The text revealed a literary bent, but the intent was plainly to launch a vehement and acrimonious attack on the current fashion through the use of rigorous discourse. In the summer of 1604 the anonymously published pamphlet, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, provoked much heated debate, not so much for the already discussed subject, but rather concerning the identity of the author and his position. It was soon alleged to have been written by an important person, by the king no less. Yes, that Stuart from the North who had been on the throne of England for less than a year, who had already survived two conspiracies and held two titles and reigns: King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England.
Son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, he became King of Scotland when he was thirteen months old, and by the time he succeeded Elizabeth I to the throne and was crowned in Westminster in June 1603 at the age of 37 he had already been well-acquainted with murder, plots, feuds and imprisonment. Although he was inclined to be pleasure-seeking and a spendthrift, he was still ambitious and wished to be and appear to be a good king. Authoritarian but reserved, educated in the humanist tradition, James often ruled through intermediaries, his closest advisors, sending written missives to them. Indeed, the decision to publish the pamphlet, albeit anonymously, which still held clues as to the author’s identity was typical of his character. In other words, he would express himself publicly, but indirectly, upholding morality and defending traditional English values through reason. On the other hand, it is said that in private he was not so vehemently adverse to tobacco, but one can imagine that the move from an austere Scottish context to a London teeming with smokers must have been an eye-opener.
Tobacco had started to be commonly used after the return of the survivors of Roanoke and Sir Walter Raleigh’s zealous advocacy of the sacred herb. This fashion spread from the court to the nobility, from the nobility to wealthy tradesmen, and from them gradually down to the less well-off classes (although in limited numbers), involving an ever-increasing number of people ready to sell tobacco and special equipment for its consumption. The noble “weed” was costly, as it arrived from countries hostile to England, and so was often smuggled into the country, or else Spanish and Portuguese ships were plundered by English pirates for the tobacco and other goods. Most pipes were made of “clay”, namely a whitish mix of aluminium silicate and sand quarried from the South East of England and subsequently refined. A written description records that pipes were already in use as early as 1573, and two years later manufacture began in Broseley, a small mining and manufacturing community in Shropshire, which would become a key centre of production. Other manufacturers followed, especially in London and in almost all port cities. As tobacco was expensive, pipes had small bowls that were handmade. It was only in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century that pipes started to be mass made by pouring the clay into moulds, and specific tools were used to bore the hole in the stem and bowl.
These are the technical aspects, but what is astonishing is the widespread use of the “weed” despite its prohibitive price. It is true that once people started smoking they rarely gave up the habit, and those who had never tried sooner or later did so. However, there was also the fact that tobacco was a magic symbol of the New World. Not only that, but it had long been extolled for its medicinal properties before the habit became recreational. Moreover, it had connotations of adventure, represented by those who sailed the oceans, and the presumed freedom and spontaneity of the “savages” and their customs.
Indeed, the Native Americans were closely linked to tobacco in many images of that period, and so smoke evoked images of nonconformity and even licentiousness. Thus, smoking was a pleasure, but also transgressive, a symbol of independence in a society ruled by tradition and religion constantly in conflict. Although it may be exaggerated to say that London in the late sixteenth century was teeming with smokers everywhere, this is the impression gained from travellers’ contemporary accounts. Pipes and tobacco were to be found everywhere, in inns, taverns, markets, apothecaries’ and a wide range of other shops. Moreover, pipes could be rented in some places, while in others there were courses on how to smoke them. Official records for 1602 reveal that 16,128 pounds of tobacco were unloaded in the port of London alone, and this is not taking into account tobacco smuggling. By the time of James I’s coronation the aromatic weed had become so widespread, especially amongst the affluent and in cities, that it represented a key feature of English culture and customs, mentioned in literature, theatre, ballads, engravings and paintings. The fact that it could jeopardize noble traditions by contaminating them with savage customs, as well as challenge social order and authority itself had already been expressed by writers in their attacks on tobacco, so the monarch’s intervention through his Counterblaste said nothing new, but continued an ongoing heated debate.
However, the result of James’ diatribe was that the English smoked more, not less, as it is said that it drew even more attention to the “vile vice”, even prompting non-smokers to take it up. A few months later in October, the king issued a decree again inveighing against tobacco and increased tobacco import duties by 4,000 per cent, which may have been the result of the failure of his Counterblaste to convince English citizens, but it is more likely that it was a necessary measure to prevent prices from falling too low, now that England had made peace with Spain (28th August, 1604).
Two years later James intervened again in the tobacco market (albeit this time involuntarily and indirectly), by entrusting the newly- and expressly-formed Virginia Company the task of recolonizing the New World. This time the settlers went to what is today Virginia and the first few years were incredibly hard, almost a repetition of what had happened at Roanoke. However, a certain John Rolfe managed to acquire some Spanish tobacco seeds and decided to plant them along the River James. In 1614 the first cargo of tobacco from Virginia was shipped to England, which was the first of many, and was the solution to a wide range of problems. Indeed, the cultivation of the magic weed was responsible for the survival of English colonies in the New World and ultimately an economic staple. In this context, how could the King of England ignore the Crown’s colonial demands, or believe that tobacco use could be discredited and even abolished? As prices rose, tobacco smoking was rife in all social classes, the tobacco trade was a thriving business, the sale of tobacco and pipes expanded in London and the provinces, while the kingdom’s and king’s coffers were half empty. In 1614 tobacco import monopoly was established, available for a yearly fee. Through a decree issued in 1619 King James acknowledged the guild of “Tobacco-Pipe Makers of Westminster in the County of Middlesex” granting it a Royal Charter for the monopoly of clay supplies for pipes in exchange for a fee. The 1616 edition of the king’s works contained his Counterblaste, clearing up any lingering doubts about authorship, but the battle against the vile weed was lost. For one so uncompromising and convinced of being God’s anointed leader, nevertheless James had to adapt to a society that had evolved beyond him, in which the economic endeavours of the merchants and the legitimate expectations of the citizens had completely undermined the idea itself of absolute authority and power.
On James’ death in 1625, the English still continued to smoke pipes , and even children were encouraged to smoke, according to a French traveller in 1640. Likewise, the controversy surrounding tobacco went on, but as time went by smoking was increasingly regarded as a normal habit, thus no longer associated with exotic or esoteric practices and losing its connotations with the subversion of authority. Similarly, pipes became familiar, everyday personal objects, no longer strange devices. Tobacco and its equipment was finally accepted as normal in England, which became home of the pipe, and this custom was soon spreading to other parts of Europe.