An introduction to ‘This Vile Habit: King James’ Counter Blast to Tobacco’

by King James Stuart (VI & I of Scotland & England)

(introduction by Malory Nye)

A tradition goes that at some time in 1493, after returning on La Niña with Christopher Columbus from the newly discovered Caribbean, a sailor named Rodrigo de Jerez (or Xerez) indulged in his new habit of tobacco smoking in his home town of Ayamonte, in south-western Spain. He was probably not the only explorer to find a taste for smoking the dried leaves, but the reaction that he caused back at home was memorable.

When Jerez lit up his pipe and smoked this new leaf in the Ayamonte street, his neighbours did not know what to make of it. Eventually they reported him to the dreaded religious police, that is the (Spanish) Inquisition, who were rightfully feared. As one would expect, the Inquisition did not take such strange smoking behaviour lightly, and considered it to be some devilish practice that Jerez had taken up during his time with the pagans of the new world. His punishment was imprisonment for several years (either three or seven years, according to various accounts).

And so began the uneasy European encounter with tobacco.

‘A counterblaste to tobacco’

One hundred years later, the smoking of tobacco was still a relative innovation in England, although by the beginning of the seventeenth century it had spread through many parts of society.

The extent of this is very clearly shown in the decision by the recently crowned King James I of England to write a tract which he titled ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’, which he intended as strong propaganda against what he called ‘this vile custome’ (i.e., habit). It was initially published anonymously in 1604, but was clearly authored by the king, and was reprinted under his name a few years later.

A short book containing this introduction and my rendition of King James’ counter blast against tobacco is available on Amazon, in a style that is intended to make it more accessible to a contemporary readership.

James’ document is unusual and distinctive in two ways:

  1. It is a very early published criticism of the use of tobacco; and
  2. It was written by a reigning monarch, King James VI of Scotland and I of England.

It is not the earliest printed denouncement of tobacco and nor is it King James’ only publication, but it is still worth a quick read in itself.

When the book was published, in 1604, James had been on the throne of England for just one year. The world was in considerable flux. He had himself moved from Scotland — where he had already been king (as James VI) for twenty years. The opportunities of the New World across the Atlantic had been developed for over a century by the Spanish, whilst the English were only really getting started on staking their own claims there. A generation and more before, the Protestant reformations had shaken the religious and cultural establishments of most of the northern European countries. The effects of those revolutions were still being felt.

The text that I have included in the book is a contemporary update on King James’ tract. I have tried to update the language, and where I thought necessary to also make the text accessible (or at least understandable). It is not exactly the same as King James’ version — my choice of words has in places gone beyond the original.

If you would like to take the trouble to read the original, there are easily downloadable versions available. These include at the Project Gutenburg and at the CUWS at the University of Texas. I chose to not include these in this short book because they would complicate the simplicity of the contemporary text.

King James Stuart VI and I

In many respects, James was an unlikely king.

He was born in 1566, the only child from the short and dramatic marriage between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Henry Darnley of Lennox.

A few months before his birth, his father Darnley arranged the assassination of Mary’s secretary David Riccio in her private chambers in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. The assassination succeeded: Riccio died, and his corpse was thrown out of the window into the palace courtyard. However, Darnley then appeared to distance himself from the plot and eventually helped Mary escape from her captors with their unborn child.

The following year, Darnley himself was murdered — his house in Edinburgh was blown up with gunpowder, but that was not the cause of his death. He was found strangled, several hundred feet away in his garden. Queen Mary then went on to marry one of the leading ‘culprits’ of his murder (although in fact most of the Scottish nobility were implicated) and because of this she was forced to abdicate in favour of the infant James in 1567.

As a child, James was educated by the scholar George Buchanan, who wrote a passionate book outlining what he saw as Queen Mary’s crimes (Ane Detectioun of the Duinges of Marie Quene of Scottis in 1571, also published in Latin as the Detectio Mariae Reginae Scotorum in 1569). During the young king’s minority there were five different regents consecutively governing Scotland, ending in 1583 with James’ abduction by the Earl of Gowrie (what was called the ‘Ruthven Raid’). Gowrie used this to seize power and he held James as a prisoner in Ruthven Castle near Perth for ten months. When James finally escaped, he took up the throne himself, at the age of seventeen.

His reign in Scotland as King James VI was eventful. In 1600 he went through an assassination attempt, again in Perth, the details of which have been never particularly clear. In this ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ his life was threatened, but his would-be assassins themselves were killed, whilst James was left unhurt. He had the sense to turn his survival into a propaganda victory, proclaiming wherever he could the good fortune and grace of the monarch who lived through this attack on his person.

He also had a particular concern about witches and witchcraft. He wrote about this in his lengthy book On Demonology, and put his passion (or fear) into practice by hunting down and executing over two hundred witches in Scotland during the 1590s.

As a ‘Renaissance king’, James also penned several other works, including The True Law of Free Monarchies in which he detailed his theory of kingship — structured largely around his belief in the ‘divine right of kings’. He theories of politics were also put down in a more extended form, in the book Basilikon Doron, written for his young son Henry (who did not live long enough to succeed him).

He also put in place the huge scholarly and religious task of producing an authoritative (and authorised) English language translation of the Christian Bible. Of course, he did not author this himself, but the work bears his name as its patron (the ‘King James Authorised Version’, or often simply the King James Bible), and remains as one of the most significant contributors to the English language.

Like his mother Mary before him, James ruled over Scotland with an eye to the possibility of inheritance of the English throne. They were descended from the founder of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII, whose daughter Margaret (who was also sister to King Henry VIII) had married the Scottish King James IV at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Both of James VI’s parents were grandchildren of Margaret Tudor.

Despite Henry VIII’s many efforts to have a stable heir to continue the Tudor dynasty after his death, all three of his children (one son and two daughters) died without issue. The third of these was Queen Elizabeth, who held power from 1558 to 1603 without marrying. Therefore, on her death the question of succession proved very important, and at this point the time came at last for James VI of Scotland, who proved to be the most suitable heir to the throne, particularly due to his upbringing in Scotland as a Protestant.

He thus succeeded Elizabeth, and moved to London to become King James I of England, whilst continuing as James VI of Scotland — although he only returned once to his native country.

Within just one year of taking up this position he wrote this curious piece of polemic against tobacco smoking.

Tobacco: a new world product in the old world

Tobacco had quickly become a popular English pastime, and most likely in Scotland too, at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The first European experiences of tobacco smoking were by the Spanish explorers in the West Indies, when they found the native Taino ‘Indians’ commonly practising this habit of smoking. Within days of making contact, Columbus observed in his journal that the people brought fragrant dried leaves to trade with the Spaniards. And on Tuesday, 6 November 1492, his journal records that during an exploration of the northern coast of Cuba:

‘The two Christians met with many people on the road going home, men and women with a half-burnt weed in their hands, being the herbs they are accustomed to smoke.’

The friar Ramon Pane accompanied Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, and was asked by Columbus to write an account of his observations during the expedition. Pane observed some Taino on the island of Hispaniola making the dry tobacco leaves into a powder, which they called cogioba. Thus, he said:

‘the cogioba is a certain powder which they take sometimes to purge themselves, and for other effects which you will hear of later. They take it with a cane about a foot long and put one end in the nose and the other in the powder, and in this manner they draw it into themselves through the nose and this purges them thoroughly.’

The explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who also travelled several times to the New World that came to bear his name, recorded the following observations in 1499 on Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela. He found that the people there,

‘had their mouths full of the leaves of a green herb, which they continually chewed like beasts, so that they could hardly speak. And each had round his neck two dry gourds, one full of that herb which they had in their mouths, and the other of white flour that appeared to be powdered lime. From time to time they put in the powder with a spindle which they kept wet in the mouth. Then they put stuff into their mouths from both, powdering the herb already in use. They did this with much elaboration; and the thing seemed wonderful, for we could not understand the secret, or with what object they did it.’

This new and unusual habit clearly held a fascination for the colonialists. It was soon taken up by the explorers, particularly the sailors of the ships that went back and forward across the Atlantic to this New World, and it is those sailors who most likely contributed to the spread in Europe of the use of the dried leaves.

As illustrated in the above story of Rodrigo de Jerez’s imprisonment by the Spanish Inquisition, the beginnings of tobacco smoking in Europe were not straightforward. Despite its novelty and potential dangers, the Spaniards were not slow in taking up the habit, which soon caught on in the early sixteenth century.

By 1565, a Spanish physician Nicholas Monardes had taken up the practice and was promoting what he believed to be the many health benefits that could come from smoking. In his book on the plants of the West Indies, Monardes made claims for tobacco curing ailments ranging from tapeworms, kidney stones, shortness of breath, and dandruff.

A French ambassador named Jean Nicot discovered the leaves when he was sent on a mission to Portugal in 1559. He found a taste for it himself, and introduced it to the French queen mother back home, Catherine de’ Medici. She apparently found the tobacco a useful treatment for her frequent migraines (although some accounts say it was for her son, the Dauphin’s migraines), and so named the plant in honour of the man who brought it to her. Hence it gained its French name of Nicotiana, which of course gave us the term nicotine.

It is often assumed that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who introduced tobacco to England, following his travels to the New World in the 1580s (for example, I recall the classic Bob Newark ‘Walter Raleigh’ comic sketch on this). However, tobacco had been around in England for a while before this, and the person most likely to take the credit was John Hawkins, an explorer, pirate, and slave trader who came back with tobacco from a visit to the West Indies in 1568 — a number of years before Raleigh’s rise to fame. Thus Hawkins described ‘the Floridans’:

‘The Floridians when they travel have a kind of dried herb, which with a cane and an earthen cup in the end, with fire and the dried herbs put together do suck through the cane the smoke thereof, which smoke satisfies their hunger, and therewith they live four or five days without meat or drink and this all the Frenchmen used for this purpose. Yet do they hold opinion withall, that it causeth water and flame to void from their stomachs.’

Even so, a few years later Sir Walter Raleigh was certainly a strong advocate of the new habit and a shameless promoter of the leaf for his own political and financial interests. Tobacco helped to make his reputation, whilst also its popularity was greatly enhanced by his endorsement. He was the original ‘Marlborough man’. Most notable, perhaps, is the tale of the end of his life in 1618, when he calmly smoked his pipe in the hours waiting for his execution.

King James and tobacco

It is clear from his writing that King James was not convinced by the propagandists for tobacco. He had no fondness for Raleigh, who he eventually executed after putting him under house arrest in the Tower for thirteen years. However, James’ antipathy for the leaves was not solely focused on its association with Raleigh.

From this tract, we learn that James did not like the smell of the smoke, and he believed that it had the power to cause considerable harm — like the ‘soot in a kitchen’. He even points to an early autopsy of a heavy smoker, with blackened lungs.

This was not the first anti-tobacco publication, not even in English. Only two years before James’ writing, an anonymous surgeon calling himself Philarates had published a tract called entitled ‘Work for Chimny-Sweepers or A Warning for Tabacconists’, in which he put forward his considered medical arguments against the leaves’ supposed health benefits. Needless to say, his use of the term ‘tobacconists’ was not to focus specifically on the sellers of tobacco (as we now understand it) but more generally to refer to all smokers as ‘tobacconists’.

What James brought to the table, though, was his title and position — as King of England and Scotland. His writing was as much political as it was medical. Indeed, we can probably surmise that his reasons for writing such a ‘counter blast’ were driven by political concerns, rather than simply as due to concerns about individual health or moral dangers of tobacco. His discussion mixes up the two — the problem for the smoker is also a problem for the country, the two are interwoven.

Much of James’ critique of the claims made for tobacco appear to us now as outdated, as they were based on medical knowledge of his time. In fact, James did well to show his knowledge of contemporary medicine, since after all he was trained as a monarch rather than as a physician. Even so, there are still modern resonances in James’ arguments that make them worth receiving this new airing.

Tobacco and British America

Despite his clear displeasure at smoking and his wish to see the habit of tobacco smoking ceased, it is interesting that James did not in fact go so far as to outlaw it. It may possibly be that he would have provoked too much of a backlash amongst the nobility in England — after all, he had seen in Scotland the vulnerability of a monarch who did not have the support needed from the lords. His mother had been deposed in his favour in such a situation, and he had himself been subject to scheming lords such as the Earls of Gowrie. By the time of the writing of his tract, tobacco had apparently become too firmly embedded in English popular culture, as he does himself allude to.

Indeed, if this were not the case then why would a king choose to change his subjects’ habits through lecturing them? If he could make the positive change that he wished for, either through criminalising the substance or levying a preventative tax on it, then he would most likely have done so. In fact, he did substantially raise the tax on tobacco in 1605, from 2 pence per pound to 6 shillings and 10 pence (i.e., 82 pence) per pound, an increase of over 4,000%. That is, the tax was approximately £35 (or $50) per pound (£78 per kilogram) in today’s money. (It is interesting to note here that the current UK tariff on ‘other smoking/rolling’ tobacco is just under £104 per kilogram).

As history shows us, King James’ substantial tax increase was not particularly successful — after all, the spread of tobacco through English culture and far beyond was not prevented.

Quite interestingly, one of James’ challenges with tobacco was not so much his repulsion to the stink of the smoke or to the harm it would cause to his subjects’ bodies. It was a more about practical issues of international trade.

The main source of tobacco at that time was the West Indies, under the control of the Spanish colonialists. They had a monopoly on the commodity, and were therefore able to significantly profit from the weakness of the English (and the Scots and Welsh) for the dried leaves (along with much of the rest of the continent). There was nothing that could be done for England to avoid this monopoly, since there were no viable alternative sources of tobacco in 1604 at the time of James’ publication.

However, things changed significantly during the time of James’ monarchy. Up until the early 1600s, the English attempts to establish colonies in America (particularly along the north Atlantic seaboard above Florida) had proved largely ineffectual. The most obvious example of this was Walter Raleigh’s disastrous settlements on Roanoke Island off Virginia, which had left the poor colonists destroyed by freezing winters, conflicts with the native people, and starvation.

The settlement at Jamestown — bearing King James’ name — that was established in 1607 looked likely to go the same way. Despite all the success that the Spaniards had had in the central regions of America (either plundering gold or otherwise developing cash crops such as tobacco), the more northern areas of the new continent were not proving so amenable to the English. The greatest successes the English seafarers had up to the time of King James was through slave trading, or piracy and seizure of Spanish treasures, rather than through the establishment of new colonies.

A significant turning point, however, came in 1614 when John Rolfe (the man who went down in history as marrying the native chief’s daughter Pocahontas) finally succeeded to cultivate a strain of the tobacco plant in Virginia which he had managed to smuggle out of the West Indies. Once established, this became a major export from the Virginia colony to England.

This meant that the English were finally able to develop their own cash crop, which proved extremely lucrative over the years. It became their ‘brown gold’ and, of course, meant that the English at last had control over the production of the commodity that had such a considerable home consumption. There were no more lost revenues to the Spanish, which made James happy — despite his concerns about the nature of tobacco itself.

What happened in Jamestown over this issue was in many respects a forerunner of the pattern of English colonialism in north America. James decided to impose harsh trade terms on the Virginia tobacco growers, setting their selling price at an extremely low level, whilst also requiring them to fund the costs of shipment back to England. He also bound them to trade exclusively with Britain, and no other partner — thus cutting them off from making better money by trading more on their own terms.

It was the first tax imposed on the English New World settlers, and quite naturally it encouraged resentment. James was himself wary of this, since he viewed his relationship — as monarch — with the settlers as being no different from any of his other subjects, whether they be in Scotland, or northern or southern England. The settlers had a rather different view: the width of the Atlantic and the difficulties of passage and communication with London meant that they felt at a further remove, and thus more free of state control. All this helped to establish patterns of perspective that eventually took full shape a century and a half later with American independence — launched on the basis of the idea of no taxation (of Americans) without representation (in British politics).

In short, tobacco was one of the first things that concerned James on his taking over as king of England, and despite his clear misgivings about the substance, it was tobacco that would eventually be the source of significant British colonialism in America. This is reason in itself for us to look again at James’ own writings on the matter (even though he did not address the wider geopolitical issues in this work).

One thing that James did address however was one of the most obvious elements of tobacco to him. That is, it was a foreign custom, that had been adopted by the English from the native people of America. James’ own views on the ‘Indians’ are made very clear in his tract. He had very little respect for them, and considered the people of Europe — and in particular the English and Scottish — as being of a much more refined status (or at least the nobles). He equates the Indians with the syphilis (’pox’) that the European colonialists also brought back from the Caribbean. The one was apparently the corollary of the other.

However, like much else that came about from European expansion into and colonisation of America, it was the interaction with the native people that was most significant (whether that be through trade, conquest, or rape). In the case of the Spanish, much of this proceeded simply in the wake of the colonialists’ swords. They came, they saw, and they took what they wanted — killing those who were in their way.

Alongside this, there was a minor key agenda for the saving of the souls of the native Americans. This was a chance for them to learn of Jesus and thus to become faithful Christians, members of the Catholic church that was itself going through considerable turmoil in Europe during those times. Although Christianity had already spread beyond the bounds of (European Christendom) in the previous millennium — to places such as India and Ethiopia — this was one of the first times that European Christianity (in the form of Catholicism) was implanted onto another continent. It happened in parallel with the Portuguese colonisation projects in the Indian Ocean, down the coast of India and across to the spice islands, and eventually to Macao in China. Likewise, the Spanish finally met them coming the other way, when they colonised the Philippines. Christianity at this point was truly going global.

In return for this (and for all the other gifts, such as the pandemic diseases, unwittingly passed from the Europeans to the native Americans) the Europeans received in particular this love of tobacco smoking — a custom of many of the natives of the Caribbean and the new found continent. Within a short time much of Europe had become hardened smokers, along with people in places much further afield. Just as the eastern spices were taken by trade routes across from the East Indies (southern Indonesia) to all corners of Europe, the Spanish (and later British) trade in tobacco brought the crop first to Europe and then across much of mainland Asia — including the Arab world, Persia, and then China and Japan.

Boom… The habits of the world changed within just a few generations. 
In itself, this helped to give us the enduring stereotype of the ‘Oriental’ man with his hookah, the hubble-bubble from which he took his scented tobacco, that came about through European trade with the Eastern Mediterranean and then (via the Portuguese) within the Indian Ocean.

One further outcome of this was of course the growing European need for a source of low cost labour to produce, harvest, and process the crops — initially tobacco, and then soon after other New World commodities (taken there by the Europeans), such as sugar and cotton.

At first, this labour was recruited opportunistically, either by sending out indentured workers and slaves from the corners of their own countries (such as the British use of Irish workers) or otherwise by the enslavement of the local native Americans.

The moral voices of the Europeans — most notably Batholomé de Las Casas in Spain — spoke against this, leading to the famous Spanish debate at Valladolid in 1550–51 on the Christian (and hence imperial Spanish) morality of natural enslavement.

It was notable also, that a legal case in Virginia in 1640 established the legality of slavery in the first English colony. This was the case of John Punch, an African who had attempted to run away from his place of work.
As with James and his moral counter blast against tobacco, the economic realities that favoured slavery won out over the moral debates. The colonisation and exploitation of American required such a scale — of land use, of industry, of production — that the ‘easy option’ for countries such as Portugal, Spain, France, and Britain was eventually to develop a system of seizure of Africans from the west coast, transportation across the Atlantic, to be sold as slaves in the markets of the Caribbean and the Atlantic seaboard.

This transatlantic trade was already in place in 1604 when King James wrote his counter blast. The English sailor, John Hawkins had profited from this trade back in the 1560s, and by this time the Spanish were regularly shipping slaves from Africa to their colonies in New Spain. And for a further two centuries, this was an socially acceptable (indeed vital) economic system.

We need to bear much of this in mind as we read James’ account of tobacco, since it is the underlying subtext that is not clearly visible in his actual words. Much of what he says now seems irrelevant, inaccurate, or disappointing about a subject that has exercised medical and moral concerns across the world for more than four centuries.

It is testimony to the human condition that a substance that was recognised so long ago as being capable of so much harm has continued to be used (and abused) largely unabated. The recent legislation against public smoking and to increase public health education (such as mandatory package warnings stating the obvious, that ‘smoking kills’) seem like a drop in the ocean across the expanse of four hundred years.

And yet at the same time, King James’ complaint about having to breathe in others’ tobacco smoke whilst dining rings true as much today as in his own time. Plus ça change, peut-être…

This is the importance of James’ work. It is at the cusp of so many currents of history, and it is record that comes to us from one of the makers of that history. On one level it is merely a curiosity, whilst on another it is a small window into how our world came about.

Contained within it are issues of the fundamental encounter with the indigenous people of the New World, the health risks of smoking, the social consequences of the habit, together with the unfolding history from the encounter between the Old and New Worlds — including slavery, genocide, economic appropriation of the resources of the American continent, and the rise of British settlers’ desires for independence from the ‘mother country’. Such a history is ongoing, in so many ways.

With this in mind, I hope you find it useful and intriguing to read my update of King James’ ‘Counterblaste to tobacco’.

Malory Nye
Perth, May 2015

Malory Nye is an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website,

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

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