Flodden – A Scottish “Greek Tragedy”

As it is the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden today we thought it would a good day to re-post  ‘Flodden – A Scottish “Greek Tragedy”‘ an illustrated essay by Deskarati historian – Alan Mason –

1. The Final Mêlée of the Battle of Flodden

The 500 anniversary of the battle of Flodden is two years away in 2013. The battle took place on 9 September 1513 and was the greatest military disaster in Scotland’s long history of conflict with England. The saddest part of the story was that it need never have happened at all. The many men killed at Flodden need never have lost their lives so wastefully.

The whole story is a Scottish Greek tragedy. By this metaphor I mean a story with an inevitable conclusion, no matter what attempts the participants make to avoid it. In the ancient Greek drama the story and the ending would be known to the entire audience, and the interest lay in seeing how the players conducted themselves.

Nowadays, if we go to see Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” most of us have a rough idea of the plot and the ending. We don’t go hoping that this time all will end happily and the young couple will live to a ripe old age. Some of the participants in the Flodden tragedy saw right from the start the inevitable end, and they had the misfortune to see everything unfold as they had expected.

The Principal Players

Henry VIII, King of England (2) (He took no part in the battle, but his actions set in train the events of the tragedy.)

James IV, King of Scotland (3) (He commanded the Scottish forces and died in the battle,)

Louis XII, King of France (4) (He also took no part in the battle, but he began the Franco-Scottish diplomacy that led to Flodden.)

Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey (5) (He commanded the victorious English forces)

2. Henry VIII, King of England

 3. James IV, King of Scotland

4. Louis XII, King of France

 5. Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey

The Two Nations

At that time, Scotland and England were independent kingdoms (6). England had the larger population, principally because it had most of the best agricultural land on the island of Britain, and it was the wealthier of the two nations. Scotland was mountainous and much of the land was boggy moorland. The central region between the River Clyde and the River Forth was one of the best agricultural regions and this was where most of the major towns had been built, and where the capital, Edinburgh, was situated.

The two nations had been at war from time to time since the Scots won their independence under their king, Robert Bruce in 1314. The border country between the two nations was a lawless place, whether there was peace or war, so that cattle-rustling and armed raiding was commonplace. Despite this there was a state of uneasy peace between both countries in the first decade of the sixteenth century.

6. The Two Nations

France Encircled by a European Alliance

This crisis came about because the French had been making war in the Italian peninsula in the early 16 C. The European powers tried to end the crisis by forming an anti-French alliance, the Holy League, created by the Pope in 1511. It originally consisted of the Papal States, Spain, the Swiss Confederation, and the Republic of Venice, until joined in 1512 by the Holy Roman Emperor, and England (7). At this time, all the nations of the Europe were Catholic and felt some degree of obligation in obedience to the Pope as their spiritual leader. Protestantism lay a decade in the future, for both Germany, (1521), and England (1529).

7. The Encirclement of France by the Powers of the Holy League (in orange)

A Franco-Scottish Alliance

Scotland, as an independent state, traded and had diplomatic relations with most of the other nations of western Europe. It was particularly friendly with France. England and France had often been at war with each other, and Scotland’s reasoning was, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” It was not good reasoning then and is not good reasoning now.

In 1512 the Scottish king, James IV, discussed with his counsellors the renewal of a treaty of mutual aid between Scotland and France. It had come as a request from the French king, Louis XII because of his military problems. Most of his counsellors were against the idea, because they saw it as a “two-edged sword.” True that if England attacked Scotland, then France would, hopefully come to her aid. However, it also meant that if there was a war between England and France, then Scotland would be dragged into it.

It rather came down to a matter of geography. A conflict on the Scottish borders was 300 miles from London, and another 200 miles to Paris, the French capital. The likelihood of the French king being able to render immediate assistance was remote indeed. The most that could be expected was a French naval attack on the English Channel ports.

On the other hand, if there was an Anglo-French conflict, Scotland was on England’s border and could be expected to render immediate assistance by attacking across it. Perhaps for James the clinching argument was that this was a matter of honour. He was not going to go back on his word, freely given to France in the past. Despite the pleadings of his counsellors, James took the decisive step of renewing the “Old Alliance”, the treaty of mutual aid between Scotland and France in July 1512.

There was not long to wait before this promise was called in. It was a year, to be precise.

By the early summer of 1513, France was now encircled by enemies, and with the military situation crumbling, Louis XII appealed to King James for help. Anne of Brittany, the French Queen, appealed to his sense of chivalry to “be her champion”, and is alleged to have sent James a turquoise ring. She certainly backed her romantic request with 14,000 crowns as a further inducement.

The English Campaign in France

In May, the English had crossed the Channel and were advancing from Calais with a force of 25,000 men. They achieved some military success, and were encamped outside the town of Therouanne. James IV was now forced to act. He tried diplomacy by sending Lyon King of Arms, his senior herald (ambassador) to persuade Henry of the serious nature of his invasion of France and of the imminent threat of an invasion of the north of England. Henry replied in an insulting manner by accusing James of breaking the treaty of friendship between England and Scotland, and waiting till Henry’s back was turned before attacking England.

There was now no other course open to James, but to invade the north of England. Did he now reflect on the pleas of his grey-haired counsellors, only a year before?

Preparations for War

It is clear that both Henry and James had made careful preparations well in advance of the final break on the 12 August 1513. In May, before he left for France, Henry had made Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, his Lord Lieutenant in the North, with the injunction, “My Lord, I trust not the Scots, therefore I pray you be not negligent.”

In Scotland the muster orders for cavalry and infantry were issued in July, and the artillery train left Edinburgh for the border in August. French vessels brought gunpowder, cannon, pikes and handguns, and 5,000 French troops to train the Scots and provide a cadre of professional soldiers in what was largely an amateur army. There was no Scottish standing army and forces were recruited from the male civilian population between 16 and 60, at 8 days notice, to serve for 40 days.

The End of the Anglo-French War

One of the supreme ironies of the Flodden disaster is that within a few days of Henry’s rejection of the ultimatum from James, on the 12 August, the war between France and England was over. The first major engagement, on the 16 August, was afterwards called the Battle of Spurs, in recollection of the haste of the French cavalry to leave the field. The French military leaders were competent and experienced, but had been ordered to avoid action if possible. Neither they nor the English expected such a brief rout. Louis XII came to terms, and further hostilities ceased.

For Henry VIII the war with France was over; the war with Scotland was just beginning.

At this remove today we can wonder why more effort was not made to halt the Anglo-Scottish War by sending messengers to the potential combatants? The Scots did not cross the border into England until the 22 August, six days after Anglo-French action had ceased.

8. The Battle of the Spurs, 16 August 1513 – Artist’s Impression

Over the Border

The Scottish army mustered in early August and marched to the border with the artillery train (the guns and ammunition wagons). They crossed the Tweed on 22 August by the bridge in the small town of Coldstream. (9) The army comprised about 40, 000 men, one of the biggest forces the Scots had ever managed to assemble in wars with England.

9. Map of Anglo-Scottish Border showing captured fortresses

10. Gatehouse and Keep (Main building) of Norham Castle, Northumberland

On entering the northernmost English county of Northumberland, James captured several of the old medieval castles close to the River Tweed, notably Norham, Wark, Ford and Etal. In the era of cannon, James, with “seventeen pieces of heavy ordnance” as well as smaller guns compelled Norham’s (10) surrender after a siege of only six days, and left it severely damaged.

 11. A Corner Bastion of Ford Castle

12. The Keep (Main building) and part of the Curtain (Outer) Wall of Etal Castle

Ford and Etal were much smaller fortresses and succumbed more quickly. Etal (12) was not properly fortified, and Ford (11) was surrendered by its chatelaine (lady in charge) Lady Heron, whose husband, Sir William, had already been taken hostage by the Scots forces. The main curiosity about this military activity is why James and his army stayed so close to Scotland. He was never more than ten miles from the border in the entire campaign. Given the size of his army and the number of guns he had why did he not strike rapidly southwards to capture such important centres as Carlisle, Hexham, Newcastle, or even Durham? (13)

13. The North of England, showing Principal Objectives for a Scottish Invasion

We probably know the reason. To satisfy his French allies, James had invaded England, captured castles, and established himself on English soil. Honour was satisfied, or should have been. He did not wish to cause any more trouble than was absolutely necessary. When hostilities were over he could make peace terms, whereby these four relatively unimportant fortresses could be restored to England.

The English Move Northwards

Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, had been left in charge of the English response to the Scots invasion. Although he was in his seventies, Howard was a vigorous old man and an excellent choice for such a role. In mid-August he mustered his southern forces at Kennington, then a village of open fields on the southern edge of London, but now a totally urban part of the large city. He marched north (14) towards the end of August, collecting further men as he went, heading for the next muster at Newcastle on Tyne, in Northumberland, around the beginning of September.

From Newcastle he moved to Alnwick Castle, (pronounced “annick”) the home of the Dukes of Northumberland, arriving there on the 3 September. He was joined by his eldest son, Thomas Howard, the Lord Admiral, and about a thousand men from the fleet, many of whom were experienced naval gunners. This proved to be an important factor in the ensuing battle.

14. Map of Earl of Surrey’s Line of March from London to Northumberland

In those days military men made no professional distinction between commanding men in a land battle or commanding them in a fleet of ships.

Surrey now sent his herald, Rouge Croix (“Red Cross”) to James IV encamped at Ford complaining of the invasion, and offering to give battle. In reply James sent his herald Islay (a Scottish island) accepting the challenge, for “the next Friday, 9 September, at the latest”.

Heralds (15) were not men who blew trumpets. They were senior, well-born gentlemen, accustomed to dealing with kings and the nobility, and they were the equivalent of a modern ambassador. (In stage directions from Shakespeare when it says, ‘Enter herald with trumpet’ it means “with his own trumpeter” to announce him as the King’s representative.)

It seems curious to modern ears that opposing armies would arrange the time and date of a battle like a football match. Warfare in the 16 C was a more dignified affair and the nobility still set store by chivalrous conduct.

15. English Heralds in Procession at Windsor Castle

(15. These Heralds are in formal attendance at an Order of the Garter Ceremony, St George’s Chapel, Windsor. They are wearing their official dress of tabards of the Royal Arms, with black Tudor bonnets, and they carry white batons or wands of office. The soldier, on the right, “lining the route” of the procession, is a dismounted cavalry trooper of the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry.)

16. Flodden Hillfort standing 500 feet above the flat fields of the plain

On arriving at Wooler, Surrey was incensed to discover that James, far from preparing to give battle on the convenient flat plain of Millfield, as part of their agreement, had now encamped on the ancient Iron Age hillfort of Flodden (16). This would put the English at a considerable disadvantage as they would have to fight their way uphill.

We may wonder why James had gone back on his agreement as he had a bigger army and more guns, so the advantage lay with him on any ground. His decision has to be seen in the light of his previous behaviour. He had made a reluctant foray into England, spent three inactive weeks close to his own borders, and now the English had arrived was unwilling to fight a battle on “fair ground”, that is one that gave no advantage to either side. “Caution” seemed to be James’ watchword now, as he recalled the pleas of his counsellors ringing in his ears.

Manoeuvring for Position

Surrey was in a quandary, as he wanted to bring the Scots to battle, as King Henry would expect him to do, but there was no point in trying to assault an impregnable position. He had enough military experience to realise futility when he saw it. Much ink has been spilt on the reasons for Surrey’s next move, some calling it sheer luck, desperation, or confused uncertainty. I prefer the suggestion that the brother of Sir William Heron of Ford Castle, had recently joined Surrey, and as a man with local knowledge, was well able to advise on how to draw the Scots off their position on Flodden Hill. (16)

On the 8 September the English left their camp at Wooler (16) and crossed the River Till by Weetwood Bridge to encamp for the night just north of Barmoor Castle. They probably chose this bridge, to keep well clear of the Scottish Army and its outposts. The next day they moved west towards the River Tweed (16) and then south to cross the River Till again, this time by the Twizel Bridge, (17) and by other suitable crossing points (18). Again there has been much discussion of this part of the campaign but it need not concern us here. In military terms Surrey had performed a flanking movement and got across the Scots lines of communication.

17. Twizel Bridge over the River Till

18. Map of the Movements of the Armies Prior to the Battle

The River Till caused the English forces considerable difficulties. It was crossed by the narrow Twizel Bridge, which in those days was a medieval construction. The much-photographed modern version (17) is an 18 C replacement, which though graceful, is still narrow and awkward. The troops crossed in other places about which we can only speculate.

The river has cut deep banks and at some points the descent to the river is still hazardous even for an unencumbered man, let alone a soldier in armour carrying weapons. At other places the river runs over sandy banks and there are easily negotiable fords. It very much depends on local knowledge. (19)

19. River Till with steep, tree-covered banks

We now need to analyse the new situation. The English army now lay between the Scots and their capital which was only fifty miles away. The English capital was 300 miles away. The Scots needed to act quickly if all was not to be lost. Inaction, by sitting on an impregnable position was no longer an option. In reply the Scots moved northwards from the Flodden hillfort to the crest of Branxton Hill, a lower and less strong position but still better than the English final position on the lower Piper’s Hill, close to Branxton village.

As the Lord Admiral, Thomas Howard, arrived in Branxton village at about three o’clock and began to deploy his troops across the ridge of Piper’s Hill they could see the whole Scottish host drawn up across Branxton Hill only half a mile away. (20) It was a cold wet day with the wind blowing rain into the faces of the English troops. He immediately realised the peril of his troops’ position and, though outwardly calm, sent a frantic message to his father Surrey to urge him to get the rest of the English forces there as soon as possible.

Commentators have pointed out the folly of dividing the English forces so close to their enemy, and suggesting that had the Scots advanced to the attack at that point, they could have achieved a sweeping victory. This is to be wise after the event. The Scots were uncertain of the whereabouts of the bulk of the English forces. The force on Piper’s Hill might be a decoy.

Moreover, in those days there was some formality to warfare and it would be seen as dishonourable to begin a battle before both sides were ready. Additionally, had they advanced towards the English they would have soon been halted by the bog at the foot of the hill. We also know that King James was employing a policy of “safety first” and caution. His forces still occupied the stronger position and his aim was to make the English come up to him.

 20. Scottish Position on Branxton Hill, as seen from the English Centre on Piper’s Hill

21. English Position on Piper’s Hill, seen from Branxton Churchyard (behind English Army)

The Battle Begins

Hostilities began about four o’clock with a mutual exchange of cannon fire. As the Scots position was higher up it was imperative that their gunners depress their pieces for “downhill” fire. Many of their gunners were inexperienced and unable to do this successfully so much of the Scottish cannonade flew harmlessly over the English heads. By contrast, the naval gunners who were used to a heaving deck and a bobbing target, found a land battle easy. They concentrated on “counter battery fire”, that is, knocking out the guns of the opposition before all else. Eventually, they silenced all the Scottish guns. Did James, at this point reflect upon all his recent evasions? He had a bigger army and more guns, but he had refused to fight in the plains of Millfield. He took up a strong position on Flodden Hill but had been forced off it by Surrey’s outflanking manoeuvre. He still stood on the defensive but the naval gunners had now destroyed his superiority in artillery.

22. The Disposition of the English and Scottish Forces at the Start of the Battle

Surrey had two sons in the battle; his eldest son, Thomas Howard, the Lord Admiral had charge of the centre, and his younger son, Edmund Howard, had control of the right wing which was about to feel the weight of the Scottish power.

The naval gunners now began to play on the ranks of Scottish troops standing ineffectively on the defensive. As the cannonballs cut a long path through the waiting men, two groups seized the initiative. An irregular cavalry group, the Scottish Borderers under the Earl of Home, (pronounced “Hume”) charged off the hill and smashed into the English right. (23) They were supported by plaid-wearing Highlanders under the Earl of Huntly and the two groups so badly mauled the English right that the Cheshire contingent broke and fled.

Edmund Howard had great difficulty in holding his division together, but the situation was restored by two factors. Firstly, Surrey ordered Lord Dacre’s English Borderers to drive back the Scots, and in this they were effective. (23) Secondly, the two attacking groups of Scots, the Borderers and the Highlanders were temperamentally and predictably ill-disciplined. The Borderers were basically cattle thieves and raiders, as were the Highlanders and both groups quickly fell to looting and took no further part in the battle.

23. The Development of the Battle – Principal Movements of Units

The Scottish General Advance

At this point the Scottish centre began to advance downhill towards the English forces. (23) The reasons are still unclear. It seems unlikely that they would have been ordered to abandon their strong positions by a senior commander. It may be the King thought that Home and Huntly were about to fall on the Lord Admiral’s flank, as they should have done, and roll up the entire English position. Possibly the most likely explanation is much simpler. Once the Scottish left flank had advanced to the attack there was no holding the rest and the King had little choice.

The Scots discovered their mistake when they reached the bottom of Branxton Hill. There was a bog between them and the English. As they floundered and slowed down, the English troops simply waited on firm ground for the exhausted Scots to stagger forward to be slaughtered.

The first technical issue of the battle was the difference in gunnery skills between the two sides. The second technical issue concerns the use of pikes. The French king had provided the Scots with the very latest in military know-how. A contingent of professional troops under the Comte d’Aussi would instruct and train the Scots in the use of the eighteen-foot long handled pike.

Pikes were used by professional infantry to protect positions against cavalry charges. Now, horses are not particularly bright, and they can be trained not to fear guns, bangs or bright flashes, and to charge right up to formations of troops. But they are not completely stupid and will not run headlong into a hedge of steel points. The long handled pike was indeed a very effective weapon against cavalry.

The only problem was that the English army had very little in the way of proper cavalry; only Lord Dacre’s English Borderers, irregulars, and much the same cattle thieves and raiders, as the Scottish Borderers. Picture the Scots infantry marching down a slippery hill in the rain, each holding an eighteen-foot long handled pike, to hold off non-existent cavalry, and then floundering into a bog.

24. A Selection of Billhooks

25. Pike versus Billhook

The English infantry was equipped with a bill-hook, a formidable and effective weapon. It had a short oak handle about four feet long, just right for close-quarter work. The steel head had an axe on one side and a steel hook on the other and a spear point at the tip. As the Englishman with the bill-hook approached the Scotsman with his pike he parried the pike tip, and moved closer to swing his axe to cut through the wood. The pikeman was left with sixteen feet of harmless timber, and his opponent running forward to stab him with the spear point.

The Mêlée in the Bog

What now happened was a mêlée or scrum with the English executing butcher’s work. (23) As the Scots at the back pressed forward they ground their wounded comrades in to the bog, below the hill. Some clear central control was needed now. The Scots army was making no headway and needed to be pulled back from the bog up the hill again. It was unlikely the English would wish to cross the bog to follow them.

Central control was lacking and James could not or would not try to extricate his soldiers from a hopeless task. He could see now how the warnings about the French Alliance had been all too true, and his efforts to avoid the ultimate disaster had failed. The elderly Earl of Angus had urged James to retire from Branxton Hill and not give battle, but James had rudely told him to go home. He went home, but with small consolation for his two sons were killed on Flodden, field.

James now took an extra-ordinary decision for a military commander, and he descended the hill to enter the mêlée. It can only be that he did this from a sense of honour; it was his mistakes from the very start, right up to the present moment that had brought his men to disaster. The only honourable course was for James to die fighting at the head of his troops, facing the enemy.

This had the effect of drawing all the other commanders into the melee. If asked, “What did you do at the battle of Flodden, Daddy?” they could hardly answer, “I sat on my horse at the top of the hill and watched while King James was slaughtered by the English.”

1. The Final Mêlée of the Battle of Flodden

Sir Edward Stanley’s contingent arrived late for the battle, but whether it was due to a serious delay in crossing the River Till, or part of some deliberate deception plan is not known. On arriving Stanley saw immediately where his duty lay, and avoiding the main body of English forces on Piper’s Hill, made straight for the unbroken Scottish right wing.

This was composed of Highlanders under the command of the Earls of Argyll and Lennox. Few of the plaid-covered men had any armour, and were thus vulnerable to the arrows of Stanley’s bowmen. Also, Stanley had divided his forces so that the Highlanders were being attacked from the front and side. They put up a poor fight and they quickly broke and ran away leaving their clan chiefs to fight on alone. It is likely that they were unenthusiastic about the whole sorry affair and only followed their chiefs out of fear or loyalty.

Stanley then reformed his forces and led them downhill to administer the coup de grace, the final blow to the Scottish centre now struggling in the mêlée, in the marsh between the two hills. The King had probably been killed before Stanley’s men arrived, and the result of the battle was not in doubt, but it is clear that they made a magnificent contribution to the victory.

The Earl of Bothwell was killed in the battle but there is no evidence that his reserve was ever deployed. It may well be that the result of the battle had already been decided and to use the reserve was to send men needlessly to their deaths. The men, with or without orders, may just have withdrawn from Branxton Hill to Flodden and from thence over the border to home.

When the Earl of Huntly urged Lord Home to go to the aid of the King he replied rudely, “He does well that does for himself. We have fought our vanguard already; let others do as well as we.” (In more modern English, “It’s every man for himself. We were at the front when the action began, and now it’s someone else’s turn.”) With such gracelessness and lack of loyalty the King was poorly served by his cavalry.

The Aftermath

The battle ended as the sun went down and it grew too dark to tell friend from foe. The victorious English slept on the field, along with the dead and wounded on both sides. Next morning Lord Home appeared with some of his borderers on the skyline to the north, but a brief cannonade from the gunners drove them off, back over the border to Scotland. Lord Home’s estate was only a few miles away, to the north of Coldstream.

The half-starved English made free with the Royal provisions for their breakfast before the grisly work of sorting the dead began. Apart from the King, there were killed his 23-year-old bastard son Alexander, the Bishop of St Andrews, two Bishops (Caithness, and The Isles), two Abbots, thirteen Earls, various barons and knights and soldiers, to a total of somewhere between ten and twelve thousand men.

Many of the dead were badly mutilated and the body King James was almost unrecognisable. He was identified by his captured secretary, Sir William Scot, and by Lord Dacre, the English Border cavalry leader who had known the king well.

26. King James IV of Scotland

King James IV of Scotland

The great tragedy is that James IV was one of the best kings Scotland ever had, or was likely to have in the future. He came to the throne at fifteen. A group of insurgent lords had defeated the troops of his father, James III and captured him. They subsequently murdered the king while he was their prisoner.

James IV has been described as, “one of the best-loved and most forward-looking kings to sit on the Scottish throne. In the twenty-five years of his reign he developed the country’s commerce, stabilised the currency, improved the navy and efficiently over-hauled the administration of justice.” (p. 192, William Seymour, “Battles in Britain” Wordsworth Editions, 1997)

What he also did was to enact a simple piece of legislation which put Scottish education 400 years ahead of its neighbour, England. He decreed that any man with an income over a certain amount must send his sons to school. Thus every local community above the size of a village has had a school since the late 1400s. Compulsory schooling did not become law in England till 1870. It also created middle-class employment for a whole body of men, the “dominies” or schoolmasters.

In addition, the same law stated that the more well-to-do men must send their sons to university. Scotland has had four universities, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrew’s since the time of James IV. England, with a much larger population, only ever had two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, over the same period until the creation of London University in 1823.

The effect of this was that the Scots people regarded the universities as their own, and the idea of university education as normal and quite common. The people of England saw university education as something for the wealthy and privileged, and the elitist nature of “Oxbridge” survives to the present day.

The excellent Scottish educational system and the achievements of Scotland’s educated men in the arts and sciences, down the centuries, are a lasting memorial to King James IV.

27. The Royal Arms of Scotland – a red lion rampant within a flowery border

The final chapter on James IV casts shame and dishonour on England. When the body of James was recovered it was treated honourably, disembowelled, embalmed and sent to Newcastle and from there to the monastery of Sheen in Surrey. The monastery was just to the south of London, and had been built by Henry VII right next door to the royal palace.

For some unknown reason the body of James remained unburied, and when Henry VIII had the monastery dissolved in 1534, some twenty-one years after Flodden, the buildings were put to secular use and the body of James was thrown in a lumber room. Eventually the head was hacked off and an Elizabethan glazier, Lancelot Young took it home and kept it on display. Finally, he gave it up to a sexton, who buried it in an unmarked grave along with a pile of bones from the charnel house of the crypt of his church, St Michael’s in Wood Street, City of London.

The mortal remains of the unfortunate King James deserved more respect than this.

The Howard Family

There had always been an uneasy relationship between the Crown under the Tudor Monarchy, and the Howard Family. Possibly because the Howards had a better royal pedigree than the Tudors, whose claim to the throne was very weak. The story of the Howards was intimately entwined with the Tudor dynasty.

28. The Arms of the Dukes of Norfolk, after 1513

John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, was a supporter of the Yorkist, King Richard III, and died with him at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. This battle ended the Wars of the Roses and ushered in the Tudor monarchy. Because of their support for the Yorkist cause, the Howards were deprived of the Dukedom, and were “demoted” to become Earls of Surrey.

The first Duke’s son, Thomas, as Earl of Surrey was the victor of Flodden and after this great success was restored to the Dukedom and became the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. His son, Thomas, Lord Admiral at the Battle of Flodden, succeeded his father as the 3rd Duke. His brother, Edmund, also at Flodden, had a daughter, Katherine Howard. She became the fifth wife of Henry VIII, and was executed by beheading in 1542 after less than two years of marriage. She was only twenty-one.

Elizabeth Howard, also daughter of Thomas, married Sir Thomas Boleyn and their daughter, Anne became the second wife of Henry VIII. Thus, Thomas Howard was the grandfather of Anne Boleyn, and ultimately great- grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I.

Within five years, Thomas, the third Duke, had fallen from favour and the megalomaniac king, Henry VIII, had him condemned to death. On the night before his execution was due, Thomas had a remarkable stroke of luck. Henry VIII died. The execution was never carried out.

29. Family Tree of the Howards (those in red came to violent ends)

The Shield of Arms of the Dukes of Norfolk (28) was given a special honour or “augmentation by the king, through the College of Heralds. It was a small extra shield (an inescutcheon) showing the red lion of Scotland (27) cut in half, with an arrow in its mouth.

The Floo’ers o’ the Forest (The Flowers of the Forest)

This old Scottish bagpipe tune was given lyrics in 1756, by the poet Jean Elliot. It quickly became a traditional lament for the deaths of James IV, and over 10,000 men at the battle of Flodden. The song, written in the Scots dialect, is also known as “The Floo’ers o’ the Forest (are a’ wede away). Powerful solo bagpipe versions of the song began to be used at services of remembrance, and military funerals.

The tune, known simply as “The Lament” by military musicians, continues to be played at Remembrance Day or Remembrance Sunday ceremonies to commemorate the war dead. However, it is now becoming common for the lament to be played at the funerals of civilians and people who have no connection with Scotland whatsoever.

Girls singing before the dawn of day,

But now they are moaning on every green meadow,

“The Flowers of the Forest have all been weeded away”.

Sorrow and woe for the order that sent our boys to the Border

The English for once, by cunning won the day,

The Flowers of the Forest, that fought always the foremost,

The pride of our land lies cold in the clay.

In modern English it can be rendered thus:

I have heard the singing, as the cows are milked,

Girls singing before the dawn of day,

But now they are moaning on every green meadow,

“The Flowers of the Forest have all been weeded away”.

Sorrow and woe for the order that sent our boys to the Border

The English for once, by cunning won the day,

The Flowers of the Forest, that fought always the foremost,

The pride of our land lies cold in the clay.

Depressingly, the words of Jean Elliot present the Scots as hapless victims, as “The English by cunning won the day”. Readers who have followed the story so far will realise that it was the Scots who invaded England in the first place. When offered battle on a flat plain, against the England B team, because the A team was abroad, the Scots refused, despite having a bigger army and more guns. What the Scots wanted was a battle on ground they had chosen, to put the English at a major disadvantage from the start.

The English outflanking manoeuvre was perfectly reasonable under the circumstances, and it still left the Scots at an advantage, by a better position, and larger forces.

Flodden Today

There is a modern farm on the Scottish position on Branxton Hill. The land is given over to arable crops, and the bog was drained long ago. The battle monument (30) is at the English position on Piper’s Hill. It is a plain stone cross on a stepped plinth, and there are always a few floral tributes in position. It was put up in 1910, and bears a simple inscription, “To the Brave of Both Nations.”

30. The 1910 Flodden Memorial Cross on Piper’s Hill looking towards Branxton Hill

The nearby Branxton Church has a collection of cards and booklets, for purchase, about the battle. Norham Castle and Etal Castle are in the care of English Heritage and may be visited. Ford Castle was largely rebuilt in the eighteenth century and is the property of Northumberland County Council and is not usually open to visitors.

Twizel Bridge can be visited as can the banks of the River Till and the Pallinsburn. There is a footpath leading up to the hillfort on Flodden Hill. The town of Coldstream is well worth a visit. I have often thought that the whole area was most suitable for a “Flodden Trail” and it seems from the internet that this has now been organised. (30)

There is a current (2011) project to create an “eco museum”, described as a museum without walls. The publicity includes leaflets, signs, intepretation walls, walks and a website showing 12 sites having strong associations with Flodden. These are; Flodden Field itself; Norham Castle; Etal Castle; Heatherslaw Corn Mill; Barmoor Castle; Twizell Bridge; Ladykirk Church; Branxton Church; Coldstream Museum; Coldstream Priory; Weetwood Bridge; and The Fletcher Monument, Selkirk.

31. Aerial view of Branxton Church

Why not the Battle of Branxton?

It was customary, in medieval times, to name battles after the nearest military location, or fortress and the habit died hard. Ludicrously, the nearest fortress was the Iron Age hillfort of Flodden, which, in Tudor times, had not been in use for a millennium and a half. Neither had it played any part in the battle. Branxton was the hill, on which the Scots had stood, and it was the nearest habitation, but it was a tiny village, so not really grand enough to describe a battle in which a king was killed.

32. A Section of the Flodden Trail

Various links to local crafts and traditions have been promoted and one such thread is the Mauchline style wooden trinket boxes produced by A and R Robb of Coldstream in the 19th century, using wood from Flodden field. A and R Robb are said to have presented a book with a wooden cover depicting a scene from Walter Scott’s novel ‘Marmion’ (based on the Battle of Flodden) to Queen Victoria, and it is hoped to have the book on display in Coldstream Museum nearer the time of the 500th anniversary of the battle (2013)


In conclusion it is important to explain that this is a much simplified account of the Battle of Flodden. The diplomatic story is much more complex than suggested here, as are the details of the actual battle. The conflicting evidence and debates about various issues have been omitted, although the existence of such conflicts is often noted.


I have made use of three reference works in this essay, but rarely quote from them directly. They are;

(i) William Seymour, “Battles in Britain” (Wordsworth Editions, 1997),

(ii) John Prebble, “The Lion in the North” (Penguin, 1973)

(iii) David Smurthwaite, “Battlefields of Britain” (Michael Joseph, 1993)

1. The Final Mêlée of the Battle of Flodden (google images)

2. Henry VIII, King of England

3. James IV, King of Scotland (google images)

4. Louis XII, King of France (google images)

5. Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey (google images)

6. Map of The Two Nations (Author)

7. The Encirclement of France by the Powers of the Holy League (Author)

8. The Battle of the Spurs, 16 August 1513 – Artist’s Impression (google images)

9. Map of Anglo-Scottish Border showing captured fortresses (Author)

10. Gatehouse and Keep (Main building) of Norham Castle, Northumberland (Author – field photograph)

11. A Corner Bastion of Ford Castle (Author – field photograph)

12. The Keep (Main building) and part of the Curtain (Outer) Wall of Etal Castle (Author – field photograph)

13. The North of England, showing Principal Objectives for a Scottish Invasion (Author)

14. Map of Earl of Surrey’s Line of March from London to Northumberland (Author)

15. English Heralds in Procession at Windsor Castle (google images)

16. Flodden Hillfort standing 500 feet above the flat fields of the plain (Author- field photograph)

17. Twizel Bridge over the River Till (Author – field photograph)

18. Map of the Movements of the Armies Prior to the Battle (Author)

19. River Till with steep, tree-covered banks (Author – field photograph)

20. Scottish Position on Branxton Hill, as seen from the English Centre on Piper’s Hill (Author – field photograph)

21. English Position on Piper’s Hill, seen from Branxton Churchyard (behind English Army) (Author – field photograph)

22. The Disposition of the English and Scottish Forces at the Start of the Battle (Author)

23. The Development of the Battle – Principal Movements of Units (Author)

24. A Selection of Billhooks (google images)

25. Pike versus Billhook (google images)

26. King James IV of Scotland (John Prebble, op. cit.)

27. The Royal Arms of Scotland – a red lion rampant within a flowery border (Jřrí Louda, “Lines of Succession” Little, Brown 1999)

28. The Arms of the Dukes of Norfolk, after 1513 (C W Scott-Giles, “Shakespeare’s Heraldry”, Dent, 1950))

29. Family Tree of the Howards (those in red came to violent ends) (Author)

30. The 1910 Flodden Memorial Cross on Piper’s Hill looking towards Branxton Hill (google images)

31. Aerial view of Branxton Church (google images)

32. A Section of the Flodden Trail (google images)

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One Response to Flodden – A Scottish “Greek Tragedy”

  1. Deskarati says:

    What an excellent post Alfy. Our historical knowledge is gradually increasing thanks to your ever interesting yet concise and easy to read essays. Just what we need here at Deskarati. We wait with bated breath to hear what the next might be.

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