Greetings from iainthepict. This blog of mine is meant to be like a 'Book of Days' or a kind of 'Scottish Year Book' if you will. The idea was to present an event for each day of the year. Somewhere in here, you can find out what happened, affecting Scotland and the Scots, on any given day of the year. Your comments and observations are very welcome.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Assassination of James I, King of Scots

King James I, was assassinated in Perth on the 21st of February, 1437.

James I, King of Scots, was the first of a long line of Jameses, broken only by Mary I, Queen of Scots, who was the daughter of James V and the mother of James VI & I. James, whose real name was John and which was changed, because John was an unlucky name for a King, a notion that harked back to John Balliol, was nominal King of Scots from April, 1406, when his father, Robert III, also christened John and renamed for the same reason, died. During his minority, his uncle Robert, the Duke of Albany ruled in his stead as he had done for James' ever weakening father. But that isn't the whole story,
for James didn't get to rule Scotland in person until May, 1424; a couple of months shy of his thirtieth birthday.

John (James) Stewart was born on the 25th of July, 1394 at Dunfermline Monastery and was sent to France, for his own protection, when he was twelve. The trouble was, wee Jamesie never made it, at least on that occasion; he did later when he was a grown man – twice, in fact. Anyway, the primary reason for him being dispatched to the Continent was the disturbing fact that earlier, in 1402, the third Robert's elder son, David, Duke of Rothesay, had been starved to death in Falkland, after being imprisoned on the orders of the Regent, his aforementioned uncle Robert. After the murder of his brother, Jamesie was the only surviving heir and vulnerable to a similar fate. The invalid King, Robert III, wisnae taking any chances and, in March, 1406, Jamesie Stewart set sail for France.

On the way, James’ ship, the Maryenknecht out of Danzig, was captured by English sailors and he was promptly taken into the custody of Henry IV. The English King refused a ransom, before and after James' father died. Albany didn't do over much to secure James' release either and, when he died in 1420, to be succeeded as Regent by his son, Murdac (Murdoch), things didn't change much at all. Funnily enough, you'd think Murdoch might've had a bit of sympathy for James' plight as he'd been a fellow 'holiday maker' in England. However, it wasn't until after the death of Henry VI, in 1422, that any serious negotiations for James’ release took place. Those culminated in the Treaty of Durham, signed on the 28th of March, 1424.

The treaty cost the Scots the Kingly sum of 60,000 Merks, to be paid in instalments and so, James returned to Scotland to be crowned King of Scots, finally, after all that time, at Scone Abbey, in the May of 1424. James I came back to a country in chaos and immediately set about asserting his authority over the nobility, ruling with a firm hand. Within a year, in May 1425, he had his erstwhile fellow captive, the Duke of Albany, and two of Murdac's sons, executed. James also reduced the Highland clans to order, in some brutal fashion. On the other hand, he did achieve some important financial and judicial reforms, but James' plans for including Burghers in Parliament and improving commerce were opposed by the feudal nobles. The nobles were short sighted and selfish, but James proved to be a man of vindictiveness, cupidity, and quick temper. Those less than complimentary traits further diminished his popularity.

The events of the previous forty years of Scottish politics, which had as much to do with his weak father and the strong Albany's as the events of his own short, personal reign, helped to precipitate James' death. Certainly, in August, 1436, after the humiliating failure of his siege of Roxburgh Castle, which was held by the English, the King appeared vulnerable. With that being no doubt obvious, James' control over his kingdom was brought into question at a General Council in October, 1436, when Sir Robert Grame (Graham) attempted to arrest the King for breaking his oath to “kepe” his people. Graham, although destined to be the major figure, was not the real power behind the plot. It was the hand of Walter Stewart, 1st Earl of Atholl, that directed events. If Walter didn't want to claim the throne, he certainly wanted to reclaim his power and influence.

The King was apparently unaware of the undercurrent of hostile intrigue and continued to reside in the Dominican friary at Perth as was customary. He was accompanied by several servants, but no organised guard. On the night of the 20th of February, 1437, James spent the evening “occupied att the playing of the chesse, att the tables, yn reading of Romans, yn singyng and pypynd, yn harping and in other honest solaces of great plesaunce.” With him were the traitorous Atholl and Robert Stewart, who was to secure the royal lodgings. Instead, Stewart left the chamber doors open and broke the locks “that no man myght shute hem.”

After midnight, therefore, on the 21st of February, Stewart led a party of assassins, via North Inch, back into the friary and handed responsibility over to Graham and his men; seven in number. After killing a page, which gave James a brief warning, the men broke into his chamber. James was nowhere to be seen, but Thomas Chambers “knew wele” where he was likely to be. James had taken refuge in a stone sewer, which ran underneath the chamber, after tearing up the floorboards to get in there.

In the scuffle, several ladies were wounded and the Queen, Joan Beaufort, a cousin of King Henry VI of England, was also threatened. She was a legitimate target, being her husband's nominated deputy and Atholl's rival. However, she was allowed to escape, dishevelled and bleeding, to the safety of Edinburgh Castle, which ultimately proved to have been a fatal mistake by the perpetrators.

Nigel Tranter, in his novel ‘The Lion’s Whelp’ portrays the assassination in the opening chapter. He places a Lady Catherine Douglas in the scene and has her user her arm as a bar to the door, seeking to hold it against the assassins, but they burst in, breaking the brave woman's arm in the process.

Meanwhile, James was discovered in the sewer, but he was trapped, because the pipe's outlet had been blocked three days previously, due to royal tennis balls habitually getting lost in it. James I put up a brave fight, “weighted down with fat” as he was, against the first two men. However, he was finally dispatched by Graham, who “smote hym thorogh the body.” James was left with “sixtene dedely woundes yn his breste.”

A wave of executions followed, in March, 1437, including that of James's uncle, Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl, and Robert Stewart, the Master of Atholl. James was succeeded by his son, James II.


  1. Well that's interesting and I wonder how my father has concluded that we are descended from the Mentieth Earls then??

    1. Hi Ruth,
      maybe it's a question of how far back you go and/or if the descent is legitimate or not (illegitimate/natural). See Wikipedia for a list of the Earls, in which there is a gap following the executions mentioned above, when the title passed to a Graham. So your connection might stem from the Grahams rather than the Albany Stewarts.