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Issue 41 - The murder of King James 1

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Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008


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The murder of King James 1

James Irvine Robertson looks at the untimely death of a Stewart king.

King Robert III of Scotland was considered to be of unsound mind, and so the country was ruled by his brother, the Duke of Albany. He schemed to pass the Kingdom onto his own descendants. His nephew, Prince David, the heir to the throne, died under mysterious circumstances – some said of starvation – at Falkland Palace. And for his own safety, the King’s second son, the 11-year-old James, was hastily dispatched to France in 1405.

En route, probably with Albany’s connivance, and in spite of peace between the two nations, the ship on which he was a passenger was intercepted by the English and James was detained by King Henry IV of England who kept him a prisoner for the next 18 years. Distraught at the loss of his son, King Robert died in 1406 and James inherited the throne, but as a consequence, Albany continued to rule Scotland until his own death in 1420 when his son, Murdoch, took over as Governor. In 1424, the Scots at last raised the ransom money of £40,000 and the King was permitted to return to Scotland. He found the nation in chaos because Murdoch lacked the abilities and ruthlessness of his father.

James had been given an excellent education in both mind and body. He was a strong, stocky man, the author of The King’s Quaire, which has been described as ‘the finest major love poem of the 15th century’ and which celebrates his first glimpses of his wife Joan Beaufort, the niece of King Richard II. After his coronation he was merciless in imposing Royal authority. He banned feuding between nobles, the maintenance of their large armies, extortion from the church and from farmers, imposed the Rule of Law, and raised taxes to repay his ransom. This was never paid in full. In fact, it is hard to argue that it should have ever been paid at all. He also decapitated Murdoch of Albany.

With the Lowland barons partially cowed, the King turned his energies to the Highlands. He summoned the Clan Chiefs to a parliament in Inverness. About 50 turned up and they were arrested. Some were summarily executed; others executed later, and still others merely imprisoned.

Alexander, Lord of the Isles, was released a year later and promptly raised 10,000 men and burnt the town of Inverness. James instantly took an army north and trounced the rebels. Alexander threw himself at the King’s feet and begged for his life, whereupon he was imprisoned in Tantallon Castle.

The Scottish nobility continued their private wars and the King continued his implacable hostility to their insubordination. He confiscated the earldom of Strathearn and imprisoned the young Earl.

Strathearn’s uncle, Sir Robert Graham, denounced the King as a tyrant in Parliament and tried to arrest him. He was banished and deprived of his estates.

But Sir Robert Graham represented a strong body of opinion in the realm against the severity of James’s rule and, along with the King’s uncle, Walter, Earl of Atholl, hatched a plot to assassinate him. The intention was to replace the King with the Earl of Atholl’s grandson.

In 1463, the Monarch and his court went to celebrate Christmas at his residence at Blackfriars in Perth and lingered on there. On the evening of 21st February, James was in high spirits. He spent the early part of the evening playing chess, had supper about nine o’clock, after which most of his attendants retired. There followed some music, singing and the reading of romances.

At midnight, the King called for a parting cup before going through to the bed chamber where the Queen and her ladies were in conversation. James changed into his nightgown and slippers and, placing himself in front of the fire, joined in their banter.

Suddenly there were the sounds of armed men in the passage outside. The Royal party hurried to push the bar through the fastenings that secured the door, but it was missing, removed by Robert Stewart, the King’s treacherous nephew. One of the Queen’s ladies, Catherine Douglas, put her arm through the brackets while the King used a poker from the fireplace to lever up some floorboards so as to slip below into a cellar that doubled as a sewer. He should have been able to crawl through to safety, but the drain had been blocked a few days earlier since tennis balls were always being lost down it. The boards were replaced and the assassins burst into the chamber, breaking Catherine’s arm.

She was known thereafter as Kate Bar-lass.

They threatened, some say wounded, the Queen and her attendants, but of the King there was no sign. They searched the chamber and the search spread to other rooms in the palace. Assuming that the silence above meant that the danger had passed, James called out for assistance in escaping from his refuge. The killers heard and returned to the bedchamber where they found their victim. Two of them went down after him. In the confined space, the King took them by their throats and tried to wrest the knives from their hands. Then Sir Robert Graham joined them and the King was finally dispatched, receiving 16 stab wounds to his body. The conspirators then fled.

But they had miscalculated. They found they had no support and had a vengeful Queen – a chip off the block of Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots – after them. Within a month the leaders were caught. The Earl of Atholl had a red-hot coronet placed on his head before he and his son were beheaded.

Robert Stewart was tortured to death. Sir Robert Graham was found cowering beneath a rock on the edge of Loch Bhac above Blair Atholl, still known as Graham’s Rock.

He was captured by the Chief of Clan Donnachaidh and carried through the streets of Edinburgh in a cart, naked, with his right hand nailed to an upright post, and surrounded with men who, with sharp hooks and knives, and red hot irons, kept constantly tearing at and burning his body, until he was completely covered with wounds. The following day he was forced to watch his son being disembowelled alive before suffering the same fate and his body quartered.

The Stewarts were not lucky monarchs.

James II was killed by an exploding cannon at the Siege of Roxburgh Castle; James III was assassinated following the battle of Sauchieburn, James IV died in battle at Flodden, James V is said to have died of a broken heart after his rout by the English at Solway Moss – and his daughter, Mary was executed by Elizabeth I of England.

But the bloody revenge extorted for this first untimely death is unique in Scots history.


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