James III, King of Scotland

King James III of Scotland
King James III of Scotland

The third King James Stuart of Scotland appears to be a complete enigma through the annals of history. A man of artistic temperament with an elevated sense of self importance, he does not appear to have had any idea how to handle the Scottish nobility. He had more enemies than friends, was unwilling to administer justice in a fair manner, pursued an alliance with England and was on bad terms with his own extended family.

There is some confusion as to the exact date of birth of James. He was born either in July of 1451 at Stirling Castle or in May of 1452 at St. Andrews in Fife. He was the son of King James II and his wife, Mary of Guelders. More than likely he received the conventional education of a royal son. He may have inherited his love of music from his mother. His father was besieging the castle of Roxburgh when a cannon exploded and killed him on August 3, 1460. James was either eight or nine years old when he became King under the regency of his mother. She quickly had her son crowned at Kelso Abbey, close to the castle at Roxburgh on August 10th. Mary of Guelders proved to be a capable and adept regent until her early death on December 1, 1463.

The next regent was James Kennedy, Bishop of St. Andrews. He took James on progress through the kingdom in the summer of 1464 and again in the winter. This may be why James lost his appetite for travel later in life. Kennedy died in May of 1465, leaving a void in the government. The Boyd family stepped into this void. Sir Alexander Boyd was instructor of arms to the young king. Sir Alexander and his brother Robert, Lord Boyd seized control of the king’s person on July 9, 1466 while he was out hunting near Linlithgow. They took the King to Edinburgh where he was a prisoner in all but name. James was later forced to pardon his captors for this act of treason. This may have been the beginning of James’ mistrust of the Scottish Lairds.

Robert Boyd managed to discard his brother Alexander to rule in his own name. He began a program of aggrandizement for himself and for his son Thomas. Thomas was given the title of Earl of Arran and married to the King’s sister Mary. They slowly drained revenues for profit and enjoyed using their authority, quickly making them unpopular, especially with the King.

Thomas Boyd was instrumental in negotiating the marriage of the King to Margaret of Denmark, the daughter of Christian I of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Scotland owed Norway annual rent for the Hebrides and the Scottish government was in arrears and in danger of losing the Islands. The Treaty of Copenhagen, signed in 1468, provided for writing off this debt and pledged Orkney and the Shetlands as collateral for Margaret’s dowry. James and Margaret were married in July 1469 when she was thirteen and James was seventeen. They had three children: the future James IV of Scotland in 1473, James Stewart, Duke of Ross 1476 and John Stewart, Earl of Mar in 1479.

King James III of Scotland and his Queen Consort Margaret of Denmark
King James III of Scotland and his Queen Consort Margaret of Denmark

The King was determined to bring down the Boyd regency after his marriage. He took full control of his government while Robert and Thomas Boyd were out of the country. Robert Boyd sought refuge in England where he died within a year. Thomas never returned to Scotland and died in 1473. Thomas’ marriage to the King’s sister was declared void. The kingdom enjoyed a notable period of peace and prosperity at the beginning of James’ reign, especially with England. James supported learning, especially poetry, music, astronomy, architecture, painting and engineering. He tended to place more trust in middle class artisans such as musicians and stonemasons (called his “familiars” in the chronicles) than the nobility who had not been supportive. This would cause resentment among the Lairds.

James’ government was striving for territorial expansion and an alliance with England. In 1470, James permanently annexed Orkney and the Shetlands to the crown. Scotland now found itself in ownership of the Northern Isles which had been a part of Norway for nearly 600 years. Along with ownership of the Hebrides, Scotland was now at its full extent. James did not show much interest in the more mundane business of government and justice at home and started to suggest invasions or annexations of Brittany, Saintonge and Guelders. Nothing came of these schemes but this was beginning to create criticism with his parliament.

In 1474, James and King Edward IV of England agreed to peace and a marriage alliance between the King’s eldest son James and Edward’s daughter Cecily of York. This ran against the tradition of enmity between Scotland and England and was not in the interests of the border Lairds. The alliance also called for raising taxes making the King even more unpopular by 1479. In 1480, James debased the currency by issuing copper coinage, another highly detested policy. James was determined to bring the church under more complete royal authority, limiting papal meddling in taxation and provisions. He managed to get St. Andrews elevated to an archbishopric with metropolitan authority over the twelve other Scottish bishops.

In addition to all the resentments and criticisms that were beginning to accumulate, there was discord between James and his brothers, Alexander, Duke of Albany and John, Earl of Mar. Mar died under suspicious circumstances in Edinburgh in 1480. Albany escaped to France in 1479 after being accused of treason and breaking the alliance with England.

By 1479, the alliance with England collapsed and there was sporadic war from 1480-1482. In 1482, Edward IV sent his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, (the future King Richard III), and the Duke of Albany to Scotland with a full scale invasion force. James’ half-brothers, sister and wife joined in the rebellion against him. In James attempt to lead his troops against the invasion of the English, he was arrested by a group of disgruntled Lairds at Lauder Bridge in July. James was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle and the new regime was led by “Lieutenant-General” Albany. The English army could not take Edinburgh, ran out of cash and returned to England after taking Berwick-upon-Tweed for the last time.

Engraving of King James III of Scotland from the 18th C.
Engraving of King James III of Scotland from the 18th C.

James was able to buy off members of Albany’s government, causing its failure and forcing Albany to flee to Dunbar in January 1483. The death of Albany’s supporter Edward IV of England left him even weaker and he escaped to England. He made one and possibly two failed attempts to return to power and ended up being killed while watching a tournament in Paris in 1485.

Even with his narrow escape and attempts by others to place his son on the throne, James did not change his behavior or policies. Instead of rebuilding relations, he pursued his opponents in revenge, even passing the Treasons Act in 1484. He was sadly affected by the death of his wife in July 1486. He persisted in pursuing an alliance with England, including the marriage of his eldest son. He continued to give preferential treatment to his “familiars” over the more powerful Lairds, refused to travel to administer justice in the kingdom and tended to hunker down in Edinburgh or other royal residences. He disregarded his elder son, instead favoring his second son. In January 1488, he attempted to gain supporters by making his second son Duke of Ross and elevating four Lairds to full Lords of Parliament. But the Lairds who were in opposition were more powerful. James’ elder son was delivered into the hands of the rebels in February 1488 and became the figurehead of the opposition possibly as a rebellion against his father favoring his younger brother.

Eventually, the difficulties came to a head. The King fled to the north and raised an army of supporters. The King’s troops faced the opposition made up of his eldest son, dissatisfied Lairds and former councilors near Stirling at the Battle of Sauchieburn on June 11, 1488. In the heat of the battle, the King was thrown from his horse. There are several stories of how the King was killed. The colorful version has him fleeing the battlefield after falling and being helped by a woman who had gone to a well to draw water. He revealed his identity to the woman who took him to a mill to rest and went in search of a priest. A local opportunist disguised himself as a priest, went to the King at the mill and killed him. Another version has the King killed by the fall from his horse or slain right then and there on the battlefield by enemy soldiers. The chronicles are so varied, the truth of who killed him and how will never really be known. James was buried at Cambuskenneth Abbey.

Tomb of King James III and Queen Margaret at the ruins of Cambuskenneth Abbey
Tomb of King James III and Queen Margaret at the ruins of Cambuskenneth Abbey

James may have miscalculated the power of the nobles or may not have known how to deal with them politically. He seemed to lack the forcefulness needed for a man in his position. Perhaps if he had been less inflexible and more conciliatory, he may have been a better King.

Further reading: “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “The Kings and Queens of Scotland” edited by Richard Oram, “The Royal Stuarts” by Allan Massie

22 thoughts on “James III, King of Scotland

  1. As usual, Susan. you bring another section of Medieval history to life. My knowledge of Scottish history is sadly lacking. Thanks for filling a gap.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Susan…I’ve found Scottish history to be somewhat confusing and have not ventured further than The Bruce and the Declaration of Arbroath. You’ve filled a major gap in my education and many thanks for this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You made this concise and easy to understand. Difficult to do when telling complicated stories about complicated people. I would enjoy reading further stories and insights from you. I am distantly related to the Douglas family on my grandfather’s side and my grandmother’s maiden name was Cunningham, directly descended from the Earl’s of Glencarin. To me it’s all fascinating.


  3. Wonderful article Susan. I never knew this story and can only imagine the chaos and changing interpretation of the events leading to King James I’s demise. Thank you for another wonderful article.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article : we have been to the first half of Rona Munro’s James III at the NT and rather disappointed by the domestic focus and lack of tension : but only after being blown away by her James II which was stunning.

    Your article has set out the wider history hinted at but not explored in tonight’s play. Thank you.


  5. The death of James II by the exploding cannon (“Mons Martha”) is a pivotal element of Dorothy Dunnett’s novel “Niccolo Rising”. Her House of Niccolo Series keeps returning to the court and life of James III at various intervals and in the final book, the events at Lauder Bridge play an important role. The series also puts Scotland into the European context at the time – the relationships in particualr with the Low Countries and France.


    • These novels of Dorothy Dunnett sound very intriguing. I have only just recently heard of her work. Nothing like a good historical fiction book. The reigns of the Scottish Kings make for some great material!


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