Stewart Widows Club: Joan Beaufort, Queen of Scots, and a tale of true love, murder and savage revenge – Susan Morrison

James I of Scotland is thought to have written a poem about falling in love with his future wife Joan Beaufort, saying ‘that sudaynly my hert become hir thrall’

Joan Beaufort, Queen of Scots, has the dubious distinction of being the first member of a sad, select women’s club, the Stewart Widows, the grieving queens of the five of the six Kings called James. Four had a child heir to protect.

Her marriage to James I of Scotland in 1424 was part of a power deal to return the king to his realm. James had been held prisoner by Henry IV of England for 18 years, and the negotiations for his return included not just a stonking ransom, but also the insistence that he marry an English noblewoman as his queen.

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Luckily enough, they had just the candidate. Lady Jane Beaufort, a member of one of the most powerful families in England. Her grandfather was the legendary John of Gaunt. Also luckily, and unusually, the young royal pair actually seemed to be in love. What a novelty.

Catherine Douglas is said to have tried to prevent the assassination of King James I of Scotland by barring the door with her arm (Image from 1910/The Print Collector/Getty Images)Catherine Douglas is said to have tried to prevent the assassination of King James I of Scotland by barring the door with her arm (Image from 1910/The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Catherine Douglas is said to have tried to prevent the assassination of King James I of Scotland by barring the door with her arm (Image from 1910/The Print Collector/Getty Images)

In his beautiful poem, the Kings Quair, James wrote of a vision of loveliness walking in the garden of his prison, the Tower of London. He never names the beloved, but it is thought to be Joan Beaufort. It’s love at first sight “that sudaynly my hert become hir thrall”.

Joan and James were married in Southwark in February 1424. The bride was 20, the groom ten years older. The honeymoon trip was the long road home to Scotland, and presumably started the job of producing a lot of children on the way back. Eight in all, including twin boys, Alexander and James. Tragically, Alexander, the eldest, died in infancy, and James became heir.

The king wanted a strong throne, good tax revenues coming in and a lot of foreign influence. Money was spent on interior design to impress ambassadors. Fancy clothes were worn. Not everyone was keen on the return of a king who had ideas about ruling. They didn’t take kindly to having lands redistributed, money flowing into the royal purse as opposed to theirs and they weren’t wildly keen on the mass execution of the house of Albany-Stewart. They saw this as tyranny.

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The stage was being set for the brutal killing of a king. On the night of February 20, 1437, Joan and James were in Perth, staying very comfortably in the Dominican friary. Those royal rooms would become a crime scene.

A Latin contemporary account of the night in question, translated by John Shirley, is shocking in its intimacy. He describes the king ready for bed, wearing only his shirt, cap and furred slippers. The queen and her ladies are in attendance, and apparently having a bit of banter with James. Suddenly they hear noises outside the rooms. To their horror, they realise armed men are about to break in.

The doors have been left unbarred. In a desperate effort to buy the king some time, Lady Catherine Douglas slams her bare arm into the slots on the door to stop the assassins, but to no avail. The killers break her arm and force their way in.

Even if the story is not true, what is beyond doubt is that the women of the court, including Queen Joan, put up a hell of a fight. They delay the assassins long enough for the king to haul up the floorboards and drop down into a sewer under the floor. Above him, his household are still fighting back. Queen Joan herself is wounded in the struggle. A young groom is cut down and dies of his wounds later.

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It was imperative the king get to safety. However, just days before, the sewer had been stopped up to prevent tennis balls from getting lost. The men who had come to kill the king found him. When his courtiers pulled the body out, they counted 16 stab wounds, his hands torn to ribbons.

Queen Joan was a wounded widow, with a young son and a throne to protect. She moved fast. Like Jackie Kennedy centuries later, Joan stage-managed the rituals of burying a murdered head of state. She put husband’s mutilated body on display, creating a shock wave of horror at the brutality of the murder. Crowned heads were appalled. The Pope was outraged.

Her son was only six years old. Joan did not mess around. Scone was too close to Perth. James II was crowned at Holyrood. She was the Queen Mother now, standing behind her son's throne.

But before and after that coronation, she had a score to settle. The assassins possibly thought that Scotland would rise to support them after the butchering of James, but they were wrong. They and the apparent ring leaders, Walter Stewart, Robert Stewart, and Sir Robert Graham were caught, tried and then executed with spectacular theatricality.

There was hanging, drawing and quartering. Men were strung up, red hot pincers ripped the flesh from their bones and hands were hacked off. Walter Stewart had a red hot iron ring forced onto his head, in mockery of his wish to wear the crown. Queen Joan watched. There is something intensely personal about this blood lust. James was not just Scotland’s king, he had been Joan’s beloved husband, and her vengeance was savage.

Joan had secured the throne for her son, James II, but an English noblewoman being regent was a step too far for the Scottish nobility. Joan was sidelined, but no matter, she’d got her boy crowned. She married again, in 1439, to the gloriously named James Stewart, the Black Knight of Lorne. There’s a smack of political expediency around this marriage. When she died in 1445, she was reunited with James, buried next to him in Perth.

Her son married in 1447. Mary of Guelders would be the second member of the Stewart Widows Club.

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