Beaufort, Joan (c. 1410–1445)

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Beaufort, Joan (c. 1410–1445)

Queen of Scotland and wife of James I who attempted after his murder to become regent of Scotland. Name variations: Jane Beaufort; Queen Joan; Jane or Johanna. Pronunciation: BOE-fort. Born in England around 1410; died in Dunbar Castle, Lothian, Scotland, on July 15, 1445, and buried in the church of the Carthusian Monastery in Perth; daughter of Margaret Holland (1385–1429) and John Beaufort, earl of Somerset; married James I (1394–1437), king of Scotland (r. 1406–1437), in February 1424; married Sir James Stewart of Lorne, in July 1439; children: (first marriage) Margaret of Scotland (1424–1445); Isabel Stewart (d. 1494); Jean Stewart (d. 1486);Eleanor Stewart (d. 1496); (twins) Alexander (1430–1430) and James II (1430–1460), king of Scotland (r. 1437–1460)); Mary Stewart (d. 1465), countess of Buchan;Annabella Stewart (d. after 1471); (second marriage) James; John Stewart, 1st earl of Atholl (c. 1440–1512); Andrew.

Treaty of London signed (December 1423); crowned queen of Scotland (May 21, 1424); nobility swore fealty (1428); gave birth to twin sons (October 16, 1430); nobility swore fealty (1435); marriage of Princess Margaret to the French dauphin (June 1436); regicide of James I (February 20–21, 1437); Joan Beaufort arrested and imprisoned (August 3, 1439); the Appoyntement Agreement ratified (September 4, 1439); marriage of Isabel to Francis I, duke of Brittany; marriage of Mary to Wolfaert count of Grandpre (1444); siege of Dunbar Castle (1444).

During his long captivity in England, James I of Scotland gazed out his window in the castle tower, spied a strolling maiden, and fell in love. Inspired by Chaucer's translation of a French allegory, James wrote a long love poem, The Kingis Quair (The King's Book), which included the lines:

And therewith cast I down my eye again,
Where as I saw, walking under the tower,
Full secretly knew coming her to play,
The fairest or the freshest young flower
That ever I saw … before the hour,
For which sudden surprise, non assert
The blood of all my body to my heart.

Stewart, Eleanor (1427–1496)

Archduchess of Austria. Name variations: Eleanor Stuart. Born on October 26, 1427; died in 1496 (some sources cite November 20, 1480); daughter of James I (1394–1437), king of Scotland (r. 1406–1437), andJoan Beaufort (c. 1410–1445); married Sigismund von Tirol, archduke of Austria, on February 12, 1449.

Stewart, Annabella (d. after 1471)

Countess of Huntly. Name variations: Annabella Stuart. Died after 1471; daughter of James I (1394–1437), king of Scotland (r. 1406–1437), andJoan Beaufort (c. 1410–1445); married Louis, count of Geneva, on December 14, 1447 (divorced 1458); married George Gordon, 2nd earl of Huntly, before March 10, 1459 (divorced 1471); children: (second marriage)Isabella Gordon (who married William Hay, 3rd earl of Erroll); Janet Gordon; Elizabeth Gordon; Margaret Gordon; Agnes Gordon; Alexander, earl of Huntly.

While the courtship of Joan Beaufort was a rare affair of the heart, it is improbable that it occurred in the romantic fashion described in The Kingis Quair. Rather, the marriage was largely the formulation of the Beaufort family who, barred from the English succession by the 1407 charter of Henry IV, nonetheless sought to enhance their prestige through a union with the Stewart dynasty. Indeed, the English commissioners sent to Scotland were given secret instructions on the subject of marriage. If the Scots raised the question of an English bride for their king, the commissioners were told to proceed with negotiations. However, if the Scots did not raise the issue, the commissioners were instructed not to allude to it "since Englishwomen, at least noble ones, are not wont to offer themselves in marriage to men of other parts." The proposed marriage was the subject of intricate negotiation, for the bridegroom had been a prisoner of the English since 1406. In the Treaty of London, it was agreed that James would be released in return for a ransom of £40,000 and a seven-year truce. A remission of 10,000 marks was made as Joan's dowry.

The daughter of John Beaufort, earl of Somerset, and Margaret Holland , Joan grew to womanhood in the bosom of the Beaufort clan, undoubtedly the most successful English family of the 15th century. Like many Beaufort women, she possessed both political acumen and beauty. Her quasi-royal genealogy distinguished her as a rare prize on the medieval marriage market, and even George Buchanan, the patriotic Scottish scholar, was to note that she was "the loveliest woman of her time, of whom [James] was passionately enamoured." The marriage took place at the church of St. Mary Overy in Southwark. Afterward the bride's uncle, Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, gave a wedding feast at his nearby palace. Among the wedding gifts were silver and gold plate and several rich tapestries, one of which depicted the life of Hercules.

In April 1424, the newlyweds crossed the border into Scotland. James, determined to restore order to his kingdom after 18 years of regency government, vowed that "if God grant me life, though it be but the life of a dog, there shall be no place in my realm where the key shall not keep the castle and the brackenbush the cow." The triumphal progress of Joan and James took them to Edinburgh. The couple "came on Care-Sunday in Lent to Edinburgh," wrote John Leslie, "where a great concourse of people were assembled all eager to gaze on Joan, who was accounted the most beautiful woman of the day." After 18 years of captivity, their king had finally returned, and he had brought with him a bride worthy to be their queen. Even if, as some grumbled, she was English.

The coronation took place on May 21 at Scone, the ancient coronation site of Scottish monarchs. Both the king and queen were crowned in a ceremony presided over by the bishop of St. Andrews and the earl of Fife, who exercised his hereditary right to place James upon the throne. But the new king was faced with the formidable task of restoring the prestige of the crown and its finances. Scotland was an impoverished country, as described by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, after a visit in 1435:

In this country I saw the poor, who almost in a state of nakedness begged at church doors, depart with joy in their faces on receiving stones as alms. This stone [coal], whether by reason of sulphurous or some other matter which it contains, is burned instead of wood, of which the country is destitute.

The firmness with which James I governed his unruly kingdom contrasted sharply with his immediate predecessors. He embarked on a farreaching program of social and legislative reform: provision was made for the maintenance of law and order, new taxes were raised, and the power of the nobility was curbed. Aware of the danger of his actions, in 1428 and 1435 James demanded that the nobility swear oaths of fealty to Joan. Toward the end of his reign, James went so far as to obtain written assurance of the fidelity of Parliament to his wife. Indeed, throughout his rule, James I displayed unwavering confidence in Joan Beaufort's ability to govern and indicated that he wished her to be appointed regent in the event of his death.

A few weeks before Christmas, 1424, Joan gave birth to her first child. The king was present at the birth and the child was christened Margaret (of Scotland) . The young princess, however, was debarred from the succession, out of fear that she might be seized and married by the rival claimants to the throne, the Albany Stewarts.

Holland, Margaret (1385–1429)

Countess of Somerset. Name variations: Lady Somerset. Born in 1385; died on December 30, 1429 (some sources cite 1439) at St. Saviours Abbey, Bermondsey, London; buried at Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England; daughter of Thomas Holland, 2nd earl of Kent, andAlice Fitzalan (1352–1416); married John Beaufort, earl of Somerset (1373–1410, son of John of Gaunt andCatherine Swynford ), on September 28, 1397; married Thomas, duke of Clarence, in 1411 or 1412; children: (first marriage) Henry, earl of Somerset (1401–1418); John Beaufort, duke of Somerset (1404–1444); Thomas, earl of Perche (1405–1432); Edmund, duke of Somerset (1406–1455);Margaret Beaufort , Countess of Devon (c. 1407);Joan Beaufort (c. 1410–1445).

In an effort to enforce the rule of law, in the summer of 1428 James summoned 40 chiefs of the Gaelic clans to his Parliament at Inverness. As each appeared, they were seized by men-at-arms. Three of the company were hung and the rest released on promises of good behavior. Such clemency was wasted on Alexander, Lord of the Isles. When the king left Inverness, Alexander returned and burned the burgh to the ground. James led an army into Lochaber and defeated Alexander in battle. On August 27, 1429, Alexander of the Isles appeared before the high altar of Holyrood Abbey in the garb of a penitent. While on his knees, he presented his sword, hilt forward, to the king. Joan pleaded for mercy, and Alexander was saved from her husband's wrath.

Joan played an active part in government and often restrained her husband's fiery temper. In another instance, during a stormy session in the council chamber, one noble struck another. James ordered the culprit to lay his hands on the table, then, handing his sword to the victim, requested that he strike off the hands of the offender. In horror, Joan begged that the offender be spared, and the king relented.

On October 16, 1430, Joan gave birth to twin sons at Holyrood. The anonymous writer of the Book of Pluscarden informs us that in Edinburgh:

Seeing that they were born in the monastery of Holyrood, bonfires were lighted, flagons of wine were free to all and victuals publicly to all comers, with the sweetest harmony of all kinds of musical instruments all night long proclaiming the praise and glory of God for all his gifts and benefits.

The eldest of the two boys was christened Alexander, the youngest James (the future James II). With the queen in attendance, the two in fants were baptized and knighted in a ceremony attended by members of the nobility. Alexander did not survive infancy, but James, known as "the Fiery Face" due to a birth mark on the left side of his face, survived and was named duke of Rothesay and heir to the throne. Thus, in the sixth year of her marriage, Joan had fulfilled the primary function of a medieval queen: she had secured the succession by providing Scotland with an heir.

In 1435, negotiations with France began for the marriage of Princess Margaret. Involved in every aspect of the talks, Joan took great care to see that her daughter's interests were protected. As with most royal marriages, political considerations soon overshadowed the proceedings. The French were anxious to secure the military assistance of the Scots against their mutual enemy, Henry VI, the king of England. As Aeneas Sylvius noted, "Nothing pleases the Scots more than abuse of the English."

At length, the alliance between Scotland and France was agreed upon, and the king and queen consented to the marriage of their daughter, age 11, to the 13-year-old French dauphin. Joan made several stipulations as to the treatment of her daughter: Margaret was to live at court and be under the supervision of Marie of Anjou , the queen of France, who agreed to "treat her as her own child and teach her the bearing and manners that would be expected of her in France." But the French fleet, sent to collect the bride, ran into an autumnal gale before reaching the safe port of Dumbarton. Upon learning of the torturous crossing, Joan insisted that Margaret wait until spring before setting sail for France. In March, a farewell banquet was held for Margaret, and Joan wept openly throughout the evening.

At the 11th hour, King Henry VI of England dispatched a herald to warn the king and queen that if they insisted on sending their daughter to France "she should be taken, with all her company, by Englishmen lying on the sea biding her coming." This threat of piracy and kidnapping did not deter James nor his wife, although it must have brought back painful memories of James' own abduction on the high seas, when as a boy of 12 he was kidnapped while enroute to the French court for safekeeping. The threat angered James enough to launch an attack on England, and it would seem surprising if Joan had not agreed.

James I's predominance in domestic affairs had been largely achieved through legislative reforms which were difficult for the nobility to counteract. By undertaking the siege of Roxburgh in August 1436, James broke the spell cast by his abstinence from the use of force. The siege was an inglorious failure. The nobility of Scotland, arrayed for war, sensed their own power and were no longer daunted by their king. It was to Roxburgh that Joan would hasten in the summer of 1436 to warn her husband of a plot against him.

Opposition to James was not merely based on class interests. It was based upon a deeply rooted ideal of leadership, which argued that the removal of a monarch was justified if he imperiled the common good of the realm. This would have been a theory alien to the absolutist England of Joan's childhood. But in Scotland such an idea had its origins in Celtic notions of leadership and authority which pre-dated the feudal monarchy of Scotland. James knew the risks he ran in implementing his reformist policies, and there was an element of fatalism in the oath he uttered at the beginning of his reign: "If God grant me life."

After a long voyage north, as the king was relaxing in Perth, he sat in his wife's chamber amusing Joan and her ladies-in-waiting with the tale of another ominous warning given to him by a Highland woman. Scottish history is full of such portents and just as full of those who have failed to heed them. Hearing the clatter of armed men in the hallway, James, who was unarmed, immediately grasped the situation. He ripped up the floorboards which covered a drain that led to the courtyard and sought to escape. Unfortunately, a few days previously he had ordered it to be stopped up so that his tennis balls would not fall in. There was barely enough room for him to hide.

When the assailants, including the earl of Atholl, Sir Robert Stewart, and Robert Graham, entered the room and demanded to know the king's whereabouts, Joan pleaded ignorance, and, after a brief search, the party left the room. They had not been gone long, however, when they remembered the drain and returned to pound on the door. Legend has it that, Katherine Douglas , one of Joan's ladies-in-waiting, put her arm through the u-shaped loop that held the door bolt in an attempt to give James time to escape. When the intruders forced open the door, they broke her arm. For her deed, she is remembered as "Kate-Bar-Lass."

In a desperate bid to save her husband's life, Joan attempted to shield her husband as he was dragged from the drain. He was killed, and she was severely injured. Joan's marriage to James I had been a happy one, and the king's conjugal fidelity was exceptional for a Stewart monarch. The murderers did not enjoy the fruits of their regicide for long. If Joan could be merciful in dealing with the likes of Alexander of the Isles, the wrath she meted out at the death of her beloved husband was gruesome indeed. Though the tortured executions of the conspirators were motivated by the queen's desire for revenge, they also served a more politic purpose. They deterred members of the nobility from wavering in their support of her.

In the aftermath of the assassination, the custody of James II was vital, and one of Joan's first acts was to hasten to Edinburgh and secure the possession of her son. Recognized by Parliament as the custodian of the new king, she was granted an allowance of 4,000 marks a year for his maintenance. While James I would have wished his wife to rule Scotland as regent, this was not to be. Too many powerful factions lurked offstage. A triumvirate was convened to rule the kingdom, composed of the Earl of Douglas as lieutenant-general, Bishop Cameron as chancellor, and the queen.

In the rough and tumble of regency politics, two families were to emerge who would dominate the struggle for power throughout much of the minority of James II. The first were the Crichtons, led by Sir William Crichton, a trusted former servant of James I, sheriff of Edinburgh and keeper of Edinburgh Castle. Second were the Livingtons, represented by Sir Alexander Livington of Callendar, keeper of Stirling Castle.

Within two years of the death of James I, Crichton managed to deny the queen access to her son. Joan sought the support of the earl of Douglas, but he refused to move against Crichton. Crichton seems to have been motivated by equal measures of self-interest and a genuine, if misguided, fear that the queen's English connections posed a threat.

Joan's response was to kidnap her own son. Announcing her intention of making a pilgrimage to the White Kirk in Lothian, she smuggled James II through the Edinburgh Castle gates in her luggage. The ship which she boarded sailed west instead of east, traveling up the Firth of Forth to her residence at Stirling Castle. There, Joan allied herself with Sir Alexander Livington, who offered to besiege Edinburgh Castle. He too sought the assistance of Douglas, but the latter refused. At length, Crichton and Livington made peace, recognizing that Douglas wished his two rivals to destroy each other.

The death of the Earl of Douglas, in 1439, left a power vacuum in the realm. This was partially filled by William Crichton, who supplanted Bishop Cameron as chancellor. Joan, in an attempt to strengthen her position and assume the powers of regent, married Sir James Stewart, known as the Black Knight of Lorne. This manoeuvre for the regency was forestalled, however, when Joan and her new husband were arrested by Alexander Livington, whose actions were motivated by a desire to protect his family's influence. The drastic step of imprisoning Joan underlined the weakness of her political position and caused much popular dissatisfaction.

On September 4, 1439, Joan's release was negotiated by Parliament, but the conditions of her release, set out in the Appoyntement Agreement, were extremely favorable to Livington. He was absolved of treason for seizing the queen, and instead Parliament declared that he was motivated by "great truth and loyalty." Joan agreed to forgive the "grief and displeasance" caused by the incident. Livington was awarded the custody of James II, and Joan was forced to entrust Livington with the 4,000 mark annuity for James' support. The Appoyntement Agreement ended any practical possibility of Joan becoming a dominant political figure during the minority of her son. As the years passed, a constant tug-of-war continued between the Livingtons, the Crichtons, and the Douglases for control of the government.

The years 1442 and 1444 saw Joan negotiate the successful marriages of her daughtersIsabel Stewart and Mary Stewart to important members of the European nobility. The marriage of her daughter Jean Stewart to the earl of Angus was not as successfully arranged. The government opposed such a union and favored a European marriage, but Joan resisted their wishes. From Dunbar Castle, Joan and her husband, as well as the earl of Angus and Adam Hepburn of Hailes, continued to defy the wishes of the government. The castle was laid to siege, and it was during the siege that Joan died on July 15, 1445. She was buried beside James I in Perth.

Stewart, Isabel (d. 1494)

Duchess of Brittany. Name variations: Isabella, duchess de Bretagne; Isabel Stuart. Died in 1494; daughter of James I (1394–1437), king of Scotland (r. 1406–1437), andJoan Beaufort (c. 1410–1445); married Francis duc de Bretagne also known as Francis I, duke of Brittany, on October 30, 1442; children:Marguerite de Foix (fl. 1456–1477); Marie of Dreux (who married John, viscount de Rohan).

Stewart, Mary (d. 1465)

Countess of Buchan. Name variations: Mary Stuart. Died on March 20, 1465; interred at Sandenburg-ter-Veere, Zeeland; daughter of James I (1394–1437), king of Scotland (r. 1406–1437), andJoan Beaufort (c. 1410–1445); married Wolfaert van Borselen, count of Grandpre, in 1444; children: two sons.

Stewart, Jean (d. 1486)

Name variations: Jean Stuart; Joan Stewart or Stuart; Joan "the Dumb Lady." Died after October 16, 1486; daughter of James I (1394–1437), king of Scotland (r. 1406–1437), andJoan Beaufort (c. 1410–1445); married James Douglas, 3rd earl of Angus, on October 18, 1440; married James Douglas, 1st earl of Morton, before May 15, 1459; children: (second marriage) John Douglas, earl of Morton; Janet Douglas; James Douglas; Elizabeth Douglas. Jean Stewart was born a deaf mute.

An alien in a strange land, Joan Beaufort adapted well to her role as queen of Scotland. As the wife of James I, she gave birth to eight children and exercised considerable influence upon royal policy. Upon his death, in 1437, Joan showed herself to be strong and resolute, seizing her son and hanging the assassins. If she failed in her bid to enforce her husband's wish that she rule as regent, it was largely due to her nationality and gender. Not one example of a long-serving female regent exists in the history of medieval Scotland. And during a period when the sword so often overawed the law, the reason can be easily discerned.


Buchanan, George. The History of Scotland. Glasgow: Blackie, Fullarton, 1827.

Cook, E. Thornton. Their Majesties of Scotland. London: John Murray, 1928.

Harris, G.L. Cardinal Beaufort. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

McGladdery, Christine. James II. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1990.

Shirley, John. The Life and Death of King James the First. Edinburgh: Maitland Club, 1887.

suggested reading:

Balfour-Melville, E.W.M. James I, King of Scots. London: Methuen, 1936.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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