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1437: Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl

March 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1437, the Earl of Atholl finally reached the end of a three-day carnival of public tortures and lost bowels, heart, and head for assassinating the King of Scotland.

When Atholl’s grandson Robert exploited the family’s familiar proximity to the king to admit a team of assassins on the night of Feb. 20-21 1437, it ended a strange run for James I.* James had been melodramatically kidnapped by pirates at age 12 and sold to the English — who held the Scottish king** for ransom for 18 years.

By the time James returned to native soil in 1424, he had had quite enough of being some other lord’s shuttlecock and irritated Scotch magnates — who had formerly enjoyed the run of the place and therefore dragged their feet when it came to repatriating their hostage king — by his overweening grabs at land, money, and power. One prime example that would come back to haunt him in the events of this post was the 1425 destruction of the Albany Stewarts, which netted the crown the forfeiture of three earldoms. Clients of the Albany Stewarts, like Sir Robert Graham, delivered a fair fraction of the 28 stab wounds that shuffled King James off this mortal coil.

But even James’s allies had to look sharp when it came to any demesnes not nailed down.

Our principal for today’s post, Walter Stewart by name, was one of these. James’s uncle and supporter, and the son of King Robert II, Stewart/Atholl had pushed for the magnates to ransom James.

Putatively seen as the king’s ally, Atholl’s complicity in regicide made him a byword for treachery to outraged Scottish chroniclers; the apparent grab for the throne led his captors to put a “corone of papir … upon his hed, the which was all abowte depaynetid with jubettes, and for the more dispite and shame to hym was writyne with thes wordes, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR,” according to The Dethe and False Murdure of James Stewarde, Kyng of Scotys.

In a 1992 article on events† historian Michael Brown noted that what Atholl had added to his holdings through his nephew the king was the earldom of Strathearn, and it was but tentatively held: granted for Walter Stewart’s lifetime only, it would revert to the king with the septaugenarian’s death, leaving his heirs no better off than Walter’s own efforts had made them circa 30 years before.

Brown depicts the aging lord as a savvy operator who “would increasingly have despaired of keeping the earldom of Strathearn in his family … [as] a consequence of James’s general opportunism when it came to increasing the revenues of the crown.” A couple of specific adverse interventions that trimmed Atholl’s estates might have presaged — in the earl’s mind, at least — a potential royal move against his position, a move that Atholl would be best advised to check preemptively or never at all. Who could say in February of 1437 whether the Stewarts would by March or April still be royal confidantes in any position to have “left the Kynges chamburs doore opyne; and … brussed and blundird the lokes of hem, yn such wise that no man myght shute hem”?

If we’re not sure of exactly why they did it, we do know very clearly that the plot failed as a coup attempt. Both the queen and the six-year-old heir James II survived that evil night, and James’s violent deposition met not support, but horror. Within weeks the conspirators were hunted to ground. Atholl, for his part, protested his innocence of the regicide all the way to the end, a protest that neither contemporaries nor historians have much credited.

And his death declar’d that there is nothing more popular than justice, for they who were wont to detract from him whilst he was alive, now he as dead had most flagrant desires after him, insomuch that the Nobles, as soon as they heard he was murder’d, came in of their own accord from their respective countries and before a tryal was appointed they voluntarily sent out into all parts to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice.

Very many of them were taken. The principal of them was put to new and exquisite kinds of death. The rest were hang’d. The chief heads in perpetrating the wickedness were reckon’d to be Walter Earl of Athole, Robert his nephew by his son, and their kinsman Robert Graham.

The punishment of Walter (because he was the chief author and instigator of the whole plot) was divided into three days suffering. In the 1st he was put on a cart wherein a stork-like swipe [crane] or engine was erected, and by ropes let through pullies was hoisted up on high and then, the ropes being suddainly loos’d, he was let down again almost to the ground with grievous pains by reason of the luxation [stretching] of the joints of his body. Then he was set on a pillory that all might see him, and a red-hot iron crown set on his head with this inscription, that he should be called King of all Traitors. They say the cause of this punishment was that Walter had been sometimes told by some female witches (as Athole was always noted to have such) that he should be crown’d king in a mighty concourse of people. For by this means that prophecy was either fulfill’d or eluded, as indeed such kind of predictions do commonly meet with no other events. The day after, he was bound upon a hurdle and drawn at an horse-tail thro’ the greatest street in Edinburgh. The 3rd day he was laid along upon a plank in a conspicuous place and his bowels were cut out whilst he was alive, cast into the fire, and burnt before his face. Afterwards his heart was pulled out and cast into the same fire. Then his head was cut off and expos’d to the view of all, being set upon a poll in the highest place of the city. His body was divided into four quarters and sent to be hang’d up in the most noted places of the best cities of the kingdom.

After him, his nephew was brought forth to suffer, but because of his age they would not put him to so much pain; and besides, he was not the author, but only an accomplice in another man’s wicked design, as having obey’d his grandfather therein, so that he was only hang’d and quarter’d.

But Robert Graham, who did the deed with his own hand, was carried in a cart thro’ the city, and his right hand was nail’d to a gallows which was set up in the cart, and then came executioners which did continually run red-hot iron spikes into his thighs, shoulders, and those parts of his body which were most remote from the vitals, and then he was quarter’d, as the former. After this manner was the death of James vindicated.

‘Tis true, ’twas a cruel one, but ’twas reveng’d by punishments so cruel that they seem’d to exceed the very bounds of humanity. For such extreme kinds of punishment do not so much restrain the minds of the vulgar by the severity as they do make them wild to do or suffer any thing; neither do they so much deter wicked men from committing offences by their acerbity as they lessen their terror by often beholding them, especially if the spirits of the criminals be so hardened that they flinch not at their punishment. For among the unskilful vulgar a stubborn confidence is sometimes prais’d for a firm and stable constancy.

-Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582)

* James’s successors handed down the throne, father James to son James, right down into the Stuart dynasty that came to rule England as well. This makes our James I an ancestor of such scaffold worthies as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.

** James was kidnapped in March 1406. His father Robert III died in April of the same year.

† “‘That Old Serpent and Ancient of Evil Days': Walter, Earl of Atholl and the Death of James I,” The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 191/192, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. – Oct., 1992).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Torture,Treason

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