The National (Scotland)
On James V and the potential legacy lost with the monarch’s early death
ASINGLE Scottish dynasty ruled from when Robert Bruce laid the foundation for the House of Stewart in the Middle Ages. It had outlasted four English ones – Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor – by the time James VI arrived in London to stake his claim to the throne in 1603.
A dynasty offers the state security of succession. Scotland’s was a success, England’s a failure.
James V, who reigned from 1513-42, came to the throne as an infant, after the death of his father, James IV, at the Battle of Flodden. By the latter’s will, the guardian of the new king and interim ruler of the realm was to be his mother Margaret, who was also the sister of Henry VIII.
It is hard to think of a more benign partnership for ruling neighbouring countries in troubled times than brother and sister. Henry seemed to expect Margaret to take orders from him, but he deceived himself there. She sought wider freedom when in 1514 she married a second time, to Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. At least, as a long minority loomed, Scotland’s only frontier would stay quiet while the rulers on each side adjusted to the delicate situation.
The Stewarts still needed re-assurance. The nearest male source of it was John Stewart, 2nd Duke of Albany. Actually, he was a Frenchman and unlikely to put up with any English nonsense. He had been born to the son of James III’s exiled brother Alexander and his French wife. He was heir presumptive to the Scottish throne.
For his domestic needs, James V had a team of servants supervised by the Lord Lyon King of Arms,
Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount. The versatile Lyndsay claimed credit for teaching the young monarch music, dancing, games and storytelling. Lyndsay was the author of The Satire of the Three Estates – a play that continues to win acclaim in modern revivals. Edinburgh had no theatre at the time, so it was performed on the slopes of Calton Hill. It is hard to believe young James did not look on from Holyrood.
Eight of Lyndsay’s earliest surviving poems were written for the king and are set at his court. They cast some light on his character, revealing his boisterous nature and sexual promiscuity.
Mention is also made of chivalric tournaments, court ceremonies and even the royal pets. In 1540 an interlude added by Lyndsay was performed for the king at Linlithgow. At his behest, anti-clerical poetry was also written by the reformer George Buchanan, a tutor to the royal household from 1536-39.
In general, the literary patronage of the court was of high quality. During the king’s minority the scholars John Mair and Hector Boece dedicated their histories of Scotland to him. Both works were scholarly neo-Latin tomes with humanist influences.
But Mair’s work, which advocated a union of England and Scotland, never won favour from the king, who preferred the forthright nationalism of Boece. James commissioned John Bellenden to translate Boece’s history into Scots, along with a classical parallel volume, Livy’s History of Rome.
If he looked up from his books, the king liked to devote himself to the cult of chivalry. During a state visit to Paris, he spent his spare time jousting with the Dauphin.
At home, tournaments were staged to mark all the major celebrations of the reign. James felt particularly proud of his membership of the most prestigious European orders of chivalry, the Golden Fleece, the Garter and St Michael. Their insignia were carved above his new gateway at Linlithgow Palace alongside the emblems of the Scottish Order of the Thistle. Albany made room for these interests by limiting the king’s formal education beyond the age of 13, on the grounds that a clever student was more likely to cause trouble in the Scottish kingdom. James found plenty to amuse himself in riding, shooting, tennis, archery and swordplay. He never mastered Latin or French but expressed himself in Scots and composed poetry in his country’s common language. It was ordered he should be instructed in the techniques of sexual intercourse, and that would keep him busy too.
He was also a practising musician. He played the lute, could sight read vocal scores and employed a staff of minstrels. The consort of viols was first introduced to Scotland under his patronage. The best composer of the day was Robert Carver of Scone Abbey. A recently rediscovered charter book contains 50 examples of his signature and suggests he spent the whole of his long life as a choirmaster. The only surviving piece dedicated to the king is the motet Si quis diligit me by David Peebles, a canon of
St Andrews who later set the psalms for use in the new Kirk.
Under James V, then, Scotland came to look altogether more European. His buildings followed the architectural fashions of the Renaissance. He spent lavishly to give the palace of Holyroodhouse ornate towers on the western front, borrowed straight from the high Gothic style of the Dukes of Burgundy.
At Linlithgow and Falkland he added an Italianate classicism that came through employing French masons. The new block at Stirling Castle of about 1540 looks as if it might have been put up in Paris. The humanity of the age comes out in the Stirling Heads, the series of carved roundels on the ceiling of the king’s presence chamber.
In the policy of the state, James showed he was able to keep up with an age of reform in Europe. His priority was to enforce royal authority and justice all over Scotland. Justice had to be administered effectively.
IN 1531-2, the chancellor, Gavin Dunbar and the royal secretary, Sir Thomas Erskine, drew up the plan of a College of Justice as a permanent professional tribunal for civil cases. A papal bull of 1531 authorised taxation of the Scottish clergy to pay for it. In 1532 James presided at the inauguration of the College in Edinburgh.
The king had already decided in his teens that he was old enough to take over government from his mother and the Earl of Angus. Margaret had anyway tired of Angus and applied in Rome for a divorce, not least so that she could marry a third Stewart, called Henry. But she needed royal consent for this, and James replied to her request by locking Stewart up till Margaret handed back to the crown the ownership of Stirling Castle.
James began to look for a bride and he turned to France. Six potential consorts were discussed. In 1536 James got an offer not, as was hoped, of a daughter of the French king, but of an alternative maiden among the royal cousins, still prestigious yet of a slightly lower rank. She was Marie de Bourbon, daughter of the Duc de Vendome. James sailed to France to meet her but was not impressed.
After high diplomatic negotiations a match was agreed between him
and the princess Madeleine de Valois. They were married in Paris on January 1, 1537. The day before the wedding James was given a royal procession in the French capital as if he had been the Dauphin. This marriage was a triumph not only for the Scottish king but also for the international status of his realm.
Unfortunately, Madeleine died at Holyrood only six months later. James’s request for a replacement was met with Marie de Lorraine, or Mary of Guise, daughter of Claude, Duc de Guise, and widow of Louis, Duc de Longueville, She married James V at St Andrews on June 17, 1538.
Mary of Guise turned out to have been the best of the candidates. She at once started producing offspring. Two baby boys did not survive but their third child, born at Linlithgow Palace on December 8, 1542, became within a few days Mary, Queen of Scots upon her father’s death. And through her and her son James VI (James I of England), the Scottish dynasty proved once again a success, if often cutting things fine, while all English dynasties proved to be failures. And so the Scots at length took the crown of England.
James V has often been ignored or dismissed in standard British histories. But then nearly all British histories treat Scottish monarchs as insignificant. Had James lived to consolidate and develop his remarkable achievements, his historical reputation might have been saved. In the event, his death at the age of 30 cut off in his prime a promising prince of the European Renaissance, as good as a Medici, a Valois or a Habsburg and better than most Tudors.
The Scottish dynasty proved once again a success, if often cutting things fine, while all English dynasties proved to be failures