The Religious Toleration of James I

James I was a firm believer in Christian unity; Dorothy Boyd Rush describes his distrust of extremists, Catholic or Protestant.

During much of the seventeenth century, the concept of cuius regio, eius religio which had been established by the Peace of Augsburg (1555) prevailed throughout Europe; religious uniformity was as much desired for political as for religious reasons.

Even England, where the course of the Reformation had been unique in many respects, required at least the outward conformity of all. Moreover, the unsettled state of the royal succession made the religious situation in Elizabethan England additionally complex.

For much of Elizabeth’s reign, her ‘legitimate’ heir was not only a foreign Queen, but an avowed Catholic. After the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, Elizabeth’s probable heir became James VI of Scotland, Mary’s son. By training and inclination, James was basically a Calvinist; by conviction, he was an early ecumenicalist whose religious expectations frequently exceeded the possible.

Unfortunately, during his formative years, James’s simultaneous pursuit of his religious ideals and the throne of England often placed him in a difficult position. What seemed possible and desirable to James often seemed merely devious and deceitful to his contemporaries.


The medieval ideal of Christian unity was far from dead in James’s day; yet his approach to religious considerations was essentially modern. According to James, religious moderates, whether they were Catholics or Protestants, obviously had more in common with each other than they had with the extremists of their respective faiths.

Therefore, if the Pope could be persuaded to renounce his claims of temporal authority and the militant political methods of the Jesuits, whom James came to scorn as ‘Puritan-Papists’, James would be willing to denounce the Protestant extremists who ‘infected’ his own realm, whether they were Scottish Presbyterians or English Puritans.

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