The lawyers had been subservient beyond all other classes to the Crown. In the narrow pedantry with which they bent before isolated precedents, without realizing the conditions under which these precedents had been framed, and to which they owed their very varying value, the judges had supported James in his claims. But beyond precedents even the judges refused to go. They had done their best, in a case that came before them, to restrict the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts within legal and definite bounds: and when James asserted an inherent right in the King to be heard before judgement was delivered, whenever any case affecting the prerogative came before his courts, they timidly, but firmly, repudiated such a right as unknown to the law. James sent for them to the Royal closet, and rated them like schoolboys, till they fell on their knees, and, with a single exception, pledged themselves to obey his will. The Chief-Justice, Sir Edward Coke, a narrow-minded and bitter-tempered man, but of the highest eminence as a lawyer, and with a reverence for the law that overrode every other instinct, alone remained firm. When any case came before him, he answered, he would act as it became a judge to act.
Coke was at once dismissed from the Council, and a provision which made the judicial office tenable at the King's pleasure, but which had long fallen into disuse, was revived to humble the common law in the person of its chief officer; on the continuance of his resistance he was deprived of his post of Chief-Justice. No act of James seems to have stirred a deeper resentment among Englishmen than this announcement of his will to tamper with the course of justice. It was an outrage on the growing sense of law, as the profusion and profligacy of the court were an outrage on the growing sense of morality. The treasury was drained to furnish masques and revels on a scale of unexampled splendour. Lands and* jewels were lavished on young adventurers, whose fair faces caught the royal fancy. If the court of Elizabeth was as immoral as that of her successor, its immorality had been shrouded by a veil of grace and chivalry. But no veil hid the degrading grossness of the court of James. The King was held, though unjustly, to be a drunkard. Actors in a masque performed at court were seen rolling intoxicated at his feet. A scandalous trial showed great nobles and officers of state in league with cheats and astrologers and poisoners.
James himself had not shrunk from meddling busily in the divorce of Lady Essex; and her subsequent bridal with one of his favourites was celebrated in his presence. Before scenes such as these, the half-idolatrous reverence with which the sovereign had been regarded throughout the period of the Tudors died away into abhorrence and contempt. The players openly mocked at the King on the stage. Mrs. Hutchinson denounced the orgies of Whitehall in words as fiery as those with which Elijah denounced the sensuality of Jezebel. But the immorality of James's court was hardly more despicable than the folly of his government. In the silence of Parliament, the royal Council, composed as it was not merely of the ministers, but of the higher nobles and hereditary officers of state, had served even under a despot like Henry the Eighth as a check upon the arbitrary will of the sovereign. But after the death of Lord Burleigh's son, Robert Cecil, the minister whom Elizabeth had bequeathed to him, and whose services in procuring his accession were rewarded by the Earldom of Salisbury, all real control over affairs was withdrawn by James from the Council, and entrusted to worthless favourites whom the King chose to raise to honour.
A Scotch page named Carr was created Viscount Rochester and Earl of Somerset, and married after her divorce to Lady Essex. Supreme in State affairs, domestic and foreign, he was at last hurled from favour and power on the charge of a horrible crime, the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury by poison, of which he and his Countess were convicted of being the instigators. Another favourite was already prepared to take his place. George Villiers, a handsome young adventurer, was raised rapidly through every rank of the peerage, made Marquis and Duke of Buckingham, and entrusted with the appointment to high offices of state. The payment of bribes to him, or marriage with his greedy relatives, became the one road to political preferment. Resistance to his will was inevitably followed by dismissal from office. Even the highest and most powerful of the nobles were made to tremble at the nod of this young upstart. "Never any man in any age, nor, I believe, in any country," says the astonished Clarendon, "rose in so short a time to so much greatness of honour, power, or fortune, upon no other advantage or recommendation than of the beauty or gracefulness of his person." Buckingham indeed had no inconsiderable abilities, but his self-confidence and recklessness were equal to his beauty; and the haughty young favourite on whose neck James loved to loll, and whose cheek he slobbered with kisses, was destined to drag down in his fatal career the throne of the Stuarts.
The new system was even more disastrous in its results abroad than at home. The withdrawal of power from the Council left James in effect his own chief minister, and master of the control of affairs as no English sovereign had been before him. At his accession he found the direction of foreign affairs in the hands of Salisbury, and so long as Salisbury lived the Elizabethan policy was in the main adhered to. Peace, indeed, was made with Spain; but a close alliance with the United Provinces, and a more guarded alliance with France, held the ambition of Spain in check almost as effectually as war. When danger grew threatening in Germany from the Catholic zeal of the House of Austria, the marriage of the King's daughter, Elizabeth, with the heir of the Elector-Palatine promised English support to its Protestant pouters. But the death of Salisbury, and the dissolution of the Parliament of 1614, were quickly followed by a disastrous change. James at once proceeded to undo all that the struggle of Elizabeth and the triumph of the Armada had done. His quick, shallow intelligence held that in a joint action with Spain it had found a way by which the Crown might at once exert weight abroad, and be rendered independent of the nation at home.