James IV of Scotland

James IV
James IV of Scotland.jpg
King of Scotland
Reign 11 June 1488 – 9 September 1513
Coronation 24 June 1488
Predecessor James III
Successor James V
Born 17 March 1473
Stirling Castle, Scotland
Died 9 September 1513(1513-09-09) (aged 40)
Branxton, Northumberland, England
(m. 1503)
James V of Scotland
House Stewart
Father James III of Scotland
Mother Margaret of Denmark
Religion Roman Catholic

James IV (17 March 1473 – 9 September 1513) was King of Scotland from 11 June 1488 until his death in battle in 1513. He assumed the throne following the death of his father King James III (r. 1460–1488) at the Battle of Sauchieburn, a rebellion in which the younger James played an indirect role. He is generally regarded as the most successful of the Stewart monarchs of Scotland, but his reign ended in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Flodden. He was the last monarch from Great Britain to be killed in battle.

James IV's marriage in 1503 to Margaret Tudor linked the royal houses of Scotland and England. It led to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when Elizabeth I died without heirs and James IV's great-grandson James VI succeeded to the English throne as James I.

Early life

James was the son of King James III and Margaret of Denmark, born in Holyrood Abbey.[1] As heir apparent to the Scottish crown, he became Duke of Rothesay. He had two younger brothers, James and John. In 1474, his father arranged his betrothal to the English princess Cecily of York, daughter of Edward IV of England.[2] His father James III was not a popular king, facing two major rebellions during his reign, and alienating many members of his close family, especially his younger brother Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany. James III's pro-English policy was also unpopular, and it rebounded badly upon him when the marriage negotiations with England broke down over lapsed dowry payments. This led to the invasion of Scotland and capture of Berwick in 1482 by Cecily's uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in the company of the Duke of Albany. When James III attempted to lead his army against the invasion, his army rebelled against him and he was briefly imprisoned by his own councillors.[3]

James IV's mother, Margaret of Denmark, was apparently more popular than his father. Though somewhat estranged from her husband, she was given responsibility for raising their sons at Stirling Castle, but she died in 1486. Two years later, a second rebellion broke out, during which the rebels set up the 15-year-old Prince James as their nominal leader. They fought James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June 1488, where the king was killed, though several later sources claimed that Prince James had forbidden any man to harm his father.[4] The younger James took the throne and was crowned at Scone on 24 June. However he continued to bear intense guilt for the indirect role which he had played in the death of his father. He decided to do penance for his sin. Each Lent, for the rest of his life, he wore a heavy iron chain cilice around his waist, next to the skin. He added extra ounces every year.[5]



James IV ordered the Kirk of Steill to be built in 1500, for the Christian Jubilee, and to commemorate his rescue from the nearby river Tweed

James IV quickly proved an effective ruler and a wise king. He defeated another rebellion in 1489, took a direct interest in the administration of justice and finally brought the Lord of the Isles under control in 1493. For a time, he supported Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, and carried out a brief invasion of England on his behalf in September 1496, demolishing Heaton Castle. Then in August 1497, James laid siege to Norham Castle, using his grandfather's bombard Mons Meg.

James recognised nonetheless that peace between Scotland and England was in the interest of both countries and established good diplomatic relations with England, which was emerging at the time from a period of civil war. First he ratified the Treaty of Ayton in 1497. Then, in 1502, James signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with Henry VII. This treaty was sealed by his marriage to Henry's daughter Margaret Tudor the next year in an event portrayed as the marriage of The Thrissil and the Rois (the thistle and rose – the flowers of Scotland and England, respectively) by the great poet William Dunbar, who was then resident at James' court.

James was granted the title Defender of the Faith in 1507 by the Papal Legate at Holyrood Abbey.[6] In the meantime, he was planning to do a pilgrimage to Jerusalem,[7] and had an idea to lead a crusade against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire,[8] by constructing a navy with the size of 38 ships, he also pursued a diplomatic initiative with the aim to establish a pan-Christian coalition. However, his efforts were in vain due to conflicts among the European powers.[9]

James maintained Scotland's traditional good relations with France, however, and this occasionally created diplomatic problems with England. For example, when rumours that James would renew the Auld alliance circulated in April 1508, Thomas Wolsey was sent to discuss Henry VII's concerns over this. Wolsey found "there was never a man worse welcome into Scotland than I. ...They keep their matters so secret here that the wives in the market know every cause of my coming."[10] Nonetheless, Anglo-Scottish relations generally remained stable until the death of Henry VII in 1509.

James saw the importance of building a fleet that could provide Scotland with a strong maritime presence. He founded two new dockyards for this purpose and acquired a total of 38 ships for the Royal Scots Navy, including the Margaret and the carrack Great Michael. The latter, built at great expense at Newhaven, near Edinburgh, and launched in 1511, was 240 feet (73 m) in length, weighed[clarification needed]1,000 tons and was, at that time, the largest ship in the world.[11]


Coat of Arms of James IV on display at the Great Hall, Stirling Castle

James IV was a true Renaissance prince with an interest in practical and scientific matters. He granted the Incorporation of Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh a royal charter in 1506, turned Edinburgh Castle into one of Scotland's foremost gun foundries, and welcomed the establishment of Scotland's first printing press, Chepman and Myllar Press, in 1507. He built a part of Falkland Palace, the Great Halls at Edinburgh and Stirling castles, and furnished his palaces with Scottish Royal tapestries.[12]

James was a patron of the arts, including many literary figures, most notably the Scots makars whose diverse and socially observant works convey a vibrant and memorable picture of cultural life and intellectual concerns of the period. Figures associated with his court include William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy and Gavin Douglas, who made the first complete translation of Virgil's Aeneid in northern Europe. His reign also saw the passing of the makar Robert Henryson. He patronised music at Restalrig using rental money from the King's Wark.[13]

He also gave his backing to the foundation of King's College, Aberdeen, by his chancellor, William Elphinstone, and St Leonard's College, St Andrews, by his illegitimate son Alexander Stewart, Archbishop of St Andrews, and John Hepburn, Prior of St Andrews. In 1496, partly at Elphinstone's instance, he also passed what has been described as Scotland's first education act, which dictated that all barons and freeholders of substance had to send their eldest sons and heirs to school for a certain time.

James was well educated as well as a polyglot. In July 1498, Spanish envoy, Pedro de Ayala, reported to Ferdinand and Isabella:

The King is 25 years and some months old. He is of noble stature, neither tall nor short, and as handsome in complexion and shape as a man can be. His address is very agreeable. He speaks the following foreign languages: Latin, very well; French, German, Flemish, Italian, and Spanish; Spanish as well as the Marquis, but he pronounces it more distinctly. He likes, very much, to receive Spanish letters. His own Scots language is as different from English as Aragonese from Castilian. The King speaks, besides, the language of the savages who live in some parts of Scotland and on the islands. It is as different from Scots as Biscayan is from Castilian. His knowledge of languages is wonderful. He is well read in the Bible and in some other devout books. He is a good historian. He has read many Latin and French histories, and profited by them, as he has a very good memory. He never cuts his hair or his beard. It becomes him very well.[14]

James IV was the last Scottish king known to have spoken Scottish Gaelic. James also allegedly conducted a language deprivation experiment[15] in which two children were sent to be raised by a mute woman alone on the island of Inchkeith, to determine if language was learned or innate.[16][17]

James was especially interested in surgery and medicine, and also other sciences which are now less creditable. At Stirling Castle, he established an alchemy workshop where alchemist John Damian looked for ways to turn base metals into gold.[18] The project consumed quantities of mercury, golden litharge, and tin.[19] Damian also researched aviation and undertook a failed experiment to fly from the battlements of Stirling Castle, an event which William Dunbar satirised in two separate poems.[20]

James IV's court was culturally far-reaching and hosted a number of Africans in temporary and long-term roles.[21][22][23][24] In 1504, two African women, who were later christened as Margaret and Helen or Ellen More, are mentioned in the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland.[25][26][27] The women were visible in court life and Helen More became the presumed subject of the poem 'Ane Blak Moir' by William Dunbar due to her being offered as a prize in jousting tournaments.[28][29] The poem is critical of her appearance and status as a Black woman in a predominantly white court and country.[30][31] An African drummer referred to as the "More taubronar", who travelled with the court, is also mentioned in the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland.[26][32]

The status of the Africans in James IV's court is contested, with some historians taking the view that the two women were "enjoying in the royal service a benevolent form of ... black slavery".[33] However, other historians emphasise that these individuals were treated as "court curiosities" rather than being in control of their own lives,[28] and were most likely enslaved to some extent.[29]

King James IV is also believed to have had a "special relationship" with Peter the Moor, an African man whose travel and expenses were paid for by royal funds.[34] Payment records suggest that he had an active role in James IV's court life as he received the standard amounts of salaried employment. He first appears in records in 1500 and historians believe he arrived in Scotland initially as "human booty" captured by Scottish privateers from Portuguese cargo ships.[35] In service to the King, he travelled to France in May 1501 on what is presumed to be an errand for the monarch. Further expense records suggest he was a companion to King James in his various trips across the country.[35] Peter the Moor continues to appear in royal records until August 1504, when he received a large and final payment. Historian Imtiaz Habib argues that these records reveal an individual who was "clearly a favourite companion to the monarch" and was "well accepted" into the court culture of King James IV.[35]

Policy in the Highlands and Isles

James IV, copy by Daniël Mijtens of a lost contemporary portrait

In May 1493, John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, was forfeited by the Parliament of Scotland. King James himself sailed to Dunstaffnage Castle, where the western chiefs made their submissions to him. John surrendered and was brought back as a pensioner to the royal court, then lived at Paisley Abbey. The Highlands and Islands now fell under direct royal control. John's grandson Domhnall Dubh (Donald Owre), one of the possible claimants to the Lordship, was peaceable, but the other, his nephew Alexander MacDonald of Lochalsh invaded Ross and was later killed on the island of Oronsay in 1497.[36]

In October 1496, the Royal Council ordered that the clan chiefs in the region would be held responsible by the king for crimes of the islanders. This act for the governance of the region was unworkable, and after the Act of Revocation of 1498 undermined the chiefs' titles to their lands, resistance to Edinburgh rule was strengthened. James waited at Kilkerran Castle at Campbeltown Loch to regrant the chiefs' charters in the summer of 1498. Few of the chiefs turned up.[37] At first, Archibald Campbell, 2nd Earl of Argyll, was set to fill the power vacuum and enforce royal authority, but he met with limited success in a struggle with his brother-in-law, Torquil MacLeod of Lewis. Torquil was ordered to hand over Domhnall Dubh, heir to the lordship of the Isles, to James IV at Inverness in 1501. James waited, but Torquil never came.

After this defiance, Alexander Gordon, 3rd Earl of Huntly, was granted Torquil's lands. He raised an army in Lochaber and also cleared the tenants of that area, replacing them with his supporters.[38] After the parliament of 1504, a royal fleet sailed north from Ayr to attack the Castle of Cairn-na-Burgh, west of Mull, where it is thought that Maclean of Duart had Domhnall Dubh in his keeping.[39] As progress at the siege was slow, James sent Hans the royal gunner in Robert Barton's ship and then the Earl of Arran with provisions and more artillery. Cairn-na-Burgh was captured by June 1504 but Domhnall Dubh remained at liberty.[40] In September 1507, Torquil MacLeod was besieged at Stornoway Castle on Lewis. Domhnall Dubh was captured and imprisoned for 37 years until he was released in 1543 and died 1545 in Ireland; Torquil MacLeod died in exile in 1511. The Earl of Huntly was richly rewarded for his troubles, a price that James was prepared to pay.[41]

War and death

When war broke out between England and France in 1512 as a result of the Italian Wars, James found himself in a difficult position as an ally by treaty to both France and England.[42] Since the accession of Henry VIII in 1509, relations with England had worsened, and when Henry invaded France, James reacted by declaring war on England.

James had already baulked at the interdict of his kingdom by Pope Julius II[further explanation needed], and he opposed its confirmation by Pope Leo X, so that he was not in a good position with the pontiff. [43] Leo sent a letter to James, threatening him with ecclesiastical censure for breaking peace treaties, on 28 June 1513, and James was subsequently excommunicated by Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge.

James summoned sailors and sent the Scottish navy, including the Great Michael, to join the ships of Louis XII of France, so joining in the War of the League of Cambrai.[44] Hoping to take advantage of Henry's absence at the siege of Thérouanne, he led an invading army southward into Northumberland, only to be killed, with many of his nobles and common soldiers, and several churchmen, including his son the archbishop of St Andrews, at the disastrous Battle of Flodden on 9 September 1513. This was one of Scotland's worst military defeats in history: the loss of not only a popular and capable king, but also a large portion of the political community, was a major blow to the realm. James IV's son, James V, was crowned three weeks after the disaster at Flodden, but was only one year old, and his minority was to be fraught with political upheaval.

Both English and Scottish accounts of Flodden emphasise the King's determination to fight. In his otherwise flattering portrayal of James, Pedro de Ayala remarks on his ability as a military commander, portraying him as brusque and fearless on the battlefield:

He is courageous, even more so than a king should be. I am a good witness of it. I have seen him often undertake most dangerous things in the last wars. On such occasions he does not take the least care of himself. He is not a good captain, because he begins to fight before he has given his orders. He said to me that his subjects serve him with their persons and goods, in just and unjust quarrels, exactly as he likes, and that therefore he does not think it right to begin any warlike undertaking without being himself the first in danger. His deeds are as good as his words.[45]

Sheen Priory from the west, c. 1558–62, detail from sketch of Richmond Palace (see below) by Wyngaerde. Note annotation above "cien". Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A body, thought to be that of James, was recovered from the battlefield and taken to London for burial. James had been excommunicated, and although Henry VIII had obtained a dispensation from the Pope on 29 November 1513 to have the King buried in consecrated ground at St. Paul's, the embalmed body lay unburied for many years at Sheen Priory in Surrey.[46] The body was lost after the Reformation, which led to the demolition of the priory.[47] John Stow claimed to have seen it and said that the king's head (with red hair) was removed by a glazier and eventually buried at St Michael Wood Street. The church was later demolished and the site redeveloped many times; it is now occupied by a public house.[47][48] James's bloodstained coat was sent to Henry VIII (then on campaign in France) by his queen, Catherine of Aragon.

At Framlingham Castle, the Duke of Norfolk kept two silver-gilt cups engraved with the arms of James IV, which he bequeathed to Cardinal Wolsey in 1524.[49] The Duke's descendants presented the College of Arms with a sword, a dagger and a turquoise ring in 1681. The family tradition was either that these items belonged to James IV or were arms carried by Thomas Howard at Flodden. The sword blade is signed by the maker Maestre Domingo of Toledo.[50] There is some doubt whether the weapons are of the correct period.[51] Thomas Lord Darcy retrieved a powder flask belonging to James IV and gave it to Henry VIII. A cross with rubies and sapphires with a gold chain worn by James and a hexagonal table-salt with the figure of St Andrews on the lid were given to Henry by James Stanley, Bishop of Ely.[52]

Erasmus provided an epitaph for the King in his Adagia. Later, in 1533, he wrote to James V pointing out this essay on duty under the adage Spartam nactus es, hanc exorna (Your lot is cast in Sparta, be a credit to it) on the subject of the Flodden campaign and the death of James, and also that of his son Alexander, who had been Erasmus' pupil for a time.[53]

Legends of the King's resting place

Rumours persisted that James had survived and had gone into exile, or that his body was buried in Scotland. Two castles in the Scottish Borders are claimed as his resting place. The legend ran that, before the Scots charge at Flodden, James had ripped off his royal surcoat to show his nobles that he was prepared to fight as an ordinary man at arms. What was reputed to be James IV's body recovered by the English did not have the iron chain round its waist. (Some historians claimed he removed his chain while "dallying" in Lady Heron's bedroom.) Border legend claimed that during the Battle of Flodden, four Home horsemen or supernatural riders swept across the field snatching up the King's body, or that the King left the field alive and was killed soon afterwards. In the 18th century, when the medieval well of Hume Castle was being cleared, the skeleton of a man with a chain round his waist was discovered in a side cave; but this skeleton has since disappeared. Another version of this tale has the skeleton discovered at Hume a few years after the battle and re-interred at Holyrood Abbey. The same story was told for Roxburgh Castle, with the skeleton there discovered in the 17th century. Yet another tradition is the discovery of the royal body at Berry Moss, near Kelso. Fuelling these legends, Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, writing in the 1570s, claimed that a convicted criminal offered to show Regent Albany the King's grave ten years after the battle, but Albany refused.[54]


His early betrothal to Cecily of York came to nothing, but interest in an English marriage remained. Also, a marriage alliance was contemplated with the daughter of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Maria of Aragon, but the plans came to nothing.

In a ceremony at the altar of Glasgow Cathedral on 10 December 1502, James confirmed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with Henry VII of England.[55] By this treaty, James married Henry's daughter Margaret Tudor. After a wedding by proxy in London, the marriage was confirmed in person on 8 August 1503 at Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh.[56] Their wedding was commemorated by the gift of the Hours of James IV of Scotland.

The union produced only one son who reached adulthood, with three further sons who died as infants and two stillborn daughters:[57]

  • James Stewart, Duke of Rothesay (21 February 1507, Holyrood Palace – 27 February 1508, Stirling Castle), firstborn son, died an infant.
  • A stillborn daughter, born at Holyrood Palace on 15 July 1508.
  • Arthur Stewart, Duke of Rothesay (20 October 1509, Holyrood Palace – Edinburgh Castle, 14 July 1510), 2nd son, died an infant.
  • King James V (Linlithgow Palace, 10 April 1512 – Falkland Palace, Fife, 14 December 1542), third son and only child to survive infancy, successor to his father.
  • A second stillborn daughter born at Holyrood Palace in November 1512.
  • Alexander Stewart, Duke of Ross (Stirling Castle, 30 April 1514 – Stirling Castle, 18 December 1515), 4th son, born after James's death, died an infant.

Illegitimate children

James also had several illegitimate children with four different mistresses; five of the children are known to have reached adulthood:[57]

Fictional portrayals

James IV has been depicted in historical novels, short stories, and media portrayals. They include the following:[58]