The year is 1437. The date is 21st February. In the dark wintry streets of Perth, a menace lurks. Soon, Scotland’s king will be dead at the age of 42, stabbed 28 times and left to die in the sewers beneath Blackfriars Monastery.
But how did it come to this? Who are the key players in the story? What’s the Charterhouse and how does it come into it?
And how will Perth bring this hair-raising story of betrayal, murder and revenge to life in the 21st century?
King James I – the Victim
Our story starts with the young King James I, son of King Robert III. James was kidnapped by pirates in 1406, at the age of 12, and imprisoned by the Lancastrian Kings of England for 18 years. He was released on agreeing to pay a ransom.
He returned triumphantly to Scotland in 1424, entering Edinburgh on Palm Sunday in a way that recalled Christ’s return to Jerusalem. He was later crowned at Scone Abbey. By his side was his formidable and noble wife, Joan Beaufort.
Joan Beaufort – the Vengeful Queen
Joan, the daughter of the Beaufort powerhouse of English politics, was elevated to the heights of society through her marriage to King James. When James was murdered, she escaped and quickly assumed power as regent for James II, their young son.
Joan displayed his naked body with its ghastly wounds for all to see, then set about exacting a terrifying revenge on his killers, chief among them Sir Robert Graham.
Sir Robert Graham – the Assassin
Sir Robert Graham, a low-ranking but educated lord, supported the Duke of Albany, who was reigning in James’ absence. On his return to Scotland, James I had the Duke’s son Murdoch executed in 1425, and imprisoned Robert Graham in Dunbar Castle until 1428.
James also forfeited the lands of rebellious nobles, including those to whom Sir Robert was loyal. When the King started spending large amounts of money on his building projects, including the Charterhouse in Perth and Linlithgow Palace. Due to such projects, and James’ conspicuous consumption and overt display following the model of his English captors , there was rising discontent .
In 1436, Sir Robert denounced James I in Parliament and tried to arrest him. He was arrested himself and imprisoned, but escaped. He started plotting with the Earl of Atholl, and Atholl’s grandson Robert Stewart.
On that dark night in February, 580 years ago, Sir Robert Graham, with supporters of The Earl of Atholl, killed the king and left him to die in the dank sewers beneath Blackfriars Monastery.
The Earl of Atholl – the Traitor
The Earl of Atholl was a frustrated, cunning and calculating man. The youngest son of King Robert II, he could only watch as his elder brothers schemed for the throne and received gifts of great lands and titles. He supported James’ return to Scotland initially, but eventually turned against him. It is believed that he plotted with Sir Robert Graham and others to kill his own nephew.
He was captured and tried for murder, and executed after three days of gruesome torture.
So what was The Charterhouse?
Imagine a French medieval monastery, tucked away from view in the high Alps, shrouded behind a high wall.
This is La Grande Chartreuse, the mother-house of the Carthusians, a very austere order of monks who lived simple lives of seclusion and self-denial devoted to prayer, contemplation and worship. Some took more extreme steps, like fasting and even self-flagellation, to cleanse themselves of sin.
Powerful patrons were keen to be associated with the Carthusians. They felt that the monks had a hotline to God and could help to cancel out any sins.
James was no exception. He commissioned Perth’s Charterhouse, one of the finest and most impressive buildings in the British Isles at that time.
What did the Charterhouse look like?
Built with a similar layout to the Carthusian mother-house in France, Perth’s Charterhouse is likely to have included:
- a small house with its own latrine for each of the 13 monks;
- a small monastic church at the centre, for use by the monks and not the public;
- a high wall around the enclosure to separate those inside from the noise, smell, prying eyes and corrupting influence of the outside world;
- one gatehouse to monitor carefully who could enter;
- service buildings, guest houses, stables, bakehouses and brewhouses, all in an outer court to avoid noise and contamination entering the monastic area.
The closest-resembling building that survives in the UK is Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire.
It was great propaganda for the King to be associated with such an important religious building. He saw it as a powerful symbol of his monarchy, combining religion with politics.
Why was it built in Perth?
Perth in the 15th century was almost like Scotland’s “capital” as it was so important politically and economically:
- During James I’s short reign, between 13 and 18 parliaments took place in Perth.
- The Royal Exchequer was based in Perth.
- Perth had one of the busiest ports in Scotland, and was the trading gateway to Europe.
- Perth had been a Royal Burgh for 300 years.
- When James I wanted his daughter Margaret to marry the Dauphin Louis of France, some of the negotiations took place in Perth.
- Kings and queens were crowned at Scone Abbey.
- The political community gathered here regularly to advise their King.
- King James even tried to move the University of St Andrews to Perth!
What happened to the Charterhouse?
In May 1559, fiery preacher John Knox delivered a highly emotive sermon in St John’s Kirk against “idolatry” in Perth.
The baying mob at the Kirk destroyed the altars inside it, then made its way to Greyfriars, Blackfriars and the Charterhouse, attacking and ransacking the holy places.
One of the monks was killed, some fled and some remained. Ten years later, King James VI granted the Charterhouse and its gardens to Perth, and its use as a monastery stopped finally in 1602.
Perth’s Charterhouse Project
So what’s happening now? What will the Charterhouse project do and what will it mean for the city’s future?
Aims of the project
The Charterhouse Project has been set up to discover more about King James I and the Perth Charterhouse. The project team will bring Medieval Perth back to life for a 21st-century audience, with ground-breaking, innovative technologies.
The team aims to:
- find out about the Charterhouse, including where exactly it stood, and whether there are any fragments left on site;
- try to trace the exact burial place of James I of Scotland and his Queen;
- create a Virtual Reality Museum of the 21st Century, likely to be the first ever worldwide, that will recreate the Charterhouse, and the city of Perth, using the latest technology. We’ll be able to see, touch and interact with the building, its surroundings and its people as if we were standing in the 15th century.
The Charterhouse project team brings together some of our leading thinkers – academics, design experts and technological innovators, including:
History, Architecture and Environment
Professor Richard Oram , Dean of Arts and Humanities, The University of Stirling – firstname.lastname@example.org
Scottish History, Royalty, Ritual and Ceremony
Dr. Lucinda Dean, Centre for History, University of The Highlands and Islands – email@example.com
Media Television and Technology
Paul Wilson, The Glasgow School of Art – P.Wilson@gsa.ac.uk
What does this mean for Perth?
The project team believes that this project will spark global interest, and the benefits for Perth will be enormous:
- It will put Perth firmly back on the map as a centre of huge historical importance.
- It will stimulate local and national interest in art, archaeology, history, design and innovation.
- It will focus media attention on our city, as the team searches for James’ burial place and as the virtual museum becomes a reality.
- It will give our students a wealth of materials to study, and give them the competitive edge in the world of heritage interpretation and tourism.
- It will give us a chance to explore traditional skills and arts.
- It will provide life-transforming experiences for all age groups through community archaeology and heritage projects.
- It will give school children a taste of life and learning at university level.
- It will give a huge boost to Perth’s bid for City of Culture 2021.
It’s all about you – and the rest of the world
The final word comes from the project team:
“The most exciting part of the project is that it is one driven by the community for the community.
“Perth and Kinross will become the focus of global attention because we’re inviting its people, and the wider world, to reconnect with their heritage, situate Perth’s present in the past, uncover its hidden clues and solve the mystery of who we are and where we’ve come from.”
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