James II was born on October 16, 1430, to King James I and Queen Joan. After his elder brother died in infancy, James became his father’s heir. During James I’s reign, the Scottish nobility were alienated by his policies. As a result, a group of nobles sought to kill him. In February 1437, the nobles assassinated the king. Upon his father’s death, the prince ascended to the throne as King James II.
King of Scotland
At six years old, the new king was too young to rule. Since he couldn’t lead yet, the Scottish government lost its stability. In response, three noble families (the Livingstons, Douglases, and Crichtons) began fighting for control. Although the king’s mother attempted to remain regent, Joan eventually lost her position in 1439.
During the 14440s, the three families continued to scheme. On November 24, 1440, an infamous incident occurred. At Edinburgh Castle, the young William, 6th earl of Douglas, and his brother, David, met with James II. During dinner, the Douglas boys were seized against the king’s protests. Shortly after, the Livingstons and Crichtons had the Douglases killed. As a result, William’s great-uncle, James, became the 7th earl of Douglas.
During July 1449, James II married Mary of Guedres. Mary was Duke Philip of Burgundy’s niece. Due to her uncle’s status as one of Europe’s wealthiest rulers, the king’s marriage brought prestige to Scotland. The union also provided Scotland with new trade opportunities and access to Burgundian weapons. Shortly after, James began formally ruling on his own. Like his father, the king focused on restoring royal authority.
In 1450, the king ordered a review of the royal finances. James II suspected the Livingstons of financial mismanagement. In response, the king formally charged them for their crimes. As the Livingstons lost their power, James seized their estates and wealth. Next, the king turned his attention towards the Douglases.
The Douglases initially had an uneasy relationship with James II. Despite being a Livingston ally, William, 8th Earl of Douglas, had profited from their downfall. However, the king later came into conflict with the earl. During the winter of 1450, William traveled to Rome. While he was away, James seized the Douglas’ earldom of Wigtown in 1451.
The Douglases had originally acquired Wigtown without royal approval. Although the king legally claimed the earldom, his real motive was to curb the Douglases’ expansion plans. When William returned in October, the earl made a grand gesture of loyalty. In return, the king reluctantly gave Wigtown back to William.
Despite publicly reconciling, the two men’s relationship remained strained. James II worked to undermine William by actively courting his men. Meanwhile, the earl searched for new allies against the king. To this end, William allied himself with Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Crawford, and John Macdonald, Earl of Ross. Upon discovering this bond, an alarmed James summoned the earl to court.
Murder at Court
On February 21, 1452, William arrived at Stirling castle. Fearing for his safety, the earl had requested safe-conduct before he appeared. At that point, James II’s relationship with William had become hostile. During their discussions, the king became enraged. Out of anger, James attacked the earl and stabbed him to death. Due to William’s unpopularity, the king’s fellow attendants soon joined in.
In retaliation for the earl’s death, William’s brother, James, marched to Stirling with an army and burned down the town. Although the king had left two days prior, the burning of Stirling convinced him to increase security. To protect his family, James sent his pregnant wife to St. Andrews. During May 1452, the queen gave birth to the king’s heir, James.
Raids in the South
After William’s death, his brother, James, became the 9th earl of Douglas. Despite their unpopularity, the loss of William didn’t cause the Douglases to lose power. In June 1452, James II decided to launch raids of the Douglas lands in southern Scotland. Although the king intended to destroy Douglas support, his actions instead alienated the southern nobility. As a consequence, the king’s advisors urged him to make peace with James. On August 28, 1452, the king reluctantly agreed.
Having learned from his failures, James II decided to take a different approach against the Douglases. The king offered Douglas men patronage and rewards for their loyalty to him. Through his efforts, the family’s former allies gradually abandoned them. James steadily reduced Douglas power until 1455. In March, the king made a final assault against the family. At Threave, James captured the Douglas’ last stronghold, finally breaking their power. By June, the family’s wealth and lands were acquired by the king.
After the Douglases downfall, James II successfully restored domestic stability to Scotland. With his kingdom secured, the king began focusing on England. In 1455, England had descended into a civil war known as the War of the Roses. The Lancastrians, led by King Henry VI and Queen Margaret of Anjou, were challenged by the Yorkists, led by Richard, Duke of York. Seeing an opportunity to exploit, James launched a military campaign.
The king’s army raided Berwick and the Isle of Man but achieved limited success. However, James II regrouped in 1460 and attempted to recapture Roxburgh. During this campaign, the king used Burgundian cannons to assault the castle. On August 3, while James stood beside one of his cannons, it exploded. Mortally wounded by the explosion, the king died shortly after.
James II began his reign under his nobility’s control. Through his efforts, the king gradually overcame each of them. By breaking the nobility so thoroughly, James ensured that his successors wouldn’t face such a threat again. Using the defeated noble’s wealth, the king consolidated his power. Having re-established royal authority in Scotland, James left a secure kingdom for his heir, James III.
Oram, R. (2006). The Kings & Queens of Scotland. Gloucestershire: Tempus.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, July 30). James II. Retrieved August 06, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-II-king-of-Scotland