James IV – Scotland’s Forgotten Renaissance King
Scanning the lists of Scottish historical fiction titles, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are only two Scots monarchs ever worth writing about: Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots. Today I’ll be giving Robert I and Mary a well earned rest by talking about a king of Scots whose achievements remain sadly under-appreciated, even by the Scots themselves, remembered only for the one monumental mistake which ended his life at the tragically young age of 40.
James IV (b. 1473, d. 1513) is a king who is invariably overshadowed by his tyrannical (and latterly, somewhat corpulent...) counterpart south of the border – Henry VIII. Which is a shame, because James was a remarkable man in many respects.
He came to the throne in 1488 aged 15, following a coup which left his father, King James III, dead. This was the culmination of a rebellion which supposedly came about through a plot engineered by the young man’s advisers, though I suspect that in reality James had much more to do with the planning than he ever cared to admit. He was, after all, an extraordinarily clever man and it could be argued that he did have genuine reason to fear for his future, if not indeed his life.
Following this shaky start, James had difficulty securing his grip upon the Scots. The discontent was only to be expected – you don’t just bump off a legitimately-reigning monarch without incurring some degree of resentment within the wider population. But James’s response was unusually flexible. He rapidly discovered that he couldn’t secure his position through force alone. Instead, he appears to have made a sterling effort to win friends and build alliances which brought him support across the whole of mainland Scotland, even bridging the traditional divide between the Scots-speaking lowlanders and the gaelic-speaking north-west.
Inevitably, there were winners and losers. James’s first effort to unite the Scots into a single military force brought disaster upon the gaelic-speaking Lords of the Isles in 1493 when James ended their independence once and for all, forcing the last Lord of the Isles to end his days under ‘house arrest’ as a pensioner at Paisley Abbey. It was only later that James aimed his sights at England, assisting Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, in 1495, and following this insult with injury in the form of a foray south of the border in 1497.
This wasn’t mindless harrying. Far from it. James wanted the return of Berwick, captured by the English in 1482 and still a festering sore in the Scots’ side. While James didn’t quite achieve the restoration of Berwick, he did manage to secure a Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England and to cement diplomatic relations further through marriage to Henry VII’s daughter Margaret Tudor, a marriage which eventually resulted in the Union of the Crowns following James VI’s accession to the English throne in the early 1600s.
In many respects, James represents an ideal example of medieval kingship. He was bold, assertive, and articulate, visibly proficient on the battlefield. He founded a flourishing arms industry in Scotland, and commissioned the building of the finest warship in Europe – the 1000 ton Michael – a vessel launched in 1512 which surpassed even the Mary Rose.
If James as warrior king was impressive enough, then his court was even more remarkable for its artistic and intellectual endeavours. James himself was fluent in a number of languages. He was a patron of Renaissance architecture, creating buildings which could hold their own alongside those being built in France and Italy at the time. He encouraged music and the arts, and took a keen interest in medicine and dentistry. He also sponsored poets and alchemists. Amongst the latter was an over-ambitious monk named Damian, who in 1507 leapt from the ramparts at Stirling Castle with a pair of wings strapped to his back, plummeting to earth where he landed in the midden, shaken but unharmed. Inspired by his audacity, James made him Abbot of Tongland in Dumfries & Galloway.
James was also a notorious womaniser. With a succession of mistresses lodged in various parts of the country, he’d go on pilgrimages to religious sites at opposite ends of the country (such as Whithorn or Tain), conveniently visiting his ‘bidie-in’s’ along the way, and distributing largesse to his subjects. In 1504, he passed through Renfrewshire where he lodged at Ellestoun with John, 1st Lord Sempill, where it is recorded in the accounts that he gave ‘drinksilver’ to the masons who were building the Collegiate Church of Castle Semple, as well as giving a gratuity to John Sempill’s harper, a man named John Haislet.
But despite all these achievements, it’s for his demise at Flodden that James is remembered. And with the benefit of hindsight comes condemnation. It was hubris which toppled him, they say. If only he’d turned back and marched home before Surrey confronted him at Branxton. If only he hadn’t come down off that hill. If only he hadn’t taken on Henry VIII in the first place. If only he’d relied on the tried-and-tested Scots schiltron, instead of investing in all those fancy Swiss pikes... If only he’d spotted the watercourse lurking at the foot of Branxton Hill...
I personally believe that a confrontation with Henry VIII was inevitable. Sooner or later, the showdown would have happened, and - whatever the time, whatever the place - the outcome would probably have been exactly the same. Is it fair to blame James for sabre-rattling? I don’t think so. Henry had been provoking James for years by withholding Margaret’s Tudor’s dowry, and James... Well, by invading England and harrying the north-east, he was merely using exactly the same tactics which had worked so well in 1497 against Henry VII.
But Henry VIII, as we all know, was a very different beast. And so James died the way he lived, as a courageous medieval king who wasn’t afraid to hurl himself into the fray, leading the assault as an example to those around him.
James wasn’t the only casualty of Flodden. Nine earls died that day, along with 21 Lords of Parliament and at least 79 knights and barons. The church lost its leading figures; the Archbishop of Saint Andrews was a casualty, dying alongside two bishops and two abbots. Virtually the entire ruling class of Scotland was wiped out, and this is a measure of James’s success as a king. When he first came to the throne, he inherited a fractured, divided kingdom, but when he died it was with Scotland’s governing class standing united alongside him.
And that, I think, was a truly remarkable achievement.