King James I, 'the Wisest Fool in Christendom'

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The colony that bore his name was of no great import to him, and he was disgusted by the crop that would prove to be its economic foundation. He was more interested in the flying squirrels sent from Virginia as zoological curiosities than the consequences of English settlement of the New World.

Yet King James I of England, for whom Jamestown and the James River were named, approved the creation of the colony and kept it alive despite worries that its presence might provoke war with Spain.

Jamestown sprang from the spirit of exploration established by the king's predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I. The Age of Elizabeth had seen English ships sent around the world and several attempts to establish a colony in North America, none successful.

James had assumed the throne of Scotland in 1567 when his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate, and he became king of England after his cousin Elizabeth died in 1603.

James lacked Elizabeth's boldness; his primary concern was to avoid war with Spain, Europe's greatest power, with which he made a quick peace.

But James refused to renounce any English claim to North America despite Spain's domination of the New World. In 1606, he granted a charter to the Virginia Company to establish a colony in North America. When the Spanish ambassador demanded that he put an end to Jamestown, the king demurred.

Erudite yet lacking in vision, he was famously dubbed "the wisest fool in Christendom." James also had a most unregal bearing. "A lifetime of gluttony and immoderate drinking had much reshaped his head and body," historian David Price wrote in his history of Jamestown. Pocahontas, introduced to James in 1617 during her visit to London, could scarcely believe he was king.

Despite his habits, James was repulsed by smoking, describing it as a "custome Lothsome to the eye, hateful the Nose, harmfull to the braine, [and] dangerous to the Lungs."

Still, James did not intercede as Pocahontas's husband, John Rolfe, crossed native Virginia tobacco with seeds from the West Indies to create a lucrative crop for Jamestown.

"When it really came down to it, he was quite willing to take the revenue," scholar James Horn said. "He was a pragmatist."

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