Flodden Field: Scotland attacks Henry VIII's England

The Battle of Flodden Medieval battles such as Flodden were confusing, chaotic and bloody affairs

Five hundred years ago, Scotland suffered one of its bloodiest defeats in the battle of Flodden Field, fought on 9 September 1513.

While the battle is largely forgotten in England, Flodden figures prominently in Scottish history alongside iconic triumphs over the English such as the battle of Bannockburn, but for very different reasons.

Responding to calls for aid from France, James IV of Scotland invaded England. The battle which followed would cost him his life and deprive Scotland of much of its ruling class.

Fighting Scotland

The Battle of Culloden, 1746

What made James invade his bigger neighbour and why was Flodden such a disaster?

Prelude to battle

At the time Henry VIII ruled in England and was fighting a war in France.

Under the obligations of the historic Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, James was honour-bound to aid the French and invade England.

He declared war and led his army south, crossing the River Tweed into Northumberland in the north-east of England.

With Henry away in France, the defence of the realm fell to his new Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, and the commander of his northern forces, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey.

The last king

The Scottish army was superior in size and artillery to Surrey's forces. James commanded over 30,000 men armed with the latest weaponry of Swiss pikes, early muskets and cannon.

Less than 10 miles from the Scotland-England border, the Scots established a stronghold on Flodden hill, but found their retreat cut off by Surrey. James moved his army to Branxton hill nearby.

Start Quote

Around 15,000 men died in the space of two and a half hours. A death toll like that wasn't seen again till the battles of World War One”

End Quote Clive Hallam-Baker Remembering Flodden Project

In September 1513, the hills and fields near Flodden were a boggy mire of mud.

For Clive Hallam-Baker, author and member of the Remembering Flodden Project, the Scots still held the advantage: "[They] had a much better position on Branxton hill. If they'd held it until the English attacked, the English would have been wiped out. It would have been a catastrophe for England.

[They] almost got it right. They used modern Swiss pikes but hadn't sufficient time to train - they were a conscript army not professionals."

The move to Branxton meant the Scottish cannon could not be properly positioned and were virtually useless.

What happened next sealed the fate of the Scots. Coming under fire from English canon, the Scots advanced downhill into slippery, boggy ground.

"The centre and the right had to advance down a valley that was knee deep in mud. They couldn't advance as one unit and they began to slip and get crushed" he explains.

The Scottish lines unravelled and the unwieldy pikes proved no match in close combat for the more traditional billhooks used by Henry's army.

Flodden and Tudor England

Henry VIII of England

In the medieval style, James and the nobility lined up at the head of their army. Surrey and his officers followed the more modern practice of staying at the rear.

Led from the front by James, the Scots fought fiercely for three hours.

James, on foot, came to "within a spear's length" of Surrey.

Injured by an arrow and amid scenes of terrible slaughter, James fell and was hacked to death. He became the last king to die in battle on British soil.

"Around 15,000 men died in the space of two and a half hours. A death toll like that wasn't seen again till the battles of World War One," says Hallam-Baker. "There were four deciding factors in the battle; leadership, topography, weaponry and luck. Leadership was key - the more astute the commander the luckier they became."

Casualties

The toll of defeat on Scotland was immense. Because of the decision to lead from the front, within two hours the Scots had lost their king and huge numbers of the political classes - the brains, leadership and military prowess of the nation.

The Battlefield Trust estimate a quarter of the Scottish army died at Flodden.

"It was a slaughter. Any battle where you lose your king and dozens of noblemen is a disaster, but government continued. It continued, but it was weaker - there was a regency government and an infant king and Scotland's international importance diminished."

The English had a smaller army of 26,000, but nearly a quarter are also thought to have died.

Counting the Cost

With the infant James V just 17 months old, Scotland would endure years of unrest.

His mother, Margaret Tudor and her second husband, Archibald Douglas (6th Earl of Angus) vied for control of the regency, the young king and supreme power with John Stewart (2nd Duke of Albany), the closest adult male relative to the infant prince.

Although there was no civil war or disturbance, factional quarrelling within Scotland's surviving nobles persisted until James V finally became king in his own right in 1528.

Memorial to the Battle of Flodden The Scottish losses at Flodden are remembered in the lament, Flowers of the Forest
Remembering Flodden

Whilst Flodden is still remembered by Scots to this day, the battle was soon forgotten by the English.

According to Hallam-Baker, "It's better known in Scotland because north of the border it's celebrated as heroic failure - in the same way that we remember heroic defeat at Dunkirk and not victory at El Alamein.

"Flodden was Catherine of Aragon's glory. After she fell out of favour in the Tudor court it was never celebrated or mentioned again."

Less well-known is that the battle also helped change the nature of English history. Buoyed by the victory, the Howards, the family of the Earl of Surrey, enjoyed the favouritism of their king and unparalleled influence at court.

"Surrey was created Duke of Norfolk. The family then go on to provide two queens for Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. If Surrey had lost and the Howards were finished, English history could have been very different."

Flodden is commemorated in the haunting lament, "Flooers [Flowers] o' the Forest", which is now played at remembrance services and funerals internationally.

The lyric records the grief felt at the loss of so many young and noble men.

"The Flooers o' the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,

The pride o' oor land lie cauld in the clay"

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