The story of King James I of Scotland and his queen, Joan Beaufort, is one of those rarities in Medieval history; a true love story. He was a King in captivity and she a beautiful young lady of the court.
Following the murder of his brother, David, Duke of Rothesay, James was the only surviving son of Robert III of Scotland. He had been on his way to France, for his safety and to continue his education, when his ship was captured by pirates in April 1406. Aged only 11, he was handed over to the English king, Henry IV, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Shortly after his capture, James’s father died and he was proclaimed King of Scots, but the English would not release him.
James was closely guarded and regularly moved around, but he was also well-educated while in the custody of the English king and was an accomplished musician and poet. He was held at various castles, including the Tower, Nottingham Castle – where he was allowed to go hunting – and Windsor Castle.
Probably born in the early 1400s, Lady Joan Beaufort was the daughter of John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset and legitimated son of John of Gaunt (himself the 3rd son of Edward III) by his mistress and, later, wife Kathryn Swynford. Joan’s mother was Margaret Holland, granddaughter of Joan of Kent (wife of Edward the Black Prince) from her marriage to Thomas Holland, 1st Earl of Kent.
Joan Beaufort was very well-connected; she was a niece of Henry IV, great-niece of Richard II and great grand-daughter of Edward III. Her uncle, Henry Beaufort, was a cardinal and Chancellor of England.
Little seems to be known of her early life, but she was at court in the early 1420s, when James first set eyes on her. James wrote of his love for Joan in his famous poem, The Kingis Quair. According to Nigel Tranter, James was with the court at Windsor, when he saw Joan for the first time while walking her little lap-dog in the garden, below his window.
His narrow window afforded him only a limited view, but the Lady Joan walked the same route every morning and James wrote of her;
“Beauty, fair enough to make the world to dote, Are ye a worldy creature? Or heavenly thing in likeness of nature? Or are ye Cupid’s own priestess, come here, To loose me out of bonds”
One morning James managed to drop a plucked rose down to Lady Joan, which he saw her wearing the following evening at dinner. Nigel Tranter suggests Lady Joan grieved over James’s imprisonment and even pleaded for him to be released.
Their romance grew apace, but was interrupted when James had to accompany Henry V on his French campaign. Henry was hoping that James’s presence would make the Scots, fighting with the French, think twice about engaging with him. However, the strategy had little effect.
James’s imprisonment lasted for 18 years. His uncle Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany and Guardian of Scotland in James’s absence, refused to ransom him, in the hope of gaining the throne for himself. He never quite garnered enough support, but managed to keep the Scottish nobles in check.
However, when he died in 1420 control passed to his son Murdoch (who had also been imprisoned by the English for 12 years, but was ransomed – instead of James – in 1414) and Scotland fell into a state of virtual anarchy.
Henry V had finally decided that it was time for James to return to Scotland when he died. It was left to Henry’s brother, John, Duke of Bedford, as Regent for the infant Henry VI, to agree the terms of James’s freedom. James was charged 60,000 marks in ransom – to cover the costs for his upkeep and education for 18 years, it was claimed. The agreement included a promise for the Scots to keep out of England’s wars with France, and for James to marry the Lady Joan Beaufort.
James and Joan were married at the Church of St Mary Overie, Southwark, on 2nd February 1424. James was released on the 28th March and the couple returned to Scotland shortly after. They were crowned at Scone by Henry de Warlaw, Bishop of St Andrews, on 21st May 1424.
James and Joan had 8 children together, 7 of whom survived childhood. Their 6 daughters helped to strengthen alliances across Europe. The oldest, Margaret, was born around Christmas 1424. At the age of 11 she was sent to France to marry the Dauphin, Louis – the future Louis XI – narrowly escaping her father’s fate when the English fleet tried to capture her en route. She died in 1445, leaving no children.
Isabella married Francis I, Duke of Brittany; she had 2 daughters and died in 1494. Eleanor married Sigismund, Archduke of Austria, and died in 1480. Joan was born mute and married James Douglas, Earl of Morton and had 4 children – her eldest son, Sir John Douglas, 2nd Earl of Morton, was probably killed at Flodden in 1513. Joan herself died in 1486.
Mary was created Countess of Buchan in 1444; she married Wolfert, Count of Grandpre, of the Netherlands, having 2 sons who died young before she died in 1465. A last daughter, Anabella, married, firstly, Louis of Savoy but following their divorce in 1458 she married George Gordon, 2nd Earl of Huntly. They had 2 children together before divorcing on the grounds of consanguinity in 1471.
James and Joan finally had twin sons in 1430. Born on 16th October, Alexander died the same year, but James would go on to succeed his father and married Mary of Gueldres in 1449.
On his return to Scotland, James immediately set about getting his revenge on the Duke of Albany’s family and adherents; executing some, including Murdoch, Albany’s son and heir. Two other claimants to James’s throne were sent to England, as hostages to the payment of his ransom.
James and Joan ruled Scotland for 13 years; James even allowed Joan to take some part in the business of government. His reforms, however, and desire for a firm but just government made enemies of some nobles, including his own chamberlain Sir Robert Stewart, grandson of Walter, Earl of Atholl, who had been James’s heir until the birth of his son.
Due to his long imprisonment in the fortresses of England, James tended to avoid castles. On 21 February 1437 the King was staying at the Blackfriars in Perth when his chamberlain dismissed the guard and, having removed the locking bar to the King’s quarters, let the assassins into the priory.
James and Joan were alone with the queen’s ladies when they heard the men approaching. On seeing the locking bar missing, Joan’s lady, Kate Douglas, used her own arm to bar the door. The queen hid the king in an underground vault as Kate’s arm broke and the plotters gained entry. They dragged James from his hiding placed and stabbed him to death; Joan herself was wounded in the scuffle.
The plotters, led by Walter, Earl of Atholl, James’ own uncle, had expected to seize power, but were arrested and executed as the nobles rallied around the new king, 6-year-old James II.
James I was buried in Perth and Joan took an active role the government for her son, getting caught in a contest of power between Sir Alexander Livingstone and Sir William Crichton. Her second marriage to Sir James Stewart, the Black Knight of Lorne, led to her arrest by Livingstone, under the pretext that she may abduct the child-king.
Joan and her new husband were only released on the condition that she give up her custody of James II and leave the court.
They would go on to have 3 sons together before Joan died during a siege at Dunbar Castle on 15 July, 1445; although whether her death was caused by illness or the violence of the siege has not been determined. She was buried in the Carthusian priory in Perth alongside her first husband, King James I.
Sources: The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Brewer’s British royalty by David Williamson; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens and British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; History Today Companion to British History Edited by juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.
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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
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