After a succession of ineffective monarchs and the assassination of his own father, James II was facing a difficult reign as King of Scots. Throw into the mix an overmighty subject with the 8th Earl Douglas and the fact that he was only a child when he became king and it looks even trickier. However, James II was a young man full of energy and determination, but would it be enough for him to be the first successful Stewart monarch? Listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
James II was the son of James I and Joan Beaufort, and was just 6 years old (though going on 7) when he became king in 1437. He is the first King of Scots for whom we have a contemporary likeness, thanks to a work by Jorg Von Ehingen, which depicts a birthmark on one side of his face, leading to his nickname “Fiery Face”, which contemporaries though was indicative of his rash temper.
James became king at a difficult time. The first two Stewart monarchs (Robert II and Robert III) were both old and frail when they became king, leading to their being sidelined by a more vigorous relative. James I had reasserted royal authority and been successful for a time but, after suffering some setbacks and losing popularity for some of his policies, was assassinated by his aged uncle, the Earl of Atholl. Fortunately, James’s mother, Joan, escaped the violence (despite being wounded), secured the support of most of the nobles as well as the papacy, allowing her to round up and (after a spot of torturing) execute the rebels.
Less fortunately, the subsequent minority would prove anything but smooth. Power came to lie between the keeper of Edinburgh Castle (William Crichton) and Stirling Castle (Alexander Livingstone), who quickly developed a strong rivalry. Joan picked Livingstone, smuggling the young James out of Edinburgh in a trunk and heading for Stirling. However, when she married the low-ranking Sir James Stewart (known as the Black Knight of Lorne) Livingstone had them both arrested, only releasing her when she gave James into his custody. Livingstone and Crichton united with the 7th Earl Douglas, not least by helping him become the earl by conspiring to murder the teenage 6th Earl and his younger brother. In a notorious event known as the Black Dinner, the teenage Douglas brothers were invited to dinner with James at Edinburgh Castle, only to be accused of treason, dragged out and summarily executed in spite of the protests of the young James. This dark episode of Scottish history was a direct influence on the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones. A mini civil war broke out between Crichton and Livingstone when Crichton took possession of James in 1444. Joan backed Crichton but died while under siege by Livingstone, who would emerge the victor.
As a child, James II had been little more than a pawn in the conflict between the rival nobles, but in 1449 (aged 18-19) he quickly asserted his independence. In 1449, Crichton arranged a prestigious marriage to Mary of Guelders (niece of the wealthy Philip Duke of Burgundy), bringing James status, trade & the latest in artillery. She also brought a costly bill for lands and income, so in 1450 James killed two birds with one stone by removing Livingston from power and forfeiting his lands to hand over to his wife. James was now in control and ready to rule.
Livingston had been dealt with, but the real rival in Scotland was the Earl of Douglas. The 7th Earl died in 1443, so his son (the eldest of 5) was the most powerful noble in Scotland – 25 years old, handsome, owning a host of titles and lands (effectively ruling southern Scotland) and feted abroad, he was arguably even more famous than James. When he left the country to attend a papal jubilee in Rome, James tried to take advantage by claiming some of his estates when the 4th Earl’s widow died but the nobles were opposed to such an arbitrary use of royal power and the lands were restored to Douglas, but the enmity between them was now out in the open. Douglas made a bond of mutual defence with the rebellious Lord of the Isles and the Earl of Crawford. When James invited him to dinner at Stirling and revealed he knew of the alliance, Douglas refused to renounce the bond and the fiery James II got so cross that he stabbed Douglas, with his retainers finishing him off and throwing him out of the window.
Not surprisingly, murdering the most powerful noble in the land caused a bit of a stir, not least with the other four Douglas brothers. James managed to avoid war initially by securing the backing of Parliament and defeating the Douglas ally, the Earl of Crawford. After a brief reconciliation, the 9th Earl made an alliance with the rebellious Duke of York in England and renewed ties with the Lord of the Isles. In 1455, James raised a large army and used his fancy new cannons to capture various Douglas castles. Douglas had not yet returned from England, but his key allies abandoned his cause and then his three younger brothers were defeated in battle, forcing him and his family into permanent exile and the extensive lands now crown property.
After a divisive start, James then set about restoring unity in Scotland. He held regular parliaments, appointed new earldoms and was able to bring some much-needed stability. His position was sufficiently strong that he had a pop of the Isle of Man in 1457, opened negotiations with Norway for purchasing Orkney and Shetland as well as negotiating with both sides in the Wars of the Roses in England (while simultaneously seeking to persuade the King of France to launch a joint invasion. When Henry VI of England was captured by the Yorkists in 1460 and his queen, Margaret of Anjou, came north, James took advantage of the divisions by besieging Roxburgh. The town soon surrendered so he set about besieging the castle. Unfortunately, things did not quite go to plan…
“as the King stood near a piece of artillery, his thigh bone was dug in two with a piece of misframed gun that brake in shooting, by which he was stricken to the ground and died hastily.”
(Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie)
James II was not yet 30 years old besut he was dead and his eventful reign was cut short.
James was said to have been fascinated by military affairs and had the common touch with his soldiers, surprising some of his nobles by riding among his men and accepting food from them without having it tested for poison. He showed his mettle in the wars against the Douglas family. He delayed the conflict when he was at his weakest in 1452 with effective diplomacy (winning the support of parliament and the rival ‘Red’ Douglas branch of the family) and succeeding in raising an army of 30,000 volunteers. When war came for real in 1455, James acted quickly, raising another army and putting his siege guns to use while the 9th Earl was still scheming in England. James captured the key Douglas castles of Inveravon and Abercorn (and others), succeeding in weeks when usually it would have taken months, while the Battle of Arkinholm saw the defeat of the other three Douglas brothers (1 killed, 1 captured and 1 exiled). The Douglas family was the most powerful in Scotland, but James had defeated them and firmly established the crown as the most powerful force in Scotland. He also showed a glimpse of how he might have taken advantage of the Wars of the Roses in England, leading a well organised and united campaign to capture Roxburgh in 1460. His father’s reign had fallen apart after a failed attack on Roxburgh, but the nobles were so united under James II that they continued the siege of the castle after his death before heading home.
Although James had much success against the Douglas family, there is no evidence that he himself fought in any battles, with the victories attributed to his allies rather than James himself. Although James had great ambition, most of his efforts came to nothing. His attempt to claim the Isle of Man from England was easily seen off due to superior defences. The Norse king had no interest in selling off Orkney and Shetland, while the French king could not be persuaded to invade England. Periods of division and weakness in England were often a golden chance for Scotland to take advantage and had James survived, perhaps Scotland could have profited greatly from the Wars of the Roses – instead, James’s death meant another minority and a missed opportunity.
James II had a lot of potential in battleyness and put his substantive force to good use against the powerful Douglas clan. The capture of Roxburgh shows what might have been, but his early death prevented him from achieving more and getting a higher score.
Score = 11/20
Many Scottish monarchs have had their rivals executed or killed in battle, but it’s taking things to a whole other level by actually murdering someone in person! The 8th Earl Douglas had been suspicious enough at his dinner invitation that he demanded (and received) a letter of safe conduct, which should have meant his life was safe. However, perhaps a little intoxicated, when Douglas refused to renounce his alliance with the Lord of the Isles, James called him a “false traitor”, drew his dagger, shouted “If you won’t [break your bond], this will!” and then stabbed his rival. At this point, James’s men rushed in and stabbed and hacked at Douglas (as well as his head being cleft by an axe) and threw him out of the window (just for good measure). Some have speculated that this murder may have been pre-planned but the most likely explanation seems to be that it was all in the heat of the moment as by personally murdering his most powerful noble after offering safe conduct, he was certain to face civil war and was lucky not to have lost more support than he did. Thrown into the mix an unknown mistress with an illegitimate son and you’ve got a pretty scandalous monarch.
Actually murdering his most powerful noble in person is undeniably scandalous, and he showed willing in the bedroom with a mistress. However, as with battleyness, he was unable to notch up more points due to the sudden ending of his reign.
Score = 12/20
Perhaps James’s greatest achievement was in providing strong leadership that brought stability to Scotland and firmly established the crown as dominant. The previous four monarchs had failed to achieve this to any lasting degree but in his short majority, James manage to remove the previous regent (Livingston) and his family, defeated the most powerful noble family in the land and was thereafter unchallenged in Scotland. This was not just due to his battling qualities but also his pragmatism – he modified his behaviour to win over the other nobles creating 4 new earldoms to reward his supporters, holding regular parliaments and consulting with his nobles. He sought accommodation with the Lord of the Isles, who went from perpetual rebel to offering troops for his 1460 campaign. Although his reign was short, he passed numerous statutes to help restore law and order, most notably establishing a centralised supreme court for civil justice in 1458. He personally travelled Scotland extensively and was seen providing justice in person by his subjects.
It is by no means certain that a long reign under James II would have been one of merry prosperity and unity. The arbitrary removal of Livingston (including the execution of some of his families) and pushing Douglas into disloyalty with a failed land-grab indicates a tyrannical bent to James II. His father had been popular at first but later lost support, so perhaps the same would have happened to James II. As it was, he was only properly ruling for ten years and the first five of these were at war.
James II might have run into trouble had he reigned for longer, but he achieved a lot in his short majority – royal authority was finally re-established, law and order was strongly promoted and the country was more united than it had been in the last hundred years.
Score = 14/20
James II was kind from 21 February 1437 to 3 August 1460 – a reign of 23.42 years which converts into a score of 12.5/20.
Impressively, despite a short reign, James II left behind 5 surviving children, giving him a score of 10/20.
Overall, James II scored an impressive 59.5, but will this be enough for him to earn the coveted…
Arguably, James II is a classic example of what might have been – he showed great promise but was cut off in his prime before had had a chance to achieve glory. However, despite a short reign he achieved a huge amount and by re-establishing royal authority over the nobles and being the first successful Stewart monarch, his reign was crucial in Scottish history. Many of his predecessors would have failed to have defeated the Douglases or restore unity after civil war, but James II was successful. There could have been more, but James II gave the Scottish monarchy a shot in the arm and his energetic and fiery approach wrought dividends.
Our Verdict = Yes, James II gets the Rex Factor!
But perhaps you disagree! Let us know what you think in the poll below – does James II deserve the Rex Factor?