It was around 1535, and 23-year-old King James V was engaged in a rap battle — or the 16th-century Scottish royal court equivalent of it. King James was in a public insult poetry battle with his lifelong tutor and companion, Sir David Lyndsay. James’s poem accused Lyndsay — a married man approximately 26 years his senior — of being impotent, while Lyndsay responded by roasting the king for his out-of-control sexual behavior:
“Like a roaring bull, you rudely run and ride,” wrote Lyndsay, “constantly fucking like a raging fornicator.” (Yes, he really did publicly accuse his king of a furious amount of “fucking.” The original Middle Scots reads, “Ay fukkand lyke ane furious fornicatour.”)
Lyndsay, who portrayed himself as a teasing older brother of sorts, spent most of the poem sharing an embarrassing anecdote about James having messy sex with a servant woman in the palace’s brew house. “Remember how you threw a whore across a stinking trough?” he wrote, detailing how the unnamed woman squealed like a pig and overturned a vat of foul-smelling liquids with her wild flailing. “Thank God for preserving you from gout and syphilis!” he exclaimed at the end.
But Lyndsay was not celebrating the king’s conquests. Quite the contrary. He cursed James’s advisors for encouraging his promiscuity and concluded by urging the king to reform his wild ways by marrying the teenage French princess Madeleine and using his mighty “lance” to father legitimate heirs.
Lyndsay’s sordid tale was not an exaggeration. James lived an extremely colorful and dramatic life, and his sexual escapades were only part of it.
When his father died in battle while trying unsuccessfully to invade England, James V became the king of Scotland at the tender age of 17 months. His mother, Queen Margaret, got remarried, to Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, in a secret ceremony less than a year after her husband’s death. James IV’s will had stipulated that Margaret could serve as queen regent — an extremely powerful role, given her son’s young age — only as long as she didn’t remarry, so she sought to hide her marriage from the other Scottish nobles.
Margaret’s plan failed, and when her secret came to light, she fled south to England while heavily pregnant, going into labor days after crossing the border. Her short, unhappy marriage ended in divorce because Angus was truly terrible. He wasn’t simply unfaithful; while Margaret was away giving birth to Angus’s baby and enduring a long recovery from her almost-deadly childbirth, back in Scotland Angus moved his ex-fiancée-turned-current-mistress into Margaret’s personal castle and together they lived off Margaret’s money. Poor Margaret, in the meantime, lost custody of her sons, because the Scottish nobles feared she’d take them to England, and she also lost all sources of income from her royal properties.
With Margaret largely out of the picture — she was desperately trying to get the pope to annul her disastrous marriage — Scotland’s powerful political figures, including Angus, devised a plan to rotate physical custody of the fatherless young King James among themselves every three months, taking turns as his guardian to ensure that power was distributed evenly until James was old enough to rule on his own at age 14.
When James was 13, with the age at which he could rule fast approaching, his former stepfather, Angus, took custody for a three-month term that was supposed to expire on November 1, 1525.
Angus, however, had different plans.
When the three months ended, he simply refused to relinquish custody, effectively pulling off a coup and kidnapping James in order to hold onto power. He later appointed himself Lord Chancellor of Scotland — the highest political office in the land aside from the king — and gave lucrative positions in the royal household to his relatives, who kept James under physical supervision at all times.
James tried — and failed — to escape at age 14. He made a secret deal with the Earl of Lennox, Angus’s former close ally, who was supposed to raid the castle and rescue him. But the raid ended disastrously in Lennox’s capture and death, and James remained captive.
Angus knew that keeping the young king in his custody was the only way he could stay in power. But a miserable young king, constantly plotting ways to escape and claim power himself, would simply not do. So, as Andrea Thomas explains, Angus devised a solution: distract the unhappy teenage king with sex by deliberately encouraging him to sleep with as many women as possible, starting at the age of 14 or 15.
Angus and his co-conspirators went all in on this plan. George Buchanan, writing his history of Scotland a few decades after James’s death, stated that “They who had the direction of his early years, encouraged his inclination for sex, thinking, by this means, to retain him longer under their own influence.”
In other words, Angus and his kinsmen encouraged James to focus solely on sex — and lots of it. If they could fully occupy his mind, and time, with sex, they reasoned, the pubescent monarch wouldn’t get around to realizing they had stolen his power and he was old enough to rule on his own, if only he could escape from Angus’s custody.
Part of the reason that all of this is recorded is that in addition to teaching him Latin, James’s tutor, Sir David Lyndsay, was fond of airing his pupil’s business — including writing multiple poems that disclosed private details about the young king’s sex life. One poem about the king’s teenage years, written when James was 18, described how James was surrounded by older men who urged him to have sex with numerous women without worrying about the consequences. Lyndsay’s poem featured a dramatic portrayal of Angus and his relatives rushing to secure power by taking advantage of James’s youth:
“But let’s hurry, while the king is young; let’s make secure arrangements in advance before he is old enough to discern what we’re doing,” one says to another. Lyndsay emphasized the vulnerability linked to James’s youth — a factor that made his consent especially malleable and exploitable — by calling him “that fair young tender king.”
Lyndsay’s poem depicts a vivid scene of four older men competing to corrupt the gullible young king by urging him to have sex with women in four different towns that were centers of royal power. The court traveled in an entourage from castle to castle, rather than remaining at a fixed location, and Angus’s kinsmen encouraged James to have sex with a different woman everywhere they went.
In Lyndsay’s poem, the first man says, “Sir, I know a maid in Fife, one of the lustiest wanton lasses. Hurry up and get her, sir, there she passes!” Fife was home to Falkland Palace, one of the locations where Angus kept James. By encouraging the king to pursue this young woman and characterizing her as “lustiest” and “wanton,” the man emphasizes her beauty as well as her extreme sexual availability. In other words, he advertises her to the king as young, hot, and down to fuck.
The other men surrounding James follow suit, each loudly encouraging him to sleep with a different woman. One points him toward “a lusty lass” in Linlithgow, the location of the palace where James was born. Another man advertises “a renowned beauty” in Stirling, which housed an important royal fortress. The last one invites the king to join them in romping their way through the brothels in the nation’s capital of Edinburgh:
“Sir,” said the fourth, “Take my counsel,
And let’s all go to the main brothel.
There we may leap upon women at liberty,
Without any restraints of dignity.”
“Counsel” was a term for official advice from a group of wise, experienced advisers regarding how the king should conduct himself politically. This kind of knowledgeable guidance was usually especially important for young kings like James. But in this context, the “counsel” of a group of unscrupulous, power-hungry older men instructed the king to sleep with many women, wherever he went, showing how Angus and his kinsmen sought to divert James away from politics.
Given that he had been largely kept under Angus’s lock and key and was not free to exercise power on his own, the sudden possibility of being able to do something freely “at liberty” — here, mounting unlimited sex workers in Scotland’s biggest city — must have been particularly appealing to young James.
Lyndsay concluded this passage by emphasizing again how this group of men manipulated James for personal gain: “Thus every man said for himself, and divided the spoils among themselves,” he wrote, emphasizing the illegitimate material gain that the men received from their actions — namely, the fact that they were able to profit from their royal positions while the teenage king enthusiastically fucked his way around the kingdom — and underscoring the exploitative nature of their approach to the king’s consent.
Their collective corruption of James was not only lucrative but also pleasurable for them: Lyndsay compared it to a popular game called “pluck at the crow,” in which a group of people mockingly tugged at one person’s hair and clothes, portraying the teenage king as being surrounded by a group of laughing, leering older men who made a game out of enticing him into promiscuity.
James finally escaped from Angus when he was 16, after confronting him verbally in front of a group of advisors during a political meeting in Edinburgh and accusing him of “abusing,” or taking advantage of, James’s power. Angus responded by promising James he could lead a small military expedition to Scotland’s border with England, in an attempt to give him some sense of power and stave off total rebellion. This wasn’t enough for James, however, and he got in touch with his mother shortly afterward and planned his escape.
We can’t say for sure how the escape happened, but one 16th-century historian, Robert Lyndsay of Pitscottie, tells the tale of a dramatic nighttime departure from Falkland Palace to Stirling Castle, nearly 50 miles away. According to Pitscottie, James waited until Angus left Falkland to visit one of his mistresses, then told the captain of his guard that he wanted to go on a massive hunting expedition in the morning. He pretended to go to bed early and rode off secretly in the middle of the night while everyone was busy making preparations for the big hunt, arriving at Stirling Castle at daybreak, where he met up with his mother, Margaret (Angus’s angry ex-wife, now remarried to a nobleman six years her junior), and raised an army of supporters against his stepfather.
Within weeks of his escape, James had issued a decree charging Angus with treason and requiring Angus to stay seven miles away from him. But that would not be the last of Angus. James’s conflict with his ex-stepfather was a long, drawn-out struggle lasting a full year. When James sought to convene a parliament session to officially strip Angus of his titles and lands, Angus sent 100 horsemen to Edinburgh in an attempt to prevent James from entering the city. James prevailed, and then, anxious to further prove his military capabilities, besieged Angus and his brother at their castle for 10 days, before calling off the unsuccessful attack, which led to Angus mocking James’s weakness as a warrior.
Eventually James managed to exile Angus to England, where Angus offered his services to his former brother-in-law Henry VIII. Angus would remain in England until James’s untimely death. James, for his part, would never forgive his ex-stepfather. He hated Angus and his family passionately for the rest of his life. Later, he charged Angus’s sister, Janet Douglas, with two counts of treason, including allegedly conspiring to poison him, and she was burned at the stake.
Unhappily for James, his victory over his ex-stepfather didn’t mark the last time he would be manipulated by others for self-serving political reasons. Pitscottie wrote that after 16-year-old James took the throne, powerful Catholic religious officials borrowed Angus’s well-worn tactics, convincing the teenage king that his sole focus should be sex. They even convinced him that there would be no moral repercussions — he could have unlimited sex with any woman in Scotland, as long as she was a noblewoman. Pitscottie despised Catholics, so his comments should be taken with a grain of salt, but according to his widely circulated account, the churchmen told James that “he might take his pleasure throughout all of Scotland and choose whatever gentlewoman he pleased, whether they were married or unmarried, and so spend his body upon them as he pleased, contrary to the command of God.”
The churchmen promised that they would write up special pardons to excuse James’s sins and say special prayers for his soul so that God would not be angry with him, convincing him that “he needed not to care for anything but his own pleasure.” By doing this, they sought to make James dependent on their unique holy power to engineer God’s forgiveness for his sexual exploits. And they plotted to accumulate spectacular wealth for themselves while keeping the king sexually fulfilled and distracted from politics. Pitscottie repeatedly used the Middle Scots term “abusit,” meaning “deceived” or “took advantage of,” to characterize the churchmen’s manipulation of James through their religious authority.
Unsurprisingly, the king had a number of illegitimate children — nine of whom we know about, all born to different mothers, and an unknown number not on record. Some of James’s mistresses were married to high-ranking Scottish noblemen during their relationships with the king, thanks to the religious officials’ assurance that he was allowed to sleep with married women. These married mistresses included Margaret Erskine, James’s favorite and one of the few people with whom James might have found genuine affection; Lyndsay referred to her as “The lady who loved you best.” Several years after the birth of their son, James tried unsuccessfully to secure her a divorce from her husband, even in the midst of his own more official marriage negotiations, because he wanted to marry her himself. When he was in Paris for talks regarding marriage to a French princess, members of his entourage reported that he was still writing letters home to Margaret Erskine.
The first of James’s out-of-wedlock children was born when the king was only 17, with another arriving when he was 18, and two more when he was 19. By the age of 21, he was the father of at least six children, and possibly more, since some of their birthdates are not recorded. His advisors, afraid he would contract syphilis or die without a legitimate heir, begged him to marry. He did eventually wed the 16-year-old French princess, but she died of tuberculosis within months of arriving in Scotland. He then married the smart and savvy Mary of Guise, a 22-year-old widowed French noblewoman, and they had a daughter, the famous Mary Queen of Scots.
James died soon afterward, of a sudden illness at the age of 30, shortly after suffering a humiliating defeat in battle while attempting to invade his uncle’s kingdom of England. His baby daughter was only six days old.
In addition to being a scandalous tale of sex and power, James’s life reminds us of the importance of thinking about the often-overlooked issue of young men’s consent, and underscores how consent can be exploited due to age, trust or lack of power. When James was a young teenager, Angus’s kinsmen were keeping an eye on the king’s every move in their royal household, holding positions as his carver, master of the wine cellar, and master of the larder. While these men might have viewed James’s freedom to be promiscuous as a positive thing, James may not necessarily have seen it that way. We don’t know if James himself actually wanted to have sex with all of these women starting at age 14 — which was right at the minimum legal age of marriage for young men at the time — and no one seems to have given that much thought.
James’s consent was manipulated repeatedly for the political gain of others: so that Angus and his cronies could be the most powerful people in Scotland for three years, and later, by the religious officials. And while James’s tutor Sir David Lyndsay in some ways seemed to be the one figure who actually cared about him, Lyndsay’s own actions, including writing multiple poems — later printed for the public, so that anyone could read them — disclosing intimate details of his pupil’s early sexual history, was a nonconsensual leak of private information by someone in a position of trust and authority over the king during his vulnerable teenage years.
Certainly, it’s important to note that the consent of James’s many sexual partners was also likely ignored. Many were daughters, wives or sisters of high-ranking noblemen. It’s impossible to know the extent to which these women were pressured or coerced into sleeping with James for their loved ones’ benefit, especially given James’s well-known penchant for awarding his illegitimate children with prestigious religious positions and lavish wealth. And the anecdote about James and a palace servant that Sir David Lyndsay shared when putting the king on blast for his sexual behavior is framed in ambiguous terms as a potential rape, with Lyndsay mockingly comparing the woman to a squealing pig.
James’s long-ago life raises enduring questions about age, power and consent, inviting us to rethink the traditional narrative of a young, promiscuous king happily sleeping his way through the realm. It also encourages us to reconsider how we discuss these types of issues today — I’m reminded of Justin Bieber’s recent regretful comments about his teenage sexual career, contrasted with how the media gleefully reported on every Brazilian brothel trip and new fling at the time. If there’s one thing that James V’s colorful life can tell us, it’s that age, power and consent are important issues that we need to keep grappling with carefully and thoughtfully, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.