Jane Dawson in her book ‘Scotland Re-Formed’, with a hyphen, does a piece on the really very lovely looking ceiling of St Machar’s cathedral in Aberdeen. I have been to the Granite City, a few times actually, but I played hockey and drank too much beer and felt ill in the mini bus on the way home, and did not do as I should have done and visited the cathedral. Mea Culpa, mea maxima culpa. Anyway, I will put an image on the website, as I did on the Facebook site actually in an attempt to lure people away from an illegal political conversation about Brexit. It didn’t work I have to say, which is a terrible disservice to St Machar’s Cathedral.
Anyway, the roof is decorated with 48 heraldic devices. The Point Professor Dawson makes is that the roof, designed in 1520 at the height of the chaos and factionalism of the minority, none the less speaks not of confusions and uncertainty – but of self-confidence. Yup, this is piece of work that says we know know who we are; this current in fighting is merely like the frisson on the surface of the ocean caused by a gust of wind, without disturbing the tranquil depths and passing as soon as it arrives. it is, dust in the wind dude. The roof includes a few calculated well placed heraldic snubs towards England. The heraldic shields include the Scottish church and Papacy, symbolically integrating church and state in the middle row – at the heart of the Scottish kingdom. On the lesser side, sinister as I believe it is caused by heraldic folk, are some European kingdoms – Holy Roman Emperor, France Spain – and only then England, last and quite definitely least; and the English shield is not quartered with the French Fleur de Lys, just in case we’d missed the point which would infuriate the descendants of Edward III. It’s like going to a Six nations match. On the more important side heraldically speaking – called dexter to the same heraldic folk – we then get the Scottish crown, followed by the magnates of the realm in glorious procession. There’s a shield for St Margaret, whose significance as a religious and royal leader you will all remember from previous episodes of course. That is as close, incidentally as James’s mother, Queen Margaret gets to a shield – she doesn’t have her own. After all – she’s a Tudor…English.
So, was that confidence well placed? Would the nation lance the boils of faction and unite once more, king, magnate and church and take their place together as a leading European kingdom? Let us find out today gentle listeners, let us find out over the next couple of episodes.
So we left Angus clutching at the air as he realised that his captive king, the 16 year old James Stewart had given him the slip. If our Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus did not feel the heat of panic flush over him, then he really was no politician. James turned up at Stirling castle alongside his mother and her new husband Henry Stewart. James immediately promoted his mother’s husband 3.0, since Henry Stewart came from a relatively lowly twig of the extensive Stewart tree and made him a peer, Lord Methven.
For many lords and magnates, this was what they’d been waiting for, and they came to join James the young king. They saw James’s assertion of personal rule with a wave of relief; a chance to finally end their exile from the mindless factionalism of court. They came from their local hibernation with the return of the royal sun to warm them – Earls Argyll, Eglinton, and Moray. The Earl of Arran, fully in involved in the mindless factionalism of court came too it has to be said. Hopefully someone secretly stuck a ‘kickme’ sign on his backside.
The new Council though was therefore immediately much more broadly based. But Angus did not come, and although James was to be furious for what he saw as disloyalty, I’m gonna say that Angus made a good call, and had he tipped up might have lost reasonably crucial parts of his anatomy.
Angus it has to be said did show an impressive sang froid; ordered in bond to take himself north of the Spey by the Council, he simply muttered ‘you and who’s army?’, ordered his people to shut themselves up in Tantallon castle in the borders and dared the young King to make his order stick. We’ve been here before with a previous James, IV of that name I think. Rather humiliatingly, despite blasting away at the walls, James could make no progress, and when he retreated even suffered a defeat. It took a year for James to rid himself of Angus, and it was messy. James did a deal involving Henry VIII and an amnesty for 146 Douglas supporters among the lairds and lower ranks. In 1529, deal done, Angus duly took himself off to England, taking his daughter Margaret Douglas with him; where she’d establish a good friendship with Mary Tudor, future queen of England. A friendship which would cause Elizabeth of England a few palpitations when Mary considered making Margaret her heir. But that is another story in another podcast far far away.
Ok, so would James successfully banish the pain of the minority and start the wagon of the Renaissance Monarchy rolling again? Before I launch in, I should probably warn you that his reputation by the end of the 16th century was not of the most positive complexion. Part of the problem was that John Knox got hold of it; and since James was not friendly towards the reformists, Knox took the rag of James’s reputation and gave it as thorough a shaking as any dog with its favourite toy. The same is true of another writer with a big reputation, George Buchanan. In their far from gentle hands, James became a rapacious tyrant in league with idolatrous priests, with a bloodthirsty love of burning heretics, whose excesses of taxation and obsession with favourites alienated him from his nobility, so much that they refused to fight for him. They reluctantly grant him a desire to establish better justice, but condemn him as a serial adulterer.
None of which is terribly complimentary but honestly, later historians have been quite prepared when weighing the evidence to broadly agree, so maybe they were not so far from the mark. However, there was also a reluctantly sympathetic strand suggesting that however tyrannical his treatment of his nobles, James was a man concerned for the welfare of the common man, hence his desire to see justice done. The ubiquitous Walter Scott picked up on this to create the figure of the Gudeman of Ballengeich, James V in disguise as a tenant farmer, eager to hear the real voice of the people. It is, of course pretty careless of the truth, but you go to Walter for a good story in the main I would argue. And despite his efforts, very eminent historians such as Jenny Wormald reasonably recently have described James V a ‘probably the most unpleasant of all the Stewarts’. However, although it has taken a while, finally the carriage of revisionism has rolled into town; it’s been noted that firm government was what was needed after a minority like that, and that James was often effective at restoring order and justice; that his diplomacy was highly effective and enabled Scotland to sit once more at the head table of European nations, and that his court once more reflected a self confident and cultured renaissance monarchy. Others have stressed his traditional approach to laissez faire management of his magnates, and a lively cultural tradition. Into this mix, though, needs to be thrown the social and religious consequences of James’s search for money, which would have fundamental consequences for the Scottish church; and the continuation of a now long standing issue of the relationship between lowland Scotland and the Highlands and the monarchy and the Northern Isles.
Worth bearing in mind that James was but 16 when he set off on this journey; I believe I have made the point before that I was certainly not good for ruling myself at the age of 16, let alone a nation; and whatever the judgement of James might be, his determination and force of character should not be in doubt. In demonstration, let me take you then to the Debateable Land, and we can maybe see how James does.
The story of Johnnie Armstrong is one of the many stories Walter Scot gathered and retold in his ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ in 1802. It’s a romantic story of daring do, of a gallant leader and his troop patriotically bringing fire and sword to the perfidious English; of a people’s hero, tricked into meeting his king only to be betrayed, as the ordinary person is destined to be betrayed by the rapacious and graceless mighty. Now as it happens, Johnnie Armstrong was a real person, and the king he went to meet was James V. The reality was probably a little different to the story, though in the immortal tradition of radical history, you can choose what you would like to believe.
I am told by the Clan Armstrong centre website that by legend the origin of the name Armstrong is of a Norse man called Fairbairn who helped a king onto his horse in battle and was given the name of Arms – Strong as a result. Whether or not that is true, the Armstrongs inhabited an area on the borders called the Debateable Land; I suspect we have spoken before of the Border Reivers in the History of England. The debatable land was debateable because no one could agree whether or not it belonged to the crown of Scotland or England. As such is was unusually lawless, even by Borders standards. Johnnie Armstrong was one of the reasons for this; Reviving could be a career of choice on the borders, one of the reasons peace with England could be unpopular. John Armstrong was clearly good at his job – blackmail, extortion, murder, the normal business of Reivers both side of the border. Nonetheless, Armstrong was not, initially at least an outlaw or outside the normal structure of society, we know this because there are records of perfectly standard interactions between him and those around. In particular, in 1525, there is a survival of the bond he made with other lords in the area, the Maxwells. The Manrent as it was called, was a record of the relationship between social superior and inferior. John Armstrong committed to this:
I Johne Armstrang, bindis and oblissis me and myne airis (heirs) in manrent and service to the said Robert, Lord Maxwell and his airis for ever mare (more) first and before all utheris (others), myne allegiance to our soverane lord the king allanelly (alone) except”.
The Armstrong kindred were now bound to their social superiors the Maxwells. This was not a one-way street; in return Maxwell would be bound to provide mutual protection; and Maxwell leased to Armstrong a substantial package of land; there is a tower house that survives connected with him, called Gilnockie Tower.
All well and good. Maxwell was as it happens warden of the Western March, which meant he was responsible for maintaining the peace and exercising justice, as well as defending the area from the incursions and aggression of the English. The latter part of his responsibilities almost certainly held his heart more than the former, because the English were constantly complaining of Armstrong’s activity and violence, complaints which appear to have been filed in B1N. Eventually, the English tried dish Armstrong once and for all in 1527 but failed, and in a tit for tat Johnnie burned Netherby in the English west march. Fed up to the backteeth, the English took the matter upstairs, to the English Lord Dacre. Dacre exercised all the military and diplomatic muscle at his disposal. He came down with irresistible force raided and burned Armstrong’s Tower in March 1528. He made complaints to the Royal Council, still at this stage dominated by Angus, and Angus led a fruitless ‘road’, or expedition against the Armstrongs. Although Angus was unable to achieve anything tangible, he declared Armstrong a rebel, and therefore outside the law, and persuaded the Bishop of Glasgow to excommunicate him. Armstrong was now officially at least cast out – but very much still at large, and local sympathies doubtlessly did not follow the official line.
Now, in 1530, young James cordially detested the Douglases and all their works. So you might expect that James would march down to the Borders and restore the status quo. But James showed early that in justice he must stand above faction in a way Angus had been unable to do. So instead one of his first actions was to launch a campaign into the borders. Johnnie Armstrong and his band were summoned to Teviotdale to meet the king. Along they all came in their Sunday best, all lined up expectantly before their king, quite possibly expected a pat on the back for taking war and mayhem to the hated English. The encounter was recorded by other chroniclers, Pitscottie and Leslie but it’s to Walter we will turn now
The great show of opulence served only to incense the rash and impetuous King:-
‘What wants yon knave that a king should have’?
The wild and reckless James made clear his intentions,
‘Away, away thou traytor strang (strong)
Out of my sicht (sight) thou mayst sune be!
I granted nevir a traytor’s lyfe
And now I’ll not begine with thee.’
In summary, Armstrong and either 24 or 48 of his fellows were summarily executed. There was no trial; although you might argue that as rebels, they were due none. Before he died, Armstrong argued that he’d always killed only English, and then spat contemptuously at his king
I haif asked grace at a graceless face,
But there is none for my men and me.
This then is not a one-off, but a theme; On the same progress one George Scott of Bog who had burned women and children in their homes was duly burned at the stake as punishment. James carried out similar exemplary campaigns 7 times up to 1536, and showed a marked disinclination to go through the process of law, so much so that contemporaries labelled the approach ‘Jeddart Justice’, after the great border town of Jedburgh. You could argue as some have that this was a tyranny, and even contemporaries like the courtier and author David Leslie warned the king to use mercy as well as a firm hand; but generally at the time the tone was of approval. That through 15 years of minority justice had not been delivered, and that was the greater evil.
James V, therefore, shared his father’s clear understanding that justice and Scottish kingship went hand in hand together. That is of course a statement that could apply anywhere to a degree, but as we have discussed before, the structure of bloodfeud and the agreement of compensation so necessary to make it work, made it even more important in Scotland; in addition, that justice still required the personal attention of the king. James III had hidden himself away in Edinburgh and isolated himself from the process; both James IV and James V understood that they needed to travel in person around the kingdom; and in places like the Borders he won considerable success. So you know, tick, snaps, all that.
James’s energetic travelling lay long side a parallel development however, which was the increasing appeal to central royal justice. In 1532, James established the College of Justice, a professional central bureau staffed with professional lawyers and judges in Edinburgh. The idea was that it would be paid, and James managed to persuade the Pope to open his pockets and fund the payments. History turned out slightly different; said Judges then went uu paid while James trousered the money and used it for more exciting royal projects like beautifying Falkland palace. It’s also been pointed out that the establishment of the College of Justice was not an event which appeared out of nowhere to establish light in the darkness; James IV had organised structured central sessions for example. None the less the College was a further step forward. It also marked the growing strength of a legal profession focussed very much in Edinburgh which slowly squeezed out the amateur in royal justice; the principle was slowly accepted that the king could not simply create new lord lords, that clerics could not automatically assume judicial roles, and there needed to be standards established for lawyers to meet. In this way, central justice began to be royal justice rather than the king’s personal justice.
You might think, then, that this developing central justice would also squeeze out the good old days, of bloodfeud and the local lord delivering justice. But despite the growth of royal justice, that was not immediately the case; local justice survived as an alternative to the courts rather than in opposition to them. A good example is the agreement made by two lords in 1500; the pair drew up a contract of friendship, and agreed to both deal with the disputes of their followers; they also agreed that if they could not settle any of the disputes they would then take the case to court. In this way both systems worked together. And the local system retained many advantages; it was much faster, and judgements were rooted in the local community. For the justice of feud this was very important. Once again, although it’s almost impossibly tempting to focus on the bloody occasions when bloodfeud led to political chaos and infighting, these are the exceptional occasions where the system failed. Day by day, the system was administered by local lords where the aim was to achieve a resolution acceptable to both parties, where reconciliation as well as justice and compensation was a crucial component.
Full scale clan battles with two kindred and affinities fighting out were comparatively rare. Feud was therefore a powerful way of restoring a lasting peace, and it was backed up by men with authority in the local community and who understood that community. Those men were also the same who maintained order through the local sheriff, baronial or regality courts, so bringing the systems together. Although it was not always the case, they might also be substantial landholders, and they would also have further leverage they could use; since leases, or tacks, were often renewed annually, tacks could be withheld to ensure resolution of a dispute. The conclusion is that the general impression of lawlessness is almost certainly overstated. Not that this is going to stop me from all the fun of the fair delivered by reciting the stories of famous clan battles. That, gentle listeners, would be foolish.
That, then, is all very positive. But James’s determination to ruthlessly restore royal justice had its flip side, and the flip side was the dark side of vindictiveness and a reluctance to employ mercy as a tool of justice. I might therefore tell you another story; that of Janet, Lady Glamis.
Janet Douglas, was the widow of John Lyon, Lord of Glamis when she was twice called before parliament, in December 1528 and January 1529. She was called because she was also the sister of Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus. As we have observed, James V hated the Douglas family and the humiliating messiness of removing Angus from power would rankle, like the old bacon sandwich a fisherman takes to the pool to draw off the flies. The 24 year old Janet was under suspicious of helping her brothers in their military resistance to the king over the previous year. This time around Janet was able to wriggle off the hook, and was given permission to go on pilgrimage. Janet got on with the business of managing the Glamis estate – which happened to include legal action against a relative. It appears that the management of estates in the early modern British Isles required a deal of legal expertise, it’s a common thread. However, Janet should not have relaxed, because James’s malice certainly had not. By June 1531, Janet was described as a
‘fugitive fra the law and at the horne … for intercommonying with our soverane lordis rebellis’
James was determined to have his prey, but somehow Janet survived, quite possibly from the loyalty of her local lairds. So James piled the pressure on them by accusing Janet now of poisoning her ex husband. But in January and February 1532 at the local assizes, no trial was held, and the lairds running the courts were duly fined by a furious King and forced to do their duty as he saw it. But the Lairds were drawn from Forfar, Perth, Aberdeen, and Fife, which were areas where Janet’s adopted Lyon family held estates, and once again local loyalties trumped royal power. For a while, James retreated to do some wound licking, so much so that Janet was allowed to contract a second marriage, to one Archibald Campbell of Skipness. Phew, that’s over then. And for 5 years it appeared that this was so.
But the horror was merely lurking. In 1537, Janet’s husband was thrown into Edinburgh castle, and her young son placed in royal ward. She meantime was arrested. Arrested on new charges of poison – but this time James was determined to finish this, and the proverbial book was thrown at her. There were three charges – of attempting to poison the king, of witchcraft, and oh, of helping her Douglas brothers in treason against the king. Down she was taken to a dungeon in Edinburgh castle with her husband.
Chucking accusations around was one thing, making the charges stick was another, and the evidence was clearly proving something of a struggle. So James turned to persuasion, otherwise known as torture, with her son and servants submitted to torture. In the process they cracked, and based on this evidence Janet Douglas was convicted on 17th July 1537. With her children in tow, Janet was taken to the esplanade of Edinburgh castle where a stake had been surrounded by faggots, and there she was tied and in front of her children’s horrified eyes, she was burned to death. Her husband then broke his neck trying to escape the castle and her son was sentenced also to die, though commuted to imprisonment.
Here then was the flip side; James had a vindictive streak, and relentlessly pursued those he took against; the poisoning and witchcraft accusations were clearly tripe, the real reason was the Douglas rebellion, which James could never forgive.
It is also worth noting that the Glamis lands were annexed to the throne, raising a substantial windfall of close to £6,000 by the end of the reign. The wages of revenge. In the search for money other families would also suffer at the hands of the king; the Crawfords were brought to ruin with demands for back fees to be allowed to enter their lands, and the resulting sale of lands not only raised money for the crown, but the lands were also sold to royal servants to reward their service.
So we’ve got pursuit of the Douglas, money raising. James also used Justice though, to reinforce the power of his magnates, in a way that says little for impartial justice, but much for James support for his magnates. So In 1537, the case of the Master of clan Forbes came before the king; the charge was treason, and the charge was brought before him by the earl of Huntly, one of the king’s great magnate, his lieutentant effectively in the North East and northern Highlands. There was something of a custom and practice that went on here; it was normal for the sentence of death to be pronounced for treason, and then to be commuted by the king to imprisonment or exile; but in this case, James sat on his hands, and gave no commutation. And so the Master went to his death. In fact, both James and Huntly probably knew full well the charges were false. What was really going on here was a local power struggle for control of Aberdeen between Huntly and Forbes. Here was James’s reward to his lieutenant Huntly – support from the king for clearing Huntly’s path in maintaining his local supremacy. A similar example was the execution of Hamilton of Finnart, arrested and on trumped up treason charges to help the earl of Arran fight off a challenge to his leadership of the Hamilton clan. Hamilton of Finnart remained confident of reprieve right to the very end – because he knew James well, he and James were personally friendly. James probably did feel bad- this time he simply made sure he wasn’t around to be persuaded, and callously let him go to his death.
Ok so the point about this is that James could use justice for political ends, which surely qualifies as tyranny. And yet objections were muted. Because the examples we’ve discussed were all part of and in support of that traditional laissez faire approach to government – to allow and reinforce the magnates to run their own affairs and regions on behalf of the king. The system further more appeared to work reasonably well in the core of the kingdom. James as we will hear rebuilt a central court and lavished largess, all designed to bring the greater families to court. In fact he always struggled to get the magnates to attend 0 they simply did not feel the need. Council remained reasonably broadly based, and therefore regional magnates felt reasonably represented, though having said that, their confidence was shown as much by their non attendance – most attended a handful of the councils, some like Huntly none at all. But in other ways they demonstrated their willingness to fulfil their traditional roles under James’s direction; the earls of Moray, Huntly, Arran, Argyll, and Eglinton, regularly served on diplomatic, military, administrative, and judicial missions. Four of them were entrusted with regency powers in the absence of the king in France in 1536–7.
Parliament offered for the magnates and noble another way of making their voice heard; because it remained a single chamber structure, very much in the European tradition such as France, the Empire, Aragon, Castile, where the king would meet with higher nobility, clergy and towns; generally speaking it did not develop along the more vocal lines of the English parliament, where the bicameral structure lent itself to attract a strong component of gentry. That does not mean, however, that the parliamentary voice in Scotland was silent – anything but, and it could also be critical, as James III had found. But it general it was an ally of royal power, and Scottish kings recognised that partnership; it was the king-in-parliament that was the law giver, neither one separately. And Scotland is notable by the relatively light involvement in war, and therefore exercising a relatively light demand on its people of general lay taxation, which removed the critical grit in the oyster that generated much change and conflict among the other nations of Europe.
So, by and large, despite the pursuit of the Douglas, James did indeed maintain a positive balance with regional government and his magnates. However, there are some wrinkles in this we should explore.
First of all, as Michael Lynch points out, that laissez faire relationship with magnates is a piece of short hand for a much more complicated picture; the relationship between magnate and king was interdependent, magnates required royal authority and support to maintain their local pre-eminence. Secondly, a feature of the period is the growing involvement in local politics and communities of the Lairds. It is a term I have used, casually and without explanation, I grovel, ladies and gentlemen, I grovel with apology. So let me explain it now – better late than never. Lairds were essentially lesser nobles. They are proper bone fide nobles, so I have been warned not to equate them with the gentry in England, they are proper card carrying nobles, but they are not peers of the realm, not magnates. Now in some localities, many localities, lairds controlled or were deeply influential in local offices like sherrifs, and in royal administration. In Fife for example, which lacked a major magnate, they entirely ran the show, with families like the Beatons connected to a wide network of similar families and hoovering up state offices. In many cases, Lairds had a direct relationship with the king; one analysis of the eastern Borders showed that 87 Lairds held land directly from the crown, 97 from another Laird, and only 33 from a Magnate and 8 from other nobles. In addition we are in a period where none of the magnate families have the kind of basic widespread power and sheer grunt as some have had in the past there are no families with the power such as had the MacDonald Lords of the Isles or the Black Douglases of the first half of the 15th century.
Offspring of the Lairds and illegitmate offspring of the peerage also played a central part in central administration, and came to see administration as a career. In many cases this was through a traditional route – that of the church. James V looked around for ways to increase state income, staff his administration and reward his followers and his gaze fell firmly, lovingly and appreciatively on the wealth and organisation of the church. You might note in that glowing sentence and this effervescent sub clause a surfeit of roistorous adverbs and adjectives. I write this in the boiling wake of the condemnation by Pope Francis of the use of adjectives and adverbs. In this I shall harness my rebellious protestant nature and defy the command. I have built a couple of careers on the flagrant, uncontrolled and even irresponsible use of adverbs and adjectives. Just so you are clear on what is one of the most important topics of our age. Forget climate change and populism. Adjectives is where it’s at.
That’s an outrageous and uncalled for digression, I’m sorry, we were on the use of the church to provide administrators; so thus as an example, David Beaton, from a lairdly family in Fife who would become ABSTA, and be jolly famous, especially in our next episode.
However, it was not just the church – the sons of lairds and the illegitimate offspring of the peerage flocked to court to become career courtiers and try to hoover up jobs. In this, James V was very much like his grandfather James III – but unlike his ancestor, he did not then hide himself away in Edinburgh, he got out there and toured around too. Often because he wanted to visit the odd mistress or six, but we’ll come to that. Now there’s nothing really unusual about nobility seeking employment and patronage at court although in the time honoured tradition of noble privilege, the relatively lowly status of lairds could make them unpopular when they became powerful; the illegitimate Campbell of Lundie was described as a
‘bastard bribor quhilk had not 5s worth of good of his own
However on occasion, James linked up his promotion of these courtiers with his hatred of the Douglas, and by granting land and promoting men like Thomas Erskine, who seriously disrupted the local power of the Douglas in the regions of Angus and Mearns.
Going back to the original point, what I am saying is that by and large James maintained the traditional and successful laissez faire approach to regional governance, and his active pursuit of justice was well received and supported. His administration of justice was far from even handed when political expediency demanded it. He was capable of malice, and mercy was not his long suit. There are other wrinkles. It might also be noted that he was no more successful in his relationship with those areas that lay outside the traditional royal heartlands – so, in the northern Isles and the Highlands. And his policy of using the church to fund and support royal government would have far reaching consequences. To which we will turn next time! This will be in a few weeks time, after we have had a chance to return to Marshal’s story!
 Wormald, J ‘Court, Kirk and Community’ pp 35-38
 Goodare, J: ‘State and Society in Early Modern England’ p59