James & Joan: Happily Ever After?

James & Joan: Happily Ever After?

The great medieval poem written by James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair, tells of his imprisonment in England and his love story with Joan Beaufort. The poem ends with James’ release (after a ransom was agreed upon, of course – royal life was not ALL romance!).

What happened next? Was the promise of James’ poetics words, “suddenly my heart became her thrall forever, of free will,” fulfilled? Did Joan and James live “happily ever after”?

Happily, yes. At least at first.

James and his beautiful bride, the inspiration for his poem, married 2 February 1424 in London’s Southwark Cathedral. They then set off for Scotland, a country James had not seen since he had been captured by English pirates in 1406.

Lady-Journeying-BritLibJoan’s long journey to Scotland was undoubtedly made as comfortable as possible. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

James and Joan were crowned at Scone on 12 May 1424. They then set cheerfully and vigorously about their respective duties – Joan to produce children and James to rule the country.

By Christmas 1424, her first in Scotland, Joan gave birth to her daughter Margaret. Five more daughters followed. Then, on 16 October 1430, the long-awaited heir arrived! Joan gave birth to twin boys, one of whom (another James) survived.

James was a devoted, loving and faithful husband. He continued to write poetry although, given the demands of ruling a kingdom, his verses were considerably shorter than those written in captivity! He luxuriated in his new freedom and his ability to indulge all his varied interests. These ranged from courtly artistic and musical pastimes to physical activities such as wrestling, archery, jousting, running, riding and tennis. Following a fire at Linlithgow, he spent considerable energy and money rebuilding the castle there.

James Rules Scotland with a Heavy Hand
James’ main focus, though, was ruling Scotland. As king, James had two priorities. One was stabilizing his finances. He needed money for his ongoing administration, plus he had a hefty ransom to pay off! He paid two installments of the ransom by special tax assessments, considerably lessening Scottish enthusiasm for their newly-returned king. Thereafter, James raised the needed funds from his personal revenues.

His second priority was taking control of a nation that had (in his view) run amok during his long, long absence. James waited a year, assessing the situation and becoming reacquainted with his country and its powerful lords. The man who had the most to fear and lose from James’ return, namely the Duke of Albany, was lulled into believing he was safe from retribution. The Duke, and his father before him, had delayed James’ return to Scotland for years. In James’ absence, Albany had usurped the regal authority and governed Scotland.

At his first Parliament, James struck and struck hard. Murdoch, Duke of Albany, and both of his sons were arrested, tried for treason and beheaded.

James struck hard in other areas as well. He took back lands from the nobles. He also took back titles to earldoms and other honors as soon as their incumbents died, not allowing the usual inheritance by collateral lines. The result was a growing insecurity and resentment among his magnates. It may have been in response to this dissatisfaction that, when James headed north in 1428 and again in 1435, he had his nobles swear fealty to Queen Joan.

Curbing the power and independence of the nobles was essential for internal peace and good governance. Albany had indeed given away, for purely selfish reasons, far too many royal lands and prerogatives. It was, however, also essential that James defuse a volatile situation. The geographical challenges of Scotland hindered unification. The king’s authority could only reach throughout his realm with the cooperation of his nobles.

Scotland-Map-BritLibA map of southern Scotland; Edinburgh is at the bottom center, and ”Glasgu” at the top. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection

James, however, seemed unable to compromise. He became increasingly autocratic and heavy-handed, creating a dangerous unease throughout Scotland. Unhappiness was particularly pronounced in the Highlands. James seldom ventured into those territories, whose Gaelic culture was foreign to the Anglicized king.

James’ downfall eventually came from the Highlands, where a murderous plot was organized.

“An Abominable and Horrible Homicide”

On the evening of 21 February 1437, James and Joan were staying in luxury accommodations at a friary in Perth. James was lounging in Joan’s room, surrounded by her ladies, when some three hundred men intent on his assassination invaded the friary.

James wrenched up the floorboards to gain access to a sewer tunnel as a means of escape to the outside. The tunnel, however, had been blocked – on James’ order, to prevent his tennis balls from rolling away. James was discovered and, although he fought ferociously, he was stabbed to death. He was 42 years old and had reigned in Scotland for only thirteen years.

Joan was wounded in the struggle. As the chronicles relate: “And when this abominable and horrible homicide, and the treason of this cruel murder, was thus done, the said traitors fought the queen, and in their furious cruelty would have slain her in the same wise; but God of His grace and goodness preserved and kept her out of their hands.”

The assassins, who fled north, were eventually captured and executed.

Life After James

After her husband’s death, Joan immediately returned to Edinburgh and her children. On 25 March 1437, her 6-year-old son was crowned James II. At first, young James was in his mother’s care. Joan had, however, no political power. As a woman (and an Englishwoman at that!), she played no role in the bitter struggle for control of the underage king.

Queen-And-Ladies-BritLibA busy queen leads her flock of ladies. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

At one point in 1439, there was a vacuum that Joan sought to fill. The story (quite possibly apocryphal) was told that she announced she was going on pilgrimage and then, smuggling her son out of Edinburgh Castle in a trunk, rode off in the opposite direction. Her attempt to regain control of her royal son was, however, unsuccessful.

In June of that year, 1439, Joan married again. Her second husband was James Stewart, the “Black Knight of Lorne” (a 4th cousin to James I but not descended in the royal line). Joan and James Stewart of Lorne had three sons born between 1440 and 1443, John, later Earl of Atholl, James, later Earl of Buchan, and Andrew, later Bishop of Moray.

When Joan’s son James II reached the age of 14, he made a bid for more authority. Another struggle ensued in which Joan and her husband supported the young king. The effort was unsuccessful. Joan took refuge in Dunbar Castle where she died 5 July 1445.

Joan’s body was taken to Perth. She was buried there, as queen, beside her first husband, the romantic, poetic and doomed James I.

Joan lived on in poetry. She also, however, lived on in her descendants. By an interesting genealogical twist of fate, a descendant of Joan’s oldest son from her second marriage, John Stewart, 1st Earl of Atholl, married a descendant of her royal son, James II.

Joan became, thereby, the ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II – through BOTH of her marriages!

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