Famous Scots- James Stewart

King James I (Stewart) of Scotland
King James I (Stewart) Click for larger image

James Stewart was born 30 December 1394 at Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. He was one of the younger sons of Robert (John) III, King of Scotland, and his wife, Anabella Drummond.

James was born into a time of disorder in Scotland. His father, King Robert III, was a weak sovereign and as one contemporary observed: "In those days there was no law in Scotland, but he who was the stronger oppressed him who was weaker, and the whole kingdom was a den of thieves."

Young James Stewart's father, John, had become King in 1390 but due to his frailty, had handed over authority to his brother, Robert Stewart, Earl of Fife. Robert was an ambitious man and more concerned with his own advancement than the rule of the Kingdom. Recognizing this, Robert III (John) again took control of Scotland just before young James Stewart's birth.

But King Robert's talents at running the Kingdom proved abysmal, and in 1399 the governing of the Kingdom was passed to David Stewart, James' older brother. David was titled Duke of Rothesay, and settled down to run the Kingdom. David's Uncle Robert, the Earl of Fife, who expected to again rule in the King's place, was given the title of Duke of Albany in compensation.

David proved to be irresponsible and wild, and in 1401, after two short years of running the country, Robert III asked him to step down. He refused, thus forcing the King to have his own son arrested. David was placed in the custody of his uncle, Robert, the Duke of Albany and imprisoned at Falkland. About this time, the mother of James and David, Anabella Drummond died.

David Stewart was imprisoned and allegedly starved to death. Click for larger imageWithin a year, another loss befell the royal family when David Stewart died while in his Uncle Robert's captivity. Although there were no external marks on the young man, it appeared as though he died of starvation. Many suspected his brothers' ambitions to the throne were the cause and Robert, the Duke of Albany, faced a judicial inquiry.

The power of the Duke was great, and this led many to believe that the results of the inquiry were predetermined, as he was very quickly exonerated of the charge. The King's health was fading, and his remaining son James was only eleven years old, so it was decided to send James to France for his protection. Very early in 1406, young James Stewart was loaded on to a ship of Danzig named the Maryenknycht.

The ship never made it to France, however, as it was captured by English 'pirates' and young James was sent to the court of Henry IV of England. Apparently, this was too much for James father, as he died on the 4th of April 1406; at about the time the news of his son's kidnapping would have reached him.

The Scottish Parliament immediately pronounced young James Stewart as King of Scotland. But since the King was in the captivity of the English, his Uncle Robert assumed the title as Governor of Scotland for the second time. It is then that Robert Stewart's true intentions became obvious, as he quickly ransomed his son, Murdoch, who had been captured by the English at the Battle of Homildon in 1402. No attempt was made to ransom the young King James and Murdoch Stewart returned to help his father govern Scotland.

The young King James I of Scotland, remained in captivity in England, serving time in the tower, the English court and at other English strongholds for his 'safety'. The martial sports of jousting, swordmanship and archery delighted him, but his captivity prevented much of this activity. In response, he turned to his energies to the arts of the mind. He became a linguist, musician, singer and an accomplished poet.

On the 3rd of September 1420, the Governor of Scotland, Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany died. His son Murdoch Stewart became the new Duke of Albany and assumed the role as Governor of Scotland. It quickly became apparent that Murdoch did not even possess the mediocre skills of his father. Many of the nobles of Scotland started to actively pursue the return of the rightful King James.

King James I (Stewart) writing poetry. Click for larger imageMeanwhile the young James had met Lady Joan Beaufort, great-grand daughter of Edward III of England and they had fallen in love. James wrote a poem about her that is called The Kingis Quair:

And therewith kest I doune myn eye ageyne,
Quare as I saw, walking under the toure,
Full secretly new cummyn hir to pleyne,
The fairest or the freschest younge floure
That evir I saw, me thoght, before that houre,
For which sodayn abate, anon astert
The blude of all my bodye to my hertů.
Although this was not one of James' best poems, it illustrates his feelings for Lady Joan. The two were married in 1423 and she became the new Queen of Scotland.

By this time, the King of Scotland, James Stewart had been in captivity for seventeen years. England was having major difficulty maintaining the territory it had captured in France. Scotland was now seriously negotiating for the release of its King and thousands of Scots were fighting in France against the English. The last thing the English needed was an all out war with the Scots. In response to Scottish entreaties, the English agreed to James' release for the fee of 60,000 merks - tactfully labeled as the Kings 'expenses' during his stay - and the agreement that no more Scots would fight against them in France. In the spring of 1424, after eighteen years in captivity, the King of Scotland returned to his home with his new wife.

The young King wasted no time regaining control of the country, as the main threat to his power came from his own family. Murdoch Stewart, the Governor of Scotland (and the Kings cousin), and his two sons were executed. David Stewart (son of Robert II and Euphemia of Ross), the Earl of Strathern was sent to England and imprisoned along with James Stewart, Master of Atholl (the son of Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl).

With the threats to his power banished or killed, James I of Scotland turned his attentions to Scotland. His goal, first and foremost, was peace. Barely 4% of the taxes were making it to the government. The rest was being stolen and usurped by robbers and corrupt servants of the crown. He enacted laws that were considered harsh against criminals and fair to the common man.

In 1429, James was forced to war with the Lord of the Isles to maintain control of the northwest portion of the country. He was successful and returned to policing the countryside. He was becoming a very popular King and a champion of the people. All was well until the other James Stewart, Master of Atholl, died while prisoner in England.

While his son was in captivity, Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl had remained a faithful servant of the King. With his son's death, however, his ambitions for the throne returned along with a hatred for the King. He conspired with Sir Robert Graham to murder James I.

On the night of the 20th of February 1437 they put their plan into action and were successful, but they did not get the results they anticipated. James I was killed, but instead of the people placing Walter, the Earl of Atholl, as their new monarch they chose James' son, also named James, who became James II at the age of seven years.

In retrospect, James' I abduction was the best thing that could have happened for Scotland. In the English court he learned many lessons of diplomacy and the hard realities of taking and maintaining power. These were lessons that he apparently would not have received from his father, Robert III, and which made him the first true King of Scotland since Robert the Bruce. James I restored law and order to the country and refilled its coffers.

But James I also learned a few other things in England that did not bode him well in Scotland. His relationship with the Highlanders was poisoned by his contempt for their culture and way of life - something he learned at the English Court and which led to his war with the Lord of the Isles. And although he was himself a staunch Roman Catholic, his reforms removed much of the Church's power in Scotland.

BW, February 2000



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