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Issue 31 - The life of King James IV

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Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


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The life of King James IV

This issue, James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of James IV, the man responsible for the creation of the Kingdom of Scotland

When one considers Scottish institutions, the Conservative Party does not immediately spring to mind.

Today it fields but a single minister of parliament from a Scots constituency in the House of Commons, although as recently as 1955 it, uniquely, managed to obtain more than half the Scottish votes at a General Election, and 36 of the 71 seats.

In December 2006, the United Kingdom Conservative Party published a list of a dozen people ‘who played a lead role in creating the institutions that have shaped our country’s history.’ Saint Columba, arguably an Irishman, is one. He is credited with ‘Christianity in Britain’ although some might say that his was a Celtic and Highland mission that lost out to the Roman Catholicism introduced by St Augustine in the south. Otherwise, there is only one Scot mentioned – King James IV – and he was apparently responsible for the Kingdom of Scotland, although he was one of 43 monarchs from Kenneth McAlpine who united Pict and Scot to James VI, who inherited the throne of England in 1603.

A priest killed James III in 1488 after he fell from his horse fleeing from the Battle of Sauchieburn, even before its outcome was decided. The conflict was between two factions of the nobility, the King lost; his 15 year-old son had been forcibly recruited by the other side to give them legitimacy and he became James IV. For the rest of his life he wore an iron chain round his waist during Lent to expiate his guilt over the death of his father.

The new King bided his time, letting the rivalry that culminated in his father’s death work its way out. He took over government in 1495 when he was 22. James IV was a highly intelligent man, energetic, charismatic and generous, a skilled administrator with a taste for high living.

It is a matter of luck when such qualities emerge from the limited gene pool that produces hereditary monarchs, and his contemporaries were fully appreciative.

Erasmus, the Dutch humanist and theologan commented: ‘’He had wonderful powers of mind, an astonishing knowledge of everything, an unconquerable magnanimity and the most abundant generosity.” The Spanish ambassador Pedro de Ayala was equally impressed: “The King of Scotland is of middle height; his features are handsome; he never cuts his hair or beard, and it becomes him well. He expressed himself gracefully in Latin, French, German, Flemish, Italian and Spanish. His pronunciation of Spanish was clearer than that of other foreigners. In addition to his own, he speaks the language of the savages (or Celts) who live among the distant mountains and islands.” Unlike his father, James IV was a committed traveller who regularly journeyed to the extremities of his realm, improving the dispensation of justice and settling feuds. He liked to roam his country incognito, meeting and living with the ordinary people, seeking their opinions on their King and his government – bedding any attractive women he encountered.

His recorded bastards number half a dozen, comparatively modest for a Stewart king. He set a record by riding from Perth to Tain in Easter Ross in two days. He built a substantial navy including the ‘Great Michael,’ the largest warship of the day, and led several expeditions to the Western Isles, although he left the nasty business of the final suppression of the Lordship of the Isles to subordinates.

He succeeded in trebling his income by exploiting his feudal revenues and the clergy without raising taxes and this kept the barons quiescent. He was generous to the magnates that supported him and introduced compulsory education for all landholders, which was aimed at civilising some of the ruder clan leaders on the edge of the kingdom.

Above all James IV was an intellectual.

Almost single-handedly he brought about a cultural renaissance in his Realm that fired the admiration of Europe. His architectural legacy can be seen at Edinburgh Castle, Linlithgow Palace and Holyrood, and at his main residence in Stirling Castle.

He fancied himself as an expert on medicine and founded the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, predating by two centuries the similar institution in England.

He practiced dentistry and even charged his patients for the privilege. He is the first recorded player of golf.

However, James IV’s weakness was impulsiveness, a dangerous failing in diplomacy. Henry VII was the formidable English monarch, a hard-headed realist intent on promoting his dynasty and his Kingdom. James fell for the charms of an impostor, Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the rightful English king. This man came to Scotland in 1496 where he was welcomed, feted and supported in a half-hearted invasion of England. Henry stayed his hand, seeing no advantage in war with Scotland.

In 1503, James IV was aged 30 and unmarried, although with a long-term mistress in Margaret Drummond whom he was said to have wed in secret. King Henry had a daughter, another Margaret, and a marriage between her and James would cement a bond between the countries. So someone with a cold, clear view of the national interest is said to have poisoned the Scottish king’s illicit consort, killing her two sisters at the same time, and this cleared the way for James to marry the English princess as well as spawning a conspiracy theory that echoes down the centuries.

Henry VIII succeeded to the English throne in 1509, and relationships between the two countries deteriorated.

Nonetheless, war could have been avoided.

The English attacked a couple of Scots ships; Queen Margaret’s dowry of 30,000 gold pieces was not paid in full. Then, in 1513, Henry invaded France, and Louis XII invoked the Auld Alliance with Scotland.

James gathered a formidable army and invaded England to support the French.

The result was the Battle of Flodden, fought on the English side of the border on September 9. James was killed along with ‘12 earls, 13 lords, five eldest sons of peers, about 50 gentlemen of rank and family, several dignitaries of the church, and about 10,000 common men. Amongst the churchmen who fell, were the King’s natural son, the Archbishop of St. Andrews, Hepburn, Bishop of the Isles, and the abbots of Kilwinning and Inchaffray.’ It was Scotland’s most disastrous defeat and brought an infant, James V, to the throne.

So why would James IV be considered so important in the creation of Scotland?

Perhaps because we know more about him than his predecessors, since records were so improved. Perhaps because he seems such a modern, attractive figure, and the sort of man that would be a successful and popular ruler at any stage of history.

But in the end, it may simply come down to his breeding abilities. Through Queen Margaret, his great grandson James VI became heir to the throne of England. And in the eyes of an Englishman that could make him the greatest Scot of all time.