James II of Scotland and the fall of the Black Douglases

In 1449 James II of Scotland was nineteen and he began to assert himself and moved against his erstwhile Guardian, Alexander Livingston, and his family. In January 1450, two members of the Livingston family were beheaded for treason and the family estates were forfeited to the crown. Gradually, however, the Crichtons now glided back into the king’s favour and William Crichton regained the role of Chancellor. James now summoned parliments and seemed to be pursuing the same general aims as his father. Indeed, this was the only course to follow other than submit to being the puppet-king of one or other faction. And, a faction in itself, there stood the entrenched power of the Douglas family.

James II of Scotland (1430 – 1460)

The son of James the Gross, William, had by 1443 become the eighth Earl of Douglas and had formed a bond, or ‘band’, with the earl of Crawford and Alexander of the Isles, Earl of Ross, making a triumvirate whose power far eclipsed that of the king. William Douglas went in state to Rome for the jubilee year of 1450, and in his absence the king seized some of his castles.

James announced himself to be Lord of Galloway, a title Douglas believed to be his own.  In 1451 the earl returned in some haste to Scotland. James and William staged a public reconciliation in which the king yielded William all his lands except Wigtown – which the King gave back to him, under pressure, later in the year. Douglas had outfaced the king, and in January 1452 tried but failed to capture the Chancellor Crichton. Against the background of these events, the earl accepted the promise of safe-conduct from the king to attend a meeting in Stirling castle at which James asked him to break his band with Crawford and Ross.

‘Douglas Room’, Stirling Castle

When Douglas refused to break away from his colleagues, he was stabbed in the neck by the king. The attendants of James II completed the job. It was a pointless act of treacherous violence, and although a well-packed parliament subsequently absolved the king of murder, the Douglases who dragged the dead earl’s safe-conduct through Stirling on a board knew that they had right on their side in this at least.

Three years of hostilities with intervals of phoney truce followed. Fighting at first was on three fronts – against Crawford, Ross, and the new Earl of Douglas, James. Few of his nobles supported James II, who created numerous new earldoms and lordships for his loyal friends: the hereditary Marshal, Keith, became Earl Marischal; the Constable, Hay, became Earl of Errol; Colin Campbell became Earl of Argyll; George Leslie became Earl of Rothes; and Stewart of Darnley became Lord Darnley.

An enthusiast for merchandised warfare, King James purchased massive cannons, including ‘Mons Meg’ which can still be seen in Edinburgh Castle. This artillery was used against the castles of his enemies. In May 1455, with the Douglas lands devastated and their castles destroyed, the Earl of Douglas decided to escape. His three brothers fought a final battle at Arkinholm near Langholm in early June and were defeated; one fled to join the earl; one was killed in the battle; and one was tried and executed. The problem of the Black Douglases had been solved for the time being.

The way he dealt with Douglases family demonstrated the combination of ruthless and dodged qualities which were part of the character of James II. In 1455 he was still only twenty-five. He was an able and resourceful leader of men and capable of getting out of a tight corner. He was persistent and, despite the temperament that had led him to stab the eight Earl of Douglas, he was usually able to exercise a strategic patience. He took a scientific view of warfare but was also popular with the pikemen of his infantry and took pains to cultivate their support.

‘Mons Meg’

With no serious rival and the support of the earls and lords he had created, and a confused political situation in England, James II might have achieved a great deal. The political skill of the Scots council was tested by the rivalry of York and Lancaster in England. The Lancasterians generally wooed the King of Scots, promisin the return of Berwick. The Yorkists mostly wooed his enemies, James II played a double game himself with both York and Lancaster; on all sides there were mixed motives often cloaked by fair words or insult.

In 1455 James II genuinely feared an English invasion and set up beacons on the Border summits. An insulting message in 1456 from Henry VI of England to ‘James, calling himself King of Scotland’ impelled James to lead demonstrative foray into Northumberland. Roxburgh remained substantial English fortress controlling Scottish soil. James I failed to capture it and his son made an attempt in 1460, far better supplied and with more united support. On Sunday 3rd August, his queen came to give him encouragement. Standing close to a cannon whose barrel burst, he was struck in the tight and died from loss of blood. He was first monarch killed by a gun.