The Battle of Flodden

Memorial at Flodden Field
Memorial at Flodden Field

It’s the year 1513 and King James IV of Scotland is in a real bind. Back in 1290, Edward I of England claimed feudal lordship over Scotland. In order to ward off a takeover by England, John Balliol, King of Scots and the Scottish nobles had negotiated the “Auld Alliance” with Philip IV of France in 1295. The terms of the agreement specified if Scotland or France was attacked by England, the other country would assault England. So James is compelled to adhere to these terms.

In 1502, after numerous skirmishes between Scotland and England, King Henry VII had negotiated the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with James which culminated in James’ marriage to Henry VII’s daughter Margaret Tudor. When King Henry VII died, he was succeeded by his son, Henry VIII. Shortly after Henry’s coronation, on June 29, 1509, the Treaty of Perpetual Peace between England and Scotland was confirmed by James with the Great Seal of Scotland. There was no way James could honor both treaties.

King James IV of Scotland

Henry made no secret of his ambition to regain the Angevin Empire. Within five years of his coronation, he was planning on war with France. James was in an unenviable position. The English King tried to extract a promise from James that he would keep the peace with England. Henry even recruited his sister to try to persuade her husband not to invade England while he was away in France. At the same time, Anne of Brittany, Queen of France was writing James, asking him to be her knight in shining armor and attack England. In the end, against the advice of his councilors, James decided to attack England. In August of 1513, James IV’s herald presented King Henry VIII with a written declaration of war.

The history of fighting between Scotland and England had been contentious for centuries. The English longbow had done devastating damage during some battles in Scotland and France. But this had changed in the late fifteenth century with advances made in full plate armor. The new suits were articulated, light, flexible and protected every part of the body. James had started a factory of sorts and recruited French armorers to supervise the production of suits. He had imported armor from France and the Netherlands. While the regular soldier did not have the armor, James and his noblemen and their retainers did.

Technology in field artillery had also seen changes. The early guns were built of iron and were heavy and cumbersome. They were mostly used in siege operations against castle walls. The new cannon were made of bronze, were lighter and maneuverable. James had invested heavily in the new machines. His army was lacking in cavalry but his infantry was geared up to fight in the method of the highly organized Swiss, in a phalanx marching in echelon wedge formation with eighteen foot long pikes. In previous battles, the Scots had used a shorter spear. On top of all this, the best of Henry VIII’s troops were in France. James had reason to be optimistic.

A painting showing the English bill, the weapon used by the English at the Battle of Flodden
A painting showing the English bill, the weapon used by the English at the Battle of Flodden

Henry’s northern army was under the command of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and was composed of feudal levy bowman, reserves and infantry armed with the shorter English bill. The bill had an advantage during fighting at close quarters because it had an axe-head on its side that could be used to hew at the Scottish pikes. It also had a hook on it which could be used to pull a knight off his horse or grab an ankle of a foot soldier and pull him down.

After attacking a few castles, James gathered his troops in a formidable position with his back to Scotland on Flodden Edge, just across the border in England. The hill was nearly a mile long. One side of the troop’s position was secured by marshy ground. On the other side, the ground sloped away steeply toward the River Till, a tributary of the River Tweed. James positioned the artillery behind trenches. The only line of attack for the English was from the south in open country.

Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and commander of the English at the Battle of Flodden

The Earl of Surrey was a seasoned veteran and he immediately recognized the superior Scottish position. He was running short on provisions and feared his levies might abandon their duties if there was no immediate battle. He decided to take a huge risk and march around James’ position and outflank them. He concluded his march early in the morning of Friday, September 9, effectively positioning himself between the Scots and the River Tweed. James countered by abandoning his position, turned his army about and took a new position on Branxton Hill. The two armies were now the wrong way around, James with his back to England and Surrey with his back to Scotland. Now combat was inevitable.

The Scots still seemed to have the superior position as they were on high ground. The Scottish troops were fresh and the English has just concluded a long march. Although Branxton Hill was not as high as Flodden Ridge, the English would still have to attack uphill. James’ plan was to start firing the artillery, drawing the English to attack, then launch his troops in the echelon formation and push back the disordered English. This was a good plan in theory. But reality was a different matter.

An example of the echelon formation
An example of the echelon formation

The Scottish artillery fired more slowly than the English cannon. And, because they were firing downhill, the cannonballs were lodging themselves into the earth instead of bouncing and doing damage. In the meantime, the English began firing their artillery at the phalanxes of Scottish pike men from about six hundred yards away. James recognized his predicament immediately and had two choices. He could withdraw behind the hill, out of the range of the guns and draw the English up the hill or he could make an all-out attack. Because of his superior numbers, he decided to attack.

James exposed himself by leading one of the columns of pike men. One of the wings of attack was triumphant and the other wing was soundly beaten. The heat of the battle was in the middle where the King was fighting. But disaster was waiting in the form of a small, invisible stream at the bottom of the hill. It wasn’t a wide stream – a man could jump across it but an army was a different matter. To get to the English, crossing the stream caused the momentum to come to a standstill. Instead of being an organized column it became asymmetrical and the fighting turned into frantic hand-to-hand combat. The multipurpose English bills overwhelmed the Scottish pikes. Some of the Scots in the rear abandoned the fight. The archers, who had struggled in the wind and rain, were able to get around the Scottish flank and fire at close range doing fatal damage.

The Scots had lost all advantage and were in a desperate fight for their lives. James led a charge, moving towards Surrey’s banners, and was slain within close range of the Earl. The fighting lasted until nightfall and beyond the field, English cavalry chased escaping Scots. The King’s favorite illegitimate son Alexander, Archbishop of St. Andrews was killed. Of the twenty-one fighting earls on the field, nine died along with fourteen other lords of Parliament. At least three hundred knights and lairds fell. It’s estimated somewhere between five thousand and seventeen thousand Scots lost their life in the Battle of Flodden. Only fifteen hundred Englishmen were lost.

James’ body was taken to Berwick, embalmed and put in a lead coffin. The coffin was taken to London and placed in the monastery at Sheen near Richmond. Henry VIII was to decide where to bury his brother-in-law but he never issued orders. The body remained in a storeroom and disappeared during the Dissolution of the Monasteries about twenty years later. Before the battle, Queen Margaret had a premonition her husband would die in the fight. Henry’s Queen, Catherine of Aragon took possession of James’ bloody jacket from the battle and sent the grisly souvenir to King Henry in France and suggested he use it as a battle banner.

Further reading: “The Royal Stuarts” by Allan Massie, “The Sisters of Henry VIII” by Maria Perry, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “Flodden (Revealing History)” by Niall Barr