Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/James II of Scotland

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JAMES II (1430–1460), king of Scotland, son of James I [q. v.] and Jane [q. v.], was born on 16 Oct. 1430, and succeeded to the throne of Scotland on his father's murder on 21 Feb. 1437. He was crowned at Holyrood, in the parliament of Edinburgh, on 25 March 1437. An act of this parliament revoked alienations of crown property since the death of the late king, and prohibited them, without the consent of the estates, till the king's majority. The queen retained the custody of James and his sisters. Archibald, fifth earl of Douglas [q. v.], was regent or lieutenant of the kingdom; John Cameron, bishop of Glasgow, appears to have continued chancellor. The chief power was in the hands of two of the lesser barons, Sir William Crichton [q. v.] and Sir Alexander Livingstone [q. v.] The queen, afraid of the growing position of the former, removed the king to Stirling in the beginning of 1439, concealing him, it is said, in a chest when she left Edinburgh Castle ostensibly for a pilgrimage to White Kirk. She placed herself and her son under the protection of Livingstone, and a general council at Stirling, on 13 March 1439, passed measures to strengthen the hands of Douglas, as lieutenant of the king, against Crichton. But Livingstone made terms with his rival under conditions which led to Crichton superseding Cameron as chancellor, while Livingstone retained Stirling and the custody of the king.

The death in 1439 of the Earl of Douglas, and the queen's marriage to James Stewart, the knight of Lorne, in the same year, afforded an opportunity and a pretext to Livingstone to seize the persons of the queen and her new husband, who were placed in strict ward in Stirling Castle on 3 Aug. They were released on 4 Sept. only by making a formal agreement to resign the custody of James to the Livingstones, by giving up her dowry for his maintenance, and confessing that Livingstone had acted through zeal for the king's safety. The barons soon fell out. Crichton kidnapped the king in Stirling Park, and brought him back to Edinburgh Castle. His next act was to kidnap and execute William, sixth earl of Douglas [q. v.] Four days after, Fleming, the old baron of Cumbernauld, brother-in-law of Murdoch, the regent in the reign of James I, an ally of the house of Douglas, was executed. The great rivals to the Stewarts, the Douglases, whose estates were partly forfeited to the crown, partly divided between the male and female heirs, were rendered for a time powerless. But in 1443 William Douglas (1425?–1452) [q. v.] became eighth earl, and soon after the chief companion of the king. On 20 Aug. 1443 Douglas, in the king's name, besieged and razed to the ground Barnton, near Edinburgh, the seat of Sir George Crichton, the admiral, brother of the chancellor. A council-general at Stirling on 4 Nov., at which James for the first time presided in person, outlawed both Sir William, the chancellor, and Sir George, and deprived them of their offices. Douglas was allowed, by marrying his cousin, the Fair Maid of Galloway, to reunite the female to the male fiefs of his house. Three years of civil war followed, in which the rivals harried each other's lands. The king, or Douglas in his name, held, with the aid of Livingstone, Linlithgow and Stirling, where James continued to live, while Crichton maintained himself in the castle of Edinburgh. The marriage of the king's sister Mary to the Lord of Camp-Vere, the betrothal at Stirling of his sister Annabella to Philip, a son of the Duke of Savoy, and the death of his mother at Dunbar on 15 July 1445, appear to have had no immediate influence on his life. His two other sisters were sent about the same time to the court of France, where they arrived shortly after the death of their eldest sister, Margaret [q. v.], the wife of the dauphin. On 14 June a parliament met at Perth, but adjourned apparently to the town tolbooth at Holyrood while Douglas besieged Edinburgh Castle for nine weeks. Crichton capitulated on good terms, his offences being condoned; and then, or shortly after, on the death of Bruce, bishop of Glasgow, in 1447, he again became chancellor. A sentence of forfeiture pronounced in the castle of Edinburgh against James, earl of Angus, on 1 July 1445 proves that the king must have been by that date in possession of the castle. Before Christmas he had retired to Stirling, where he kept the festival. During 1446 and 1447 the compromise between the factions of Crichton, Livingstone, and Douglas continued, and the chief offices of state remained in their hands, or in those of members of their families.

In 1447 Mary of Gueldres was recommended by Philip the Good as a suitable bride for James. The negotiations began in July 1447, when a Burgundian envoy came to Scotland, and were concluded by an embassy under Crichton the chancellor in September 1448. Philip settled sixty thousand crowns on his kinswoman, and her dower of ten thousand was secured on lands in Strathearn, Athole, Methven, and Linlithgow. A tournament took place before James at Stirling, on 25 Feb. 1449, between James, master of Douglas, another James, brother to the Laird of Lochleven, and two knights of Burgundy, one of whom, Jacques de Lalain, was the most celebrated knight-errant of the time. The marriage was celebrated at Holyrood on 3 July 1449. A French chronicler, Mathieu d'Escouchy, gives a graphic account of the ceremony and the feasts which followed. Many Flemings in Mary's suite remained in Scotland, and the relations between Scotland and Flanders, already friendly under James I, consequently became closer.

In Scotland the king's marriage led to his emancipation from tutelage, and to the downfall of the Livingstones. In the autumn Sir Alexander and other members of the family were arrested. At a parliament in Edinburgh on 19 Jan. 1450, Alexander Livingstone, a son of Sir Alexander, and Robert Livingstone of Linlithgow were tried and executed on the Castle Hill. Sir Alexander and his kinsmen were confined in different and distant castles. A single member of the family escaped the general proscription—James, the eldest son of Sir Alexander, who, after arrest and escape to the highlands, was restored in 1454 to the office of chamberlain to which he had been appointed in the summer of 1449. The parliament sat from 19 Jan. 1450 to the end of the month. Its acts show that the influence of the Douglas party, with whom Crichton the chancellor was now reconciled, was dominant; but also that the estate of the church, headed by Kennedy, bishop of St. Andrews, the king's cousin, and Turnbull, the new bishop of Glasgow, was rising into power, and that the king himself could no longer be treated as a cipher. Several statutes of his father's reign were reenacted, and eighteen added, the most important of which provided for the proclamation of a general peace throughout the realm; the penalties of rebellion and treason, and of trespass by officers in the execution of their offices; the endurance of leases, notwithstanding sale or mortgage of the lands, and against spoliation or harrying of crops and cattle—enactments much needed in favour of the poor labourers of the ground; against sorners and masterful beggars; against the building of towers and fortalices; for the administration of civil and criminal justice, the revision of the laws, and the preservation of the purity of the coinage. Before the parliament rose a special charter was granted, at the request of the queen and the bishops, giving the latter the right of disposing of their goods by testament. A series of charters of lands in favour of the Earl of Douglas were confirmed. Crichton the chancellor and his brother the admiral also received considerable grants of land.

This legislation proves that James was prepared to govern in his father's spirit, as a king of the nation against breakers of the law, however powerful. In November he had some quarrel with the Earl of Douglas. During Douglas's absence in Rome James seized and demolished Douglas Craig, one of his castles, besieged others, and forced his vassals to swear fealty to the crown. Douglas, on his return in 1451, made peace with James, and at the parliament of Edinburgh on 25 June obtained a re-grant of his estates. In spite of these favours, he intrigued with the English court, and in the autumn the existence of a bond between Douglas and the Earls of Crawford and of Ross against all men, not excluding the king, was discovered. The lawless acts of Douglas forced James to take decisive measures against his too powerful vassal. Douglas was induced, by a safe-conduct under the privy seal, to visit the king at Stirling on 21 Feb. 1452. James received him well, entertaining him at dinner and supper on the following day, Shrove Thursday. But after supper, at seven o'clock, James led him to an inner chamber, challenged him with the existence of the bond with the earls, charged him to break it, and on Douglas's refusal stabbed him with a knife. On 17 March James, the brother and heir of the murdered earl, with a band, rode through Stirling and denounced the murderer. James was then at Perth, on his way against the Earl of Crawford. Before they met, Crawford had been defeated at Brechin Muir by the Earl of Huntly on 17 May. ‘Far more were with the Earl of Huntly than with the Earl of Crawford, because he displayed the king's banner’—a significant proof that James, like his father, was more popular than the great earls. On 12 June 1452, in a parliament at Edinburgh, James denied having given a safe-conduct to Douglas. The estates absolved the king of breach of faith, and declared Douglas had been justly put to death. The earl's brothers, however, posted a letter of defiance on the door of the parliament hall. The Bishop of St. Andrews, Crichton, and other barons who joined in the declaration received grants of land, and several of them were raised to the dignity of peers. It is noted by the chronicler that some of the grants of land were made by the king's privy council, and not by parliament. The Earl of Crawford, who had joined the bond with Douglas, was attainted in the same session. Immediately afterwards the king, having assembled his feudal levy on Pentland Muir to the number of thirty thousand, marched south, and wasted the Douglas lands in Peebles, Selkirk, and Dumfries. The raid, however, led to the submission of James, the new earl of Douglas [see Douglas, James, (1426–1488) ]. In the spring of 1453 James led his forces north of the Tay, and received an equally speedy submission from the Earl of Crawford, who died soon after. As James had already made terms with Ross, the formidable confederacy of the three earls was dissolved, and the crown was strengthened by the new nobility against any attempt to revive it. The deaths in 1454 of Crichton the chancellor, of his son (lately created earl of Moray), and of his brother forced James to rely still more upon himself, and upon Bishop Kennedy as his principal adviser. But the Earl of Douglas was still intriguing with the English. In the beginning of March 1455 James resolved anew to crush the Douglases. After demolishing their castle of Inveravon, James passed to Lanark, where he defeated Douglas. He then wasted with fire and sword Douglasdale, Avondale, and the lands of Lord Hamilton in Lanark, and returned to Edinburgh. From Edinburgh he went south to the forest of Ettrick with a host of lowlanders, destroying the castles of all who would not take the oath of fealty. Coming back to Edinburgh, he laid siege to the castle of Abercorn, on the Forth, in the first week of April, when Lord Hamilton, acting on the advice of his uncle, Sir James Livingstone, came and made his submission, in return for which he was appointed sheriff of Lanark. Before the end of the month Abercorn was taken by escalade. Meantime men ‘wist not wheare the Douglas was.’ On 1 May his three brothers, the Earls of Ormonde and Moray and Lord Balvenie, were signally defeated at Arkinholm, now Langholm, on the Esk, by the king's lowland forces. The head of Moray was brought to James at Abercorn; Ormonde was captured and executed. Douglas Castle and other strongholds surrendered, and Threave, the chief seat of the earl, in Galloway, alone remained untaken. Against it James directed the whole strength of his artillery, including the great bombard, perhaps Mons Meg, which he had imported from Flanders. The Earl of Orkney at first commanded the siege, but James went in person before the surrender of the castle.

Parliament met at Edinburgh on 9 June 1455, and Douglas, his mother the Countess Beatrice, and his three brothers were attainted, and their whole estates forfeited. The sentences show that the rebellion extended from Threave in Galloway to Darnaway in Elgin, and included the fortification of castles in nearly every county. The following parliament of 4 Aug. passed an act of attainder, which, besides uniting to the crown the earldoms of Fife and Strathearn, forfeited in his father's reign, renewed the grant of the whole customs; declared the king's right to the royal castles of Edinburgh, Stirling, Dumbarton, Inverness, and Urquhart, and annexed the forfeited Douglas lordship of Galloway and castle of Threave, and the lordship of Brechin, which the Earl of Crawford had held, as well as a number of highland baronies, several of them in Ross. By these great accessions of territory James became more powerful than any former king, and for the short remainder of his reign was, in fact, almost an absolute monarch in Scotland. Parliament was summoned to Stirling on 13 Oct., for the third time in 1455, a proof how greatly the king relied on its support. The parliament of Stirling was almost exclusively occupied with measures to secure the kingdom against the English, with whom war had already broken out in the course of the summer, as a sequel of the suppression of the Douglas rebellion. In November an embassy under the Bishop of Galloway was sent to France pressing for immediate assistance, and suggesting that the French should attack Calais, and the Scots Berwick, simultaneously. Henry VI, or those who governed in his name, addressed, on 26 July 1455, a threatening letter to James, ‘asserting himself to be king of Scots,’ and announcing the intention of the English king to chastise him for his rebellion. The falsehoods as to Scottish homage collected by Edward I were about this time resuscitated, and added to by the forgeries of John Hardyng [q. v.] and Palgrave's ‘Documents illustrating the History of Scotland,’ pp. cxcvi–ccxxiv. James answered these threats by a raid in the autumn of 1456, advancing as far as the Cale or Calne, a tributary of the Teviot. Interrupted by what Boece calls the fraudulent promise of the English ambassadors, who appear to have represented themselves as having authority from the pope to prohibit wars between Christian powers, James retreated, but returned within twenty days, and ravaged Northumberland with fire and sword, destroying, according to the ‘Auchinleck Chronicle,’ seventeen towers and fortalices, and remaining in England six days and nights. Between 26 Sept. and 1 Oct. he was hunting in the neighbourhood of Loch Freuchie, north of Glenalmond. On 19 Oct. he was back again in Edinburgh, where the parliament made further provision for the defence of the realm. Regulations were also laid down as to the pestilence in burghs and the administration of justice in certain places by a committee of the three estates. It is noticeable that the two last acts seem to have passed, at the king's instance, with the special consent of the clergy. The burghs probably at the same time imposed on themselves a large tax, to be paid in Flemish money, and raised it by a Flemish loan. These measures for self-defence were the more necessary as the French king, Charles VII, though making professions of attachment to James, had pleaded the more urgent necessities of his own kingdom, and declined to aid in the English war.

On 6 July 1457 a truce was concluded between James and Henry VI, to last till 6 July 1459 by land, and 28 July by sea. It was important for James to have time to reduce the northern parts of his kingdom to order, and for Henry that Scotland should preserve at least an armed neutrality in view of the probable renewal of Yorkist intrigues. There are no charters under the great seal between 25 July 1457 and 30 April 1458, which may perhaps correspond to the period James spent in the highlands. While there he was busily occupied with building castles; he repaired that of Inverness, completed the great hall of Darnaway which Archibald Douglas, the earl of Moray, had begun, and placed that castle under the charge of the sheriff of Elgin. About the same time he gave a life-rent right of Glenmoriston and Urquhart, with the custody of its castle, to the young Earl of Ross. Ross's half-brother, Celestine, was made keeper of the castle of Redcastle, and his ally, Malcolm Mackintosh, chief of the clan Chattan, was gratified with gifts of land and the commutation of a fine. These favours were granted through the influence of Lord Livingstone, Ross's father-in-law, now chamberlain, who, on the king's coming south to Linlithgow, received an extensive charter of lands in three counties, and his hereditary castle of Callendar.

In the spring of 1458 the marriages of James's sisters, Annabella and Joanna, the former to George Gordon, heir of the Earl of Huntly, and the latter, though dumb, to James Douglas, third lord Dalkeith, who was created earl of Morton, still further strengthened the crown.

The most important parliament of his reign was held in Edinburgh on 6 March 1458. It formally instituted a supreme and central court for civil justice, although it was still to meet at three places, Edinburgh, Perth, and Aberdeen, and provided that the judges, representatives of the three estates, were to pay their own expenses, apart from what could be recovered as fines. Annual circuits of the justiciary court were also to be held, for the good of the commons, and abuses of their extensive jurisdiction by the lords of regality to be put down. The chamberlain ayres, which sat in the burghs, were to be reformed, because ‘the estates, and specially the poor commons,’ had been sorely grieved by their procedure, and the extortion of fines by the royal constables or their deputies suppressed. Other statutes showed an anxious desire on the part of James to remedy abuses and to protect the poorer classes against the great lords and his own officers. Another chapter of legislation related to the tenure of land, and although it did not first introduce the tenure called ‘feu farm,’ gave legal security to the farmers who took feus against the casualty of ward, and greatly encouraged that useful modification of feudal holding. Its short preamble, that it was expedient that the king should set an example to other landowners, was carried out in practice, for we find many charters of feu granted by James, especially in Fife. There were also statutes for the reform of coinage, of weights and measures, of gold and silver work, and to prevent adulteration by goldsmiths. A commission was instituted for the reformation of hospitals. The smaller freeholders, under 20l. rent, were relieved from attendance at parliament, which was deemed a burden, not a privilege. Better provision was made for the promulgation of the statutes by the sheriffs and commissioners of burghs. It is clear from the tenor of the acts of this parliament that James II is entitled, as much as his father, to the character of a reformer. In February 1459 a further prolongation was concluded of the truce with England, for nine years, to 6 July 1468 by land, and to 28 July by sea.

Towards the end both of 1458 and 1459 parliaments were held at Perth, but nearly all the acts of these last two parliaments of the reign appear to have been destroyed or lost. No records of either kingdom are extant to support the probable statement of Boece that Douglas and Northumberland made, in 1459, an unsuccessful raid on the Scottish border; or that of Bishop Leslie, that Henry VI sent ambassadors to treat with James, and offered to restore to Scotland the counties of Northumberland, Cumberland, and Durham, as the price of his help against the Duke of York. It is certain that James threw his whole influence on the Lancastrian, and Douglas on the Yorkist, side. His maternal uncle, the Duke of Somerset, was killed fighting for Henry at the battle of St. Albans, and after the defeat and capture of Henry himself at Northampton in July 1460, his wife and son fled to Scotland. A renewal of the war with England followed. James brought his whole lowland forces to besiege Roxburgh, and the artillery which had been specially prepared for use against the English castles. Reinforced by the highlanders under the Earl of Ross and the Lord of the Isles, he reduced the town and was on the eve of taking the castle, when on Sunday, 3 Aug. 1460, while he was watching the discharge of a bombard, a wedge flew out, killed him on the spot, and wounded the Earl of Angus, who stood near. His wife courageously prosecuted the siege, and the castle was soon after taken. The young prince was brought to Kelso, and crowned in its abbey, while the corpse of James was carried to Holyrood, and was buried there. He was only thirty years of age at his death. He left three sons (James III, Alexander Stewart, duke of Albany (d 1485) [q. v.], and John Stewart, earl of Mar (d 1479) [q. v.]) and two daughters, one of whom was afterwards married to Thomas, master of Boyd, created earl of Arran, and after his forfeiture to Lord Hamilton, who succeeded to the Arran earldom.

James was a vigorous, politic, and singularly successful king. He was popular with the commons, with whom, like most of the Stewarts, he mingled freely, both in peace and war. His legislation has a markedly popular character. He does not appear to have inherited his father's taste for literature, which descended to at least two of his sisters; but the foundation of the university of Glasgow in his reign, by Bishop Turnbull, perhaps shows that he encouraged learning; and there are also traces of endowments by him to St. Salvator's, the new college of Archbishop Kennedy at St. Andrews. He possessed in a high degree his father's restless energy. A blemish, a red mark on one side of his face, gained him the name of the ‘Fiery Face,’ and appears to have been deemed by contemporaries an outward sign of a fiery temper. The manner of the death of Douglas leaves a stain on his memory; but it was an age of violence and treachery, against which violence and treachery were regarded as lawful weapons.

A portrait of James II in the castle of Kielberg, near Tübingen, was engraved for George von Ehingen's ‘Itinerarium,’ 1660, and in Pinkerton's ‘Iconographia,’ where it is erroneously described as a picture of James I.

[There is no contemporary historian except the brief Chronicle printed by Mr. Thomas Thomson from the Asloan MS. in the Auchinleck Library. John Major and Hector Boece were born shortly after his death, and their histories, and the later history of Lindsay of Pitscottie, supplement the imperfect contemporary records. The Records of Parliament and the Accounts of Exchequer are, however, more than usually valuable in estimating the character of the reign, and as a check on the frequently untrustworthy statements of Boece.]

Æ. M.