Thursday, 23 February 2017


A posthumous painting of King James Stewart I of Scotland
Exciting news out of Scotland this week as archeologists in Perth seek to locate the tomb and unearth the bones of 15th century Stewart (Stuart) King James I, who was brutally assassinated in 1437 by his own kinsmen as he cowered in a filthy latrine underneath the floorboards of Perth’s Blackfriars monastery.

It would be a violent end for a man who, according to rivaling noble factions in medieval Scotland, was barely fit to be King – and who ultimately seemed destined for failure by fate itself. After allegedly narrowly dodging assassination by his power-hungry Uncle, Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, (who was vindicated of killing James’s elder brother, the heir apparent David Stewart, Duke of Rothesay after the latter starved to death whilst held prisoner in Albany’s own Falkland Castle - for reasons that were undoubtedly political[1]), James too would find himself imprisoned – at the English court of Henry IV [2] after pirates captured the 12 year old Scottish heir off the coast of England and delivered him to the King. The boy had been caught at Flamborough Head attempting to seek exile in France to escape the wrath of his Uncle and other members of the Scottish nobility that sought to assassinate him (in an effort to gain for themselves the throne of Scotland).

An instrument of Kings: King David plays the lyre in this
13th century illustration.  Called an "Orpheus"  of music
by his captors, King James I of Scotland would perfect
his skills on the instrument (and many others) during his
captivity at the court of English King Henry IV.
Much like the fate of James’ third great grand-daughter, Mary Stuart, who, in the mid/late 16th century returned to her birthplace and rightful throne on Scotland after an extended period spent abroad (little Mary was only 5 when she escaped to France and into the protection of French King Henri II after a period of violent unrest in Scotland by frequently warring neighbor England as King Henry VIII sought to kidnap the young Queen and force a betrothal to his only son and male heir, Edward VI), James too, would return to his homeland as a most unwelcome, uninvited guest – his royal crown meant naught to a country known for governing itself by it’s frequently quarreling noble factions. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, James’ murderous uncle, the aforementioned Robert, Duke of Albany, had ruled over Scotland during the King’s imprisonment at the English court. Repeated demands by the English to procure a ransom from Albany for the safe return of his nephew were all rebuffed - a fact James never forgot as he whittled his days away in his otherwise lax incarceration in England. Although James had been imprisoned as a Scottish King in the enemy state, he would be made allowed to pursue princely studies (philosophy, theology, the arts and law) – which he would take up most enthusiastically, always remaining optimistic that he would one day escape from his captors and rule over Scotland as he believed he was so destined. It would be during this period that James’ honed in on his writing and music skills, penning several poems and earning for himself the moniker of an “Orpheus” of music (a title later attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by the Verona press as a traveling young Wunderkind), even developing ‘master level' skills on the lyre, flute, organ and drum.*

Far from avuncular: Robert Stewart, duplicitous
Uncle to King James, probably murdered - or at least
contributed - to the death of James' elder brother, the
heir apparent David, Duke of Rothesay. He would
usurp the throne of Scotland as Regent during the
fallout and capture of James by English pirates at
Flamborough Head off the coast of England.
As was the case in regard to his hereditary crown, King James would soon find out these carefully honed skills would come to naught when he secured for himself release from English imprisonment in 1424 (some four years after his duplicitous Uncle died, and his ransom was unexpectedly paid). James would return to a country that was anything but ready to celebrate his arrival back on Scottish soil.

James did not waste any time avenging the death of his brother (or his betrayal by his Uncle) upon his return to Scotland. A usurper currently sat on the throne – that of the Dukes son, Murdoch Stewart. Shortly after James arrival on Scottish soil, he had Murdoch (now also styled the new Duke of Albany), along with his two sons (James’ cousins and potential heirs to the throne) arrested on the charge of treason and promptly executed – virtually wiping the Albany line of Stewarts off of the royal map.

This bold and fastidious move by the rightful and newly crowned King did not sit well with former cohorts of the Duke – the throne that had been so unceremoniously taken by Albany some 18 years prior had set-stage a scene of nationwide corruption and greed. Now, it seemed the nobility had to face the loss of properties, titles, and, most important to men about town: face. James had to be stopped – by any means necessary.

The Sins of the Father: ladies man and
grandfather to James, King Robert II
would sire an impressive amount
of potential heirs-and-spares during his
reign. His son, the future Robert III
would be the result of his first of two
marriages, to Elizabeth Mure.
The problem? Little Robert was sired
whilst Mure was still mistress - not yet
Queen - to the King. The couple would
marry more than a decade later, at
which time the King legitimized his
son. James I is a descendant of this
marital union.
The plan for King James’ demise would begin with scandalous innuendo: 'the King is a bastard child,' the rumor began: the illegitimate spawn of a line of illegitimate Kings – starting with James’ grandfather, Robert II, who scandalously bred a small army of children between two wives – notably Robert III – father to James, whose birth occurred eleven years before his parents were wed (Robert would be legitimatized in 1348 following the royal nuptials). 

The plan worked beautifully: word of James’ possible illegitimacy spread across Scotland like wildfire, prompting an outright rebellion against the King.

Soon a plan would be hatched to capture and assassinate the King. No trials were to be had – James was to be executed upon discovery.

Whilst enjoying the company of his royal spouse, Queen Joan Beaufort and her ladies-in-waiting at the Blackfriar’s Monastery in James’ favorite city of Perth, the rustling of hooves and the dull glare of distant torches permeated the royal lodgings, inciting fear in all who occupied the tight quarters. Some 300 nobles, all of them with murderous intentions, stormed the Monastery. Queen Joan fled to the door in a panic – her attempt to barricade entry into the lodgings whilst her husband planned an escape. Her attempt was futile: the Queen would quickly discover, to her horror, that the lock had been permanently jammed – the result of premeditated tampering at the hands of the enemy. James at once scanned the room, trying in vain to secure for himself a safe exit - first by attempting to open a lead-lined window, and, when it failed to budge, he took to the floorboards - ripping them up in a panicked frenzy to reveal the privy (sewer tunnel) below. He jumped in, and from below, hastily attempted to reassemble the planks above his head. The King had hoped he could make his escape through the privy itself – a hope that was so pitiably dashed when he glanced upon what would have served as an exit: a small hole he had only recently blockaded with rocks after losing one too many tennis balls during times of leisure. Panicked and with nowhere to go, the King sat among the foul waste in the latrine and waited in silence. As the brutes stormed the building, Queen Joan and her ladies scampered to the privy and door in a brave effort to protect the King. One of the ladies in waiting, Elizabeth Douglas, who ran to check on the King underground, slipped and fell into the privy with him. Above, Catherine Douglas single handedly strong-armed the door. The strength of a band of brutes against one woman would prove too much for Douglas – the would-be murderers hacked at the door with both fists and axes, shattering the bones in Douglas’ comparatively frail arm. The assassins then rushed the Queen: Joan would narrowly escape slaughter at the hands of the enemy after a short-lived debate between the brutes resulted in a decision to spare the Queen due to her status as "but a feeble woman." Joan did not wait to listen to the end of the debate, taking full advantage of the oddly juxtaposed humane distraction to slip out from the grip of her captor, and "not witting well what she did or should do for that fearful and terrible affray, fled in her kirtle [under dress], her mantle hanging about her..." [3]

Consort Queen and heroine of the
Stewart dynasty Joan Beaufort. Joan
successfully sought out - and duly
received, public outrage and ultimate
vengeance on the killers of king
James when she displayed his
mutilated corpse for all to see. The
ghastly display of violent overkill
would lead to a manhunt and the
ultimate apprehension - and
execution -  of all involved in the
brutal slaying. James would later
be declared a martyr by the
much aggrieved Papal envoy (who
reportedly "wept over the body" of
the murdered king.
The room soon fell silent. In fact, as the hitmen left the room and spread out to locate the hiding place of the King, it was assumed by James, still underneath the property, that the brutes had given up and left. In what would prove to be a fatal mistake, King James called out from below to the ladies, who had not fled with the Queen and thus remained (frozen in silent horror) in the room above, to let him out of the privy. That is when the assassins made their move – it would be three men with swords and knives against one bare-fisted King. James fought a respectable battle for his life, at one point choking out one of his assailants before slamming him down onto the filthy ground below – however the presence of weapons by numbers would ultimately overpower the King. James' three executors would completely butcher the person of the King – slashing his hands and wrists as he tried in vain to defend his life, and stabbing him over 28 times about his body (with at least "sixteen deadly wounds in his breast") until King James Stewart was no more.

No small redemption for the ill-fated King would occur after death: Queen Joan, who, as we recall, had escaped the Monastery during her husband’s slaughter, would hatch a cunning plan of her own: after stowing away her son for his own safety, the widow Stewart would publicly display the mutilated corpse of her husband in a strategic move to incite national outrage and illicit a response from those who were secretly hiding James' assassins from the long arm of the law. After a thoroughly executed manhunt for the killers of the king, all of the guilty parties were rounded up and executed – with at least two of the villains undergoing an extended bout of torture, for good measure.

As for the legacy of the King – the royal couple’s son, also named James, would continue the Stewart line of Monarchs when he was crowned King James Stewart II of Scotland at Holyrood Abbey on March 25, 1437.

King James Stewart II, son of James I and Joan
Beaufort would succeed his father on the Royal
Throne of Scotland. He would reign from March
25th, 1437 until his death at the age of 29 on
August 3rd, 1460.
The exact location of the body of King James, who was buried at the Perth Charterhouse (a monastic house of Carthusian monks) following his violent death (and the public display of his corpse) is presently unknown to historians of this period – the monastery in which he founded, funded, and was ultimately laid to rest had been destroyed by Protestant Reformers in the mid-16th century.

It has not been since the excavation of Yorkist King of England Richard III (who was found buried under a car park in Leicester in 2012) that medieval historians and history buffs could look forward to another thrilling unveiling. Like King James, the assumed location for the body of Richard was pinpointed to a location once occupied by a priory: The Greyfriars Priory.

We have since learned (through scientific examination of the skeletal remains) much about the actual life and violent death of Richard III – so much of what we thought we knew of the illusive ruler proven to be part and parcel of the propaganda set forth by the Tudor dynasty – proving the existence of that ages old rule that decrees history be written only by it’s victors.

What new discoveries – if any - are lurking underneath the soil of Perth – just waiting to be revealed?

Learn more:
  • "Search in Perth for remains of murdered James I" at BBC 
  • "Raiders of the lost Charterhouse: search for tomb of ancient king of Scotland begins" at the Scotland Herald

*Although none of King James' music remains, we still have an idea of the kind of music the monarch would have heard - and perhaps been influenced by - during his lengthy imprisonment at the English Court. Although the King existed in the late-Medieval period, musically, he lived in what is known as the Renaissance Era of Western Classical Music.

Polyphonic master and pioneer of the so-called "Burgundian School" John Dunstaple was the darling of English ears during the early 15th century. He also worked for the Duke of Bedford, third son of Henry IV (and brother to Henry’s son – and James’ future (successive) captor – Henry V) [see footnote 2]

Bedford wasn't the only son of Henry IV in whom Dunstaple was employed. Following Bedford's death and a stint in the service of the widow Dowager Queen Joan Beaufort, Dunstaple would serve as musician to the 
Duke of Gloucester, Henry's youngest surviving son.

Could James have heard his music whilst held at the Lancastrian court?

Listen below to a recording of Dunstaple's lusty "Quam pulchra es" (How fair art thee), performed by the Lumina Vocal Ensemble:


[1]To remove legitimate heirs to the Scottish throne in an effort to secure it for himself.

[2] James’ imprisonment as a Scottish King under Henry IV included the freedom of written communication with the outside world, personal visits from members of the Scottish nobility, and perhaps even admittance into the English royal household.

James would be prisoner to a whopping three English kings during his 18-year tenure as a royal hostage: Henry IV would perish 7 years after Stewarts’ capture; he would be succeeded by his son Henry V in 1413 until his death (from dysentery in August 1422), and finally, under the regency council of 9 month old king (and Henry V’s only heir), Henry VI.

Although the first Henry who held James prisoner treated the Scottish King with a modicum of princely reverence due a fellow monarch, his son (Henry V) would not be so accepting of the foreign ruler – immediately upon his father’s death, the English king would hole James up in the notorious Tower of London to sit and stew alongside the other Scottish captives. It would prove a triple slap in the in the face for James: not only was he imprisoned in the drafty, stinking tower – like a commoner no less – one of his fellow inmates was none other than Albany’s son – and future usurper to the Scottish throne Murdoch Stewart!

[3](Source of quoted text) extract: MURDER OF JAMES I, 20 February 1437 ? ONE OF QUEEN JOAN'S ATTENDANTS; SCOTLAND: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY - 2,000 YEARS OF SCOTTISH HISTORY BY THOSE WHO SAW IT HAPPEN, Rosemary Goring, pp. 46, Penguin Books

Further Reading (assassins):
  • The Dethe of the Kynge of Scotis, translated from an unknown Latin source by 14/15th century scribe John Shirley, who lived in the time of King James Stewart I (c. 1366-1456) 

To learn more about King James Stewart I of Scotland and to follow the historic search for his bones, visit the link below (external site):



  1. Thanks for this - I was having a time trying to learn more about this king!! What a life he had and how exciting to know he will soon be found!!