The Battle of Sauchieburn was fought on the 11th of June, 1488.
There have been many occasions throughout history where members of the same family, fathers and sons even, have fought on opposing sides in conflicts. The American Civil War springs to mind as does the British and in particular at Culloden, the last battle fought on its mainland soil. The battle at Sauchieburn was one such occasion in Scottish history as it pitted the young Duke of Rothesay against his father, King James III of Scotland. Actually, pitted is a bit of a misnomer, because the son didn't strike a blow in anger, nevertheless, the King and the Prince were on opposing sides.
Come the end of the affray, the King lay dead and as Nigel Tranter would have it
in the opening pages of 'Chain of Destiny', happit by a blanket on the floor of the dwelling of a miller in Milltown. The King had been carried into the miller's cottage, where he had called for a priest, but when the cleric appeared, he is said to have exclaimed, “I will shrive thee!” before stabbing the King to death. Tranter then has the fifteen years old Duke, now suddenly elevated to be King James IV, aghast and ashamed at such a turn of events as he had neither wished for nor foreseen.
The battle that is famous for the death of a King must take second place to the controversy surrounding his regicide. Most modern sources cast serious doubt on the details of the story as portrayed by Tranter in his novel and some suggest that the manner of his death gave rise to one of the earliest recorded conspiracy theories. Historians point to the fact that the first, known recorded claims that James III had been murdered at Milltown, near Bannockburn, by an assassin claiming to be a priest, stemmed from the following Century. They also point, significantly, to the lack of contemporary evidence for the King's murder and to other 'stories' suggesting James had been thrown by his horse during the battle and had been killed, either by the fall or by enemy soldiers.
The conspiracy involves the mysterious figure of the priest who, if he existed at all, was surely no man of God. Tranter mentions that suspicion fell on the High Sheriff of Angus, Andrew, 2nd Lord Gray. The parliamentary record of the time merely states that the king “happinit to be slane.” Parliament exonerated the new king, James IV, and attributed the death of his father to the old King having merely followed bad counsel. Nowhere in official records is there any mention of Gray or a priest or a mystery assassin. In fact, in a seeming denial of the events leading up to the battle, the parliamentary record states: “oure soverane lord that now is and the trew lordis and barouns that wes withe him in the samyne feild war innocent, quhyt and fre of the saidis slauchteris feilde and all persute of the occasioune and cause of the samyne.”
If you were to cast a sceptical eye over the evidence, such as it is, you might come up with the following analysis: i) there is no more evidence for the King falling from his horse and being killed by enemy soldiers than there is for his having been knifed in the chest by a mysterious priest, therefore, either eventuality is possible; ii) that the King “happinit to be slane” means he was killed, which means that he didn't die from falling off his horse as he fled the battle; iii) a parliament consisting of rival factions recently at war, yet seeking agreement for the good of the Realm, would have had every incentive to sweep under the carpet any controversy; and iv) there is evidence for being 'economical with the truth' in the phrase “quhyt and fre of the saidis slauchteris feilde and all persute of the occasioune and cause of the samyne” as one faction clearly wasn't 'quit and free' of any blame.
As a constant reminder of his guilt in his involvement in his father’s death, throughout his reign and as a lifelong penance, James IV wore a heavy iron chain round his waist, next to the skin. Apparently, James added a fresh link every year at Lent, but that may be archetypal. However, the point is that James didn't think he was free of any blame.
The Battle Of Sauchieburn has been described as the last stand of a shambolic monarch. James III began his reign as a minor under the influence of his mother, Mary of Gueldres, who was made Regent. As ever in Scotland, in a vacuum of regnant authority with a young King as pawn, that was a recipe for dissent, political opportunism and rebellion. After he assumed his rule in person, relationships with the nobility became fractious and, in 1482, James' brother, Alexander, Duke of Albany, led a rebellion to claim the throne, which was supported by England's Edward IV. Albany's rebellion didn't succeed, but James' barons didn't exactly excel themselves in his defence. Six years later, ostensibly frustrated by James' pandering to his favoured courtiers, his nobles rebelled once more.
Led by Alexander Home, 1st Lord Home, and Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus, they gained possession of the young Duke of Rothesay, claiming that his father's tenure be annulled for the good of the realm and that he should become James IV ahead of time. The royalist army on the battlefield consisted of as much as 30,000 troops, whereas the rebel army numbered about half that; reputedly 18,000. According to 'The History of Stirlingshire', “the two armies met in a tract of ground, which now goes by the name of Little Canglar, upon the east side of a brook called Sauchie Burn, about two miles south of Stirling, and one mile from the famous field of Bannockburn.” The royal army lost.
The traditional view of James III is that he had some serious character flaws, being a weak king who surrounded himself with favoured, but low-born courtiers. Several of those courtiers had, in fact, been hanged by Archibald 'Bell the Cat' Douglas at Lauder Bridge, as a sort of reprisal. However, the leading Scottish historian, Norman Macdougall, has recently dismissed the idea of 'low-born favourites' as pure invention.
That view appears to be backed up by Patrick Abercromby M. D., writing in 1715, in Volume II of his history: 'The Martial Atchievements of the Scots Nation being a full complete and genuine History of Scotland from the Year of God 1329 to the Year 1514.' Abercromby writes: “it is to me some Matter of Wonder, that in all the Records of those times, which I have had Occasion to peruse, (and I have perused a great many of them,) the Names of those mean Persons [i.e., the likes of Cochran, Hommil, Roger, Leonard, and Torphichen] do not occur.” Read as you wish and believe nothing but the truth.