, Basilikon Doron (London: John Norton, 1603)
The Basilicon Doron of King James VI, ed. by James Craigie (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons Ltd., 1950)
London, British Library, Royal MS 18 B XV
Wormald, Jenny, ‘Basilikon Doron and Trew Lawe of Free Monarchies: The Scottish Context and the English translation’, The Mental World of the Jacobean World, ed. by Linda Levy Peck (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 36-54