King of Scots ‘climbed into cesspit’ in final attempt to escape death

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James I was King of Scots from 1406 until his assassination on February 21, 1437. The monarch was killed at Perth during a failed coup by his uncle Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl.

His wife Queen Joan, although wounded, managed to escape the attackers and eventually reached her son — who became King James II — in Edinburgh Castle.

There are several versions telling the story of the assassination of the King of Scots, with contradictions ranging from the time James was killed to where he was found.

And a top Scottish historian has debunked a very specific “myth” relating to the King’s desperate attempt “to elude his assassins”.

Professor Richard Oram, who has been dedicated to researching the life of King James I, shared details of the assassination in 2020.

The King had spent Christmas at the Blackfriars monastery in Perth, a favourite city of James’s which he may have considered making his capital, and had tarried there afterwards, spending a lot of his time playing tennis.

According to Professor Oram, the royal apartment was “adjacent” to the “friary buildings,” and James had “had a purpose-built tennis court adjacent to the royal chamber-block, not simply a place pressed into service where the King could play the fashionable game”.

He continued: “The chamber windows probably overlooked the gardens through which the assassins approached the King’s house in February 1437.”

James was with his wife and her ladies-in-waiting when the conspirators launched their attack, and as the women guarded the door, the King looked for an escape method.

Several accounts suggest James hid in a privy or cellar — underneath the floorboards — having come to no avail searching for a way out.

However, Mr Oram has claimed that this is a “myth,” saying the King actually found himself in a much grimy hiding place.

He told The Daily Record: “One myth that is important to dispel is that James climbed down into the friary’s latrine drain to elude his assassins.

“The Dominicans had been given the right to build a conduit from the burgh mill-lade to provide a permanent flow of water to flush their drains.”

He continued: “This would have been a low, stone-walled passage scoured clean by running water. But the royal suite had its own privies separate from the common latrines of the friary.

“What James climbed down into was a latrine cesspit, a small chamber from which the waste was dug out by hand…”

To add insult to injury, days earlier, the King could have escaped through this drain, but the access had been “blocked up” on his orders to “prevent his tennis balls from rolling into the filth”.

According to Susan Abernethy, a historian and creator of the blog The Freelance History Writer, the assassins “searched high and low for the King and could not find him”.

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Writing on her blog in 2013, she explained: “They searched for so long, the King thought they had left and cried out to the ladies to come [to] help him out.

“Then one of the conspirators either heard his cry, or remembered the privy and they returned to the room and noticed where the floorboard had been lifted. They pulled up the boards and found the King.”

The attack had been fuelled by discontent with the King’s rule. While James had become King in 1406, he reigned from captivity for almost 19 years having been captured by King Henry IV of England as a Prince. Throughout his imprisonment, his uncle the Duke of Albany ruled over Scotland.

Upon his return to his home country in 1424, James raised taxes and enforced several harsh rules including a ban on football and clothing regulations based on class. This, combined with his ruthless treatment of the nobility, unpopular fiscal policies and a failed siege of Roxburgh Castle, culminated in his assassination.

A small group of radical barons some of whose heirs had been taken hostage in exchange for James’s return to Scotland were determined to take action.

Led by Walter, Earl of Athol, the King’s uncle, they conspired to arrest James in Parliament. However, when this strategy failed, more drastic action was taken.

It is said James suffered from at least 16 wounds during the attack until he finally succumbed to his killers. James I died aged 43; he was buried in the Carthusian Priory of Perth.

Having ensured her son was safe, Queen Joan established the support of some powerful men and called for the arrest of the assassins. They were all captured and ultimately executed.

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