An uncle, a dungeon and a very 15th Century Scotland family spat - Susan Morrison

It was all about watching your back – not least from your own family – during the 15th Century in Scotland, writes Susan Morrison.

When the king is ill, or old or just a bit incapacitated, his grip on power is weakened. It’s not really a problem for us today. In the 21st century an ailing monarch just means the next-in-line for the throne gets the call to open that new factory in Swindon, but in the 15th century it was a matter of life and death.

King Robert III of Scotland came to the throne already weakened. Born in 1337, he’d been baptised John, and had the title of Earl of Carrick bestowed upon him. He was ferociously ambitious, and really couldn’t wait for his father to peg out before he took the throne. With his incredibly powerful ally, Sir James Douglas, he basically booted dad out of the way in 1384. He had himself made ‘Lieutenant of Scotland’.

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Dad sidelined, the next order of business was noising up England to reclaim parts of Scotland signed away in a fairly unpopular peace treaty. The next few years saw the action raging over the border. Even Richard II himself was forced into the saddle, something he really wasn’t keen on. He rode North and did a bit of fighting in 1385. Hardly slowed Douglas down.

Falkland Palace, which was built out the rubble of the old castle where the Duke of Albany threw his nephew in a very 15th Century Scotland show of family power play, writes Susan Morrison.Falkland Palace, which was built out the rubble of the old castle where the Duke of Albany threw his nephew in a very 15th Century Scotland show of family power play, writes Susan Morrison.
Falkland Palace, which was built out the rubble of the old castle where the Duke of Albany threw his nephew in a very 15th Century Scotland show of family power play, writes Susan Morrison.
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In 1388 an even larger campaign was launched. At Otterburn, a Scottish force headed up by Douglas, of course, and other great nobles such as Moray and March faced a much larger English army led by Sir Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy and Sir Ralph Percy.

Two events during the campaign and at this battle left the future king damaged. A pre-campaign run-in with a horse left Carrick severely injured with life-long consequences. And secondly, whilst Otterburn was a huge Scottish victory, Sir James Douglas, that fearsome fighter and ally, got himself killed in the battle.

Carrick did make it to the throne, but he was in poor shape, and without the powerful shield of the Douglas family, he was vulnerable to plots and intrigues.

He took the name Robert when he was crowned, perhaps hoping to catch a little of the Bruce glamour, the victor of Bannockburn. It didn’t help much. The plotters began circling at once.

He didn’t have to look too far to find his enemies. They were in his own house. His brother, Robert (and yes, there are a lot of Roberts in this terrible tale) was Duke of Albany. A man possibly unmatched in Scotland’s history as a Machiaviallian power player.

Albany was the younger brother. His weaker older brother might actually sit on the throne, but he could get up to a lot of mischief behind it. Whatever the injury to Robert III, it clearly affected his ability to rule, and so Albany smoothly moved himself into the role of Regent, or Guardian. Terribly noble of him. Well, his line couldn’t possibly benefit since his brother had sons and they would take the throne when their father died. Unless something terrible happened. Which it did.

David was the eldest son of Robert III. He was the Duke of Rothesay, a prestigious title bestowed on the present heir to the throne.

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He was originally considered to be all the ‘good’ prince things, handsome, dashing and clever, but by 1402, the narrative began to change. His mother died, and he started to act up a bit. Chronicler Walter Bower wrote that, ‘it was as if a noose had become worn: he hoped to free himself and, spurning his council of honourable men, gave himself up to his previous frivolity’.

His father was weak and ineffectual. Advice from the council was spurned. Warnings from his Uncle Albany ignored. David chucked his weight around. He seized taxes and money owed to Albany. He also made fancy-free with the ladies by committing adultery, and gave himself over to a 'vicious’ (vice-filled) life. It has to be remembered that the men who wrote these chronicles possibly had an agenda to fulfil.

Albany later claimed he acted on behalf of the realm, and his weak older brother, the King. This lad needed a telling to. Perhaps a bit of a cooling off time. And he had just the naughty step to keep a wayward princling in.

David was seized in Fife, and arrested. He was roughly dressed in a russet tunic and shoved on a mule and hauled off to Falkland Castle.

It's very hard to overstate just how shocking this turn of events would have been to a living King's son, accustomed to the finest linen and horses. Worse was to come.

David, Duke of Rothesay, heir to the throne, was hurled into a dungeon, the door slammed shut and he was left there to die.

Albany claimed he died of disease, perhaps dysentery. But there were many others who said that the 24-year-old Prince of Scotland starved to death in that dungeon. John Shirley, in this ‘The Dethe of the King of Scotis’ claimed David was driven mad by hunger and tried to “eate his owne handez and died in grete distress and myserie “

Albany faced no trial or retribution for the death of David, Duke of Rothesay. His older brother, the anointed king was too weak and feeble to even avenge the terrible death of his son. But he had one more card to play. The spare to his heir, 8-year-old James.

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You can find out what happened to David’s killer and what happened to his brother on the podcast ‘House of The Lion” from BBC Sounds. It’s worth a listen to discover if vengeance ever did come for Albany.