‘King James Did What?! With Who?!’: Anne Murray, the mistress of James VI

In recent years, James VI & I has featured heavily in the uncovering and celebrating of hidden histories. A cursory Google search finds him referred to as homosexual, bisexual, and a ‘queer king’. The quote in the title is taken from a YouTube video containing the ‘revelation’ that James ‘loved other men’.[i] Despite issues of anachronistic terminology, he has earned a place in the canon of ‘history’s LGBTQ+ heroes’.[ii] Thus, when we learn that ‘Britain’s first openly-gay monarch’[iii] was rumoured to have a mistress, we may well ask ‘King James Did What?! With Who?!’

Anne (or Agnes) Murray was the daughter of the Earl of Tullibardine and a lady-in-waiting to Anna of Denmark. Her 1595 marriage to Lord Glamis was arranged to mend factional disputes. After this she largely disappears from the historical record. Her tenure at the Scottish court amounted to only two years; she was 14 when she arrived in 1593 and 16 when she left in 1595. Nonetheless, in this short period she made quite an impression. Court poets described her as a ‘nimphe of heavenly race’, whose looks ‘did seme to scorne the skye’. The acrostic sonnet, ‘AM.AGEMURNSAY.AM’, is that of a forlorn lover, whose heart is set ‘on fyre’ by Anne’s ‘bewtye’. Another poem bemoans the mournful atmosphere at court caused by her absence.[iv]

She even caught the attention of the king. His poem, “A Complaint on his Mistressis Absence from Court”, is a conventional study in the rhetoric of courtly love: with Anne’s departure following her marriage, ‘the court is a garland missing her chiefest flower’. “A Dreame on his Mistres My Ladie Glammis” is more explicit. The king proclaims that ‘in spite of all the poysoned looks of Dames, I shall not swerve’ from ‘my Mistres and my love’. References to ‘passion’d thoughts’, and ‘flames of love’ consuming his ‘Earthlie parts’ verge on salacious. Finally, as James wakes from the eponymous dream, he contemplates ‘No wonder is, what Monarch may, resist a woman’s might’.[v]

Portrait of James VI, attributed to Adrian Vanson, 1595 – the same year he wrote his poems about Anne Murray. The large ‘A’ jewel on his hat refers to his wife, Anna of Denmark (National Galleries Scotland, PG 156).

English peer, John Carey, appears to have taken the poems at their word. In a letter to Robert Cecil, he refers to ‘fayre Mistris Ann Murray, the Kinges Mistris’. In another letter to Lord Burghley, Carey mentions the marriage between ‘young Lord Glaymes and the Kinges Mistris’.[vi] However, James’s poems and Carey’s letters amount to the only evidence that an affair took place at all. So, what should we make of this? 

One possibility is that James was merely partaking in a conventional literary flirtation. Another is that Anne was indeed his mistress. James was evidently able to ‘rise to the occasion’ when necessary, fathering seven royal children. For kings, extramarital affairs were expected and accepted. James’s own grandfather, James V, had at least nine illegitimate children. Nonetheless, a sexual relationship is unlikely. James certainly preferred the company of attractive male courtiers, and, excepting his wife, there is no evidence that he had dalliances with any other women. To quote Antonia Fraser, ‘in sexual matters, it is generally better to assume the obvious, unless there is some very good reason to think otherwise’.[vii] 

A final possibility is that ‘the Kinges Mistris’ was an exercise in political spin. The lack of royal progeny in the first three years of James’s marriage sparked rumours in Scotland that he had left the queen a virgin and was ‘a bougerer [buggerer]’.[viii] Anne Murray arrived at court around the same time, and she was the ideal cipher to deflect these unsavoury accusations. Simultaneously, James was wooing England. By 1595, Elizabeth I was still refusing to name a successor. Arbella Stuart, James’s cousin, was a natural candidate; she was well-educated, of royal blood and, above all, English. However, England had not experienced adult male rule for nearly fifty years. James’s ‘maleness’ – reinforced by rumours of a mistress – was a political asset to be exploited.

If ‘the Kinges Mistres’ was propaganda, the extent of James and Anne’s complicity is unclear. The “Dreame” and “Complaint” probably circulated in manuscript at the Scottish court, and possibly further afield. But a lack of contemporary comment on the subject suggests that its impact was extraordinarily limited. Even the Venetian ambassador to Scotland, an inveterate gossip, makes no mention of it. In fact, there are only three people who we can be sure were privy to the ‘affair’, and they were all Englishmen: Carey, and Elizabeth’s chief councillors, Burghley and Cecil. The latter pair had recently championed Lady Arbella’s claim to the English succession, so it was vital that were converted to James’s cause. If the rumour was intended to reach them, it did so with remarkable precision. 

If James hoped that such rumours would strengthen his suitability for English kingship, he was only partly successful. They certainly reached the highest levels of English government. But if he hoped that they would silence more widespread aspersions, the plan failed. The king’s perceived transgression from the ‘cult of manliness’[ix] would be used against him for the rest of the reign, particularly in relation to his pacific foreign policy. Indeed, upon his accession to the English throne in 1603, an epigram circulated in London which read ‘Rex fuit Elizabeth: nunc est regina Jacobus’ [Elizabeth was King: now James is Queen].[x]

Ultimately, the intention here is not to augment long-standing debates about James’s sexual proclivities. Evidence for this is largely unrecoverable. Instead, it has touched upon a more significant historical issue: it was not what James actually did in the Bedchamber that mattered, but what people believed he did. For monarchs, sex was not a private affair, but a political matter to be manipulated and exploited. Most frequently, rumours about James’s intimacy with male courtiers were at his expense. Anne Murray’s arrival at court presented an opportunity for a counteroffensive to bolster his public image. Cast in the role of the king’s mistress, by the king himself, Anne was perhaps part of a much larger political game.

By Joe Ellis, University of York, UK.

Joe is a second year WRoCAH-funded PhD student at the University of York. His doctoral research focuses on the royal progresses of James VI & I in Scotland and England, particularly in relation to the politics of sociability, Anglo-Scottish union, and gender dynamics ‘on the road’. More widely, he is interested in the history of early modern sexuality and cultural politics at European royal courts.

[i] The Book of Queer, King James Did What?! With Who?!, online video, YouTube, 24 June 2022, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4X42HERPmkA> [accessed 5 April 2023].

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Tyne O’Connell, ‘King James I, Britain’s first openly gay monarch 1603-1625’, <https://tyneoconnell.co.uk/king-james-i-and-the-elephants-of-st-jamess-park-1603-1641/> [accessed 5 April 2023].

[iv] Henry W. Meikle, Works of William Fowler, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1914), pp. 352, 353, 363.

[v] Allan F. Westcott, New Poems of James I of England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1911), pp. 10-19.

[vi] John Stewart-Murray, Duke of Atholl, Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine families, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1908), p. 19.

[vii] Antonia Fraser, King James VI of Scotland, I of England, (London: Morrison & Gibb Ltd, 1974), p. 126.

[viii] David Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: The Woodrow Society, 184) p. 171.

[ix] Michael B. Young, James VI and I and the History of Homosexuality (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), p. 87.

[x] Rictor Norton, ‘Queen James and His Courtiers’, <http://rictornorton.co.uk/jamesi.htm> [accessed 5 April 2023].

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (June 7, 2023). ‘King James Did What?! With Who?!’: Anne Murray, the mistress of James VI. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6ur

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