A brief history of the battle of Flodden

When James IV ascended the throne of Scotland in 1488, he was 15 years of age and the wily Henry VII was king of the southern neighbour, England.

When Henry died in 1509, he was succeeded by his second son, Henry VIII, who in his youth was a tall, lean and handsome figure of a man.  He was a man of action, a doer rather than a schemer.  He left the scheming to his ministers and advisors.

It was not long however before the two nations of England and Scotland were squabbling, rumblings that had continued since before the Norman Conquest, border raids and counter raids by the families of the reivers was part of the enduring history of the border region.

In 1511 France was virtually under siege by an alliance of several states.  Henry, seeing a chance to have a go at the old enemy joined the alliance, which completed the encirclement of France.  There was though another alliance, "The Auld Alliance"  between France and Scotland which was deep rooted and was to remain so for a considerable time yet to come.  This alliance was a constant thorn in the side of the English establishment for generations, constantly making nuisances to the peace of the realm.  The fact that Henry was in France, making war upon that nation was an ideal opportunity for James of Scotland to venture south of the border, ostensibly to prevent many of the "Border Reivers" from raiding his lowland territories.  Henry, had with him most of his tried and trusted military commanders and soldiery, the few men able to forestall James' advances into England were seemingly, those less able to command.

After much political wrangling, on the 26 July, 1513, James sent his ambassador, Lyon Herald to meet with Henry who was with his army, encamped near Therouanne, in France.  The message basically was that if Henry insisted on warring with France, then he, James, felt duty bound to assist King Louis.

Henry's reply was by the standards of those days, both blunt and to the point, "We cannot maruayle, considering the ancient accustomable manners of your progenitors, which neuer kept lenger faythe and promise than pleased them."  He then, quite categorically, informed James that he had no intention of withdrawing his army from France.

Prior to his departure, Henry had appointed the Earl of Surrey as Lord Lieutenant of the North, who was then 70 years of age.  The Scots may have under estimated the capabilities of such a venerable old man.  In the first weeks of August, James assembled his troops near Edinburgh.  It was said to be the largest, most well equipped army to leave Scotland until more modern times.  They were composed of all three sections of the Scottish people, Highlanders, Lowlanders and Borderers, a union most uncommon.  The total numbers assembled have been exaggerated in many accounts and the accuracy of numbers can never be certain, though for this purpose, the figure of somewhat less than 30,000 men will be assumed.  Included were the flower of Scottish nobility, Dukes, Lords, Earls and Clan Chiefs.

Also included was a contingent of French soldiers under the command of Count d'Aussi.  Their primary function appears to have been the tutelage of modern methods of warfare, including the use of the continental long-handled pike and the two pieces of ordnance provided to King James.  These brought the numbers of Scottish artillery up to seventeen heavy guns; guns which required over 400 oxen to convey them and their ammunition.  They were by far, superior to anything that the English could muster against them.

Included in this inventory were "courtaulds" or "murtherers", the largest of James' guns which weighed 6,000lb, had a calibre of 6½" and fired shot weighing between 33 and 36 lb.  Of slightly smaller calibre but of longer range was the "gros culverin of found" which required the same number of draught animals as did the murtherers.  Then were the "culverain pykmoyane" also called a "saker" which fired shot weighing between 7 and 10lb.  The smallest of his field pieces was the "culverain moyane", a bronze gun of 1,500lb which had a calibre of 2½".  More mobile were the cart guns, breach loaders, they were also called "falcons".


This left Surrey in a quandary, the Scottish army had a virtually unassailable position and it seemed they were not likely to be moved from it.  The answer was to tempt the impulsive Scots down from Flodden Hill, by means of a local bandit and his men who knew the terrain.

It is generally agreed that Surrey advanced his army in two main forces or battles, each divided into two wings.  The right or vanward battle was commanded by Sir Thomas Howard, his younger brother commanding the right wing and Sir Marmaduke Constable of Flamborough commanding the left.  Surrey himself commanded the other, the main or rearward battle, the right wing under the command of Lord Dacre and the left commanded by Sir Edward Stanley.

The numerical dispositions of each force remain in question but the figures of 9,000 men in the vanward battle and 5,000 men in the rearward seem to be favoured by several sources.  It may have been Surrey's intention, tactically, to interpose his army across the line of retreat of the Scots thereby severing their lines of communication.  It was a bold plan which required both skill and some element of luck to achieve.

He sent the vanward and the artillery across the river Till at Twizel bridge at 11 o'clock on the morning of the battle.  Where the earl and his force crossed is uncertain, though from contemporary chronicles, it appears that they too may have used the same bridge.  Stanley's wing appears to have lagged behind somewhat and were the last to cross over.  The next natural obstacle was a substantial area of bog land which had to be traversed by means of a causeway.  As the Lord Admiral's men began to deploy to the south of the village of Branxton, a break in the horrendous weather of strong winds and sheeting rain, revealed the Scottish army drawn up, not on Flodden Hill but on the much lower and more accessible Branxton Hill.

Conjecture and some logic must be used to understand why James thought it necessary to relinquish the much stronger position his army had formerly occupied.  Considering the weather amongst other things, he witnessed the English marching past his (then) left flank, moving north (possibly) towards Scotland.  As the English disappeared into the murk, some disquiet and doubt may have begun to abrade his confidence.  It was about noon that the Scottish army was given the order to "about face" and reverse their direction of advance, northward, in order to occupy the next but lower ridge of Branxton Hill.

The Scots, as they took their new positions were in five battles or columns; four in the line and one in reserve.  The (new) left flank were the Borderers, still commanded by Lord Hume(Home) together with the Highlanders commanded by the Earl Huntly.  On their right were the men commanded by the Earl of Errol and the Earls of Crawford and Montrose.

To their right was the main battle under the personal command of King James IV of Scotland.  With him he had the Earls of Cassilis and Glencairn and also the Lords Herries and Maxwell.  On their right, forming the right flank was another force of Highlanders under the command of the Earls of Argyll and Lennox. 

It has been chronicled that each battle was separated from the other by the distance of a bow shot, approximately 200 yards.  At their rear was the Reserve, made up of Lothians commanded by the earl of Bothwell and with whom were brigaded the Count d'Aussi's French.  It was as they saw the English, advancing towards them over the causeway, that Mr. Borthwick, James' master gunner was able to commence firing a harmless "salute" at the oncoming English.

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It may have been at about this stage that Stanley's column eventually, whatever the cause of their delay, entered the field.  Seeing that there was an unengaged column of Highlanders facing them (Argyll's and Lennox's), he launched his men against them before they could reinforce their king.  Being Highlanders, they were not clad in the heavy armour as were many of the King's column, they were therefore a much easier target to damage.  Dividing his force, Stanley engaged his foe from the front while sending a heavy contingent to turn their flank.  Faced with such a determined and well disciplined attack, the Highlanders, after some initial resistance, gave way and were soon in flight, leaving their commanders and a few of their more valiant comrades to be slaughtered.

Stanley seeing the state of the battle, read it to perfection.  He reformed his column and launched them into the right rear of James' column, which by this stage was still being supported on the left by Crawford and Montrose opposing the Lord Admiral.

By nightfall, the fighting ceased for the simple reason that the Scottish army had ceased to exist.  The dead and dying were too numerous to count, the carnage, appalling.  Daylight the following day revealed more, between 5,000 and 10,000 Scots were dead.  They included about two dozen earls and barons; James' bastard son by Marion Boyd, who was Archbishop of St. Andrews; the Bishops of Caithness and the Isles; two abbots and many knighted gentlemen and, King James himself; virtually the entire Scottish nobility.

Of the English, it has been chronicled that their losses were as low as 400 men, though this undoubtedly is an under-estimation.  None of the English commanders were fatal casualties.  Without doubt, Stanley's timely intervention turned the tide, delivering the coup de grace. 

The entire inventory of the Scottish artillery, all 17 large guns were captured.  For the next 25 years, Scotland was left almost without it's feudal lords and it took a whole generation for those families to recover.  Hindsight, and history have tended to blame James for the disaster;  Why did he allow himself to be drawn off his hill, why did he not destroy Thomas Howard before Surrey was able to deploy?  The truth will never be known, upon such decisions, as with those made by James, history is made.  Battles are seldom won, usually they are lost by whoever makes the most mistakes.

For the Howard family, their fortunes were greatly affected.  Edmund was knighted on the field, Thomas was created Lord Surrey and Surrey himself was restored to the family title of Duke of Norfolk.  As a unique favour, the royal arms of Scotland were added to those of the Duke of Norfolk as an escutcheon, where it remains to this day.

History though has a habit of turning things on their heads;  it was James' great grandson, James VI, who, upon the death of queen Elizabeth I of England, was invited to succeed her, which he did, as James I of England and the VI of Scotland, on 24th March, 1603.

The Scots memorialised their losses at Flodden Field with "The Flowers of the Forest" a poignant verse which remains known to this day.

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.

Author - Richard Hayton.