There was not a clearly designated successor when Elizabeth I died in March 1603. The traditional approach meant that James VI of Scotland, the Protestant son of Mary, Queen of Scots, would become the English monarch. But, as Leandra de Lisle demonstrates in her masterfully researched After Elizabeth: The Rise of King James of Scotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England, James was far from being the straightforward choice. He was personally excluded from consideration, in the eyes of many, by a law that barred from the throne anyone born outside the allegiance of the realm of England. However, he was helped by the fact that other claimants had similar problems.
De Lisle shows how courtiers began considering who would succeed Elizabeth from the beginning of her reign in 1558 and describes the various contenders and their supporters in some detail. An Oxford-trained historian, she writes with admirable clarity. James and Elizabeth come to life before us and the intricate world of those who exercise the levers of power behind the throne is vividly recreated as they maneuver for position and prestige. A highlight of the book is the narrative of James I's journey from Edinburgh to London, from April 5 to May 7, 1603. This trip gave the English their first opportunity to see and form impressions of their soon-to-be king. Although one of the most intellectually brilliant men ever to occupy the British throne, James' decisions brought disappointment to many. He did not introduce toleration of religion for Catholics as he'd promised, and though he made significant reforms to the Church of England and brought about a new catechism and translation of the Bible, he did much less than many Puritans had hoped for. De Lisle says that James' accession owed almost as much to luck as to political talent. If Elizabeth had died two years earlier, it is likely that ambitious and powerful figures might have taken the crown from him or accepted him only with conditions. If she had died later, Spain, France and the Vatican would have chosen an English candidate on whom they could all agree. As it happened, the timing of Elizabeth's death caught James' opponents by surprise. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.