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About this text

  • Title: Basilicon Doron
  • Author: James I
  • Editor: Michael Best
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Editor: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Basilicon Doron


    King James VI of Scotland, later to become James I of England, wrote Basilicon Doron ("The king's gift") for his son, as a textbook of advice on how to rule a kingdom well. King James highlights the difference between the king's private desires and his public duties, a conflict that is indirectly explored in King Lear.

    Difference of a king and a tyrant

    For the part of making and executing of laws, consider first the true difference betwixt a lawful good king and an usurping tyrant and ye shall the more easily understand your duty herein, for contraria iuxta seposita magis elucescunt. The one acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from God a burden of government whereof he must be countable; the other thinketh his people ordained for him, a prey to his passions and inordinate appetites, as the fruits of his magnanimity. And therefore, as their ends are directly contrary, so are their whole actions, as means whereby they press to attain to their ends. A good king, thinking his highest honor to consist in the due discharge of his calling, employeth all his study and pains to procure and maintain, by the making and execution of good laws, the welfare and peace of his people; and as their natural father and kindly master thinketh his greatest contentment standeth in their prosperity, and his greatest surety in having their hearts, subjecting his own private affections and appetites to the weal and standing of his subjects, ever thinking the common interest his chiefest particular; where by the contrary, an usurping tyrant, thinking his greatest honor and felicity to consist in attaining per fas vel nefas to his ambitious pretenses, thinketh never himself sure but by the dissension and factions among his people, and counterfeiting the saint while he once creep in credit, will then, by inverting all good laws to serve only for his unruly private affections, frame the common weal ever to advance his particular, building his surety upon his people's misery and in the end, as a step-father and an uncouth hireling, make up his own hand upon the ruins of the republic, and according to their actions so receive they their reward.

    The issue and rewards of a good king

    For a good king, after a happy and famous reign dieth in peace, lamented by his subjects and admired by his neighbors; and, leaving a reverent renown behind him in earth, obtaineth the crown of eternal felicity in heaven. And although some of them, which falleth out very rarely, may be cut off by the treason of some unnatural subjects, yet liveth their fame after them, and some notable plague faileth never to overtake the committers in this life besides their infamy to all posterity hereafter; where, by the contrary, a tyrant's miserable and infamous life armeth in end his own subjects to become his bourreaus; and although that rebellion be ever unlawful on their part, yet is the world so wearied of him that his fall is little mourned by the rest of his subjects and but smiled at by his neighbors. And besides the infamous memory he leaveth behind him here and the endless pain he sustaineth hereafter, it oft falleth out that the committers not only escape unpunished, but farther, the fact will remain as allowed by the law in divers ages thereafter. It is easy then for you, my son, to make a choice of one of these two sorts of rulers by following the way of virtue to establish your standing; yea, in case ye fell in the highway yet should it be with the honorable report and just regret of all honest men. . . .

    [A just severity to be used at the first.]

    And as for the execution of good laws, whereat I left, remember that among the differences that I put betwixt the forms of the government of a good king and an usurping tyrant I show how a tyrant would enter like a saint while he found himself fast underfoot, and then would suffer his unruly affections to burst forth. Therefore be ye contrary at your first entry to your kingdom, to that Quinquennium Neronis, with his tender hearted wish, Vellem nescire literas, in giving the law full execution against all breakers thereof but exception. For since ye come not to your reign precario, nor by conquest, but by right and due descent, fear no uproars for doing of justice, since ye may assure your self the most part of your people will ever naturally favor justice; providing always that ye do it only for love to justice and not for satisfying any particular passions of yours under color thereof. Otherwise, how justly that ever the offender deserve it, ye are guilty of murder before god, for ye must consider, that god ever looketh to your inward intention in all your actions.

    And when ye have by the severity of justice once settled your countries and made them know that ye can strike, then may ye thereafter all the days of your life mix justice with mercy, punishing or sparing as ye shall find the crime to have been wilfully or rashly committed, and according to the by-past behavior of the committer. For if otherwise ye declare your clemency at the first, the offences would soon come to such heaps, and the contempt of you grow so great, that when ye would fall to punish the number of them to be punished would exceed the innocent, and ye would be troubled to resolve whom-at to begin; and against your nature would be compelled then to wrack many, whom the chastisement of few in the beginning might have preserved. But in this my over-dear bought experience may serve you for a sufficient lesson, for I confess where I thought, by being gracious at the beginning, to win all men's hearts to a loving and willing obedience, I by the contrary found the disorder of the country and the loss of my thanks to be all my reward.