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Royal death still haunts Scots psyche

The death of James IV in 1513 at the Battle of Flodden was a blow from which the country never fully recovered.

James IV of Scotland killed at Flodden 1513

When they excavated Richard III last year, much was made of the fact that he was the last King of England to die leading his troops in battle.

Technically true, I suppose, but if we’re all one nation – and we will be until next year’s referendum, at least – Richard was certainly not the last British monarch to so end his days.

Five hundred years ago last week, a King of Scotland met the same fate. The Stewarts ruled Scotland for close on three centuries, yet they were remarkably unable to die in their beds. James I was stabbed to death in a sewer tunnel; James II was blown up by a faulty cannon; James III was killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn.

Two others were beheaded, and one fled to Rome. Only one of the whole crew can be said to have died in peaceful old age, and that was in England. The fate of the Stewarts makes that famous Shakespeare soliloquy about the death of kings sound like a bit of a knees-up.

But of all those ill-fated Stewarts, one in particular lingers deep in the Scottish psyche. I’m not talking about Mary Queen of Scots here. By the time Mary went to the block, Scotland was a divided nation, and there were plenty more than happy to see her whisked away.

The death of James IV in 1513 at the Battle of Flodden, however, was a blow from which the country never fully recovered. Here was the Flower of Scotland, a Renaissance Prince, cut down in his prime, along with representatives of practically every noble Scots family, archbishop, abbots and earls. You could say that Scotland itself was decapitated.

Unlike the English lords, who lurked at the back with the reserves, at Flodden the Scottish nobility led from the front, and were slain in their dozens.

Had the King of England – Henry VIII – been remotely interested in affairs north of the border, it might have been the end of Scotland too. As it is, the nation survived, but its golden age was over. And each time the piper plays Flowers of the Forest at a grave-side, every Scottish funeral becomes that of James IV.

* Dr Chris Upton is Reader in Public History at Newman University Birmingham

 
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