James II, King of Scots, was killed at Roxburgh Castle on the 3rd of August, 1460.
James II was gey fond of guns and of murdering his subjects. This King’s speciality was inviting Douglas Earls to dinner and seeing them disposed of in a macabre, after dinner entertainment – not exactly what you’d call black comedy. In such a manner was the 6th Earl done away with and James himself even took a hand in the murder of the 8th Earl. One of James’ favourite guns was the cannon ‘Mons Meg’, which wasn’t short for ‘Monstrous Meg’, though it could’ve been. Somewhat appropriately, James was killed by a faulty cannon, which event occurred during the siege of Roxburgh Castle.
James II was known by the nickname, ‘James of the Fiery Face’ due to a large and disfiguring, vermillion coloured birthmark that covered half his face. Maybe he should’ve been called the ‘Fiery King’, given his temper. Notwithstanding his faults, James was a vigorous and popular prince, regarded as one of the better Scottish monarchs of the period. Although not a scholar like his father, James showed interest in education and during his reign, he introduced some important legislative measures. Those involved the tenure of land, the reformation of the coinage and the protection of the poor, whilst the organisation for the administration of justice was also greatly improved. He also established many trade links on the continent and through his wife, Mary of Gueldres and the marriages of his sisters, gained many valuable political alliances.
King James II, the only surviving son of James I and his Queen, Joan Beaufort, was born on the 16th of October, 1430. He succeeded to the Throne at seven years of age, after his father was brutally murdered at St. John’s Toun of Perth, because his elder twin, Alexander, Duke of Rothesay, had died in infancy. During James’ minority, his guardians began well by rounding up and executing the murderers of James I. However, after Archibald, Earl of Douglas, who was Regent for the child King, died in 1439, the situation degenerated and a savage and bloody struggle for power ensued. That feud involved three key protagonists, Sir William Crichton, the keeper of Edinburgh Castle, Sir Alexander Livingstone and William, the 6th Earl of Douglas.
To some extent, things became a bit like ‘pass the parcel’ as Crichton initially had custody of the young James, but he was then kidnapped and carried off to Stirling by Livingstone who also abducted Joan Beaufort. When Parliament demanded that Livingstone release James and his mother, Livingstone and Crichton formed an alliance against the Douglas. The result of their plotting was that the young Earl of Douglas was treacherously murdered at the infamous ‘Black Dinner', whilst the young James was humiliatingly impotent to prevent his death.
Twelve years later, in an amazing action replay of the events of the ‘Black Dinner’, the 8th Earl of Douglas was invited to Stirling Castle on the King’s safe conduct. That William didn’t have quite the same relationship with the King as his predecessor and was – wrongly and tragically – viewed with suspicion as a threat to the Crown. Despite the manner of his father’s death and the dastardly execution of the 6th Earl, James II, King of Scots, bloodied his own hands in exactly the same way as those he would have previously condemned. Douglas was stabbed in a frenzied rage by the King himself. Ultimately, the Douglas power was ended at the Battle of Arkinholm in May, 1455.
James II became very fond of guns and an enthusiastic promoter of the new military invention, the cannon. Although gunpowder was known in Europe during the High Middle Ages, it was not until the Late Middle Ages that cannon were widely developed. The first European cannon were probably used in Iberia during the Islamic wars against the Christians in the 13th Century and cannon first appeared in Britain in 1327. Primitive cannon were engaged at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. During the 15th Century, cannon advanced so that bombards became effective siege engines, gradually replacing siege engines and other aging forms of weaponry. ‘Bombardum’ was the earliest term used for ‘cannon’, but from 1430, it came to refer only to the largest of siege weapons.
If you want to see just how big such bombards were, take a trip to Edinburgh Castle. In 1457, James II was given the present of a great siege gun, originally made for the Queen's uncle, the Duke of Burgundy, at Mons, now in Belgium. That bombard, weighing over six tons, was christened ‘Mons Meg’ and was kept with the rest of the royal guns in Edinburgh Castle. She (it!) was used in anger against the English, but its enormous bulk soon made it obsolete as a siege gun. It wasn’t brought to the siege of Roxburgh Castle, because it was too big to transport. Later, in 1681, during a birthday salute for the Duke of Albany (later to become James VII & II, the last Stewart King), its barrel burst open and it was unceremoniously dumped beside Foog’s Gate in Edinburgh Castle. However, ‘Mons Meg’ is now restored and proudly on display in the Castle.
In 1460, James II involved himself in the English dynastic struggle, the ‘Wars of the Roses’, placing his weight behind the Lancastrians, the family of his mother, Joan Beaufort, after the defeat of Henry VI at Northampton. James attacked English possessions across the border, which led to escalating retaliations and James’ determination to recover Roxburgh Castle. The once majestic Castle, also known as Marchmount, standing on a high tree covered mound between the Teviot and the Tweed south of Kelso, was fought over time and again by the Scots and English. It was a fortress as far back as the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria and a Royal Scots castle since at least the time of David I. Like Berwick, it was seized and occupied by hostile English in 1334 and attempts to win it back by the Douglases and James’ father were unsuccessful. It was in English hands for over one hundred years and became a thorn in the side of Scotland.
James took a large army and half a dozen bombards, newly imported from Flanders, to lay siege to Roxburgh. One of these was known as the ‘Flanders Lion’ and it was ironic that James’ enthusiasm and determination to be personally involved in firing and showing off that mighty cannon ‘in honour of his Queen’ led to his death. On the 3rd of August, 1460, whilst attempting to fire the ‘Lion’, James was killed by flying shrapnel when it burst its casing in a thunderous explosion. Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, writing in his ‘Historie’ of James' reign, stated, “as the King stood near a piece of artillery, his thigh bone was dug in two with a piece of misframed gun that brake in shooting, by which he was stricken to the ground and died hastily.” He was twenty nine years, nine months and seventeen days old. Nigel Tranter, in his novel ‘The Lion’s Whelp’ suggests that the Queen was present at the siege, and he has her sinking to her knees to cradle her husband’s bloodied features in her arms.
It would appear, however, that the Queen was brought to the scene from Hume Castle and it was she who urged the disheartened army to maintain the siege. George Douglas, the 4th ‘Red Douglas’ Earl of Angus, was also wounded in the blast, but he recovered sufficiently to lead the siege. Roxburgh fell a few days later and its fortifications were demolished. The fate of the English garrison is not recorded, but there appears to have been no prisoners taken. The nine year old James Stewart was crowned James III at Kelso Abbey a week later, ushering in yet another minority Kingship and his mother, Mary of Gueldres, acted as regent until her own death three years later. James II was buried at Holyrood Abbey, in Edinburgh.