Henry V’s Scot­tish pro­tege

When James I took his seat on the Scot­tish throne in 1424, his no­bles were shocked by his ex­trav­a­gance and ag­gres­sion – a style of king­ship that he learned, writes Gor­don McKelvie, from an un­likely source

BBC History Magazine - - Front Page - Dr Gor­don McKelvie is a lec­turer in his­tory at the Univer­sity of Winch­ester

The mo­ment he took the reins of power, James brought an am­bi­tious, abra­sive style of rule to the king­dom of Scot­land

When writ­ing his his­tory of Scot­land in the 1440s, the chron­i­cler Wal­ter Bower stated mourn­fully that he was “forced to un­fold a gloomy ac­count al­though it is much against my in­cli­na­tions”. Bower was re­fer­ring to the events of 20 Fe­bru­ary 1437, when a group of as­sas­sins broke into Black­fri­ars fri­ary in Perth and hunted down King James I of Scot­land.

James ini­tially eluded his at­tack­ers and, when cor­nered, put up a des­per­ate fight. But even­tu­ally the king was over­pow­ered and killed be­fore help could be sum­moned. He suc­cumbed – in the words of the chron­i­cler Enguer­rand de Mon­strelet – “to up­wards of 30 wounds, some of which went through his heart”.

Mon­strelet de­scribed James’s mur­der as a “very cruel and sur­pris­ing event”, and it was one for which the per­pe­tra­tors would pay dearly. On his cap­ture, Robert Graham, the lead as­sas­sin, was “sur­rounded by three ex­e­cu­tion­ers, who kept pinch­ing his thighs, and other parts of his body with red-hot pin­cers” be­fore he was quar­tered. An­other prom­i­nent con­spir­a­tor, the dead king’s un­cle the Earl of Athol, was “crowned with a cor­net of hot iron to sig­nify he was a traitor” and dragged naked through Ed­in­burgh be­fore be­ing be­headed and quar­tered.

It was a vi­o­lent end to what was a vi­o­lent reign. From the mo­ment he took the reins of power in 1424, James brought an am­bi­tious, abra­sive style of rule to the king­dom of Scot­land. He at­tempted to in­tro­duce wide-rang­ing le­gal re­forms and he in­vested enor­mous ef­forts in pro­ject­ing him­self onto the Euro­pean stage. Above all, he showed dis­loyal mem­bers of his no­bil­ity lit­tle quar­ter. When, for ex­am­ple, James had Mur­doch Ste­wart, Duke of Al­bany ar­rested on charges of trea­son, he did what his pre­de­ces­sors would never have dared do – he had him put to death.

Rad­i­cal style

James’s ruth­less, rad­i­cal style of king­ship made waves across Scot­land. But it was a style ar­guably forged not in the cor­ri­dors of power in Ed­in­burgh, Perth or Fife, but in some of the grand­est cas­tles in Eng­land. James had spent 18 years of his life in cap­tiv­ity south of the bor­der – and what he learned from English kings, most notably Henry V, the hero of Agin­court, he would at­tempt to repli­cate north of the bor­der.

In March 1406, the 11-year-old James was sent to France by his fa­ther, King Robert III, in a bid to es­cape the deadly fac­tional pol­i­tics that were blight­ing his king­dom. En route, the ship car­ry­ing James was cap­tured off the coast of Cley in Nor­folk (or pos­si­bly off York­shire) and given to Henry IV, king of Scot­land’s tra­di­tional en­emy, Eng­land. On hear­ing the news, Henry re­port­edly quipped: “Of course, if the Scots had been our friends, they would have sent the young man to me for his ed­u­ca­tion, as I know the French lan­guage.”

This ac­count, writ­ten by the chron­i­cler Thomas Wals­ing­ham, is the only oc­ca­sion in which James’s cap­ture ap­pears in con­tem­po­rary English records. Per­haps English writ­ers were em­bar­rassed by the in­ci­dent – af­ter all, a child had been taken prisoner dur­ing a truce be­tween the two na­tions. But, for the English, James was sim­ply too good a prize to forgo. Just days af­ter his cap­ture, that prize would grow even more valu­able, for his fa­ther died and James be­came the Scot­tish king.

For all that, Henry IV never fully ex­ploited the pro­pa­ganda value pro­vided by his royal cap­tive. There is lit­tle ev­i­dence of James be­ing pa­raded at ma­jor spec­ta­cles – as Ed­ward III had done with David II of Scot­land and John II of France decades ear­lier. It seems that James was nor­mally to be found in rel­a­tively se­cure royal cas­tles such as Wind­sor, Not­ting­ham, Pevensey and Ke­nil­worth.

All that changed when Henry V suc­ceeded his fa­ther as king of Eng­land in 1413. On his first day on the throne, Henry or­dered that James be brought to the Tower of London. This was no spur of the mo­ment de­ci­sion. Henry was in­tent on stamp­ing his author­ity on his king­dom, em­bark­ing on a pro­gramme of restor­ing law and or­der. Bring­ing James closer to the cen­tre of power fit­ted that agenda per­fectly. It also gave him an op­por­tu­nity to keep an eye on his prized as­set. James re­mained in Eng­land in 1415 when Henry V sailed to France to pros­e­cute a cam­paign that would cul­mi­nate with his fa­mous vic­tory at Agin­court. The king of Scots may have been a prisoner of the English but that didn’t prevent Robert, Duke of Al­bany, gov­er­nor of Scot­land dur­ing James’s ab­sence, from al­low­ing an es­ti­mated 15,000 Scots­men to sail to the con­ti­nent and of­fer the French much needed mil­i­tary sup­port. Henry’s re­sponse to the Scot­tish in­ter­ven­tion was ut­terly ruth­less. When James went to France in May 1420, Henry used James’s pres­ence at the siege of Melun near Paris as a pre­text for sum­mar­ily ex­e­cut­ing the en­tire Scots guard at the gar­ri­son. The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was that the Scots at Melun had com­mit­ted trea­son by op­pos­ing their right­ful king. We’ll never know what James made of Henry’s bru­tal treat­ment of his coun­try­men. Nor can we di­vine the Scot­tish king’s opin­ion of his English jail­ers. But The Kingis Quair, (the King’s Book) a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal love poem that James wrote for his English bride Joan Beau­fort, at least pro­vides a few clues. It be­gins with a sleep­less nar­ra­tor who, af­ter read­ing Ro­man philoso­pher Boethius, turns to think­ing about his own life of mis­ery and ex­ile – hardly a ring­ing en­dorse­ment of James’s in­car­cer­a­tion in Eng­land. Yet, in­trigu­ingly, the poem fin­ishes with a ded­i­ca­tion to the two tow­er­ing fig­ures in English lit­er­a­ture at the time: John Gower and Ge­of­frey Chaucer. If The Kingis Quair of­fers but a fleet­ing in­sight into James’s state of mind, then his ac­tions are far more re­veal­ing. They sug­gest that far from be­ing ap­palled by Henry’s ap­proach to king­ship, James was deeply im­pressed by the English monarch’s mus­cu­lar style of rule – and, above all, his abil­ity to bend his no­bles to his will. As a child, James was acutely aware that his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther (King Robert II) were re­peat­edly side­lined by un­ruly no­bles. In 1402, he’d looked on in hor­ror as his el­der brother David, Duke of Rothe­say was ar­rested by the Duke of Al­bany and ei­ther poi­soned or starved to death in Falkland. Muti­nous aris­to­crats fre­quently

got the up­per hand over Scot­tish kings. In Eng­land, how­ever, they were met with an iron fist. Henry IV had no com­punc­tion about ex­e­cut­ing a suc­ces­sion of re­bel­lious no­bles in the early years of his reign; while in 1415, en route to France, Henry V stopped off at Southamp­ton to pre­side over the be­head­ing of three no­bles who had plot­ted against his life.

The grim fi­nal­ity of the Hen­rys’ pun­ish­ments cer­tainly made a mark on James. And when, in 1424, he was fi­nally freed (Henry V was now dead and the English could see no merit in keep­ing James in cap­tiv­ity dur­ing Henry VI’s mi­nor­ity), he set about ap­ply­ing this blue­print to his own king­dom.

If there is one char­ac­ter­is­tic that dis­tin­guished the new king, it was his ded­i­ca­tion to ex­trav­a­gance

Flaunt­ing royal power

What fol­lowed was a con­certed cam­paign to bring his no­bles to heel – one that cul­mi­nated in the ex­e­cu­tion of the Duke of Al­bany. From the mo­ment the duke went to the block on 24 May 1425, no one could doubt where power now resided in Scot­land. Un­for­tu­nately for James, that ac­cu­mu­la­tion of power would go on to spark a re­bel­lion that led to his death.

But King James didn’t just project his power on the bat­tle­field; he also flaunted it in court. In fact, if there is one char­ac­ter­is­tic that truly dis­tin­guished the new king from his pre­de­ces­sors, it was his ded­i­ca­tion to ex­trav­a­gance and his de­ter­mi­na­tion to im­press the watch­ing world through lav­ish spend­ing. This too, it seems, was a prac­tice that he had learned from Henry V.

James had at­tended some of the great­est cer­e­monies of the English king’s reign, the most no­table of which was Henry’s wed­ding to Cather­ine of Valois in 1420 (where, we are told, James was the first guest to be served af­ter the happy cou­ple and as­sem­bled bish­ops). Here, James would have ex­pe­ri­enced at first-hand the diplo­matic and po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to be ac­crued from grand pro­jec­tions of might and majesty.

Ex­pand­ing the scale and splen­dour of the Scot­tish royal court was an ex­pen­sive un­der­tak­ing, of course, and James funded it by rer­out­ing the money raised from a tax orig­i­nally in­tended to pay for his ran­som. Scot­land was no cul­tural back­wa­ter when James re­turned to take his throne (John Barbour had writ­ten his epic poem The Bruce by 1375, sev­eral years be­fore Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales) but the Scots had never seen any­thing on this scale be­fore.

We can only spec­u­late as to the ex­act na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Henry V and James I. We have no ev­i­dence of di­rect speech from ei­ther man about the other. What we do have is a se­ries of acts that in­di­cate that James I in many ways wanted to repli­cate in his own king­dom the power Henry V en­joyed in Eng­land. Nei­ther man would have ad­mit­ted it, but James I of Scot­land was the un­likely ap­pren­tice of Henry V, king of his coun­try’s mor­tal en­emy.

A por­trait of King James I of Scot­land. James was taken prisoner by the English in 1406, and it would be 18 years be­fore he was freed to take the reins of power in his na­tive na­tion

Henry V, whose mus­cu­lar king­ship seems to have in­flu­enced the rul­ing style of his for­mer prisoner James I of Scot­land

The Tower of London, de­picted in the 15th cen­tury. James I of Scot­land was held there from 1413 on the or­ders of the newly crowned Henry V, who was in­tent on stamp­ing his author­ity on his king­dom

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