15th Century Scotland
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Scottish history, while the houses of Lancaster and York were occupying the throne of England, is a somewhat dreary record. When Robert III died, in 1406, his successor on the throne, James I, was a boy of eleven, and was, moreover, a captive in the hands of the English king. From that time until more than two hundred years afterwards, when Charles I succeeded to the crown of Scotland and of England, every Scottish sovereign was a child when he or she succeeded to the crown, and only one was over twelve years of age.
Of the whole series, not one attained to the age of five-and-forty except the last, James VI of Scotland and I of England. During, the eighty years now under review there were three kings of Scotland. James I spent the first eighteen years of his nominal reign in captivity; thirteen years after his return to Scotland he was murdered. James II was then six years old; he was killed by the bursting of a cannon before he was thirty. James III was eight years old, and was killed in a baronial revolt at the age of thirty-six, three years after the accession of the first Tudor.
The effect of the Regencies
Each of the three reigns involved a long regency, and a regency commonly meant a prolonged struggle for ascendency between baronial factions. Under such conditions no country could prosper, and history to a great extent degenerates into a record of deeds of violence.
When King Robert died, his brother, Robert, Duke of Albany - it will be remembered that the king's real name was John - became regent. He was already an old man, almost seventy years of age. Although he has been much vilified, the fourteen years of his rule as regent seem to show him as, on the whole, a praiseworthy administrator.
The head and front of his offending was his failure to procure the liberation of his nephew and king; and it is not unreasonable to find for this some excuse in the fact that he failed also for ten years to procure the release of his own son, Murdach, who had been taken prisoner at Homildon Hill. Albany, in fact, managed to keep the peace among the barons, refused to tax the commons, and accomplished nothing serious to the detriment of England.
The Battle of Harlaw
The most notable event of his rule was the great battle of Harlaw, at which Donald, Lord of the Isles, met with a great defeat. The Isles, it must be remembered, were populated by Celts and Celticised Scandinavians; they had not definitely recognised the sovereignty of the King of Scots until the reign of Alexander III., and although the Lord of the Isles in Bruce's day had lent King Robert valuable assistance at Bannockburn, his descendants, and half Celtic Scotland, scarcely looked upon themselves as subjects of the Scots king, and only recognised a hazy sovereignty. If disunited amongst themselves by tribal rivalries and division, still tradition, customs, and language set a. wider gulf between them collectively and the Normanized "Saxons" of the south and cast.
The occasion of Donald's rising was a claim to the earldom of Ross; but it has been very commonly looked upon as a bid for Celtic supremacy. Donald raised a great Highland host, and was marching upon Aberdeen when he was met by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar. At the "Red Harlaw" there was a terrible slaughter; both sides claimed the victory) but the practical effect was that Donald retired, and the Highlands and Lowlands were never again pitted against each other until the days when the Highlanders were themselves the champions of the house of Stuart.
At the close of his long life, when Henry V was bringing all northern France beneath his rule, Albany sent succours to the ancient ally of Scotland which played a creditable and valorous part in the French struggle. It was a Scottish force which inflicted the first great defeat upon the English at the Battle of Bauge in 1420; it was Scottish troops that bore the brunt of the fighting when Bedford won his victories at Crevant and Verneuil; there were Scots with Joan of Arc at Pataye; and a Scottish historian has remarked, with justifiable pride, that the Scots alone were loyal to the Maid of Orleans to the last.
But all these doings came after the old Duke of Albany was dead. From 1420 to 1424 his incompetent son, Murdach, took his place as regent. Then James I returned to his country to find it in a ghastly state of misrule and disorder, which he attributed, somewhat unjustly, to the iniquities of his uncle and cousin. His eighteen years in England had taught him a good deal; he resolved at all costs to restore order in his own land; and the first condition of doing so was to establish the royal authority over the turbulent nobility.
The house of Albany was popular with the commons, and the king gained no general favour by striking at it. But the policy he adopted was to strike, and strike hard, at the most powerful and the most turbulent. Albany himself, and others of his kin with sundry of the leading nobles, were brought to the block.
The king's arbitrary rule stirred up fierce personal animosities against him; but his band was strong, and his aims were just, whatever may be thought of his methods. He was a vigorous legislator, and his primary objects were those of Henry I in England — the establishment of a definite law, the diminution of the power of the baronage, some increase in the power of the common to counterbalance the barons, and the strengthening of the crown. But he did not make himself popular, and he did incur bitter hostility.
The murder of a king
The result was a plot for his assassination, which was carried out at Perth. The band of murderers broke into the house where he was lying. The king was sitting with the queen and her ladies. He was unarmed, and at the noise of the assassins' approach was hastily concealed in a cellar under the floor. The murderers broke in, searched for him in vain, and retired; the king came out of his hiding place.
When they were heard returning, Catherine Douglas — "Catherine Bar-lass" — thrust her arm through the staples of the door and held it while the king got back into the cellar; but that slender bolt did not prevent the door from being burst open. Again the room was searched, and the entry to the cellar was discovered. The armed assassins leapt down upon him; the king with his bare hands almost succeeded in slaying one of them, but was himself despatched by their daggers. There is a tragic fitness in the dramatic end of the king who sang his own love-romance in verse which has given him an assured place among the poets.
The Black Douglases
Among the Scottish nobility no house was so powerful, none held such wide domains, none possessed so high a reputation for knightly valour as that of Douglas. From the good Lord James, the "Black Douglas," the most picturesque of all the Bruce's comrades-in-arms, to the hero of Otterburn and the luckless warrior of Homildon Hill and Shrewsbury fight, the Douglases were ever "bonny fighters."
But in the reign of James II the house of the Black Douglas waxed so powerful as to be a positive danger to the crown, and even, according to its enemies, to Scottish nationality; since the strife between the Stewart dynasty and its mighty vassal drove the latter into relations with England which at the best were compromising.
During the greater part of the young king's minority, indeed, the Douglases did not take the opportunity to strike for power. The struggle was rather between two high officials, Livingstone and Crichton, who only united for the purpose of striking down one of the Douglases who threatened to obtain a personal ascendency over the boy-king's mind. But when William Douglas succeeded to the earldom in 1443, the Douglas activities became ominous.
William extended his own dominions by marriage so that half the Lowlands were under his sway; he procured an earldom also for his brother, and he made a "bond" with Crawford, the greatest of the northern earls. An outbreak of English border warfare in 1448 gave the Douglases renewed opportunity for gaining prestige as soldiers. Over the Douglas domains the royal authority was practically ignored.
James II murders Earl Douglas
In 1452, young James, being then just twenty, met his great feudatory with the apparent intention of effecting a reconciliation; but instead of doing so, he lost his temper and stabbed the earl with his own hand. From that moment the feud between the crown and the Douglases became open. For the next three years something not unlike the English War of the Roses was going on in Scotland; but the conclusion was the overthrow of the great house of Douglas in 1455. By its downfall, another branch of the family, the "Red" Douglases of Angus, who had supported the crown against the "Black" Douglases, rose to the front rank.
Death of James II
During the next five years James ruled with vigour, and utilised the dissensions of York and Lancaster for operations against the English, at least whenever the Yorkists were dominant. It was while besieging Roxburgh, a fortress still held by the English, that James was killed in his thirtieth year by the explosion of a cannon.
In spite of his wild deed when, at the age of twenty, James murdered William Douglas in a fit of passion as Robert Bruce had slain the Red Comyn, he gave promise the few years that remained of proving an exceedingly capable ruler but his premature death again plunged Scotland into the woes of a long regency.
Yet, for five years the country was governed with no little skill and statesmanship by Bishop Kennedy; even after his death, matters went not altogether ill. Perhaps the most interesting event of these years was the marriage of the young king to Margaret of Denmark.
Under the marriage treaty, Denmark handed over to Scotland the Orkneys and Shetland, which had hitherto remained part of the Scandinavian dominions, in pledge of the payment of a considerable sum of money as the bride's dowry. The money was never paid, and thus the islands became part of the Scottish kingdom.
In fact, the whole period of the regency was not in itself disastrous; but it did not have the same effect as the continuation of rule by a strong king such as James II promised to be. Unhappily, James III was not the man to carry out a strong policy. From the time when he came of age he fell into the hands of low-born favourites, despised as upstarts by the whole of the nobility.
James himself was born out of due time, a lover of the arts and devoid of those qualities essential to a king who had to rule over a turbulent and warlike nobility and people. In the general dissatisfaction, the king's brother, the Duke of Albany, developed ambitious designs of taking James's place on the throne. He was driven from the country, and intrigued with Edward IV for a restoration which was to give him the crown as a vassal of England.
Instead of carrying out that plan, however, he effected a temporary reconciliation with his brother; but the obvious hollowness of this drove him to renew his negotiations with Edward, and in 1483 he was in effect again expelled from Scotland. His death in France by an accident at a tournament relieved Scotland of this particular danger. The final disasters of James's reign befell only after Henry VII had secured the English crown.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.