Love and life in the court of King James IV of Scotland

James IV‘s love life was no secret to his people. Marion Boyd had borne him a son in 1493. Margaret Drummond had been his mistress from 1496, but she died suddenly and rather suspiciously with her two sisters, after a breakfast in 1502, coveniently one year before the king was to celebtate his grand dynastic marriage to Margaret Tudor.

James IV and Margaret Tudor

In 1501 James had granted the castle and lands of Darnaway, near Forres, to “Flaming Janet” Kennedy at around the time she bore him a son, James Stewart, who was later to become the Earl of Moray. In 1512 Queen Margaret also produced a son, James Stewart, as the heir to the throne.

Stirling Castle

James IV wished to be seen and admired in kingly practices. His tornaments, hunts, concerts and feasts made his court colourful and alluring and at a more political level helped to keep the nobility out of mischief. unlike his father and grandfather, he enjoyed entertaining his nobles. He shared his father’s interest in architecture, the arts and the curiosities of science. He was responsible for endorsing a rather odd experiment in which two infant children were sent in the care of a dumb woman to the Isle of Inchkeith to find out what language they would ultimately speak.  His protégé, the alchemist Father Damian, made an early attempt at man-powered flight from the heights of Stirling Castle.

Medieval feast with poet and harp music

On a higher note, literature had a place at the court of King James. He was particularly skilled as a linguist, speaking no less than six languages, including Gaelic. The king himself was known to have written love poems to Margaret Drummond, and he appointed a court poet in 1500.  This was William Dunbar, whose range of work exemplifies the demands put upon him. He was equally capable of splendid religious poetry, like Ane Ballat to Our Ladye, as of the scurrilous badinage of The Treatis of the Twa Maryit Wemen and the Wedo whose recital no doubt caused great mirth among the more boisterous element at the court.

Scottish Earls and their crests

Social satire was a major element of the poetry of Dunbar. His mockery of such groups as the urban craftsmen helps to show the virtual absence of any element in society between the court and the ordinary people at the time. The courtiers laughed because the objects of Dunbar’s rude humour were so familiar to them. Something of the character of the Scots of those days and the racy expressiveness of their language comes across in the verse form of  “flyting”, a poetic exchange of views often at the level of a slanging match between two contrasting figures. The dialogue form was extremely popular in the sixteenth century and was still visible in works over 200 years later. The poems of William Dunbar were among the first books printed in Scotland.

Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle

The court of James IV also cultivated music. The king’s new Chapel Royal in Stirling Castle was a centre of church music distinguished by the presence of Robert Carver whose masses and motets for church ceremonies are still performed. English ballads, french dances and Flemish music, were performed at court, along with Scots songs, reels and recitals of Highland music for both bagpipe and harp.

Medieval Highland bagpipe player