Joan Beaufort was descended from kings. Through her mother she was a related to King Edward I of England and through her father related to King Edward III. During King James I of Scotland’s captivity in England, he was fortunate enough to meet Joan and fall in love with her. Joan was to be a worthy and able partner in helping James I rule his kingdom and as regent for their son.
Joan was born c. 1404. Her mother was Margaret Holland, a half-niece of King Henry IV of England. Her father, John Beaufort, was the son of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and Gaunt’s longtime mistress Kathryn Swynford. As a descendant of kings, Joan would have been considered a prestigious catch for whoever she married. We don’t know much about Joan’s childhood but she probably would have received the typical education for a well-born lady of her time.
At the time of Joan’s birth the country of Scotland was experiencing a period of lawlessness. King Robert III feared for the safety of his son and heir James and decided to send him to France in February of 1406 when he was eleven years old. King Robert died shortly after this and his brother, the Duke of Albany took control of the government. James’ ship was captured by pirates. When the pirates realized how valuable their hostage was, they took him to King Henry IV of England. Henry gave the pirates the ship and decided James didn’t need to go to France to be educated. Henry locked James in the Tower of London and he remained in England for eighteen years. The terms of his captivity were mild. He received an education and traveled with the court, learning government and administration. While there he met and fell in love with Joan. We know this because he wrote a poem, “The Kingis Quair” (The Kings Book) about his captivity and seeing a beautiful lady outside his window, describing her as fair and blond. This was a conventional scenario for poetry at the time so we don’t really know if this actually happened. But the couple certainly met, maybe at court and there appears to have been a mutual affection.
Joan’s family saw political advantage in her marrying the King of Scots and began working to persuade King Henry V to release James from his imprisonment. Henry V’s wife Katherine of Valois also applied pressure. On August 19, 1423, an embassy was sent from Scotland to negotiate James’ release. On December 4, a treaty was finalized in London that included James’ marriage to Joan. A 60,000 merks ransom was to be paid by Scotland to England for James’ release in four installments. Joan’s dowry of 10,000 merks was deducted from the ransom. Twenty-one Scottish hostages were sent to England as surety for the ransom.
On February 2, 1424, Joan and James were married at the Church of Saint Mary Overy (now Southwark Cathedral on the south bank of the Thames in London). The couple attended festivities at Winchester Palace hosted by Joan’s uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort. They then started their journey north to Scotland. Scottish nobles met them at York to escort them home. On March 28 at Durham, James signed a pact for a seven year truce with England. Joan and James were crowned at Scone Abbey on May 21, 1424 by Henry de Wardlaw, Bishop of Saint Andrews. By Christmas of that year, Joan gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Margaret. There is very little record of Joan other than the birth of her children. After Margaret was born, Joan had three more daughters before giving birth to twin boys Alexander and James in October of 1430. Alexander died shortly after but James was to survive. Joan had two more daughters after this.
There is one story on record that occurred in 1429. In that year, Alexander Macdonald, Lord of the Isles, was captured after a rampage of burning and pillaging in the Highlands. He was forced to appear before the high altar in Holyrood Abbey, dressed as a penitent. In a pre-staged scene, Joan and others pleaded for Macdonald’s life. This allowed James to save face while exercising mercy.
When James I returned to Scotland he had powerful men in Scotland executed as a show of force and to make clear his intention to have a centralized government with himself at its head. He then began a program to establish the Scottish court on a European model. Joan and James spent extravagantly on luxuries like clothing, tapestries, furnishings, and jewelry while making the palace of Linlithgow into a showcase to impress ambassadors and visitors. It also allowed them to impress their subjects with their royal status. In addition, they spent lavishly on artillery, particularly cannon from the Low Countries to impress rival rulers and intimidate potential aggressors.
In 1428 and in 1435, James went to visit the north of his kingdom and he made the nobles swear fealty to Joan in the event something happened to him. James I strove to maintain a centralized authority but it was extremely difficult. Power in the Lowlands was stable but the Highlands and Islands maintained their autonomy. In foreign policy he demonstrated he would not follow English policies and renewed the Auld Alliance with France four years after his return from England. He secured the alliance with the marriage of his daughter Margaret to the French Dauphin Louis in 1436. Daughter Isabella married Francis, Duke of Brittany in 1442 and daughter Eleanor married Sigismund, archduke of Austria in 1449 after her father’s death. All this secured Scotland’s international standing in the courts of continental Europe.
James’ policies created distrust and worry over his intentions. Some nobles were plotting the Kings’ death. Robert Graham and a group of armed men including servants of the late Duke of Albany named Thomas and Christopher Chambers along with the two Barclay brothers of Tentsmuir entered the King’s chambers in the Blackfriar’s monastery at Perth on February 20, 1437. The commotion of the intruders raised the alarm and allowed the king to hide. He climbed into a sewer pipe, the outlet of which had recently been blocked off so tennis balls from the king’s court would not escape. The intruders found him and stabbed him to death.
In order to carry out their plans they needed to kill the Queen too and she was wounded in the shoulder in the attack but managed to escape and survive. She succeeded in quickly sending word to Edinburgh to keep her son James safe, removing his current governor and replacing him with someone she trusted. She gathered around her some powerful men and called for the apprehension and arrest of those guilty of her husband’s murder. She appeared as a valiant figure, the tragic widow with visible physical wounds from the attempt on her life. Joan had the slaughtered body of the King displayed before he was buried in the Carthusian priory in Perth. The papal nuncio was in Perth and declared the King had died a martyr. When Joan reached Edinburgh and her son, she found it was probably too dangerous to go to Scone for a coronation as it was close to Perth. So James II was crowned at Holyrood Abbey on March 25, 1437.
Regicide was a serious crime. The assassins of her husband were hunted down and some say tortured on the Queen’s orders. They were then executed. Joan was given custody of the king and his sisters by Parliament and she also received an allowance and was ordered to live in Stirling Castle. A council was named to advise her. Not long after, a power struggle began for the king’s person and for supremacy between the Crichtons and the Livingstons. The Queen could only look on helplessly and began to look for protection. She found it in the form of James Stewart, the Black Knight of Lorne and married him in June of 1439.
Sir Alexander Livingston had Joan and her new husband and his brother imprisoned but by September 4, an agreement called “the Appointment” was negotiated and Joan and her husband were released. Livingston was given custody of James II but Joan was allowed access to her son. Joan was relegated to the role of taking care of her children. She had three more sons with Stewart.
The struggles between Livingston and Crichton continued until James reached his majority in 1444. James was in the hands of Livingston and Queen Joan sided with Crichton and James Kennedy, Bishop of St. Andrews. Civil war ensued. In July of 1445, the Black Knight was arraigned before Parliament for talking badly about the government. Joan took shelter in Dunbar Castle which was promptly besieged by Livingston. The Queen and the keeper of the castle, Adam Hepburn of Hailes defended the castle as best they could. But Joan died during the siege on July 15, 1445. Her body was removed to Perth to be buried beside her husband in the Charterhouse. The royal tomb was destroyed during the Scottish Reformation in 1559.
After Joan’s death, the Black Knight took their three sons and went to England. There is some evidence that he was alive and acting as an ambassador for his stepson James II in 1454.
Further reading: “The Kings and Queens of Scotland” edited by Richard Oram, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “Scottish Queens – 1034-1714” by Rosalind K. Marshall, “The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line That Captured the Crown” by Nathan Amin, entry on Joan [nee Joan Beaufort] in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by M.H. Brown