James I was born the youngest son of King Robert III around 1394. The prince experienced a dangerous childhood. His father’s younger brother, Robert Stewart, was a calculating and treacherous man. As the powerful Duke of Albany, Stewart aspired to have his sons succeed to the Scottish throne. Although Prince Robert passed away during infancy, Prince David suspiciously died in his uncle’s care in 1402. To protect his remaining son, King Robert sent James abroad to France in 1406.
King of Scotland
The prince never made it to France. As he traveled, English pirates intercepted his ship and captured him. Realizing who James was, the pirates handed him over to King Henry IV of England. In Scotland, Robert III lay dying. Shortly after learning of his son’s fate, the king died on April 4, 1406. Upon his death, the imprisoned James became the next king of Scotland.
Henry IV of England
Since James I couldn’t effectively rule, the king’s uncle, Robert, became regent. Albany had no desire to see his nephew return and didn’t ransom him. Although the Scottish acknowledged him as their king, they refused to follow his commands while imprisoned. They feared that their king might become an English puppet.
Despite being Henry IV’s prisoner, James I was treated surprisingly well. The English king ensured that James received an excellent education at court. The young king also learned how to rule by observing Henry’s reign. When Henry died in 1413, James had become more of a special guest than a captive king.
Henry V of England
Following Henry IV’s death, Henry V succeeded to the throne. Unlike his father, the new king viewed James I as a captive rather than a guest. Due to this, the Scottish king had many of his privileges revoked. However, Henry eventually warmed to James. The English king took the Scottish king with him during his invasion of France in 1415. While in France, the king fought with the English against the Scots.
Return to Scotland
On August 31, 1422, Henry V died of dysentery. As the deceased king’s infant son, Henry VI, began his reign, James I finally regained his freedom in April 1424. As part of his release, the Scottish king would have to make ransom payments to the English government. Before departing to Scotland, James married Joan Beaufort, a member of the English nobility.
After 18 years of captivity, James I returned to Scotland with his queen. During his absence, the king’s uncle, Robert, had died in September 1420. As a result, his son, Murdoch Stewart, became regent. Under the Stewart regents, the Scottish nobility had disrupted the government. Nobles stole royal funds, and feuds erupted throughout the country.
Although Scotland had regained its king, James I’s return proved unpopular. The Scots hadn’t forgotten that their king had once fought against them. James’ ransom also required higher taxes to cover the payments. As part of the agreement, some of the nobility would be sent to England to ensure that payments were made. Despite this negative sentiment against him, the king became determined to return stability to Scotland.
James I realized that he needed to take drastic measures to restore law and order. In 1425, the king began this process by arresting many members of the Scottish nobility. Due to their actions during his imprisonment, the king ordered their executions. Among those killed was his cousin, Murdoch Stewart. After the noble’s deaths, James confiscated their lands and wealth.
The king further consolidated his control by monitoring his financial officer’s activities. He also set up a court based on England’s model. To demonstrate his court’s newfound wealth, the king spent lavishly on furnishings for his Linlithgow castle. By 1429, James I felt powerful enough to stop making payments to the English. As a result of his reforms, the king became popular in Scotland.
On October 16, 1430, the king secured the Scottish succession. After the births of six daughters, the queen gave birth to twin boys, Alexander and James. Although the infant Alexander died, his brother became their father’s heir. To further secure his kingdom, the king allied with King Charles VII of France in 1436. As part of their agreement, the king’s daughter, Margaret, married Charles’ heir, Louis.
During 1436, James I led a military campaign to recapture Roxburgh, an English held border castle. Although initially successful, the campaign ended disastrously for the king. Undeterred, James sought new funds to continue fighting. However, his uncle, Walter Stewart, earl of Atholl, disagreed. Fed up with the king’s financial requests, Atholl attempted to arrest his nephew. Although he failed in doing so, hostile nobles decided to take matters into their own hands.
On February 20, 1437, a group of nobles entered the Dominican convent at Perth. Assisted by Atholl’s grandson, Robert Stewart, the assassins gained entry. Upon entering, the group came into conflict with members of the king’s household. Alerted to the struggle, James I attempted to escape in a sewer tunnel. However, the tunnel was blocked. The assassins eventually discovered the king and stabbed him to death.
James I spent the majority of his reign in English captivity. Upon his return to Scotland, the king harshly restored stability to his kingdom. By executing nobles and confiscating their lands, James centralized his authority at their expense. Although his reforms made him popular with his subjects, the king alienated his surviving nobility. As a result, their hostility led to his assassination. His young son, James II, would succeed the slain king.
Oram, R. (2006). The Kings & Queens of Scotland. Gloucestershire: Tempus.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, January 01). James I. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-I-king-of-Scotland