Long before England and Scotland were “united” under the rule of James Stuart, and even before the more famous match of James IV and Margaret Tudor, there was another alliance between these two countries that provided an important dynastic link…though not necessarily in a helpful way. In 1424, James I of Scotland married Joan Beaufort, a non-royal Englishwoman, but one whose family was critical to physically restoring her husband to his throne. The union, while successful, did little to help diplomatic ties with England.
In 1406, young James Stewart, son of Robert III, was captured at sea en-route to France and delivered as a hostage to King Henry IV of England. He was sent from Scotland for his own protection after his elder brother was poisoned thanks to political jostling around his father’s throne, and Robert hoped that his allies in France would safeguard his son until it was time to call him home. England, unfortunately, gained possession of him instead, a fact that reached Robert just before he did on April 4.
Henry IV now had custody of Scotland’s king, which made for a valuable commodity given ongoing tension between the two bordering countries. The Lancastrian king had no intention of harming the boy (James would have been 11/12 at the time of his capture), but felt it useful to instead keep him in his back pocket until he decided how to play his hand. In the short-term, James was treated as an honored prisoner, who was equipped with an education and material comfort alongside the King’s younger children.
In 1413, Henry IV died and his eldest son, Henry V, became king. The younger man was less enthused by his Scottish prisoner and for a time moved him to the Tower of London, before landing on Windsor Castle. For the next seven years, James mostly wrote poetry and waited. England, meanwhile, launched a successful military campaign in France that began with the siege of Harfleur in 1415 and was solidified by the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. By then, James had been summoned forth.
France called upon the Auld Alliance for help in the face of English aggression, which meant that Scottish troops were in fact present in France at the time. England, realizing James was finally of some value, shipped him across the Channel and attempted to use him as a figurehead for the Scottish troops in 1420, hoping that by having him order “his” men to stop, the soldiers would obey. But by then James had been gone for 14 years and the Scots were well-aware James had no real choice in his actions. His presence did little to help England’s military endeavors, though it did enhance his standing in Henry’s eyes.
In February 1421, James was back in England for the coronation of Henry’s wife, Katherine of Valois, after which it is reported that the new queen went through the theatrics of pleading with her husband for James’s freedom. If true, it was more a show than a genuine moment, but it highlights that Henry had decided to release James back into Scotland where he might of greater use. Even more, it indicates that the relationship between James and his English captors was seemingly a pleasant one, and if James felt any resentment, he didn’t show it.
Unfortunately, Henry ran out of time to deliver on his promise, unexpectedly passing away in the summer of 1422. The next several months were devoted to propping up a protectorate government that could rule England for Henry’s infant son (Henry VI), while Scotland proved lethargic in making space for its own king. Ostensibly it was John, Duke of Bedford (the eldest of Henry V’s brothers) who took chargd of James’s release as the government’s true head, but in fact it was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (the youngest brother) and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester (an uncle) who took more active roles on the issue.
They liaised with Archibald, Earl of Douglas, one of the men who had grown in power during James’s captivity, until an agreement was reached in 1423. As for Douglas, he agreed to aid the release only under assurances that James would endorse his position in the country, seeming to believe an ally king would help stomp out his political rivals. As for England, they were to receive much-needed cash in the midst of a war and Bishop Beaufort arranged the marriage of James to his niece, Joan Beaufort, a move meant to ensure familial ties between the Houses of Stewart and Lancaster.
So, Joan: She was the daughter of John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset and Margaret Holland, a couple we recently covered here. As such, she a granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and his third wife, Katherine Swynford, and a great-granddaughter of Edward III. When she was very young, her father died and her mother remarried Thomas, Duke of Clarence, another of Henry V’s brother, meaning that between her Beaufort blood and her stepfather, she was a well-connected young woman when she arrived at court. After the loss of her father, there were three major events in Joan’s life worth noting – one was that her eldest brother was killed during the siege of Rouen, the second was that another two brothers were captured by the French in 1421 and the third was that at the same time her brothers were captured, her stepfather was killed at the Battle of Baugé.
We don’t when exactly Joan first turned up at court, but given that there wasn’t a queen (and thus a strong female presence) until Katherine of Valois arrived on the scene, it’s very possible that it was early 1421. As such, she would have been well-aware of who James was, though there is no evidence to support theories that the two fell in love via James watching her from his window and writing poetry. Even so, the match was a coup and made Joan a queen when she would have had no reasonable expectation of becoming one.
An exact birth year for Joan is unknown, but was likely between 1404 and 1406, making her roughly 17-19 when her marriage was arranged in 1423. James was around a decade older. The wedding went forward in February 1424 in St Mary Overie Church in Southwark, London. A reception followed at Winchester Castle, Bishop Beaufort’s residence.
A few weeks later, James and Joan left for Scotland, escorted by Joan’s younger brother, Edmund Beaufort (later Duke of Somerset) and the pair were crowned on May 21 at Scone. Almost immediately, James had his cousin, Walter Stewart, arrested, for Walter had been an outspoken critic of his release and, more importantly, was the son of Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany, himself the son of the man most responsible for James’s imprisonment and the violence against his family. As of the spring of 1424, Murdoch and Walter were at odds, so the arrest didn’t raise alarm bells, and Murdoch was protected by his friendship with Douglas.
Douglas, however, was in France fighting the English – and it is worth noting that James did not immediately curtail Scotland’s military support of France – and that August, he was killed at the Battle of Verneuil. James, then, was able to make his move, and in March 1425, Murdoch, his wife and another of his sons were arrested. A third son escaped arrest only to raise a rebellion, but it was quickly quashed and gave James the ammunition he needed to have the family put to death. Their executions were carried out that May.
But James’s revenge wasn’t yet complete – there was still England. He increased taxes to pay his ransom, but though £26,000 was raised, less than half was ever paid. By 1429, he stopped paying installments altogether and instead allocated the funds to buying cannons and other goods from Flanders. By then, England’s luck was turning thanks to the rise of Joan of Arc and they well-know James was never going to be the ally they needed.
It’s unclear what Joan thought of all of this, though she did regularly intercede with her husband to show mercy to his prisoners. Most of her life was taken up with childbearing and there’s no record of her ever returning to England. Whatever the personal nature of the relationship, it was a fertile one and the couple produced eight children in 12 years, including one set of twins.
Their eldest child, Margaret, was born in December 1424, just 10 months after the couple’s wedding. Three more daughters – Isabel, Mary and Joan – were born in 1426, 1427 and 1428, before the arrival of twin boys. On October 16, 1430, Joan gave birth to Princes Alexander and James, however only James survived infancy. He was followed by two more sisters – Eleanor and Annabel – in 1433 and 1436.
James took to arranging marriages for his children almost immediately and it was here where he finally allowed his true position on Scotland’s role in Europe to show. After four years of doing little to rollback support of France’s House of Valois, James agreed to betroth his eldest daughter to the eldest son of the dauphin (the son of Charles VI – and brother of Katherine of Valois – who had been disinherited by the Treaty of Troyes), however given the instability in France it would be years before he agreed that she could travel there.
In the meantime, James also entertained the idea of marrying another daughter to England, underlining his intention to remain independent and not beholden to either rival power. In the late 1420s and early 1430s, English ambassadors arrived in Scotland to discuss the possibility of marrying Isabel to Henry VI, however the match came to nothing.
Margaret’s eventually came to fruition, and she was sent to France in the spring of 1436 at the age of 11. She and her bridegroom, Louis, met for the first time on June 24, the day before their wedding. The ceremony went forth at Tours and was considered scandalous by the Scots in attendance thanks to its lack of ceremony, but in truth, the French government and its royal family were impoverished.
Early in 1437, James alienated his uncle, Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl, prompting a league of his kinsmen to begin plotting against him. Tension between the two men, after years of friendship, solidified into rebellion once Atholl seemingly decided to take a page out of his now-deceased brothers’ books and topple his nephew from the throne. Men still upset by the ousting of the nobles in 1425 flocked to Atholl, who held his cards tight to the vest until he sensed James on vulnerable ground. When Parliament met in Perth in February 1437, he decided to strike.
Crucially, James and Joan decided to stay in a nearby monastery, not the castle itself. On the evening of February 20, the couple retired to their private chambers for the evening, separated from most of their servants. Reports differ as to whether James and Joan were given a few minutes head’s up or whether they were alerted by commotion outside the door, but either way, sensing an attack, James used a poker to wrench up floorboards and let himself into the sewer below to escape, believing there was an opening on the other end. Unfortunately, he forgot that he had ordered that opening closed because tennis balls had been rolling into it and he was effectively trapped.
Reports on Joan’s actions also differ – some say that she attempted to follow her husband into the sewer, but the assailants caught her before she could lower herself down. Others argue that she and her ladies replaced the floorboards and hastened to cover them. Then there is discrepancy over whether Joan was in fact one of the targets, or whether the men only sought James. Regardless, Joan was seriously injured on her shoulder in the coming commotion as she attempted to protect her husband.
Joan managed to get out of the room and while the men tore the room apart looking for a hiding king, they eventually gave up and left, before one remembered the sewer. They returned, found James huddled in hiding and stabbed him to death, before fleeing north.
Joan was thus a widow in her mid-30s, but more importantly, she was the mother of a new six-year-old king. She quickly traveled to Edinburgh where her children were and, instead of moving for Scone where Scottish kings were traditionally crowned, held a hasty coronation at Holyrood Abbey on March 25. Meanwhile, Joan showed she may well have shared her husband’s taste for revenge, for she insisted the assassins be hunted down and then approved a particularly brutal torture and execution.
Joan was given custody of James II and her daughters, but like her husband a generation before, there were serious threats circling them at all times, not least of which were plans to kidnap the boy and assume control of the government that way. A council was formed that would advise her as regent until James was of-age, however the head of that council, Archibald Douglas, Duke of Touraine, and its members were the biggest threats to the children’s safety. A few months later, Joan announced her intention to go on a pilgrimage and smuggled her son in a trunk from Edinburgh to Stirling, which would become her main residence.
While Douglas was in power, this remained the uneasy status quo, but it lasted only two years, ending with Douglas’s death in June 1439. Control then shifted to Sir Alexander Livingston of Callendar and William Crichton, 1st Lord Crichton, who Joan apparently did not trust, for within a month she remarried without permission to James Stewart, known as the Black Knight of Lorne, a distant relation of her late husband who was opposed to Livingston. Presumably, at least some of Joan’s rationale had to have been that she thought she was safer with a husband than without, however it was a gamble – by breaking the law, the new council had grounds to remove the young King from her custody, which they did on August 3.
Joan and her new husband were placed under house arrest for a month and only released when she agreed to give up permanent custody of her son and relinquish some of her dower rights. Even then, Crichton organized the kidnapping of James from Livingston custody, though he was later returned to Livingston. There was good reason that the Queen didn’t fight back harder, for Livingston and Crichton were ruthless. In 1440, the adolescent sons of the late Douglas to Edinburgh Castle to dine with James. A black bore’s head was laid on the table, signifying the attack to come, and the two children were hauled outside, given a mock trial and executed while the young king, by some accounts, screamed for their release. The incident became known as the Black Dinner and Livingston and Crichton, but particularly Crichton, were complicit.
As for Joan, she remained with her new husband. In fact, she went on to have three more sons, in 1440, 1442 and 1443, who were christened John, James and Andrew, respectively. (It was less unusual in the 15th century to have two children with the same name than it is now.) Finally, in October 1444, James reached legal majority at the age of 14. Even so, he was still held by Livingston. Joan and her husband allied themselves with Crichton, prompting a civil war that broke out that November. In July 1445, James Stewart was arraigned for having been heard to say that the country was being run badly, while Joan sought refuge in Dunbar Castle.
The Castle was besieged by the Livingstons, and though Joan fought back, she was fatally injured and died on July 15, 1445. Her body was transferred to the Charterhouse where she was laid to rest beside James I.
As for James II, he would successfully shake the Livingstons only to find himself under the control of the Douglas and Crichton families. In 1449, he married Mary of Guelders, and within another two years began plotting a takeover. When the new Earl of Douglas left Scotland (ironically, for a meeting in England with Henry VI’s queen, Marguerite of Anjou), he laid the groundwork to get rid of him and when he returned home in the winter of 1452, he was murdered. James and Mary had seven children and held power until James’s death in 1460. Like Joan before her, Mary ended up serving as regent for her minor son, James III, for three years.
Despite the uncertainty and violence that dominated the Scottish nobility, the Stewarts held on to power (the French version of their name, which came into use later, being the Stuart) and, as such, Joan Beaufort is an ancestor for every British sovereign since James I (James VI of Scotland).