This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
When writing his history of Scotland in the 1440s, the chronicler Walter Bower stated mournfully that he was “forced to unfold a gloomy account although it is much against my inclinations”. Bower was referring to the events of 20 February 1437, when a group of assassins broke into Blackfriars friary in Perth and hunted down King James I of Scotland.
James initially eluded his attackers and, when cornered, put up a desperate fight. But eventually the king was overpowered and killed before help could be summoned. He succumbed – in the words of the chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet – “to upwards of 30 wounds, some of which went through his heart”.
Monstrelet described James’s murder as a “very cruel and surprising event”, and it was one for which the perpetrators would pay dearly. On his capture, Robert Graham, the lead assassin, was “surrounded by three executioners, who kept pinching his thighs, and other parts of his body with red-hot pincers” before he was quartered. Another prominent conspirator, the dead king’s uncle the Earl of Athol, was “crowned with a cornet of hot iron to signify he was a traitor” and dragged naked through Edinburgh before being beheaded and quartered.
It was a violent end to what was a violent reign. From the moment he took the reins of power in 1424, James brought an ambitious, abrasive style of rule to the kingdom of Scotland. He attempted to introduce wide-ranging legal reforms and he invested enormous efforts in projecting himself onto the European stage. Above all, he showed disloyal members of his nobility little quarter. When, for example, James had Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany arrested on charges of treason, he did what his predecessors would never have dared do – he had him put to death.
James’s ruthless, radical style of kingship made waves across Scotland. But it was a style arguably forged not in the corridors of power in Edinburgh, Perth or Fife, but in some of the grandest castles in England. James had spent 18 years of his life in captivity south of the border – and what he learned from English kings, most notably Henry V, the hero of Agincourt, he would attempt to replicate north of the border.
In March 1406, the 11-year-old James was sent to France by his father, King Robert III, in a bid to escape the deadly factional politics that were blighting his kingdom. En route, the ship carrying James was captured off the coast of Cley in Norfolk (or possibly off Yorkshire) and given to Henry IV, king of Scotland’s traditional enemy, England. On hearing the news, Henry reportedly quipped: “Of course, if the Scots had been our friends, they would have sent the young man to me for his education, as I know the French language.”
This account, written by the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, is the only occasion in which James’s capture appears in contemporary English records. Perhaps English writers were embarrassed by the incident – after all, a child had been taken prisoner during a truce between the two nations. But, for the English, James was simply too good a prize to forgo. Just days after his capture, that prize would grow even more valuable, for his father died and James became the Scottish king.
For all that, Henry IV never fully exploited the propaganda value provided by his royal captive. There is little evidence of James being paraded at major spectacles – as Edward III had done with David II of Scotland and John II of France decades earlier. It seems that James was normally to be found in relatively secure royal castles such as Windsor, Nottingham, Pevensey and Kenilworth.
All that changed when Henry V succeeded his father as king of England in 1413. On his first day on the throne, Henry ordered that James be brought to the Tower of London. This was no spur of the moment decision. Henry was intent on stamping his authority on his kingdom, embarking on a programme of restoring law and order. Bringing James closer to the centre of power fitted that agenda perfectly. It also gave him an opportunity to keep an eye on his prized asset.
James remained in England in 1415 when Henry V sailed to France to prosecute a campaign that would culminate with his famous victory at Agincourt. The king of Scots may have been a prisoner of the English but that didn’t prevent Robert, Duke of Albany, governor of Scotland during James’s absence, from allowing an estimated 15,000 Scotsmen to sail to the continent and offer the French much needed military support.
Henry’s response to the Scottish intervention was utterly ruthless. When James went to France in May 1420, Henry used James’s presence at the siege of Melun near Paris as a pretext for summarily executing the entire Scots guard at the garrison. The justification was that the Scots at Melun had committed treason by opposing their rightful king.
We’ll never know what James made of Henry’s brutal treatment of his countrymen. Nor can we divine the Scottish king’s opinion of his English jailers. But The Kingis Quair, (the King’s Book) a semi-autobiographical love poem that James wrote for his English bride Joan Beaufort, at least provides a few clues. It begins with a sleepless narrator who, after reading Roman philosopher Boethius, turns to thinking about his own life of misery and exile – hardly a ringing endorsement of James’s incarceration in England. Yet, intriguingly, the poem finishes with a dedication to the two towering figures in English literature at the time: John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer.
If The King is Quair offers but a fleeting insight into James’s state of mind, then his actions are far more revealing. They suggest that far from being appalled by Henry’s approach to kingship, James was deeply impressed by the English monarch’s muscular style of rule – and, above all, his ability to bend his nobles to his will.
As a child, James was acutely aware that his father and grandfather (King Robert II) were repeatedly sidelined by unruly nobles. In 1402, he’d looked on in horror as his elder brother David, Duke of Rothesay was arrested by the Duke of Albany and either poisoned or starved to death in Falkland. Mutinous aristocrats frequently got the upper hand over Scottish kings. In England, however, they were met with an iron fist. Henry IV had no compunction about executing a succession of rebellious nobles in the early years of his reign; while in 1415, en route to France, Henry V stopped off at Southampton to preside over the beheading of three nobles who had plotted against his life.
The grim finality of the Henrys’ punishments certainly made a mark on James. And when, in 1424, he was finally freed (Henry V was now dead and the English could see no merit in keeping James in captivity during Henry VI’s minority), he set about applying this blueprint to his own kingdom.
Flaunting royal power
What followed was a concerted campaign to bring his nobles to heel – one that culminated in the execution of the Duke of Albany. From the moment the duke went to the block on 24 May 1425, no one could doubt where power now resided in Scotland. Unfortunately for James, that accumulation of power would go on to spark a rebellion that led to his death.
But King James didn’t just project his power on the battlefield; he also flaunted it in court. In fact, if there is one characteristic that truly distinguished the new king from his predecessors, it was his dedication to extravagance and his determination to impress the watching world through lavish spending. This too, it seems, was a practice that he had learned from Henry V.
James had attended some of the greatest ceremonies of the English king’s reign, the most notable of which was Henry’s wedding to Catherine of Valois in 1420 (where, we are told, James was the first guest to be served after the happy couple and assembled bishops). Here, James would have experienced at first-hand the diplomatic and political capital to be accrued from grand projections of might and majesty.
Expanding the scale and splendour of the Scottish royal court was an expensive undertaking, of course, and James funded it by rerouting the money raised from a tax originally intended to pay for his ransom. Scotland was no cultural backwater when James returned to take his throne (John Barbour had written his epic poem The Bruce by 1375, several years before Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) but the Scots had never seen anything on this scale before.
We can only speculate as to the exact nature of the relationship between Henry V and James I. We have no evidence of direct speech from either man about the other. What we do have is a series of acts that indicate that James I in many ways wanted to replicate in his own kingdom the power Henry V enjoyed in England. Neither man would have admitted it, but James I of Scotland was the unlikely apprentice of Henry V, king of his country’s mortal enemy.
Dr Gordon McKelvie is a lecturer in history at the University of Winchester
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