King James IV of Scotland Biography

King (1473–1513)
King James IV unified Scotland under his rule, provided laws, advanced culture and learning and positioned the country as a major player in European politics.


King of Scotland from 1488 to 1513, James IV unified the country under his rule through enforcement and political and cultural advancements. While Scotland had a tense relationship with England under King Henry VII, relations improved with James’s marriage to Henry’s daughter, Margaret Tudor. The tide reversed when James allied himself with England’s arch enemy, France, and went to war with Henry VIII. James was killed in the Battle of Flodden on September 9, 1513.

Early Life

James IV of Scotland was born on March 17, 1473, at Stirling Castle, 30 miles north of present day Glasgow. His father, the unpopular James III, aggravated tensions with both England's and Scotland’s nobles. When young James turned 15, his father was killed during a rebellion. James thus became his country's monarch, but upon fully understanding the conspiracy that put him on the throne, he took some responsibility for his father’s death. For the rest of his life he wore a heavy iron chain cilice around his waist as an act of penance.

As ruler, James greatly differed from his father, enjoying popularity with his subjects. He mastered many languages and took an active interest in literature, science and law. He helped bring the printing press to Scotland and established several colleges. James also built a strong navy with a flagship, the Great Michael, said to be the largest vessel of its time. Erasmus, the Dutch humanist and a contemporary, said of James IV: “He had wonderful powers of mind, an astonishing knowledge of everything, an unconquerable magnanimity and the most abundant generosity.”

Relations With England

In 1493, James broke a truce with England by supporting the pretender Perkin Warbeck’s claim to the English throne and preparing to invade the country on his behalf. The conflict never went beyond a few border skirmishes and in time James reestablished good relations with England, ratifying the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with King Henry VII in 1502. As part of that treaty, James accepted the hand of Princess Margaret Tudor, Henry’s daughter. The match had long-term ramifications after the death of English Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, when James's and Margaret's great-grandson became James I of England in the Union of the Crowns.

James IV was also known for his amorous affairs and numerous courtesans. In addition to his four legitimate children by Margaret, he is believed to have sired eight other children from four mistresses and had numerous other affairs throughout his life. Such unions led to great palace intrigue. Prior to his marriage with Princess Margaret, James’s mistress was Margaret Drummond, who it is rumored was poisoned, presumably to prevent her from marrying James.

War with England and Death

Henry VIII’s ascension to the English throne in 1509 changed English-Scottish relations. James IV publicly quarreled with the new king, leading to minor sea-battles between their respective navies. James formed an alliance with French King Louis XII in 1512, and when Henry invaded France, James declared war on England, in spite of his advisers counsel against it. With Henry leading operations in France, James led an invading army south into Northumberland in August 1513, and by early September, moved his army toward Branxton Hill near Flodden. There he engaged in battle against the English forces led by Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, and suffered a crushing defeat on September 9, 1513. James and many of his nobles were killed while fighting on foot. Despite rumors that James had survived the battle, most historians believe his body was eventually taken to London and buried without ceremony. However, accounts are uncertain as to what happened afterwards when the church he was thought to have been buried in was demolished without any account of his body.


James IV was considered a wise and energetic king. His court attained a degree of refinement and recognition in European politics. Literature flourished and education advanced under his patronage, and the general condition of the country improved under his rule. Known as a good administrator and lawgiver, his vigorous enforcement reduced the tendencies for rebellion in the Scottish highlands and islands. 

King James IV of Scotland

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