In 1599, King James VI of Scotland published Basilikon Doron (The King’s Gift), a letter to his young son Henry (1594–1612), drawing on his own experience as king to offer advice on how to be an effective ruler. This collection item is King James’s own autograph manuscript of the text – written in Middle Scots and complete with his revisions and corrections – in its original purple velvet binding with gold decorative plates, corner pieces and clasps.
Only seven copies of the published text were printed at the time, suggesting that it was intended for a select private readership of family and nobility. Throughout 1603, the year Elizabeth died and James acceded to the English throne, a revised text was widely printed. It was also translated into other languages and became an international bestseller.
The book is in three sections covering a monarch’s duty to God, his duties of office, and advice on his daily behaviour. Basilikon Doron upholds the theory of the divine right of kings – the absolutist idea that a monarch’s authority to rule comes directly from God and that he or she is not subject to any earthly authority. Furthermore, it warns against the threat of both Catholics and Puritans.
Basilikon Doron emphasizes the importance of union and the dangers of the division of a kingdom. From 1604 King James struggled with Parliament over his attempt to bring together his two kingdoms of Scotland and England in an act of union. In 1607 he eventually admitted defeat.
Basilikon Doron and King Lear
There are numerous themes from Basilikon Doron that are also found in King Lear and it is possible that Shakespeare intended the play to include warning to the King (whose own sons were the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany) about how he should conduct himself in his rule. A contemporary audience (including King James himself who saw the play at court on St Stephen’s Night 1606) would have been aware of the echoes of Basilikon Doron.
Among other things, James advises against being a tyrant; for honouring one’s parents; for supporting the poor; for being well acquainted with one’s subjects; for the careful selection of loyal gentlemen and servants for one’s household; against the wife of a king being allowed to meddle in politics; for the active participation of the king in councils in order to be able to govern well; that the clothing of a king always be appropriate and his language plain and honest. Most significantly for King Lear, James advises against the division of a kingdom, recounting the example of Brutus (Lear’s ancestor) whose children divided Britain into three.
f. 10r, l. 13–f. 10v, l. 12: on honouring one’s parents.
f. 11r, l. 4 ff.: on taking the part of the poor.
f. 22r, l. 17–f. 22v, l. 8: on the behaviour of the wife of a king.
f. 22v, ll. 8–19: on children and warning not to divide a kingdom.
f. 28r, l. 17–f. 30r, l. 9: on the appropriate clothing and language for a king.