So when you hear the title of Alistair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell’s The Murder of King James I, you might think, “wait, he wasn’t murdered, though?” And indeed he very probably was not. But there was a scurrilous libel claiming that he was. And so the thesis of this book is that lies—even disreputable lies that nobody respectable actually believes—can have incredible power in shaping the course of events.
To anyone living in the present day, and paying attention to events, this is not going to come as a shocking and revelatory thesis, of course. We can look around and see the indisputable political impact of disreputable lies. But historians have historically thought of themselves as sober-minded reputable folks who were above giving credence to base lies and vile calumny, and so the standard historiography of Charles I’s reign didn’t (the authors of this book assert, and I am not equipped to argue) take these rumors seriously.
So big picture, that’s what this book is doing: Looking at the context and impacts around a particular book written by one Dr. Eglisham, which accused the Duke of Buckingham of poisoning King James I and kind of sideways implied that Charles was involved to one degree or another, even if it was just giving too much deference to his favourite.
And so to support that big picture, the book gets into a lot of really cool weeds. There’s a whole section about the frameworks of medical theory, Galenic and otherwise, that would govern the treatment of “tertian agues,” including what the hell a tertian ague even is. There’s a biography of Eglishman, explaining what role society provided for a kind of second-rate doctor/theologian/intellectual at this time. There’s an overview of the continental libel publishing industry and the international political context underlying and supporting it. There’s a tick-tock of the last days of James I. There’s a detailed overview of the claims in Eglisham’s book. There’s a section about the non-press world of scribal copies and how those formed an underground of political literature. There’s a bunch about court and Parliamentary politics. There’s a lot about the shifting political valences of the accusations, how a pro-Catholic screed against Buckingham ended up being used by die-hard Protestants in their rebellion as they got themselves worked up to regicide.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. One of the weird things about ebooks is that sometimes you think you’re picking up a slim volume on a narrow topic, and then suddenly you get to “Part II” and take a look at the table of contents and realize that while you thought you were almost done with the book, you’re still at the early part of it and that actually you picked up a 650 page brick. So yeah, I’ve been reading this for a while.
Still, it’s a long book, but it’s well-writen and accessible, and the length is entirely because it’s stuffed full of interesting things. Even if you care very little about James I and his death, you’ll almost certainly find multiple somethings that are interesting in here. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to read a big ol’ brick about this period and this set of topics.