The Battle of Flodden was fought on the 9th September 1513 near the village of Branxton, in Northumberland when a Scottish army under the command of king James IV of Scotland invaded England in support of their French alliance as king Henry VIII of England was otherwised engaged on the continent.

The battle was originally known (to the English at least) as the battle of Branxton Moor, since that is where the battle actually took place, but following the publication of Walter Scott's work, 'Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field in Six Cantos' it has been more popularly known as the 'Battle of Flodden'. (Field is of course a poetic synonym for battle (as in Flanders Field where the poppies grew) hence the 'battle of Flodden Field' as the battle is sometimes known is pure tautology.

The background to the battle

Early on in his reign king Henry VIII had joined the Holy League together with Venice, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire to defend the Papacy against the depredations of Louis XII of France. It was as a result of this alliance that in the summer of 1513 Henry led an army of 30,000 in an invasion of France during which he captured the towns of Therouanne and Tournai.

This excited the passions of the young king James IV of Scotland. Invoking the 'Auld Alliance' with France, on the 26 July 1513, James IV sent an ambassador to Henry, who was at Therouanne, and threatened to invade England unless Henry agreed to withdraw from France. Henry contemptuously dismissed the Scottish threat with the words "We cannot maruayle, considering the ancient accustomable manners of your progenitors, which neuer kept lenger faythe and promise than pleased them".

And so during the August of 1513 James began assembling an army at Boroughmuir near Edinburgh (now apparently the suburb known as Morningside) with a view to making good his promise and invading England. Almost every representative of the Scottish nobility answered the kings call and came with their men ready to do battle against the old enemy. The Scots army was also to include a small contingent of men under the command of the Count d’Aussi, sent by the French to provide technical assistance to the Scots particularly in the matter of gunnery.

The army entered England on the 22nd of August 1513, and began laying siege to Norham castle, which soon fell as did Ark Castle soon afterwards. The Scottish army then moved on to Ford Castle (more accurately a fortified house) where it was said that James was taken by the attractions of the Lady Ford. Both castle and lady surrendered to James who decided to spend a few days at Ford to enjoy his conquests.

The English response

Henry VIII had appointed the 70 year old Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey as his Lord Lieutenant of the North, and it was to this Thomas that now fell the responsibility for defending England from this latest Scottish incursion. Since most of the best troops and experienced commanders were already in France, Thomas had to hunt around where he could for men to furnish an army to challenge the Scots invasion (he was fortunate as James' dalliance at Ford gave him the time to do so.) It turned out to be something of a family affair as his eldest son Thomas Howard, Admiral of England, turned up with a 1,000 men from the fleet, accompanied by another son Edmund Howard. The one notable non-Howard recruit was the fifty year old Edward Stanley, uncle to Thomas Stanley, 2nd Earl of Derby who was of course in France at the time with everybody else.

There followed perhaps one of the most curious features of the whole affair, namely the correspondence between the elder Thomas Howard and king James. On the 4th of September, the English commander wrote to James formally challenging him to a pitched battle, an offer which James was happy to accept. (Ignoring the advice of his more experienced counsellors who urged him to adopt the traditional Scottish strategy of looting and pillaging and the avoidance of a pitched battle, followed by a strategic withdrawal north.)

Indeed James, whose ideas of battle appeared to be derived more from Arthurian romance rather than the harsh reality of sixteenth century warfare, even offered to meet the Earl of Surrey in single combat to decide the issue. (The septegenerian Thomas Howard politely declined the offer.) But having accepted the offer of battle, on the 6th of September James abandoned Ford Castle and the attractions of the Lady Ford, and moved south to occupy Flodden Hill in Northumberland where he proposed to do battle with the English. By now the Scottish army had shrunk somewhat in size, as the shortage of supplies encouraged many Scots to return home, but it remained a sizeable force with about 30,000 men supported by artillery.

Before the battle

By the 9th September the Scottish army was well dug in on Flodden Hill with their heavy guns facing south towards Milfield Plain and covering the obvious approach from the south. Obvious that is, to anyone except Thomas Howard who seems to have concluded that it would be foolish to attack such a well defended position.

Howard complained to James about this choice of ground, describing the Scottish position at Flodden as "more like a fortress or camp" than the "indifferent ground" on which he believed a 'fair' battle could be fought. He issued a second challenge to James to come down from his fortified position and fight on Millfield Plain, but this offer was disregarded.

Thomas Howard's strategy was therefore to try and tempt the Scots to abandon Flodden Hill and in pursuit of this end, decided to place the English army across the Scottish line of retreat, threatening to cut their lines of communication. This involved a somewhat daring outflanking manouever by which Thomas Howard marched his men down the right bank of the river Till until they reached Twisel Bridge, where they crossed the river and and then marched up the opposite bank and around to the rear of the Scots.

This he accomplished on the morning of the 9th September, and although the manouever was carried out in full view of the Scottish army he was greatly assisted by the bad weather as strong winds and heavy rain provided some degree of natural cover.

After crossing the river Till the English army then had to make its way, via a causeway, across a stretch of bog, before beginning their deployment just to the south of the village of Branxton. Faced with this development sometime around mid-day the Scots abandonded their south-facing position on Flodden Hill, made a complete about face and occupied nearby Branxton Hill facing north to meet the English army.

Thus Thomas Howard achieved his objective by forcing the Scots to abandon their defensive redoubt on Flodden Hill and move down to the lower and far more accessible Branxton Hill. There the Scots army was organised into five columns, four in the line and one in reserve.

The left flank comprised a troop of Borderers, commanded by Lord Home together with the Highlanders commanded by the Earl Huntly. Immediately to their right where the men of the Earl of Errol, together with the Earls of Crawford and Montrose. Next was the main column under the personal command of James IV himself, supported by the Earl of Cassilis, the Earl of Glencairn and the Lords Herries and Maxwell. Finally on the right flank was another force of Highlanders under the command of the Earls of Argyll and Lennox. The rearguard or reserve column consisted of a force of Lothians under the command of the Earl of Bothwell, together with the French contingent led by the Count d’Aussi.

English forces were similarly organised into five divisions; the elder Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey commanded the left flank opposite the Scottish king, the younger Thomas Howard took the centre and Edmund Howard the right flank. The fouth division, a force of 3,000 Border Lances under the command of Lord Dacre was kept in reserve, whilst the fifth under Edward Stanley had yet to arrive on the battlefield but was intended to take up position against Argyll's highlanders.

The battle on the moor

The two armies now stood about a mile apart separated by a stretch of boggy ground known as Branxton Moor. The weather was atrocious as it had been all day, combining a thick mist and heavy rain driven by high winds, but neither side was prepared to allow such trivialities to interfere with the business at hand.

The battle itself began at four o'clock in the afternoon of that day, when both sides opened fire with their artillery. It seems that the English got the better of these initial exchanges due to the technical superiority of their cannon and the difficulties the Scots faced in depressing their cannon sufficiently to enough to shoot downhill at the English lines.

The scale of casualties inflicted on the Scottish ranks encouraged the Scots to move to close quarters and Hume’s Borderers and Huntly’s Highlanders surged towards Edmund Howard’s men and soon got the better of them. Indeed the English right was very close to collapse and was only saved when Thomas Howard ordered Dacre's cavalry to charge the Scottish left. This persuaded the Scottish left to fall back, after which they decided that, having done their bit for the cause, the rest of the day was their own, and began looting the English casualties and took no further part in the battle.

The column of the Earls of Errol, Crawford and Montrose then descended Branxton Hill in emulation of their countrymen to take on the column of the younger Thomas Howard, the Admiral. Unfortunately this force of Scots were largely armed with 18-foot long pikes, somewhat bulky and heavy weapons which proved to be an encumbrance in the marshy ground of Branxton Moor. As these Scots stumbled towards the English lines they made good targets for English cannon and longbowmen. Even when they reached the enemy their pikes, meant for use against cavalry, proved to be rather useless when faced with infantry armed with billhooks who simply chopped the heads off the pikes and turned them into sticks.

Meanwhile James ordered his column to follow down Branxton Hill to challenge the forces of the English commander Thomas Howard where his forces began to meet a similar fate. It was then that the final blow was delivered when the column commanded by Edward Stanley entered the fray. Stanley swung his column around and attacked the flank of the Highlanders, on the extreme right of the Scottish army. Surpised by the direction of the assault and at a disadvantage compared to Stanley's armoured troops these Highlanders soon collapsed and fled the field, leaving their commanders the Earls of Argyll and Lennox to their fate.

A somewhat astonished Stanley now found himself in command of Branxton Hill but he quickly reformed his men, and launched an attack on the rear of James’ column. Dacre's reserves force of Border Lances soon seized the opportunity to join in the attack. The main body of the Scottish army was now surrounded. Gradually the English hacked them down until only a circle of spearmen remained defending their king. Soon they to were gone leaving only a few desperate nobles left standing, before they too joined the mass of corpses on Branxton Moor.

After the battle

The Scotish army was effectively wiped out on that day at Branxton Moor and estimates of the total Scottish dead range from 5,000 to 10,000.

Amongst the Scottish killed that day was king James IV himself and many of the leaders of the Scottish church including the Archbishop of St Andrews, the Bishop of Caithness, the Bishop of the Isles as well as two prominent abbots. The dead also included the Earl of Argyll, the Earl of Cassillis, the Earl of Rothes, the Earl of Caithness, the Earl Errol, the Earl of Crawford, the Earl of Montrose, the Earl Huntly, the Earl of Glencairn, the Earl Lennox; indeed virtually the entire Scottish nobility was killed and the phrase 'died at Flodden' remains a recurring theme throughout Scottish genealogies of the period.

Only one 'man of note' namely, Alexander Home, 3rd Lord Home escaped death and survived to lead the tattered remnants of the Scotish army home to Edinburgh. And even he survived with a rather tarnished reputation due to his early departure from the battlefield. Indeed it was reported that the Lord Home had declined to come to his king's aid during the height of the battle, remarking that "He does well that does for himself, we have fought our vanguard already, let others do as well as we". James VI's brother the Duke of Albany later had his revenge on the Lord Home and beheaded him for treason in 1516.

The defeat was a disaster for the Scots as with James IV dead, his year old son became James V and the resulting royal minority heralded a period of anarchy and civil war within the country. Whilst from the point of view of the English the victory was a great relief, effectively squashing the Scottish threat for a generation or two.

The victory was also a personal triumph for Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. It completed the rehabilitation of his family (long viewed with suspicion by the Tudor kings due to their previous support for Richard III) and won Thomas the restitution of the title of Duke of Norfolk. Edward Stanley won himself a peerage as well becoming the Baron Monteagle to commemorate the fact that he had "won the hill and vanquished all that opposed him".

The Scottish lament

As Walter Scott was to later write of the battle "Never was an affair more completely bungled than that day's work was" reflecting the long held belief of the Scots that the battle was only lost through poor generalship.

The standard complaint is that king James failed to take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself when the English army was at its most exposed, at the point of crossing the river Till. It as at that point that many believe that James should have attacked the English and when he might possibly have emulated the success of William Wallace at Stirling Bridge. It is impossible to say whether Thomas Howard had anticipated this possibility and what plans he might have made to deal with such an eventuality - the outcome may well have been no different.

To state the obvious; by occupying and defending Flodden Hill, James had sacrificed mobility and committed himself to battle. There was no way that James was going to be able to come down from his hil without a fight and as the battle itself demonstrated, the technical limitations of the Scottish army was such that in a straight fight it was always likely to come off worst.

Yet another great Scottish military disaster proved yet another inspiration for its poets most notably ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ by Jean Elliot;

We'll here nae mair lilting at our ewe milking,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae,
Sighing and moaning on a ilka green loaning,
The flowers of the forest are a wede away.

(Which is infinitely preferable to Walter Scott's rather turgid poesy.)

A memorial stone has since been erected on the site of the Battle of Flodden, and strands above Branxton bearing the words, "To the brave of both nations".


SOURCES

  • The Battle of Flodden from The Border Reivers Website at http://www.borderreivers.co.uk/Battles/B%20flodden%201.htm
  • Battle of Flodden Field 1513 extract from the History of Scotland by John Hill Burton at http://www.royal-stuarts.org/flodden.htm
  • Richard Hayton The Battle of Flodden Field or Branxton Moor http://www.ttforumfriends.com/battlefields_flodden.htm
  • Flodden 1513 Northumberland at http://www.flodden.net/
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for FLODDEN, or FLODDEN FIELD See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
  • Flodden Field; Friday September 9th 1513. Strategies of the Border Pike and Border Lance Divisions. At http://home.btclick.com/testoff/Flodden.htm
  • Flodden memorial at http://www.discovertheborders.co.uk/places/91.html

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