king of Scots (1437–60). James II is the first Scottish king of whose appearance we can be fairly certain. He is portrayed as a confident young man, his hands on a dagger at his belt, with the whole of the left side of his face disfigured by a livid vermilion birthmark. In a short life—he died at 29—he followed the path taken by his father, broke the power of the greatest magnate house, the Black Douglases, secured a sizeable increase in royal power at home and a formidable reputation abroad.
James was the younger of twin sons born to James I and Joan Beaufort at Holyrood in October 1430. (The elder twin, Alexander, died in infancy.) His father's assassination at Perth in 1437 thrust James into the kingship aged only 6 and necessitated a long minority (1437–49). The disappearance of many major noble families, and the political imbalance which resulted from this caused an enormous concentration of power in the hands of the Black Douglas family, with its head, the young William, 8th earl of Douglas, becoming lieutenant‐general for James II (probably in 1444).
In July 1449 James II married Mary of Gueldres, only daughter of Duke Arnold of Gueldres and niece of Philip the Good of Burgundy. The Scottish king threw off the frustration of being under tutelage with confidence and ruthlessness. James II's target was the Black Douglases. The outcome was an attack on Douglas estates followed by the great crime of the reign, James's murder of Douglas at Stirling castle on 22 February 1452, after a two‐day conference which Douglas attended under a royal safe conduct.
Civil war followed, with the 9th earl of Douglas pitted against a determined James II. The king was lucky to escape from Stirling with his life when the Douglases arrived to confront him a month after the murder. Thereafter the situation improved. A male heir was born to Mary of Gueldres at St Andrews (May 1452); a royalist Parliament justified the Douglas murder; and the king walked the political tightrope of satisfying his own supporters and negotiating with the Douglases until he was strong enough to deliver the killer punch. In 1455 the king's sieges of Abercorn and Threave, and a skirmish at Arkinholm on the river Esk, completed the ruin of the Black Douglases.
James II's five remaining years reveal no let‐up in the king's energy and aggressiveness. He died as he had lived, the eternal warrior, mortally wounded by the explosion of one of his own guns at the siege of Roxburgh castle in August 1460.
Subjects: British History.