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James IV: Renaissance Monarch

In September 1513 the fourth James Stewart became the last king to die in battle on British soil. Linda Porter argues that his life and achievements deserve a more positive reassessment.

James IV with a falcon, a copy by Daniel Mytens of a contemporary portraitThe intermittent upheaval known in England as the Wars of the Roses has coloured our view of the 15th century, yet north of the border the Scots were no strangers to the difficulties posed by unsuitable monarchs, long minorities, overmighty subjects and rebellion. Stability was an elusive dream in Britain at the beginning of the early modern era. But while the rise of the Tudors after Bosworth brought a new dynasty to England, the Stewarts, who had occupied the throne of Scotland since 1371, were beset by their own family troubles.

In June 1488, just three years after Henry VII’s unlikely victory in the English Midlands, James IV became king on the battlefield of Sauchieburn south of Stirling, close to the spot where Robert Bruce had won his great victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314. At the age of just 15, James was in rebellion against his own father, the remote, austere and unpopular James III, who perished in mysterious circumstances, probably murdered while trying to flee the fighting. No one was ever brought to justice for this act and the Scottish parliament preferred to let it pass, noting merely that James III had ‘happened to be slain’. His son, taken to bury his father at the abbey of Cambuskenneth by the powerful nobles who had led the revolt, subsequently wore an iron belt as penance for James III’s death.

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