1 March 2017

A Medieval Mystery - What happened to King James IV of Scotland?

While researching for my new book HENRY, about the life of Henry Tudor, I came across a medieval mystery regarding the fate of the husband of Henry's daughter Margaret. King James IV of Scotland was killed in a failed Scottish invasion at the Battle of Flodden by the English on the 9th September 1513. Taking advantage of the absence of King Henry VIII, he had a larger army and soon captured the major castles in Northumberland. Unluckily for James, bad weather made the ground boggy, slowing his advance, and he was amongst 10,000 Scotsmen killed by English archers. James became the last king to die in battle on British soil. Accounts suggest he fought bravely and led from the front as he tried to rally his men.

His half-naked body was discovered among the dead the next morning by Baron Thomas Dacre, who later wrote that they ‘love me worst of any Inglisheman living, by reason that I fande the body of the King of Scotts.’ James had been killed by many arrows, his neck slashed and his face disfigured by a poleaxe or bill hook. His corpse was taken to Berwick, where his former courtiers William Scott and John Forman were able to identify him. Disembowelled and embalmed, the body was placed in a lead coffin for carriage to London.

King James’s banner, sword and thigh armour were taken to the shrine of Saint Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. The herald Thomas Hawley took the king’s blood stained surcoat to Queen Catherine of Aragon at Woburn Abbey, who saw an opportunity to show her husband the country was in safe hands while he was away fighting the French at Tournai. She sent the surcoat to King Henry to use as a war banner.

After Henry returned from France the body of James could not be buried in consecrated ground as he’d been excommunicated for breaking the Truce of Perpetual Peace, signed between Scotland and England in 1502 and strengthened by the marriage of James to Henry VIII's sister, Margaret Tudor.

Although Henry VIII had obtained consent from the Pope on 29 November 1513 to have the King buried in consecrated ground at St. Paul's, an account from English historian and antiquarian, John Stowe, suggests that it was kept for a while in a woodshed; ‘...since the dissolution of the House [Sheen Priory] I have been shewed the same body (as was affirmed) so lapped in lead throwne into an old wast roome, amongst old timber, stone, lead, and other rubble.'

There are (possibly apocryphal) stories that the king's head was used as a football before Elizabeth I's master glazier, named Lancelot Young, ended up with the head as a curio. At some point it was taken to Great St Michael's Church in Wood Street, London, where the sexton was ordered to bury it in the church yard. Instead, it is thought to have been thrown into a ‘charnel pit’, with other bones.

Interestingly, the Scots have always maintained that the body taken to London was not King James. A skeleton discovered at Roxburgh Castle in the 17th century was thought to be the king and in the 18th century the skeleton of a man with a chain around his waist (as worn by King James) was discovered in a side cave of the medieval well of Hume Castle. Both skeletons have since been lost, although some stories claim the one from Hume was re-interred at Holyrood Abbey. 

Tony Riches

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