This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

February 2005


20 February 1436:   James I of Scotland assassinated.

Although tennis today is not considered a lethal sport, playing tennis without a racquet once cost a Scottish king his life.

James ascended the throne at the age of 30 almost a foreigner in his own country, having spent the previous eighteen years of his life as a prisoner of the English. Not that he was clapped in a dungeon: for prisoners of his rank captivity meant living more like a permanent house-guest, accompanying the life of the English royal court in sport and banquet.

Educated for the most part in England, and having spent his formative years at the English court, young James absorbed some distinct ideas about the nature of kingship. Centralized government and royal absolutism may have seemed to James to be progressive ideas that were lifting Europe out of the chaos of the Middle Ages, but to the lairds back home these newfangled notions were dangerous, un-Celtic, and very un-Scottish.

At last crowned king of Scotland, James wasted little time in setting his hard-line government into effect, not hesitating to have obstructive nobles indicted for treason. Although there was much concern about James’ power-grabbing, over the first ten years of his rule he won a grudging respect for his energy and administrative competence. But as he sought to gather still more power unto himself, it was only a matter of time before opposition to him would coalesce. James’ own palace chamberlain, Sir Robert Stewart, would become the “inside man” for an assassination plot carried out by a group of dissident nobles.

The deed would be done away from the royal palace at Perth, where security was likely to be tight, and instead would take place at the Blackfriars monastery in Perth, where James planned to spend the winter of 1436. A monastery would seem to be an odd place to bring a royal entourage, but James made use of a number of such convenient places when he traveled or simply wanted to get away from the ceremonials of the royal palace. He had stayed at the Blackfriars monastery so often that he even had a tennis court installed in the courtyard. The game of tennis was another of the newfangled European things he had brought back from his English captivity and he was an enthusiastic player.

He was relaxing at the Blackfriars with his queen and her ladies-in-waiting on the night of 20 February 1436 when 300 Highlanders stormed the monastery in search of James. The attackers were directed to the royal apartment, where Robert Stewart had thoughtfully removed the sliding beam that secured the door from the inside. Oddly enough, the King and his company had been discussing some disturbing premonitory dreams and perhaps, too, the recent incident on his way to Perth, when an old woman at a river crossing warned him that if he crossed the river he wouldn’t cross it again alive.

After such topics of conversation, everyone knew immediately when they heard the shouts and hubbub that the King was in mortal danger, and reacted quickly. Seeing that the door-bar had vanished, one of the Queen’s ladies leapt up and inserted her own forearm to secure the door, earning her a shattered forearm and the nick-name of “Kate Bar-lass.”

But Kate Bar-lass is, alas, a legend. In fact it was James’ redoubtable Queen Joan who fended off the assassins bare-handed and gained her husband a few precious seconds with which to escape the room by a drain passage that he knew led down through the walls and out onto the courtyard below.

It looked like a successful escape until the King reached ground level and remembered, no doubt with a sinking feeling, that he had recently screened off the courtyard drain exit with an iron grill. It was adjacent to the tennis court, where, playing tennis in the style of the day without racquets, James had gotten tired of losing tennis balls down the drain after he had slapped them afoul with his vigorous play. Trapped, James had no choice but to face the drawn dirks of his assassins.

The assassination of James I was a lasting setback for European-style absolutism in Scotland. It also marked the beginning of what historians would term the “unlucky” Stewart dynasty. The first four Kings named James, plus Mary, Queen of Scots and Charles I, would all die violently. James VII and his successors would die in exile. Only three of the twelve Stewarts that followed James I would die in bed, in possession of the throne.

But the death of James I did not spark the revolution the conspirators hoped for, and they would eventually be hunted down and brought to account by a vengeful Queen Joan. The lurid details of the widow’s revenge is a tale perhaps best left for another day.

For more information on Scotland, see the Scottish Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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