James I

James I

James I

James I

Synopsis

Whether viewed as a lawgiver, tyrant or martyr, James I has cast a long shadow over the history of Scotland. Michael Brown's biography, the first full-length study in over fifty years, concludes that despite its apparent glamour and power, James I's 'golden age' had shallow roots: after a life of drastically swinging fortunes, he met his end in a violent coup, a victim of his own methods.

Excerpt

In a now famous passage of his History, written shortly before 1521, John Mair extolled the virtues of James I, claiming that he would not give precedence over the first James to any one of the Stewarts. For Mair, the apostle of Anglo-Scottish union and writing at almost a century’s distance, King James’s virtues were self-evident: he had spent his formative years observing English royal government at close quarters, he broke the power of overmighty noble familes in Scotland, and he brought firm, even-handed justice to his kingdom. This last achievement had already been stressed by Abbot Walter Bower within a few years of the King’s death; writing during the political chaos of the early 1440s, Bower recalled James I as ‘our lawgiver king’, a ruler who had established firm peace within the kingdom. According to Bower, the people were settled ‘in peaceful prosperity’, because the king ‘wisely expelled feuds from the kingdom, kept plundering in check, stopped disputes and brought enemies to agreement’.

This view of James, with only a few modifications, has persisted down to the twentieth century. E.W.M. Balfour-Melville’s biography of the king, which appeared in 1936, praised James for his parliamentary legislation, and indeed seems to have regarded the summoning of the three estates as the yardstick of good royal government. King James’s darker side is played down; thus his annihilation of his Albany Stewart relatives is justified on the ground that ‘high rank was no defence for lawlessness’, his pre-emptive strikes against other members of his nobility are spoken of with approval, and his assassination in February 1437 ‘caused an immediate revulsion of feeling’ in his favour, with nobles and people ‘lamenting the death of an upright and energetic king’. Balfour-Melville’s eulogy of King James, though modified by Professor Duncan, Dr Wormald and Dr Grant, and to some extent challenged by Dr Nicholson, is still with us. James I is a man to be admired, as much, it seems, for endeavouring to confer the benefits of Lancastrian constitutionalism on a backward Scotland as for anything else.

Dr Michael Brown presents a radically different view of the king in this book, arguing that James’s success or failure as a ruler can be judged only by studing his relations with the Scottish nobility throughout the thirteen years of his personal rule. These men and their predecessors . . .

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