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This week (March 24) in 1603, James I, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, became King of England, succeeding the great Elizabeth I, who had died hours earlier after the longest and most successful reign in England’s glorious history.
Although a Protestant, James was married to a Catholic wife, Anne, which may explain why, prior to his ascension to the throne, he had hinted that he might allow more religious tolerance than had most of his predecessors, who — with the notable exception of “Bloody Mary” Tudor — had persecuted Catholics unmercifully. (Appalled at this, Bloody Mary had persecuted Protestants unmercifully.)
Unfortunately, foreshadowing modern politics, James went back on this promise to be more tolerant of Catholicism, which set in motion a plot by a group of angered Catholic fanatics who intended to blow him and Parliament to smithereens. Called the Gunpowder Plot, it was supposed to occur on November 5, 1605, but it was foiled when one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, was discovered and arrested just before he could light several kegs of gunpowder that had been placed in the basement of a building next door to Parliament. Ever since, England has celebrated Guy Fawkes Day with bonfires and general revelry (and you thought the Brits had no sense of humor).
Yet if James I is known mainly for being the target of this plot (he’s also known for the King James Bible), he has one other claim to fame, which, I suppose, has not been better advertised due to the strenuous efforts of our still-powerful tobacco lobby.
It seems that during the trial of the Gunpowder Plot members, James — who secretly attended the trial — was angered that the condemned men were smoking tobacco so prodigiously, especially since he, James, had emphatically condemned the use of tobacco in a pamphlet he had written a year earlier, titled "Counterblast to Tobacco." In this pamphlet, James called tobacco "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs."
Let's see now ... more than 400 years ago, James I recognized that tobacco was un-cool (loathsome to the eye), gave you bad breath (hateful to the nose), was addictive (harmful to the brain) and caused cancer (dangerous to the lungs). It would be another 350 years before the American Medical Association got around to that conclusion and to this day the tobacco lobby still hasn't figured it out.
So three cheers for James I, the first English monarch to understand the harmful effects of smoking. Alas, his lecture was wasted on the accused in the Gunpowder Plot, who had more pressing health concerns. Trial or no trial, they were headed for the gallows and they knew it.