James V: The Legacy of the Thistle and the Rose

James V

10 April 1512: James V of Scotland was born at Linlithgow Palace. He was the only surviving child of James IV and Margaret Tudor-eldest daughter of Henry VII of England and Elizabeth of York.

James V has gone down in history was one of the most “unpleasant and rapacious, priest-ridden” monarchs. His father has also gotten the same treatment. James IV lost his life -along with half of the Scottish nobility- in the battle of Flodden. James V was not so unlucky, but a month after the horrible defeat (yet again) of Scottish forces by English forces; he fell ill. Sensing his death he made arrangements, appointing Cardinal Beaton, the Earls of Argyll, Huntly and Moray as his daughter’s Regents. There is a myth that was proliferated to make it appear as the Stewarts -especially Mary, Queen of Scots- were the worst things that happened in the history of the world. This was that on the day of his death, James V’s last words were “It started with a lass, it will end with a lass”. In her biography of the Tudor and Stewart dynasties, Linda Porter points out that at the time of his death, James V would be so sick that he would be unable to move his lips, let alone speak!

James IV and Margaret Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
James IV and Margaret Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.

James V was no fanatic but he did enforce harsh laws against his population. In this he was no different than other monarchs. He married two times, first Princess Madeleine of France and later Mary of the notorious and ambitious Guise family. With the latter, he had many children although only one survived, and she became the first Queen Regnant of the British Isles: Mary I Stewart of Scotland otherwise known as Mary, Queen of Scots.

“Until more balanced judgments appeared in recent years, James V was dismissed as the most unpleasant of the Stewarts, a rapacious, priest-ridden seeker of international recognition … But such a view overlooks his achievements: The cultural riches of his court and the importance he placed on good government .. Though half a Tudor by birth, [James V] was entirely a Stewart in his approach to kingship and more than equal to the prolonged rivalry with the uncle that he never met.” (Porter)

While people continue to view him according to Tudor historiography; the real James V as the rest of the Stewarts, was an incredible, fascinating man. His father had started great architectural projects that were largely influenced by Burgundian architecture. He surrounded himself with musicians and scholars, and when he met his young bride, Princess Margaret, she was surprised to find a great spectacle and pageantry waiting for her that lasted for almost three days. Their marriage ceremony was also very grand. James V inherited his father’s taste for architecture and war. Not one to engage openly against other countries, he nonetheless continued to aggrandize his navy by building better and bigger ships, and it was during his reign that Scotland earned the reputation as one of the most illustrious courts in Christendom. James V had been impressed by the French court when he went to visit there to marry his first wife (Madeleine) and he wanted his country to be on part with the other major Christian powers. Although James V’s childhood was surrounded by ambitious and rapacious courtiers who kidnapped him and held him hostage -such as his first stepfather, the Earl of Angus- he was nonetheless a strong and effective King who traveled the countryside often and loved to be seen by his people. He was not as learned as his uncle, Henry VIII, but he surrounded himself with many who were, and invited many scholars to his court to encourage the Humanist current among his subjects.

Not surprisingly his daughter has been given the same treatment. Until recently this has changed but there are some who still follow the popular view. Mary, Queen of Scots was James V only legitimate heir. In the words of Plantagenet Somerset Fry, it would "have been better if she had not been born". This goes to show how the myth of the "evil" and "ineffective Stewarts" still predominates. Furthermore, he adds, she was "hot-tempered" and lacked "political judgment."
Not surprisingly his daughter has been given the same treatment. Until recently this has changed but there are some who still follow the popular view. Mary, Queen of Scots was James V only legitimate heir. In the words of Plantagenet Somerset Fry, it would “have been better if she had not been born”. This goes to show how the myth of the “evil” and “ineffective Stewarts” still predominates. Furthermore, he adds, she was “hot-tempered” and lacked “political judgment.”

His daughter’s Regents soon encountered problems because of the Scottish Reformation. Although Mary I of Scotland returned to her native land after the death of her husband and her mother (who was her last Regent); by then, the Reform movement had grown too strong. Scotland was split between Catholics and Protestants. The latter fought ardently as the former. John Knox was their best known leader and he penned many pamphlets against the “monstrous rule of women”, criticizing female Catholic rulers (while abstaining himself from criticizing the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I). Mary, contrary to popular myth and the words of Plantagenet Somerset Fry who perpetuated this in his book; was an active Queen who like her forefathers traveled the countryside, loved riding, reading, composed verses and poetry, and was a Renaissance Tomboy who would not be afraid to use men’s clothes when playing tennis. Her decision of marrying her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley however proved her undoing. To this day it is unclear if she was her murderer (many historians have begun questioning the authenticity of the Casket letters). Trying to escape, she was captured by Bothwell and in spite of her armed guards, his men overpowered her and it a Queen in a time when women were little more than property and when family honor meant everything, she had to swallow her anger and her “shame”, and deny that he had raped her and to achieve that, she married him. As everyone suspected, he fled when her enemies captured her and miscarried their twin children. She escaped thanks to her allies and fought to regain her kingdom (even after she had been forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son, James). But her forces lost a major battle at Langside and this convinced her cause was lost. And what she did later proved to be the greatest mistake in her life: Pleading to her cousin Elizabeth I for help. Unlike the  romantic take on Mary’s story in the famous 70’s movie Mary, Queen of Scots; the two women never met. As soon as Mary stepped into England, she was aprehended and for the next two decades she was transferred from house to house under the guise that it was for her own protection. Finally, her involvement in the Babbington plot, doomed her and convinced her cousin that she had to go. She was exectued on February 1587.

James VI of Scotland and I of England.
James VI of Scotland and I of England.

What seemed like a defeat for the Stewarts proved to be anything but.  Fate, true to Mary’s motto “In my end is my beginning”; favored James V’s grandson -James VI. James VI became King of England in 1603 after Elizabeth I died. Nearly a hundred years later, the last monarch of the Stewart dynasty through an act of parliament officially united both Crowns creating what is now known as the United Kingdom.  James V might have lost the battle that day when he was taken by illness; but his line was far from finished. In his end was his beginning, his daughter’s beginning, and in her end was her son’s beginning and the beginning of the Stewart dynasty as the rulers of a United Britain.

Sources:

  • Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
  • Tudor. Passion. Murder. Manipulation by Leanda de Lisle
  • On this Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
  • The Kings and Queens of England & Scotland by Plantagenet Somerset Fry
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