After all the turmoil of James III’s time in power as King of Scotland, his son’s reign seems positively peaceful. James IV ushered the Renaissance into Scotland in many ways. He cemented an alliance with England, patronized the arts, and built wonderful palaces and a strong navy. The only shortcoming James had was as a leader in battle as we shall see.
James was born on March 17, 1473, probably at Stirling Castle. His father was King James III and his mother was Margaret of Denmark. Prince James was to spend most of his youth under the care of his mother at Stirling and received a very extraordinary education with tutors, learning foreign languages, music and everything else a Renaissance prince should learn. He played clavichord and lute. He could speak Latin, French, Gaelic, Danish and possibly other languages. In 1474, James’ father arranged for his betrothal to Princess Cecily, daughter of King Edward IV of England.
By 1486, Prince James’ mother had died and the unstable reign of James’ father was unraveling. For unknown reasons, James III began to disregard his elder son and began favoring his younger son, James Stewart. In January of 1488, James III attempted to gain supporters among the Scottish Lairds by naming James Stewart the Duke of Ross and elevating four other Lairds to full Lords of Parliament. Whether he became disenchanted with his father because of this, or he became a captive of the Lairds, Prince James served as the figurehead of a rebellion against his father. The opposition came to a head when Prince James and the Lairds met King James III and his forces at the Battle of Sauchieburn on June 11, 1488. Either in the course of the battle or afterwards, King James III was killed and Prince James became King at the age of sixteen. He was crowned at Scone on June 24th.
Although James was not personally responsible, he did feel remorse for his father’s death. He would wear an iron chain around his waist for the rest of his life and would travel on pilgrimage to St. Ninian’s Shrine at Whithorn Cathedral Priory, Dumfries, Galloway and other holy places to do penance. James’ minority government would last from 1488-1495. James learned from his father not to ignore his nobles and to gain their respect and cooperation. There were some initial rebellions, but these were dealt with and after some maneuvering, James’ government seemed to enjoy popular support. With this support, his government avoided alienating anyone. While he was old at twenty-two to take on the reins of his government, he had spent the intervening years furthering his already impressive education and gaining valuable lessons in how a royal government worked. He began to achieve his objectives.
James managed to increase government income. He struggled to bring the Highlands and the Islands under crown control but made some progress. James’ father had been criticized for not travelling in his realm and for being inaccessible. James IV travelled constantly. He worked at quelling rebellions, administering justice, settling feuds, collecting revenues and being seen by his people. He made sure his government reached distant parts of his realm. His government was praised. One chronicler said theft, rape, murder and robbery ceased because he administered and executed the penal laws all through Scotland.
James embodied the appearance of a medieval kingship by embracing traditional noble sporting pursuits like hunting, hawking and staging of tournaments. James himself would appear and fight in these tournaments. James was highly conscious of projecting a royal image and emulated the styles and fashions of the European Renaissance. James was a patron of the arts including painting, literature, poetry, printing, carving, textiles, scientific discovery and music. He established trading and diplomatic links with the Low Countries. He pursued substantial building work on his palaces of Linlithgow, Stirling, Falkland, Edinburgh and Holyrood, drawing on Italian and French models. He founded the University of Aberdeen in 1494. By statute in 1496, James required all barons and gentlemen to send their sons to school from the age of eight until they could speak Latin.
James himself was personally adept at carpentry, barbering and dentistry. He loved medicine and granted the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh a Royal Charter in 1506. He also welcomed the establishment of the first printing press in Scotland in 1507.
From 1502, James’ paramount military investment was in a royal navy. This navy gave Scotland prestige, granted protection for Scottish merchant interests and allowed a response to English naval attacks. He established royal dockyards at Newhaven and Airth and imported timber from Norway and expended large sums of money on artillery and fittings.
James had vowed he would go on Crusade to the Holy Land where the heart of King James I was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. His devotion to the cause gave him prestige in Rome. The pope sent him a purple cap encircled with gold leaves and a jeweled sword of state. On April 4, 1507, a special envoy from the pope presented these items to James naming him ‘Protector of the Christian Religion’. These items remain today and form the Honors of Scotland or the Scottish Crown Jewels.
James was a notorious womanizer. He had numerous recognized mistresses and many nameless ones. He had eight acknowledged illegitimate children, two who died in infancy and may have had more. His favorite mistress was Margaret Drummond from 1496 until her death in 1501. Many of his nobles thought he would never marry and sire a legitimate heir.
From 1495-1497, James was instrumental in supporting Perkin Warbeck, a Pretender to the English throne. Diplomatically his government, for the most part, had maintained the Auld Alliance with France. But once Perkin Warbeck was out of the way, James was ready to pursue an alliance with England. He needed a wife and he needed the cash her dowry would bring. As early as 1495, a marriage with King Henry VII of England’s daughter Margaret Tudor was discussed. The Treaty of Perpetual Peace was negotiated and completed on January 25, 1502. A proxy marriage was performed in England in January of 1503. Margaret’s dowry was £30,000.
Margaret would travel to Scotland that summer. James had built a wonderful new palace at Holyrood in anticipation of his marriage to his new queen. James and Margaret were married in person there on August 8, 1503. James took Margaret to Stirling Castle shortly after the marriage. This was one of Margaret’s dower castles and she soon discovered it was used as a royal nursery for all of the King’s illegitimate children. Margaret was not happy. She got her way and the children were dispersed to the care of others. James was attentive and generous in the early years of the marriage although he didn’t give up his mistresses.
Margaret did not bear any children until 1507. She was to have a total of six children with James but only the third son, also named James, survived childhood. While the marriage of James and Margaret Tudor was successful and produced an heir, the alliance with England was to be James’ downfall.
In 1513, Margaret’s brother, King Henry VIII of England decided he wanted to restore England’s right to the Angevin (Anjou) lands in France and prepared to go to war. Because James was allied with France and England, he was forced to choose which treaty to honor. He was bound by the Auld Alliance to attack England if England attacked France. Henry tried to extract a promise from James that he would not attack while he was away. Henry even recruited Margaret to try to persuade her husband to honor the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England. James refused and backed the French.
Plans were made to attack. James and his troops crossed the border into England and met Henry’s northern army under the command of the Earl of Surrey at Flodden Field on September 9. James started to fight before issuing thorough orders, personally leading one of his columns of pike men. The Scots engaged the English and were thoroughly routed. James died in the heat of the battle along with many Scottish noblemen. It’s estimated between 5,000 and 17,000 Scots lost their life. Only 1,500 English lives were lost.
James’ body was taken to Berwick, embalmed and put in a lead coffin. The coffin was taken to London and placed in the monastery of Sheen near Richmond. King Henry was to decide where to bury the Scottish king but orders were never issued. The body remained in a storeroom and during the Dissolution of the Monasteries twenty years later, it disappeared.
Further reading: “The Sisters of Henry VIII” by Maria Perry, “The Kings and Queens of Scotland” edited by Richard Oram, “The Royal Stuarts” by Allan Massie, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley