James I (1967)

Book Number: 2


The second title to be included in the series is something of an oddity. James I, by David Mathew, was published in hardback by Eyre & Spottiswoode in the UK in 1967 and in the USA by the University of Alabama Press in 1968, in hardback. A list on the rear cover of the E&S copy names ‘other titles’ to come in the series at that date, and quite clearly identifies the book as the second in the series. It has never been republished. The book is similarly listed in other English Monarchs books into the early 1990s. The 1988 paperback reprint of Richard III lists it for example as does the 1989 Methuen hardback reprint of Edward the Confessor.

The note on the dust jacket flap says that Mathew has made a special study on James during the previous thirty years and in this book he summarises his conclusions. In doing so he “...deals in detail with the many problems of the reign on which there have been conflicting interpretations”. This book was an attempt at an update to the standard work on King James VI & I by David Harris Willson (Jonathan Cape, 1956), rather long in the tooth now but nominated by Simon Adams (author of the forthcoming Yale biography of Elizabeth I) as a biography of this king that hasn't been superceded. With this excellent book only a decade old when Mathew wrote James I the question has to be asked as to how Eyre & Spottiswoode could publish this inferior book on James?

Mathew's "summary" of the key issues is the weakness of the book for modern readers, now perhaps better informed on this king’s reign than when this book was published and who seek a greater analysis of the whole reign rather than a commentary on the problematic moments. This study presents as more ‘episodic’ than of a narrative form and reads as a very uneven and incomplete work.

Close to the time this book was published Professor Marc L. Schwarz (University of New Hampshire) in the Journal of British Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1974) noted that new views of James were prevalent, updating images of James being a buffoon and worthless. Mathew’s book should have provided a revised estimate of James, but as it did not it is of little value. It was no surprise then to find that his title was removed from lists of books in the series when Yale took ownership of the series from Methuen. The view of the Yale editors obviously was that the book was not of the standard expected for English Monarchs. Additionally Yale may also have insisted that books it publishes in this series - or generally - must be written by an author holding an academic rank of some seniority or equivalent. Mathew did not have an academic career. He was a history graduate of the University of Oxford but did not pursue academic work, although he wrote twenty history titles in the twelve years of retirement before his death.

The book is closer to popular history than to academic and lacks analysis which would mark it as a book of a different focus to that which Yale would prefer. It falls a great distance short of the elegance, authority and ease of a work by Charles Ross or David Douglas. Further, the style of Mathew’s writing is somewhat stilted and antique, and does not compare well with the other books in the series, including the book’s contemporaries of the 1960s.

Clayton Roberts (Ohio State University) reviewed this book in The Canadian Historical Review, Volume 50 Number 2 (1969). He pinpoints the reasons why this is an unsatisfactory biography: "David Mathew's life of King James is not a well wrought work. To begin with, he devotes too much attention to personal relationships, too little to political conflicts...The narrative is likewise disjointed, with abrupt transitions, pointless digressions and miscellaneous information. Towards the end of the book David Mathews deserts James altogether in order to write on the masque, the Jacobean palace, the Villers family, and the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs...[Mathews] is a collector of curiosities, not a philosophic historian." Roberts likens Mathews style to the meanderings of medieval chronicler Froissart or the court gossip Pepys, suggesting that this is a book for pleasure not for analysis or argument.

For all that, this book deserves to be collected by English Monarchs readers. It ought to be recognised as an early contributor to the series, one which sustained English Monarchs in the early years and gave it greater breadth. It was not until Yale started to issue new titles in the series that another late monarch title appeared (George IV in 1999). During that time David Mathew’s James I was the sole representative of the Stuarts and, indeed, any reign later than Henry VIII.

Collectors of the English Monarchs series, enthusiasts for the Stuart period in general or King James in particular may wish to seek this title through second-hand book vendors and, having purchased it, place in on your shelves after John Edward’s book on Mary I or after your non-Yale Elizabeth I biographies.

David Mathew is one of only four English Monarchs series authors to have presented papers in the Ford's Lectures in British History at the University of Oxford. He lectured in the 1945-46 academic year. The others were Professor David Douglas who delivered his book on William the Conqueror in 1962-63 prior to its publication in 1964, Professor J.J. Scarisbrick in 1981-82 and Professor David Bates in 2009-10 who presented on ‘The Normans and Empire’. Mathew’s participation in this prestigious academic venue didn’t prevent his eclipse from the series.

Quite why the University of Alabama Press was chosen to publish this second English Monarchs title in the United States is a mystery. This was the only English Monarchs title carried by the University of Alabama Press. This might suggest that the two publishers had a contract or partnership to issue joint titles in each other’s territory.

Those who seek a modern study of James VI may find satisfaction in the works of several alternative authors:

‘King James’ (2002) by Pauline Croft (Royal Holloway University of London). ISBN 9780333613962

‘The Cradle King’ (2009) by Professor Alan Stewart (Columbia University, New York). ISBN 9780701169848

‘James VI of Scotland’ (1979) and ‘James I of England’ (1981), a two-volume study of James by Caroline Bingham. ISBN 9780002113908 and 9780297778899

‘James I: Scotland's King of England’ by John Matusiak (2015). A new History Press title. ISBN 9780750955621

Professor Croft’s 2002 book is characterised as a segmented examination for students of the reign. Professor Stewart’s 2003 book is reviewed as a more popular study, with a focus on politics and religion of the reign, but with some weaknesses in analysis. Caroline Bingham’s volumes are a superior popular history, but thoroughly researched and referenced and perhaps are a mid-point between the books of the two preceding author’s works. John Matusiak’s book is by a Tudor/early Stuart specialist and focuses on the English reign of James.

There has been a recent attempt at an English Monarchs titles for James but this was not completed. Click the link at the head of this page to go to a commentary on recent work towards a modern biography of James.

Cover: The portrait of James comes from the painting by Jan de Critz which, at the time of the publication of the book, resided in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

It is one of a number of similar paintings produced by John de Critz and his studio around 1605 and 1606, with small variations of costume, accessories, and background.

ISBN data (Hardback only):

Eyre & Spottiswoode  - 9780413256201

University of Alabama Press  - 9780817354008


Retired from series

James I

by David Mathew (1902-1975)

Series Editor: David C. Douglas