IT is one of the great unsolved mysteries of Scottish – and indeed British – history: where lies the body of James IV, King of Scots? We know that the body of James, the last Scottish king to die in battle, was separated from his head. We can be fairly sure both head and body were buried in or around London, but all trace has vanished into history.

That’s a great pity because apart from losing the Battle of Flodden in 1513 the fourth Stewart king called James was a most interesting character and very possibly our best and most influential king after Robert the Bruce and David I.

In the last of our series on the violent deaths of the first four James Stewarts to be Kings of Scots,

I hope to show that James IV should be remembered for much more

than Flodden.

After the murder of his father James III following the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488, James IV did penance – he wore a heavy chain each Lent – for his parricide and regicide for the rest of his life, though in truth he did not lead the rebellion against the king but was merely a figurehead for the nobles who wanted James III gone.

James IV was highly intelligent, well-educated and multilingual. He turned out to be a born leader of men and, like David I, he had a passion for improvement and progress.

As soon as he could rule in his own right, James IV’s first actions were to put down several rebellions before they could break out. A Gaelic speaker, he attempted to make peace with the Highland chiefs, but eventually pacified the north with military power. He even managed to curtail the power of the Lords of the Isles in 1493 by seizing the titles, castles and estates of John MacDonald II who had made a pact with Edward IV of England three decades previously.

During the early part of James’s reign, Scotland enjoyed years of peace. He encouraged a Renaissance in art, literature and music, as was then happening across Europe.

James also stood up to the English – never an unpopular move in Scotland – in the 1490s, renewing the Auld Alliance with France. However, the most extraordinary incident occurred when James received into his court the false pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck, in 1495. As a consequence, Henry VII of England declared war in Scotland in 1496 but fortunately for the Scots, Henry had to stay down south and defend London against an armed insurrection based in Devon

and Cornwall.

Both kings needed peace, and it came through Margaret Tudor, Henry’s sister, who married James in 1503. Both monarchs had previously signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace in a bid to end the intermittent warfare between their countries.

Also during his 25-year reign, James completed the building of great palaces at Linlithgow and Falkland, and his transformation of Holyroodhouse as a royal court effectively confirmed Edinburgh as the permanent capital of Scotland – although I contend his greatest legacy for Scotland was the Education Act of 1496. It’s a remarkable fact that under the first four King Jameses, Scotland enjoyed a first flowering of education, which remains a preoccupation with Scots and a major element of Scottish culture in the 21st century.

During the reign of James I, and with his personal endorsement, Scotland’s oldest university was founded at St Andrews in 1413. It is the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge. Such was the demand for education, especially for the sons of nobility, that it grew rapidly. James II actively encouraged the foundation of a second university, which came into being in Glasgow in 1451 when Bishop William Turnbull received the approval of Pope Nicholas V.

The hapless James III, or more probably his wife Margaret of Denmark, at least ensured that his successor received a superb education, and when he took the throne, James IV wanted to establish a third university to demonstrate his own commitment to education.

He chose to do it in Aberdeen, then the country’s most important seaport. The modern university can trace its history back to 1495, with its first name signifying its royal origins – King’s College.

James IV went much further in his zeal for education. In 1496, he had the Scottish Parliament pass the Education Act which made the teaching of young gentlemen compulsory from the age of eight.

James knew that many of the hereditary sheriffs of Scotland were uneducated men, and one of the principal aims was to ensure that those who administered the law actually knew something about laws.

The Act would have profound significance for the next generations of nobility in particular. In essence, having been taught to read, write and think for themselves, the new lords of Scotland were no longer prepared to accept the power of the Roman Catholic Church and, in a very real sense, the Act made the Scottish Reformation possible.

Yet James IV, while confirming Parliament as much more of

a law-making body, also increased the political power of the church so that new churches were built and endowed with lands.

James allowed the first printing press into Scotland in 1505, and the country was also given its own navy including the Great Michael,

the largest warship in the world when it was built at Newhaven near Leith in 1511. That same year, Pope Julius II formed the Holy League against France, Scotland’s ally. England and Spain joined the Pope and in 1513 James was asked by the French king, Louis XII, for assistance after Henry VIII of England tried to invade France. Although married to an English princess and despite the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, James did what the code of chivalry and the Auld Alliance demanded, and marched

on England.

Henry VIII had anticipated the Scottish invasion, which was designed to draw troops away from his French sallies, and he had ensured that there was a northern army ready to face the Scots. He was in France when the invasion occurred and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was acting as regent for him. She ordered the northern army to prepare for battle.

For a change, the Scottish army comprised knights and soldiers from all parts of Scotland and was better equipped and bigger than the northern English army under the command of Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Crucially, however, the Scottish troops were inexperienced and poorly trained in comparison to the English.

The invasion went well at first, but the English were waiting to draw the Scottish army further into Northumbria. At Flodden Field, or more likely Branxton Moor near the modern-day border between England and Scotland, the two sides met. I have written extensively about Flodden in this series before,

so I will give a summary of the events of September 9, 1513.

James, as always, led his troops with courage from the front, but unlike the 70-year-old Surrey, he lacked experience as a general. The Scots at first had a good position but James appears to have been overcome with desperation to get involved in a fight and led the charge downhill to close with the enemy.

The English artillery and archery were deadly accurate. James himself may have been struck with an arrow as there was a single arrow wound on his body. He was in the front line when the English army closed up to meet the Scots head on and was duly hacked to death.

We do not know exactly how James died, but it is reasonable to assume he was surrounded and felled by English infantry wielding fearsome bills and halberds.

Bishop Thomas Ruthall of Durham wrote in his eye-witness account of the battle that: “The Scots fought sore and valiantly with their swords, yet they could not resist the bills

that lighted so thick and sore

upon them.”

With the king dead, the Scottish army disintegrated and fled. Some 10,000 Scots, perhaps one-third of the army, were killed in a brutal slaughter, the English losing barely one-third of that number. Joining James in the ranks of the dead were at least 10 earls, some 14 lords, clan chiefs and several bishops, including the king’s own illegitimate son Alexander, Archbishop of

St Andrews.

Their calamitous loss affected almost every family in Scotland, and was commemorated in the lament the Flowers of the Forest.

Thus came the end of the fourth King James Stewart to die in a violent manner. It is what happened next to him that is the remaining mystery of Flodden’s aftermath.

The body of James was located, stripped of its armour, where he had fallen. Lord Dacre found him and, after being identified by two Scottish prisoners, at first it was taken south to Berwick and then Durham. The new Pope Leo X had ordered James to stop supporting France, and English Cardinal Bainbridge had duly excommunicated James, but Henry VIII asked the Pope to be allowed to give his brother-in-law a Christian burial.

At some stage the body was embalmed and was placed in a lead-lined coffin to be taken to London. In an article for the BBC, Dr Tony Pollard, professor of conflict history and archaeology at the University of Glasgow, wrote: “The recipient of this gory package was Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII, and in charge of the family business while the English king fought in France.

“She, in turn, sent the dead king’s surcoat, blood-stained and slashed, to her husband with the recommendation that he use it as a war banner.”

James’s body ended up in a monastery at Sheen in Richmond, and there it soon began to deteriorate, so much so that his head is supposed to have separated from his body and workmen played football with it. The head was taken to Great St Michael’s Church in London. It was seen there by people who had met James – one recorded it still had his reddish hair. Eventually the head was thrown into a charnel pit and forgotten about. The church is long gone and the site is now occupied by a pub called The Red Herring.

The body probably remained at Sheen Priory until the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, at which time the Priory was demolished. The possible site where the coffin was interred is now under a golf course.

It is now that we enter the stuff of legend. Rumours soon spread that James IV had survived the battle – apparently supernatural horsemen spirited him away – and fled abroad into exile.

The surcoat given to Queen Catherine was undoubtedly James’s but he is supposed to have taken it off before the battle to fight alongside his men as an ordinary member of the army. There are at least two places in the Borders that claim to be his last resting place, but the truth is that unless some astonishing archaeology is done, we will never know the final resting place or places of the monarch.

Yet in 2013, the body of Richard III – killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 – was found beneath a car park in Leicester. Could it be possible that the lost body of the King of Scots could yet be traced?