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James II of Scotland
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James II of Scotland

James II of Scotland (born October 16, 1430; died August 3, 1460) was king of Scotland from 1437 to 1460. He had an elder twin, Alexander, who lived long enough to be knighted, but died in infancy. James was the son of James I and father of James III. He was known as "Fiery face" because of a conspicuous vermillion birthmark on his face. He also had six sisters, who were married into the royal dynasties of Europe.

Inheriting the throne at under seven years old, most of James' reign saw the government in the hands of others. James I's death had been an attempt to usurp power by Walter Stewart, earl of Atholl, but it failed miserably and Atholl and his allies were captured and executed in the months after the assassination. The government was led (1437-1439) by Archibald Douglas, 5th earl of Douglas, as lieutenant-general of the realm. After his death, and with a general lack of high status earls in Scotland because of death, forfeiture or their young age, power was shared uneasily between William, 1st lord Crichton, chancellor of Scotland, sometimes in cooperation with James 'the gross' Douglas, earl of Buchan, and Sir Alexander Livingston of Callendar, who had possession of the young king in his stronghold of Stirling castle. In 1445 Stirling was also the location for the 'Black Dinner' where the young 6th earl of Douglas and his brother were summarily executed. The blame has tended to be put at the feet of Crichton, Livingston and particularly Buchan, as Douglas's death brought him the earldom of Douglas (as 7th earl of Douglas), and the position as the most powerful magnate in Scotland. The precise details of who ran the government year by year between 1439 and 1445 are complex and far from certain, but in 1445 the Livingstons cooperated with William, the new 8th earl of Douglas, son of the recently deceased 7th earl, to throw Crichton from power. Douglas now took on the lead in governing Scotland until 1449, placing his brothers and other family members in positions of power. Yet the wily Crichton soon returned to influence, now cooperating with the Douglases.

In 1449 James II emerged into adulthood, yet in many ways his 'active kingship' was little different from his minority. The Douglases used his emergence into adulthood as a way to throw the Livingstons out of the shared government, as the young king took revenge for the brief arrest of his mother (in turn as a means to remove her from political influence) that had taken place in 1439. Douglas and Crichton continued to dominate political power, and the king's ability to rule without them was arguably limited.

But James was a not a king to put up with this situation without argument, and between 1451 and 1455 he struggled to free himself from the power of the Douglases. Attempts to curb Douglas power were seen in 1451, when Douglas was out of the country, and culminated with the murder of the 8th earl of Douglas at Edinburgh on February 22, 1452. The king had accused the earl, probably with justification, of making bonds with the earl of Ross (aka the Lord of the Isles) and the earl of Crawford. This bond would have created a dangerous axis of powerful and independently-minded men that was a major threat to royal power. When, allegedly, Douglas refused to break the bond, James flew into a temper and stabbed Douglas to death. His court officials (many of whom would rise to great influence in later years, often in former Douglas lands) then joined in the bloodbath, one even striking out the earl's brains with an axe.

This murder did not remove the power of the Douglases, but rather created a state of intermittent civil war between 1452 and 1455. James attempted to seize Douglas lands, but was forced into repeated climb-downs, whereby he returned the lands to James, the new 9th earl of Douglas and a brief and uneasy peace ensued. Military campaigns ended indecisively, and it has been argued by some that James was in serious danger of being overthrown, or having to flee the country. But James' patronage of lands, titles and office to allies of the Douglases saw their allies begin to change sides, most tellingly the earl of Crawford, and in 1455 James was finally able to make a decisive blow against the Douglases, and they were finally defeated at the battle of Arkinholm in May 1455.

In the months that followed the extensive Douglas lands were forfeited and permanently annexed to the crown by Scottish Parliament, as were many other lands, finances and castles. The earl fled into a long English exile. James was finally free to govern as he wished, and it can be argued that his successors as kings of Scots never faced such a powerful challenge to their authority again. Along with the forfeiture of the Albany Stewarts in reign of James I, the destruction of the Black Douglases saw royal power in Scotland take a major step forward.

Between 1455 and 1460 James II proved to be an active and interventionist king. Ambitions to take Orkney and Shetland and the Isle of Man to Scotland were not successful. The king travelled the country, and seems to have originated the practice of raising money by giving remissions for serious crimes. In 1458 an act of parliament seems to criticise the king, but it is difficult to say how his reign would have developed had he lived longer.

His ambitions to increase Scotland's territory saw him besiege Roxburgh castle in 1460, one of the last Scottish castles still held by the English after the Wars of Independence. Long an enthusiast for modern artillery, on August 3 James was killed when one of his cannons exploded. The castle was posthumously taken under the leadership of the queen.

He married Mary of Guelders at Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh, on July 3, 1449. They had seven children, including James III of Scotland and the abducted Margaret.

Preceded by:
James I
King of Scots Succeeded by:
James III