Gateway to the Classics: Scotland's Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Scotland's Story by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall

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 garden.

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 were crowned.

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 it about."

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 an army 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 become true.

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 windows.

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 in 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 back. 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."


Brave Catherine tried in vain to keep them back.

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 him down.

"Of his person and stature was the King

A man right manly strong,

And mightily by the shoulder blades

His foe to his feet he flung.

"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 hangman'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 requiem-knell.

"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 bale and ban,

Must needs be born a king."

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