AS you read this latest in a series of columns on the powers behind the Scottish throne through the ages, you may reflect that the people I have written about so far were largely content to be powerbrokers rather than outright monarch.

Yet especially next week as I survey the Scottish powerbrokers in the tumultuous reign of James III, who was King of Scots from 1460 to 1488, I will be examining the deeds of several people who did indeed covet the throne. After reading these two columns, those who will be celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of the Queen next month may think upon the possibility of what would have happened to the royals of the United Kingdom if any of the would-be usurpers had managed to dethrone James III, ancestor of the current monarch through the Stewart/Stuart line.

First of all, however, I must solve a mystery relating to my account of the deeds of Sir Thomas Randolph which I told on May 3. I wrote that Randolph’s most famous feat-of-arms was his capture with just 30 men of English-occupied Edinburgh Castle on March 14, 1314.

Sharp-eyed reader Steve Smart e-mailed me to say: “I was a wee bit confused as the article mentions Edinburgh Castle being taken back from the English in 1314 but the inscription you show from Edinburgh Castle says ‘recovered this castle in 1313...’. Is there a reason for this discrepancy and could you clarify when the castle was ‘recovered’.”

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He kindly added: “Thank you for the historical articles - one of the highlights of the week for me. As they say - every day is a learning day!” Glad to be of service, Steve.

The fact is that inscription about 1313 is correct, and so is my date of 1314. For this is one of those dates that is caught in the confusion caused by the change in Scotland’s calendar which King James VI introduced on January 1, 1600. From that date, Scotland started its year on Ne’erday, January 1, instead of the traditional date, Lady Day, March 25.

Who better than the National Records of Scotland to explain what happened, as stated on their website: “James VI proclaimed that Scotland should start the year on 1 January from 1600. Following the Union of the Crowns in 1603 he became James I of England but no such legal change took place south of the Border where the new year began on 25 March until 1752. As a result the same day in January, February or March (up to 24th) can be in different years. A system of double-dating was used in some legal documents, for example, 1 February 1699/1700 where 1699 refers to the year which began on 25 March 1699 and 1700 to the year which began on 1 January 1700.”

The changes were applied retrospectively, so as Randolph’s victory occurred on March 14, 1313, in the ‘Old Style’ calendar, that was the date used by whoever designed the inscription. But in the ‘New Style’ calendar it was also correct to say March 14, 1314, and that is the date most historians and history writers use. For the record, I always use New Style dating in my articles though I will usually try and show why there are dating discrepancies.

Back to the 15th century, then, and the tumultuous reign of James III, about whom I have written before. He was a child of eight or nine — his exact birthdate is the subject of dispute — when his father, James II, was killed by an exploding cannon during the siege of English-occupied Roxburgh Castle on August 3, 1460.

Two people in particular became very important during the minority of James III, and I will dwell on them this week and next week complete the account with what happened when James became king in his own right. The first powerbroker was one of the rare women to be such a personage in those ancient times — his mother, Mary (or Marie) of Guelders (or Gueldres), who had married James II in a dynastic arrangement. She was the daughter of Arnold, the Duke of Guelders, and Catherine of Cleves, making Mary the descendant of both the Dukes of Cleves and Burgundy, while her great niece was none other than Anne of Cleves, one of the two wives who survived Henry VIII of England.

With such family connections, Mary was something of a catch for James II, especially as it was her great-uncle, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and one of the most powerful men in Europe, who personally arranged her marriage as Queen Consort to James II. She was said to be beautiful and the royal couple were reported to love each other, having seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood.

She seems to have imported much culture and learning, plus a few cannons, from her native Flanders, but she also learned a lot about the politics of Scotland during her husband’s long struggles with the nobility such as the Douglases, one of whom, William, the 8th Earl of Douglas, he personally murdered at Stirling Castle in February 1452.

They had been married for just over ten years when James II was killed at Roxburgh, apparently when he was showing off his cannon from Flanders to his queen. Though she was just 25 or 26 at the time of his death, Mary immediately acted to make herself Queen Regent, arranging the coronation of James III at Kelso Abbey just ten days after his father’s death. Even before that, she first of all ordered the destruction of Roxburgh Castle, which was accomplished by the senior Scottish military commander, George, the 4th Earl of Angus, the leader of the powerful Red Douglas branch of the clan who had sided with James II despite the king’s murder of his cousin at Stirling. Angus, as I shall call him, claimed his hereditary right to crown the new king.

The National: Mary of Guelders assisted James III’s rise to throne 10 days after James II’s deathMary of Guelders assisted James III’s rise to throne 10 days after James II’s death

James II had given Mary lands and castles, and she was thus independent. She was pious and generous and the people loved her. Founder of the Holy Trinity Church in Edinburgh, Mary also built Ravenscraig Castle in Fife, one of the first castles to have battlements for cannon, while she also improved Falkland Palace. While she had no designs on the monarchy itself, rather her idea of regency was all about safeguarding her son’s eventual accession to the throne.

Unlike her husband, Mary of Guelders did not need to resort to such personal violence, instead using guile and sheer political nous to triumph. After he had imposed his rule across Scotland, James II had brought in progressive reforms and Mary decided to carry on with his work, all the while preparing her son for his future role as king.

She did not become regent outright. It was probably the fact that she was a mere woman, as powerful men saw it in those days, that led to the Scottish Parliament imposing a regency council on her in 1461. This consisted of the aforesaid Earl of Angus and the Earls of Argyll, Huntly and Orkney plus the Bishops of Glasgow and St Andrews, the latter being James Kennedy. Nevertheless Mary was acknowledged as keeper of the young king and thus regent in all but name – the seven council members were all acclaimed in public as regents.

As Queen Regent, she was also heavily involved in the intrigues of the Wars of the Roses. James II had sided with the Lancastrians, his mother being the former Queen Regent, Joan of Beaufort, and indeed it was while attacking the Yorkists garrisoned at Roxburgh that he was killed. Mary fell out with Bishop Kennedy and other members of the Regency Council over their policy towards the Yorkists and Lancastrians, Mary preferring to wait and see who emerged as kings of England while Kennedy, the former Chancellor of Scotland and the founder of St Salvator’s College at St Andrews, preferred the Lancastrians.

In late 1460, with James II having died only a few months previously, Mary welcomed Margaret of Anjou, wife of the Lancastrian king Henry VI, and in March 1461, she welcomed Henry VI, Margaret and their son Edward of Westminster to Scotland after the Yorkists’ decisive victory at the very bloody Battle of Towton. Henry was a weak and vacillating king, who probably suffered from some sort of mental illness, so giving him refuge in Scotland was risky, albeit a morally correct thing to do.

The Scottish hospitality came at a price – the exiles promised to surrender Berwick-upon-Tweed back to Scotland if they would gain the throne of England, while Mary and Margaret arranged that Edward of Westminster would marry Mary’s daughter Margaret Stewart, then a child of eight or nine. The possible engagement was called off, however, after pressure from Edward IV himself and his ally, Duke Philip of Burgundy.

Bishop Kennedy’s dim view of Mary of Guelders only got worse when she began an affair with Adam Hepburn, the already-married Master of Hailes, having previously been reported to have had a liaison with the exiled Lancastrian Duke of Somerset. Kennedy and his allies on the Regency Council were duly taken aback when Mary switched sides and began making personal approaches to the House of York, with the suggestion that she as a young and beautiful widow might make a suitable match for the unmarried King Edward IV who was a decade younger than Mary. This arrangement was even discussed with the Earl of Warwick, known to history as the Kingmaker. As his later marriage to another widow, Elizabeth Woodville, showed, Edward IV was impulsive in matters of love and who knows what might have happened to the royal line of England had he met and wooed Scotland’s beautiful queen regent.

That did not happen, however, as Mary of Guelders became ill and died on December 1, 1463. She was interred in the Holy Trinity Church that she had founded in Edinburgh, her remains later being transferred to Holyrood Abbey.

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That left Bishop Kennedy effectively in control of the Scottish government of the day, and the former Bishop of Dunkeld who had become Bishop of St Andrews in 1442 was effective and powerful. He had been keen to see reforms in the church, one of which was his foundation of Greyfriars Monastery to bring productive monks to St Andrews, but he was also personally extravagant, building the so-called ‘Bishop’s Barge’ which at 500 tons was one of the largest ships in Scotland at the time. The ‘San Salvator’ was used to ferry the Bishop and his guests, including royalty, and it had a reputation for safety until it sank off Bamburgh in 1472.

Kennedy, who was also a member of the Scottish Parliament, had survived the murky world of Scottish politics for two decades – it was said his greatest achievement was stopping Scotland’s nobles from civil war – when he became one of the seven regents, and his first duty was to ensure that James III, still a young teenager, was well educated.

As Magnus Magnusson records in his Scotland: The Story of a Nation, Bishop Kennedy achieved much in his short time as a regent: “He was able to negotiate a fifteen-year truce with the Yorkist government of England and accepted an annual pension from Edward IV (no doubt to ensure Henry VI would not be allowed into Scotland again).”

Kennedy was in his sixties when his health began to deteriorate and he died on May 24, 1465, at his home in St Andrews, being buried in the chapel of St Salvator’s.

The fighting over James III had not even really begun.