Scotland's Bloody History
Scottish Heritage and Historical Stories


You would have imagined that, with freedom secured, there could have been peace with Scotland’s southern neighbour, but there seems to be almost a death wish among the Scottish monarchs. No one could leave well alone.

The chance to concentrate on building the economy or improving the lot of the ordinary person was squandered in yet more battles with the arch enemy.

King David II imprisoned by the EnglishRobert the Bruce’s son David II ended up almost giving away our hard fought independence again in negotiations with the English. For a number of years he was imprisoned in England and the kingdom was run by his nephew who, for looking after the country, became known as Robert the Steward of Scotland.

When David returned he left no male issue and Robert became Robert II, the word Steward becoming Stewart. Robert was therefore the first of the Stewart dynasty and all future kings and queens of Scotland and, later, Britain could trace themselves back to Robert the Bruce through this Robert II whose mother, Marjorie, was Robert the Bruce’s daughter.

He was an unremarkable king, but went on to rule into old age with his various sons acting as regents from time to time. Having never expected to become king, he had named his son John.

Upon Robert II’s death this became a problem. If John became King John II of Scotland, that would legitimise the reign of John Balliol and could stir up the Comyns into making another play for the monarchy.

For these reasons John changed his name to Robert in order to be crowned Robert III in 1390 and it was he who saw out the incredible fourteenth century and ushered in the beginnings of what would eventually become Renaissance Scotland.

Towards the end of his life, Robert III decided to send his young son James to safety in France. However, through treachery, the English learned of the journey and managed to capture the young heir.

Robert, so the story tells us, was so devastated by this that he died of a broken heart – a heart attack perhaps – and Scotland was left with not only a child king, but one who was in the custody of the English who did not release him for an incredible eighteen years.

James’ uncle, Robert Stewart, mismanaged the country in the king’s absence and was less than enthusiastic about negotiating the king’s release. In fact it was only after the uncle’s death that the Scots paid the ransom and James I came home to rule.

Some believe that it was all this time in captivity that encouraged the people of his country to call their next born sons James in honour of the king, making James one of the most popular Christian names in Scotland. How many Jims do you know?

James ruled with a firm hand, beginning his actual reign with the execution of several who had plotted with his uncle to keep him in exile. He was also the first of the Scottish monarchs to begin to think seriously about trade with European neighbours and he worried about the Scots currency being “floated” in general trade. He banned such transactions from being carried out except on Scottish soil. This coupled with his firming up of the Auld Alliance with France began to upset noblemen.

It came to a head with his murder and his son, James II became yet another child king. His advisers dealt severely with those who had plotted against and murdered his father and there were many executions. So what’s new?

When James II came of age he was not an ineffective ruler, but had numerous problems with those who advised him in his youth, particularly the Douglas family who did not seem to be able to accept their loss of power caused by the king’s coming of age. In fact James stabbed one of the Douglases to death and this resulted in a bloodbath, making the mid-fifteenth century an interesting one in which to be a royal courtier!

James II is killed by a wedge blown out of his own cannonJames also had an unhealthy (for him!) interest in artillery and it was this which led to his death. While trying to take from the English one of the last Scottish castles still to be held by them, Roxburgh, the king was standing by a modern cannon which exploded, sending such a large piece of it through the king’s leg that he died very quickly at the scene. The Scots went on to take Roxburgh in the king’s name.

You would never guess what the next king was called. James! He was the third successive king of that name and, yet again, a child monarch. In addition, this James III became an intellectual, seemingly more interested in books and music than in running or defending his country.

 At the age of only 37, the supporters of his son, yet another James Stewart, purportedly with James as their figurehead, murdered the king, having accused him of fleeing the battlefield at Sauchieburn. Was James III murdered by supporters of his own son?

When the future James IV discovered what had been done to his father, he swore a penance to wear a heavy iron chain around his waist for the rest of his life. The Da Vinci Code novel has brought such devices up to date and we can safely now talk about a cilice in the knowledge that most people have a good idea what the device actually is, although they took many forms.

Did James IV remove his cilice while with his mistress Margaret?James IV’s cilice was thought, for a long time, to be a myth, but a twentieth century study of the accounts of the court of James IV is supposed to have thrown up several entries classified as payment for “adding a link to the king’s chain” and his English mistress is also supposed to have complained to a friend that she “did not find the king’s chain very comfortable and had asked him to put it off when he stayed with her”.

This implies that he wore the chain perpetually which seems rather far fetched, but, then, these were interesting religious times. Who can tell?

James IV of Scotland married Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII of England's sister.The most important fact about James IV as far as our story goes, was that he married Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII of England’s sister and the significance of this will become clearer later in our tale. He was also a very educated man, reputedly speaking no fewer than ten languages. His love for a navy saw him allow an entire forest in Fife to be cut down to make ships including a thousand ton warship, perhaps the largest in the world at the time. James also secured the monarchy, finally laying to rest the worst of the Highland rebellions and taming Clan Donald, the Lords of the Isles, who had regularly plundered the mainland, even laying waste to prestigious Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness side, the third biggest castle in Scotland.

James IV, wanting to uphold the Auld Alliance with France, was encouraged to march on England to distract Henry VIII from his French war.

An enormous Scottish army is defeated by the English at FloddenPerhaps the largest Scots army in history marched into England and took a strong position on Flodden hill. Then, through incompetence, the Scots managed to throw away a huge advantage to the English by descending from the hill in disarray to be massacred. Some of the errors were almost laughable. James’ artillery positioned on the hill could not fire on the English because the cannons could not be pointed down far enough, so volley after volley shot over the assailants’ heads. The descent of the pike men down the hill was so badly organised that they could not keep an organised line and were picked off by the English infantry.

The whole battle was a disaster and it resulted in the death of the king, all of his noblemen, his ministers, both governmental and religious, and untold thousands of ordinary Scots.

So, in 1513 Scotland was left with yet another infant king and the country in a very sorry state indeed. What was the king’s name? Why, James, of course!

James V’s reign was somewhat unusual in that he took on the full reins of government at the tender age of sixteen and then immediately began punishing those who had kept him a virtual prisoner during his childhood. Why did no regents or advisers ever learn this lesson?

He had no tolerance for religious change and even had one of his Lutheran opponents, Patrick Hamilton, burned at the stake in St Andrews where his initials PH are set into the cobbles and are believed to be an omen of bad luck if you stand on them.

Always keen to know what the ordinary people were thinking about in general and about him as king in particular, he used to don ordinary clothes and go about his people under the title of the Gudeman of Ballenguich.

James V had two sons who died in infancy and this left a daughter named Mary.  On his deathbed, at the young age of thirty, he is supposed to have uttered the words, “it began with a lass and will end with a lass” in reference to the Stewart dynasty beginning with Robert the Bruce’s daughter Marjorie and ending with his daughter Mary.

Crowned in Scotland at the age of one, she was sent to France to be brought up in exile. Her story is one of the most tragic in Scots’ history.

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