Being a king of Scotland was no easy task. Before the British Act of Union in 1707 Scotland was a poor country on the fringes of Europe that constantly had to assert its sovereignty and independence in the face of constant pressure from its larger and more powerful neighbour: England.
This pressure was often violent and the king not only had to keep England at bay but also try to assert his authority amongst his fractious nobles who constantly vied for power. Consequently, the life of a Scottish king was often nasty, brutish and short and it did not help if your regal name was James.
There have been seven kings of Scotland called James and they dominated Scottish history between 1406 and 1688, with a couple of Charleses and a certain Mary peppered in between. All of them belonged to the House of Stewart and of the seven monarchs, five ruled in direct succession between 1406 and 1542. All of them led tragic lives with most meeting a sticky end and it is surprising that people did not say there was a curse on the name.
James I (r.1406-37) set the tone for the calamities to come. When he was twelve years old his father Robert III attempted to send him to France to protect him from the plots of his ambitious uncle but his ship was captured by the English en route and Henry IV of England imprisoned him. Robert III reportedly died of grief when he heard the news and James became king in captivity in 1406. He remained a ‘guest’ of the English for 18 years and didn’t return to Scotland until 1424. James attempted to rule justly but alienated his nobles who resented his strict system of government.
A plot was hatched to murder him and on 20 February 1437 assassins attacked James in his bedchamber. He tried to escape through a sewer but he had recently blocked a part of it off to prevent tennis balls escaping and he was caught and murdered with 16 stab wounds.
James was succeeded by his six-year old son James II (r.1437-60). The new king was a tough character who brutally asserted his power over his nobles. On one occasion he participated in the gruesome murder of the Earl of Douglas where the earl’s brain was cleaved out with an axe. However, James’s time ran out when he got involved in the English Wars of the Roses and attempted to retake Roxburgh Castle.
James was fascinated by artillery and used cannon to bombard the fortress. One of them accidentally exploded next to him and the king’s thighbone was decapitated. James died quickly afterwards.
His nine-year-old son James III (r.1460-88) became a weak monarch who displeased his subjects by pursuing unpopular English alliances and was arrested on one occasion by his disgruntled nobles. Eventually they broke out in open rebellion with the king’s eldest son James as their figurehead. James III was defeated at the Battle of Sauchieburn and killed soon afterwards, reputedly by a rebel pretending to be a priest. His heir James IV(r.1488-1513) later regretted his role in the rebellion and wore a heavy chain around his waist for the rest of his life as a penance.
James IV’s reign was notably more successful than his predecessors. He could speak several languages and was the last Scottish king to speak Gaelic. James was a notably effective ruler who built a strong navy and was an advocate of the printing press. Scotland benefitted from having a Renaissance king but ultimately he suffered the same grisly fate as his forebears. In 1513 he invaded England while Henry VIII was campaigning in France and suffered a disastrous defeat at Flodden where he became the last British king to be killed in battle. His body was found with many wounds from arrows and billhooks. Once again the new King of Scotland was a minor (17 months old) and also called James.
Like his father, James V (r.1513-42) was quite an accomplished monarch who was nicknamed the “King of the Commons” in reference to his reputed concern for his subjects and was a patron of the arts. However he too was destroyed by wars with Henry VIII. Henry was James’s uncle and expected his nephew to join in the disestablishment of church revenues that were consuming England. When James refused to do the same in Scotland war broke and the Scots were heavily defeated at Solway Moss in 1542. James’s health, which was already wracked with fever, broke down completely after the defeat and he died three weeks later leaving a six-day old daughter to inherit the throne. The infant girl was proclaimed as Mary, Queen of Scots.
For the first time since 1406 a King James did not rule Scotland but it only took 25 years for another James to ascend the throne. Mary’s rule was contentious from the start. For half of her reign she was an absentee queen who lived abroad and married the King of France and when she returned to Scotland after his death she quickly became unpopular thanks her poor marriage decisions and her stubborn Catholic faith in a country that had converted to Protestantism in her absence. She was forced to abdicate in 1567 and fled to England where she was imprisoned by Elizabeth I before being executed in 1587. Her successor was another infant and again called James but unlike his mother and the James’s before him, this king would be successful and more importantly, survive.
James VI (r.1567-1625) is one of the most important monarchs in British history. He was the only son of Mary and her dangerously stupid husband Lord Darnley who had been murdered shortly after his birth. After his mother’s abdication and exile James grew up without parental guidance but reached his majority in the 1580s. In 1603 he also became King James I of England upon the death of Elizabeth I and the two kingdoms suddenly shared the same monarch. James was a conflicting personality whose faults were legion but he was also relatively enlightened.
On the negative side he was an enthusiastic witch-hunter, did little to alleviate the persecution of Catholics in his kingdoms, had poor relations with Parliament and had appalling manners. However, he advocated a political union between England and Scotland a century before it happened, preferred peace over war, was a keen patron of William Shakespeare, commissioned the King James Bible and was an early fierce critic of tobacco smoking for health reasons. This seemingly split personality resulted in him being nicknamed, “the wisest fool in Christendom” and when he died in his bed in 1625 he achieved what all other previous King James’s had failed to do: survive and leave a peaceful kingdom with an adult heir. Indeed, he had gone much further and died the ruler of three kingdoms: Scotland, Ireland and England.
The trouble was his heir was Charles I who inherited James VI’s belief in the Divine Right of Kings and managed to lose his kingdoms and his life in a vicious civil war with the English Parliament that engulfed the entire British Isles. Charles’s fatal mismanagement of dealing with Parliament would result in a final coda to the curse of King James.
The last King James of Scotland was Charles’s second son James VII (also II of England). Like his father and grandfather James had notoriously difficult relations with Parliament and like his great-grandmother Mary he was a fervent Catholic, which put him at great odds with his Protestant subjects. Within three years of his succession he was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” by the combined forces of Parliament and William of Orange and James fled into permanent exile in France. The Stewart dynasty, which had ruled in Scotland since 1371, was now on the way to dynastic oblivion and James VII died in 1701 a very disappointed man. The curse was complete and there has never been another King James of Scotland.