The Death of the Poet King
A S Prince James slept he dreamed that a sudden great light shone into his prison, making bright all the room. A voice cried, "I bring thee comfort and healing, be not afraid." Then the light passed as suddenly as it had come and the Prince went forth from his prison, no man saying him nay.
And so through "air and water and hot fire" he was carried, seeing and hearing many wonders, till he awoke to find himself still kneeling by his window.
Was it all a dream, Prince James asked himself, even the vision of the lovely lady in the garden? At that thought his heart grew heavy. Then, as if to comfort him, a dove flew in at his window carrying in her mouth a sprig of gilliflowers. Upon the stalk in golden letters were written the words, "Awake! Awake! lover, I bring thee glad news."
And so the story had a happy ending, for Prince James knew that
the lovely lady of the garden loved him. "And if you think," he
says, "that I have written a great deal about a very little
thing, I say this to
Then, in an outburst of joy, he thanks and blesses everything that has led up to this happy day, which has brought him under "Love's yoke which easy is and sure." Even his exile and his prison he thanks.
The King's Quair reminds us very much of Chaucer's work. All through it there are lines which might have been written by Chaucer, and in the last verse James speaks of Gower and Chaucer as his "masters dear." Of Gower I have said nothing in this book, because there is not room to tell of every one, and he is not so important as some or so interesting as others. So I leave you to learn about him later. It is to Chaucer, too, much more than to Gower that James owes his music. And if he is grave like Gower rather than merry like Chaucer, we must remember that for nineteen years he had lived a captive, so that it was natural his verse should be somber as his life had been. And though there is no laughter in this poem, it shows a power of feeling joy as well as sorrow, which makes us sad when we remember how long the poet was shut away from common human life.
The King's Quair is written in verses of seven lines. Chaucer used this kind of verse, but because King James used it too, and used it so well, it came to be called the Rhyme Royal.
King James's story had a happy ending. A story with a happy ending must end of course with a wedding, and so did this one. The King of England, now Henry VI, was only a child. But those who ruled for him were quite pleased when they heard that Prince James had fallen in love with the beautiful lady of the garden, for she was the King's cousin, Lady Jane Beaufort. They set James free and willingly consented that he should marry his lady, for in this way they hoped to bind England and Scotland together, and put an end to wars between the two countries. So there was a very grand wedding in London when the lovely lady of the garden became Queen of Scotland. And then these two, a King and Queen, yet happy as any simple lovers journeyed northward to their kingdom.
They were received with great rejoicing and crowned at Scone. But the new King soon found, that during the long years he had been kept a prisoner in England his kingdom had fallen into wild disorder. Sternly he set himself to bring order out of disorder, and the wilfull, lawless nobles soon found to their surprise that the gentle poet had a will of iron and a hand of steel, and that he could wield a sword and scepter as skillfully as his pen.
James I righted much that was wrong. In doing it he made for himself many enemies. But of all that he did or tried to do in the twelve years that he ruled you will read in history books. Here I will only tell you of his sad death.
In 1436 James decided to spend Christmas at Perth, a town he loved. As he neared the river Forth, which he had to cross on his way, an aged woman came to him crying in a loud voice, "My Lord King, if ye cross this water ye shall never return again in life."
Now the King had read a prophecy in which it was said that a King of Scotland should be slain that same year. So wondering what this woman might mean, he sent a knight to speak with the woman. But the knight could make nothing of her, and returning to the King he said, "Sir, take no heed of yon woman's words, for she is old and foolish, and wots not what she sayeth." So the King rode on.
Christmas went by quietly and peacefully, and the New Year came,
and still the King lingered in Perth. The winter days passed
pleasantly in reading, walking, and tennis-playing; the evenings
But one night, as James was chatting and laughing with the Queen and her ladies before going to bed, a great noise was heard. The sound of many feet, the clatter of armor mingled with wild cries was borne to the quiet room, and through the high windows flashed the light of many torches.
At once the King guessed that he was betrayed. The Queen and her ladies ran hastily to the door to shut it. But the locks had been broken and the bolts carried away, so that it could not be fastened.
In vain James looked round. Way of escape there was none. Alone, unarmed, he could neither guard the ladies nor save himself. Crying to them to keep fast the door as best they might, he sprang to the window, hoping by his great strength to wrench the iron bars from their places and escape that way. But, alas, they were so strongly set in the stone that he could not move them, "for which cause the King was ugly astonied."
Then turning to the fire James seized the tongs, "and under his feet he mightily brast up a blank of the chamber," and leaping down into the vault beneath he let the plank fall again into its place. By this vault the King might have escaped, for until three days before there had been a hole leading from it to the open air. But as he played tennis his balls often rolled into this hole and were lost. So he had ordered it to be built up.
There was nothing, then, for the King to do but wait. Meanwhile the noise grew louder and louder, the traitors came nearer and nearer. One brave lady named Catherine Douglas, hoping to keep them out, and so save the King, thrust her arm through the iron loops on the door where the great bolt should have been. But against the savage force without, her frail, white arm was useless. The door was burst open. Wounded and bleeding, Catherine Douglas was thrown aside and the wild horde stormed into the room.
It was not long ere the King's hiding-place was found, and one of the traitors leaped down beside him with a great knife in his hand. "And the King, doubting him for his life, caught him mightily by the shoulders, and with full great violence cast him under his feet. For the King was of his person and stature a man right manly strong."
Seeing this, another traitor leaped down to help his fellow. "And the King caught him manly by the neck, and cast him above that other. And so he defouled both under him that all a long month after men might see how strongly the King had holden them by the throats."
Fiercely the King struggled with his enemies, trying to wrench their knives from them so that he might defend himself. But it was in vain. Seeing him grow weary a third traitor, the King's greatest enemy, Robert Grahame, leaped down too into the vault, "with a horrible and mortal weapon in his hand, and therewithal he smote him through the body, and therewithal the good King fell down."
And thus the poet King died with sixteen wounds in his brave heart and many more in his body. So at the long last our story has a sad ending. But we have to remember that for twelve years King James had a happy life, and that as he had loved his lady at the first so he loved her to the end, and was true to her.
Besides The King's Quair, there are a few other short poems which some people think King James wrote. They are very different from the Quair, being more like the ballads of the people, and most people think now that James did not write them. But because they are different is no real reason for thinking that they are not his. For James was quite clever enough, we may believe, to write in more than one way.
Besides these doubtful poems, there is one other poem of three verses about which no one has any doubt. I will give you one verse here, for it seems in tune with the King's own life and sudden death.
Books To Read
An illustration of this chapter may be read in The Fair Maid of
Perth, by Sir Walter Scott; The King's Tragedy (poetry),