Battle of Flodden

Battle of Flodden & Rule of James IV

It was the most awful moment in our history - the day when the flower of the nation's nobility perished in the last great battle between an independent Scotland and England.

The Battle of Flodden in 1513 was the most devastating clash ever between the two nations. But this time, the Scots ended up as losers, and their defeat dealt a crushing body blow which lasted for decades.

In one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on British soil, between 10,000 and 12,000 Scottish soldiers died. They included the king, James IV, an archbishop, two bishops, 10 abbots, 12 earls and 15 Lords. The scale of the carnage was such that hardly a family in Scotland did not lose someone in the fight.

Yet the greatest tragedy of Flodden was that it was a battle which need not have been fought at all. It only came about because of our Auld Alliance with the French - a sort of medieval NATO pact which meant that we were obliged to help them out by taking on the English on their behalf.

The Auld Alliance had first been signed in 1295 at the time of William Wallace. The king on whose behalf Wallace had fought, John Balliol, renounced his allegiance to Edward and negotiated a pact with the French instead. The pact was renewed periodically, and was still in force when James IV came to the throne in 1488.

The deal between the two countries always benefited France more than it did Scotland - there is no record of French troops ever having fought in any numbers during this time north of the border - but the fierce fighting abilities of the Scots were well regarded by our allies.

Scottish soldiers fought against the English in France during the hundred years' war and gained a reputation for leaving the battlefield last - if they left at all. There were also occasions, such as the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346, when the Scots marched into England and attacked to try and divert the English from their battles with France.

James IV was a tough but fair king who was determined to strengthen his kingdom and to build up its military power. He tried to bring the Highlands under his control, ordering the forfeiture of the powerful lordship of the isles in 1493 and ensured that everyone had weapons according to their status.

James was particularly keen on building up the navy. He saw Scotland as a great seafaring power and even thought that Scots could join the crusades against the infidel Turks, although the other European nations never took this particularly seriously.

He ordered every Scottish burgh to provide a boat of 20 tons in weight. However, the crowning glory of the age was The Great Michael, a warship built at a specially constructed dockyard at Newhaven near Edinburgh. At 240 feet long and with the ability to carry 420 gunners, it was ridiculously oversized - its construction is said to have used up all the forests in Fife - but it certainly helped to boost the king's ego.

Despite the auld alliance and James' formidable military machine, Scotland and England were actually enjoying a period of relative peace with each other. The English king, Henry VII, was really only interested in keeping his throne and did not want to start another fight with his northern neighbours. He even went as far as to marry off his eldest daughter, Margaret Tudor, to James in 1503. The two kings then became blood relations, so helping to assure stability.

However, this all changed when Henry died in 1509, to be replaced by the much more belligerent Henry VIII. The new king regarded James's navy as little more than a piracy fleet and started to attack Scottish vessels, but his main concern was with France.

Henry decided to move against the French as part of an international offensive which had the backing of the Pope. James had a so-called perpetual treaty of friendship with England, but neither he nor Henry - who remained his brother-in-law - had bothered much with it and James was infuriated by the attack on his vessels by the English navy.

The result was that James decided to stick by the terms of the auld alliance. Seeing that was between England and France was coming, he tried to make diplomatic moves to head it off, but to no avail. War between the two countries finally broke out in 1512 and James felt obliged to support the French cause.

The Scottish king despatched his fleet - including The Great Michael - in support of the French. More importantly, however, he marched across the border into Northumberland with the aim of creating a diversion for the English forces on their home soil, so taking some of the pressure off France.

James crossed the River Tweed at Coldstream and took Norham Castle and a number of other strongpoints until he finally occupied a fortified position on Flodden Edge, near the village of Branxton, overlooking the River Till, a subsidiary of the Tweed.

However, the English were well prepared for the Scottish invasion. Henry had left Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, in charge of the defence of the country while he was fighting in France. Surrey marched north with an army of 30,000 men - numerically about the same as that of the Scots - and the two armies met at Flodden on Friday 9 September 1513.

James actually watched the English from the high ground he occupied, but for some reason he decided against attacking them at this stage, when they were at their most vulnerable. Instead he ordered camp refuse to be burned, creating a wall of smoke behind which he moved his army from Flodden Hill to the nearby Branxton Hill.

It was a clever move, because it left the English having to cross a large marshy area to get to the Scots, who were still above them. James thought the English would tire tramping through the marsh, but he didn't realise that there was a bridge across, which Surrey's army found and used.

It was 4pm on a wet day when the Scots finally opened fire on the English below. But it started to go wrong for the Scottish army almost straightaway. The gunners were equipped with new and cumbersome artillery pieces, but they were unable to handle them and missed their targets. The English attacked with much greater precision, blowing the Scots gunners to pieces.

James gave the order to charge, and his army came off the hill in a mass. They initially attacked what they thought was a weak point on the right flank, but it was quickly reinforced. At the base of the hill, the Scots were slowed down by a ridge and an area of bog and lost their momentum.

In the hand to hand fighting which followed, the Scots could not match the superior English equipment. The 15-foot-long Scottish spears were ineffective compared to the long halberds and eight-food blades of the English. In just two hours, some 10,000 Scots lay dead.

Among them was the king himself. James had been impatient to get involved in the action, and impulsively charged directly towards the Earl of Surrey. As he aimed for the English banners, he was felled from his horse and slaughtered, His body was so badly mutilated that it was not recognised until the next day.

Flodden was not a one sided victory - Surrey also suffered huge losses, and the English did not try to follow up on their victory by pushing north into Scotland. In that sense, it was a stand-off, and the Scots never had the opportunity to avenge their terrible defeat.

The consequences of Flodden were massive. Scotland lost so many of its nobles and fighting men that from then on, there was never again any rush to fight the English. After 200 years of war, there was a recognition that a Scottish army could never again beat its mightier and bigger neighbour. From then on, rather than seeking military conflict with England - though plenty of battles still took place - Scots tried to avoid it at all costs.

One of the greatest ironies of all is that Henry VIII, whose fight against the French caused Flodden, made peace with France only a few months later. It was a peace in which Scotland, through the auld alliance, was included.

Today, a few miles south of the border, the site of the battle can still be seen, set among the rolling hill country of north Northumberland. A large granite cross stands in commemoration to the fallen, inscribed with the simple, impartial and deeply moving words: "To the brave of both nations."

Resources: Remembering Flodden

Meanwhile...

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  • 1512 Copernicus publishes his "Commentariolus" stating that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun
  • 1514 The Portuguese are the first Europeans to sail in Chinese waters

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