The Poetry of Love: James I of Scotland & Joan Beaufort
A young king, captured by foreign enemies due to the machinations of an evil and usurping uncle, is imprisoned for many years far from home. One day, gazing sadly out his tower window, he spies a beautiful maiden, walking in the garden below. Her hair is, of course, golden. Her gown is sewn with pearls and rubies and emeralds and sapphires. Around her neck is a heart-shaped ruby pendant on a golden chain.
It is the maiden’s sweet face, however, that wins the king’s heart and he falls instantly in love. Through her intercession, the king is freed from his prison. The pair marry and return together to rule the king’s native land.
Sound like a fairy tale? This romance actually happened! The young king was James I of Scotland. The beautiful maiden was Joan Beaufort, niece of King Henry IV of England.
We know the factual outline of their story from the historical record. What is extraordinary, however, is that we can also get a glimpse into the emotions behind the story, thanks to an autobiographical poem called The Kingis Quair, written by James himself.
James was born on 25 July 1394, the younger son of King Robert III of Scotland. Robert was weak and retiring. Robert’s aggressive younger brother, the Duke of Albany, usurped most of the power in the realm. Albany was suspected of causing the death of the king’s older son.
King Robert, fearing that James would be Albany’s next victim, arranged to send the boy prince out of the country until he could come of age.
An English Prisoner
James’ ship, carrying him off to safety in France, was captured at sea by English pirates on 22 March 1406. James was delivered to Henry IV, king of Scotland’s hereditary enemy of England.
James was 9 years old and would remain a captive of the English for some eighteen years.
James I was not the first or last Scottish monarch to spend years of captivity in England. James’ great-great uncle David II, son of Robert the Bruce, had suffered the same fate, as did James’ three-times-great granddaughter, Mary Queen of Scots.
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James’ story is particularly poignant, however, due to his youth and his total innocence of any wrongdoing or personal political involvement.
King Robert died a year after James was captured. For the seventeen years of his captivity, therefore, James was nominally Scotland’s king. During that time, his uncle Albany (suspected, naturally, of alerting the English pirates to James’ whereabouts) ruled Scotland.
Once holding power, Albany was not about to relinquish it. He never requested that James be released. The English, for their part, were not prepared to release James, fearing he would immediately ally with France. James was caught in the middle, with no hope of being released.
Even in prison, however, James was not entirely isolated from his kingdom. Nor was Scotland left without news of its young monarch.
When James had originally sailed for France, he was accompanied by the Earl of Orkney. Orkney was also captured and kept, with James, in close custody. When Orkney was released two years later, his brother John Sinclair journeyed south from Scotland to join James in England. Other Scots coming south on personal or financial business would meet with James and take word of him home.
Then came the Battle of Homildon Hill in September 1402. Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, and his English army soundly trounced the Scottish forces led by Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas.
Another group of well-born Scottish prisoners now joined James in captivity. Among them were the Earls of Douglas, Moray and Angus – and Murdoch, the son of James’ usurping uncle, the Duke of Albany.
Murdoch spent fourteen years in captivity before he was eventually ransomed. He returned to Scotland in 1416. In 1419, Murdoch succeeded his father as Duke of Albany and as the new, unofficial ruler of Scotland. James, meanwhile, remained in England.
James was not kept in a dungeon. He was housed comfortably in, at various times, the palace quarters at the Tower of London and at Nottingham, Pevensey, Kenilworth and Windsor castles. He was given a good education in both the classics and in knightly skills. While he was treated honorably, however, he was closely watched and his movements and activities were restricted. He had no personal autonomy and no true independence.
While the Albanys, first father and then son, were maintaining their governance in Scotland, the political situation in England was changing. King Henry IV died in 1413 and was succeeded by the younger and more warlike Henry V.
Henry V’s Ally
Henry revived the moribund “Hundred Years War” between France and England and, in 1415, won a resounding victory at Agincourt. His progress towards Paris was slowed, however, in 1419 when some 6,000 Scots soldiers joined the French forces, fighting against the English.
James, as nominal king of the Scots, suddenly gained in political importance. In May 1420, Henry V arranged for James to be brought to France to accompany the English king and his English army as they fought their way to Paris.
On 2 June 1420, Henry married Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France at Troyes. James was present at the wedding. He returned to England with Henry and Catherine. He attended Catherine’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1421 and sat in the place of honor, at her left, during the ceremonial banquet that followed. Two months later, Henry V knighted him and made him a member of the Order of the Garter.
In early June 1421, Henry and James together sailed back to France for another military campaign. When Henry died suddenly in August 1422, James accompanied his body back to England and served as ceremonial “chief mourner” during Henry’s burial at Westminster Abbey.
The new king, Henry VI, was an infant. A regency council headed by Henry V’s brothers, the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, ruled in his name. With the country shaken by the loss of their warrior king and the council anxious about holding France, James was probably returned to stricter confinement at Windsor Castle.
Back to Prison
It was then that, seated at his tower window, James saw the beautiful Joan Beaufort walking in the garden beneath and fell in love, as described in his poem The Kingis Quair (a “quair” is a “quire” or large stack of paper).
The poem is more than simply an outpouring of emotion. Instead, it begins by philosophically pondering the nature of misfortune. Inspired by these thoughts, the poet recalls the youthful experiences that led to his imprisonment. He chafes at his restraints, crying out in despair
They lyve in fredome everich in his kynd;
And I am man, and lakkith libertee.
They live in freedom, each of his own kind,
And I am man, and lack liberty.”
The poet is then drawn to his window by the song of a nightingale and sees an unknown fair maiden. After she leaves, he is visited by three goddesses and learns that his fortunes are about to change. The poem ends with the poet, James, thanking all the elements that have brought about his good fortune and the lady who has saved him from his prison by her love.
The poem, 197 stanzas of 7 lines each, was influenced by, and dedicated to, the English poets John Gower (1330-1408) and Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400).
James was also, possibly, indebted to Charles, Duke of Orleans, in his poetic leanings and literary techniques. The 20-year-old Charles, captured at Agincourt in 1415, joined James in captivity in England. Charles would spend twenty-five years as a prisoner of the English. During those years, he would write more than five hundred poems, in a polished style and with vivid emotions.
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A small selection of passages from the Kingis Quair follows, in its original language followed by a (non-poetic) modern translation. First, James describes looking down from the Tower window, seeing a maiden, “The fairest or the freshest young flower that ever I saw” walking in a garden below. He immediately falls in love “forever, and freely.” But when she leaves the garden, he despairs because “follow I might not.”
Quhare as I sawe, walking under the toure,
Full secretly new cummyn hir to pleyne
The fairest or the freschest yonge floure
That ever I sawe, me thoght, before that hourr,
For quhich sodayn abate, anon astert
The blude of all my body to my hert…
Where as I saw, walking under the tower,
Full secretly, newly come to view
The fairest or the freshest young flower
That ever I saw, methought, before that hour,
For which sudden surprise, did astart
The blood of all my body to my heart…”
And then, James writes
Under the suete grene bewis bent,
Hir faire fresche face, as quhite as ony snawe,
Schoe turnyt has, and furth hir wayis went;
Bot tho began myn axis and turrment,
To sene hir part, and folowe I na myght;
Me thoght the day was turnyt into nyght….
Under the sweet green boughs bent,
Her fair fresh face, as white as any snow,
She turned has, and forth her way went;
But then began my turn and torment,
To see her depart, and follow I might not;
Methought the day was turned into night….”
At the end, all turns out well. And, in proper courteous fashion, James gives thanks. First, he thanks the gods, who had “given me wholly what I sought, what my heart has for ever set above In perfect joy.” Then he thanks the nightingale warbling in the garden, that “with such good intent, sang there of love the notes sweet and small, where my fair heart’s lady was present, to make her glad, before she went forth!”
Then he loses all restraint, thanking the castle walls, thanking the “saints martial” who brought about his capture and brought him to the Tower, and even thanking the green boughs under which his lady walked, all “Through whom, and under, first fortuned me my heart’s desire, and my comfort to be.”
In James’ own words
So fair that glitteren in the firmament!
And blissit be thare myght celestiall,
That have convoyit hale, with one assent,
My lufe, and to so glade a consequent!
So fair that glitter in the firmament!
And blessed be their might celestial,
That has conveyed so well, with one assent,
My love, and to so glad a consequence!”
One detail omitted from the poem is how James and Joan Beaufort actually met. We know only that they did, and that a marriage was arranged to their mutual joy and satisfaction.
No royal marriage, of course, is completely personal. James was king of Scotland. Joan Beaufort was “almost royal.”
The Beautiful “Almost” Royal
Joan Beaufort’s semi-royal status came from her descent from King Edward III. Both she and Henry V were great-grandchildren of Edward, through his son John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster.
John of Gaunt had a family with his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. King Henry IV was a son of this marriage. Henry V, son of Henry IV, was John of Gaunt’s grandson.
After Blanche’s death (and during his second marriage to Constance of Castile), John of Gaunt had a liaison with Katharine Swynford. John and Katharine’s four children, born out of wedlock, were given the surname of “Beaufort.”
Joan’s father John Beaufort was one of these children. Many years after their Beaufort children were born, John of Gaunt and Katharine Swynford finally married. The Beauforts were legally legitimized but barred from the royal succession. (A future branch of the Beaufort family, the Tudors, broke this prohibition, producing some of England’s most memorable and flamboyant monarchs!)
Even during the early years, when the Beauforts were barred from the throne, the family remained close to the throne. The Beauforts not only had the bloodline, they were talented, ambitious and willing to serve.
Joan’s uncles Henry, Cardinal Beaufort, and Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, held important positions at court. Their niece’s proposed marriage would raise their prestige even higher – and support a sound piece of English foreign policy as well.
An alliance between royal Scotland and “almost royal” England might stop the flood of Scottish soldiers supporting the French dauphin Charles in his continuing battle against the English. The marriage was, therefore, not only allowed by the Beaufort family but probably even encouraged for political advantage.
Joan was equally well connected through her stepfather. Some four months after the death of Joan’s father John Beaufort, Joan’s mother Margaret Holland had married Thomas, Duke of Clarence, brother of Henry V. Joan was only 6 when her father died. She was brought up in a royal Lancastrian household.
Her status as an “almost daughter” of the royal family was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that none of Henry V’s five siblings had legitimate offspring of their own.
Joan had a unique status as a marriageable member of England’s ruling Lancastrian family. The gift of her hand in marriage was truly significant and worthy of a king.
Return to Scotland
England’s interests were no longer served by holding Scotland’s king, James I, captive. Word was sent to Scotland that James could now be ransomed. Whatever his personal feelings, Murdoch, Duke of Albany, had to respond positively. He appointed an embassy to negotiate James’ release and a treaty was sealed in December 1423.
James’ ransom was described as reimbursement for his “maintenance and education expenses” during his captivity. Henry IV had actually joked, on James’ capture, that “the Scots should certainly be thankful that they have sent the young man to me to be instructed, for I myself know French!” (as quoted in From Childhood to Chivalry, by Nicholas Orme, p. 123). It is doubtful if James, or the Scots, were amused.
James “education” had a high cost. His ransom was set at £40,000. To ensure payment, twenty-one Scottish nobles were to be held in England as collateral. Joan was given a dowry of £10,000 – but not in cash! Instead, it was subtracted from the total ransom. The treaty also declared an alliance between England and Scotland, and an end to Scottish ties with France. That part of the agreement didn’t last. In 1428, James and Joan betrothed their oldest daughter Margaret to the Dauphin Louis, son of King Charles VII of France.
James and his “freshest young flower” Joan Beaufort married 2 February 1424 in the church of St. Mary Overie (as in “over” the Thames, on the river’s south bank), now London’s Southwark Cathedral.
After their wedding festivities, which included a banquet at the mansion of Joan’s uncle Henry, Cardinal Beaufort, the couple headed north. James and Joan were ceremoniously and joyously crowned King and Queen of the Scots at Scone on 12 May 1424. The young king, freed from his prison and married to his “fair heart’s lady,” had returned to rule his native land.
Read More: James & Joan: Happily Ever After?