New Book by William Hepburn on the Royal Court of James IV

This month, The Household and Court of James IV of Scotland, 1488-1513 is published by Boydell Press, volume 4 in the Scottish Historical Review Monograph Second Series. Jackson Armstrong asked the author, FLAG Research Fellow William Hepburn, some questions about the book.

It’s really exciting to have this new contribution to our understanding of medieval and renaissance Scotland. But let’s start with the fundamentals: what is a court and is it the same thing as household?

A lot of ink has been spilt on this at least as far back as Walter Map in the twelfth century who wrote, as a courtier of Henry II, that in a ‘spirit of perplexity I may say that in the court I exist and of the court I speak, but what the court is, God knows, I know not.’ My whole book is really about trying to find an answer to this question for the court of James IV. Broadly speaking, I argue that the court is the space around the king – wherever he may be – and the people who occupy it, while the household is an institution of paid officers which organises and serves the needs of the court.

What types of sources survive to tell us about the royal court in this period?

There are many sources which have some bearing on the history of the court, but some of the key sources for the court of James IV are two sets of financial records, the treasurer’s accounts, which record a rich variety of expenditure at court, and the exchequer rolls, which record the regular revenues and expenditures of the crown. In particular, the comptroller’s accounts included within the exchequer rolls provide vital evidence of the payment of fees to individuals for service in the household. James IV’s is the first Scottish reign from which the treasurer’s and comptroller’s accounts survive in substantial numbers. It is also the first from which a household ordinance of certain Scottish origin, the 1508 bill of household, survives. These prescriptive documents describe rules for the court, in this case largely concerned with who was entitled to be at court, and receive bed and board there, and the number of servants and subordinates they were allowed to have with them. In the process it provides a snapshot of the court and its structure at a moment in time. While the records of James IV’s court are rich compared to earlier Scottish kings, some of its European contemporaries, such as the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, are far better documented.

Was the Scottish royal court similar to other princely courts in Europe?

It was. As part of a European courtly culture and society it shared many of the same influences and actively exchanged goods, personnel and ideas with the other courts of Europe, perhaps most notably when Scottish kings married women from, for instance, France, Denmark and, in James IV’s case, England, who brought with them large entourages of their compatriots. The Scottish court was, however, much smaller than the courts in the neighbouring realms of France and England. Also, every court is unique, and heavily influenced by the personality of the ruler at its core. In James IV’s case, the king’s apparently gregarious personality seems to have made his court a playful and entertaining place, even as the games and entertainments held there were freighted with status opportunities for those involved.

How significant was the reign of James IV for developments within the royal court?

The nature of the surviving Scottish sources makes it difficult to discern long-lasting institutional changes at the Scottish court equivalent to the development of the royal chamber identified at the contemporary courts of the early Tudor monarchs of England. However, James IV’s reign was looked upon as something of a golden age in the decades that followed. The court was a key feature of this depiction, most famously in the words of the poet Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount, who had been at the court of James IV and celebrated it through his poetry as a courtier of James V. The example set by James IV’s court is also found in references to it in administrative records from James V’s reign. Indeed, one of the comptroller’s accounts from James IV’s reign only survives as a copy from the reign of his son, in which it provided an example for the officers of the later king to follow.

And of course, what about burghs – how urban was the royal court and what insights do burgh records offer?

The court was wherever the king was, and the king was often in, or near, towns. One of William Dunbar’s poems is based around the apparent distaste of courtiers for Stirling, where one of the king’s chief residences was located, compared to Edinburgh, located next to another of the king’s most-used palaces at Holyrood. Even in burghs that weren’t beside a royal palace there could be much interaction between town and court. Aberdeen’s rich records provide detail about royal visits, such as the gifts offered to monarchs when they visited, and the treasurer’s accounts can round out our picture of these occasions with evidence of royal spending in Aberdeen. One royal visit to Aberdeen, by James IV’s queen Margaret Tudor, is vividly recorded in a poem written for the occasion, again by William Dunbar. It describes how the burgh and its burgesses, lavishly dressed for the occasion, honoured the queen and the monarchy more broadly using tableaux constructed along the route of the queen’s entry to the town, including scenes such as a depiction of the vaunted Scottish king of yesteryear Robert I (Robert the Bruce).

Many congratulations on the publication!

The book is available in all good bookshops and directly from Boydell & Brewer.

New book out today! Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe

Today is the publication date of Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe: Scotland and its Neighbours c.1350–c.1650, a new collection of essays arising from the LACR project symposia. This volume, published by Routledge in the series Themes in Medieval and Early Modern History, is edited by Jackson Armstrong and Edda Frankot.

It includes an introduction and fourteen chapters written by sixteen contributors. Drawing together an international team of historians, lawyers and historical sociolinguists, this volume investigates urban cultures of law in Scotland, with a special focus on Aberdeen and its rich civic archive, the Low Countries, Norway, Germany and Poland from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century.

It’s now available for purchase in all good bookshops as a paperback, hardback and ebook, and directly from the publisher website at . Congratulations to all those who were involved in bringing this publication forward, from the symposia to today!

A blog post on this and another publication may be found at The Edinburgh Legal History Blog.

Volunteers build list of provosts, bailies and sergeands in the ARO

Aberdeen History grads Callum Judge (2020) and Sophia Nicol (2020) have created a working list of civic leaders in the burgh recorded in the Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511.

Sophia and Callum built the list over the summer months of 2020, supervised by Jackson Armstrong. The list was made primarily by identifying elections of provosts, bailies and sergeands which occurred annually at the Michaelmas Head Court, or ‘curia capitalis’, held around 29 September, usually in early October.

Some 756 names of officers who served in the civic administration have been included – many individual people holding office on more than one occasion.

‘electus fuit in officium aldermanni’

The provost, or alderman, was the lead representative of the burgh. The provost was the administrative predecessor of today’s Lord Provost. The bailies had a range of duties, principally relating to justice and land. They presided over their own court, and oversaw the administration of land transactions. The sergeands (sometimes called bedels) were responsible for carrying out the execution of justice in the burgh courts, for instance in issuing summonses and collecting certain penalties. The electorate who chose these officials consisted of the burgesses of the town.

An exhaustive, final tally of all mentions of these officers in the ARO was not the intention in compiling this list. It is a working list – a first version which can be augmented and updated over time. There is not always an election recorded for each year in the ARO, and of course records for 1414-1433 have been missing for more than two centuries. Future work could include capturing additional references to these categories of officers in the corpus, and creating new lists of numerous other figures, such as deans of guild, council members, liners, ale tasters, meat apprisers, and more.

The list may be found here: Working list of provosts, bailies and sergeands in the Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511. It is freely available to all as the first of a set of auxiliary resources to accompany the ARO.

Good spirits: the earliest record of a still for aquavite in Scotland


Entry ARO-8-0466-02 appears on the left-hand page. Photo credit: Sarah Christie/University of Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511 contains an entry which mentions ‘ane stellatour for aquavite and ros wattir’. This is the earliest record of a still for aquavite in Scotland. It is in ARO-8-0466-02, from a case heard in 1505 by the bailies concerning the inheritance of goods belonging to a chaplain called Sir Andrew Gray, who died in 1504.

The find was made by Dr Claire Hawes during the transcription phase of the project  when Claire was working through register volume eight.

The reference enriches our understanding of the early development of Scotch whisky, placing the apparatus for making aquavite in the renaissance burgh, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aquavite in Scotland within the court of King James IV.

We are delighted to announce a gift of £15,000 in funding from Chivas Brothers, a company with historic connections to Aberdeen and which owns some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries including The Glenlivet and Aberlour. That gift will fund new research into the still and associated stories in the ARO.

For more information see today’s press release and videos for social media: Was Aberdeen the birthplace of Scotch Whisky?



The Still in context: a list of early references related to aquavite in Scotland


ARO-8-0466-02 detail. Photo credit: Sarah Christie/University of Aberdeen.

The following is a compilation of early references related to aquavite in Scotland:

Distillation of alcohol was an ancient scientific practice which came to be established in Europe by the twelfth century (especially at Salerno and Cologne).

1494-5 (ER, x, p. 487) Account of the chamberlain of the sheriffdom of Fife: ‘Et per liberacionem factam fratri Johanni Cor per preceptum compotorum rotulatoris, ut asserit, de mandata domini regis ad faciendum aqua vite infra hoc compotum, viij bolle brasii’ [=payment made to Friar John Cor for eight bolls of malt for making ‘aqua vite’].

1497 (TA, i, p. 373) ‘Item, to the barbour that brocht aqua vite to the King in Dunde, be the Kingis command ix s’.

1501 (TA, ii, p. 115) ‘Item, for I galloun of aqua vite to the powder, xxs iiij d’.

1503 (TA, ii, p. 361) ‘Item, for v ½ chopinnis of aqua vite to the curyis of quinta essencia xj s’.

1503 (TA, ii, p. 363) ‘Item, to the maister cuke, that he laid doun for glasses and flacatis for stilling of wateres and othir stuf, and for fire to the stillatouris, iij li. xiiij s’.

1505 (ARO-8-0466-02) ‘The saide day [20 June 1505] It was fundin and deliuerit be ane Inquest of the court that ane stellatour’ for aquavite and ros’ wattir was ayrschipe tharfor the balyeis ordanit and chargit george barbour’ to deliuere the stellatour’ being in his handis pertening tile vmquhile sere Androw gray to mastir Androw crafurd’ procurator to dene Robert Keruour’ ayr to the saide vmquhile ser Androu’.

1505 (Edin. Recs, i, pp. 101-104) Seal of Cause to Barbers and Surgeons, by the provost, bailies & council of Edinburgh [1 July 1505], including that no man ‘within this burgh mak nor sell ony aquavite within the samyn except the saidis maisteris brether and friemen of the saidis craftis…’

1506 (TA, iii, p. 183) ‘For aqua vite to the quinta essencia’; (TA, iii, p. 187) ‘Robert Herwort for aqua vitae taken from him, 14s’; (TA, iii, p. 188) ‘for vij quartis aqua vite to quinta essencia’; (TA, iii, pp. 332, 343, 344) further payments listed, &c.

1507 (TA, iv, p. 79) ‘wyne to the abbot of Tungland [=John Damien] to mak quinta essencia’; (TA, iv, p. 92) ‘Payit to William Foular, potingair, for potingary to the king and quene, distillatioun of wateris aqua vite’;

1508 (TA, iv, p. 122) ‘j galloun small aqua vite to the abbot of Tungland’ [=John Damien]; (TA, iv, p. 137) ‘For making of ane bos hed to ane stellatour of silvir weyand x unce iij quartaris of his aun stuf deliverit to Maister Alexander Ogilvy for quinta essencia’;

1518 (Reg. Episc. Aberd., ii, p. 174) [inventory of items in the wardrobe of Bishop Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen] ‘…The pypis of ane aqua vite falt’.

Date unknown. (Kelso Liber, ii, p. 448) A treatise on plague was composed by John of Burgundy about 1390, the original referring to eaue distilacion and eaue des herbes. A copy of the treatise was held at Kelso Abbey. A short, undated, translation into Middle Scots was kept at Kelso and that refers to ‘water stillit of thir iiij herbys…’. Neither the original nor the translation mentions eau de vie / aqua vitae, or alcohol.

Link here to the main post about the aquavite still.

Sources (in addition to Aberdeen Registers Online):

[Edin. Recs.] Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1403-1528, ed. J. D. Marwick (Edinburgh, 1869)

[ER] The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, ed. J. Stuart et al., 23 vols (Edinburgh, 1878–1908)

[Kelso Liber] Liber S. Marie de Calchou, ed. C. Innes, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1846)

[Reg. Episc. Aberd.] Registrum episcopatus Aberdonensis: ecclesia cathedralis aberdonensis: regesta que extant in unum collecta, ed. C. Innes, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1845)

[TA] Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1473–1498, ed. T. Dickson and J.B. Paul et al., 13 vols (Edinburgh, 1877–1978)

New UK guide to Archive and Higher Education collaboration

New national guidance has been published by The National Archives (TNA) in partnership with History UK: the ‘Guide to Collaboration between the Archive and Higher Education Sectors’.

LACR and the wider Aberdeen Burgh Records Project feature in two case studies within the guidance, launched this summer. One is entitled ‘From cooperation to coordination – developing collaborative working’, and the other is entitled ‘Not another database: digital humanities in action’.

TNA’s Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) and History UK have worked together to write this new guidance in the 2018 edition. This refreshes the original guidance of 2015 which was developed with TNA and Research Libraries UK. Its aim is to improve collaboration between archives and academic institutions of all kinds.

In addition to case studies of collaboration from across the archives and higher education sectors, the refreshed guidance includes:

  • Practical ways to identify, develop and sustain cross-sector collaborations
  • Insights into the drivers, initiatives, support, and language of the archives and higher education sectors
  • Explanations on how to understand outputs and outcomes, and organisational and project priorities
  • Guidance on measuring impact in cross-sector collaborations
  • An outline of recent updates to REF, TEF and Research Councils

For a short introduction to the guidance see this link given here. The LACR team – a strong Archives-HE collaboration itself – is delighted to have the project involved in this new guide!

Special section published in Urban History: “Communities, courts and Scottish towns”

This month sees the publication in Urban History (Volume 44 – Issue 3 August 2017) of a special section entitled ‘Communities, courts and Scottish towns’. Co-edited by Andrew Mackillop and Jackson W. Armstrong, it features the following articles:

Jackson W. Armstrong and Andrew Mackillop, ‘Introduction: communities, courts and Scottish towns’. The section editors set the stage for three essays which examine changing features of pre-modern political society between the fifteenth century and the early nineteenth century, and the construction and sometimes contested use of vocabularies of law and authority, privileges and liberties, and ideas of urban ‘community’.

Claire Hawes, ‘The urban community in fifteenth-century Scotland: language, law and political practice’. This article seeks to provoke discussion of the political culture of Scotland’s late medieval towns through an analysis of communitarian language and its use by urban elites. Hawes argues that the Scottish urban community, as elsewhere, could be positioned as a location, a legal construct and a group of people. This provided the burgh council with a variety of political tools which could be employed – consciously or otherwise – in order to legitimize its authority.

Bob Harris, ‘Scots burghs, ‘privilege’ and the Court of Session in the eighteenth century’. This piece explores the propensity of Scottish burghs to resort to legal redress in Scotland’s leading civil court. Harris traces what this can tell us both about urban identity and the constitution of urban community in this period, and he opens up an examination of the role which the law may have played in the re-constitution and re-shaping of urban community.

Andrew Mackillop, ‘Riots and reform: burgh authority, the languages of civic reform and the Aberdeen riot of 1785′. This article explores the understudied riots which occurred in Aberdeen in mid-October 1785. Mackillop charts the climate of politicization that characterized the burgh’s civic life in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution and before the outbreak of the equivalent process in France.

The special section arises as part of the wider Aberdeen Burgh Records Project in RIISS (, and we are delighted to see these articles feature in Urban History.

The articles and further information may be found at: