When James Stewart, Duke of Rothesay, learnt he was the new King of Scotland, he was only six years old. His father, James I, had just been murdered at a friary in Perth, by men who supported another claimant to the Scottish crown. James’ mother, Queen Joan, had narrowly escaped with her life. The year was 1437, and Scotland, still fighting the long battle for independence, was on better terms with France than it was with England.
James II of Scotland: Rocking the ‘Bob’ way long before Posh Spice!
A Game of Thrones
While James was still a child, he witnessed many bitter struggles among clan chiefs and noblemen who coveted his power. Dangers lurked in every shadow; James’ ‘guardians’ had no hesitation in murdering his trusted friends, just in case they were plotting against the throne. Royalty came at a high price. But, whether by nature or necessity, James soon displayed the kind of character that befitted the role of King.
Hot tempered, with a shock of red hair and a crimson birthmark on his cheek – a feature that earned him the nickname ‘Fiery Face’ – he dealt with his enemies promptly and without mercy. Whatever his childhood emotions must have been, he had learned not to give anyone a second chance.
James assumed power in 1449, at the age of 18. He married Mary of Guelders in the same year; they would go on to have four sons and two daughters
James and Mary: Moments before breaking into the ‘Hustle’
Armed and Dangerous
Having sent a clear message to his adversaries, James could still not afford to sit on his throne in peaceful splendour. He began to indulge a passion for weaponry, taking an active interest in the very latest guns and ammunition. Imagine his joy when, in 1457, James received two massive siege guns as a gift from his wife’s uncle, the Duke of Burgundy. Weighing over seven tons, these iron-clad monsters, known as ‘bombards’, would fire 400-pound cannon balls over a distance of more than two miles. James must have fancied himself as the medieval version of Bruce Willis.
Having collected an eye-boggling array of armaments, James needed somewhere to try them out – and he didn’t have to look very far. English forces had captured some of his Border strongholds, and Roxburgh Castle, near Kelso, presented an ideal challenge. Founded by David I, Roxburgh was traditionally a residence of Scottish kings, but it had long been a bone of contention between England and Scotland. As far back as 1334, Roxburgh had fallen into English hands, and in the intervening years all attempts to win it back had met with failure.
Dreams of Glory
In 1460, James seized his chance. He travelled south with a large army and half a dozen bombards, with the intention of scaring the daylights out of the occupying English. Somewhat ironically, he’d had to leave his largest guns at home, because they were too heavy to transport; but he had many more, slightly smaller versions, up his sleeve. The English, quite literally, wouldn’t know what had hit them.
Standing in front of Roxburgh Castle on the 3rd of August, James ordered one of his beloved bombards, nicknamed ‘The Lion’, to be loaded and fired. But disaster struck: the casing of the barrel burst and the cannon exploded, killing the King almost instantly. He was 29. According to some sources, Queen Mary arrived on the scene soon afterwards, and, despite her grief, she urged James’ forces to continue the siege.They succeeded in capturing the castle a few days later.
A Legacy of Fire
Only one of James’ famous siege guns survives: Mons Meg, one of the very largest. Historians disagree about the origin of her name, but it is probably derived from Mons in Belgium, where she is thought to have been made. The second name, ‘Meg’, is a Scottish short form of ‘Margaret’. Today, Mons Meg sits on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle and faces out across the city towards the Firth of Forth.
Mons Meg: You wouldn’t want to meet that in a dark alley!
Source: © Joanna Woolf
Some of the stone cannon balls are grouped around her carriage; looking at their colossal size, it is difficult to imagine how they could even be lifted into the gun’s chamber. Mons Meg has not seen active use since 1681, when her barrel burst, meaning that she is no longer capable of firing real cannon. That’s probably just as well!
Despite his untimely end, James II undoubtedly had the last word. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world converge on Edinburgh Castle every year, and one of the most enduring memories they take away with them is of Mons Meg. James’ fiery presence is still making itself felt.