Friday, May 22, 2015

James III and the Second Battle of Bannockburn

by Louise Turner

James III of Scotland
Everyone knows the Battle of Bannockburn, fought in 1314 between the Scots and the English. The Second Battle of Bannockburn isn’t so well known – it was renamed, in fact, in 1655, perhaps to avoid confusion with its more celebrated predecessor. Known today as ‘The Battle of Sauchieburn,’ it was fought in more or less the same location as its more illustrious predecessor. But that’s where the similarity ends. The Second Battle of Bannockburn took place on the 11th June, 1488, and it was fought not between the Scots and their Auld Enemy England, but by two Scots armies fighting - on the one side - for the reigning King James III and on the other for his son and heir Prince James, Duke of Rothesay.

The details of the battle are unclear, though it seems to have been as much a series of small-scale skirmishes as an organised engagement, but its consequences were grave nonetheless. By its end the reigning King of Scots was dead and his army routed, leaving his son to succeed to the throne unchallenged.

The Battle of Sauchieburn tends to be overlooked, perhaps on account of the qualities of the young man who gained most from it. Prince James, Duke of Rothesay went on to become one of Scotland’s finest medieval kings: James IV. Though he’s often remembered as much for his untimely and unfortunate demise at Flodden (along with around 10,000 of his men), the positive impact James had upon his nation cannot be underestimated. He promoted Renaissance flair throughout his kingdom: a keen patron of the arts and sciences, he was a cultured and intelligent prince who longed to dazzle on a European stage, and to a certain extent he succeeded, with buildings like Linlithgow Palace rivaling contemporary equivalents across Europe.

But there’s no escaping it. The beginning of James IV’s reign was at best murky, at worst extremely suspect. Though to be fair, the death of James III wasn’t exactly his doing – it was more happy accident than carefully-engineered assassination. In its aftermath, the new regime took great pains to distance themselves from the killing. James IV himself made prominent acts of atonement: throughout the rest of his life, he publicly sported an iron chain around his waist as an acknowledgement for the part he played, and his coronation procession was led by a man carrying St Fillan’s bell, a holy relic reputed to cure mental affliction. James’s coronation, incidentally, took place on an auspicious day - the anniversary of Bannockburn #1.

Rather than reflecting genuine remorse, the regime’s collective contrition was probably undertaken more to reassure the wider circle of European monarchs, for whom regicide would never have gone down well. It also helped to mollify James III’s supporters, who still posed a very real threat to the fledgling regime a year or so later. Alongside these expressions of regret came justification, if not for James III’s death, then for the rebellion against his rule. James IV’s government were quick to accuse James Senior of ‘dissaitful and perverst counsale on the one hand, and ‘the inbringing of Inglsmen to the perpetuale subiccieone of the realm’ on the other (MacDougall, 2009, 335). Fingers were also pointed at those who’d assisted in the provision of this ‘dissaitful and perverst council’ in the last few years of James III’s life. Chief offenders were the former Lord Advocate, John Ross of Montgrennan and one of his closest familiars, Sir John Ramsay, Earl of Bothwell. Tellingly, both men fled to England when the battle turned in the rebels’ favour, where they were welcomed at the court of Henry VII. There they seem to have busied themselves in the task of actively supporting a fifth column against James IV’s rule: unrest continued during the early years of James IV’s reign , though with the return of Montgrennan and his subsequent appointment to the Privy Council a year or so later the dust finally settled on what had been an inauspicious period in James’s kingship.

James III’s death at Sauchieburn followed six disastrous years throughout which his authority was progressively eroded. The rot started in 1482, at an incident in Lauder. This has earned historical notoriety, not for James’s role in it, but for the actions of Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, who was much later dubbed ‘Bell the Cat’ for the leading part he allegedly played in it. James had mustered the host at Lauder to counter a very real threat from south of the border, but instead suffered a rebellion amongst his nobles and then saw a number of his closest advisers hanged. The same John Ramsay of Bothwell who later fled the country after Sauchieburn was also present here: aged just eighteen at the time, he supposedly escaped death by clinging tightly to the king, who begged fervently for the young man’s life to be spared.

The debacle at Lauder conveys the impression of an ineffective monarch railroaded by his nobility, but - as MacDougall meticulously points out - James’s reign prior to this point could hardly be classed as an unmitigated disaster (MacDougall 2009). To begin with, he’d proved himself both a competent and a decisive ruler. Not bad going considering the unfortunate circumstances which led to his inheritance: he had the misfortune to come to the throne as a minor aged 8 years of age, succeeding when his father James II lost his life at the Siege of Roxburgh, killed by an exploding bombard.

Once he reached his perfect age, he showed much promise. He regained Berwick from the English, while, closer to home, he managed to squash the ambitions of the powerful Boyd family, which had been challenging his authority in much the same way as the Black Douglases had his father’s almost two decades previously. He also acquired Orkney and Shetland through his marriage to Margaret of Denmark, bringing territorial expansion to Scotland which had been hitherto undreamed of.

By the 1480s, these early successes had been forgotten, eclipsed by a number of perceived shortcomings that were not limited to deceitful and perverse council and the inbringing of Englishmen.

James is often remembered as a keen patron of the arts and arguably Scotland’s first Renaissance king: amongst the favourites who died at Lauder were an architect named Thomas Cochrane (who’d recently been appointed Earl of Mar) and also the court tailor. This suggests that the nobility who turned on James that day were a bunch of brutal thugs who were pathologically opposed to Renaissance culture and thinking, but if this is the case, why did many of the same men wholeheartedly embrace these same principles during the succeeding reigns of James IV and V? It’s true that James IV was exceptionally charismatic, but this whole argument can be overplayed.

Instead, James III’s unpopularity was rooted far more deeply. His failures had nothing to do with culture, and everything to do with politics and economics. Thomas Cochrane may have been an architect, but his main crime was to have been born from lowly stock. His presence at the king’s side was an insult to those members of the nobility whose place had been usurped by someone of lesser status. Coupled with this was another major source of dissatisfaction: throughout his reign, James increasingly debased the coinage, adding ever greater quantities of copper to the once-silver low denomination coins and creating the so-called ‘black money.’ This was certainly a source of criticism in contemporary chronicles written around the time of the Lauder crisis (MacDougall, 2009, 183).

Seen in this context, I think we can probably accept that it wasn’t James’s luxury-loving Renaissance lifestyle with its patronage of fine arts and architecture that was the problem – it was instead the amount of money he was perceived to have spent on it. He was accused both of hoarding wealth and of being avaricious and miserly. This added to the list of grievances felt at every level in society, from the highest to the lowest in the land.

Hot on the heels of this financial mismanagement was his remoteness. As his reign progressed, he ran an increasingly centralised government from Edinburgh, dispensing justice from this single location. This was counter to the ideal vision of medieval kingship, where the ruler toured the land in person and participated in justice ayres. Such processions across the kingdom encouraged personal interaction with the monarch and gave the impression, at least, of a ruler who cared and who was listening. As time passed, James became increasingly cloistered within ‘Fortress Edinburgh,’ with access to his person restricted to all but a select few. With decisions made by this close band of favourites, it is perhaps small wonder that increasing numbers of his nobility were feeling disenfranchised.

Coupled with this was the loss of Berwick. James had negotiated the town’s return early in his reign, but this victory was short-lived: in 1480 diplomatic relations with Edward IV (who once again raised the thorny issue of English overlordship) broke down and an English army was sent north on his behalf. Led by the future Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester, it also contained James’s exiled brother the Duke of Albany, there with the expectation of seizing the throne from the beleaguered king.

James certainly made strenuous efforts to regain his lost territory by force: the mustering of the host at Lauder was undertaken with the direct of aim of raising an army which might march south and engage Gloucester and Albany in battle. Instead, James found himself taken bodily to Edinburgh Castle and incarcerated there for two months, trapped while Gloucester rode as far as Edinburgh and indeed into the city itself, where others conducted negotiations on the king’s behalf.

Berwick was lost during Gloucester’s onslaught, but only five years later, Richard himself was dead on Bosworth Field. With Henry VII as yet insecure upon his throne, a substantial portion of the Scots nobility (and perhaps the wider populace, too) no doubt felt that James should have been using this period of relative insecurity to press for the return of their territory by invading England, if needs be.

But James, it seems, was still hamstrung by recent events, preferring now to rely upon negotiations.

All these factors hindered James’s popularity, but even together they might not have been sufficient to see him deposed. One last flaw in his kingship proved his undoing. He seemed incapable of recognising good loyal service from those closest to him, and incapable to an even greater extent of rewarding it.

An example of such behaviour can be seen in his treatment of Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll. After serving in James’s council for twenty years, Campbell was appointed Chancellor in 1483. Campbell’s loyalty could not be described as unswerving – his allegiance had wobbled in the aftermath of the Lauder incident, and he’d been one of the individuals who’d negotiated with Gloucester at Edinburgh when James himself was incarcerated in the castle.

Not long before that final decisive clash at Sauchieburn, Campbell was removed from his post. At the very least, this was a short-sighted move, for it alienated a man whose household performed a crucial role as a buffer between the Scots-speaking mainland and the Gaelic-speaking Isles. But Argyll’s influence extended over a much broader area. His Campbell kinsmen also held an important office in south west Scotland: they were the hereditary Sheriffs of Ayr. The Argyll Campbells had also strengthened their power-base in this area by marrying into the Montgomerie family: in the years immediately preceding Sauchieburn, Argyll’s son-in-law Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie was embroiled in a legal battle with his local rivals, the Cunninghames, over his inherited titles of Bailie of Cunninghame and Constable of Irvine. James III clearly favoured the Cunninghames in this dispute: just weeks before Sauchieburn, James created Alexander Cunninghame Earl of Glencairn (MacDougall, 1997, 36). These actions were sufficient to make both Argyll and Montgomerie join the rebels, and in the end, it cost Glencairn his life, for not only did Montgomerie take an active part in the battle, but he also appears to have been directly responsible for Glencairn’s death.

This fuelling of local feuds and resentments was replicated throughout the realm, and if that wasn’t ill-judged enough, James III coupled it with similar disdain for his eldest son and heir, James, Duke of Rothesay. The death of Queen Margaret in 1486 soon provoked rumours that she’d been murdered on the orders of her husband: at the same time, Prince James found himself progressively stripped of powers and authority by his father, who favoured instead his second son. It’s small wonder that the prince felt compelled to join the rebels. At the time, he may have been genuinely afraid for his future if not indeed his life.

Until recently, it was assumed that Prince James (later James IV) was an unwitting accomplice in the Sauchieburn rebellion. He was a hapless child at the time, just fifteen years old. He appears to have been seized by the rebels at Stirling, where he was subsequently paraded as a hostage and then set up as a puppet king. But James was intelligent, and able and charismatic. I suspect he was fully in command of the situation and he knew full well what he was doing. Perhaps his father, growing increasingly unpredictible and erratic, left him no other choice.

Cambuskenneth Grave
But on the evening of the 11th June, 1488, the crisis ended. The king’s men were routed, and James III fled the field, hoping to escape to England. Tradition states that James III fell from his horse and was injured. He called for a priest, but the robed figure who came to take his final confession was an imposter: instead of providing succour and comfort, the so-called ‘priest’ stabbed and killed his king. A few weeks later James III was laid to rest in Cambuskenneth Abbey with all the pomp and ceremony customarily bestowed upon a monarch, the mourners led by his contrite son. But the killer was never found, nor was there ever any real appetite to pursue them.

(For those interested in reading more about James III and James IV, I can suggest no better introductions than the masterly biographies penned by former Senior Lecturer at the University of Saint Andrews, Norman MacDougall, which formed the basis for this essay and which I found inspirational when I was writing my novel Fire and Sword. They provide a modern, in-depth account of both men, revised in the light of contemporary research, and above all, they are both eminently readable. Full details are included in the bibliography given below.)


MacDougall, N, 2009 James III Birlinn (Edinburgh)
MacDougall, N, 1997 James IV Tuckwell (Edinburgh)

James III: By Anonymous ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edinburgh Castle: By David Monniaux (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.
Cambuskenneth Grave: Adtrace at English Wikipedia [CC BY 2.5 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in the west of Scotland where she attended the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in Archaeology, she went on to complete a PhD on the Bronze Age metalwork hoards of Essex and Kent.  She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management.  Her initial expertise in prehistoric archaeology has expanded over the years to include the medieval and modern periods, and she recently authored a paper on Thomas Telford, James Watt and their contribution to the evolution of Glasgow’s water supply, published in last year’s Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Writing fiction has always been an important aspect of her life and in 1988, Louise won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story Busman’s Holiday.  Her debut novel Fire and Sword, published in 2013 by Hadley Rille Books, recreates real characters and events  and is set in the turbulent early years of James IV’s reign.  Fire and Sword explores the challenges faced by a Renfrewshire laird, John Sempill of Ellestoun, whose father is killed defending the murdered King James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in June 1488 .  Louise, who lives in west Renfrewshire with her husband,  has recently completed her second novel, a follow-up to Fire & Sword provisionally titled The Gryphon at Bay.



  1. For those historical fiction readers interested in the reign of James III, it is the backdrop to the latter half of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series which starts with "Niccolo Rising". The focus of the series shifts to the Scotland of James III with the books The Unicorn Hunt, To Lie With Lions, Caprice and Rondo and the final book of the Series, Gemini, which which the Lauder Bridge events play a significant part. James's marriage to Margaret of Denmark and the relationships with the Boyds all feature prominently in the series.

    1. Absolutely! Here's a confession: when I started writing historical fiction, I hadn't read any DD. I eventually bought my first DD novel a decade ago (Pawn in Frankincense) , couldn't get into it because I couldn't stand Lymond, but patiently waded through Niccolo Rising because I felt, "So many readers can't possibly be wrong."

      It still didn't do it for me, but this year, I tried again. I read 'Niccolo Rising' a second time, found it like getting through wholemeal porridge (wholesome, nutritious, satisfying and good for you). Then, halfway through 'The Spring of the Ram,' the moment that I suspected would arrive all along actually happened. Something clicked and I am now well and truly hooked.

      The researching of this post was quite amusing. As I read up on James III once again (bear in mind I'm currently reading 'Spring of the Ram' for the first time...), I stumbled across references to 'Anselm Adorne,' and suddenly, the brilliance of DD's novels from the historical (as opposed to the literary) perspective was made clear to me.

      In fact, I think I appreciate her work all the more having researched and written novels in the same general period myself - sometimes, I stumble across a little kernel of detail in this historical record and think, "Ah-hah! So that's where you got that from!"

  2. What a great post! Thank you for this entertaining and thorough presentation into a dismal father-son relationship and its consequences.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.