James IV of Scotland

James IV of Scotland
March 17, 1473 – September 9, 1513

James IV of Scotland was born on March 17, 1473, to King James III and Queen Margaret. In Scotland, the king was regarded as a disinterested and inept ruler. From his castle in Edinburgh, James ignored his advisors, failed to enforce the law, and allowed his kingdom to become unstable. However, the king’s most unpopular decision was to pursue an alliance doggedly with England. Despite the resistance, James agreed to a peace treaty with King Edward IV of England in 1474. As part of the treaty’s terms, Prince James would marry Edward’s daughter, Princess Cecily, when they came of age.

As James III’s popularity declined in the 1480s, Prince James grew up at court. Unlike his distant father, the prince’s mother took an active interest in her son. Perhaps to prevent James from becoming like the king, Queen Margaret oversaw the prince’s education. James would go on to master several languages as part of his curriculum. As a result, the prince became a scholarly individual compared to his father.

During the early 1480s, James III’s actions alienated not only his government but his own family. Resentful of their brother, Alexander, Duke of Albany, and John, Earl of Marr, openly criticized the king. In response, James accused his brothers of treason. Although John died under suspicious circumstances, Alexander escaped to France before he could be captured. Alexander later invaded Scotland with England’s support, but his revolt collapsed after Edward IV’s death in May 1483.

King of Scotland

After returning to power, James III quickly proved that he had learned nothing from his ordeal. The king prosecuted the rebels, continued his unpopular policies, and alienated his heir, James. For whatever reason, the king had begun favoring his second son, also named James, as his heir instead of his first born. After Queen Margaret’s death in July 1486, Prince James began to fear that he would lose his status as heir. By 1488, discontent against James’s terrible rule led to another revolt. This time, it would be nominally led by his son, Prince James.

On June 11, 1488, James III led a royalist army against his rebellious nobles. Prince James acted as the rebel’s figurehead leader, although the extent of his involvement in the rebellion is unknown. Regardless, the Battle of Sauchieburn proved to be a disaster for the royalists. During the fighting, the king was killed, and the royalist army was crushed. Although indirectly responsible for his father’s death, the newly crowned James IV of Scotland felt an immense amount of guilt. To atone for his sin, the new king would wear a weighted iron belt for the rest of his life.

Despite the tremendous amount of guilt he felt, James IV quickly embraced his new position. Before his minority ended in 1495, the king continued his education, learning about his government and how to rule properly. By the time he began his independent reign, James was more than qualified to lead his kingdom. Like his grandfather, James II, the king possessed a political mind and could adapt. These positive qualities provided hope to the Scots, who believed James would be a better king than his father.


Unlike the remote James III, James IV took an active approach to governing. To make himself more available, the king regularly traveled throughout Scotland. The royal party quickly gained a reputation for rapidly moving throughout the kingdom. James oversaw matters of justice, settled disputes, and made himself available to his subjects. While traveling, the king made stops at various monasteries, demonstrating his piousness. Although outwardly religious, James’s motivation was to pray for forgiveness for his father’s death.

To create a more inclusive government, James IV gave his nobles advisor positions. This arrangement benefited the king as it allowed him to avoid summoning parliament. James disliked parliament and viewed them as factions who fought amongst themselves for power. To raise funds without calling parliament, the king looked into alternative ways to make money. Through appraising and repossessing forfeit lands, James steadily increased royal income with little interference from parliament.

Henry VII of England

Henry VII of England
Henry VII of England

South of Scotland’s borders, King Henry VII reigned in England. After defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry established the Tudors as England’s new dynasty in August 1485. Although victorious, Henry’s position remained shaky as he was seen by many as a usurper. Seeking to capitalize on the Tudor’s instability, James IV broke a previous truce between the kingdoms in 1495. The Scottish king supported Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne. Over the next two years, sporadic battles occurred along the kingdom’s borders until a truce was agreed to in December 1497.

A practical monarch, Henry VII understood how vulnerable his northern border was. The king sought to create a lasting peace with Scotland to protect the border better. Offering James IV of Scotland his eldest daughter, Margaret, in marriage, Henry hoped to strengthen England and Scotland’s relationship. In turn, the Scottish king agreed to a treaty, the first between the kingdoms since 1328. Sealing the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, James married Margaret on August 8, 1503. An important benefit of the king’s marriage to the Tudor princess was that James was now in line to the English throne.

Final Decade

Over the next ten years, James IV and Margaret had six children, although only their fourth child, James, survived. On April 21, 1509, Henry VII succumbed to illness and died. Upon his father’s death, Henry VIII succeeded to the English throne. Although initially peaceful, the relationship between the new king and James quickly cooled. Within two years of Henry’s accession, James openly allied himself with England’s old enemy, France. As part of the Auld Alliance, both kingdoms promised to aid each other in times of war.

James IV had shown favoritism towards France as early as 1502, the year the Treaty of Perpetual Peace was signed. The French had helped the Scottish build their navy into a prestigious force by providing shipwrights, supplies, and money. To make matters worse, the king had painted various border disputes as English aggression. By the time James had begun publicly expressing support for France, it was little surprise to anyone.

When Henry VIII invaded France on June 30, 1513, James IV duly raised an invasion force in response. Against his advisor’s protests, the king decided to lead his army personally. In northern England, the Scottish captured four castles in August. However, their success would be short-lived. On September 9, the Scottish army suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Flodden. James, along with many of his nobles, died fighting on the marshy field.


James IV of Scotland had a prosperous 25-year reign that restored Scotland’s prestige and renewed faith in the monarchy. Throughout his reign, the king was an active administrator and a capable ruler. A well-educated individual, James made sure to learn from past mistakes and adapt. In turn, the king involved his nobles in governing, bringing stability to Scotland. Tragically, James’s early death would undo much of the peace and stability he had worked so hard to maintain.


Oram, R. (2006). The Kings & Queens of Scotland. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus.

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). James IV. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-IV-king-of-Scotland


Andy Tree

I'm a European history enthusiast who seeks to share his passion with others. I hope to inform and inspire readers with my posts!

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