History repeats itself. This aphorism is especially true for the Scottish monarchy. There was a period during Scottish history where Kings would die, leaving a child as heir to be ruled by a regency council. This happened over and over and it happened to King James II.
James II was born on October 16, 1430, one of twins. The other twin died in infancy leaving James as heir. There may have been other problems with the birth because James had a vermilion birthmark on his face which led contemporaries to call him “Fiery Face”. This would also be looked upon as an outward sign of a fiery temper. His father was King James I of Scotland and his mother was Joan Beaufort, the grand-daughter of John of Gaunt and Kathryn Swynford. Little is known of James’ early life.
James father was murdered at Perth on February 21, 1437. His mother acted quickly, avenging her husband’s death and securing custody of her young son. They took refuge in Edinburgh where James was crowned King on March 25 at Holyrood Abbey. James lived with his mother and five of his six sisters at Dunbar until 1439. Joan was barred from any workings of the government when she married again in that year. The regency of the young king is murky and incomplete but a few powerful personalities emerged. One was Sir William Crichton and the other was Sir Alexander Livingston of Callendar who had possession of the boy king as governor of Stirling Castle. Livingston had the king’s mother and her new husband under house arrest in August of 1439. Livingston released the dowager queen only after she agreed to put the king into his sole custody.
Livingston and Crichton wrangled for power over the land and got involved in a rivalry between the king and the Douglas family. Archibald Douglas was a cousin of King James II who had married a great grand-daughter of the former King Robert II. Douglas’ sons William and David therefore had a claim to the throne when their father died in 1439. William in particular was a mischief-maker. Acting on the king’s behalf, Crichton invited the two young Douglas’ to visit Edinburgh in November 1440. They stayed for a fortnight. On one night, after a feast, the head of a black bull was placed on the table. Everyone knew this was a sign of death. William and David tried to escape but they were captured by armed men and subjected to a mock trial where the king begged for mercy. The boys were condemned to immediate execution. They were taken to the court of the castle and beheaded. This incident became known as “the Black Dinner”.
The Douglas’ and the Livingston’s continued their rivalry creating civil strife in the land. When James was fourteen, his minority was declared over. He didn’t have complete control of his government but this alarmed those who were in power. Crichton was dismissed as chancellor in 1445. Livingston took advantage placing his relatives in government. He also managed to arrange a brilliant marriage for James. In 1447, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy recommended his niece Mary of Guelders as a suitable bride and gave her a huge dowry. Negotiations began and were concluded in September 1448. The marriage was celebrated on July 3, 1449 at Holyrood. Many Flemings from Mary’s entourage remained in Scotland and the ties between the two countries became strong. James and Mary were to have six children, four boys and two girls. The succession was secured and James could begin the process of his own emancipation.
Almost immediately he had all Livingston officials in the government arrested and imprisoned. About this same time, William Douglas, the new earl, was exercising his power in the realm and aligned himself with John MacDonald, 11th Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles. This alliance was threatening the King’s position and Douglas was openly defiant to the King. On February 22, 1452, James invited William Douglas to dine at Stirling Castle and asked him to break his alliance with Ross. William refused and rebuked the king for ruling weakly. James became enraged and stabbed Douglas in the neck and then the lower part of the body. Other court officials in attendance joined in the bloodbath with one of them hitting Douglas in the head with an axe.
The murder did nothing to stop the civil strife with the Douglas’ which lasted from 1452 to 1455. The Douglas’ made an alliance with King Henry VI of England, driving James into taking sides in the War of the Roses. He played one noble house against the other without winning any decisive battles. Eventually, by giving away Douglas lands, titles and offices the tide began to turn in his favor. James finally crushed the Douglas’ in May of 1455 at the Battle of Arkinholm. The Parliament of Scotland permanently annexed all the Douglas lands, finances and castles to the crown. James was now in complete control of his kingdom.
From 1455 to 1460, James was a power to be reckoned with and highly respected. He revoked many agreements that had been made during his minority and removed hereditary entitlements. He took castles and land outright from many nobles and made them crown property. He had consolidated his power and wealth, raising himself above the nobility. He could concentrate on becoming the ideal Renaissance prince. He updated many laws and introduced new ones. He regulated dress and improved education. Glasgow University was established in 1451 at James suggestion. He was popular with commoners whom he socialized with often. He was a singularly successful king.
During the fighting with the Douglas’, James had enthusiastically adopted the use of the latest artillery technology, the cannon. He had imported large quantities of cannon from Flanders through his wife’s connections. Existing fortresses at the time could not withstand the bombardment. James had begun a siege of Roxburgh Castle which had been in the hands of the English for generations. On August 3, 1460, James was standing near a cannon, either to show it off or to fire it in honor of a visit from his wife. Upon firing of the bombard, one of the wedges used to tighten the iron bands round the barrel broke loose, flying through the air and striking the King, killing him. He was buried, age 29, at Holyrood Abbey. His nine year old son succeeded him as James III.
Further reading: “The Royal Stuarts” by Allan Massie, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley