How a King's love of tennis sealed his murder

James I, King of Scots, played a lot of tennis during his Christmas holidays at a Perth friary in 1436, perhaps to shift some weight given reports of his 'excessive corpulence'.

James I, King of Scots, who died 580 years ago this week. PIC Wikimedia.
James I, King of Scots, who died 580 years ago this week. PIC Wikimedia.

The King, the great grandson of Robert the Bruce, retired to Blackfriars as a plot circled to kill the monarch, who had become quickly ruthless following his return to Scotland after 18 years in English captivity.

While at the Dominican abbey he indulged in some pawme, also known as je de la paume, or tennis, some say rather energetically.

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He knocked so many balls off court and down an old drain leading from the abbey that he ordered for the passage to be blocked up with stone.

The King’s irritation at losing his tennis balls was to cost him his life.

Just three days later, on February 20 1437, James I was resting in his nightgown and furry slippers, playing chess with his wife, Queen Joan, and their friends, when the assassins arrived around midnight.

It is known that at least one of his inner circle, the chamberlain Sir Robert Stewart, was in on the plot and excused the guardsman and loosened the bolts on the abbey doors, as he got word of the mob’s approach.

An account of the day, given by Queen Joan following the raid and transcribed from Latin by historian John Shirley, described the “great noise...and great clattering of harness and men armed, with great sight of torches.”

Leading the pack was the “false and traitorous knight” Sir Robert Graham, who supported the Albany Stewarts over the King.

James I fled for cover with his wife and friends running for the chamber doorway, where the King urged them to stay.

The King, according to the account, tried to smash windows to enable their escape but they were too strongly soldered with lead for them the break.

James I was “ugly astonished” and grabbed iron tongs from the fire side before “mightily” bursting up a plank of the chamber floor and dipping down to conceal himself.

He could not survive in the passage, where the tennis balls had recently gathered, for long given it had now been blocked up.

The account added: “The king might well [have] escaped, but he made to let stop it well 3 dayes afore hand [beforehand] with stone, because that when he played there at the pawme, the balls that he played with oft ran in at that fowle hole...”

The King emerged too quickly from his hiding place and his assassins - armed with swords, axes, glaves, bills - found him climbing from under the floorboards back into the room.

Unarmed and still in his nightgown, the King fought back, holding two men by their throats and cutting his hands as he tried to grab their knives.

He was eventually overpowered.

The King died with 16 wounds in his chest and many more on other parts of his body, the account added.

Some have cast doubt on the version of events as told by Queen Joan with claims she hyped the heroism of the King.

What, of course, will never be known is whether the King could have survived down the drain had his tennis balls not gone so astray.