The eldest of the three sons of James II and Mary of Gueldres, James was born at St Andrews late in May 1452. His father's death at the siege of Roxburgh (August 1460) was swiftly followed by the coronation of the 8-year-old James III at nearby Kelso abbey. The ensuing minority (1460–9) had its difficulties, but under the wise guidance of Mary of Gueldres (d. 1463) the Scots secured the cession of Berwick from the refugee Lancastrians (1461), and then swiftly changed horses to back the victorious Yorkists. The late king's marital and territorial schemes finally came to fruition in the 1468 treaty of Copenhagen, by which James III was to marry Margaret, daughter of Christian I of Denmark-Norway. Christian's inability to afford his daughter's dowry resulted in his pawning the earldom of Orkney and the lordship of Shetland; both were annexed to the Scottish crown by 1472. Thus, by the early years of James III's personal rule, the Scottish kingdom had reached its widest territorial extent.
The view of James III which has come down to us is largely that of late 16th-cent. writers. These portray the king as a recluse who ignored or despised the counsel of his nobility in favour of that of low-born familiars; he disliked war (to prove the point, the chronicler Pitscottie has him fall off his horse at the fatal battle of Sauchie Burn); and he was a committed patron of the arts.
This legend is broadly unconvincing. The unwarlike king is difficult to discern in a ruler who proposed annexations or invasions of Brittany, Gueldres, and Saintonge between 1471 and 1473, and this view may derive only from James's alternative policy of peace and alliance with Yorkist England, which he pursued obsessively—excepting one disastrous interlude (1480–2)—from 1474 to the end of the reign. Again, complaints of neglect of his magnates may reflect James's failure to reward support, as in the classic case of the earl of Huntly in 1476, whose invasion of Ross and capture of Dingwall castle for the king merited only a gift of 100 marks' worth of land. This breathtaking royal meanness no doubt weighed heavily with Huntly twelve years later, when his role as a committed neutral may have cost James III his life.
The king's patronage of the arts—excepting the Trinity College, Edinburgh altarpiece, which he may or may not have commissioned—is rather elusive, as is the contribution of his English musician familiar William Roger; and although James III's most exotic friend, Anselm Adornes of Bruges, spread the king's name and fame as far afield as Tunis, James as a Scottish Renaissance patron remains an enigmatic figure. Perhaps significantly, his most despised familiars, William Scheves, archbishop of St Andrews, and Thomas Cochrane, were respectively a powerful court ‘fixer’ and a royal troubleshooter in the north-east. And the elusive royal whore ‘Daesie’ is surely the figment of a later imagination.
In fact, James III's failure may be explained without reference to the later legend. He was a static king, rarely moving out of Edinburgh during his adulthood, and thereby neglecting to travel on justice ayres, visiting far-flung areas of the country to settle feuds and make the royal presence felt. Successive parliaments criticized him repeatedly for this failing, as they did also for his attempts to tax and granting of remissions for serious crimes. Furthermore, James may have been unfortunate to have adult brothers as potential rivals, though his treatment of them was appalling. Alexander, duke of Albany, fled to France in 1479—and significantly an assize of Parliament would not forfeit him—while John, earl of Mar, was arrested later that year and died mysteriously in custody shortly afterwards. The return of Albany in 1482, backed by an English army sent by Edward IV, prompted a great Stewart family crisis, with the seizure of James III at Lauder, the permanent loss of Berwick to the English, Albany's temporary acquisition of the office of lieutenant-general, the king's incarceration in Edinburgh castle, and his subsequent release and recovery of power through the timely intervention of loyal north-eastern nobility.
However, crown–magnate mistrust persisted, and the king's wide-ranging Treasons Act (1484) showed that he had learned nothing from the warning of 1482. When his eldest son James, duke of Rothesay, a youth of 15, moved against him in the spring of 1488, with extensive support from a huge array of disaffected magnates, no armed assistance was forthcoming from the former loyalists of the north; and on 11 June James III, bearing Robert Bruce's sword and a black box full of money and jewels, succumbed to his son's army on the ‘field of Stirling’ (Sauchie Burn).
James III (1451-1488) was king of Scotland from 1460 to 1488. His reign marked perhaps the weakest point of the Scottish monarchy.
James III came to the throne suddenly in 1460, when his father, James II, was killed by the back-firing of a siege gun. The queen mother, Mary of Gueldres, tended to favor the Yorkist side in the English dynastic stuggles (often called the Wars of the Roses), but her influence was contested by that of James Kennedy, Bishop of St. Andrews, who favored the Lancastrian cause and arranged that King Henry VI of England and his queen flee to Scotland after their disastrous loss at Towton in 1461. This meant that Edward IV, the new English (Yorkist) king, would regard the monarchy of the young James as something to be overthrown if possible. For the moment, however, a truce was made with England.
The regency proceeded well enough until the death of Bishop Kennedy in 1465. The King then fell under the influence of his tutor, Sir Alexander Boyd, governor of Edinburgh Castle, and a party of minor nobility headed by the Boyds seized the young king and kept control of affairs in the kingdom for some 3 years. Robert, Lord Boyd, now leader of the regency, arranged for James a marriage with Margaret, daughter of Christian I of Denmark. This marriage, in 1468, had far-reaching effects for Scotland, for Margaret's dowry was the Orkney and Shetland islands, which until then had been under the control of the Scandinavian kingdom. But, more immediately, while the Boyds had been away arranging the marriage, their enemies had plotted their downfall, and their power was broken in November 1469.
James was now old enough to rule personally, but he was not a great success. Many of the older nobility resented his preference for men of low rank as his intimate counselors and his fondness for the arts rather than for fighting. Parliament frequently exhorted him to maintain order more vigorously. Even within his own family there was trouble, for James had two ambitious and disloyal younger brothers, the Duke of Albany and the Earl of Mar. Mar was arrested in 1479 (having been accused of witchcraft) and died soon thereafter. Albany escaped from captivity and allied himself with Edward IV, who was prepared to support him against James. An English army invaded Scotland, but suddenly James and Albany were reconciled. However, Albany's plotting continued, and he was finally banished, narrowly escaping to France in 1484.
A new and even more serious conspiracy arose among many of the Lowlands nobility in 1488, and in a battle at Sauchieburn near the celebrated field of Bannockburn the royal army was defeated. The King himself, having been carried away from the battle, was discovered and killed by a rebel soldier. His eldest son, who was the nominal head of the rebels, succeeded him on the throne as James IV and in his reign did much to reverse the unfortunate characteristics which had marred that of his father.
For information on James see general histories of Scotland, especially William Croft Dickinson, A New History of Scotland, vol. 1 (1961; 2d rev. ed. 1965).
Macdougall, Norman, James III, a political study, Edinburgh: J. Donald Publishers; Atlantic Highlands, NJ, USA: Exclusive distribution in the U.S. and Canada by Humanities Press, 1982. □