In June 1488 at the Battle of Sauchieburn King James III of Scotland was defeated and killed. The opposing army was led by the next king, James IV, just fifteen years old at the time. James III had been an unpopular king. James IV proved to be in touch with the people, he traveled around Scotland relentlessly during his reign ensuring good relations with his subjects. He encouraged a flamboyant, creative and cosmopolitan court, patronising poets, writers and artists. He was also interested in law and medicine. He constructed a Scottish fleet and many artillery pieces for the defense of the realm and proved to be a skilled diplomat on the stage of European politics. However his real ambitions were to claim another throne and to unite Europe against the Ottoman Turks. He repeatedly made known his plan to lead a crusade against the infidels but it was never more than a dream and may have allowed other players on the European stage to exploit him. The most convincing indication of his popularity was the huge army he was able to raise and lead in to England. In the great Scottish tradition the Battle of Flodden ended in disaster.
King James IV was symbolically crowned at Scone but his coronation was sparsely attended and he delayed parliament for a few months to consolidate power. At this young age James relied upon families like the Homes and Hepburns who were later well rewarded for their loyalty. There was some concern about the threat of the English king, Henry VII but this was relieved with the three year truce drawn up at Coldstream in October 1488. The first parliament of James' reign was held the following day. The attendance indicated a general acceptance of the new king, amongst those present were Bishop Elphinstone and Archbishop Scheves who had both been associates of his father. It was decided James was innocent of his father's death although reportedly he wore an iron belt as penance. Prominent supporters of James III were severely punished, many of them losing both land and office. This dealt with his main enemies and showed he was prepared to be harsh where necessary.
James outlined his new policies, he created a number of sheriffdoms and magnates became justiciars. He was interested in law and order and often dispensed justice himself which was very popular amongst the people. Using the treasure left by James III and the introduction of a new tax for his marriage James IV resolved to attack the Isles and establish his royal authority there once and for all. There was a brief uprising led by Lennox but James diffused the situation by returning his forfeited lands. On 26th June 1493 James issued an act of revocation, nine months before his 21st birthday. This made his authority known; he controlled the kingdom not a group of nobles. He concentrated this aggressive stance on the north and west to destroy the Gaelic autonomy represented by the MacDonalds of Islay. In the parliament of May 1493 the Lord of the Isles forfeited his lands and they were annexed to the crown. James then toured the area and tried to assert royal authority. He also sought to establish a naval force in the Clyde estuary to be used in part for "the daunting of the Isles". The king soon gained control of Islay and Tiree and those who would not take an oath of loyalty were executed. James installed agents giving them almost limitless powers in the Isles, they were to keep peace and collect tax and rents due to the king. Naval artillery was used to capture the last strongholds and the next in line to be Lord of the Isles; Donald Dubh was captured in 1507 and warded in Stirling Castle. James established sheriffs to enforce his rule and replace the old Celtic laws with the king's law. He was able to maintain his authority over the Isles through his agents, mostly Campbells and Gordens, this authority was not seriously challenged again in James' reign.
There was growing hostility between Scotland and England and a succession of truces did not prevent the unofficial warfare (particularly pirates at sea). In March 1492 James secured a new Franco-Scottish alliance which threatened England. Despite the Anglo-French treaty, agreed in November, James continued to antagonise England and stir up unrest perhaps with the hope of regaining Berwick. He also supported the Duke of York's claim to the English throne and invaded England in September 1496. The English invaded Scotland in June 1497 and this in turn led to James' siege of Norham Castle. The earl of Surrey responded by leading an army north but when James challenged him to hand to hand combat with the winner taking Berwick he declined. Henry VII was eager for peace as he could not afford a war with the Scots and so he concluded a seven year truce at Ayton in September 1497. James IV made a condition that Henry's eldest daughter, Margaret Tudor, married him. Henry was unenthusiastic but James' young bride came north with a large dowry and in August 1503 the marriage was solemnised in Holyrood Abbey. This was a clever move by James which ensured peace with England and gave his family a potential claim to the English throne. James and Henry remained friendly and there was co-operation between Scotland and England until Henry's death in 1509.
James IV continued to keep good diplomatic relations with France, Spain, England and the papacy. In 1492 he renewed the alliance with Denmark where his uncle ruled. He envisaged a tripartite alliance with Denmark and France. James continued creating a role for himself as a peacemaker in Europe and his fleet was seen as impressive, these factors combined to give Scotland a great deal more weight than before in European politics. Before 1509 Scotland had no enemies and many friends in Europe. Pope Julius II presented James with the golden rose and sword of state bestowing more honour upon the king and improving his reputation.
A decline in the prestige of the papacy was quickly exploited by James but he was careful not to offend. He revived the policies of James I and James III reintroducing legislation to safeguard and increase the crowns ecclesiastical patronage and to reduce the flow of money to the church, he thought the crown should enjoy a monopoly of trafficking with the papacy. In 1504 he made his illegitimate eleven year old son the Archbishop of St.Andrews so it would now be administered by the crown. As Nicholson says "James used the kirk as an employment bureau for his and other nobles illegitimate sons". The church had become a department of state and was exploited for funds. The church hierarchy was now closely associated with the crown which made it easier for James to impose increasingly frequent taxation on the clergy. James gave the impression of being religiously conscientious by displaying conventional piety and often going on pilgrimages but behind the scenes he was able to take advantage of the power and financial resources of the church.
James IV avoided the unpopular taxes and debasement of the coinage that had caused his father trouble. Through the new justice system many of those guilty of crimes could escape punishment by paying a large fine, they could also obtain a respite by paying to delay the trial and in those circumstances they often fled abroad. Occasionally James would dispense justice himself, he did not shy away from hanging criminals regardless of their rank. Although he made a lot of money from fines he also punished criminals often enough to keep the public satisfied. The main bulk of James' money was income from crown lands. Although he raised the income significantly he also spent more bestowing gifts on a range of subjects most noticeably the court familiars; however his liberality was seen as a virtue.
After 1509 James IV held no more parliaments. The Privy Council was responsible for governing Scotland but James always had the final decision. In this way the power of the nobles was subordinated to the crown. James crept closer to absolutism but managed to remain popular. The king's patronage of chivalry was extremely popular among the nobles and the wider populace in general. He would hold jousting tournaments in which he would fight, the nobles enjoyed their inclusion and it encouraged loyalty to the king and national pride. The court was a mixture of Scottish and medieval traditions and aspects of different cultures within Europe. King James IV was quick to emulate other rulers in whatever brought prestige and he took an interest in the political, cultural and technological advances within Europe. In the royal court many enjoyed royal patronage including artists, poets, architects and some of those involved in law, medicine and technological advance. The renaissance in poetry and arts added further to the cult of kingship and to pride in the Scottish nation.
Royal prestige was enhanced further by the manufacture of artilleries and the construction of ships. James was a martial king, he frequently took part in jousts and battles and he constructed the best equipped army Scotland had ever seen up to that point. James also surrounded himself with other war obsessed knights such as the insane Sir Walter Leslie. There are accounts of James taking a party down to the shore at Edinburgh and testing his new artillery pieces by bombarding Cramond Island. The Scottish fleet he constructed was important in four main ways, firstly it was an asset in complex diplomatic negotiations, it was also successfully used for the daunting of the Isles, foreign piracy in the North Sea was suppressed and finally it improved James' chances of leading a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. James still believed it was in Europe's best interest to seek stability and unite against a common enemy.
In 1509 Henry VIII succeeded to the English throne. Nicholson describes him as an "egocentric teenager" with an "inferiority complex". The treaty of perpetual peace was renewed and Henry VIII also signed a treaty with France. The future King James V was born in 1512 in an atmosphere of growing anger. Arguments and unofficial battles at sea inflamed the trouble between Scotland and England but war was averted. The English joined the holy league opposed to France. The French king offered James IV support in his crusade and support if he should claim the English throne. This encouraged James to renew the Franco-Scottish alliance in July 1512 agreeing to go to war with England if she attacked France. The French king sought to provide a distraction to prevent England invading France. James continued unsuccessfully to negotiate peace. He also asked Denmark to join in the alliance but King Hans was not willing to commit to France. In March 1513 news reached Scotland that the pope had died stirring up new fears. The new pope guaranteed England that James would be ex-communicated if he broke the Anglo-Scottish treaty. Henry VIII planned to lead his expedition to France in 1513. The French army met with disaster in Italy in June and Henry immediately set sail. On 25th June James negotiated a treaty with the Gaelic chiefs of Ulster and then sent the Scottish fleet to attack the English stronghold of Carrickfergus in Ulster after which they sailed to France. James then mustered the host and invaded England at a slow pace. He took a few castles but did not inflict too much damage perhaps hoping to secure peace more easily with the English after the war. The earl of Surrey led a force north and battle was agreed for the 9th of September. Despite having a superior position, better weapons and more men James was defeated and killed along with his illegitimate son the Archbishop of St.Andrews, the Bishop of the Isles and eight of Scotland's twenty-two earls.
The defeat at Flodden was significant due to the large number of troops and nobles who followed James IV and because the whole of Europe was interested in the outcome. James had made Scotland an important force in European politics but all his dreams ended in a crushing defeat at the hands of the "auld enemy" while honouring the "auld alliance".
King James IV was undoubtedly a hugely popular man. He was able to unite Scotland and really build a sense of national pride and belief that Scotland was a strong and proud nation. He was able to create a reputation for Scotland within Europe and sought to unite Europe in common interests. James is often described as a dreamer or romantic but the plans he made must have seemed possible to him and it was perhaps this belief in himself and in Scotland which made him so well liked. He was also able to tax the populace, particularly nobles, without them becoming discontented as they had when his father had imposed taxes. This is possibly due to his personality and the efforts he made to be seen by the people in all areas of Scotland. The people were proud of the king and their confidence must have increased as James assembled a formidable military force. During his reign he introduced beneficial educational and legal reforms. He also encouraged the arts, medicine and technological innovations (particularly military innovations). James built a strong country with an impressive fleet and he retained full control. Until 1509 his foreign relations were superb and he did generally encourage peace over war, however, the events that led up to Flodden saw him exploited by the French king, who probably only made promises about James' crusade to secure military support, and ultimately saw him lose everything he had built. James IV was a highly talented king but his impatience and obsession with his proposed crusade combined with sheer bad luck to bring about his downfall.