James II, the son of James I of Scotland and of Joan Beaufort had an elder twin, Alexander Stewart, Duke of Rothesay, who lived long enough to receive a knighthood, but died in infancy. James II gained the nickname “Fiery face” because of a conspicuous vermilion birthmark on his face. James had six sisters, who married into various European royal dynasties.
Inheriting the throne at under seven years old, James saw the government in the hands of others for most of his reign. The assassination of his father James I had formed part of an attempt to usurp power by Walter Stewart, 1st Earl of Atholl, but it failed miserably, and James’s guardians had Atholl and his allies captured and executed in the months after the assassination.
In 1440 Edinburgh Castle became the location for the ‘Black Dinner’, which saw the summary execution of the young William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas and of his brother.
In 1449 James II emerged into adulthood, yet in many ways his ‘active kingship’ differed little from his minority. As the young king took revenge for the brief arrest of his mother Douglas and Crichton continued to dominate political power, and the king’s ability to rule without them remained arguably limited.
Military campaigns ended indecisively, and some have argued that James stood in serious danger of being overthrown, or of having to flee the country. But James’ patronage of lands, titles and office to allies of the Douglases saw their erstwhile allies begin to change sides, most importantly the Earl of Crawford, and in 1455 James struck a decisive blow against the Douglases, and they were finally defeated at the Battle of Arkinholm in May 1455. In the months that followed the Parliament of Scotland declared the extensive Douglas lands forfeit and permanently annexed them to the crown.
Between 1455 and 1460 James II proved to be an active and interventionist king. The king travelled the country, and seems to have originated the practice of raising money by giving remissions for serious crimes.
James enthusiastically promoted modern artillery, which he used with some success against the Black Douglases. His ambitions to increase Scotland’s standing saw him besiege Roxburgh castle in 1460, one of the last Scottish castles still held by the English after the Wars of Independence. On August 3, one of his cannons exploded, killing the King. The Scots carried on with the siege and took the castle.