James IV of Scotland

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James IV
James IV of Scotland.jpg
King of Scots
Reign 11 June 1488 – 9 September 1513
Coronation 24 June 1488
Predecessor James III
Successor James V
Born (1473-03-17)17 March 1473
Stirling Castle, Stirling, Scotland
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Battle of Flodden, Northumberland, England
Spouse Margaret Tudor
James V
House Stewart
Father James III of Scots
Mother Margaret of Denmark
Religion Roman Catholic

James IV (17 March 1473 – 9 September 1513) was the King of Scots from 11 June 1488 to his death. He is generally regarded as the most successful of the Stewart monarchs of Scotland, but his reign ended with the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Flodden, where he became the last monarch not only from Scotland, but from all of Great Britain, to be killed in battle.

Early life

James was the son of James III and Margaret of Denmark, probably born in Stirling Castle. As heir apparent to the Scottish crown, he became Duke of Rothesay. In 1474, his father arranged his betrothal to Princess Cecily of England.[1] His father was not a popular king and faced two major rebellions during his reign. The marriage negotiations and dowry payments led to the invasion of Scotland and capture of Berwick in 1482 by his uncle Alexander, Duke of Albany and Richard, Duke of Gloucester while James remained at Stirling. James III's army rebelled against him and the English army reached Edinburgh.[2]

During the second rebellion, the rebels set up the 15-year-old James as their nominal leader. His father was killed fighting rebels at the Battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June 1488, and James took the throne and was crowned at Scone on 24 June. When he realised the indirect role which he had played in the death of his father, he decided to do penance for his sin. From that date on, he wore a heavy iron chain cilice around his waist, next to the skin, each Lent as penance, adding every year extra ounces.[3]



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 wise king. He defeated another rebellion in 1489, took 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. Then, in August 1497, James laid siege to Norham Castle, using his Grandfather's bombard Mons Meg.

James recognized nonetheless that peace between Scotland and England was in the interest of both countries, and established good diplomatic relations with England, which was at that time emerging from a period of civil war. First he ratified the Treaty of Ayton in February 1498. Then, in 1502 James signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with Henry VII. He also maintained his relations with France. With rumours that James would renew the auld alliance, 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."[4]

James saw the importance in building a fleet that could provide Scotland with a strong maritime presence. James founded two new dockyards for the purpose and acquired a total of 38 ships for the Royal Scots Navy, including the Margaret, and the carrack Michael or Great Michael. The latter, built at great expense at Newhaven and launched in 1511, was 240 feet (73 m) in length, weighed 1,000 tons and was, at that time, the largest ship in the world.[5]


File:James IV Arms.jpg
Arms of James IV displayed in the Great Hall he built at 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 (later the Royal College of Surgeons 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 in 1507. He built a part of Falkland Palace, Great Halls at Stirling and Edinburgh castles, and furnished his palaces with tapestries.[6] 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 in 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.

James was well educated and a fluent polyglot. In July 1498 the Spanish envoy Pedro de Ayala reported to Ferdinand and Isabella that;

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.[7]

James IV was the last King of Scots known to have spoken Scottish Gaelic. James is one of the rulers reported to have conducted a language deprivation experiment,[8] sending two children to be raised by a mute woman alone on the island of Inchkeith, to determine if language was learned or innate.[9] At Stirling Castle, James maintained an alchemical workshop with a furnace of the quintessence. The project consumed quantities of quick-silver, golden litharge, and tin.[10] It was said that one of his alchemists Father Damian attempted to fly from Stirling Castle.

Policy in the Highlands and Isles

James IV, copy by Daniël Mijtens of 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 submission 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 to 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.[11]

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 Chief's titles to their lands, resistance to Edinburgh rule was strengthened. James waited at Kilkerran Castle at Campbeltown Loch to re-grant the Chief's charters in the summer of 1498. Few of the Chiefs turned up.[12] 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 Donald 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.[13] 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, Maclean of Duart had Donald Dubh in his keeping.[14] 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 Donald Dubh remained at liberty.[15] In September 1507, Torquil MacLeod was besieged at Stornoway Castle on Lewis. Donald Dubh was captured and kept in prison for the rest of life, and 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.[16]

War and death

When war broke out between England and France as a result of the Italian Wars, James found himself in a difficult position as an ally by treaty both to France and England.[17] Henry VIII of England invaded France, and James reacted by declaring war on England.

James had already balked at the interdict of his kingdom by Pope Julius II, and he opposed its confirmation by Pope Leo X, so he was not in a good position with the pontiff.[18] Leo sent a letter to James, threatening him with ecclesiastical censure for breaking peace treaties, on 28 June 1513, and James subsequently was 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.[19] Hoping to take advantage of Henry's absence at the siege of Thérouanne, he led an invading army southward into Northumbria, only to be killed, with many of his nobles and common soldiers, at the disastrous Battle of Flodden on 9 September 1513.

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 James's 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.[20]

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 breve from the Pope on 29 November 1513 to have the King buried in consecrated ground at St. Pauls, the embalmed body lay unburied for many years at Sheen Priory in Surrey.[21] The body was lost after the Reformation, which led to the demolition of the priory.[22] John Stow claimed to have seen it, and said 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 pub.[22][23] James's bloodstained coat was sent to Henry VIII (then on campaign in France) by his queen, Catherine of Aragon.[24] Erasmus provided an epitaph for the King in his Adagia. Later, in 1533, he wrote to James V of Scotland pointing out this essay on duty under the adage Spartam nactus es, (You who were born to Sparta shall serve her), on the subject of the Flodden campaign and the death of James and his son, Alexander.[25]

Legends of the King's resting place

However rumours persisted for many years that James had survived and had gone into exile, or his body was buried in Scotland, with no evidence to support them. Two castles in the Scottish Borders are claimed to be the real resting place of James. These stories follow the legend that, prior to 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 body recovered by the English did not have the iron chain round its waist. (So some historians claimed he removed his chain while dallying in Lady Heron's bedroom.) However, 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 as such a prize could not be allowed to fall into English hands after such a humiliating defeat, or that the King left the field alive and was killed soon after. 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. Unfortunately 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. Exactly the same story was told for Roxburgh Castle, 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.[26]


His early betrothal to Cecily of England came to nothing, but interest in an English marriage remained.

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.[27] 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. Their wedding was commemorated by the gift of a Book of Hours.

The union produced four children plus two stillbirths:[28]

  • James, Duke of Rothesay (21 February 1507, Holyrood Palace – 27 February 1508, Stirling Castle)
  • A stillborn daughter at Holyrood Palace on 15 July 1508.
  • Arthur, Duke of Rothesay (20 October 1509, Holyrood Palace – Edinburgh Castle, 14 July 1510).
  • James V (Linlithgow Palace, 10 April 1512 – Falkland Palace, Fife, 14 December 1542), the only one to reach adulthood, and the successor of his father.
  • A second stillborn daughter at Holyrood Palace in November 1512.
  • Alexander, Duke of Ross (Stirling Castle, 30 April 1514 – Stirling Castle, 18 December 1515), born after James's death.

Illegitimate children

James also had eight illegitimate children with four different mistresses:[29]

Titles and styles

  • 17 March 1473 – 11 June 1488: The Duke of Rothesay
  • 11 June 1488 – 9 September 1513: His Grace The King of Scots

Fictional portrayals

James IV has been depicted in historical novels and short stories. They include:[30]


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Family of James IV of Scotland
16. Robert III of Scotland
8. James I of Scotland
17. Anabella Drummond
4. James II of Scotland
18. John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset
9. Joan Beaufort
19. Margaret Holland
2. James III of Scotland
20. John II of Egmond
10. Arnold, Duke of Gelderland
21. Maria van Arkel
5. Mary of Guelders
22. Adolph I, Duke of Cleves
11. Catherine of Cleves (1417–1479)
23. Mary of Burgundy
1. James IV of Scotland
24. Christian V, Count of Oldenburg
12. Dietrich, Count of Oldenburg
25. Agnes of Hohnstein-Heringen
6. Christian I of Denmark
26. Gerhard VI, Count of Holstein-Rendsburg
13. Helvig of Schauenburg
27. Catherine Elisabeth of Brunswick-Lüneburg
3. Margaret of Denmark
28. Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg
14. John, Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach
29. Elisabeth of Bavaria
7. Dorothea of Brandenburg
30. Rudolf III, Duke of Saxe-Wittenberg
15. Barbara of Saxe-Wittenberg
31. Barbara of Legnica


  1. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  2. Macdougall, Norman, James IV, pp. 5-7.
  3. Lindsay of Pitscottie, Robert, The History of Scotland, Robert Freebairn, Edinburgh (1778), 149.
  4. Macdougall, Norman, James IV, (1997), p.254: Letters James IV, SHS (1953) p.xlii, 107-111: Pinkerton, John, History of Scotland from the Accession, vol.2 (1797), p.449, prints Wolsey's letter in full and attributes it to Nicolas West.
  5. Macdougall, Norman, James IV, Tuckwell (1997); chapter 'Royal Obsession: The Navy', pp. 223–246.
  6. Dunbar, John G., Scottish Royal Palaces, Tuckwell (1999).
  7. Calendar of State Papers, Spain (1485–1509), volume 1 (1862), no. 210, English translation from Spanish: See original letter at Archivo General de Simancas,PTR,LEG,52,DOC.166 - 857V - Imagen Núm: 2 / 26
  8. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  9. Dalyell, John Graham, ed., The Chronicles of Scotland by Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, vol. 1, Edinburgh (1814) pp. 249–250.
  10. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, vol. 3, HM General Register House (1901), 99, 202, 206, 209, 330, 340, 341, 353, 355, 365, 379, 382, 389, 409: vol. 2 (1900), 362.
  11. Mackie, R.L., James IV, (1958), 76, 188–198.
  12. MacDougall, Norman, James IV, (1997), 176–177.
  13. MacDougall, Norman, (1997), 179–181.
  14. MacDougall, Norman, James IV, (1997), 185.
  15. MacDougall, Norman, (1997), 185-186.
  16. MacDougall, Norman, James IV, (1997), 189.
  17. MacDougall, Norman, James IV, Tuckwell (1998) p.207
  18. British History Online. Quote: "James had told the Dean of Windsor (West), the English ambassador, that he would appeal from the letters of execution [of the Scottish interdict]. The Dean said he could not appeal from any proceedings of the Pope, as he had no superior. Then, said the King, I will appeal to Prester John—a noted pirate and apostate who commands the French galleys. [Henry VIII thinks] such folly ought to be chastised. It is impious to abuse the Pope, the Head of Christendom." (12 April 1513 entry)
  19. Hannay, Robert Kerr, ed., Letters of James IV, SHS (1953), 307–8, 315–6, 318–9.
  20. Calendar of State Papers, Spain,(1485–1509), volume 1 (1862), no. 210, English translation from encryptyed Spanish
  21. Herbert, Edward, The Life and Reign of Henry VIII,(1672), 45: Letters & Papers Henry VIII, vol.1 (1920) no. 2469, Leo X to Henry.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  23. Aikman, James, Buchanan's History of Scotland, vol. 2 (1827), 259 note, quoting Stow's Survey of London on St Michael, Cripplegate ward.
  24. Find a Grave — James IV King of Scots
  25. Hay, Denys, Letters of James IV, HMSO (1954), 252, 8 Dec. 1533: Mynors, RAB., ed., Collected Works of Erasmus, Adages, vol. 3, Toronto, (1991), 240–243, Adage 2.5.1 Spartam nactus es, trans. English
  26. Adam de Cardonnel, The Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 4, August (1786) 112, & Numismata Scotiae, (1786), 83 notes both legends: Pitscottie, History of Scotland, Glasgow, (1749), 214: Spencer, Nathaniel, The Complete English Traveller, (1772), 575: Archaeologia Aeliana, vol. 3, (1859), 228
  27. Bain, Joseph, ed., Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, 1357–1509, vol. 4, HM Register House, Edinburgh (1888), nos. 1681, 1690–1697.
  28. The Peerage — James IV
  29. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.[self-published source][better source needed]
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 Nield (1968), p. 61.
  31. Internet Archive, Open library online version of The Yellow Frigate, or The Three Sisters
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 Nield (1968), p. 67.


  • James the Fourth, Norman Macdougall (2006 with two earlier editions, regarded as definitive).
  • King James IV of Scotland, R.L. Mackie (1958, the most important previous biography).
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  • James IV in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004, Vol. 29, pp. 609–619

Primary Sources

  • Accounts of the Comptroller, Sir Duncan Forestar, 1495–1499, Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, vol. 9 (1958), 57–81. In Latin.
  • Bain, Joseph, ed., Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, 1357–1509, vol. 4, HM Register House, Edinburgh (1888)
  • Flodden Papers, 1505–1517, ed. Marguerite Wood, Scottish History Society, (1933), French diplomatic correspondence (does not refer to the battle).
  • Letters of James IV, 1505–1513, ed. Mackie & Spilman, Scottish History Society (1953), English summaries of international letters.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
James IV of Scotland
Born: 17 March 1473 Died: 9 September 1513
Regnal titles
Preceded by King of Scots
11 June 1488 – 9 September 1513
Succeeded by
James V
Preceded by Lord of the Isles
Succeeded by
James V of Scotland
Scottish royalty
Preceded by Heir of Scotland
as heir apparent

17 March 1473 – 11 June 1488
Succeeded by
James Stewart, Duke of Ross