James Stewart I, King of Scots had an unusual reign in many ways. His rule began while he was a prisoner of King Henry IV of England. And his rule certainly ended in a tumultuous and violent manner.
James was born on July 25, 1394 at Dunfermline Palace. He was the son of King Robert III and Annabella Drummond, the daughter of a Scottish nobleman. James was the third son born to King Robert. While we don’t know much about James’ early years, he probably received the education of a boy of his rank for the time. James’ father had become king late in life and probably for health reasons was unable to rule in his own capacity. Consequently, Robert’s brother, the Duke of Albany, governed the kingdom. Robert and Anabella’s second son died young. Anabella was able to promote James’ elder brother David to a higher position in the government but he was licentious and dissolute. Albany managed to take David prisoner and he died there in mysterious circumstances.
By February of 1406, King Robert was worried about the safety of his heir and managed to conspire to spirit James out of the country when he was eleven years old. An excuse was made that James was to be sent to France to further his education. He was taken under armed escort to Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian. There was no Scottish navy so he awaited a cargo ship going from Leith to France. He waited almost a month and finally boarded a ship trading out of Danzig, carrying wool and hides. He was soon caught by pirates.
The pirates realized the value of their captive and took him to King Henry IV of England. Henry gave the pirates the ship and its cargo and sent James to the Tower. James’ father, King Robert, died right around the same time that he was captured so James was now King of Scots. King Henry made sure James’ captivity was not onerous. He received a good education, learning about government, administration and justice. He went to war in France, fighting with King Henry V. He also wrote a poem about his captivity called “The Kingis Quair”, (The King’s Book). In the poem he mentions seeing a beautiful young lady from his prison window. We don’t know if this incident really happened but he did meet his future wife, Joan Beaufort while he was at the English court. It appears to have been a love match.
Joan’s family began to see political advantage in a marriage with the King of Scots and began working on getting James released from prison. Negotiations were started in August of 1423 and a treaty was finalized on December 4, including a marriage between James and Joan. A ransom of 60,000 merks 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 and twenty-one Scottish hostages were sent to England as surety for the ransom. One of these hostages was Malise Graham, the nephew of Sir Robert Graham, a Scottish nobleman who supported the Albany faction. This was to have repercussions for James later in his reign.
On February 2, 1424, James and Joan were married at the Church of Saint Mary Overy (now Southwark Cathedral) in London. Wedding festivities took place at Winchester Palace hosted by Joan’s family. James and Joan then began their journey north. James signed a pact agreeing to a seven year truce with England at Durham. Scottish nobles met them at York and escorted them into Scotland. James and Joan were crowned at Scone Abbey on May 21, 1424. By Christmas of that year, Joan gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Margaret. Joan was to give birth to three more daughters before having twins James and Alexander in October of 1430. Alexander died shortly thereafter but James survived. Joan then had two more daughters.
During James absence from Scotland, the Duke of Albany had governed with a light hand. He didn’t want to alienate any of the Scottish nobles and so allowed them to do as they pleased, even letting them take Scottish revenue. He didn’t want to alienate the people of Scotland so he didn’t tax them. Consequently the country was impoverished. Albany died in 1420 and his son Murdoch succeeded him. When James arrived, he wanted to make clear his intention to rule in his own right. He had Murdoch, his father-in-law and his two sons arrested, tried for treason and executed.
James had grown up in the atmosphere of the English court and wanted to establish his court along the same lines. James and Joan began a lavish spending campaign, buying jewelry, clothes, tapestries and furnishings. They outfitted Linlithgow as an opulent palace so they could impress foreign diplomats and visitors as well as their Scottish subjects. They also spent extravagantly on artillery, especially cannon from the Low Countries, in order to impress and intimidate other rulers.
James was in need of money to pay his ransom and redeem the Scottish hostages held by England. He wanted to start a program of taxation but Parliament would not allow him to collect taxes on a regular basis. James had to resort to what amounted to extortion of lands, revenues, customs and rents. Included in his takings was the Earldom of Strathearn which he confiscated from Malise Graham who was still a prisoner in England. Not all this money was used for the ransom. Some of it went to James’ lavish lifestyle. This led to distrust of the King.
In foreign policy, James was determined not to follow English policies and renewed the Auld Alliance with France four years after his return to Scotland. He secured the alliance with the marriage of his daughter Margaret to the Dauphin Louis (the future King Louis XI) in 1436. His daughter Isabella married Francis, Duke of Brittany in 1442 and daughter Eleanor married Sigismund, Duke of Austria in 1449 (after James’ death). These alliances raised Scotland’s international standing in continental Europe.
James was focused on having a centralized government. He consolidated his power to govern the Lowlands but the Highlands were used to autonomy and willing to fight to keep it. He led an army north and had several clan chiefs arrested and executed and took Alexander, Lord of the Isles prisoner and forced him into public submission. He had subdued the Highlands for the moment but had also managed to create more resentment and distrust.
In 1436, James decided he wanted to try to take the castle at Roxburgh from the English and laid siege. But the campaign disintegrated into chaos and James was forced to flee with his army, leaving his precious artillery to the enemy. James was not willing to give up and tried to raise more money to finance another campaign. At this point, James’ policies had created an atmosphere of distrust, fear and worry over his intentions among the Scottish nobles.
James’ uncle Walter, earl of Atholl, began a campaign to have James arrested in parliament. Sir Robert Graham was chosen as speaker. Graham’s hatred of James was very deep due to his treatment of his nephew Malise. He may have gone too far in trying to arrest James. Graham lacked support from the three estates for the attempt at that time. But this led the conspirators to consider taking more drastic measures against the king.
James had Graham arrested and banished but did not seem to realize the scheming went beyond Graham and included his uncle. Graham gathered a group of armed men including servants of the late Duke of Albany and set off to Perth. James had celebrated Christmas of 1437 at the Blackfriars monastery in Perth and was spending some time playing tennis there, possibly in an attempt to lose some weight. On the evening of February 20, Graham and his men attacked James in his wife’s chambers while he was dressed in his slippers and nightgown. It was a gruesome scene with James being stabbed at least sixteen times.
The conspirators managed to get away. The Queen was injured in the attack but succeeded in escaping. She made sure the safety of her young son James was secured and then set out to have the assassins hunted down, tortured and executed. Joan had James’ mutilated corpse put on display before having him interred in the Carthusian monastery in Perth. The monastery was destroyed during the Reformation in 1559. James’ and Joan’s son was crowned King James II at Holyrood Abbey on March 25, 1437.
Further reading: “The Kings and Queens of Scotland” edited by Richard Oram, “The Royal Stuarts” by Allan Massie, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley