Surprising facts about Scotland's lesser-known kings

James I
King James I by an unidentified painter | Public Domain | Wikipedia

Here’s a rundown of some little-known facts about Scotland’s kings and queens. Well, kings. They only had the one female ruler and we all know how well that turned out …

Macbeth wasn’t like he is in the Scottish Play

The real-life Macbeth bears very little resemblance to the one portrayed by a certain Mr. Shakespeare in The Play That Cannot Be Named. While many of the characters in the play were real people, most of what happens over the course of it is a work of fiction.

In reality, Duncan (who Macbeth defeated and killed in battle in 1040) was not the wise, elderly ruler of Shakespeare’s imagination, but was in fact a young man and an unpopular, poor ruler before his death. Contrary to the character in the play, Macbeth had a strong claim to the throne and he wasn’t the vile, scheming monster many people think he was. Also, while the play takes place over the course of just one year, in real life Macbeth ruled the country for seventeen relatively peaceful years and he was seen as an effective and wise king.

Macbeth was killed in battle in 1057 by forces loyal to Duncan’s son, the future Malcolm III. Contrary to the musings of William Shakespeare, no witches were involved. It is generally accepted that Shakespeare put the witches in his play because the then ruler of the country, King James VI and I, had an interest in witchcraft having written a book on the subject called Daemononlogie in 1597. The witches were basically a marketing ploy to get the king – and therefore everybody else – interested in seeing Shakespeare’s latest so he could make some much-needed cash.

Alexander III was a reckless love machine

After successfully seizing the Western Isles and the Isle of Man from the King of Norway, Alexander III settled down to a life of debauchery and not caring in the slightest about his personal safety following the death of his wife in 1275. According to the northern English Lanercost Chronicle, Alexander 'used never to forbear on account of season nor storm, nor for perils of flood or rocky cliffs, but would visit none too creditably nuns or matrons, virgins or widows as the fancy seized him, sometimes in disguise.'

Eventually, Alexander had to curtail his lusty activities when the death of all three of his children in quick succession led to the need to sire another male heir. He married Yolande de Dreux, Countess of Montford, and she was soon with child. One night, Alexander decided to visit his new queen in Fife after an evening celebrating the pregnancy with his nobles at Edinburgh Castle. Unfortunately, he decided to visit her at night in a howling gale despite being strongly advised against it (and quite possibly blind drunk). Refusing to stop and seek shelter, Alexander and a small retinue ploughed on into the night. The king soon became separated from the party, and he was not found again until the following morning.

Unfortunately, he was found dead with a broken neck on a beach at the bottom of a rocky embankment. As per usual, the Kingdom of Scotland was thrown into several years of turmoil as a result.

James I's death was a real (tennis) balls up

An unpopular, iron-fisted ruler, James I’s enemies decided the best course of action was to arrest him and execute him. After an attempt to arrest him failed, they decided to skip that whole arrest / trial / execution malarky and just murder him instead. In 1437, James and his Queen were invited to a General Council meeting in Perth on the 4th of February. After the meeting, the king and queen stayed on at the Blackfriars monastery in the town. On the 20 February, the king’s chamberlain, Robert Stewart, let thirty armed men into the building who intended to murder both the king and the queen and seize control of their son, the young Prince James.

However, before they could carry out their plan, James got wind of what was happening and high-tailed it from his room and escaped through a sewer in the abbey’s grounds. Unfortunately, James’ cunning plan literally and figuratively hit a brick wall when he discovered the sewer had recently been blocked up at the other end to prevent the loss of tennis balls. He was cornered and stabbed to death. He remains the only monarch in history to be killed because of lost tennis balls.

A Banquet attend by James II inspired one of Game of Thrones’ most shocking scenes

Following his father’s ignoble demise in the sewers below a monastery in Perth, James I’s six-year-old son was next in line to the throne. Regency over the boy king was handed to Archibald Douglas, the head of the powerful Douglas clan. After Archibald’s death, the regency passed to Archibald’s son, the 5th Earl of Douglas, with the day-to-day running of the kingdom shared by Archibald’s brother James Douglas, Earl of Avondale, the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, William Crichton, and Sir Alexander Livingston of Callendar. However, on the 5th Earl’s sudden death, James Douglas disapproved of his great-nephew William inheriting the title of both 6th Earl and regent and conspired to do something about it with Livingston and Crichton.

William and his younger brother David were invited to Edinburgh Castle for a banquet. When they arrived, they were accused of treason, dragged outside and beheaded despite the protestations of the young king. The event became known as the ‘Black Dinner’ and was one of the inspirations behind the notorious ‘Red Wedding’ in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

James II went on to rule the country until 1460. A keen enthusiast of modern artillery, James took several cannons with him to besiege Roxborough Castle on the Scottish borders. One gigantic cannon known as ‘The Lion’ exploded whilst James was nearby, snapping his thighbone clean in half. He died from his wounds soon afterwards at the grand old age of twenty-nine.

James III’s death was shrouded in mystery

After his father was unceremoniously exploded to death by a cannon in 1460, James III inherited the crown and managed to hold on to the throne for the next 28 years. An extremely unpopular ruler who fell out with pretty much everyone he ever met, James met his end at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488 after various embittered noblemen raised an army against him, determined to put an end to his chaotic rule.

The death of James III was for many years shrouded in mystery. Some believed that the king fled the battle when he realised he was losing it and later called for a priest at his hideout near Bannockburn. When the priest arrived, he turned out to be an assassin who stabbed James to death. Others believed that James was thrown from his horse while fleeing and broke his neck. It is now generally accepted that James was killed in battle, but the fact that for many years nobody was quite sure how an actual king died is quite extraordinary.

James V was the Nostradamus of Scotland

Nephew to Henry VIII, James V brought an air of Renaissance refinement to the Scottish court that rivalled his uncle’s over the border. A skilled lute player and poet, James employed many craftsmen and artisans from across Europe to improve his court, and he was considered a cut above many Scottish monarchs who had spent the past three hundred years murdering each other instead of being cultured and sophisticated. James even had an unusual hobby that drew much admiration. He enjoyed dressing up as a commoner and touring his kingdom getting to know the locals instead of setting fire to them or being murdered by them.

Sadly, this pleasant change to the usual rules of the Scottish monarchy came to a bitter end when James’ mother, Mary Tudor, died and his uncle saw no good reason why he shouldn’t invade his nephew’s kingdom. Henry VIII subsequently did just that and James’ army suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542. Wracked with guilt, James suffered a nervous breakdown and died – some say of grief – on the 14th of December 1452. Before he died, however, he issued the following prophesy:

"It cam wi a lass, it'll gang wi a lass.” (It started with a girl, and it’ll end with a girl).

The Stuart dynasty of which James was a member had begun with their accession to the throne through Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce. It ended with Queen Anne of England in 1714. Spooky!

Written by:

BP Perry