Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland

By K. J. Stringer | Go to book overview

8
JAMES FIFTH STEWART OF SCOTLAND, 1260(?)–1309

Geoffrey Barrow and Ann Royan

Of all the figures of major importance in Scotland in the medieval period, James, fifth hereditary Stewart of Scotland, who died on 16 July 1309, remains one of those about whom least has been written. Nevertheless, he played a notable part in government and politics between 1284 and 1309. Although his role in the first war of independence was never quite decisive, he was at all times a force to be reckoned with. Along with several other insufficiently regarded Scots leaders of his day (e.g., Sir John de Soules, with whom he was closely associated), James the Stewart deserves at least a brief biography. The essay which follows, the joint work of two authors who have each studied James's career independently, is an attempt to meet that need.

The date of James's birth is shrouded in mystery. The Scots Peerage makes the unsubstantiated statement that his birth occurred in 1243,1 while that of his brother John is placed by Symson and Nisbet in 1246.2 In 1965 G.W.S. Barrow argued for a birth date around 1253,3 partly on the grounds that James's second son Walter was still (in Barbour's words) 'bot ane berdlas hyne' in 1314,4 and partly because in 1252 James's father, Alexander of Dundonald, announced his intention of going on pilgrimage to the shrine of St James the Great at Compostella.5

It now seems more probable that James was born even later than that, perhaps around 1260. This suggestion may seem scarcely less arbitrary than the others, but it can be supported by two persuasive considerations. Firstly, James need not have been the first-born son. Among Alexander of Dundonald's known children the traditional Stewart names Walter and Alan are conspicuously absent. One might have been given at the baptism of an older son who died in infancy. James, with his distinctly unusual Christian name (rare in Scottish record before the later thirteenth century),6 might have been merely the oldest surviving son. Secondly, the date of James's marriage before October 1296,7 perhaps as early as about 1290, accords better with a man aged between around thirty and thirty-six than with one of thirtyseven to forty-three, especially bearing in mind that his official position as hereditary Stewart of Scotland and his dignity as one of the greatest feudatories of the realm called for him to have a direct heir. If moreover we shift the likely date of birth of his younger brother John from Nisbet's '1246' to about 1263, John's active leadership of young warriors on the field of Falkirk (1298) becomes easier to understand, and it would still have been possible for John to have fathered his family of several children.8 As for the personal name James, its choice might well have been prompted by Alexander's pilgrimage to Santiago, but we should remember that the Stewart family's monastery at Paisley was dedicated to St James the Great, as well as to the Blessed Virgin and to the local St Mirren.9

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