The Death Of A King

On this day in 1460, while besieging Roxburgh Castle in southeastern Scotland, James II King of Scots was killed by artillery–but not in the way you might expect.

James II had ruled Scotland since the assassination of his father, James I, in 1437. The younger James was 6 years old at the time, and his mother Joan Beaufort served as Regent until he reached adulthood. His rule was characterized by conflict with Scottish nobles.

James_II_of_Scotland_17th_century

Posthumous portrait of James II Stewart (1430-1460), held by the National Galleries of Scotland.

However, in 1460 he decided to wade into the civil war raging to the south in the Kingdom of England, the Wars of the Roses. James gathered an army and evidently had agreed to align himself with the Duke of York, who was trying to unseat King Henry VI. The Scottish army first set its sights on Roxburgh Castle, situated at the confluence of the Rivers Tweed and Teviot in what was then Roxburghshire, now near the modern town of Kelso in the Scottish Borders.

Roxburgh Castle ruins 1

The ruins of Roxburgh Castle in an 1830 engraving by Scottish Quaker artist William Miller.

James II’s father had made his own attempt to capture Roxburgh Castle in 1435 or 1436, in order to aid his ally France during the Hundred Years’ War against England. English forces had retained the castle after the Scottish Wars of Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries. The elder James’ siege ended in failure after two weeks due to division and discord among his army.

As James II marched to Roxburgh, the Duke of York’s representatives reported that their faction was victorious. Henry VI was captured at the Battle of Northampton (the first in England in which artillery was used!) on 10 July, and therefore the Scottish king should abandon the attack. However, James persisted, declaring that his real goal was to remove the English castle from land inhabited by Scots.

Roxburgh Castle ruins 2

A watercolor of Roxburgh Castle by Geddie Haslehust (1920).

Which brings us to his death by cannon on 3 August 1460–but he was not killed by enemy fire. As the 16th century Scottish chronicler Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie wrote in the first history of Scotland composed in Scots instead of Latin:

[the arrival of reinforcements] made the king so blyth [happy] that he commandit to chairge all the gunes, and give the castle ane new volie. But quhill [while] this prince, more curious nor [than] became the majestie of ane king, did stand near hand by, his thigh bone was dung in tuo be [by] ane peice of ane misframed gune, that brak in the schuting: be the quhilk [which] he was strukin to the ground, and died hastily thairefter.

So it was not an English cannonball that did James in, but rather his own malfunctioning gun! It was not uncommon for muzzle-loading cannon to crack, break, or explode under the tremendous strain of firing. The gun which killed James is described as “misframed” or badly constructed, which causes fatal misfires. This weaponry and its manufacture were still relatively new technologies in late Medieval and early Modern Europe.

After James’ death, the Scottish army continued attacking the castle and captured it a few days later. Mary of Guelders, queen consort of Scotland and James’ widow, ordered Roxburgh Castle to be razed. James was buried at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh.

Today, the ruins of Roxburgh Castle are on the grounds of Floors Castle, the estate held by the Duke of Roxburgh. While the land is woven into the history of Scotland’s struggle against England, it was the 5th Earl of Roxburgh, John Ker, who was instrumental in bringing about Scotland’s union with England in 1707, for which he was created Duke of Roxburgh.

Roxburgh Castle

The remains of Roxburgh Castle with Floors Castle in the background. The River Tweed is on the left and River Teviot on the right.

Sources:

Buchanan, G. The History Of Scotland. Translated by J. Aikman. Vols. 1-6. Edinburgh: 1829.

Dalyell, J.G., ed. The Chronicles Of Scotland By Robert Lindsay Of Pitscottie. Vols. 1-2. Edinburgh: 1814.

Skene, F.J.H., ed. The Book Of Pluscarden. Vols. 1-2. Edinburgh: 1880.

 

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