21st February 1437

King James I of Scotland is assassinated

Born in 1394, James I was King of Scotland from 1406 until his death in 1437. His life had been under threat for close to thirty years by the time he was eventually murdered, and he had at one time sought refuge in France.

He had never made it there, though, as his ship had been intercepted and he’d been delivered instead to King Henry IV of England. When Henry IV died, James had fought alongside the troops of Henry V against France, which had made him unpopular in Scotland even before his return.

Moreover, James was being held hostage while fighting, and his release was only agreed on the basis that other prominent Scots would be sent to take his place in custody to ensure the payment of ransom.

Rivals swiftly dealt with

Rather than trying to win support, though, James seemed intent on stamping out any hint of dissent upon his return to Scotland. He variously executed or dispossessed his rivals, even if they were relatives, as in the case of the Earl of Atholl, which was ultimately to lead to his downfall.

War broke out between Scotland and England, and James suffered a humiliating defeat at Roxburgh, which seriously dented his authority – perhaps fatally.

King James hides in a sewer

By now, Atholl was next in line to the throne, yet his own authority was being forever threatened by James’ actions. In February 1437, therefore, Atholl gathered the men who would bring the king’s reign to an end, and, on the night of 20 / 21 February 1437, they marched on Perth’s Blackfriars monastery, where the king and queen were staying. The men met no resistance, and James fled – but not far. He hid in the sewer of a privy, from which he might have been able to escape, had he not ordered three days earlier that a stone be put across the exit to save him from losing balls down the hole when playing palm.

The king kept himself hidden until he could hear no more movement in his bed chamber, then called for his servants to free him. This was a mistake, as it alerted his assailants to his presence.

The killing of King James I

James wasn’t going to give up without a fight. First one, then two of the armed troops sent to kill him descended into the sewer and attacked the king, but James fought back. They were joined by Robert Graham, who had led the assault and who, according to an account of the killing translated by John Shirley and reproduced on the National Libraries of Scotland website,

“smote him through the body, and therwithall the good king fell down and lamentably with a piteous voice he cried him oft mercy, and behight [promised] to give him his kingdom and much other good to save his life. And then the said Grame, seeing his king and sovereign lord unfortuned with so much disease [distress], anguish, and sorrow, would have so lived and done him no more harm. The other traitors above, perceiving that, said onto the said sir Robert, ‘We behote [promise] thee faithfully, but [that] if thou flee him or thou depart, thou shalt die for him on our hands soon doubtless;’ and then the said sir Robert with the other two that descended first down fell upon that noble prince, and in full horribill and cruell wise they murdered him. Alas for sorrow, that so unmeasurably cruelty and vengeance should be done to that worthy prince, for it was reported by true persons that saw him dead, that he had sixteen deadly wounds in his breast, withouten many and other in diverse places of his body.”



Other events that occured in February

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.