adjusting your codpiece -- 12/9/14

Today's selection -- from Rebellion by Peter Ackroyd. After the disciplined and austere reign of Queen Elizabeth, the citizens of England were taken aback by the reign of King James I (1566 to 1625), the very king that ordered the translation the bible now known as the King James version:

"[King James] was so generous with titles that he was accused of improvidence. The reign of Elizabeth witnessed the creation of 878 knights; in the first four months of the king's rule, some 906 new men were awarded that honour. The queen had knighted those whom she considered to be of genuine merit or importance; James merely considered knighthood to be a mark of status. He was said to have knighted a piece of beef with the words 'Arise, Sir Loin'. On another occasion he did not catch the name of the recipient and said, 'Prithee, rise up, and call thyself Sir What Thou Wilt.' Other titles could be purchased with cash. The diminution in the importance of honour marks one of the first changes to the old Tudor system.

"Those who were permitted into the king's presence may not have been entirely impressed. He was awkward and hesitant in manner; his legs were slightly bowed and his gait erratic, perhaps the consequence of rickets acquired in childhood. One admittedly hostile witness, Sir Anthony Weldon, also described him as forever 'fiddling about his codpiece'.

"He was a robust and fluent conversationalist, who rather liked to hear the sound of his own voice, but the effect upon his English audience was perhaps impaired by the fact that he retained a broad Scots accent. If he was eager to talk, he was also quick to laugh. He could be witty, but delivered his droll remarks in a grave and serious voice. His manners were not impeccable, and he was said to have slobbered over his food and drink. He paid little attention to his dress, but favoured thickly padded doublets that might impede an assassin's dagger; ever since his childhood he had lived in fear of assault or murder. He was said to have a horror of naked steel. He had a restless, roving eye; he paid particular notice to those at court who were not known to him. ...

"He was, however, in many respects a learned man. All his life he had argued, and debated, with his Scottish clergy. He delighted in theological controversy, and according to an early observer 'he apprehends clearly, judges wisely and has a retentive memory'. The king also believed himself to be a master of the written word and composed volumes on demonology, monarchy, witchcraft and smoking. On his accession medal he is crowned with a laurel wreath, a sure sign of his literary pretensions. He even replied to 'rayling rhymes' published against him with his own doggerel verse. In 1616 he collected all of his prose writings into a folio volume, the first English monarch ever to do so. So he became known, sometimes sarcastically, as 'the British Solomon'. ...

"There could be no doubt that the new court differed markedly from its predecessor. The king was known to be devoted to his pleasures rather than what were considered to be his duties. He attended the fights of the Cockpit in Whitehall Palace twice a week, and, like his predecessor, loved to ride or hunt every day. When James rode up to the dead hart he dismounted and cut its throat with dispatch; he then sated the dogs with its blood before wiping his bloodied hands across the faces of his fellow horsemen.

"It soon became clear that he did not enjoy the company of spectators at his sports. Quite unlike his predecessor he disliked and even detested crowds. When the people flocked about him he would swear at them and cry out, 'What would they have?' On one occasion he was told that they had come in love and reverence. To which he replied, in a broad Scots accent, 'God's wounds, I will pull down my breeches and they shall also see my arse.' He would bid 'A pox on you!' or 'A plague on you!' As a result of outbursts of anger such as this he became, in the words of the Venetian ambassador, 'despised and almost hated'. ...

"James was continually and heavily in debt. He had thought to come into a realm of gold, but soon found his purse to be bare. Or, rather, he emptied it too readily. He bought boots and silk stockings and beaver hats in profusion. Court ceremonial was more lavish with the arrival of ever more 'gentlemen extraordinary'. There was a vogue at court for 'golden play' or gambling. The king loved masques and feasts, which were for him a true sign of regality. He wished to have a masque on the night of Christmas, whereupon he was told that it was not the fashion. 'What do you tell me of the fashion?' he enquired. 'I will make it a fashion.' "


Peter Ackroyd


Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution


Thomas Dunne Books


Copyright 2014 by Peter Ackroyd


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