Scotlands History

Kings, queens and nobles

We grow up with children’s stories that give us a picture of kings, queens and fairytale princesses. Sleeping Beauty falls under a spell in an enchanted castle. Kings and queens wear jewelled crowns and ermine-trimmed robes.

In medieval Scotland the reality was no fairytale.

In the late 14th and 15th centuries the kings of Scotland had to keep a watchful eye on their nobles. Their rule and even their lives were at risk from enemies within their own kingdoms.

David Stewart, the eldest son of King Robert III, 'died' mysteriously at Falkland Palace in 1399. David had become Lieutenant of Scotland that year. He was imprisoned by his uncle, Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany. It is thought that Albany had the heir to the throne starved to death.

King Robert III feared for the life of his young son James. In February 1406 James was taken from Dirleton Castle to the Bass Rock as Robert III tried to smuggle his 11-year-old son to safety in France. James’s ship was intercepted at sea and he was held captive in England for 18 years. It is said that King Robert III asked to be buried under a midden with the epitaph ‘Here lies the worst of Kings and the most miserable of men’.

James finally returned to Scotland in 1424. He had married Joan Beaufort, a cousin of King Henry VI of England. In a time when most royal marriages were arranged with care to strengthen alliances and aid diplomacy James and Joan married for love.

James was crowned at Scone, becoming King James I. He set about taking back his kingdom. Robert, Duke of Albany, had ruled Scotland until his death in 1420, when his son Murdoch took control. James I had Murdoch and two of his sons tried for treason and executed in Stirling in May 1425.

James and Murdoch were both grandsons of King Robert II. Robert II married twice - his first wife had been his mistress Elizabeth Mure. The claims and counterclaims to who had the strongest claim to the throne eventually led to the murder of King James I.

On the night of 21 February 1437 James I was staying at the Blackfriars monastery in Perth. He was there with his Queen and her ladies. As James prepared for bed he heard armed men clattering through the monastery. The Queen and the ladies tried to bar the door as James prised up the floorboards with tongs from the fireplace. James dropped down into the sewer beneath the privy (toilet), trying to escape, but there was no way out.

Sir Robert Graham led a group of armed men to the King’s room and smashed their way in. Two of the ladies were injured in the scuffle and the Queen was wounded. The assassins were supporters of the Earl of Atholl, who was next in line to the throne after James’s son. The men searched for the King, carrying 'swords, axes, glaives, bills, and other terrible and fearful weapons'.

The King was found and one by one the men were lowered down into sewer beneath the privy. James I fought for his life with his bare hands. He was finally slain by Sir Robert Graham, who refused the King’s cries for a confessor, saying, 'no mercy shalt thou have here'.

Queen Joan survived the plot and took revenge on the men that had murdered her beloved husband. They were hunted down, mercilessly tortured and finally executed. The Earl of Atholl and Sir Robert Graham faced horrendous torture before they were killed.

  • portrait of James I.  Artist unknown.
  • Seal impression (cast), of James I
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