The First James of Scotland
James1 of Scotland
On 20 February, 1437 King James I of Scotland was assasinated. In memory of
this King, I have written a small biography of his life and his reign. This
by no means is a full account of the events in the Kings life — or the
events that took place in Scotland at the time, but the major events are
covered to give an idea who this man was.
JAMES I of Scotland
King of Scots (1424—37), born in Dunfermline, Fife, the second son of
Robert III. After his elder brother David was murdered at Falkland (1402),
allegedly by his uncle, the Duke of Albany, James was sent for safety to
France, but was captured by the English, and remained a prisoner for 18
years. Albany meanwhile ruled Scotland as governor until his death in 1420,
when his son, Murdoch, assumed the regency,
and the country rapidly fell into disorder.
James Stewart of the Royal house of Stuart spent most of his childhood life
in exile as a prisoner of the English. The Scots who ruled in his absence
as regents would not pay his high ransom the English demanded for his
return to Scotland. Finally, after 18 years in exile, his countrymen agreed
to his ransom and James returned to Scotland.
Scotland was in a near state of armed insurrection when James returned. The
previous regent, Murdoch, had been a poor and corrupt regent and the clan
feuds in the Highlands continued unabated. In the Lowlands and Borders, the
Border Barons rode their raids, terrorized the burghs, and pursued the
Crowns revenues by theiving the crown taxes for themselves. Less that 4% of
revenues were actually reaching Edinburgh when James took over.
Murdoch, the regent soon regretted paying for James's return. «If God gives
me but a dog's life,» said James when he saw and heard what had befallen
his country, «I will make the key keep the castle and the bracken bush keep
the cow through all Scotland». In a week after his coronation a parliament
at Perth declared that peace would be enforced throughout the realm, and of
«any man presume to make war against another he shall suffer the full
penalties of the law.»
Once released (1424), James dealt ruthlessly with potential rivals to his
authority, executing Murdoch and his family.
Within a year, James had broken the power of his cousins the Albany
Stewarts and seized their estates. Upon some real or contrived charge of
treason, the former regent of Scotland who had let James remain a prisoner
in England so long, Murdoch and his two sons, with the aged father-in-law
of one of them, were first imprisoned and then taken to the heading-block
There were men who mourned their death, despite all the corruption,
believing them friends of the poor and the victims of James's tyranny. The
romantic and frequently misguided attachment to the unsuccessful members of
the House of Stewart has deep roots in Scotland's history.
James Takes Control of Scotland
He was 32 when he came back to Scotland, of medium height but large-boned
and thickset, quick in his movements like a fox. He was an athlete, rider
and wrestler, skilled with bow and spear, and proud of the strength in his
broad chest and muscled arms. His darting and inquisitive mind was
fascinated by the machinery of war, gunnery in particular, as it intrigued
most men of the day. He was also a poet and
muscian, and almost unique in the contradictory powers of tranquil
reflection and uncompromising action. Beyond firm government perhaps, the
greatest gift he brought to a bleak Scotland was some of the first of its
Idle as a prisoner, albiet well kept prisoner, in England he had read all
he could, and his long poem «The Kingis Quair», inspired by Chaucer's
translation of a French allegory, is a soft voice speaking with a love of
James was the first of many Stewart kings to act as a patron of the arts,
and almost certainly wrote the tender, passionate collection of poems,
(«The King's Quire» or book), c.1423—4.
It was not a woeful wretch who came home to Scotland, but the first real
king the country had had since the death of Robert Bruce in 1329.
His bride was Joan Beaufort, a niece of English king Henry IV, and a sixth
of his ransom had been obligingly remitted as her dowry. It was not only a
marriage of dynastic arrangement, and many believe the tender poem referred
to above , was about her as he viewed her from his prison tower, and fell
in love with as she walked among the court.
From James I, perhaps comes that legendary Stewart charm, more disasterous
to Scotland than an Albany's corrupt rule. But, the man who had sighed and
written for and about love at a garden window in London, was merciless and
resolute on a throne. His concern for law and order, while it was needed to
secure his crown, also had roots in a poet's sense of justice, but he did
not respond like a poet. When he had exterminated his cousins, he turned
upon the Highlands. He was the first
of his family to treat the clans like cattle, showing that contempt most of
them had for the Gaelic people, and making the Highlander's ultimate self-
sacrifice for the House of Stewart as pointless as it was herioc.
He summoned over 40 Highland Chiefs in 1428 before him and his parliament
at Inverness. Among the Highlanders were Alexander of the Isles, (the
current Lord of the Isles), the son of Donald of Harlaw. They were greeted
as thugs upon arrival, as each appeared before the throne he was seized by
men-at-arms and thrown into the dungeon pit. One by one, the Chiefs of Clan
Donald, MacKay, MacKenzie, Campbell and all the tribes and leaders of the
north, while the poet king entertained the
parliament with a witty Latin squib on their certain hempen departure. In
fact, three were hanged and the rest released after a brutal , but short
imprisonment. Clemency was granted for any offences they might have
commited, but it was wasted on Alexander of the Isles. He and his wild
Islanders, remembered the treachery that had preceded it, and when King and
parliament were gone, came back by ship over rivers, and burnt the burgh of
Inverness to the ground, one of seven bonfires which
the MacDonald's lit upon that ground in their clan's riotous history.
James marched to Lochaber, isolated Alexander from his allies, and forced
him to come to Edinburgh in submission. Wearing shirt and drawers only,
holding his 2 handed claymore by the blade, he knelt before the high altar
of Holyrood and humbly offered the hilt of the weapon to the king. James
would have hanged him, it is said, but for the intercession of the Queen,
and was instead sent to a Lothian castle in the keeping of a Douglas earl.
In the 13 years he strengthened the machinery of government and justice,
replacing the baron's law with the king's law, and restoring the crown to a
respect it had not received since Bruce's heart was taken from his rib
cage. Copies of law were distributed among all sheriffs so that no man
might claim ignorance of the law. Of course this really only worked in the
Lowlands, as the Highlands and Isles were still ruled by the clan system
and the supreme authority there, was the individual Chief of the clan —
with the King coming in a distant second.
Justice was attempted to be available to all, but since this principle was
easier to enact through parliament than to put into actual practise, the
king himself chose a special court from the Three Estates to consider
complaints and abuses. He also set up a commitee of wise and discreet men
to examine the laws at intervals, and to advise upon their admendment if
neccessary. The power of the civil justice and criminal courts were
strengthened under James I's reign. He clearly wished to
establish a parliament such as he had seen at work in England.
For more information of his mammoth changes to Scottish courts and
parliaments, see the book «Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603» — by
William Croft Dickinson. (Although it may be difficult to obtain a copy).
Though orthodox in faith and sincere in piety, he was a rough opponent of
Rome when he felt it threatened his own countries independence. He denied
the Pope's power of provision, the right to appoint bishops to vacant sees
on Scotland, and thus have influence over one of the estates in its
parliament.It had become the kings right to approve a bishop-elect before
consecration and papal promotion, and he stopped his churchmen from
bargaining with Rome for these benefices, arguing with some justice that
the traffic was impoverishing his kingdom. With his parliament, he declared
this «barratry» illegal, taxed the export of gold and silver, and forbade
the clerics to travel abroad without royal license, the Pope demanded the
repeal of the acts. The king's response was to acknowledge the authority of
the Counsil of Basle, which had attempted to reform such papal powers of
He was hard and exacting on the true duties of his churchmen, and ordered
them to set their house in order, lest the crown's past generousity be cut.
But, Scotlands detestment of so called «heretics», which resulted in the
first heretical buring, during the regent before James' reign, was started
again in 1433. A second was burnt, Paul
Crawar, a reasonable fellow by the sound of him, a Bohemian graduate of
medicine and the arts who had come to St. Andrews University as an emissary
of the Hussites. He was said to have preached free love and socialism (or a
form of it) by his detractors, that enduring combination of human desires.
The smoldering flames that would spread from his burning, burnt longer than
his judges could have imagined.
Law, administration, and political and church reform were all done or
attempted during James I's reign. No king had done so much for Scotland,
outside of war and independence, since Alexander II, and few had so many
enemies. The work he set off was too great for any one man, and in his
efforts to break the powers of the barons he was often careless and
foolish. He alienated the Douglases (one of the most powerful Lowland
Scottish families) by imprisoning their earl, and deprived the Earl of
March of his title and estates because of his father's desertion to the
English 30 years before. Four-fifths of his ransom was yet to be paid and
many of the lords had kinsman still held hostage in England, and bitterly
resented the kings indifference to them. His custom of appropriating
estates to the crown when there was doubt about an heir may have been good
housekeeping or feudal custom, but most men considered it robbery. His
large family of first and distant cousins was full of jealousy, spite, envy
and greed, and it was perhaps inevitable that this Stewart king should die
by a Stewart plot.
He himself made it possible by weaking his prestige with a half-hearted war
with England. On her way to marry the Dauphin his daughter Margaret
narrowly escaped a piratical attack by an English ship, and what seems on
the surface to be a good excuse, James besieged the castle of Roxburgh,
which had been in English hands now, for 100 years. He abandoned it without
assualt, the reason is unclear, but it is said that his wife warned him of
plots against him if he pressd on. And there was
a plot, within his own family and his own household, and the unpopularity
of the king's withdrawl from a chivalrous field (the castle) gave the
plotters courage. At it's veiled centre was the Earl of Atholl, «that old
servant of many evil days», a son of Robert II's second marriage and by his
own reckoning the rightful king of Scotland.
His son, Sir Robert Stewart, was the King's Chamberlain, and it was he who
found a willing assassin in Sir Robert Graham, a man with his own festering
grudge and a scarred memory of the imprisonment and banishment.
At the end of 1436 James went to keep Christmas with the Dominican friars
at Perth. As he crossed the Forth a Highland woman warned him that he would
never return alive, a common warning in Scots history and just as commonly
ignored. She followed him to Perth, it is said, repeating her tedious
warnings, and she was present on the night of February 20 when Robert
Stewart opened the door of the convent where the King was staying, and
admitted the Graham.
James was in his wife's chamber, talking to her and her ladies, relaxed in
his dressing-gown, amused by the Highland's woman's last warning and
telling stories of omens and premonitions. When he heard the noise of heavy
feet, clanking armour, his quick mind sensed what they meant. He wrenched
up the planking of the floor and dropped into a vault or drain below,
hoping to escape into a court beyond but forgetting that its mouth had
recently been sealed to prevent his tennis-balls from rolling into it.
Graham and his eight confederates broke into the room, dragged
out the fighting King, and butchered him with twenty-eight dagger-strokes.
The Queen was wounded in her efforts to save her husband, and it might have
been better for Graham had he killed her too since he had gone this far.
This «freshest and fairest flower» of the King's youth became a tigress in
revenge. Atholl and Robert Stewart, Graham and his hired cutthroats were
soon taken, and suffered long and appalling torture until the Queen's grief
was satisfied and they were sent to the merciful headsman.
And so ended the life of James I of Scotland on 20 February, 1437….560
years ago this year.