History, Stirling Castle

17 March 2023

The Glory of all Princely Governing: The Reformer King James IV

James IV took a keen interest in education, medicine, science and law during his reign. On the date of his birth, we take a closer look.

550 years ago, on 17 March 1473, the future James IV, King of Scots was born, almost certainly, at Stirling Castle.

James was 15 when he succeeded to the throne. He had a great vision for his country, which was most likely shaped during an upbringing comprising love, education, rejection, betrayal and piety. He has been referred to as Scotland’s Renaissance King and perhaps he could also be described as a polymath.

On his anniversary, we examine his influence on education, medicine, science and law in Scotland during his reign.

Our cover image is an illustration by Owain Kirby of the court of James IV (© Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum, Licensed by scran.ac.uk)

A Champion of Education

An artist's impresson of a bustling castle courtyard in front of an ornate building topped with regal symbols

A reconstruction drawing of the King’s Old Building in about 1500 during the reign of James IV (© Crown Copyright, reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland. Licensed by scran.ac.uk)

In 1496 James brought in legislation that could be described as the first Education Act. This Act compelled all landowners of substance to send their eldest son to a grammar school at the age of eight or nine to become:

competentlie foundit and have perfect latyn and thereafter to remain three years at the sculis of art and jure, sua that thai may have knowledge and understanding of the lawis. Throw the quikris justice may reign universlaie throw all the realme.”

James sent his own illegitimate sons, Alexander and James, to study in Italy and to spend time under the tutelage of Erasmus. Erasmus said of King James IV:

He had wonderful powers of mind, an astonishing knowledge of everything, an unconquerable magnanimity and the most abundant generosity.”

The King also supported higher education with the founding of King’s College in Aberdeen in 1495. The College was established by Bishop William Elphinstone, with the king’s support. William Elphinstone was also Bishop of Aberdeen and was a champion of education. The College became Aberdeen University which is the fifth oldest university in Britain. It had a pioneering school for the teaching of medicine, established in 1497, another of James IV’s great interests.

By 1500 Scotland had three established universities, however, all books were either handwritten or imported. There was no printing of books in Scotland. In 1507 the King issued a warrant to allow two men to import and set up a printing press in Cowgate, Edinburgh. Books of the law and religious books, as well as Acts of Parliament were printed and, importantly, sold at a cheaper price.

Hands on with Medicine

The Great Hall at Stirling Castle painting in a distinctive gold colour

The Great Hall at Stirling Castle was completed in 1503 for James IV

James was fascinated by medicine, surgery and dentistry. It is recorded that he watched surgical procedures and dissections. He even performed minor surgery such as bloodletting, extracting teeth from a few of his subjects and for other fortunate folk, dressing their wounds. Accounts from the 1490s onwards show entries to support this.

In 1491 a man was paid to allow the King to draw blood from him. The records show:

To Domynico, to gif the King leve to lat him bluid, 28s.”

In the Accounts of 1504 there is a record:

……for claith to be wipes to Johne Balfouris sair leg quilk the King helit, 2s.”

In 1503 another entry shows money paid to purchase an instrument for the extraction of teeth. Other records show that on several occasions the King did indeed extract teeth as he travelled around the country to attend the Justice Ayres. In the Treasurer’s Accounts of 1511 can be found the following entry.

To ane fallow, because the King pullit furth his teth, 14s.”

The King’s interest in medical matters also stretched to conducting experiments. Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie (1532-1586) a historical chronicler, describes two such experiments. One involved conjoined twins, two brothers separated from the waist upwards. James heard about the brothers and brought them to his court to educate and study them. The brothers became multi linguists and accomplished musicians. A second experiment involved a deaf nurse who was sent to the uninhabited island of Inchkeith with two very young children. The purpose was to discover what, if any, language the children would acquire. The results of this experiment are not documented. Let us hope all involved made it off the island and back to society.

An engraving of James IV in lavish robes

Engraving of James IV by Holl after a painting by D Mytens (© Hulton Getty. Licensed by scran.ac.uk)

Plague and public health

Very pertinent to today, was the emergence of public health initiatives. James considered isolation during disease to be important. In 1497 he issued an Act through the Privy Council, that all those suffering from what we would now call syphilis, should be taken from Leith to islands until they recovered. The following year, legislation was brought in to prevent imports from any plague infected area and the official notification of plague was made compulsory in 1505. In 1513 the King sent a letter to all burghs in Scotland which clearly demonstrated his considerable thinking on the issue of public health. He suggested that all those suffering from plague should be housebound and infected houses marked as places of infection. In areas where there was plague, all dogs, cats and pigs should be removed from the streets as well as beggars and vagrants.

In 1506 the King ratified a ‘Seal of Cause’ or Charter, to the surgeons and barber-surgeons of Edinburgh. This established the body which became the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Experimenting at Stirling Castle

An artist's impression of a man in a colourful outfit attempting to fly from the walls of a castle using homemade wings

An illustration of John Damian attempting to fly from the castle walls

At Stirling Castle, the King explored the world of alchemy in collaboration, and at great expense, with John Damian. Together they searched for the ‘quintessence’ which would transform base and other metals into gold. This futile quest was said to be dramatically interrupted in 1507 with one of the earliest recorded ventures into aviation. John Damian’s experiment failed dramatically, although he lived to tell the tale. Recent research, however, suggests that this story was a fiction, created by poet William Dunbar, to mock Damian’s alchemy work.

A Tour of Law and Order

A medieval depiction of James IV and Queen Margaret

James IV and Queen Margaret depicted in the Seton Armorial (© National Library of Scotland. Licensed by scran.ac.uk)

The concept of a central court of justice was initiated during James’s reign. It would later develop into the Court of Session founded in 1532. James also reinstated and attended the ‘justice ayres’. James travelled the country to attend these circuit courts where he would dispense justice for serious crimes. This also gave James the opportunity to meet his people, see his country – and extract teeth!

James IV died at the Battle of Flodden in September 1513. He was 40 years old. Sir David Lindsay of the Mount described James IV as:

the glory of all princely governing.”

This blog has been contributed by Jenny McKenna at Stirling Castle