The Battle of Flodden – 500th anniversary this week!

On September 9th, 1513, King James IV of Scotland led his army into battle at Flodden, a short distance over the River Tweed into England. One of the most popular and promising of Scotland’s Kings, King James had assembled one of Scotland’s largest ever largest armies.

Having signed treaties of perpetual peace with both Henry VIII of England and Louis XII of France, King James was in a tricky position when England and France went to war. However there seemed little option but to support France, since Henry VIII was making aggressive noises about being Scotland’s overlord, and doing nothing to discourage attacks on Scottish shipping, and through alliance with the papacy had managed to get King James excommunicated.

So King James assembled his fleet through August, and set sail from Edinburgh, around the north of Scotland and down the west coast, James leaving the fleet at the Isle of May, off Fife. The intention was to provide aid to King Louis by attacking the English fleet off France. King James also decided to aid France by raising an army at Edinburgh, which was summoned to Ellem in Berwickshire.

The English commanders in the north were worried, and Lord Dacre wrote to Henry asking that he buy the Scots off, and hopefully delay invasion until the campaigning season was over. The English lieutenant in the north, the Earl of Surrey, was based at Pontefract, and too far away to provide support. Added to this, a number of English border towers had been destroyed in 1496-7 and had not been repaired. There seemed little to stop the Scottish army ravaging the north-east of England.

James had brought with him artillery, aiming to capture the castle of Norham, a long-term target that had been unsuccessfully attacked in 1463, 1496 and 1497. He allowed three weeks for its reduction, but only needed five days, destroying parts of it straight away. Seeing little point in allowing Surrey to come north to retake it, he sent for more ammunition, and moved south, taking the towers of Etal and Ford on the way. By early September, they were encamped at a strong site on Flodden Edge.

Surrey was on his way, and at Alnwick on 4th September, his son joined him with a thousand men taken from France, thereby successfully supporting King Louis. James, with his gunners paid until the 9th, an immensely strong and probably well-supplied army, and a superior position, was not in any mood to retreat. Challenges and counter-challenges passed between the two armies, but James would not move.

Surrey had to find a way to move the Scots, because their position on Flodden Edge was all but unassailable. So, on the 8th, he moved his army, heading north, then south and west, blocking King James’ path homewards. The Scots had to try to reach the high ground overlooking Surrey’s army before the English did, and aimed for Branxton Hill on the 9th. In the afternoon, battle was joined, between two armies of similar size.

James’ infantry was armed with pikes, some twenty feet long, and in the wind and rain, found them impossible to manoeuvre with. When broken, the Scots were forced to fight with swords against halberds. The Scottish artillery could not be used, and neither could the English archers, meaning that it was an out-and-out slugging match between the pikemen and the halberdiers. Only two groups of Scots were successful, the divisions of Lord Hume, and the Earl of Huntly, who were prevented from coming to the aid of their fellows by the English cavalry, and fled the field.

At the top of Branxton Hill, the divisions of Surrey and King James had clashed, Surrey’s being victorious. In the melee, King James had been struck by an arrow, and struck by a halberd, and was lying dead on the field near his fallen standard. Alongside him were the majority of the high nobility of Scotland, including nine earls and fourteen lords of parliament, the archbishop, a bishop and two abbots. But most damaging of all, the King himself was dead. From a position of power and confidence, with a King at the height of his authority nationally and internationally, Scotland once again had a child-monarch. Except that this time, there were precious few with experience of government left to guide the minority.

With Henry VIII on the English throne, and his sister the Queen-mother of Scotland’s King, the future of Scotland looked bleak. The battle of Flodden on 9th September 1513 was truly one of Scotland’s blackest days.