James became king in 1437 after the murder of his father. His minority years saw much bloodshed as rival factions vied to control Scotland through controlling the young king. His reign would be characterised by his fiery temperament and his struggle to break the power of a leading clan and assert his own control over Scotland.
Immediately after the death of his father, James' mother, Queen Joan, organised the murder of the rival branch of the Stewart clan who had murdered her husband. The violence that marked the start of his reign did not stop there, however.
In 1440 the two main factions fighting for control of the boy king turned to slaughter. William Crichton and Alexander Livingston arranged a meeting with their rivals, the powerful Douglases, at Edinburgh Castle. With the young king present, Crichton and Livingston murdered the 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother in a notorious evening that would become known as the Black Dinner.
Despite the murders, the Douglases came to dominate the Scottish court, filling the major offices and posts of government with their family and supporters. When James finally assumed the role of governing Scotland by himself in 1449 he found that the Douglas clan had a stranglehold on power that they would not give up lightly.
James spent much of his reign attempting to break the Douglases. Typically for his reign, this involved murder in an evening that would echo the Black Dinner some nine years earlier.
In 1452 James invited William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas, to dine with him at Stirling Castle. Hot-headed and suspicious, James accused Douglas of forming a treacherous bond with John MacDonald, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, and the Earl of Crawford. A secret pact between the most powerful clans in the country was a serious threat to James' kingship and had to be dealt with. A pitched argument with Douglas ensued and in the anger and emotion of the moment, James stabbed Douglas. The young Earl was finished off by James' courtiers in savage fashion – one allegedly dashing the Earl's brains out with an axe.
An intermittent war broke out between James and the Douglases. Douglas lands were seized then returned, titles removed then restored. James was in danger of looking weak. Weakness in the Scottish court often led to assassination. James needed a decisive victory over the Douglases.
He got that in 1455. At the Battle of Arkinholm James' forces defeated the Douglas clan army. The defeated Douglases fled to England and their power and stranglehold one Scottish political affairs was broken.
James only had five years to enjoy the liberation that the elimination of Douglases afforded him. During 1460, James had being laying siege to Roxburgh Castle which was still in the hands of the English. A passionate advocate of artillery, James intended to fire a salute in honour of his queen.
The gun exploded and James was killed. James' son succeeded to the throne as James III. He was still a child and so the Stewart monarchy had another minority kingship to survive.