Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton

James I and His Nobles

On a blustering day in March, 1496, the North Sea was churned by the wind from the east, and rose in great grey billows, driving nearer to the English coast a little fleet of ships that were sailing south-ward. They were very small ships indeed, with high poops and masts, and though they rode buoyantly they had a clumsy appearance. They were decorated with many flags and small pennons, which fluttered in the wind. One of them flew the flag of Scotland, and the sails were wrought with curious work. At one end of this vessel, sheltered from the wind by a little group of nobles, was a small, fair-haired boy of about eleven years old. He was looking eagerly at a speck far away on the grey water, which was hidden sometimes by the waves and then it came into sight again. They told him it was an English ship, but that he need fear nothing, for England and Scotland were not at war, yet the anxious looks and muttered sentences passing from one to another would have told a stupider child than young Prince James of Scotland that his courtiers were more afraid than their words implied.

Prince James was being sent by his father, King Robert III of Scotland, to live for a while in France, for his own safety. King Robert had now been King for fifteen years, ever since the death of his father, Robert II. He had been christened John, but the Scots did not like the name, which was associated with King John Baliol, so when he ascended the throne he became Robert too. He had been crippled by a kick from a horse, and he never really ruled: his younger brother, whose name was actually Robert, becoming Regent, and governing the kingdom for him. This brother was a very determined and ambitious man, and when the King's eldest son David, who was sixteen years older than James, came of age, and took the power into his own hands, his uncle did not like it at all. David was created Duke of Rothesay, and his uncle Duke of Albany, and this was the first time the title of Duke was used in Scotland. David was wild and high-spirited, and his uncle made the most of it, spreading tales against him, and trying to make the people hate him. At last he went further, and seized David and carried him off, finally making him prisoner in his own magnificent castle at Falkland. The old King apparently could do nothing, and there was no one else powerful enough to interfere, for two years earlier the Queen had died.

The young Duke of Rothesay never left Falkland alive; a terrible story was whispered, that he had been murdered by his uncle—starved to death, they said—and if you visit Falkland, the very chamber in which the wretched young man is said to have pined away is pointed out.

King Robert feared for his younger boy the fate of the elder, and he sent James to St. Andrews, where he lived in the Bishop's strong castle, and was taught by him. He stayed there two years, and afterwards the first university in Scotland was founded there by the Bishop. Then the King resolved to send the boy to France, so the Earl of Orkney was told to accompany him, and sometime in February or March the little vessel bearing the King's son sailed from the Forth. France was at that time a friend to Scotland, and the French Court was one of the most fashionable in the world.

The ship made slow progress, and seems to have taken days before it even got so far south as to be off the Yorkshire coast. James had had time to get over his sea-sickness, and, though no doubt he felt rather lonely, he was able to take an interest in all that went on around him.

The sight therefore of the English warship which rapidly approached was watched by him with eagerness. She was a fine ship, painted red, with great gold figures standing up at the bows, and there were armed men on board. Presently she signaled to the Scottish ships to stop. They could not disobey, being merely convoys without any arms, though the Scots were in consternation, wondering if the English knew the King's son was passing. There were no newspapers in those days, no telegraphs to carry news, and the whole affair had been kept secret. It was only when the commander came on board, and openly demanded the Prince, that they guessed there had been treachery, and that the Duke of Albany had found means to let the English know in order that his nephew might be captured.

James therefore was taken prisoner, and carried off to London without a blow being struck in his defense. His father died a few days later, so that it is hardly possible he even heard that his son had been captured. By his death James became King, but, as he was kept in England, his uncle, the Duke of Albany, still continued to rule in Scotland.

It was perhaps really the most fortunate thing that could have happened to James, because if he had been in Scotland he would have been quite at the Duke's mercy, and it is hardly likely he would have been allowed to reach manhood, whereas in England he was well-treated and educated, and earned good manners and courtly ways. When he began his long captivity Henry IV. was King, and he lodged the young Prince in the Tower and allowed him to have books and tutors. As the years went on and he grew to manhood, he used to long to get away to Scotland, and made many attempts to come to an agreement with the King of England—attempts which the Duke of Albany always managed to stop. His own son Murdoch was set free in 1415, and returned to Scotland.

Meantime Henry V. had ascended the throne; he used to tempt the Scottish King by saying that he would let him go if James would do him homage, acknowledging him overlord of Scotland, but if not he should be kept a lifelong prisoner. Though James must have been sorely tempted at times, he never gave in, or made any such rash promises.

In I420 Henry V. took him over to France, with which country he was at war; and James learnt the art of war, though it must have seemed odd to him to be in the English camp when the French were his allies. Again, two years later he went with the King, and this time some Scottish soldiers had come to the aid of France, and Henry tried to make them go back by saying they were fighting against their own King; then when he took them prisoners he hanged them, saying ironically they were traitors.

During the time that James was at Windsor Castle, the windows of his rooms looked out on to a garden, and he could see the River Thames. He was studiously inclined, and used to write a good deal, and there is a long poem supposed to be by him, called "The Kingis Quhair"; but, though for many years it has always been granted that he wrote it, lately some scholars deny this, and say that it was made up by someone else. In it are some verses describing how the King looked out of his window into the green garden, and there saw

"The fairest and the freshest young flower That ever I saw me-thought, before that hour."

This was one of the ladies of the Court, Lady Joan Beaufort, a cousin of the King, Henry V.

James lost his heart to the lady and she to him, and for once the course of true love ran smooth, because King Henry thought it would be no bad thing if he allowed his prisoner to be married to an English bride, and then go home to his own country. Thus it was arranged, and as a man of thirty, after having been over eighteen years prisoner, James was set free. He married Lady Joan in Southwark Cathedral on the eve of St. Valentine's Day, and they went north together. But he did not get off altogether free, for he had to pay a large bill of 30,000, which the English claimed for his education and keep, but which was really a kind of ransom.

Now began a new life for James. His cousin Murdoch was in authority in Scotland, having succeeded his father as Duke of Albany, and one of the first things James did after being crowned at Scone—though, alas not on the historic stone—was to seize Murdoch and his sons, and after a trial, during which it was shown that they had not acted loyally, they were beheaded at Stirling, all except the youngest, who got away. Though James seemed quiet, he was a clever and a strong man, and he knew how to rule. When he returned to his native land, he said, by the help of God, he would "make the key keep the castle and the furze-bush the cow throughout the realm," by which he meant he would put down robbery and lawlessness. He was crowned in 1424, and the next year a daughter was born to him. This was the beginning of a large family, ten children altogether; eight were girls, and there were twin boys, of whom one died as a baby.

In 1436, when their boy was only six years old, the King and Queen Joan went to spend Christmas at Perth, which was then the capital of Scotland, and was called St. John's Town. They stayed with all their retinue in a monastery, as was the custom in those days. Even after Christmas and well on into February they remained there, with feasting and games going on continually. Now James, though beloved by the people, was too strong to be popular with the nobles. He had treated them sternly, and put them down with a ruthless hand. Among them were two who thought they had claims to the Scottish throne, and another, Sir Robert Graham, who, although he had no such claim, thought he had a grievance, and had spoken bitterly and in public against the King. He had had to fly to the Highlands after this, and spent his time creating disturbances. Thus in spite of all the feasting and gaiety it was an anxious time for the King, knowing that there were plots against him among his own subjects.

On February 20, when the King was at the monastery, he stood chatting late with the Queen and her ladies before going to bed. He stood by the hearth, where there was an open grate with some blazing logs on it, warming himself. The King made a jest, but even as the words were on his lips a roar was heard outside, and then a wild shouting succeeded it, while the blaze of torches showed through the wide cracks of the door. In a moment his face grew stern; he knew what it was; it seemed almost as if he had expected it. His enemies had risen against him, and were forcing their way in!

His keen eyes glanced at the door, and he saw that the great bar of iron, which used to shoot through the two strong staples and so hold the door like a bolt, had been removed. Some traitor inside the monastery had been at work. James was brave enough, but he was unarmed. What use would it be for him to stand there to be butchered by a mob? He looked about for a way of escape; the windows were too strongly barred to be possible. Suddenly he remembered that under the floor ran a drain or vault, so telling the women to hold the door a second or two if possible, he seized the tongs, and with their help pried up a board in the flooring.

The rabble was already in the passage, and the united weight of the women against the door could offer little resistance to their entrance. Then one devoted to the King, brave as he was brave, and of a noble race, Catherine Douglas, thrust her round white arm through the two strong staples in place of the missing bolt. It served the purpose, holding for a few seconds while James dropped into the black hole, pulling back the slab into place over his head. Then as the brave girl sank back, fainting with the agony of her broken arm, the mob rushed in, headed by Sir Robert Graham. The Queen and the ladies cowered back, holding their breath while the armed men flew round the room with cries of disappointment, and in their fury struck even at the women, wounding the Queen. They were armed with swords, and axes, and knives, and they dived into the chests and under the hangings, pitching about the chairs and benches in their haste. Then some dashed out again, shouting that the King had escaped, but others examined the room more closely, for secret passages and hiding-places were frequent in those days. Then with a yell they sprang upon the board which bore signs of having been moved.

When the King had dropped into his hiding-place he was full of hope, for it was the opening of a passage leading out into a courtyard where tennis was played, but as he stumbled along he remembered with a sinking of heart that only a day or so before he had given orders for it to be blocked up, as his balls fell into the hole. Alas! the order had been only too completely carried out; there was no escape in that direction. He waited, therefore, listening to the rush of feet overhead with more excitement than fear, for he had been accustomed for long to living in the midst of danger.

Then came the shout of triumph, the gleam of light from above, and his enemies fell in upon him one after the other. Though King James had only his fists, he stood up and fought fiercely, so fiercely that the marks of his fingers were still on the bodies of his foes when they were taken to execution afterwards. However, numbers told, and he sank at last with sixteen wounds in his breast alone.

The horrible scuffle in the dark hole was ended; his body, disheveled and bleeding, was dragged forth, and his son, the little boy of six, became James II.

It is satisfactory to know that all the murderers were shortly afterwards executed, but dreadful to learn that, according to the barbarous notions of the time, they were tortured first. It was a rude age, in spite of the brave men and devoted women who lived in it.