Remembering the Battle of Flodden 500 Years On

by JoHarrington

It was the largest battle ever fought between Scotland and England. Yet it was chivalry which condemned the Scots to their heaviest loss of life in a single day.

On September 9th 2013, it will be the quincentennial anniversary of the Battle of Flodden.

For the Scots, this will be a poignant memorial. Up to 17,000 of their ancestors lay dead on that field, once the smoke had cleared. The first effective mass deployment of English artillery had mowed them down.

Scottish King James IV was surrounded and killed in the English melee. He left his country under the control of his wife, Margaret Tudor, the sister of the English king; and his crown in the cradle of their infant son.

500 years on, we remember the greatest disaster in Scottish history; and the death of chivalry in Britain.

How Chivalry Killed the Scots at the Battle of Flodden

At the beginning of the battle, James and his army were safely positioned at the top of a broad ridge. By the end of it, they were dead in the marsh.

It's said that every noble family in Scotland lost at least one man at Flodden.  As for the common people, they died in their tens of thousands.

Moreover, the battle set a ball rolling into a series of catastrophic events for their country. It would ultimately lead to Scotland forced into the United Kingdom; an Act of Union, which saw them ruled from Westminster.

The worst of it all is that none of this had to happen.  King James IV had positioned his vast army perfectly.  He could have slaughtered every Englishman on that field. But he didn't.  It wouldn't have been the chivalrous thing to do.

Instead, the king stayed the Scottish hand. He watched while the men from Cheshire and Lancashire marched with reckless vulnerability into the open.  James allowed the English time to position themselves, where they at least had a fighting chance of surviving.  Only then did he give the command to charge.

What he hadn't reckoned upon was a fatal flaw in the weaponry supplied to his Scottish forces, nor the deadly effectiveness of a new English tactic in archery and cannon-fire.

The 'Treaty of Everlasting Peace', which James had signed with the English monarch only ten years before, was disastrously broken.  Scotland and the whole Medieval history of chivalry in battle with it.

Britain now had the grim, deadly reality of Renaissance warfare, and an English hegemony to wield it.

A Clash of Two Kings and Two Ideologies

James represented the courteous warfare of the fading era. Henry was there to usher in a new bloody age of logic over etiquette. He just wanted to win.

The two kings couldn't have been more different.  James IV of Scotland was descended from an ancient line of monarchs.  Henry VIII of England ruled only because his dad had killed Richard III at Bosworth.

James was older, just turned forty.  Henry was in his early twenties.  James had watched several English monarchs come and go.  He was related to half of the royal families in Europe.

The Tudor Dynasty was barely established. Henry had ruled for just six years.  He hadn't expected to be king, and hadn't been educated with that office in mind.  It took the death of his elder brother, Arthur, to make that so.

James IV himself had provided much needed diplomatic credence for the Tudors by marrying Henry's own sister.  Then he'd caused them trouble by lending support to the Plantagenet pretender Perkin Werbeck. 

Henry was desperate for the kind of respect, which would transcend such dependence upon the whims of foreign rulers.  He was ruthless and aggressive. He just wanted to win, and the result would always justify the means.

James IV was the epitome of a Medieval monarch. He had the grace and security to approach warcraft as a true knight.  He misjudged Henry, in thinking that they were abiding by the same rules. As the Tudors were Welsh, James had studied the Arthurian legend and figured it had resonance.

It didn't.  Henry's father and family name were Welsh.  He owed his kingdom to a Welsh army.  But he was born and bred in England.  He spent his entire life playing down that Welsh heritage and debt.  He was more English than the English, and the first monarch to attempt to ban the Welsh language.

The two kings disagreed over one key point.  James IV saw himself as monarch over an independent Scotland.  Henry VIII considered himself the Overlord of the entire of Britain.  That difference of opinion is what led to the battlefield of Flodden, but it had already played out in correspondence and manoeuvrings for years before.

James IV had considered all of that play-acting.  It was a substitute for the war that had been avoided by the Treaty of Everlasting Peace, signed between their nations in 1503.  Henry VIII was simply preparing for war.

James entered Flodden in the belief that he was dealing with the army of an honorable knight.  Instead he came face to face with English forces formed by a man, whose massive inferiority complex emerged in fury and absolute power.

In short, it was like someone bringing a machine gun to win a game of cricket.

Books About the Battle of Flodden

The Birth of British Renaissance Warfare at Flodden

Two surprises awaited the politely idealistic James IV of Scotland at Flodden. These unforeseen strategies slaughtered the Scots.

Medieval warfare, of the kind espoused by James IV, involved members of the nobility raising private armies, then committing to the cause.  That's what 'privileged' actually means - the right to create a company of militia.

These knights led from the front.  Their fighting prowess was as much to do with the spirit of engagement, conforming to rules of etiquette, as it did actual violence. 

But this way of doing things could be dangerous for their leaders, as the Tudors knew very well. It was the defection of Lord Stanley at Bosworth, which ended the Plantagenet monarchy, and brought the Tudors to the throne.

For the Tudor monarchy, this state of affairs was not at all ideal.  Particularly since most of the English nobility (secretly) considered them to be Welsh upstarts.  The danger of defection, just as soon as a viable alternative became available, was even higher for them than any other dynasty in Europe.

So Henry VIII began experimenting with something new. It was put into practice at the Battle of Flodden.

It was actually his queen, Catherine of Aragon, who commanded his forces at Flodden, through the Earl of Surrey.  Henry was at the helm of a second English army in France. But all of the military tactics originated with him. 

Renaissance warfare collected all of the small militia companies into blocks of larger forces.  Their lords were placed at the back. Everyone answered to a single commander instead.

Thus it was at Flodden that ranks of commoners faced rows of Scottish nobles.  It must have seemed at the start like it would be the English who'd be slaughtered en masse.  But one more major insertion turned the traditional leadership, employed by the Scots, into a desperate disadvantage.

The Welsh and English longbows had been destroying armies for over a century.  Cannons and muskets had entered the battlefield during the Wars of the Roses.  In both cases, they were deadly but inaccurate.  There was also a lull after each missile had been fired.  It could take up to eight minutes to refill and prime a 16th century cannon.

Renaissance warfare introduced a startling new idea.  It arranged the archers in two or more rows, one lower than the others.  One row of archers fired, the other crouched down to reload their weapons.  At a signal, they swopped places.

Such a strategy unleashed a constant storm of arrows and cannonballs into the oncoming forces. There was no pause in which to dash forward.  It was co-ordinated in a straight line. There was no opportunity to dodge out of the way.

Those Scottish nobles leading from the front were the first to die.  There was no-one left alive to command the troops, nor sound the retreat.  Waves upon waves of untrained commoners merely rushed forward, following their fallen lairds into the slaughter.

More Battle of Flodden Books

Why Flodden Still Matters in the 21st Century

This isn't merely an old battle, long fought and consigned to dusty history books. The legacy of Flodden is still felt around the world, whenever military forces go to war.

The 500th anniversary of Flodden will be widely marked with memorial events in Scotland. 

As the nation is currently embroiled in another bid for independence, it will have political resonance in the modern day.

The English too will commemorate the clash.  After all, the battle was fought in Branxton, Northumbria. All of those dead Scots were buried in English soil. 

There's plenty of tourism surrounding the site.  Flodden 1513 has listed the events on its website.

Yet they shouldn't be the only ones remembering the events of September 9th 1513.  The repercussions of that day are still being felt across the world.

It stripped honor from the battlefield. We live in a world where 'all's fair in love and war'. Where the rules of engagement were trampled underfoot in the Flodden marsh, and now anything goes.

Before Flodden, a battle was won once the commander was captured or killed. Now he or she is merely replaced and the fighting goes on.  In this way, wars can last for years.

Before Flodden, there were few tactics for the battlefield.  Weaponry developed and became upgraded, that's all. After Flodden, everything was about strategies, working out how to kill as many people as possible.  Though the survivors didn't know it, they had witnessed the opening salvo of the arms race.

We're still suffering for that.  The centuries have gradually moved from an idea at Flodden - better deployment of archers - into mutually assured destruction of today.  The killing machine became industrialized and so much bigger.

Before Flodden, those ordering men into battle knew every one of them personally. He would have to live in the vicinity of their families afterwards. He shared their danger by leading them into the melee.

Today, generals can be miles away.  They might not even know the names of the people whom they order into the fray.  

But worst of all, Flodden demonstrated very well how effective one large, centrally commanded army can be. 

Imagine how many wars could have been avoided, if nations called upon their militia only when necessary, and let them return to their farms, forges and fields for the rest of the year. But that will never happen today, it's for that reason, if no other, we should lament Flodden.

It changed our world for the worse.

The Flowers of Flodden: A Scottish Lament

Articles about the Wars Between England and Scotland

The Battle of Bannockburn marked a key turning point in Scottish history. Its 700th anniversary is in 2014. Robert the Bruce forged freedom for Scotland.
On Flodden field, in 1513, the largest battle ever fought between England and Scotland left up to 19,000 men dead. It remains perhaps the eeriest place in Britain.
From the Romans to the English, the Scots had managed to repel every threat from south of its border. Until the conquerors came, not with swords, but with a crown.
On May Day 1707, a group of politicians huddled in secret to sign the Act of Union, while rioting Scots sought desperately to stop them. Thus Great Britain was born.
Updated: 07/19/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 09/12/2013

Now that I can totally agree with, in the case of of Henry VIII!

frankbeswick on 09/12/2013

What is of interest is that he saw himself as virtuous. Genuinely holy people do not think of themselves as righteous, as they are painfully aware of their flaws of character and sins. Once we see ourselves as virtuous, we become blind to our faults and let ourselves do al kinds of wrong.

JoHarrington on 09/12/2013

I doubt many have any love for Henry VIII. Horrified fascination and morbid curiosity maybe, but definitely no love. From my point of view, he was a murderous despot.

But he genuinely did think that he was virtuous. Before he had his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, he spent a long time with his Bible and religious writings. He argued that he should never have been married to her in the first place, because of Biblical scripture.

I'm not saying that his interpretation of Deuteronomy and Leviticus were correct. Merely that he believed them to be so.

Yes, he committed adultery with his mistresses, but so did many other kings at his time. In context, that wasn't seen as going against the commandments. It was seen as the perk of monarchy. As for his marriages, he always carefully annulled the previous one, before he married again, as that would have counted as adultery, or bigamy.

frankbeswick on 09/11/2013

I do not think that Henry was godfearing. He knew the ten commandments: you shall not commit adultery, which he committed as a matter of course. He was intelligent enough to know the church teaching on unjust war, which he perpetrated often enough. He knew the church teaching against the murder of innocents, which he commited more times than I can count. He was one of those who deceived himself about his own virtue.

Sorry! Having grown up in a Catholic family of Irish Catholic tradition, I have no love for Henry, and I struggle with Elizabeth the First.

JoHarrington on 09/11/2013

Bizarrely, Henry VIII seems to have been genuinely very God-fearing, but yes, he did manage to convince himself that his interpretation of God was the correct one. It pretty much allowed him to do whatever he wanted.

frankbeswick on 09/11/2013

I reckon that the God that Henry truly worshipped was himself.

JoHarrington on 09/11/2013

I see similarities between him and any who would kill (or commit genocide) in the name of religion. Each time violence, torture and massacres happen on behalf of any deity, it erodes another chuck of respect from that religion.

frankbeswick on 09/11/2013

Massacring whole regions of Catholics! Can you see similarity between Henry the Eighth and President Assad?

JoHarrington on 09/10/2013

Which makes the 'beautiful desolation' up there a lot more chilling.

frankbeswick on 09/10/2013

Quite true, Jo.

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