The Battle of Flodden

By Gallowglass

King James III of Scotland

'I've heard the singing, at the ewe-milking,
Lassies a-singing before dawn of the day;
But now they are moaning on every milking-green;
The Flowers of the Forest are all withered away'

There was a period of change on the Continent, named in Italian, the Renaissance, or the rebirth. This was a drastic advancement in art, literature, and political or religious ideas. The medieval society of Europe consisted of three pillars which made up the leadership of feudal states - God, the Pope, and the monarch, be it a king or queen. The Renaissance saw a subtle difference in what was expected of a monarch, and they no longer had to merely comply enthusiastically with religious mandate and the Church and be an able war leader, but they had to be ruthless, learned, cultured, and with enthusiasm for the arts as well as war and political intrigue.

The current Stewart king of the time was James III, alternatively Seamus III Stiubhairt, the King of Scotland and the Duke of Rothesay, who reigned from 1460 to 1488, besides a period where he was forced to relinquish power to the Duke of Albany, later restoring himself to the throne by buying off members of the new regime. Other than the alliance and wars with England and the Scots nobles it sponsored, his reign achieved little extraordinary. The Renaissance was visible in Scotland, but had not yet taken effect as it had on the Continent. But by the reign of James's son, another James, the IV, this had changed. The days of medieval Scotland were, in the Lowlands, of course, over.

King James IV of Scotland

Born in March in the thirteenth year of his father's reign, he was young when he came to the throne, like so many other of Scotland's kings, being fifteen. It was clear that, whilst the Renaissance in much of Scotland was still a far-off new concept, he was one of the few amongst the nobility who accepted it, and learned its theories. During his reign, which ended, in the battle which is our subject, in 1513, art flourished. Royal palaces were re-decorated, the court was redesigned, and he was, like his father before him, a tireless patron of the arts, and had a keen interest in artillery.

He began to form a standing army. The only standing army in Scotland was his bodyguard of forty soldiers. Additional support had to be mustered or raised from the Highland clans and Borderers. He also improved Scotland's infant navy, seeing Scotland as being on the verge on a small Renaissance of its own, a powerful presence in Europe. Indeed, during his reign, the country's prestige was higher than it had ever been, or ever would be until after even the Union of the Crowns, in his descendant's favour, in 1603, not least in part due to Scotland being the proud owner of the mightiest warship of the time, the Great Micheal, two hundred and forty feet long, of largely native timber, with a crew of three hundred and a contingent of over one thousand marines and a hundred and twenty gunners.

The young king had dreams of being a crusader, an admiral, and of extravagant feasts and balls. One thing which was unique of the Scots kings, although he later changed his policy drastically, being the king who finally brought down the rival state on 'his' western shores, the Lordship of the Isles, was that James IV learned Gaelic, the language spoken by a vast majority of the Highlands, despite the fact many Highland chiefs could speak English, Scots, and sometimes even French.

He could also speak many European language, Gaelic, English, and Scots being the mere tip of the iceberg of his linguistic talents.

But don't let his military achievements fool you into believing he was a great general. He was, in fact, a rather poor one, and, as time would prove, too chivalric and honourable for his own good.

The spiral down to war

James IV renewed the Auld Alliance with France, fragments of which may still exist today, in Scotland, at least, in the form of laws that have never been repealed. The Tudor throne, although fresh, was not uncontested, and Henry had to fight against many pretenders with claims, and, more importantly, arms to further their cause.

England could not afford to fall out of favour with her more powerful northern neighbour. In fact, they hinted at a marriage alliance less than a year after the young Scottish king was crowned.

In 1497 they agreed a seven-year-truce, and five years later Henry, or Harri Tudur in Welsh, promised his eldest daughter, Margaret, to the Scottish king. They were married at Hollyrood, and, both sides deciding to honour the marriage alliance, and one not really having a choice, the two countries were allies for the rest of Henry's reign. James IV used both his alliances, with France and with England, to prevent the two enemies from attacking each other. But when it comes down to it, evidently at least one Stewart king saw tradition in favour of betrayal, and things began to fall into a diplomatic stand-off.

Henry's son, Henry VIII, was an aggressive, although jovial and good-humoured, man, with a similar selection of talents and hobbies as his Scottish ally. In all fairness, he never intended to see that alliance broken, not allured by war (the Plantagenet dynasty was gone, after all), but definitely not afraid of it.

He formed a coalition against France with the Spanish king. This was part of the Holy League. France was engaged in the Italian Wars, and called upon her ancient friend in warfare and trade, Scotland. James acted as a diplomat between all the sides, until he decided upon his course of action.

His nobles were very supportive of his final decision. Invade England.

The long road to Flodden

Henry invaded France in 1513. The Scots, with their king above despicable connivances, although this was to cost him more than it would his country, in time, were levied, beginning on the 24th of July. By the next month the early Renaissance superpower sent a force, commanded by its chivalric king himself, numbering thirty thousand, his collection of artillery including masses of heavy siege guns, six demi-culverins, four sakers, and two of culverins.

This mighty gunpowder selection reduced Norham, a castle, the prominent fortification in the English Borderlands, in five days, when it had previously held out for two years. Etal and Ford, the latter of which the Scottish king made his headquarters in the company of the attractive wife of an imprisoned border reiver, were the next along the Scottish army's path.

But deserters began to leave the Scottish army, having got all the loot they came for. The English general, the Earl of Surrey, a seventy-year-old veteran, was nonetheless incredibly energetic. He had gathered a force of shire levies in addition to the army he'd been commanding anyway, bolstered by marines from his son's fleet. James had lost a quarter to a third of his army. Nevertheless, he was unafraid of giving battle.

Surrey's herald, who had been told to barrage the Scottish king with taunts and insults daily, found his satirical subject. Together with his army, against his nobles, on the north-eastern side of Flodden Hill. He detained the herald, of course.

Surrey marched his army to Wooler, and, to get back his herald, tried to exchange hostages. It was a success. Because frankly King James, as a general, was the opposite.

Nevertheless, the Scots had an easily defensible positionm the guns dug into the hillside where they had a clear line of sight on the English advance, the passage between the eastern end of Flodden Hill and the Till. This approach was boggy and low-lying, in the sights of archer and artillery alike. The English army, if it advanced, could be obliterated in the marshy ground without so much as a sword being drawn.

But, whether it was the brother-in-law of the Scottish king's female companion at Ford, who supplied the English army with reivers and raiders, or another in Surrey's war council, someone in the English army ordered the attack. They probably understood James's nature all too well.

They camped on Watch Law the next night, having evading Scottish sights by marching across the moors. Surrey could, in contrast, easily see the Scottish lines. They were now to the south, and although their archers could still unleash a rain of missiles on the English, there would be no use for James's stupid amounts of artillery.

Flodden field

At one in the afternoon, the divided English advance, crossing at two points over the Till, was visible to the Scots, who rapidly formed up. James told one of his nobles who wished for the vainglorious fool of a general to withdraw (or at least his army to, if he stayed behind at that moment in time it would be no love lost) that he could leave. Others would be charged with treason and executed.

So, now a mile to the north, moving the lighter artillery only, the Scots deployed. They were now on Branxton Hill, still with an advantage in height.

The right flank had the Highlanders and Gallgaels, then Argyll's Regiment, then Lennox, with the king suicidally in the centre. Montrose, Errol, and Crawford's division was on the left alongside one led by Home and Huntly. The Earl of Bothwell and his forces were in reserve, sensibly, and the entire army included French officers. This was a matter of French importance as well, and the army had been drilled and equipped at French expense.

The Scots camp followers burned abandoned equipment, the smoke obscuring each army from the other, as the English struggled through the soft ground near Pallinsburn. The Lord Admiral, Surrey's son, commanded the van, and in fact advanced too far. Rumours suggest that the Gallgaels especially begged for the order to charge the vulnerable vanguard, but James either refused them or simply did not give the order. He was a champion of chivalry, after all.

Even as the Lord Admiral marched on, albeit after realising his error, James did not attack. It is likely he saw the messages the Lord Admiral sent back to his father, urging him on with the main body of the army, but still he held his ground.

Okay, to be fair to him he probably recognised he had a better defensive position. Not that it would do him much good now that the curse of Caledonian warfare - the missed opportunity - had fallen upon his army.

The English right, now that the army had, through the sheer…what word is there for it?...of the aggressor, properly deployed, was commanded by Edward Howard, another one of Surrey's sons. His father and then the Lord Admiral were to his left, the left flank itself having its soldiers granted to Edward Stanley.

Push the right flank, it's always the right flank

The English army had one weakness. Actually, it had quite a few, but the Scots leadership countered those in spectacular fashion. This weakness was the right flank, levies from Cheshire and Lancashire, directly opposite Home's reivers who had been fighting on horse or foot for their entire lives, and who were likely on ground they were familiar with.

But for this weakness, it had a strength. Artillery. King James was a designer and enthusiast in artillery, not a commander. His gunners were poor, despite in possession of the pinnacle of all guns and armament in northern Europe. A handful of shots carved up the English lines, but the English artillery, which had initiated the duel, silenced the guns on the hill with devastating accuracy, turning to the Scottish lines when the artillery had been destroyed or its crews routed.

This was when James was lured into flinging Home and Huntly, very sensibly, at the English lines. Surrey, who had expressed concern about the situation Edward Howard was facing, watched helplessly as his entire right flank, despite the mire and rise in front of the English army, which deprived the Scots Borderers of their downhill charge, of similar proportions and fame of that of the Highlanders, was swept from the field in a massive rout, being chased all the way back to the Till. An English knight, surname Tunstall, killed Sir Malcolm McKeen before that Scottish knight was avenged in typically brutal fashion.

James thought the battle was his, and in, as the book I've gotten a great deal of my information from says, rather brilliantly if I can say so, a 'masterpiece of reckless folly' he led the vanguard, threw leadership and caution to the wind, and cannoned his entire army headlong into the English force down the slope. Himself cannoning into the path of the English longbowmen. Although the Scots had devised a tactic to tear this advantage from the English, at long last, by equipping their front lines with heavy wooden shields which were discarded when the two lines engaged, even better all at French expense, it was useless.

The Scots ran through the mire and then, when they reached the rise, the tables turned and they had to charge uphill against the English bills with levelled pikes.

Both sides took heavy, almost ridiculous cavalry, and neither gave or gained much ground. The English longbowmen scattered the Highlanders. This was neither their war, them likely seeing it as a French conflict and themselves as foreigners to the Scots, or their style of war, and they fled. Clearly James's time spent hunting and dining with, later imprisoning their chiefs had taught him little about how to use Highlanders in conflict.

The Campbell chief, the Earl of Argyll, MacCailean Mhor and the chiefs around him were slain. His descendants three centuries later would repay the Stewarts back in kind. But they were not the only clan to lose their chief, or Lowland family to lose its laird, that day. Merely the ones who made the loudest noise about their vengeance.

King James did one kind favour for his clansmen and his country. He all but commited suicide.

This was achieved by throwing himself and his retainers, in the company of chiefs and earls, at Surrey's colours. The king hacked down most of the English levies in his path, carving up an entire line, and, already wounded and stabbed, came within reaching distance of the English standard. But, unnoticed as his once-loyal, now bitterly regretful, subjects routed and left him, he was slashed and hacked by bills and was slain on the battlefield.

The price of vanity

Ten thousand Scots soldiers had been killed in the marshlands. Amongst that number were three hundred knights, nineteen barons, ten earls, one bishop, one archbishop, many Highland and Island chiefs or their sons and tacksmen, and, lastly, the king himself, dragged naked from the bloodied field.

Having been spared being sent as a trophy to the English king in France as his wife's special gift, the Scot was disembowelled and instead kept in the Monastery of Sheen, thrown away into a lumber room after the dissolution.

The head was apparently held by Elizabeth I's master glazier, then it was buried anonymously.

However, the English were tied down in France, and the Scottish government did not collapse. This was the result of James's reformations, solely, so as much as he nearly destroyed it, he saved the country from civil war. The next king's reign was indeed challenged by an old nemesis from the Isles, Donald Dubh, and others, but it held, and so did the Stewart dynasty.

Henry of England found himself abandoned and deserted by his Spanish allies, and concluded peace with France. He took no action against Scotland. Although its armies were decimated, its young fleet sold off (to France), the clan chiefs were armed and zealous, and Dominus Insularum had arisen from obscurity, or the Lord of the Isles to give his 'title' in English, the English did not march north. They had also lost many men at Flodden.

Finally, their inherited hate for Scotland was being weathered away, by Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn, and the ultimate failure of the Rough Wooing. The king's sacrifice was not in vain, even if it was easily avoided.


Scottish Battles by John Sadler
Scottish Battles by George Forbes
Various Internet sources