Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 19

THIS King James, the first monarch of the name, was also the first of his unfortunate family who showed a high degree of talent. Robert II and Robert III, his father and grandfather, were both rather amiable as individuals than respected for their endowments as monarchs. But James had received an excellent education, of which his talents had enabled him to make the best use. He was also prudent and just, consulted the interests of his people, and endeavoured, as far as he could, to repress those evils, which had grown up through the partial government of Robert Duke of Albany, the rule of the feeble and slothful Duke Murdac, and the vicious and violent conduct of his sons. The first vengeance of the laws fell upon Murdac, who, with his two sons, was tried, and condemned at Stirling for abuse of the King’s authority, committed while Murdac was Regent. They were beheaded at the little eminence at Stirling, which is still shown on the Castle Hill. The Regent, from that elevated spot, might have a distant view of the magnificent castle of Doune, which he had built for his residence; and the sons had ample reason to regret their contempt of their father’s authority, and to judge the truth of his words, when he said he would bring in one who would rule them all (24, 25 May 1425). James afterwards turned his cares to the Highlands, which were in a state of terrible confusion. He marched into those disturbed districts with a strong army, and seized upon more than forty of the chiefs, by whom these broils and quarrels were countenanced, put many of them to death, and obliged others to find security that they would be quiet in future. Alaster Macdonald, Lord of the Isles, after more than a year’s captivity, and his mother retained in vain as a hostage for his fidelity, endeavoured to oppose the royal authority; but the measures taken against him by James reduced his power so much, that he was at last obliged to submit to the King’s mercy. For this purpose the humbled chief came to Edinburgh secretly, and suddenly appeared in the Cathedral Church, where the King was employed in his devotions upon Easter-day. He appeared without bonnet, armour, or ornaments, with his legs and arms bare, and his body only covered with a plaid. In this condition he delivered himself up to the King’s pleasure; and holding a naked sword in his hand by the point, he offered the hilt to the King, in token of unreserved submission. James forgave him his repeated offences, at the intercession of the Queen and nobles present, but he detained him a prisoner in the strong castle of Tantallon, in East Lothian. Yet, after this submission of their principal chief, the West Highlanders and people of the Isles again revolted, under the command of Donald Balloch, the kinsman of Alaster, who landed on the mainland with a considerable force, and defeated the Earls of Mar and of Caithness with great slaughter; but when he heard that James was coming against him, Donald thought it best to retreat to Ireland(1431). James put to death many of his followers. Donald himself was afterwards killed in Ireland, and his head sent to the King.

There is another story, which will show the cruelty and ferocity of these Highland robbers. Another MacDonald, head of a band in Ross-shire, had plundered a poor widow woman of two of her cows, and who, in her anger, exclaimed repeatedly that she would never wear shoes again till she had carried her complaint to the King for redress, should she travel to Edinburgh to seek him. “It is false,” answered the barbarian, “I will have you shod myself before you reach the court.” Accordingly, he caused a smith to nail shoes to the poor woman’s naked feet, as if they had been those of a horse; after which he thrust her forth, wounded and bleeding, on the highway. The widow, however, being a woman of high spirit, was determined to keep her word; and as soon as her wounds permitted her to travel, she did actually. go on foot to Edinburgh, and, throwing herself before James, acquainted him with the cruelty which had been exercised on her, and in evidence showed her feet, still seamed and scarred. James heard her with that mixture of pity, kindness, and uncontrollable indignation which marked his character, and, in great resentment, caused MacDonald, and twelve of his principal followers, to be seized, and to have their feet shod with iron shoes, in the same manner as had been done to the widow. In this condition they were exhibited to the public for three days, and then executed. Thus James I restored a considerable degree of tranquillity to the country, which he found in such a distracted state. He made wise laws for regulating the commerce of the nation, both at home and with other states, and strict regulations for the administration of justice betwixt those who had complaints against one another. But his greatest labour, and that which he found most difficult to accomplish, was to diminish the power of the great nobles, who ruled like so many kings, each on his own territory and estate, and made war on the King, or upon one another, whenever it was their pleasure to do so. These disorders he endeavoured to check, and had several of these great persons brought to trial, and, upon their being found guilty, deprived them of their estates. The nobles complained that this was done out of spite against them, and that they were treated with hardship and injustice; and thus discontents were cause of offence was, that to maintain justice, and support the authority of the throne, it was found necessary that some taxes for this purpose should be raised from the subjects; and the Scottish people being poor, and totally unaccustomed to pay any such contributions, they imputed this odious measure to the King’s avarice. And thus, though King James was so well-intentioned a king, and certainly the ablest who had reigned in Scotland since the days of Robert Bruce, yet both the high and the low murmured against him, which encouraged some wicked men amongst the nobility to conspire his death.

The chief person in the plot was one Sir Robert Graham, uncle to the Earl of Stratherne. He was bold and ambitious, and highly offended with the King on account of an imprisonment which he had sustained by the royal command. He drew into the plot the Earl of Athole, an old man of little talent, by promising to make his son, Sir Robert Stewart, King of Scotland, in place of James. Others were engaged in the conspiracy from different motives. To many of their attendants they pretended they only wished to carry away a lady out of the court. To prepare his scheme, Graham retreated into the remote Highlands, and from thence sent a defiance, renouncing his allegiance to the King, and threatening to put his sovereign to death with his own hand. A price was set upon his head, payable to any one who should deliver his up to justice; but he lay concealed in the wild mountains to prosecute his revenge against James.

The Christmas preceding his murder was appointed by the King for holding a feast at Perth. In his way to that town he was met by a Highland woman, calling herself a prophetess. She stood by the side of the ferry by which be was about to travel to the north, and cried with a loud voice, — “My Lord the King, if you pass this water, you will never return again alive.” The King was struck with this for a moment, because be had read in a book that a king should be slain that year in Scotland; for it often happens, that when a remarkable deed is in agitation, rumours of it get abroad, and are repeated under pretence of prophecies; but which are, in truth, only conjectures of that which seems likely to happen. There was a knight in the court, on whom the King had conferred the name of the King of Love, to whom the King said in jest, — “There is a prophecy that a king shall be killed in Scotland this year; now, Sir Alexander, that must concern either you or me, since we two are the only kings in Scotland.” Other circumstances occurred, which might have prevented the good King’s murder, but none of them were attended to. The King, while at Perth, took up his residence in an abbey of Black Friars, there being no castle or palace in the town convenient for his residence; and this made the execution of the conspiracy more easy, as his guards, and the officers of his household, were quartered among the citizens.

The day had been spent by the King in sport and feasting, and by the conspirators in preparing for their enterprise. They had destroyed the locks of the doors of the apartment, so that the keys could not be turned; and they had taken away the bars with which the gates were secured, and had provided planks by way of bridges, on which to cross the ditch which surrounded the monastery. At length, on the 20th February, 1437, all was prepared for carrying their treasonable purpose into execution, and Graham came from his hiding place in the neighbouring mountains, with a party of nigh three hundred men, and entered the gardens of the convent.

The King was in his night-gown and slippers. He had passed the evening gaily with the nobles and ladies of his court, in reading romances, and in singing and music, or playing at chess and tables. The Earl of Athole, and his son Sir Robert Stewart, who expected to succeed James on the throne, were among the last courtiers who retired. At this time James remained standing before the fire, and conversing gaily with the queen and her ladies before he went to rest. The Highland woman before mentioned again demanded permission to speak with the King, but was refused, on account of the untimeliness of the hour. All now were ordered to withdraw.

At this moment there was a noise and clashing heard, as of men in armour, and the torches in the garden cast up great flashes of light against the windows. The King then recollected his deadly enemy, Sir Robert Graham, and guessed that he was coming to murder him. He called to the ladies who were left in the chamber to keep the door as well as they could, in order to give him time to escape. He first tried to get out at the windows, but they were fast barred, and defied his strength. By help of the tongs, which were in the chimney, he raised, however, a plank of the flooring of the apartment, and let himself down into a narrow vault beneath, used as a common sewer. This vault had formerly had an opening into the court of the convent, by which he might have made his escape. But all things turned against the unfortunate James; for, only three days before, he had caused the opening to be built up, because when he played at ball in the court-yard, the ball used to roll into the vault through that hole. While the King was in this place of concealment, the conspirators were seeking him from chamber to chamber throughout the convent, and, at length, came to the room where the ladies were. The queen and her women endeavoured, as well as they might, to keep the door shut, and one of them, Catherine Douglas, boldly thrust her own arm across the door, instead of the bar, which had been taken away, as I told you. But the brave lady’s arm was soon broken, and the traitors rushed into the room with swords and daggers drawn, hurting and throwing down such of the women as opposed them. The poor Queen stood half undressed, shrieking aloud; and one of the brutal assassins attacked, wounded, and would have slain her, had it not been for a son of Sir Robert Graham, who said to him, “What would you do to the Queen? She is but a woman — Let us seek the King.” They accordingly commenced a minute search, but without any success; so they left the apartment, and sought elsewhere about the monastery. In the mean while the King turned impatient, and desired the ladies to bring sheets and draw him up out of the inconvenient lurking place. In the attempt Elizabeth Douglas fell down beside the King, and at this unlucky moment the conspirators returned. One of them now recollected that there was such a vault, and that they had not searched it. And when they tore up the plank, and saw the King and the lady beneath in the vault, one of them called, with savage merriment, to his followers, “Sirs, I have found the bride for whom we have sought and carolled all night.” Then, first one, and then another of the villains, brethren of the name of Hall, descended into the vault, with daggers drawn, to despatch the unfortunate King, who was standing there in his shirt, without weapons of any kind. But James, who was an active and strong man, threw them both down beneath his feet, and struggled to wrest the dagger from one or other of them, in which attempt him hands were severely cut and mangled. The murderers also were so vigorously handled, that the marks of the King’s gripe were visible on their throats for weeks afterwards. Then Sir Robert Graham himself sprung down on the King, who, finding no further defence possible, asked him for mercy, and for leisure to confess his sins to a priest. But Graham replied fiercely, “Thou never hadst mercy on those of thine own blood, nor on any one else, therefore thou shalt find no mercy here; and as for a confessor, thou shalt have none but this sword.” So speaking, he thrust the sword through the Kings body. And yet it is said, that when he saw his prince lying bleeding under his feet, he was desirous to have left the enterprise unfinished; but the other conspirators called on Graham to kill the King, otherwise he should himself die by their hands; upon which Graham, with the two men who had descended into the vault before him. fell on the unhappy Prince with their daggers, and slew him by many stabs. There were sixteen wounds in his breast alone.

By this time, but too late, news of this outrage had reached the town, and the household servants of the King, with the people inhabiting the town of Perth, were hastening to the rescue, with torches and weapons. The traitors accordingly caught the alarm, and retreated into the Highlands, losing in their flight only one or two, taken or slain by the pursuers. When they spoke about their enterprise among themselves, they greatly regretted that they had not killed the Queen along with her husband, fearing that she would be active and inexorable in her vengeance.

Indeed their apprehensions were justified by the event, for Queen Joanna made so strict search after the villainous assassins, that in the course of a month most of them were thrown into prison, and being tried and condemned, they were put to death with new and hideous tortures. The flesh of Robert Stewart, and of a private chamberlain of the King, was torn from their bodies with pincers, while, even in the midst of these horrible agonies, they confessed the justice of their sentence. The Earl of Athole was beheaded, denying at his death that he had consented to the conspiracy, though he admitted that his son had told him of it; to which he had replied, by enjoining him to have no concern in so great a crime. Sir Robert Graham, who was the person with whom the cruel scheme had origin, spoke in defence of it to the last. He had a right to slay the King, he said, for he had renounced his allegiance, and declared war against him; and he expressed his belief, that his memory would be honoured for putting to death so cruel a tyrant. He was tortured in the most dreadful manner before his final execution, and, whilst he was yet living, his son was slain before his eyes. Notwithstanding the greatness of their crime, it was barbarous cruelty to torture these wretched murderers in the manner we have mentioned, and the historian says justly, that it was a cruel deed cruelly revenged. But the people were much incensed against them; for, although they had murmured against King James while he lived, yet the dismal manner of his death, and the sense that his intentions towards his people were kind and just, caused him to be much regretted. He had also many popular qualities. His face was handsome, and his person strong and active. His mind was well cultivated with ornamental and elegant accomplishments, as well as stored with useful information. He understood music and poetry, and wrote verses, both serious and comic. Two of his compositions are still preserved, and read with interest and entertainment by those who understand the ancient language in which they are written. One of these is called “The King’s Quhair,” that is, the King’s Book. It is a love poem, composed when be was prisoner in England, and addressed to the Princess Joan of Somerset, whom he afterwards married. The other is a comic poem, called “Christ’s Kirk on the Green,” in which the author gives an account of a merry making of the country people, held for the purpose of sport, where they danced, revelled, drank, and finally quarrelled and fought. There is much humour shown in this piece, though one would think the subject a strange one for a king to write upon. He particularly ridicules the Scots for want of acquaintance with archery. One man breaks his bow, another shoots his arrow wide of the mark, a third hits the man’s body at whom he took aim, but with so little effect that he cannot pierce his leathern doublet. There is a meaning in this raillery. James I, seeing the advantage which the English possessed by their archery, was desirous to introduce that exercise more generally into Scotland, and ordered regular meetings to be held for this purpose. Perhaps he might hope to enforce these orders, by employing a little wholesome raillery on the awkwardness of the Scottish bowmen. On the whole, James I. was much and deservedly lamented. The murderer Graham was so far from being remembered with honour, as he had expected, for the assassination which he had committed, that his memory was execrated in a popular rhyme, then generally current:

“Robert Graham,

That slew our King,

God give him shame!”


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