James V: Life Story

Chapter 5 : James as King

Throughout his reign, James made sustained and widespread efforts to improve justice and the rule of law throughout his kingdom. One of his acts was the founding of what is now the Court of Session of the highest civil court in Scotland – more on James and justice here. He also commissioned the Register House within Edinburgh Castle, for the housing of national archives at a cost of £120 Scots.

James V, King of Scots (1512 - 1542)

James was keen to portray Scotland as an important kingdom in its own right. He spent lavishly on renovating and improving the palaces of Stirling and Falkland in particular, creating Renaissance fantasies similar to those to be found in the Loire valley. One of his greatest expenditures was on his series of tapestries, now recreated at Stirling Castle.

Falkland, James V's favourite hunting lodge, transformed into a Renaissance Palace © Tudor Times 2015

He also played a complex diplomatic game. With England in the grip of religious turmoil, James took the opportunity to increase his standing with European powers and isolate England. In particular, he took care to increase his standing with the Emperor Charles, at one time hoping for a marriage with a relative of his. James also kept a cordial relationship with his cousin, Christian of Denmark.

In one of the least attractive actions of his reign, James took revenge on the sister of Angus. Lady Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, was accused in September 1528 of having poisoned her husband, John Lyon, 6th Lord Glamis. The charge was dropped, and Janet was given a licence to go on pilgrimage. But in December of the same year, she was accused of having abetted Angus in holding the King against his will. This charge, too was dropped, and she married again.

James, however, had a long memory, and in July of 1537, Janet was again arrested, charged this time with conspiring to poison the King and also with corresponding with her exiled brothers, Angus and George Douglas. English commentators (who may well have been biased) said there was little evidence against her, but nevertheless, she was burnt to death – the standard punishment for a woman accused of treason.

In May 1540, James and Marie had a son, another James. With the succession hopefully now assured, King James set out on a journey round his kingdom. In a fleet of twelve ships, he set sail in June, accompanied by the Earls of Huntly and Argyll, as well as Cardinal David Beaton, who had followed his uncle, James Beaton, as Archbishop of St Andrew’s on the elder Beaton’s death in 1539.

Cardinal David Beaton (c. 1495 - 1546), Privy Seal and Councillor to James V. 18th century copy of a 16th century original

The progress stopped at numerous places along the Scottish coast, the court would then disembark and camp near the sea-front, before embarking on hunting and hob-nobbing with the local gentry as well as holding Justices in Ayre. The purpose of the progress was three-fold – to show himself to his people at all levels of society; to show his power to any nobles who thought they were far enough away from the King to disobey him; and to see justice done, one of James’ priorities.

He was back in the south in time for Marie to conceive and bear another son in April 1541. In a tragedy for the couple that is hard to imagine, both little boys died on the same day – 28th April, 1541. The Dowager Queen, Margaret, wrote to Henry VIII at the end of May about the distress of both parents. Queen Margaret herself was ailing, and died in October of that year, at her castle of Methven. James ignored her request (she had not made a will) that her jewellery be given to his half-sister, Lady Margaret Douglas, now a leading light of Henry’s court, and kept it himself.

During 1541, the idea of a meeting between James and Henry VIII was mooted. Such a meeting had frequently been talked of, and both sides had made soothing noises about its desirability, but no concrete arrangements had ever been made, although there had been detailed discussions in 1536.

Henry decided to make a progress to the north of England, to exert his authority and overawe with his presence following the Pilgrimage of Grace. It was suggested that James should travel to meet Henry at York, where Henry arrived, accompanied by his fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, on 16th September 1541. The English royal party waited for some ten days, but James did not appear. With no legitimate children, and a not-unfounded fear of kidnap, James, who had carefully never actually committed himself, declined to make the journey.

Henry was outraged at the insult, which was yet another nail in the coffin of Anglo-Scots relationships. With the death of Queen Margaret the following month, there was no-one who could even try to make peace between uncle and nephew.