Thursday, June 7, 2007

Katy Bar the Door

"When Conspirators Seek to Murder James I of Scotland"
by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

"Katy bar the door" is an expression used mainly in the Southern U.S. to mean "better take care, trouble is coming." It's origin is not totally certain, but a very likely, although be it romantic, source is the story of Catherine Douglas, who tried to save King James I of Scotland in 1437.

He was attacked by discontented subjects in Perth in 1437. The room he was in had a door with a missing locking bar. The story goes that Catherine Douglas tries to save him by barring the door with her arm. Her her arm was broken and the mob murdered the King. The 'lass that barred the door' - Catherine Douglas, was henceforth known as Catherine Barlass. The story, although in it is the full Sir Walter Scott romantic history style, is quite well documented from contemporary records and the descendants of Catherine Douglas still use the Barlass name. Source

James ascended the throne at the age of 30 almost a foreigner in his own country, having spent the previous eighteen years of his life as a prisoner of the English. Not that he was clapped in a dungeon: for prisoners of his rank captivity meant living more like a permanent house-guest, accompanying the life of the English royal court in sport and banquet.

Educated for the most part in England, and having spent his formative years at the English court, young James absorbed some distinct ideas about the nature of kingship. Centralized government and royal absolutism may have seemed to James to be progressive ideas that were lifting Europe out of the chaos of the Middle Ages, but to the lairds [Scottish for "lord"] back home these newfangled notions were dangerous, un-Celtic, and very un-Scottish.

At last crowned king of Scotland, James wasted little time in setting his hard-line government into effect, not hesitating to have obstructive nobles indicted for treason. Although there was much concern about James’ power-grabbing, over the first ten years of his rule he won a grudging respect for his energy and administrative competence. But as he sought to gather still more power unto himself, it was only a matter of time before opposition to him would coalesce. James’ own palace chamberlain, Sir Robert Stewart, would become the “inside man” for an assassination plot carried out by a group of dissident nobles.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti commemorated the event in his poem, The King’s Tragedy (1881):

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.

Read the whole poem (all 173 stanzas) here.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, 1872-1945, was highly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. Read more about her and see more of her work at Art Magick and at Pre-Raphaelite Women,The Art-Sisters Gallery (and enjoy the other Art-Sisters there, too).


  1. Very interesting. I had heard the expression before but never knew what it meant.

  2. Very interesting. My kids and I are studying Scotland as we read the Martha Books. I'll have to share a bit of this with them.

    BTW, you have been tagged for the "8-things about me meme!"

  3. This was very interesting. I'm from the South and, like many Southernors, am of mostly Scots-Irish descent. I do know we get a lot of our expressions from Scotland and Ireland. But, I had never heard this history behind this one before.

  4. I cannot believe I've never heard/read this legend before. I was a literature major! And I have a daughter named Katie! I am really enjoying your blog.


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