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Strange deaths of medieval Scottish kings

26 June 2014

Strange deaths of medieval Scottish kingsWe explore the strange deaths of four of Scotland's medieval kings. For more on Scotland's monarchs, buy our special souvenir magazine - Scotland's Kings and Queens: The Stewarts.


Alexander III (1241-1286) died at Kinghorn Ness on 18 March 1286 after journeying on horseback from Edinburgh Castle to Kinghorn, to visit his queen Yolande de Dreux.

According to the Chornicle of Lanercost, the king was warned of the risks of his chosen route: ‘When he arrived at the village near the crossing, the ferrymaster warned him of the danger, and advised him to go back.’

Alexander became separated from his guides and was found at the bottom of a rocky embankment with a broken neck the following day; it is believed that his horse lost its footing in the dark, sending the king to his death.


King James I (1394-1437) was killed by assassins following rebellion in the kingdom due in part to the severity of his rule.

On 20 February 1437 he was with the queen at Blackfriars’ Monastery in Perth when Robert Stewart, his chamberlain, allowed around thirty men into the building. The assassins (who included the king’s uncle Walter, Earl of Atholl) chased the king to his hiding place in a sewer but because the escape route had recently been blocked off to prevent tennis balls going into it, the king was trapped and was stabbed to death.

English chronicler John Shirley, writing fifteen years after the death of James I (and claiming to have access to older accounts) wrote that: ‘It was reported by true persons that saw him dead, that he had sixteen deadly wounds in his breast, withouten many and other in diverse places of his body.’


King James II (1430-1460) was killed at the age of 29 during a siege of the castle of Roxburgh, which had been in English hands since the Wars of Independence. The king had a keen interest in the latest artillery and was killed when attempting to fire a huge cannon known as ‘the lion’.

Writing in his history of the reign of James II, chronicler Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie said: ‘as the King stood near a piece of artillery, his thigh bone was dug in two with a piece of misframed gun that brake in shooting, by which he was stricken to the ground and died hastily’.

James II is buried in the Abbey of Holyrood in Edinburgh.


According to most accounts, James III (1451-1488) died at the Battle of Sauchieburn (fighting those loyal to his son and heir, the future James IV) but for years after the king’s death, the identity of his killer and whether he not he actually died at Sauchieburn were disputed.

The death of James III was even featured in the recent ‘open secret’ exhibition at National Archives of Scotland, where a text from contemporary parliamentary records was shown, which stated that the king ‘happinit to be slane’.

The government of the new James IV attempted to put an end to rumours that the king had been killed in a cottage near Bannockburn or had been thrown from his horse, and released a statement which read: ‘oure soverane lord that now is and the trew lordis and barouns that wes withe him in the samyne feild war innocent, quhyt and fre of the saidis slauchteris feilde.’

To see an image of the parliamentary record, visit the National Archives of Scotland website.

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Last Updated: 10th May 2012