Albany’s return and the rebellion of 1482 partly demonstrated just how unpopular James III was personally, how unpopular was his vindictive and dismissive treatment of the nobility and his contempt for the traditions of good governance. And yet it also showed just how strong was the traditional loyalty to the crown. Within the wars of Independence many have seen in Scotland a distinction between loyalty to the institution of monarchy, which was absolute requirement, and loyalty to the individual occupying the hot seat at any given time, which seemed to be a bit more optional when things got tough. But putting that kind of distinction into operation was a hard discipline; and meanwhile, James III’s reign raised all the issues which had been integral to Scotland’s political history in the 14th and 15th centuries; what were the limits of royal power, and what precisely were the obligations of the community and the individual to their king? How legitimate was resistance to an unjust ruler, and how far could the community go to act?
The problem in the case of James III was to be solved in a way that helped minimise traditional reluctance to rebel against an anointed monarch. Certainly, our James did almost nothing to help his cause – almost, not quite completely nothing. But he continued to irritate people by staying stuck in Edinburgh and by favouring courtiers rather than his regional magnates. His family relations were really not getting any better; his wife Margaret of Denmark was reported not to be keen; during the rebellion of 1482 she’d been more concerned for the safety of her children than her hub . But I suppose that’s probably quite normal, and politically she worked for his restoration afterall. But afterwards they lived apart, Margaret in Stirling with the kids, and James as we have said, in Edinburgh. She shared Prince James’ growing fury at the seeming preference shown by Dad to their second son, Ross.
When Margaret died in 1486, James’ opponents saw an opportunity; to draw the Prince, James that is, away from his father, and to use the Queen’s death in a smear campaign against the king. Prince James was but 13 when his mother died, and it is not clear when he began to see opposition to his own father, to his own flesh and blood as an option, but he was helped in his move by his guardian. His guardian was one James Shaw, a man connected to the Hume family, also antagonistic to the king. So you know, the odd word here, the odd eyebrow there, ooh, Dad doesn’t want you at court here, oh dear how unfortunate. Huuh! look what the king’s done now…really there should be a proper king on the throne – not unlike yourself Jimmy… a nudge, an encouragement, a little push and there, building a journey of a boy’s mind to where the idea of rebelling against his father began to appear acceptable, and even the right thing to do for the good of all. Now I know you lot and I know you are way ahead of me here; if Prince James was at the head of a rebellion, then all those problems we started with would be so much easier to deal with. OK, they’d be rebelling against an anointed king but they’d be supporting his legitimate heir, so this would fall into the acceptable category, of rebellion against the person of the monarch rather than the institution.
Meanwhile, nasty rumour and innuendo appeared. There was a nasty little rumour that James III had connived in the poisoning of his wife Margaret. That he’d been helped by Lord Bothwell. Other stories spread to the continent, a little stream of dirt around the crowned heads of Europe, which in all likelihood were created and propagated by James III’s Aristocratic opponents. There was an accusation of incest with his sister, which then appeared alongside the accusations that he’d had his brother John done in.
Finally, in February 1488, the cold war ended and the hot one started. The spark that light the fuse came in January. James III, conscious of the hostility towards him, realised he needed allies, and decided a good curry might well be the answer, as it so often is. He made his second son the Duke of Ross, and four Lairds full Lords of Parliament. Curry therefore in terms of currying favour to gain a bit of support, but the Duke of Ross bit of currying did no more than produce flying toys from young Prince James’s pram. It also encouraged the opposition of the Earls of Angus and Argyll, and the Home and Hepburn families were of course were mollified not one bit, seeing competition appearing against them. So, February 1488, James Shaw capitalised on this latest piece of misbehaviour on Dad’s part and brought Prince James physically into the hands of the rebels. And there was much rejoicing, and much plotting too, and the production of an army. From where he was based at the time Aberdeen, not Edinburgh for a change, James the king first agreed to talk, with the rebels. He agreed to chat in the spirit of friendship and so it seemed to have been as they all signed an agreement that there would be no war. What a relief, all’s well that ends well, just goes to show we are all reasonable people.
So, it was unsurprisingly a little disappointing when the next thing the rebels saw, was their king marching at the head of an army toward them, carrying the sword of Bruce ahead, as clear a symbol of his legitimacy and his intention to assert his authority as was possible to muster. Never mind, the rebels still had their army and now were now able to play their trump card too – because they had the prince in their ranks; and so above their heads the flew the red lion of Scotland, the royal standard.
What followed had absolutely spooky symmetry with the wars of independence. At first James III had the success – winning a skirmish at Stirling Bridge. But it was not conclusive; and the decisive battle was to be fought at the very same Bannockburn where Bruce had faced Edward II, at Bannockburn. This was all so very confusing that this battle of 1488 hd its name changed to Sauchieburn to distinguish it from the glorious original. So this is all, you know, a little spooky, but I guess less spooky bearing in mind the geography involved and the importance of the corridor between Forth and Clyde. Anyway, by the time the two armies and family members faced each other, James had lost a lot of his remaining support amongst peers by his stream of broken promises; his supporters were drawn from his officials, sheriffs and courtiers. Local loyalties played a big part; the Maxwell’s joined the rebels because their local rivals the Murrays were with the king. Prince James gave orders that no one should lay violent hands on his father the king, which is a nice optimistic sort of order, assuming that his army would be in a position before the end of the day to do such hand laying. And then, on 11th June 1488, the battle of Sauchieburn was joined. And despite the king’s superior numbers, it was not a good day for the king; the royalist army was badly mauled and broken, and presumably the Prince or his servants went to look for his father on the battlefield as his army fled, looking to do some of that hand laying stuff.
All they found though was his body. The chroniclers use the word ‘slain’, and ‘vile’ persons which suggests the king’s death was not a targeted assassination, but accident. Reputation wise this was a bad thing for the young Prince James, though sadly with a rather substantial dollop of political good mixed in. Nobody likes having an ousted anointed king hanging about the place it is inconvenient and embarrassing. But still, as far as a new king is concerned, the murder of a monarch is an uncomfortable precedent, which is liable to give the common people the wrong idea when it comes to performance appraisal time. Plus, it was his dad you know, blood, water, all that. James IV, as he was now, was most conscious of how all this must look. He wrapped an iron belt around his waist, and told the world that he would to add weight every year to the belt in contrition for the evil that had been done. It took until 1496, however, for him to make the traditional demonstration of grief by endowing masses for his father’s soul, and you have to wonder if that was because it took that long for him to begin to feel real, genuine remorse.
Now, we could settle straight into the history of one of Scotland’s most successful monarchs, we could right now slip over the line drawn with such love and care by historians, the line between Late medieval and early modern, to talk about James IV, Renaissance monarch. But do you know, I feel disinclined to do that. Because I would like to talk a little about Scotland’s economic situation first. I hope that is OK with you also. Because that, gentle listeners and generous members, that is what is going to happen.
So, honestly, I cannot remember when we last spoke about towns and commerce and people all that sort of thing, so if we have a smidge then, I am sorry. A smidge in this case, being a smidge of overlap between then and now. I grovel, ladies and Gentlemen, I grovel with apology in advance.
But look let me start by making the point that the 14th and 15th centuries were for Scotland in many ways similar to those of everyone else in Europe – because the same global stuff happened. The same cooling of the climate, famines in the early 14th century and the Black Death. I am pretty sure I’ve covered this before, because I distinctly remember mentioning that central weirdness that Scottish chronicles really don’t say very much about the BD, this, the most horrendous demographic catastrophe in Scottish history, the death of up to half the population. It’s odd – I mean what does the world need to do to get your attention around here!? So we’ve said that, OK, so that means that I know what the question on your cherry lips is – well, OK, so did we see the same opportunities open up for the ordinary man on the Sauchiehall Street omnibus as they had in England? And well, hmm, I mean yes they did…a bit. Possibly, in fact probably. The pressures do largely seem to have been the same as elsewhere with a few differences that reflected Scotland’s topography. Scotland had a relative lack of good quality agricultural land, but a plentiful supply of rough grazing. It meant that wheat tended to be more expensive than in England, but conversely meat tended to be cheaper. As a result, although the price of corn rose like England in the immediate aftermath of the plague, the price of livestock remained relatively stable or even fell.
Generally, life became a little harder for landowners as they found it difficult to find tenants or people to do the work they needed. As a result, landowners started leasing out land to avoid seeing them run to rack and ruin; and the plaque kept returning unexpectedly, which obviously is not a great thing at all – there was another bout in 1362 for example. But if you could stay alive, it meant that the benefits of living stuck around a bit longer. When there was a general reassessment of rents in 1366 there was found to have been a 50% fall in rents across the kingdom, Good golly, that would make Miss Molly happy. Unless of course she was a landowner, in which case there would have been weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. It also seems that there was a lot of short term rents which in times like this helped the tenant rather than the landlord, because with Landlords finding it difficult to fill their tenancies, a sitting tenant can drive a harder bargain. Prices generally began to fall as supply outstripped demand, which wasn’t necessarily good news for tenants, but then they had been able to adapt by demanding these lower rents – so if you were a relatively well off peasant able to snap up some tenancies then, excellent! You were on the make, on the up and up. And for the poorer peasantry you had the benefit of lower prices. Plus, there seems to have been some greater social and geographical mobility; by the mid 14th century serfdom had pretty much disappeared in Scotland, so people were much more able to move for work – there was a minor flood of Scots who found work over the border in northern England for example.
All this was good up to the 1370s, so the answer to your question might be yes, the ordinary Scot profited from a post BD glow. But it appears to have been a reasonably short burst of joy before economic slowdown came back to haunt them. However, this reversal of fortunes did not bring the kind of uprising and revolt found in many places in Europe – such as the peasants’ revolt in England in 1381 for example. One of the reasons for this was the absence of war and its associated taxation. In Europe, particularly France and the HRE, the effort to build up standing armies and the cost of war led to higher central taxation. While there was less of that in England it was a poll tax in 1381 of course that led to the peasant’s revolt of that year. Not so in Scotland, where we have fewer external wars and much less central taxation. Kings for the most part lived on the income from customs dues and the income from their land; and while the monarchy had constant problems of poverty, the political chaos of the 15th century helped them by making more land available for their demesne income through forfeiture of land from rebel families.
Whether it was a golden age for Scottish peasants is a little moot; probably it was. There are some indications that maybe it was also a better time for women specifically, with maybe wider opportunities available for work. It seems that women for a while delayed having children until later than before, or even did not marry at all. In there might also lie one of the reasons for the surprisingly slow recovery of the population after the BD, later childbirth and fewer children overall. On the other hand an excavation of 207 people in Linlithgow revealed that almost 60% died before the age of 18. So we should not get carried away with eh idea of a golden age.
None the less for a while external trade boomed as well. Scotland’s main exports were wool and animal hides. Scottish wool was a little vulnerable; the quality was less good that English and so exports tended to flourish only when times were good; whereas Scottish hides had a very strong reputation indeed. So when times were good, as in the 1370s, wool exports boomed, reaching a peak of 9,252 sacks which is about a quarter of English exports just for comparison. But after 1372 with an economic slowdown they began to fall. Fortunately for a while at least the exports of hides held up, with 72,000 exported in 1381. I hope you appreciate that little titbit of information. I set you a challenge, good Members, to find a way to slip into conversation that Scotland exported 72,000 hides in 1381. Where there is a will, as they say, let me know how it goes, and the response that it earns you. While I am on Scottish exports, while Scotland’s not particularly known for exporting hides any more, it is for Salmon of course, and exporting Salmon was a major component in the trade of some towns back then. Aberdeen for example, and Scottish salmon had a reputation second to none. So, plus ca change and all that.
Sadly, that is all the good economic news; though before I go on there is a traditional reminder worth making at this point. We often focus on external trade because, well it is important, it affects central revenue and the health of towns, so fine, don’t shoot me for it. But it is worth remembering that external trade would have been a titchy tiny percentage of trade as a whole; internal trade would have been vastly more important for all but a minority. The trouble is there is as yet no way of measuring the size of internal trade. But that said, after the 1370s external trade struggled and went into recession; by the first decades of the 15th century, the export of Scottish wool was down to 2,600 sacks a year. However, their does seem to have been a compensating upswing in cloth export; traditionally this has been described as small and low quality, but there are indications that the trade was much bigger than previously thought – it’s a sort of grey economy because cloth was not subject to customs dues.
Much of this trade went to the low countries where trading links with Scotland were very strong. The point of exit were the east coast Scottish towns almost exclusively – we’ll talk about those in a minute – and the point of entry focussed on the city of Bruges. There was probably a Scottish staple in Bruges from the 1340s, which was made official with a treaty in 1407 confirming earlier privileges; in 1473, James III moved the staple to Middleberg in the Low Countries. The Low countries dominated Scotland’s trade – there is some in the Baltic, but much smaller.
The decline in trade was worsened by a growing shortage in bullion, which once again was not a uniquely Scottish problem; one response to that was devaluation of the coinage, which was sometimes done in a rather unusual way – by increasing the face value of the coinage rather than reducing the bullion content. Another response to the shortage of bullion was to tax bullion leaving the country, to try and keep in at home. Oddly another response was the Sumptuary laws of the 1450s to 1470s which in effect tried to reduce the demand for luxury cloths. But like so many laws which tried to channel and control the economy, like England’s attempt to regulate wages, they seemed to have relatively little effect, and bullion continued to leave the country.
The late 14th century recession led to a long period of economic instability, with relatively short periods of growth, such as when James I was released from England as part of a peace, and trade picked up; it was a bump that didn’t seem to last. Interestingly, the long slump coincided with a rise in Scottish piracy; the town of Ypres for example, sent furious letters of complaint to King Robert III fulminating against the actions of Scottish pirates. Declining trade and growing piracy was a sort of self reinforcing spiral, a vicious spiral I suppose though vicious is such a dramatic word. It got so bad that the Hanseatic league imposed an embargo on Scottish trade in 1412.
But at this point I should return to that point I made earlier about internal trade; while external trade remained difficult, and therefore customs return to the crown were also relatively low, there are some indications that internal trade was more buoyant than had been thought. We see this in the growth of Burghs of Barony. The Burghs of Barony were market rights granted by landowners to small towns, and they grew in number from the second half of the 15th century well into the 16th. They remained small by and large, and very few developed into full market towns, but as I say they suggest a level of energy and growth in the local economy.
Which brings me rather neatly and happily I thought to Scottish towns. It is lovely when it all comes together. I probably don’t need to tell you that the inhabitants of towns formed a relatively small part of Scotland’s population; the vast majority of people lived in the countryside. They lived in these scattered rural communities called touns. These were clusters of farmsteads with up to six tenant families, working open fields and an infield – outfield system. I say most Scots lived in touns, the chronology of their growth is a little tricky; the evidence first appears from the 15th century, but it could well be that the system was practised as early as the 10th century. But one point worth emphasising as strongly as I can is that population was spread quite evenly between lowland and highland. It’s quite hard to put the modern situation out of your mind, but the modern population distribution would be created later by the deforestation of the lowlands and industrialisation, pulling people to the lowlands; and the highland clearances which so dramatically depopulated the highlands in the 19th century. A discussion of how large the population was in the 14th and 15th centuries could of course carry on into the wee hours, but we are maybe talking a top of 1 million pre BD, and maybe 500,000 in 1500. But take this as a rough estimate blah blah you know the drill by now.
So, towns then – about 10% of the population and in 1306 there were 38 royal burghs and 18 non royal ones. Berwick was the largest and wealthiest town at this point, which gives you some clue as to why the place was a victim of an Anglo Scottish tug of war for so long. In 1348, a visitor from Bruges noted that there were 4 great towns in Scotland – Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee; all of these probably had no more than 2000 people each. Now you are probably looking a bit dumfounded and wondering why Edinburgh is only one of many, but from this point Edinburgh begins to emerge. Jean Froissart visited Edinburgh in 1365 and had a happy time there, as you do when you visit Edinburgh it must be said. He talked about a town of 400 houses, he called it the Paris of Scotland. The houses of which he spoke were in all probability well-built stone merchants houses. The ground floor would often be used as workshops split into maybe two rooms, with living accommodation on the second floor.
Towns were very conscious that they were different, and the political ideology was around the community of the burgh, a phrase first recorded in 1290, and centred on the symbol of their burgh authority to trade, the Mercat cross, around which the market would gather. 3 times a year, all the burgesses were required to come along to the annual court to give their view on town business. As time went by towns had greater and greater autonomy for running their own affairs – in 1469 for example, parliament gave outgoing Town Councils the power to choose their own replacements.
As you might expect, since trade was the lifeblood and reason for existence of the town, guilds were very much part of town life, but what you might not expect is that guilds form rather late in Scottish towns; they seem to start in the early 14th century, but did not initially at least specialise in one kind of commodity, trade or skill. Specific Craft guilds probably begin to develop in the 15th century – we know of 13 burghs that had guilds in 1400. Guilds defended the rights of their town and their sphere of influence, often coming into conflict with other towns; they regulated membership of course, and they contributed towards the upkeep of the town – they might club together to repair or upgrade bits of road, or build a toll booth, or courthouse. They were also social institutions, and carrying out events like staging mystery plays at Corpus Christi and the like. They could however, be the centre of internal tensions between the elite of the town. A common Faultline was between the craft gild and the leading merchants, who could end up fighting for control in the town councils. The merchants themselves obviously had enormous economic and social power; and since the crown relied on the trade and ensuing crown revenue they generated, Kings were unsurprisingly keen to support them where they could.
Merchants by and large remained committed to their towns despite their enthusiasm for the universal coin of medieval social status, land. A previous rubric of Scottish history has been one of Merchants getting into trade, buying up land then abandoning the commercial world for the life of the local laird. In fact it looks much more likely that instead you did both; yes, merchants acquired land and enjoyed the social status that went with it; but they usually remained also with their business in the town.
A feature of the late 14th and early 15th centuries then was the emergence of Edinburgh from the pack. It was the towns of the east coast that dominated trade – notably Aberdeen and Dundee as well as Edinburgh, as Dundee seems to have captured much of Perth’s trade, and Perth became less important. Of these three, Edinburgh then emerged and began to monopolise external trade to a reasonably dramatic degree. In the 1320s Edinburgh handled 21% of export trade in wool; by the 1370s it was 32%. By 1440s it was…anyone want to hazard a guess? Anybody? 57% yes, that’s 57% of the export trade in wool went through Old Reekie. This growing pre-eminence of the town was encouraged by Scotland’s kings; James II’s reign saw Holyrood Palace beginning to assume the role of a royal and administrative centre. James II was born in, crowned and spent his childhood in Edinburgh; he was married there. It is from Edinburgh that by far the largest number of royal charters were issued – 346 as compared to the next most important which was Stirling with 127.
Which brings us neatly back to James III – gosh how good is that?! Because it is traditionally James III who is attributed as making Edinburgh effectively Scotland’s capital, rather than James II. Probably wrongly, given what I have just said, but none the less as we have heard, James III was almost exclusively based there, and if he didn’t start the trend well he certainly cemented it.
So that brings us full circle as I have said, and back to our new king James IV who will take us, next time, over the threshold into Renaissance kingship.