(13941437), king of Scots
, was the third son of , son of and . He was born at Dunfermline in 1394, probably in late July. His parents were both in middle age, and he had three married sisters and a brother, , who was sixteen. The birth of a new prince would have provided a welcome access of strength for the vulnerable royal dynasty. In early 1394 only the infirm Robert III and his sole surviving son stood between the throne and . Ambitious, able, and backed by an extensive family of sons and grandsons, Robert of Fife had recently been lieutenant of the kingdom and still had designs on political power. The rivalry between the two principal branches of the Stewart family would dominate James I's political life and he would never escape its consequences.
Inheritance and influences
James's early years were probably spent in the household of his mother in Dunfermline and Scone. Annabella's political interests may well have been perpetuated by the continued links between James and a number of her servants. The queen's death in 1401 seriously weakened the royal dynasty. She had backed the appointment of her eldest son, David, now duke of Rothesay, as lieutenant in 1399 and her absence fatally diminished his position. David's death in custody in early 1402, for which Albany was chiefly responsible, had a massive effect on the young James. When he obtained power in the kingdom in 1424, he brought those responsible for his brother's martyrdom to book and destroyed the Albany Stewarts. David's removal made James heir to the throne, and as such the only alternative to an Albany Stewart succession. Robert III's chief councillors, David Fleming and Henry Sinclair, second earl of Orkney, obtained custody of James and sought to create a following around the prince's person. In 1404 James became twelfth earl of Carrick and was granted the hereditary Stewart lands in Ayrshire and the Clyde as a regality, outside the reach of Albany's lieutenancy; as Robert III's health deteriorated, plans were laid to send James to France, again beyond Albany's control. It was, though, in conflict with the main Douglas kindreds in the south, both the Black and Red branches, that James's custodians came to grief. In early 1406, seeking to extend their influence in Lothian, Fleming and Orkney were trapped by a larger force led by James Douglas of Balvenie (the future seventh earl of Douglas). Fleming was caught and killed, while Orkney took Prince James to the Bass Rock in the Forth. This was no planned departure, and it was only after waiting for over a month that the prince's household finally found a ship going to France. En route
in late March 1406, the vessel was captured by English pirates off Flamborough Head and James entered captivity. On 4 April Robert III died. Within a fortnight James had become both king of Scots and an English prisoner.
James was absent from Scotland from the age of twelve until he was thirty. His experience of kingship and politics was largely acquired from England. Although initially kept in custody in the Tower of London and Nottingham Castle and later, after a second period in the Tower, at Pevensey, Kenilworth, and Windsor castles, he was not excluded from court life in England. Henry IV allowed James entry into his household, and from 1419 James had an increased political value for Henry V in France. Between 1420 and Henry's death in 1422 James's activities centred on France, where his presence with English armies was used to justify accusations of treason against the large Scottish forces in French service. He received status and funds in this role and there is no indication of reluctance to back the ambitions of Henry, whom he clearly admired, for the French crown. After residing for a time in Rouen, he returned to England with Henry's funeral cortège in September 1422.
James's relations with his Scottish subjects went beyond serving as justification for their execution by the English king. Throughout his captivity he maintained a small household and was visited by Scots, many of whom established political and personal ties to him which influenced royal policies after 1424. His closest contacts with a Scottish magnate before 1424 were with his fellow captive Murdoch Stewart, son and heir of Robert, duke of Albany, the governor of Scotland in James's absence. While he made token efforts to secure James's release, Albany's dealings with England focused on obtaining the freedom of his son. He had no wish to end his own governorship by engineering the return of the king, and until 1411 styled James only as the son of the late king. When Murdoch was released in 1415, negotiations endedHenry V's demands had been such as to make a successful outcome very unlikely anywayand James was left in prison.
James's release came as a result of English action. His connections with Henry V, who knighted him on St George's day 1421, created the impression of sympathy for England. This was further encouraged by his marriage to a member of the Lancastrian dynasty between 10 and 13 February 1424. His bride was , niece of Cardinal Henry Beaufort and second cousin of Henry VI. The Scottish king had certainly been influenced by English politics and society. In particular he had seen Henry V's exercise of royal power and the elevation of English prestige in European politics. James would follow the same objectives in his government of Scotland after 1424. He was also affected by English court culture, and his poem The Kingis Quair
illustrates both his accomplishment and his English models. The Beauforts hoped that James would continue to act as an ally after his release and their willingness to negotiate forced Murdoch, now duke of Albany, to accept the end of his governorship. Agreements in 1423 at York and London, and in March 1424 at Durham, confirmed James's freedom in return for a ransom of £40,000 (reduced by 10,000 marks, the amount of Queen Joan's dower).
Royal authority and regional lordship
In April 1424 James returned to a kingdom which had functioned without assertive kingship for half a century. His own inclinations and experience directed him to exactly this aggressive approach. He also had personal grudges to satisfy. These elements created the grounds for conflict. His early acts as king, including his coronation and first parliament at Scone in May 1424, were designed to emphasize the restoration of royal authority. There was no immediate attempt to challenge existing aristocratic power structures. Instead, recognizing his limited resources, the king sought allies among the Scottish nobility, in particular relying on the powerful Black Douglas earls for support. He made no open move against Albany. The arrest in May of Albany's son Walter was backed by the duke to secure his authority within his family, and the king showed favour to Albany and his third son, Alexander, at his coronation.
The change from this moderate stance was prompted by events in France. The crushing defeat of the Scots army by the English at Verneuil-en-Perche in August 1424 removed a check on James. The deaths of the Scottish leaders, Archibald, fourth earl of Douglas, and John Stewart, earl of Buchan, and many of their adherents weakened the collective resources of the Scottish nobility and created a range of situations for James to exploit. He was quick to react. In early October he met Archibald, fifth earl of Douglas, at Melrose and renewed his alliance with the Black Douglases. From this point James's relationship with the Black Douglases increasingly favoured the crown. Buchan's family, the Albany Stewarts, did not escape so lightly. James began to exert pressure on the late earl's brother, Albany. He wrested Buchan's estates in the north from the family's grasp and arrested Albany's father-in-law, Duncan, earl of Lennox. Lennox's imprisonment may have caused unrest in his earldom, but the king continued to isolate Albany. At Christmas the duke's principal ally, Alexander Stewart, earl of Mar, came to terms with James, encouraged by fear of an alliance between the king and Mar's chief northern rival, Alexander MacDonald, lord of the Isles.
The final clash came at the king's second parliament held at Perth in March 1425. Following an acrimonious debate, which may have dealt with the fate of Albany's son Walter, and in which criticism may also have been voiced of James's dealings with the lord of the Isles, Albany was arrested and his castles were seized. The escape of the duke's youngest son, James, led to open revolt in the Lennox and Argyll, which culminated in the destruction of Dumbarton, but the king remained firm. Gathering his allies at Stirling, he reconvened parliament and presided over an assize of the greatest magnates of the kingdom which sentenced Albany and two of his sons to death. Following their executions James I easily crushed remaining opposition. The execution of Albany was the decisive event of the reign and perhaps the whole of fifteenth-century Scottish politics. The most dramatic assertion of royal power since 1371the last executions of political opponents took place in 1320it eliminated the family which had dominated central government since the 1380s. James played on the rights of his office, but the key to the removal of the Albany Stewarts was his handling of the other great magnates. Threats and promises isolated Albany from his peers, who condemned him in parliament.
These magnates had now to face a triumphant king resolved to alter the balance of Scottish political society in his favour. Many found this an uncomfortable experience. The earl of Douglas endured repeated royal interference in his lands in southern Scotland, and his neighbour, George Dunbar, earl of March, was first sidelined and then finally dispossessed by the king. Both these men had backed James in 14245, but found he could be an ungrateful master. He was not opposed to the exercise of regional lordship in principal. In the 1420s he allowed the earl of Mar to retain his dominance of northern Scotland, and his own uncle Walter Stewart, earl of Atholl, to extend his influence in Perthshire. Royal pressure on March and on Malise Graham, earl of Strathearn, who was also disinherited by James, was exerted mainly to benefit the king's allies, Atholl and William Douglas, earl of Angus. Yet even such allies felt insecure as the reign went on. James was determined to enforce his control over his kingdom and to establish the royal court as the focus of politics. His tolerance of opposition to royal demands was extremely limited and past service was no guarantee of continued favour to a suspicious and ambitious king.
The king and Gaelic Scotland
Nowhere was the conflict between James's view of the kingdom and the reality clearer than in the highlands and islands. In a situation of economic and social crisis and in the absence of effective kingship, power over the Hebrides and the highlands west of Badenoch passed to the semi-independent lordship of the Isles. The relations between these MacDonald lords of the Isles and the early Stewart kings were generally good, and the hostility of clan Donald to the Albany Stewarts made them natural allies of the king. They were rewarded for this by confirmation of their rights in Ross. However, as lord of the Isles Alexander MacDonald was head of a network of Gaelic kindreds whose activities were associated by lowland commentators with disorder. If James expected Alexander to operate like other magnates in controlling Gaelic military society, he was quickly disappointed. Alexander failed to contain unrest in the far north and west, and may even have fostered it as he sought to extend his own authority. The king's disappointment was encouraged by the earl of Mar, whose career had been built on opposition to the lordship of the Isles. From 1426, following a visit to Mar's estates in Aberdeenshire, James became increasingly hostile towards the lord of the Isles.
James's attitude was characteristically forceful. In a repeat of his treatment of Albany he arrested Alexander of the Isles and fifty of his associates in a council at Inverness in August 1428. Royal aims were flexible. At first he hoped to foment dissension within clan Donald. When that failed he sought to educate the lord of the Isles in his household before freeing him. This policy was disastrous. On his release Alexander rebelled and burnt Inverness. The king replied by leading a huge royal army through Badenoch and Lochaber which defeated the Islesmen and forced Alexander to submit at Holyrood Abbey in August 1429. The campaign and submission marked the high point of James's reign. He had led an army drawn from across the kingdom and humiliated and imprisoned the only remaining rival to his authority. After 1429 he left control of the north in the hands of his lieutenant, Mar. The latter's defeat by the lordship's forces at Inverlochy in 1431 caused an end to any royal attempt to dismantle the lordship of the Isles and forced James to release Alexander, but, with Mar as lieutenant, the king could be sure that royal rights would be recognized in both the lowlands and highlands of northern Scotland. The limits on his resources prevented him from going further and, in the manner of his predecessors, he settled for the exercise of power in the north through a strong deputy.
Royal image and royal resources
According to the chronicler Walter Bower (d
. 1449), when James returned to his kingdom little remained for him to support his state out of the royal rents, lands and possessions (Bower, 8.241). The situation was exacerbated by a sharp fall in wool exports, and so in customs revenues, after 1400. James's ambitions to increase his power and prestige depended on his ability to increase his resources. Throughout the reign he sought to maximize his income from the customs and crown lands, and contemporaries suspected that his attack on the Albany Stewarts was partly motivated by greed. Certainly the takeover of the family's earldoms and lordships doubled the landed resources of the crown. In the 1420s an even more lucrative means of raising money became available to James. In 1424 parliament agreed to grant him taxation towards payment of the ransom owed to England for his release. The tax seems to have raised almost all of the sum requested (about a quarter of the ransom), but subsequent attempts by the king to obtain taxation met with opposition in parliament and the kingdom. In 1425 and 1427 the estates apparently blocked requests for money and in 1426 only a fraction of the sum agreed in parliament could be gathered. The frequency of James's parliaments in the 1420s and much of the legislation they produced, which led to his reputation as a great lawgiver, stemmed from his efforts to win support for royal taxation.
By 1427 James was aware of the difficulties involved in raising the full ransom. He retained approximately £8000 Scots in his hands and decided to appropriate the money to his own ends. What resulted was a massive increase in royal spending power. He used the funds to purchase the trappings of a Renaissance monarchy. In particular he spent heavily on royal buildings. The castles of Edinburgh and Stirling, only recovered for the crown from powerful magnate keepers in 14245, had extensive royal lodgings constructed within their walls, while James's foundation of a charterhouse at Perth may have been partly intended to provide accommodation for the royal court in the burgh, in place of the Blackfriars. However, over £5000 Scots of royal funds was spent on the construction of a new palace at Linlithgow. Rather than a fortress, Linlithgow was a residence designed to display royal status, and by the mid-1430s the palace was a major royal centre. James also lavished money on the furnishings of these residences and on the accoutrements of his household. The other main area of expenditure was military. He bought numerous pieces of artillery from Flanders, including a great cannon named Lion, which were instruments of politics as much as warfare. With such weapons he could pose as a powerful, well-equipped monarch. Similarly, his construction of a Carthusian priory at Perth was intended to raise the prestige of Scottish kingship by imitating European practice, and particularly Henry V's. The Carthusians were introduced to provide a model of monastic behaviour for the Scottish church. Copying Henry V, James attempted to identify renewal of monarchy with the restoration of spiritual standards in the kingdom.
While the Scots were impressed with James's kingship, they clearly thought the price charged was high. His appropriation of the ransom did not end his financial demands. When, in 1431, he was faced with the defeat of his forces in the north at Inverlochy, his appeal for a financial contribution from the estates was met with hostility. Parliament granted the king funds only with safeguards which implied mistrust of his financial probity. The level of resistance forced him to abandon his highland ambitions and resolve his conflicts with the earl of Douglas, the first real setback of the reign. From 1431 James altered his financial methods. Instead of making demands on parliament, he sought to extract contributions from individuals, and especially merchants, who were persuaded to make loans. More significantly, he tried to generate more funds from royal rights and lands. Sheriffs were ordered to increase the profits of justice and the role of royal household officials in raising and administering rents and customs revenue grew. James's attempts to extend the crown's estates were to prove far more serious for him.
Stewart kingship and European monarchy
James I began his active reign as a protégé of England. With his Lancastrian connections and wife, he was expected to end Scottish support for the French. But he had no intention of being an English puppet. As with his general approach to kingship, his foreign policy was designed to establish his status and independence as a prince. The elimination of the Scots army at Verneuil freed him from the danger of either French intervention or English interference. Although Scots continued to serve Charles VII of France in small numbers, they acted as useful contacts rather than as an embarrassment to James. As Anglo-French conflict remained finely balanced in the 1420s, his support was sought by both sides. Initially the French made the better offer. In July 1428 a treaty was agreed between James and Charles VII which confirmed earlier Franco-Scottish alliances and betrothed , James's eldest daughter, to the dauphin Louis. James was to provide a new army for France and would receive estates, including the countship of Saintonge, on fulfilment of the terms.
The French agreement offered James lands and prestige. It also allowed him to halt the ransom payments to England and keep the money raised. The treaty prompted English counter-offers. A marriage between one of James's daughters and Henry VI was proposed in return for a final peace between England and Scotland. The English attempted to play on James's family connections. In early 1429 Queen Joan's uncle Cardinal Henry Beaufort met James at Coldingham in Berwickshire, but James refused to respond to anything other than a direct offer and by the end of the year both sides were making preparations for war. Through early 1430 James skilfully kept his options open, in spite of the opposition of the greatest Scottish marcher magnate, the earl of Douglas. This approach yielded results. James eventually forced the English to accept only a five-year truce from 1431, which did not interfere with the French alliance.
The English were impressed. In July 1433 James's brother-in-law Edmund Beaufort, future duke of Somerset, came to Scotland with a firm offer. In return for peace and the cancellation of the French alliance the English would relinquish their last Scottish strongholds, Roxburgh and Berwick. James summoned a general council with the aim of securing support for this offer, but found himself faced with opposition from his subjects, reluctant to risk breaking their obligation to France. His failure to override his subjects, who may have been suspicious of their king's English connections, led him to seek the conclusion of his agreement with France. As the end of the English truce approached in spring 1436, James sent his daughter Margaret to France with a grand escort. In August he himself prepared to take the field. English military and diplomatic reverses encouraged a plan to take back Roxburgh by force with his imposing artillery train. The campaign was built up as a triumph of royal leadership and power. Its failure due to military incompetence and discord in the Scottish camp dealt a major blow to the standing of the king.
Up to Roxburgh, James's handling of his kingdom's place in Europe was impressive. He achieved significant gains in prestige and resources without involving himself in Anglo-French conflict. The marriage of Margaret of Scotland to Louis of France hugely boosted the status of the Stewarts. It opened the way for the marriages of the king's younger daughters, Isabella, Eleanor, and Mary, and planned matches for Joanna and Annabella, into European princely families in the 1440s. James also showed an ability to protect his kingdom's interests, beyond relations with England and France. In dealing with the growing crisis in the church caused by the Council of Basel, he maintained a similar balancing act. His aim was to secure and, if possible, extend royal control over the Scottish church and he employed his principal minister, John Cameron, bishop of Glasgow, both as his agent at the council and papal curia and as a buffer between himself and the pope's hostility. When James died in 1437, Scottish churchmen were influential on the council, but he had escaped any serious criticism from the papacy.
The end of the reign
The successes won by James in raising the status and power of Stewart monarchy obscured the fragility of his regime. There remained fundamental differences between the king and his greatest subjects on his practice of government. On questions of finance, for example, his attitudes were closer to those of English monarchs, used to annual grants of taxation, than those of his own kingdom, where financial grants to the king were rarely given. Contemporary criticism of his cupidity reflects this difference in experience and it was in attempts to extract funds from parliament that he met most regular opposition. James also wished to introduce something of the power of English royal government into Scotland. This meant a reduction in the authority of the great magnates, who saw the exercise of regional power as intrinsic to their established rights and duties. James's destruction of the Albany Stewarts did not fully secure his position. The survival in exile of James Stewart, Albany's youngest son, was a source of anxiety for a king without a son of his own. The birth of twin sons, Alexander and James, in 1430 was, as a result, the subject of great celebration. James took the opportunity to knight the heirs of many of his household adherents alongside the two babies. These adherents, such as William Crichton and James Douglas of Balvenie, were vital to his government. However, that many retained former bonds with important magnates was a source of weakness. James was served by followers of the earls of Douglas and Atholl, who still sympathized with their old lords.
Despite royal successes, James remained dependent on the backing of the great men of the kingdom. After 1431 his search for funds and attempts to maintain his political predominance put increasing strains on his relationship with many of his most powerful subjects. Between 1432 and 1435 his support for his nephew William, earl of Angus, in the marches led to the escalation of local conflict. In 1434 Angus's rival, the earl of March, was arrested and deprived of his earldom, which James annexed. March and his son attempted to recover their lands with English aid. Although Angus defeated this effort, there was considerable resentment of royal interference in the marches, which James's failure at Roxburgh exacerbated. The king faced similar problems in the north. The death of Mar without a successor in 1435 threatened to destabilize the whole region from Lochaber to Aberdeen. Instead of seeking to replace Mar's influence, James devoted himself to making financial gains. By the end of 1436 the highland policy which he had followed since 1428 was in tatters. The lord of the Isles had replaced Mar as the dominant magnate in Inverness and Moray, and local landowners in Aberdeenshire were contemplating defiance of the king in the search for effective leadership.
By late 1436 James's approach to kingship had seriously disrupted the internal stability of Scotland. Those magnates who remained were suspicious of royal intentions. The king's frequent arrests of potential enemies without warning must have bred wider anxiety. Even his closest ally among the earls, his uncle Walter Stewart, earl of Atholl, felt insecure. In the 1430s there were indications that James had designs on Atholl's estates in Perthshire, many of which were held only in life-grant. Atholl was in his seventies. His son had died in England as one of the hostages for the payment of James's ransom, a fate far from unique among this group, which may have helped to arouse in many a sense of disenchantment. Atholl's heir was his grandson Robert Stewart, a favourite of the king, but neither was certain of James's continued goodwill and neither was prepared to accept the dismantling of the family's influence and status. Their opportunity came with the general crisis of late 1436.
James I's response to failure at Roxburgh was to override opposition. He was determined to continue with the war and, despite his setback in similar circumstances in 1431, sought taxation to finance it. At the general council which met in late October he encountered concerted dissent, led by Sir Robert Graham, the spokesman for the estates. Graham was a former Albany adherent, a current servant of Atholl, and an articulate critic of James's kingship. Graham attempted to have James removed from active power and, although unsuccessful, his action represented a physical challenge to the king. James had experienced hostility from the estates before. When the council dispersed, he clearly felt the threat was over, and did not identify Graham with any wider faction. When he was in Perth the following February, James took no special precautions. He stayed in the unfortified Blackfriars outside the town walls, where he was removed from much of his household. On the night of 2021 February 1437 his lodgings were attacked by a group of armed men, led by Robert Graham. The men were former servants of the Albany Stewarts. Their entry into the king's lodging was aided by Robert Stewart, Atholl's grandson, and was only one element of an attempt at a coup. Though James I initially eluded his attackers and put up a desperate fight when cornered, he was overpowered and killed before help could be summoned. He was buried in the Carthusian priory at Perth on 21 February. The assassination was the first part of a determined bid for power by Atholl, which also aimed at securing custody of the new king, the six-year-old . However, the failure to achieve this, and the escape of Queen Joan from Perth to Edinburgh, allowed Atholl's opponents to organize around the person of the young king. After a month-long political crisis Atholl and his principal adherents were rounded up and executed by a regency government led, initially, by the queen.
James I was more than an aggressive politician. He received contemporary praise as a talented musician, an expert in the scriptures, and as a writer, but it was for his ability as a poet that he attracted most attention from later writers. By the early sixteenth century he was known as the author of The Kingis Quair
, a poem of 197 seven-line verses, dealing principally with the theme of philosophy and fortune after the manner of Boethius. The work, dedicated to Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, is an apparently autobiographical account of the king's period of captivity and meeting with his future queen, Joan Beaufort. If James is the author, the poem must date from the period of his personal rule in Scotland. Other verses by the king, mentioned in the early sixteenth century, cannot be identified with anything like the same certainty. Apart from having these intellectual gifts, James was described as a keen archer and jouster, and, while physically short, he was a strong and active wrestler when he returned to Scotland. However, by 1435, when seen by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (the future Pius II), he had become weighed down with fat, though his eyes retained an impression of his energy.
James I's reign divided contemporaries. The fullest contemporary account of the king came in the last book of Walter Bower's Scotichronicon
, written in the 1440s. Bower's picture of him as a short but incredibly active and talented man, who readily challenged his magnates to wrestle with him, matches the firsthand description given by Piccolomini of an overweight yet forceful king. Bower's analysis of James's achievements was more complex, but equally influential. From the political turmoil of the 1440s Bower looked back to James as the guardian of peace in Scotland, whose energetic justice inspired fear in all wrongdoers and whose death was a tragedy for the kingdom. However, Bower was aware of the extent of this fear and of the king's ambition. Bower revealed his own and others' sympathy for the fallen house of Albany and his dismay at the greed of James for money and lands. After the general tone of the Scotichronicon
, such doubts were given only limited space, but Bower hinted at the discomfort among even the king's supporters at the extremism of his policies.
These doubts were given full rein in the so-called Dethe of the Kynge of Scotis
, a work which although produced in England was contemporary and also drew on reliable Scottish sources. This account of James's death includes criticism of royal taxation and the treatment of Albany. Unlike Bower's work, it makes the suggestion that James's rule amounted to tyranny and that his death could be justified in these terms. The two views of the king, either as a tyrant or as a ruler cut down for his enforcement of law and peace, influenced historians in the subsequent century and a half. While royalist sentiments became increasingly strong in the sixteenth-century histories of John Mair, Hector Boece, John Lesley, and even the usually more critical George Buchanan, the hostile tradition also continued in isolated elements in their accounts, which showed James as arbitrary, vindictive, and greedy. Modern views of his reign have reflected the general alterations in perceptions of late medieval Scotland. Up to the 1960s these took a strongly centralist perspective. E. W. M. Balfour-Melville's biography, written in 1936, focused on the king's legislation as evidence of royal reform of government. The magnates were obstructive and backward-looking, first checking and then destroying the king's attempt to modernize Scotland along the lines of English government. However, more recent studies, notably those of A. A. M. Duncan (1984) and Michael Brown (1994), have produced different conclusions, laying emphasis on James's concern with short-term ends, the violent and despotic way in which these were all too often pursued, and the opposition they provoked.
James I was an able, aggressive, and opportunistic politician. His clear goal was the establishment of a prestigious monarchy, secure from the kinds of challenges which had dogged his father's reign. His means to this end were flexible and unscrupulous. Both means and end aroused hostility as well as support from Scots, unused to such kingship and not sure if the price was worth paying. James's murder was no aberration in Scottish politics; it was a product of the tensions which his rule had created in a kingdom long accustomed to challenging its rulers. His pursuit of royal rights and powers altered the internal structures of the kingdom and created an image of kingship which his successors would follow. That they did not face such entrenched resistance to their authority was James's success. That he was killed and his regime collapsed with him was his failure.
M. H. Brown