James III of Scotland

James III (10 July 1451/May 1452 – 11 June 1488) was King of Scots from 1460 until his death in battle in 1488. James was an unpopular and ineffective monarch owing to an unwillingness to administer justice fairly, a policy of pursuing alliance with the Kingdom of England, and a disastrous relationship with nearly all his extended family. It was through his marriage to Margaret of Denmark that the Orkney and Shetland islands were added to the territorial possessions of the Scottish crown.

James III
James III of Scotland.jpg
King of Scots
Reign3 August 1460 – 11 June 1488
Coronation10 August 1460[citation needed]
PredecessorJames II
SuccessorJames IV
Born10 July 1451 or May 1452
Stirling or St Andrews Castles
Died(1488-06-11)11 June 1488 (aged 36/37)
Sauchieburn, Scotland
(m. 1469; died 1486)
IssueJames IV of Scotland
James, Duke of Ross
John, Earl of Mar
FatherJames II of Scotland
MotherMary of Guelders
ReligionRoman Catholic

His reputation as the first Renaissance monarch in Scotland has sometimes been exaggerated, based on attacks on him in later chronicles for being more interested in such unmanly pursuits as music than hunting, riding and leading his kingdom into war. In fact, the artistic legacy of his reign is slight, especially when compared to that of his successors, James IV and James V. Such evidence as there is consists of portrait coins produced during his reign that display the king in three-quarter profile wearing an imperial crown, the Trinity Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which was probably not commissioned by the king, and an unusual hexagonal chapel at Restalrig near Edinburgh, perhaps inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Early lifeEdit

James was born to James II of Scotland and Mary of Guelders. His exact date and place of birth have been a matter of debate. Claims have been made that he was born in May 1452, or on 10 or 20 July 1451. The place of birth was either Stirling Castle or St Andrews Castle, depending on the year. His most recent biographer, Norman Macdougall, argued strongly for late May 1452 at St Andrews, Fife. He succeeded his father James II on 3 August 1460 and was crowned at Kelso Abbey, Roxburghshire, a week later.

During his childhood, the government was led by three successive factions, first the King's mother, Mary of Guelders (1460–1463) (who secured the return of the burgh of Berwick to Scotland), then James Kennedy, Bishop of St Andrews, and Gilbert, Lord Kennedy (1463–1466), then Robert, Lord Boyd (1466–1469).

Relation to the Boyd factionEdit

The Boyd faction made itself unpopular, especially with the king, through self-aggrandizement. Lord Boyd's son Thomas was made Earl of Arran and married to the king's 13-year-old sister Mary. However, the family successfully negotiated the king's marriage to Margaret of Denmark, daughter of Christian I of Denmark in 1469. As part of the marriage agreement, the annual fee owed to Norway for the Western Isles (agreed to in the Treaty of Perth of 1266) was discontinued, and Scotland received suzerainty over Orkney and Shetland, theoretically only as a temporary measure to cover Margaret's dowry. When James permanently annexed the islands to the crown in 1472, Scotland achieved its greatest ever territorial extent.[1]

James III and Margaret

James married the 13-year-old Margaret of Denmark in July 1469 at Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh, in a service overseen by Abbot Archibald Crawford.

The marriage produced three sons:

Break with the BoydsEdit

Conflict broke out between James and the Boyd family following the marriage to James's sister Princess Mary. Robert and Thomas Boyd (with Princess Mary) were out of the country involved in diplomacy when their regime was overthrown. Mary's marriage was later declared void in 1473. The family of Sir Alexander Boyd, the brother of Robert Boyd, was executed by James in 1469.

James and the Lords of the IslesEdit

James became powerful enough to attempt to manage the Lord of the Isles, who ruled over the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland in 1475. The treaty made by the Lords with England at Ardtornish in 1462 was used as evidence of their usurpation of royal power. John of Islay, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, was censured for making his son Angus his lieutenant and for besieging Rothesay Castle in the Isle of Bute. He was ordered to appear for trial in Edinburgh on 1 December, and when he did not attend, he was declared forfeit. The Earls of Lennox, Argyll, Atholl and Huntly were ordered to put the forfeiture in practice. The Lord of the Isles came to Edinburgh in July 1476 and the forfeiture was rescinded, but he resigned to the crown the Earldom of Ross, lands in Kintyre and Knapdale, and the offices of Sheriff of Inverness and Nairn. James then made John of Isley a Lord of Parliament as Lord of the Isles. In April 1478, Parliament required John to answer for his assistance to rebels who held Castle Sween against the crown. In December, John received confirmation of his 1476 charters.[2]

First alliance and then war with EnglandEdit

James's policies during the 1470s revolved primarily around ambitious continental schemes for territorial expansion and alliance with England. Between 1471 and 1473, he suggested annexations or invasions of Brittany, Saintonge and Guelders. These unrealistic aims resulted in parliamentary criticism, especially since the king was reluctant to deal with the more mundane business of administering justice at home.

In 1474, a marriage alliance was agreed to with Edward IV of England by which the future James IV of Scotland was to marry Princess Cecily of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. It might have been a sensible move for Scotland, but it went against the traditional enmity of the two countries dating back to the reign of Robert the Bruce and the Wars of Independence, not to mention the vested interests of the border nobility. Thus the alliance (and the taxes raised to pay for the marriage) was at least one of the reasons why the king was unpopular by 1479.

Also during the 1470s, conflict developed between the king and his two brothers Alexander, Duke of Albany, and John, Earl of Mar. Mar died suspiciously in Edinburgh in 1480 and his estates were forfeited, possibly given to a royal favourite, Robert Cochrane. Albany fled to France in 1479, accused of treason and breaking the alliance with England.

But by 1479, the alliance was collapsing and war with England broke out intermittently during the years 1480–1482. In 1482, Edward IV launched a full-scale invasion led by the Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. James's brother Alexander, styled "Alexander IV", was included as part of the invasion party. James, in attempting to lead his subjects against the invasion, was arrested by a group of disaffected nobles at Lauder Bridge in July 1482. It has been suggested that the nobles were already in league with Alexander. The king was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle and a new regime, led by "lieutenant-general" Alexander, became established during the autumn of 1482. Meanwhile, the English army, unable to take Edinburgh Castle, ran out of money and returned to England, having taken Berwick-upon-Tweed for the last time.

Restoration to powerEdit

Whilst imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle James was politically sidelined during the years 1482–83, and his two half-uncles (including Andrew Stewart) managed to form a replacement government with his brother Alexander, Duke of Albany, in place as acting lieutenant-general of the realm.[3] He was eventually freed by late September 1482.[3] After having been freed, James was able to regain power by buying off members of Albany's government, such that by December 1482, Albany's government was collapsing. From 1483, he was able to "steadily reduce any remaining support for Albany".[3] In particular his attempt to claim the vacant earldom of Mar led to the intervention of the powerful George Gordon, 2nd Earl of Huntly, on the king's side.

In January 1483, Albany fled to his estates at Dunbar. The death of his patron, Edward IV, on 9 April, left Albany in a weak position. Following the Battle of Lochmaben Fair, he was forced to flee back to England, where he was condemned, and he never engaged James III again.[3] Following this, he returned to Scotland, but was caught and imprisoned in the same castle where James had been incarcerated.[3] He managed to escape from the castle after killing his guard and moving down by using a rope made of bedsheets.[3] In 1483, he sailed back for France. He was killed by a splinter from his lance during a duel with the duke of Orleans in Paris in 1485.[4] Certainly his right-hand man, James Liddale of Halkerston, was arrested and executed around that time.[citation needed] At the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, Albany's last remaining supporter, Richard III, perished.[3]

On Laetare Sunday, 5 March 1486, Pope Innocent VIII blessed a Golden Rose and sent it to James III. It was an annual custom to send the rose to a deserving prince. Giacomo Passarelli, Bishop of Imola, brought the rose to Scotland and returned to London to complete the dispensation for the marriage of Henry VII of England.[5]

Death in battleEdit

The grave of King James III and Queen Margaret, Cambuskenneth Abbey

Despite a lucky escape in 1482, when he easily could have been murdered or executed in an attempt to bring his son to the throne, James did not reform his behaviour during the 1480s. Obsessive attempts to secure alliance with England continued, although they made little sense given the prevailing politics. He continued to favour a group of "familiars" unpopular with the more powerful magnates. He refused to travel for the implementation of justice and remained invariably resident in Edinburgh. He was also estranged from his wife, Margaret of Denmark, who lived in Stirling, and increasingly his eldest son. He favoured his second son instead.

In January 1488, in Parliament, James tried to gain supporters by making his second son Duke of Ross and four Lairds full Lords of Parliament. These allies were John Drummond of Cargill, made Lord Drummond; Robert Crichton of Sanquhar, made Lord Sanquhar; John Hay of Yester, made Lord Hay of Yester; and the Knight William Ruthven, made Lord Ruthven. But opposition to James was led by the Earls of Angus and Argyll, and the Home and Hepburn families. James's eldest son and heir, the future James IV, was delivered into the hands of the rebels by Schaw of Sauchie on 2 February 1488. The Prince became the figurehead of the opposition party, perhaps reluctantly, or perhaps provoked by the favouritism given to his younger brother. Matters came to a head on 11 June 1488, when the king faced the army raised by the disaffected nobles and many former councillors near Stirling, at the Battle of Sauchieburn, and was defeated and killed.[6]

16th-century chroniclers such as Adam Abell, Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, John Leslie and George Buchanan alleged that the king was assassinated fleeing the battle, at Milltown near Bannockburn.[7] The traditional story is that he called for a priest, then a mysterious figure who claimed to be a priest came and stabbed him.[8]

However, his most recent biography concludes that he was simply killed in the battle.[9] He is buried at Cambuskenneth Abbey.[10] The grave was restored at Queen Victoria's expense in 1865.[11]

Fictional portrayalsEdit

James III has been depicted in plays, historical novels and short stories. They include the following:



  1. ^ Lynch, Michael (1991). Scotland A New History. 155-56: Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-9893-0.CS1 maint: location (link)
  2. ^ J. & R. Munro ed., Acts of the Lords of the Isles, (SHS, Edinburgh 1986), pp. lxx-lxxii
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Stevenson 2014, p. 84.
  4. ^ Stevenson 2014, p. 81.
  5. ^ Calendar State Papers Milan, vol.1 (1912), 247: Burns, Charles, 'Papal Gifts' in Innes Review, 20 (1969), pp.150–194: Chrimes, Stanley, Henry VII, Yale (1999), 66, 330–1
  6. ^ Mackie, R.L., James IV, (1958), pp. 36–44.
  7. ^ Recent archaeological survey of Milton, alleged site of assassination Archived 3 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Scotlandsplaces.gov.uk. Retrieved on 2011-10-02.
  8. ^ Emma.Goodey (3 February 2016). "James III (r. 1460-1488)". The Royal Family. Retrieved 12 December 2020.
  9. ^ Macdougall, Norman James III, A Political Study (1982)
  10. ^ Macdougall, Norman. "James III". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/14589. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  11. ^ Grave of James III inscription
  12. ^ "Edinburgh International Festival 2014"
  13. ^ "The Unicorn Hunt by Dorothy Dunnett | PenguinRandomHouse.com". Retrieved 11 January 2017.


  • Macdougall, Norman, James III, A Political Study, John Donald (1982)
  • Macdougall, Norman, James III, John Donald (2009), a fully revised and updated edition with substantially different conclusions on James III's career compared to the 1982 edition.
  • Stevenson, Katie (2014). Power and Propaganda: Scotland 1306-1488. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0748694204.
  • Coombs, B. Material Diplomacy: A Continental Manuscript Produced for James III, Edinburgh University Library, MS 195. The Scottish Historical Review (October), 2019

External linksEdit

James III of Scotland
Born: 1451/2 Died: 11 June 1488
Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Scots
3 August 1460 – 11 June 1488
Succeeded by