The son of Lord Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots, James succeeded to the Scottish throne on the forced abdication of his mother. He was placed in the care of John Erskine, 1st earl of Mar, and later of Mar's brother, Sir Alexander Erskine. The young king progressed in his studies under various teachers, notably George Buchanan, and acquired a taste for learning and theological debate. During James's minority, Scotland was ruled by a series of regents—the earls of Murray, Lennox, Mar, and Morton. The king was the creature of successive combinations of the nobility and clergy in a complicated struggle between the remnants of his mother's Catholic party, which favored an alliance with France, and the Protestant faction, which wished an alliance with England.
In 1582, James was seized by William Ruthven, earl of Gowrie (see Ruthven, family), and other Protestant adherents. He escaped in 1583 and began his personal rule, though influenced by his favorite, James Stuart, earl of Arran. James considered an alliance with his mother's French relatives, the Guise, but in 1586, to improve his prospects of succeeding to the English throne, he allied himself with Elizabeth I. This caused a break with his mother's party, and he accepted her execution in 1587 calmly.
James, by clever politics and armed force, succeeded in subduing the feudal Scottish baronage, in establishing royal authority, and in asserting the superiority of the state over the Presbyterian Church. In 1589, against the wishes of Elizabeth, James married Anne of Denmark. He succeeded in 1603 to the English crown by virtue of his descent from Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII.
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