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James III (10 July 1451 – 11 June 1488) was King of Scots from 1460 to 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.

His reputation as the first renaissance monarch in Scotland has sometimes been exaggerated, based on late chronicle attacks on him 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 son, James IV and grandson, James V. Such evidence as there is consists of portrait coins produced during his reign, displaying the king in three-quarter profile, and 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 Restalrigmarker near Edinburghmarker, perhaps inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchremarker in Jerusalemmarker.

Early life

He was born to James II of Scotland and Mary of Guelders. His exact date and place of birth have been a matter of debate — although not since the 1950s. Claims were made that he was born in May 1452, or 10 or 20 July 1451. The place of birth was either Stirling Castlemarker or the Castle of St Andrewsmarker, depending on the year. His most recent biographer, the historian Norman Macdougall, argued strongly for late May 1452 at St Andrewsmarker, Fifemarker. He succeeded his father, James II on 3 August 1460, and was crowned at Kelso Abbeymarker, Roxburghshiremarker a week later.

During his childhood, the government was led by three successive factions, led respectively by the king's mother, Mary of Gueldres (1460-1463) (who briefly secured the return of the burgh of Berwickmarker to Scotland), James Kennedy, Bishop of St Andrews and Gilbert, Lord Kennedy (1463-1466), and Robert, Lord Boyd (1466-1469).

Relation to the Boyd faction

The Boyd faction made itself unpopular, especially with the king, by self-aggrandisement. Lord Boyd's son, Thomas, was made Earl of Arran and married to the king's sister, Mary. However, the family successfully negotiated the king's marriage to Margaret of Denmark, daughter of Christian I of Denmark in 1469, in the process ending the 'Norwegian annual' fee owed to Denmark for the Western Isles, and receiving Orkneymarker and Shetlandmarker (theoretically only as a temporary measure to cover Margaret's dowry). Thus Scotland in 1470 reached its greatest ever territorial extent, when James permanently annexed the islands to the crown.


James III and Margaret
James married Margaret of Denmark in July 1469 at Holyrood Abbeymarker, Edinburghmarker. The marriage produced three sons:

Break with the Boyds

Conflict broke out between James and the Boyd family following the marriage. 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 was executed by James in 1469.

First alliance and then war with England

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 humdrum business of administering justice at home.

In 1474 a marriage alliance was agreed 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 I and the Wars of Independence, not to mention the vested interests of the border nobility. The alliance, therefore (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 Edinburghmarker in 1480 and his estates were forfeited and 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 existed on an intermittent level in 1480-1482. In 1482 Edward launched a full-scale invasion, led by the Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III, and including the Duke of Albany, styled "Alexander IV", 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 Albany. The king was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castlemarker, and a new regime, led by 'lieutenant-general' Albany, 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-Tweedmarker for the last time.

Restoration to power

James was able to regain power, buying off members of Albany government, so that by the December 1482 Parliament Albany's government was collapsing. 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 Dunbarmarker. The death of his patron, Edward IV, on 9 April, left Albany in a weak position, and he fled over the border to England. He remained there until 1484, when he launched another abortive invasion at Lochmabenmarker. Another attempted return has been argued to have occurred in 1485, when (admittedly suspect) accounts suggest he escaped from Edinburgh Castlemarker on a rope made of sheets. Certainly his right-hand man, James Liddale of Halkerston, was arrested and executed around that time. Albany was killed in a joust in Paris later that year.

Death in battle

Monument marking the burial place of James III at Cambuskenneth Abbey
Despite his lucky escape in 1482, when he easily could have been murdered or executed in an attempt to bring his son to the throne, during the 1480s James did not reform his behaviour. 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 Stirlingmarker, and increasingly his eldest son. Instead he favoured his second son.

Matters came to a head in 1488 when he faced an army raised by the disaffected nobles, and many former councillors at the Battle of Sauchieburn, and was defeated and killed. His heir, the future James IV, took arms against his father, provoked by the favouritism given to his younger brother.

Persistent legends, based on the highly coloured and unreliable accounts of 16th century chroniclers such as Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, John Leslie and George Buchanan, claim that James III was assassinated at Milltown, near Bannockburnmarker, soon after the battle. There is no contemporary evidence to support this account, nor the allegation that he fled the battle, nor the tale that his assassin impersonated a priest in order to approach James.

A story is told that, on the eve of the Battle of Sauchieburn, Sir David Lindsay, son of Sir John, Lord Lindsay of the Byres, presented James III with a "great grey horse" that would carry him faster than any other horse into or away from the battle. Unfortunately, the horse threw the king during the battle, and James III was either killed in the fall, or was finished off by enemy soldiers.

Whatever his other faults, James does not seem to have been a coward nor (as Pitscottie claimed) did he avoid conflict or 'manly pursuits'. He actively pursued military conflict in 1482 and 1488 with disastrous results, and frequently proposed unrealistic schemes to take armies to the continent. It is most likely that he was killed in the heat of battle. James is buried at Cambuskenneth Abbey.

Titles, styles, honours and arms

Titles and styles

  • c. 1451/52–3 August 1460: The Duke of Rothesay
  • 3 August 1460–11 June 1488: His Grace The King


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