A couple of weeks ago, I jumped at the chance of a ticket for a performance of Rona Munro's fourth medieval play, James IV, Queen of the Fight
. I'd already seen her previous plays about James I, II and III, and while having reservations about them, I applauded the attempt to bring episodes from that turbulent, and hitherto not well known, period of Scottish history to the stage. Enjoyable to watch they are. Shakespearean they are not.
For my taste, they tend to play out more in the atmosphere of a bawdy house than a royal court, which, despite vicious powerplays between warring aristocrats seeking control of the throne, could nonetheless lay claim to education and culture. James IV
is no different, choosing to focus on issues of ethnic diversity, represented by the perspective of two allegedly Moorish women captured from a Portuguese ship, rather than more mainstream ones of James's reign, and the celebrated poet, William Dunbar, doesn't come off too well either.
There were abiding problems for the Scottish kings throughout the 15th century, until the death of James V after the Scots' defeat against an English army at Solway Moss in 1542. One concerned continuing outbreaks of hostilities with their southern neighbour, not unrelated to their longstanding alliance with France. The other was that every one of the first five Jameses died young, in one violent context or another, leaving child heirs who became the focus of control by power-hungry nobles.
James I, born in 1394, became king aged 11, on the death of his father, Robert III. Sent to France for his protection, he was captured by English pirates and held prisoner for 18 years at the English court during the reigns of Henry IV and V. Author of the Scots love poem, The Kingis Quair
, believed to have been inspired by Joan Beaufort, daughter of the Earl of Somerset, whom he married, he returned to Scotland as king in 1424. He was murdered in a palace coup in 1437 aged 42, leaving his son and heir, James II, aged six.
James II, more popular than his father, married Mary of Guelders, daughter of Duke Arnold of Guelders and Catherine of Cleves, in 1449. An amateur of military ordnance, he died in 1460 from standing too close to one of his cannons which exploded at the siege of Roxburgh Castle, then occupied by an English force. He was 29.
James III was not so popular. Born, confusingly, in either 1451 or 1452 and succeeding his father aged eight or nine, he didn't begin his personal rule until 1469, the same year he married Margaret of Denmark. The marriage was unhappy and she died in 1486. He died in 1488, aged 36 or 37, after the Battle of Sauchieburn, near Stirling, again against the English. Wounded in the battle, there are suggestions he subsequently died from a fall from his horse or was murdered while recuperating nearby. He and his wife are buried together in a tomb in the ruins of Cambuskenneth Abbey near Stirling.
James IV, succeeded his father at the age of 15. In 1503, after an ironically named 'Perpetual Peace' treaty with Henry VII of England, he married Henry VIII's elder sister, Margaret Tudor. Hostilities were soon resumed, however, and he was killed single-handedly leading a charge at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, while his brother-in-law was fighting in France. He was just 40, leaving his heir, James V, a mere one-year-old infant. To this day, unlike Richard III, his body has never been found.
We now know that Rona Munro has been scripting plays about James V and Mary Queen of Scots, the latter currently debuting at the Hampstead Theatre in London, with Douglas Henshall in a leading role. When James V died in 1542, having just heard of the birth of his daughter, only days old, he is said to have lamented with his dying breath: 'It cam wi a lass and it'll gang wi a lass'. Little could he have imagined how her eventual reign, about which we know a great deal, would turn out. Turbulent times with a vengeance.
Following the play, my attention was drawn to a talk last week by the historian, Dr Rachel Delman, and hosted by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on 'Mary of Guelders and the Architecture of Queenship in 15th-century Scotland'. Intrigued, I zoomed in.
Mary died in 1463, only three years after her husband, but during that brief period she oversaw at least three architectural projects that Dr Delman considers places her firmly within a tradition of elite European aristocratic women of the period. Lacking the power to govern in their own right, they turned to religious and other prestige projects to cement their status and historical legacy. Mary's three main projects were the building of the Holy Trinity Collegiate Church and Hospital in Edinburgh, Ravenscraig Castle in Fife and a portion of the royal apartments in Falkland Palace, also in Fife.
Because of her short widowhood, Mary was unable to see any of her projects reach completion. The foundation charter for Trinity College Church was drawn up in 1462. She intended the church as a tribute to her late husband where masses for the dead would be celebrated and where she herself would be buried. Her remains were removed to Holyrood Abbey when the church was demolished in the 19th century to make way for the building of Waverley Station. There was an intention to rebuild it elsewhere and to that end the demolished stones were numbered and piled up awaiting their recycling. Two panels of the original altarpiece are now in the National Gallery of Scotland.
All that remains of the building is what is known as the Trinity Apse, rebuilt in the 19th century to the south of Waverley Station. It's hidden away behind the Jurys Inn Hotel on Jeffrey Street, but can be viewed from Chalmers Close, either through the hotel pend or off the Royal Mile before you come to John Knox's House. I decided to have a look at it last Saturday, a day I almost gave up on because of the heavy rain. But it cleared up during the afternoon so off I went.
It's a tall, imposing, but rather plain building, with gargoyles spouting off its roof. You can't enter as it's behind a locked gate and you can't step back further than the width of the close because of a construction site behind the hotel. The ground around the entrance is overgrown with weeds and bushes, but there's an information panel on the gate. I couldn't locate any of the sculpted stones mentioned, but was rather pleased to note a stone in the wall beneath the window above the close which bore the number 26 in what looked like faded and grubby white paint. Apparently there is some interest in restoring and repurposing the building as some sort of community hub but it would need a fair infusion of funds to do so.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh