Scotland's Story Chapter LIV. James I - The Poet King, How He Reigned,
and How He Died
To Prince James in his prison, the days were dark, and
long, and dreary, but brighter days were near. Regent Albany died, his son
Murdoch ruled weakly and badly, Scotland longed for a King again, and at
last the prison doors were opened—Prince James was free.
In those days, when a prisoner was set free, he had to
be ransomed. That is, a large sum of money had to be paid for him. But as
James had been unlawfully seized when the two countries were at peace, the
English could not demand a ransom. Instead, they sent the Scots a bill for
all that had been spent on educating and keeping their King. Just as if the
Scots had wanted the English to keep their King from them all these years!
As soon as .James was free, he married the beautiful
lady of the garden—' his fair heart's lady,' he called her. Her name was
Jane Beaufort, and she was a relation of the King, and a very great lady.
The English were glad that James wanted to marry this lady, for they thought
she would make him keep peace with England, and not help the French any
more. Lady Jane, too, loved Prince James. She had heard much about him at
the English court. Perhaps that May morning she had glanced up at his
window, and seen him as he knelt to watch her while she walked in the
They were married with great pomp and ceremony in
London, and then this King and Queen, a happy pair of lovers, travelled
slowly northward to their kingdom. They were followed by a train of English
knights and nobles, who had learned to love James, and as they neared the
Borders, the greatest of the Scottish barons came to meet their King. Then
with rejoicing and feasting they moved on to Scone, where the King and Queen
James found the land in a dreadful state. Under
Murdoch of Albany's weak rule, the nobles had grown more and more proud and
unruly. Each acted like a King. No one thought of keeping the laws if he did
not choose to do so. The land was little else than one wide den of robbers.
James set himself at once to bring order into this
confusion. Two or three days after he was crowned, he called a Parliament He
was busy himself, and he kept his Parliament busy too. He went through all
the laws, doing away with some, making others more plain and secure. He made
the proud nobles show how they came to be possessed of the lands they held,
and many of them who had taken other men's goods and lands by force, were
punished. 'Let God but grant me life,' cried James, 'and there shall not be
a spot in my dominions where the key shall not keep the castle, and the
furze-bush the cow, though I myself should lead the life of a dog to bring
By this James meant that people should learn to keep
the laws so well, that cattle would not need to be watched and guarded, and
that people might live quietly in their homes, and not need all of soldiers
to keep them safe from attack.
Soon after James came to the throne, Regent Murdoch
and his sons were seized, tried, and condemned, for the evil deeds that they
had done, while the King was in prison in England. They were first shut up
in Stirling Castle, and afterwards their heads were cut off.
For thirteen years James continued to rule wisely and
sternly. He brought peace to the land, and comfort to the people, but many
of the proud nobles hated him, because he had lessened their power.
'For he had tamed the nobles' lust, And curbed
their power and pride, And reached out an arm to right the poor
Through Scotland far and wide; And many a lordly wrong doer By the
headsman's axe had died.'
The King had many enemies, and chief among them was
Sir Robert the Graham. One day in Parliament Sir Robert rose in his place
and cursed the King, calling him a tyrant. For this and other misdeeds all
his possessions were taken from him, and he was banished from the land. Then
he, and others with him, formed a plot to kill the King.
It was winter time, and James, having made up his mind
to spend Christmas at the Monastery of the Black Friars at Perth, with all
his court journeyed northward. As he was about to step into the boat to
cross the river Forth, he was stopped by an old woman. 'My lord King,' she
cried, 'go not over, if you cross this water you will never return again.'
For a moment the King hesitated. The woman seemed so
earnest that he could not help being struck by her words. 'Go,' he said to a
knight who rode with him, 'ask the woman more nearly what she means.'
The knight went, but he could make nothing of the old
woman. All she would say was that some one called Hubert had told her to
warn the King. 'Heed her not, Sire,' said the knight, as he came back, 'she
is but a half. witted grandame.'
So the King went on and thought no more of the old
woman and her warning, and soon the gay procession arrived safely at Perth.
Day after day was spent in merrymaking. Christmas passed. The New Year came,
and still the King stayed on.
One evening, after a day of feasting and pleasure,
James sat playing at chess with a knight of the court whom he had nicknamed
the King of Love. ' Sir King of Love,' he said laughing, ' I read not long
ago that a king should be killed in Scotland this year. That must be either
you or me, for we are the only two Kings in the land. So I warn you to look
to yourself.' The courtiers around laughed at the King's jest, although
there were some there who knew only too well that his gay words would soon
The court had been unusually gay that day. The
evening, filled with games, singing, and story-telling had passed quickly,
so it was late before the last courtier had gone, but still the King,
dressed in a loose robe, stood by the fire, chatting with the Queen and her
ladies, before going to bed.
But while the King and Queen had been merrily passing
the time in song and laughter, Robert the Graham and his friends had been
preparing their wicked plans. Logs of wood had been placed across the moat,
the locks and bolts had been taken from the royal rooms, and everything done
that would make the entrance of traitors easy.
Now, as the King talked, a fierce Highland war-cry was
heard without. The clang of swords, the rush of feet, came to his ears. The
gleam of torches in the courtyard without showed through the uncurtained
At once the thought of treachery flashed upon the
King's mind. He sprang to the door to fasten it. Alas! the lock was broken,
and the heavy bar used as a bolt was gone. Turning quickly to the window, he
tried to break or bend the iron bars with which they were guarded. But
strong though he was, he could not move them. That way there was no escape.
The noise and tumult were coming ever nearer and
nearer. The terrified Queen and her ladies huddled in a corner, trembling.
But one brave lady, called Catherine Douglas, stood by the door, her arm
thrust through the iron loops where the bolt should have been. She at least
would do what she could to keep the traitors out. The King looked round
hopelessly. What was to be done. His eye fell upon the tongs by the
fireplace. Seizing them, he forced up a plank in the floor, and jumping down
into the vault below, let the plank fall into its place again. He might have
escaped that way, for a little square hole led from the vault to the open
air. But alas! only three days before, the King himself had given orders to
have it built up, for when he played tennis in the garden his balls would
often roll into the hole and be lost. So now he could only stand in the
vault and wait, listening anxiously to the sounds above.
Scarcely had the King disappeared when three hundred
Highlanders, armed with drawn swords, battle-axes, and weapons of all kinds,
rushed into the room. Brave Catherine tried in vain to keep them hack. They
broke her pretty white arm, and rudely threw her from the door as they burst
it open and dashed in. Ever afterwards, Catherine was called Catherine
Barlass, because of her brave deed.
The room filled with armed men, and the ladies,
terribly frightened, ran away, trying to hide. The Queen alone was so struck
with terror that she could not move. With pale face and staring eyes she
stood, gazing at the scene. One of the ruffians struck her, and would have
killed her, had not Robert Graham's son stopped him. 'For shame,' he cried,
'what would you do to the Queen? She is but a woman. It is with men that we
have to do. Let us on and find the King.'
Then they swept through the rooms, leaving the Queen
alone, sobbing bitterly. Everywhere they searched, —in cupboards and
wardrobes, under beds and couches, but nowhere was the King to be found. At
last, mad with disappointment and anger, they turned and left the wrecked
and ruined rooms.
Then the King, hearing no noise, and thinking that all
was safe again, lifted the planks which covered his hiding- place, and made
ready to come up. At this minute the traitors returned. One of them had
remembered the vault below the floor. 'Ha,' he cried in wicked glee, as he
tore up the plank and saw the King, 'the bridegroom is found for whom we
came, and for whom we have sought so long.'
With his drawn sword in his hand, one knight leaped
down into the vault. The King caught him by the shoulders, and threw him
down. A second knight jumped down. But the King seized him too, and threw
Of his person and stature was the King A man right
manly strong, And mightily by the shoulder blades His foe to his feet
And he smote and trampled them under him; And a long month hence they
bare All black their throats with the grip of his hands When the
hangmen's hand came there.
King James was a mighty, strong man, and he was
fighting for his life. But he had only his naked hands with which to fight,
and his enemies were armed to the teeth. Then Sir Robert Graham, seeing how
James struggled with the two men, also sprang into the vault, sword in hand.
Even James could not fight with three men at once.
'Have mercy,' he cried.
'Cruel tyrant, you never had mercy on the lords and
nobles,' replied Graham. 'You shall have no mercy now.'
'Then, for the salvation of my soul, let me confess my
sins to a priest.'
''You shall never have other confessor than this same sword,' replied Graham
fiercely; and therewith he pierced the King through the body, so that he
fell to the ground. Others followed the Graham, till the King lay dead with
sixteen wounds in his brave heart.
Then the traitors sought for the Queen, and would have killed her too. But
she had fled to warn the people of the town, who now came hurrying in. They
came too late. The King was slain, and the traitors fled.
''Twas in the Charterhouse of Perth, In the fair lit Death-chapelle,
That the slain King's corpse on bier was laid With chaunt and
In his robes of state he lay asleep, With orb and sceptre in hand, And
by the crown he wore on his throne, Was his kingly forehead spann'd.
And the Queen sat by him night and day, And oft she knelt in prayer,
All wan and pale in her widow's veil That shrouded her shining hair.
And "Oh James! - she said,—" my James!" she said— Alas for the woeful
thing, That a poet true and a friend of man, In desperate days of bate
and ban. Must needs be born a king.'
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