The Battle of Sauchieburn, 1488, and the murder of King James III

If you go for a walk in Milton and cross the footbridge over the Bannockburn you will walk past a wee plaque on the side of a well saying the King James III was murdered near here after the Battle of Sauchieburn on 11th June 1488.

Over time, the legend grew up that James was murdered away from the battle by a mysterious man, possibly even his own son, James IV. What is often cited as supporting evidence for this is the ‘fact’ that James, ever after this event and in penance for his deed, wore an iron chain about his waist, and added weights to it every year to increase the burden.

It is a colourful legend, and contains much to intrigue: the notion of a child turning against his father, a mysterious assassin slaying an unarmed, wounded man, and a long-held regret carried for an action taken in haste, expressed as the mortification of the flesh.

So what is the truth behind this myth? A bit of background information is helpful when assessing its value.

In the late fifteenth century, Scotland was in a state of upheaval. The King, James III, was an unpopular ruler who had never managed to adequately establish his monarchy after ascending to the throne as a nine year old boy. Controlled throughout his childhood by a series of regents, James was prey to court factions who squabbled endlessly about their influence over the young king. Once his personal rule began in 1469, this tendency continued with the great Scottish noble families constantly at odds with each other over various issues. The King did little to help the situation: he was accused of debasing the coinage, hoarding money, failing to resolve feuds and enforce royal justice, grandiose schemes abroad and the pursuit of an unpopular alliance with England. Most damningly, he was constantly under scrutiny for taking unwise counsel. It seemed that the King preferred the company of various low-born advisors to that of his high-born compatriots, which only served to irritate the nobility, including members of his own family, more and more as his reign went on.

In 1482, James’ own brother, Alexander, Duke of Albany, led a would-be rebellion against his brother’s kingship. Enlisting the aid of English troops, he captured the King at Lauder and held him prisoner for a while. Ultimately, the attempted coup failed through lack of support, and only resulted in the surrender of Berwick-upon-Tweed to the English forces on their way home.

By the later 1480s, the tensions between the king and his liege lords had come to a point of crisis. The growing dissatisfaction with James resulted in a rebel group of nobles breaking away from loyalty to their King and plotting to bring about his usurpation. In February 1488, this group was joined by Prince James, Duke of Rothesay, King James’ eldest son and heir to the throne. It should be noted that Prince James was a boy, being fifteen years of age at this point.

The two factions met somewhere near what we now call Sauchieburn, although the actual site of the battle isn’t clear. It is known that it was not far from the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, as King James took Robert Bruce’s sword with him to make a point about the legitimacy of his right to rule.

The legend states that, late on in the fighting, the wounded King James III fled the battle and arrived at the ford of the Bannock Burn, where, startled by a woman come to fetch water, he fell from his horse and stumbled to a nearby cottage. He knocked on the door and when asked who he was replied: “This morning I was your King”. The people in the cottage summoned a priest (or perhaps someone pretending to be a priest) who pulled a knife and stabbed the king, murdering him in his bed. A very poor bedside manner indeed!

The problem lies in where we get this information from. At the time, the official line in Parliamentary records was more or less – ‘on this day the late King fell at the field of Bannockburn’ – the King is dead, long live the King! The more elaborate account comes from a history written by Robert Lindesay of Pitscottie, who was writing in the late 1560s and 1570s. It is in this work, The historie and chronicles of Scotland, that we find this version of events, and when we look at it more closely, it can be seen that it very definitely comes under the heading of ‘fake news’. But why? The answer lies in the writer’s bias.

By the late 1500s Scotland had become Protestant through a process that we refer to now as the Reformation. It is a complex subject, but in essence, Scottish people had come to view the Catholic Church as corrupt and wished to read the bible in a language that was more accessible to ordinary folk, rather than in Latin. With the rejection of Catholic beliefs came prejudice against those who still held them. Priests, whose loyalty to the Pope was suspected to be greater than that they held to their king, were often depicted as being underhand – all nonsense of course. However, this was the context for Lindesay of Pitscottie’s account. The intent was three-fold: to paint James III as a coward, absolve James IV, and lay the blame for the King’s death with those treacherous Catholics. The scene of this ‘murder’ was supposedly a house called Beaton’s Mill. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century you could buy postcards of the mill, and the owner offered tours of the building. Unfortunately the mill was ravaged by fire in the 1950s and burnt down. In a further twist, later investigations by architectural historians revealed that the building was unlikely to date from before 1488, having the features of a seventeenth century construction.

The aspect of the legend relating to James IV’s ongoing guilt about the murder may be grounded in fact, but this has been distorted over time. Lindesay of Pitscottie suggests it was common knowledge that the King wore an iron chain belt around his waist under his clothes, and there is other evidence that it was associated with him. The main primary source for this being more than just hearsay comes from the unlikely source of the Royal Treasurer’s accounts of January 1507, which give an entry for the cost of an iron chain or belt, purchased for the King. However, it should be noted that this was some nineteen years after the events of June 1488, not immediately succeeding them. If James felt guilty about Sauchieburn, it is more likely to have been concern over having been party to the usurpation of an anointed monarch, against the social order as decreed by God, rather than the guilt of a murderer. As an older man, the perceived stain on his soul probably weighed heavily on the King, and so the penance was undertaken.

Note in this illustration from the sixteenth century ‘Seton Armorial’, the chain belt is shown outside James’ tunic to demonstrate the fact that it as an item associated with the King’s person. It was said he actually wore it next to his skin.

James IV was a popular and effective ruler, and his reign led to a glorious age for Stirling. The King invested in the Castle, building Scotland’s largest Great Hall and the massive monumental gateway; reorganised the Royal Park, re-endowed Cambuskenneth Abbey as a suitable mausoleum for his father’s tomb (which was destroyed during the Reformation but repaired by Queen Victoria), invited new religious orders, and conducted research into flight.