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Issue 43 - James II

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Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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James II

James Irvine Robertson looks at the life of James II and his struggle to keep his crown.

The struggle between the monarchy and its over mighty subjects is a recurring and wearisome theme of medieval Scottish history.

One reason for this was that the ruling Scottish dynasty had once been mere subjects themselves. King Robert II of Scotland obtained the throne through his father’s marriage to Robert the Bruce’s daughter and other aristocratic families considered him and his successors first among equals and not necessarily anointed from on high.

Another cause of the Stewarts’ problems was their remarkable fecundity. Other Royal dynasties would frequently struggle to produce heirs. The Stewart kings scattered the landscape with their progeny, legitimate and illegitimate.

There were always plenty of the King’s kinsmen who thought of themselves as just about as Royal as the current occupant of the throne and would make a much better job of ruling Scotland, particularly since the incumbent monarch was so often a minor.

And even if these relatives did not harbour such ambitions, plenty of people thought they must do. Such a conflict dominated the reign of James II.

James was the fourth of his dynasty. His father was assassinated in 1437 when James was seven. Unusually, he had six sisters and no brothers. His mother, Queen Joan, chased down and executed the assassins and the Regency of Scotland was run by his uncle Archibald, Earl of Douglas. He was the mightiest of subjects and controlled vast territories in the south of Scotland.

Douglas died in 1439 and a struggle for power ensued between Sir Alexander Livingston and Sir William Crichton and their families. These men had been promoted from modest backgrounds to be councillors to James I. They took it in turns to kidnap the young King and to hold him as the ultimate source of power. In 1440 they came together to execute the 16 year-old Earl of Douglas and his brother after a mock trial in front of the 10 year-old James, and this moved the earldom into a line more favourable and subservient to the interest of the Livingstons.

They gradually became dominant, protected by Douglas power.

After that the Crichtons were squeezed out of the country’s administration but Sir William managed to have himself appointed Chancellor to arrange the young King’s betrothal to Mary of Gueldres, niece of the powerful Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, with whom the country had important trading links. From the time of his wedding in 1449, however, James seems to have seized control.

Among his first actions was the arrest of at least four Livingstons. Two met the headsman’s axe for corruption, and the newly-ennobled Lord Crichton was established as James’s Chancellor until his death in 1453.

William, the 8th Earl of Douglas, who had inherited the title in 1443 aged 18, managed to float serenely above the fray. He went to Rome in 1450 to join the celebrations of the papal jubilee called by Pope Nicholas V and this gave his enemies the chance to whisper poison into the Monarch’s ear. Could such an obviously influential and powerful subject co-exist comfortably with a King?

James II of Scotland was a man of action.

Hunting and fighting were his great interests.

People said that the red birthmark on his face was an outer indication of his fiery temper and temperament. In the Earl’s absence, he launched attacks on Douglas castles in the south and west. The Earl came home and, having submitted to the authority of the King, retained possession of all his lands.

But he had signed a bond of manrent with the Earl of Crawford and the Lord of the Isles.

If one was attacked, the others would come to his aid, and the implication was that this was mutual protection against the King James. Together their power eclipsed that of their Monarch.

Ameeting was arranged between the Earl and the King at Stirling Castle in February 1452. Knowing the suspicion with which he was regarded by the impetuous sovereign and his court, Douglas extracted a letter of safe-conduct for himself and his followers.

They met and enjoyed a cordial dinner.

Afterwards James pressed Douglas to abandon the bond. Douglas refused and the King lost his temper. He drew a knife and stabbed his guest. His courtiers rushed to join in – one is said to have hacked out the Earl’s brain with an axe – and 26 wounds were counted on his body.

This act at the hand of the King shocked the nation, but the need for the stability of the state allowed James to escape serious consequences. The Douglases and their allies were horrified and outraged, and dragged the letter of safe-conduct through the streets of Stirling attached to the tail of a horse and sacked the town, but James moved his forces against them and, crucially, was acquitted of evil intent in the Scottish Parliament of June 1452 at which the Douglas faction repudiated him as their feudal superior, although not as their monarch.

Peace seemed to have been restored between the King and the Douglas faction in January 1453, but it was not long before the latter began to strengthen their castles and raid the lands of Royal supporters.

James moved against them in 1455, besieging Douglas castles once more and ravaging their estates. The 9th Earl fled to England before the final Royal victory in Dumfriesshire on May 1. It was proof that no magnate, however powerful, could prevail against the King’s authority. And the Scottish Parliament was pleased that ‘na maisterfull party remanende that may cause ony brekinge in his Realme’ for the rest of his reign, at least.

However, that was not long. James was happiest on the back of his horse, touring his realm, dispensing justice, hunting deer in the Highlands and seducing damsels whose sons would be given estates and go on to found dynasties of their own. England was embroiled in the Wars of the Roses, the struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York for the throne, and James sought to exploit this weakness with an alliance with France and attacks against the old enemy.

Roxburgh Castle in the Scottish borders had been in English hands for more than a century when James moved to besiege it in 1460. Given his fascination with weaponry, he was supervising the loading and firing of a new-fangled cannon on the banks of the River Tweed when it exploded. ‘His thigh-bone was dung in two with a piece of misframed gun that brake in shooting, by the which he was stricken to the ground and died hastily.’ He was not yet 30. His heir was aged nine; a Regency was formed and the struggle of the Crown against overmighty barons of Scotland began all over again.