Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland

By K. J. Stringer | Go to book overview

13
TAMING THE MAGNATES?

Jenny Wormald

The fifteenth century has been the neglected century of Scottish history. Traditionally it was written off as one of the most lawless periods of the Middle Ages, and for that reason one of the least interesting. Only a few incidents stand out as familiar and these are, without exception, cases of conflict between king and magnates: the murder of James I, the struggle between James II and the Black Douglases, the crises at Lauder, where James III's favourites were hanged by a dissident nobility, and Sauchieburn, where James himself was killed. The traditional interpretation was that this was a period which saw a power struggle in which one or other side sometimes gained the upper hand, but which neither side actually won. The puzzle is why this should have been so. Why should the magnates of the fifteenth century, unlike their predecessors of, say, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, have apparently moved into direct and open opposition to the monarchy? A possible explanation — one which has been put forward for the whole of northern Europe — is that this century saw the final decline of 'medieval' ideas in both church and state, that the European society of this period was in its last decadent stages, about to be transformed by the new ideas of the modern world. Applied to Scotland, this would explain the curious belief that the overmighty nobility who fought and killed James HI in 1488 became the rather more civilised and co-operative magnates under the Renaissance. king, James IV. Another possibility, however, is that there is no good answer to the question why there was general conflict between crown and nobility because there was in fact no such conflict. Rather, there were two ruthless, tough and unscrupulous kings who were very powerful indeed, and who hounded out the two greatest magnate families of the early fifteenth century; and a third king who, after twenty years of arbitrary and ill-judged rule, provoked an unexpected and short-lived rebellion which, remarkably, succeeded.

One major problem about the fifteenth century is the serious lack of reliable contemporary sources, both record and chronicle. Historians turn with relief to the reign of James IV simply because so much more information is available; the daily life of the king, for example, can be described in a way which is not possible for earlier monarchs because the treasurer's accounts, which give a wealth of detail, have survived continuously after 1488, but for only one year before that date. Much of our information about the fifteenth century, and in particular its crises, has therefore been drawn from the writings of sixteenth-century chroniclers, the best known of which is the racy, entertaining and almost wholly unreliable history by Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, produced in 1579. Recent research has shown that the

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