The destination for history

Being a Scottish monarch is not good for your health


While Robert II, the first Stewart king, lived to seventy four (impressive for the time) following Stewarts did not enjoy such long lives. Authors John and Noreen Hamilton reveal how their deaths were largely matters of ill luck or ill judgement.

James I, aged forty two, died in a sewer. In 1437, trying to escape from a gang of thirty conspirators from among his own noblemen, James crawled down a sewer. Unfortunately he, himself, had ordered the sewer blocked a short time before, because he kept losing tennis balls down it. He found himself trapped. He was stabbed and killed.

James II loved his boys toys. The monstrous ‘Mons Meg’ had been a gift from the Duke of Burgundy and he went on to import more cannons from Flanders. In 1460 he was besieging Roxburgh Castle when he decided to fire one of the weapons himself. The cannon, called the ‘Lion’ exploded fatally injuring the king at the age of twenty nine.

James III was in conflict with his own nobles when he died at, or shortly after, the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. There are different versions of the events. He may have died during the battle or may have been intercepted latter when he tried to leave the field. Some say he was put off his guard as his assassin was dressed as a priest. Alternatively, a ‘great grey horse’ presented to him on the eve of the battle by Sir David Lindsay, threw him and he was murdered where he fell. Whichever way it was, he was dead at the age of thirty six.

James IV led his men heroically into battle at the disastrous Battle of Flodden and heroically perished on the field. It is his post mortem adventures which are less clear. His body was taken to London for an official burial, but the fact that he had been excommunicated by the church meant that he could not be laid in holy ground. His embalmed body was left, unburied in an Abbey in Surrey. At the dissolution of the monasteries that Abbey was heavily damaged and the King disappeared.

There were rumours that James IV never left Scotland, the wrong body went south. He has variously been identified as a body found in a well at Hume Castle (which did have the iron chain he habitually wore as a penance), as a skeleton found in Roxburgh Castle or possibly with a grave site just outside Kelso. Wherever he is he was forty when he died.

James V was only thirty. Shortly after his army suffered a disastrous defeat by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss, he fell ill and retired to Falkland Palace. Some said that it was a nervous collapse brought on by the shame of the defeat. It may just have been a regular fever. It was while he was on his deathbed that his daughter, Mary, was born.

Mary had perhaps the most publicised death of all the Stewarts. She spent nineteen years as a prisoner, with the possibility of a death sentence hanging over her head all that time. Finally on 8 February 1587 she met the Axeman at Fotheringhay Castle. It did not go well. The executioner missed with the first swing catching her on the back of the head. The second swing cut most of the way through her neck but he had to saw through remaining sinew with the blade.

He picked up Mary’s head by her trademark red hair. Her head rolled across the platform and the Axeman was left holding a ginger wig. Mary’s hair was grey and close cropped.

Then, to the shock of the on-lookers, Mary’s body started to move. It transpired that she had brought a dog with her to the block wrapped up her voluminous skirts. The dog refused to leave her body.

James VI, (by now a Stuart), bucked the trend by living to fifty eight, but by then he was in England, having swapped his ‘stony couch for a feather bed’, where he died in an acute attack of dysentery.

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books