Every now and then, during the (seemingly interminable) Scottish independence debate, I think of James IV, the last King of Scotland. Hang on, I hear you say… wasn’t he succeeded by James V, Mary and James VI? Well, yes, obviously; but I would contend that they inherited but dust and ashes. In the 16th Century, following the disaster of 1513, Scotland became a basket case, barely deserving of nation status. In 1603, it became a mere footnote.
So James IV, in other words, was the last King of a Scotland with pretension and aspiration, a Scotland with an independent part (notable, if small) to play in the intricate game of European statecraft.
More Scots should know about James. Few do. He has not yet been immortalised. If Shakespeare had written King Henry VII, James would have been given at least some stageroom, however negligible. But Shakespeare didn’t, so we don’t even have that. And Scotland hasn’t come close to producing a writer of the stature needed to turn out a James IV, parts one and two (and James is absolutely a two-parter).
Nigel Tranter’s Chain of Destiny, published in 1964, comes very much from the Sir Walter Scott school of historical flapdoodle – and that is hardly the most distinguished of academies.
So we know him not. Which is a shame, because he’s eminently good value. James was, to use a technical term, a bit of a nutter. Billy Connolly (the Connolly of the 1980s rather than the Connolly of Mrs Brown) would have played him to perfection. Just as Ronnie Corbett would, once upon a time, have been perfect for the part of Harry the Scot, Henry VII’s Scottish fool. Every time James mustered his troops north of the border and began making ugly noises, Harry the Scot would be dressed up in the “habiliments of war” and exhorted by the English Court to indulge in ridiculous posturings of a martial nature. (A traditional form of mockery still honoured to this day.)
But we digress. James was a compellingly energetic man – and is celebrated in some quarters as Scotland’s foremost renaissance humanist. There’s some merit in the assessment.
Yes, there was something crass about him. He loved bling, for instance – and was never happier than when he was fondling his baubles, meagre (compared, say, to Henry’s or the Emperor Maximilian’s) though they were.
On the other hand, he read books, liked tapestries, dabbled in alchemy, valued diplomacy and began work on (arguably) Scotland’s most architecturally-important building, the Renaissance Palace within Stirling castle.
He was something of a linguist too, competent in all the major European languages. He was even able to speak the form of Irish spoken along the frayed coastlines of the north-western highlands and islands.
And indeed, here it was that he could give freest rein to his nuttiness. While other European monarchs amused themselves in the pursuit of elegant blood sports, like falconry, James sought solace and excitement among the more savage of his citizens. (Citizens is an inaccuracy. Countrymen would be a better word. Scotland has never had much truck with citizens.) And nowhere were they more savage than in his Irish-speaking domains. James, in short, liking eating raw meat with brigands.
Closer to home, he took jousting and other forms of play-fighting incredibly seriously. He played rough. Blood fascinated him. And when there was no fighting to be had, he’d seek out volunteers who’d consent to be wounded so that he could watch their blood flow. He liked the look of it, its slippery-yet-sticky feel against his fingers, its taste.
Needless to say, he revelled in all aspects of war. He absolutely loved playing with guns, the bigger the better. He itched eternally for a fight. He sought any excuse to cross the Tweed in earnest.
No surprise, then, to discover that he died in battle – and was the last Scottish King to do so. He fell at Branxton, also known, especially north of the border, as Flodden Field. The whole of the Scottish nobility, and in a sense the nation too, fell alongside him.
It could be argued, therefore, that he died in vain; and yet, profoundly contradictory man that he was and is, he surely fulfilled an ultimately fruitful destiny. For we can see him now as the father (or perhaps the grandfather) of a nation a thousand times more important than mere Scotland.
Because (predictably or ironically, take your pick), despite his intense rivalry with Henry, he ended up marrying his daughter Margaret. And we should all, north and south, remember James and Margaret. Improbable as it may seem, every single British monarch is descended from that union.
It’s just a terrible shame that Connolly is past playing him. Robert Carlyle is getting on now too – and anyway, James wasn’t (entirely) a psychopath. Can’t be doing with David Tennant either. So… We need a comedian. We really do. Frankie Boyle might do the trick. If he can act. So, yes – Frankie, with Kevin Bridges as Henry’s fool Harry.
Do you know, it might just work.