Born on 10 April 1512, James inherited the throne when barely 18 months old on the death of his father James IV at Flodden on 9 September 1513. The protracted regency which ensued witnessed the kind of magnatial power struggle which had dominated the minorities of successive Stewart monarchs. In this case, however, the conflict between James Hamilton, 1st earl of Arran, and Archibald Douglas, 6th earl of Angus, was aggravated by the latter's marriage in 1514 to the queen mother, Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and the involvement of the king's French-born kinsman John Stewart, duke of Albany. While Albany was regent from 1515 to 1524, it was Angus who came to dominate the regime and from whose clutches the 16-year-old king engineered his own escape in May 1528.
The vindictive pursuit of his former Douglas captors is often seen as the leitmotif of James's personal rule. However, while Angus was forced into English exile in 1529, and his sister Lady Glamis was executed for treason in 1537, the king's justifiable suspicion of the Douglases hardly amounted to a relentless vendetta. Likewise, the charge that a paranoid fear of his nobility led to the ruthless expropriation of their lands is exaggerated. Certainly, James wished to assert the crown's authority and his punitive expeditions to the borders in 1530 and to the Western Isles in 1540 vividly demonstrate his concern that the royal writ should run even in the outlying reaches of his kingdom. His attitude to the nobility was informed by a similar desire to assert royal authority, and James exploited the full repertoire of legal devices in order to recover and augment crown lands and revenues. Some noblemen undoubtedly suffered as a result. Yet the aggressive pursuit of crown interests was nothing new and, if it was particularly effective in James V's reign, the reason probably lies less in the king's alleged paranoia than in the expertise of a cadre of lay lawyers (such as his influential secretary, the Pavia-trained Sir Thomas Erskine) who played an increasingly prominent role in the royal bureaucracy.
Lawyers like Erskine may well have lent juridical weight to the authoritarian style of kingship suggested by James's fascination with the most potent contemporary symbol of royal power: the closed ‘imperial’ crown. If so, the clergy had as much—probably more—reason to fear the king as the nobility. Although James's former tutor, Gavin Dunbar, archbishop of Glasgow, remained chancellor throughout the reign, the clergy's monopoly of legal and administrative expertise was being steadily eroded, while the spread of reforming opinion in the 1530s threw them further on the defensive. James exploited both the weakness of his own ecclesiastical hierarchy and the papacy's fear that he might follow his uncle Henry VIII in repudiating Rome altogether. Thus, with papal blessing, he was able to consolidate royal control over appointments to major benefices, milk the revenues of the religious houses, and levy the heaviest tax on clerical income which the ecclesia Scoticana had ever experienced. James may well have been personally pious and was certainly aware of the growing pressure for ecclesiastical reform; but neither factor was allowed to stand in the way of replenishing the royal coffers from the church's vast resources. Determined to establish a court-life befitting a Renaissance prince, the king spent lavishly on maintaining a large royal household and on creating the architectural settings at Falkland, Linlithgow, and Stirling in which the full majesty of his kingship could best be displayed.
Even with greatly augmented revenues, however, James was hardly in a position to compete with contemporary princes like Henry VIII, Charles V, or Francis I. Nevertheless, the intense rivalry between France, England, and the empire, compounded by heightened religious tensions and the nervousness of Rome, lent the Scottish king unwonted diplomatic weight. His shrewd exploitation of the marriage market led to his securing first the hand of Francis I's eldest surviving daughter Madeleine, and then on her death that of Mary of Guise. Despite Henry VIII's attempts to sever them, Scotland's traditional ties with France and Rome remained intact, the bargain sweetened by two generous dowries and lucrative papal concessions. Yet the alliance with France came at the price of war with England—and a military reversal from which the king's reputation never recovered. Although a Scottish army was beaten at Solway Moss on 24 November 1542, it was neither a personal humiliation for the king (who was not there) nor the result of noble disaffection. In fact, James had substantial support for his war policy and, when he died on 14 December 1542, preparations were already in train for a further English campaign.
As this suggests, the king's death was hardly the result of shame or despair at military defeat. Nor, despite the sudden death of his two male heirs in April 1541, is it likely to have been caused by disappointment at the birth of a daughter on 8 December 1542. More probably, and prosaically, it was the plague or cholera which brought his vigorous rule to a premature end.
Roger A. Mason
Cameron, J. , James V: The Personal Rule, ed. N. Macdougall (1998);
Donaldson, G. , Scottish Kings (1967);
Macdougall, N. , James V (East Linton, 1998);
Marshall, R. K. , Mary of Guise (1977);
Wormald, J. , Court, Kirk and Community: Scotland 1470–1625 (1981).