James Stuart was the great-great-grandson of King Henry VII of England. James' mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was the grandchild of Henry's daughter Margaret through her first husband (James IV of Scotland), and James' father Lord Darnley, though Margaret and her second husband. Lord Darnley was murdered in February 1567 when James was eight months old, and because Mary was suspected to have been involved in her husband's murder, she was forced to abdicate the throne of Scotland that July. Hence her son became King James VI of Scotland at barely a year old.

As would be expected, his childhood found him a pawn of the nobles and clergy of Scotland, though he did receive a very good education and was always scholarly. He married Anne of Denmark in 1590; the two apparently made a good couple, as James is often described as effeminate (and quite likely was homosexual) and Anne as rather masculine. The two had several children, but after Anne's death in 1619 James centered his attention on George "Steenie" Villiers, to whom he gave titles and lands.

When Elizabeth I of England died childless in 1603, she had named James as the heir to the throne shortly before dying. All the children of Henry VIII of England were dead and none were parents themselves, so the descendants of Henry VII were the next closest members of the royal family. Elizabeth was probably not pleased to name James, whose mother Elizabeth had executed to keep her from conspiring against England, as her successor, but he was the best choice of those available.

James was quite pleased, however, to become James I of England as well as James VI of Scotland. He saw it as a chance to get out from under the thumb of those who had manipulated him in Scotland. He was a great believer in the divine right of kings, though he didn't press his point when Parliament refused to vote him extra money and instead made up a new title, that of baronet, and sold this honor to raise money for himself.

During James' reign the Catholic Guy Fawkes plot to blow up the houses of Parliament took place, and though it was discovered before any damage was done, James became rather paranoid. He was devoutly Protestant, but clashed with the extreme Puritans of England as much as he did the Catholics. He did comission the Bible translation which to this day is known as the King James version. His general ideas of the power of the monarch set the stage for the revolution was to happen in the reign of his son Charles I.

James died of kidney failure and a stroke on 27 March 1625.