"The Wisest Fool: The Lavish Life of James VI and I" by Steven Veerapen is a truly superb biography of one of the key figures in Scottish - and perhaps to a lesser extent English - history. When King James VI of Scotland inherited from Elizabeth I the crowns of England and Ireland on her death in 1603 he unified the crowns of the three kingdoms as James VI and I and they have remained unified ever since. From a Scottish perspective James always feels like something of a missed opportunity. Despite his Scottish heritage, there's always the sense that he took the view - perhaps inherited from his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and certainly passed down to later Stuart kings and pretenders - that the crown of Scotland was only really a stepping stone en route to the real prize, the crown of England. Or is this being unfair to him?
Steven Veerapen's biography of James VI/I is so good that it seems likely to become the definitive work about the life of a much maligned and perhaps poorly understood character. The quality of the research underpinning this book feels outstanding. But research is only one part of producing a good biography. The two other factors that make "The Wisest Fool: The Lavish Life of James VI and I" stand out are the author's balanced approach to his subject and his ability to write so clearly and vividly. This is a book that is so well written that it's easy to become involved in the flow of the real human experiences that lay behind the words. The author has a fine track record as a historical novelist and the skills he has learned in producing fiction have served him well in telling this very real story about a very real man. The result is a biography that has been written to be read: not just to decorate the book shelf at the end of the room. It's a book we'd recommend to anyone with an interest in Scottish history and especially in the story of our relationship with England and the story of the Stuart dynasty.
You get a good sense of the author's approach to his subject from the publisher's blurb: "James VI and I, the first monarch to reign over Scotland, England and Ireland, has long endured a mixed reputation. To many, he is simply the homosexual King, the inveterate witch-roaster, the smelly sovereign who never washed, the colourless man behind the authorised Bible bearing his name, or the drooling fool whose speech could barely be understood. For too long, he has paled in comparison to his more celebrated Tudor and Stuart forebears. But who was he really? To what extent have myth, anecdote, and rumour obscured him? In this new and ground-breaking biography, James’s story is laid bare and a welter of scurrilous, outrageous assumptions penned by his political opponents put to rest. What emerges is a portrait of Elizabeth I's successor as his contemporaries knew him: a gregarious, idealistic man obsessed with the idea of family, whose personal and political goals could never match up to reality. With reference to letters, libels and state papers, it casts fresh light on the personal, domestic, international and sexual politics of this misunderstood sovereign."