Flodden - Flower of the Scottish Aristocracy

September 9th 2013 will be the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. This took place in North Northumberland just a few miles across the border from Scotland between the forces of the English and Scottish armies. The Scottish force was led by their king James IV.

The two nations had been in a state of perpetual conflict since 1296. But this was to be the largest battle between the two countries, the last time a british monarch would die on the battlefield and the last battle of medieval times.

Sites Associated with the Battle of Flodden in Northumberland (click to enlarge)
Up to 70,000 people were involved in the battle. Up to 14,000 men, mostly Scottish, would be killed in the space of just three hours on that damp September afternoon. The Scottish king and most of the nobility were wiped out.

The Scots had set up camp, in the week leading up to the battle, on Flodden Hill. They had established elaborate emplacements for their numerous, large, state-of-the-art cannons. The Scottish force outnumbered the English by about ten to fifteen thousand men.

The Scots had recently re-entered into the "Auld Alliance" with France for mutual protection. England under their king Henry VIII had engaged in a war with France. King James of Scotland had written to Henry urging him to withdraw from the conflict. This request was not granted. James reluctantly felt obliged to honour the alliance with France and invade England which would divert English forces away from the French conflict.

Henry VIII had been prepared for this and left instructions with his northern commander, the Earl of Surrey, to deal with any Scottish Invasion. Henry had deliberately not recruited men from the north of England to leave a supply for Surrey to be able to muster.

Fearing that King James would invade England and then hastily withdraw across the border without engaging in battle, enough of a diversion having been made to inconvenience the English, Surrey appealed to James' sense of chivalry and invited him to enter into a contract to do battle around the area of Millfield Plain. This location is just south of Flodden. James accepted the invitation.

Battlefield and Monument

When the Earl of Surrey arrived for the battle on September 7th he found the Scots embedded into a strategically advantageous position on a ridge of high ground. He was experienced enough to know it would have been disastrous to take on the Scots from where he was placed. He sent his herald to ask King James to fight in the open as previously agreed. The request was denied. Surrey then marched his army North, undetected, around to the rear of the Scottish army, placing himself between the Scots and the safety of the border. When King James of Scotland finally discovered the English were closing in on his rear on the morning of the 9th September he hastily moved his forces, and large guns, about two miles north to a ridge of high ground near Branxton. His motive for this have been the speculation of historians ever since: was it an advantageous position to control the Pallinsburn crossing or was he trying to retreat to Scotland before the English finally arrived? Jane Lyall in her book "The Battle of Flodden" says:
"The fact that the Scots had only advanced 4 miles into England since crossing the Tweed 14 days previously seems to indicate that James had no intention of fighting a pitched battle. He presumably hoped for a brief encounter and a withdrawal into Scotland. His obligation to the French would thus have been fulfilled."

Then, at about 4.00pm, the two forces clashed with the unexpected result of Scottish devastation and the death of a monarch. Scotland was thrown into the political wilderness for the next decade. The battle has had military strategists drooling into their porridge ever since.

And this is why the skirmish, which ended with such tragic consequences, still attracts so much attention. And why there are so many events taking place in commemoration during the weeks leading up to September 9th 2013. A list of events is listed here and includes:

  • The riding out from Coldstream during Civic Week where The Coldstreamer cuts a sod of earth from the battlefield and carries it back to Coldstream in honour of the actions of Abbess Hoppringle, who is said to have sent for the bodies of the dead to be brought to her for burial in consecrated ground. This year they are hoping to attract 500 riders.
  • Rag-ruggin workshops in the Cheviot Centre where the end result is hoped to be a wall hanging on a Flodden theme for the Centre
  • Various lectures, tours, exhibitions, trails, drama presentations, monologues and a flower show at Ladykirk church near Norham  which "is said to have been built during the last years of the 1490s on the orders of King James IV of Scotland, who, on returning from the siege of Norham Castle in 1496, is said to have fallen from his horse into the Tweed. He attributed his survival to the intercession of the Virgin Mary."
  • Various, elaborate reconstruction events in the English Heritage properties of Warkworth and Etal castles
  • An open air music event called Folk Rockin' For Flodden on Sat 7th September 2013. The organisers have written: "We are bringing music from both sides of the border together to coincide with the 500th celebrations of the Battle of Flodden. Prior to the Battle of Flodden there was a siege of Norham Castle which resulted in the taking of the castle by James IV. As residents of the village of Norham we find it very fitting therefore that Norham should want to take part in the events being hosted in 2013. The concert will be held in the field across from Norham Castle, using the Castle, village and river as a backdrop for the event. 6.30pm-11pm. Tickets are priced at £20 and are available from The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-Upon-Tweed 01289 330 999 and Border Events 01750 725 480. All tickets are standing. Free Parking. Our line-up includes: Scotland's top Folk n' Roll band Scocha. From Lindisfarne Dave-Hull Denholm and Charlie Harcourt presenting the Alan Hull Songbook. From Lindisfarne Steve Daggett. Local Man Derek Meins a.k.a. The Agitator as seen on Later... with Jools Holland. Folk music from the local Small Hall Band. Traditional Northumbrian Pipers. Local Man Ronnie Hek. There will be food & drink sold at the event, we ask that no food & drink be brought to the event. There is a strict no glass policy. Any profit made from the event will be distributed to chosen local charities after the event. http://www.berwickshirenews.co.uk/lifestyle/the-guide/arts-and-entertainment/norham-will-be-rocking-for-flodden-anniversary-1-2998493
A timeline of the Scottish movements leading up to the battle on 9th September will help to understand the relevance of these venues in the Flodden story. 

On the 19th August James IV mustered an army at Edinburgh of around 40,000 men, although around 10,000 would desert by the time the battle commenced. Around twenty large guns were used carried by 400 oxen. The army marched south to the border.

They crossed the border near Coldstream on August 22nd, after marching nearly 50 miles, and then laid siege to nearby Norham Castle. It took six days pounding from the heavy guns to breech the walls at Norham and force a surrender of the large border fortification. James was securing control of points of resistance and his supply route back to Scotland. An archaeological investigation was carried out during April 2013 of the area surrounding the castle looking for evidence of siege activity. It was based on the results of a geophysical survey, but the features shown on the survey turned out to be natural. http://youtu.be/46o2Ksl9nYo However, the team did discover what they believe to be James IV livery badge http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-22090380

The Scottish army then moved a few miles west and took the much smaller Etal Castle. It was garrisoned at the time of the battle by the castle tenants, the Collingwood family, but was said to be under strength and quickly fell to the Scots without too much damage having been inflicted on the structure. James now had control over the crossing point of the River Till, although he obviously didn't leave it guarded well enough as the English were to later slip around the rear of James on September 9th.

On September 1st The Scots moved two or three miles south to invade Ford Castle. And here is a bit of a mystery: James IV did not leave until September 5th when he finally joined the camp being established on Flodden Hill. It was only on leaving that he burnt the castle to the ground. The castle was occupied by Lady Elizabeth Heron and her daughter. The Lord of the castle was a hostage in Scotland at the time. A contemporary chronicler suggested that James wasted time enjoying the company of Lady Heron and her daughter. Others have suggested that Elizabeth allowed herself to be seduced by James to delay the Scottish advance. We will no doubt never know the truth of this story, but it does seem that something strange was taking place.

And then James joined his men on Flodden Hill and the rest is history... as they say.