THE 400TH ANNIVERSARY of the King James Bible (1611-2011) was approaching and I had just finished the first draft of a novel, a paunchy 148k word piece of probable historical fiction that featured King James, William Shakespeare, and a Nashville songwriter (don't ask just yet). Joel Miller, editor and acquisitions VP at Thomas Nelson and I spoke one afternoon. I told Joel about the novel, even gave him pages to read. "Nelson is looking for someone to write a bio on King James," he said. "And if it reads like a novel?" I said back. "That is what we want," he said. I put together a proposal and in a month or so was offered a two-book deal. I abandoned the novel. Until 2014.
That I had never written biography before didn't stop me. Saturated for years in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture, reading widely, closely, and with appetite, I developed a good "nose" for the age, that is, for investigation, historical forensics, knowing which rocks to look under, who to listen to and who to avoid, how to balance imagination and scholarship, following what cues there were. Using the library gateway at MTSU, I had access to stacks and stacks of professional journals and articles. I kept notebooks (12 for this book alone, 15 for the Tyndale book). By reading and rereading the likes of Peter Ackroyd, Antonia Fraser, Richard Marius, Anthony Burgess, Alison Weir, Parc Honan, and countless others, anything I could find, I was adequately tuned.
I bolted into the writing. That is the only way to say it—fearless, a high music rolling in me. A young man in love.
And that is the point I am attempting to make. I was in love, in love with the craft, with my subject, with the colors, sounds, fascinations, charms, moods, horrors, injustices, movements, with all the contradictions and distractions of the age, how it hated, how it loved, and with a delight so thorough, of such power and persuasion in me, there were days I sat at my desk, looked around my study and thought, "I'm really getting away with this. And getting paid for it."
I put hours and hours of intense focus into every day, at times having to force myself to stop. I didn't want to stop, particularly at the end once the manuscript had its basic shape and began to stand upright. This is what my friend read into the book, and what I hope any reader might read into it, acquainted, as they become with the spirits that haunts it, past and present. To read a book and sense the awe and dedication that bled into it, that gave it a spine.
By the time the writing started, I had read and reread all I could find on James I of England, all there was really. There isn't that much available on this quirky, improbable, but enchanting king. And none seemed warm with his humanity, as odd, bewildering, as full of contrasts, and as entertaining as that humanity could be. Nor did all the reading I was doing seem to reflect the age, burdened, as much of it was, with jargon and academicspeak. That, I decided, was my way in. I wanted the writing, my performance, to reflect the sights, sounds, and smells of the age, as much as my powers would allow, all the cultural and political neuroses, the general melancholy that defined the Elizabethans, and the mirth that countered it.
All the world was a stage, one great big magnificent theater. I not only had a front row seat, I was the conductor of this marvelous spectacle. My intent was that the reader was not just getting facts, but something beyond facts, something the senses can engage with in the props and rigging that allowed me to tell the story of this deliciously flawed king. Being new to biography, I didn't know any better, which turned out to be an advantage (though to be handled with care and vigilance).
I fell in love with James too, a love of a kind. A requirement for any credible biography perhaps, or one that hopes to persuade. He got to me in unexpected ways, most particularly the boy. I remember standing outside my study one afternoon with tears in my eyes. Benita heard me and asked what was wrong. "You'll think I'm crazy," I said. I told her about the boy James, the Scottish prince, the precocious child monarch who was orphaned at eleven months old and crowned King of Scotland at thirteen months old, a child kidnapped no less than nine times, who suffered bullying and terrifying political intrigues that tore both at his kingdom and his psychology. It broke my heart. My task was to give that emotion persuasive language without fabrication or exaggeration.
Like love, like getting to know someone, it requires an investment, a complete surrender to a task. In a distracted world, a world spinning at such velocity, a selfie culture addicted to whimsy as it is, surrender to anything is the real work. The rest is just a matter of listening, of engagement, of writing down what you hear. But the joy starts in you. You have to get underneath your subject, but others will hear it for themselves and share your delight. That is, after all, your task. Let them feel what you felt, hear and see what you hear and see. That's why I can hear a line of Shakespeare on occasion, Tyndale, Thomas Wolfe, and select others and be so moved, being touched by something that once touched them so completely.
There is much more to say, and will be said in time, in another article, another book. Until then, I wish you joy—joy in discovery, in exploration, in pioneering your book, article, song, or some curious element of your own life. May it sparkle in your imagination and may it possess, as Wordsworth may have said, "the glory and freshness of a dream," one that allows you to wake up smiling.
Note: The simple image video below is from the prologue of MAJESTIE: THE KING BEHIND THE KING JAMES BIBLE. You may follow the text below if you want. My hope is that not only you may sample for yourself the sights, sounds, and textures of an age, but that you might hear me chuckle in the background, an inaudible delight, the ghost in the text.
1603. There is a discernable hum about the city. The swarm and tread of a long forgotten life, a life far removed from our own—a large, teeming, and animated life, fluid, and slightly opaque, like the Thames that winds ventricle-like through its heart. The market at Smithfield is effuse with a smell that might be burnt brick, tallow, or sea coal. The slow moan and shuttle of livestock. There are the alehouses and ladies of sale. The bear-baiting precincts of Southwark and the great Globe itself, pulsing with life deep in the afternoons. The bustle of theatre cues for a penny’s worth of Hamlet.
Her language is as alive as her streets, as deathless and penetrating as the smell, as opulent and full of pomp as the fashions they wear—the silk, the lace, the excess, the ornament. Her English is without rule or harness, feral, wanton, a “hungry creature.” And she purrs in the hands of her masters.
This is early modern London, the London of Shakespeare and John Donne, of Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh, of Sir John Falstaff and Mistress Quickly, of the Mermaid Tavern and Puddle Dock, of Fleet Street and Pudding Lane. “That filthie toune,” as the new Stuart king would come to call it.
It is a lyrical age, the age of the sonnet and the rhymeless pentameter, of pamphleteers and playmakers, of three-hour sermons and two-hour plays. Of severed and unsmiling heads mounted aloft the parapets of London Bridge. An age of child kings, and the pox.
Religion can be dangerous, and spelling is a matter of taste.
And rising out of the clamor, out of the fogs and charred winds, comes her king, our king, as we will refer to him, born some four hundred miles to the north, born in a mask, a man more to be pitied than admired, more to be mocked than loved, a man who sleeps with sermons under his pillow. A prince to be feared indeed, but only for his distractions, for his precarious and bungling politics, and perhaps his bad manners.
But like the tragic Lear, he is every inch a king.
Truth is, I have no idea what the market at Smithfield was like, or any other London marketplace for that matter—the smell, the movement of traffic, if it hummed or whined. As animated as the above text may be, as alive and as effervescent as any treatment of Elizabethan London should be, as convincingly as I can ever hope to express it, it is an interpretation, a reckoning by way of story. At such a distance, it can hardly be anything else. It is a distillation of sources I have plundered, a kind of translation, I suppose, and as any translation does, it clarifies and teaches us how to perceive. The preface to the 1611 King James Bible says it this way:
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place.
The King James I went looking for was not the King James I found. I went looking for the buffoon, for the jester, the lottery win- ner who came riding into town in a golden pumpkin, the spoiled boy who could not possibly have replaced the great Elizabeth.
I went looking for the Scot whose tongue was too big for his mouth, who dribbled when he drank, who drank too often, and waddled when he walked even when sober. I went looking for the caricature, it is not enough ture, for the Saturday morning cartoon. What I found was an uncouth, improbable, and yet somehow enchanting king.
I found all the other as well. With a few exceptions, James is all of that. He is as good as any play. He is an entire theater. And for all the fascination with his mother, the Queen of Scots, or his English predecessor, Elizabeth, or any one of the great spirits that trafficked the age, it is James who fascinates me.
The life of James Stuart is a study in contradiction. Intellectually astute, he can dazzle with the polish of his rhetoric one minute, and speak with the vulgarity of a tavern bawd the next. Speaking Latin and Greek before he was five, King James is an amusing mix of bombast and imperium, of sparkle and grime, of smut and brilliance, of visionary headship and blunder.
He wasn’t much to look at either. His parents were beautiful, stormy. He was James. Like them, he might have been taller had his body been a bit straighter or the plumb of his legs a little truer. We might imagine the young king with his hands on his hips (a pose he liked), his great hat on his head at a fashionable tilt, a lack of shine on his boots, as he appeared when he first saw Anne of Denmark. Like me, she didn’t know what to make of him at first.
The above is used with permission. From MAJESTIE: THE KING BEHIND THE KING JAMES BIBLE by David Teems. ©2011 Thomas Nelson Publishers, Harper Collins. Any unauthorized duplication of audio or text is prohibited.