James Stewart was one of those royal children (like Henry VIII and Charles I, or Elizabeth I for that matter) who was never destined for the throne. He was the ‘spare’, not the heir. His promotion in the succession came about under suspicious and violent circumstances. His elder brother, David, had been captured and reputedly starved to death in the dungeon of Falkland Castle in 1402, on the order of his uncle, the Duke of Albany. His father, King Robert III of Scotland, was forced to declare publically that his son had died ‘by divine providence and not otherwise’ (Orman, 2004).
James himself became embroiled in the bitter fight between the Albany faction and the royalists, which culminated in a confrontation in East Lothian in 1406 that resulted in the twelve-year-old being forced to take refuge on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. He remained there for over a month, until he escaped on a ship bound for France. Robert III hoped his son would find protection there from his ally, the French King, Charles VI.
However, the ship never reached France. Instead it was captured by English pirates, who handed the young heir of Scotland to Henry IV of England. Robert III died just days after hearing of his son’s capture. His son was recognised as King James I of Scotland by both the English and the Scots.
The accession of a child to the Scottish throne started a tradition that would continue for over two centuries. Added to the usual complications that arose during a minority was the fact that the new king would spend the next eighteen years in captivity, mostly at the Tower of London. James’ regent in Scotland during much of this time was none other than the Duke of Albany, murderer of his brother David.
For James, he came to view this forced exile as a blessing, for it was during this time that he met and fell in love with Joan Beaufort; he wrote about how he first saw her in the Kingis Quair, ‘And then I cast my eyes down again, where I saw, walking under the tower, secretly, newly come to lament, the fairest and freshest young flower that ever I saw, I thought, before that hour; which suddenly made my body start and all my blood rush to my heart’ (BBC History).
The two were married in 1424 at Southwark Cathedral, celebrating their wedding breakfast in the Great Hall at Winchester Palace, the London residence of Joan’s uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester. Thus, James had aligned himself with an influential English family and also married for love, a rarity in the context of the political unions arranged between the royal families of Medieval Europe.
James’ internment had spanned the reigns of three English monarchs: the final years of Henry IV, the entire reign of Henry V, and the early part of Henry VI’s minority. Though he had increasingly been treated as a favoured guest as opposed to a prisoner, it was not until 1424 that James was officially released. He was 30 years old when he returned to Scotland, his freedom guaranteed by the exchange of sons of the Scottish nobility as hostages to ensure that the instalments of the ransom were paid as agreed. He found Scotland as divided as ever, and it was not until 1430 that James and Joan secured the Stewart dynasty, when she gave birth to twin boys at Holyrood Abbey, though only one, named after his father, would survive.
And what became of James I? He had seemed indestructible, a survivor, despite all the adversities he had faced. But, he would fall victim of the violent dynastic struggles that he had been unable to contain since his return to Scotland, and this time his fate was final. When hearing a commotion one evening in 1437 outside his rooms at the Dominican convent at Perth, he acted swiftly, breaking through the floorboards to the escape via the sewers. He found his exit blocked, however, as a result of action taken to prevent balls from the king’s tennis court being lost there. James was cornered by his assailants and stabbed to death.
Queen Joan’s reaction is admirable; she gained the sympathy and support of the Papacy by parading her own injuries and putting her hubsand’s mutilated body on display before his burial. Also, she had rushed to her six-year old son in Edinburgh, where she ensured that he was crowned James II of Scotland at Holyrood Abbey, rather than at the traditional location of Scone (due to its proximity to Perth).
For all his failings, James I of Scotland is credited with having ‘established the model of Stewart kingship which placed Scotland firmly within a European context and which would be continued and evolved by his successors’ (Orman, 2004).
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The main source of information for this article was Richard Orman (ed.) ‘The Kings and Queens of Scotland’, available from bookstores and online, such as at Amazon
The BBC site on Scotland’s History has an interesting page on James I of Scotland, including some video clips from a recent documentary, here, which is my source for the quote from the ‘Kingis Quair’
- Tantallon Castle (historicalbritain.org)
- Winchester Palace (historicalbritain.org)
- Two Small Rooms in Edinburgh (historicalbritain.org)