James II of Scots killed at Roxburgh

Richard Cavendish remembers the death of an ill-fated medieval Scottish king, on August 3rd 1460.

Posthumous portrait of James II of Scotland; oil on panel

Known as ‘James of the fiery face’ for the bright red birthmark that covered a whole side of his countenance, James II was one of the most forceful of the Stewart rulers. Just six when his father James I was murdered in 1437, all through his childhood and adolescence the Douglases vied with other nobles for control of him. He was 18 when he married a niece of the Duke of Burgundy, Mary of Gueldres, in 1449 and took charge of matters for himself.

With a temperament as fiery as his face, James loved hunting, tournaments and war. He was fascinated by artillery and the Duke of Burgundy gave him the Mons Meg siege gun, which is still at Edinburgh Castle. Short of money until he killed the Earl of Douglas with his own hands in 1452 and then confiscated the Douglas estates, he used the income to support his own effective government. He also had to deal with the English, whose fingers were in Scotland’s pie. While cultivating alliances abroad and negotiating with both the Yorkists and the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses, James assaulted Berwick in 1455, mounted a sally into Northumberland in 1456, raided the English-held Isle of Man and attacked Berwick again in 1457. 

The English had long possessed Roxburgh Castle in the Borders and in 1460 James led an army to besiege it. He was standing close to one of his prized cannon when he ordered it to be fired, possibly to salute the arrival of Queen Mary. The cannon exploded and James was mortally wounded. According to Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, writing a hundred years later, his thigh was snapped in two and he was ‘stricken to the ground and died hastily’. He was 29 years old. Roxburgh Castle fell to his forces a few days later.