THE BALL’S IN—YOU’RE CAUGHT
James I of Scotland might not be the most well known of British monarchs, but his life story is certainly one worth knowing. Born in 1394, he rose to become first in line to the Scottish throne after his two elder brothers, Robert and David, both died before his ninth birthday (David dying under mysterious circumstances while in the care of his uncle in 1402). And that was just the beginning.
King James I of Scotland: Loved a bit of brocade; haircuts, less so
In 1406 James’ father, Robert III, clashed with the Earl of Douglas in a bloody challenge to the throne. Fearing for the safety of his only surviving son, the king arranged for James to escape the Scottish mainland for Bass Rock, an inhospitable islet in the Firth of Forth, from where he could flee to France via ferry. It was a sound plan. And it would have worked, too, if it weren’t for those pesky pirates.
The ship escorting James to France was intercepted off Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire. Consequently, the twelve-year-old prince was kidnapped by pirates, and delivered as a prisoner to king Henry IV of England. The ailing king Robert III was so distraught on hearing of his son’s capture that he died just a few days later, on 4 April 1406; uncrowned, unaware of events at home and trapped in an English jail cell, James I was now king of Scotland.
It’s quite a story, isn’t it? But what concerns us here is less the dramatic start James I had to his royal life, but rather the ignominious end.
After 18 years’ imprisonment, James returned to Scotland in 1424—and, initially, was not all too warmly welcomed. (The eye-watering £40,000 ransom that had had to be paid probably didn’t help matters.) Nevertheless James’ loyalty to his new wife, Queen Joan, and the skills he had picked up in England—a love of music, literature, sport, and archery—impressed the Scottish court immensely, and James’ return steadily came to be seen as an asset for the country.
Although not, alas, by everyone.
In 1437, a coup was launched by James’ uncle, Walter Stewart, the Earl of Atholl, who planned to kill the king and install his side of the Stewart dynasty on the Scottish throne. On the night of 20 February, while the king and queen were lodging in chambers in a monastery Perth, the earl’s plot was put into action and around thirty conspirators stormed the building.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, the king was alerted to the situation and fled into a sewer beneath the monastery. Unfortunately for the king, the exit from the sewer pipe had been blocked off. Why had it been blocked off? Because the tennis-loving monks of the Blackfriars Monastery in Perth were fed up with their tennis balls rolling through the grate and into the sewer water.
With the king now trapped behind a makeshift tennis-ball shield the conspirators quickly apprehended him, and early that morning James I was murdered. Game, set, and match indeed.