James IV brought unity, international status and the Renaissance to Scotland but his foreign policies proved his downfall.

James IV
James IV

James encouraged artists, musicians and writers at his court. The first printing press was established in 1507.  His reign was also a time of peace and prosperity. His parliament passed the first compulsory education act in 1496.

He was born on 17 March 1473 and created the Duke of Rothesay. He probably enjoyed a comfortable quiet life and a good education. He lived with his mother, Margaret of Denmark, and his two brothers at Stirling. His father James III visited frequently. The king and his queen had lived apart for several years.

James’s mother died in July 1486 at Stirling Castle. He was thirteen years old.


His father became increasingly hostile. James feared for his life so he left Stirling Castle on 2 February 1488 without the King’s knowledge or permission. Rebel nobles appointed James as the figurehead of their rebellion against his father.

Model of The Great Michael
Model of The Great Michael

James III was killed at Sauchieburn, but his actual death remained a mystery. Parliament offered a reward of 100 marks to identify his killer but to no avail.

Yet James assumed responsibility for his father’s death. He wore an iron belt as penitence.

Fifteen-year-old James IV was crowned at Scone on 24 June 1488 the day before his father’s funeral at Cambuskenneth.

James was not handsome, but he was of medium height, with a good physique and clear skin. He was a strong character who was highly intelligent, well-educated and multilingual. He was also a heavy gambler who suffered intermittently from Depression. James showed a keen interest in practical, scientific and medical matters. He granted a royal charter to Edinburgh’s new College of Surgeons in 1506.

He loved showing off his dentistry skills. He paid 14 shillings to extract patients’ teeth instead of billing them.

Scotland’s Golden Age

James established dockyards on the river Forth and built up Scotland’s navy for defence and to protect merchant shipping. The Great Michael—the largest wooden ship ever built—was completed in 1511.

Linlithgow Palace © Carolyn M Cash
Linlithgow Palace © Carolyn M Cash

He travelled around Scotland as he presided over local courts and settled disputes between his subjects.

He was popular because he raised revenue without antagonising his subjects, and only summoned Parliament when necessary. He refurbished Linlithgow and Sterling in the new Italian and French styles.

James had numerous affairs and fathered several illegitimate children.

His support of the pretender Perkin Warbeck eventually led to a peace treaty with England’s Henry VII, and marriage with his eldest daughter, in 1502. Peace lasted until Henry VII’s death in 1509.

James married Margaret Tudor in a lavish ceremony in Edinburgh on 9 August 1503. He continued his philandering ways. Only one child survived – the future James V born in 1512. Marriage brought James a step closer to the English throne.


Pope Julius II formed the Holy League in 1511—England, Spain and Venice—to curb France’s growing power-base. Louis XII prevailed upon James to renew the ‘Auld Alliance’.

Henry VIII invaded France in May 1513. Louis XII sent an envoy with money, arms and experienced captains to help James train a Scottish army.

James notified Henry of his intent to invade. Henry sent an army, led by veteran Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, to fight the Scots.

The Scots invaded on 22 August with a well-equipped army (25,000 men). They fought in terrible weather and lost five thousand compared to English losses of 1,700. James and “the flower of the nobility,” were slaughtered.

James’ body was mutilated beyond recognition. Henry VIII denied burial after it was sent to London. Catherine of Aragon sent James’ blood-soaked surcoat to her husband as a trophy.

His son James became king at eighteen months old, with Margaret as Regent.


Maclean, Fitzroy, A Concise History of Scotland, (1970) Thames & Hudson Ltd, London UK, Second Revised Edition, 2000

Magnusson, Magnus, Scotland: The Story of a Nation, HarperCollins Publishers, Hammersmith UK, 2000

Menzies, Gordon (Editor), In Search of Scotland, Polygon, Edinburgh, 2001

Oram, Richard (Editor), The Stewarts: Kings and Queens of Scotland 1371-1625, The History Press, Stroud UK, 2002

Perry, Maria, Sisters To The King, Carlton Publishing Group, London, 1998 (Reprinted 2002)

Ridley, Jasper, Henry VIII, Constable and Company, London, 1984

Ross, Stewart, The Stewart Dynasty, Thomas & Lochar, Nairn, 1993

Wilkinson, Philip, The British Monarchy for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester, 2006

© 2008 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 3 August 2008.

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