Saturday, April 27, 2019

NetGalley ARC: The Afterlife of King James IV: Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King


I received a free digital ARC from the publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Rating 3 Stars

Scotland is endlessly fascinating, especially when we get down to how Scotland became Scotland, right on up to about the time ol' James VI said "See ya!" and left for London, never to return. (Kind of foolish if you ask me. I like London, but I LOVE Edinburgh. I don't think I would have liked either, however, in the 1600s.)

This book centers on a James who did stick around - until he was killed in battle at Flodden in 1513, at least (and may have hung around even longer than that, depending on what whispers you believe). It is not about his life, however, but about his afterlife, his legacy. It deals with a variety of aspects, dealing with both historical facts and legends/folklore about the dead king.

I should make clear from the start that this book assumes the reader has some knowledge already of Scottish history, which luckily I have, but the book might be off-putting for those who have none. I don't mean to imply that you must have read #ALLTHEBOOKS about Scotland, but some knowledge is helpful - at least about this period. It makes so much more sense when you understand the dynamic between Scotland and England at the time. New readers of the period might find it odd when they learn that James IV's wife Margaret is the sister of Henry VIII. You know, the same guy who sent the army to fight at Flodden after both kings had agreed not to attack one another (as part of the marriage agreement) - but then James goes and does it anyway because Henry was at war with France, causing not Henry, but his true queen and wife Catherine of Aragon to command the military to engage the enemy (Henry was actually in France at the time and left Catherine in charge - obviously because she was a badass who got shit done.) The era was complex and dangerous and confusing. Some previous knowledge is necessary.

Coleman explores the myths, legends, and conspiracy theories that abounded after James IV supposedly met his end in battle against the English at Flodden, as did many of his nobles. While the nobility was pretty well decimated in the rout, there was always a lingering question about whether or not James actually survived. The reaction to the news of the king's death makes sense to me - especially a king who was well-liked among his people. Not only did this traumatic event occur, once again having to battle with the English armies, but to lose your king - it would certainly have provided comfort and hope to believe that maybe, just maybe, he lived and will return. Of course, that didn't actually happen - or at least, he never returned.

There were some problems for me within the text, and part of it has to do with the writing itself. It felt like it started off very well, with the historical bits, but as it went on it took me a bit longer than I anticipated to actually get into the story once the lore started to appear. There were some parts I ended up skimming, as it felt like kind of overloaded, and certain parts felt bogged down and repetitive.

I appreciated that this was not simply ghost stories and far-fetched lore. There is plenty of historical fact to ground the reader, before the legends and stories make their appearance. I think that aspect is always crucial for books like this, as it makes the historical figure a much more real person, not simply someone who died so long ago that we can't even imagine them being a living person anymore. It is obvious that the author has done his research and knows his subject well, both the facts and the folklore.

The reason for all the hubbub about the possible afterlife of James IV comes down to a chain of iron. You see, James IV essentially became the figurehead of the rebellion against his father, who was murdered in 1488. It is said that though he did not murder his father or have a direct hand in it - even that he had forbidden any harm come to his father - James IV felt a deep guilt for the death of James III, and that every year during Lent for the rest of his life, he wore a heavy iron chain around his waist, and added weight each year. Yet, when James IV's body was supposedly recovered at Flodden, the corpse wore no iron chain. This gave rise to many rumors - that he escaped and was killed a short time later, that he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, that he became a hermit, and so on and so on. There are plenty of stories on the other side of the spectrum though too, those who believe he was killed on the field, or a short time later, and involving the final resting place of the battered corpse. (Hint: he was buried multiple times in multiple places, often at the same time. Because, of course.)

In the end, I still recommend this read, though it took me longer to get through than I first anticipated.

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