Historians have typically represented James I as a king whose foreign policy was driven by a principled commitment to peace, religious reconciliation, and royal legitimacy that led him to avoid military engagement in confessional conflicts, notably the Thirty Years’ War. But his published writings on topics related to international politics and less formal pronouncements of principle in verbal discussions of European affairs have never received close contextual analysis. This essay examines how James deployed theoretical arguments in conducting diplomacy with other European states, especially France, in the period before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. It argues that rather than basing policy decisions on principled convictions, he often deployed ideas strategically in efforts to justify and advance his own interests, and sometimes to mislead other statesmen about his true intentions. He did have some deep convictions, especially his abhorrence of theological justifications for rebellion and regicide, but even his efforts to combat such arguments were shaped by practical political calculations as well as purely theoretical concerns. Although he took ideas seriously, a closer examination of his record reveals him as a shrewd, flexible, and sometimes duplicitous royal politician, adept at fashioning high-minded justifications for self-interested maneuvers, rather than an idealistic scholar-statesman.

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