May you live in interesting times

James II, 1430-1460, ruled Scotland between 1437 and 1460, and could certainly be said to have lived in interesting times. His father was assassinated and he inherited the throne at the age of six, when he fell into the hands of powerful Scottish families. On his marriage in 1449 he assumed his royal duties and began to exert power himself. His struggles with the powerful Douglas family led him to stab the 8th Earl of Douglas to death, and he later attacked the family's castles, and confiscated their lands. His attempts to subdue English castles in Scotland led to his dramatic death at Roxburgh Castle in 1460.

The assassination of James I

James I had grown unpopular after recent military defeats, raising taxes, and restricting the nobility. While staying at a Dominican priory in Perth in February, 1437, he was betrayed by Sir Robert Stewart, the king's chamberlain and cousin, who let the killers into the king's presence. Stewart had suffered his father's death while a hostage in James's custody, as had Sir Robert Graham, the leader of the eight assassins.

The king nearly escaped by using a poker to lift floorboards and lowering himself into a vault beneath his room, but his overweight body could not squeeze through the sewer below. Queen Joan was hurt when she and her servants tried to bar the door as the men burst in. The king was hacked to death after a fight, and the killers escaped, though hotly pursued.

In March, 1437, his six-year-old son, James II, was crowned at Holyrood Abbey, the first Scottish king not to be crowned at Scone. That day, Stewart and Graham, along with the earl of Atholl, were executed at Perth.

The young king

In August, 1439, Sir Alexander Livingston imprisoned Queen Joan and took custody of young James. In September that year he fell into the hands of Sir William Crichton, the Scottish chancellor and commander of Edinburgh Castle. In order to strengthen his hold on the king, Crichton murdered the earl of Douglas and his younger brother in November, 1440.

August, 1444, was to see civil war break out in Scotland as Crichton, Queen Joan, and Bishop Kennedy of St Andrews joined forces against William, earl of Douglas and the powerful Livingston family. Queen Joan died in July of 1445. She was a Beaufort and member of the English royal family, and her death made a Franco-Scottish alliance possible.

Conflict with the Douglases

The alliance with the French was renewed in December, 1448, and James II married Mary of Gueldres in Flanders in 1449 in order to strengthen the alliance. He then took on his royal duties, and began to restore his authority by seizing the Livingston estates. A truce with the English was renewed in November, 1449.

Once James had assumed personal rule, he began to move against the powerful Douglas family, especially during the winter of 1450-51, when William Douglas was in Rome on a pilgrimage to celebrate the papal jubilee. James seized the Douglas earldom of Wigtown, but was forced to reconcile with Douglas during the Edinburgh parliament of June, 1451, the other Scottish nobles having been rather alarmed at James's actions. Wigtown was returned to Douglas in October.

The murder of the earl of Douglas

Following the affair over Wigtown, William Douglas sought allies with the earls of Crawford and Ross, and made a bond, or pact, with them. The king summoned Douglas to Stirling to explain his actions, but Douglas's mistrust led him to demand a safe conduct before he would attend. On 22 February, 1452, discussions grew heated, and James stabbed the earl. His courtiers and attendants followed his lead, and Douglas's body was stabbed 26 times before it was thrown out a window.

On 17 March, James, the new 9th Earl of Douglas, brought 600 men to Stirling, where he denounced James II for the murder of Douglas's brother, renounced his allegiance, and sacked the town. The king attacked Douglas castles in response, but an uneasy peace was agreed in January, 1453.

In March, 1455, the battle was joined, as the king attacked the castles of Inveravon and Abercorn, and ravaged Douglas lands in Avondale. A party of southern lairds attacked the Black Douglases at Arkinholm on 1 May, and Archibald, earl of Moray, and Hugh, earl of Ormond, were killed. Threave Castle fell in July 1455, and parliament formally forfeited the family.

James's reign after the Douglases

After his defeat of the Douglases, James II carried out various raids into Northumberland, Roxburgh, Berwick, and the Isle of Man. He negotiated with Norway over the future of the Western Isles, and allied himself with the Yorkists against King Henry VI in the War of the Roses.

English raiders burned Kirkcudbright (pronounced "Kirk-cood-bree") on Scotland's southwest coast in 1457 in retaliation for a Scots attack on the Isle of Man in 1455. A huge siege cannon called "Mons Meg" was delivered to Edinburgh Castle, also in 1457 - this was a present from Philip of Burgundy, James's nephew-by-marriage.

James had problems with the economy, however, with poor harvests and high inflation. At one point parliament forbade the striking of new coins, inflation was so high.

James's reign ends with a bang

James's life and reign were to end quite definitely with a bang rather than a whimper. While besieging Roxburgh Castle on 3 August, 1460, Queen Mary visited the siege, and a salvo was arranged by the royal artillery. One of the cannons exploded, and James was killed immediately.

James was succeeded by his son, James III, who was crowned a week later, at the age of eight. Once more Scotland would be ruled by a child king in uncertain times.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 1994-2000
The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Oxford University Press, 2001
Chronicle of Britain, Chronicle Communications Ltd, 1992