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On February 20th 1437, King James I was murdered in Perth, by a group led by Sir Robert Graham. James had spent around 18 years as a prisoner in England, his uncle, the Duke of Albany ruled in his absence and was in no hurry to hand the reigns back to his nephew, even going so far as to trade and English noble Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland in return for his own son, Murdoch, rather than his King. The Duke of Albany remained in charge of Scotland as Governor until his death in 1420 when he was succeeded by his son Murdoch, it would be another four years before a ransom was agreed to bring James I back to Scotland, and you can imagine he wasn’t happy with the Albany family. Upon his return, James had Murdoch and several other powerful nobles beheaded. He then made laws restricting the power of the nobles. This did not please the nobles, especially the Earl of Atholl and Sir Robert Graham.
There are many versions telling the story of the assassination,earlier versions vary from versions written well after it happened. This could be attributed to Queen Joan who was actually there when it occurred. She survived and wanted vengeance.
Perth was a favorite city of King James and he may have considered making it his capital. James had spent Christmas at the Blackfriars monastery and the Royal party stayed on into February, James was a keen tennis player and this was to prove fatal for him. On the evening of February 20, 1437 they heard a commotion outside as horses approached and torches were lit outside their window. The King and his party made to lock themselves away fearing for the King’s safety but found the locks had been tampered with. The women, and one particular Catherine Douglas held the door, Catherine put her arm through a bar to stop the door being opened easily while James sought to escape by pulling up floorboards uncovering the drains below. He would have escaped had he not had the opening blocked just days before. He kept losing tennis balls down the drain so he stopped it up. By this time the door had been broken down, breaking young Catherines arm and the assailants were now bearing down on him, the King was trapped in the sewer and was killed. While this was going on the Queen had made her escape.
The people of Perth had heard about the commotion and headed for the monastery. The conspirators then fled.
They didn’t get far. They certainly had no plans for the aftermath of the murder and didn’t count on the wrath of the queen. Joan made sure her son was safe, established the support of some powerful men and called for the apprehension and arrest of the assassins. She had James’ butchered body displayed before he was buried in the Carthusian priory in Perth. The hunt began for the assassins. They were all captured. Some of them may have been tortured but they all were executed. Joan made her way to Edinburgh and had her son James II crowned at Holyrood Abbey on March 25, 1437.
The picture is a depiction of Catherine Douglas, her arm being used as a bar to keep the door from opening, here after she became known as Catherine Barlass.
The event was commemorated in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem The King’s Tragedy, 1881. The full poem is 173 stanzas, but this selection shows the possible links with Katy bar the door:
Then the Queen cried, “Catherine, keep the door, And I to this will suffice!” At her word I rose all dazed to my feet, And my heart was fire and ice. … Like iron felt my arm, as through The staple I made it pass:- Alack! it was flesh and bone - no more! ‘Twas Catherine Douglas sprang to the door, But I fell back Kate Barlass.