Haunted Battlefields: The Ghosts of Flodden

by JoHarrington

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.

On September 9th 1513, King James IV of Scotland invaded England with the best equipped army of his day.

With time to entrench his troops and dig in his guns, it should have been the greatest victory in Scottish history. Instead it was its biggest defeat.

The king and most of the Scottish nobility were wiped out in just three hours. The 34,000 ordinary soldiers died in their tens of thousands. In political terms, the country has still not recovered 500 years on.

No wonder the Flodden battle-site has such a reputation for being haunted.

Flodden: A Scottish Tragedy by Peter Reese

An Angel's Warning for James IV Before Flodden

St Michael, St John or a local man dressed up? Someone appeared to the Scottish king before Flodden with a terrible prediction.

King James IV knelt in prayer in the church of Linlithgow, on the eve of the march towards England and Flodden.

His musters had sounded and his mind was made up. Despite the contrary counsel of his closest advisors, and the desperate entreaties of his wife (who was also Henry VIII's sister), James was going to war.

As he made his peace with God, the church doors opened. A startling figure strode down the aisle.

A young man with flowing blond hair, wearing an azure robe which seemed to move by its own breeze. He wore sandals and there was a scarlet, muslin sash about his waist.

James IV was in no doubt that he was in the presence of an angel. The chroniclers mention either St John or St Michael. The commanding visitor never left a calling card.

Nor did the golden youth appear cowed in the face of monarchy. He marched right before King James and gripped the bar in front of him. Leaning on his arms, glaring just inches away from the monarch's eyes, he delivered his message.

The Virgin Mary had sent him to intercede.  If James persisted in this fool's errand of war, then the Scots would die en masse.  The Mother of God bade him stay within Scottish borders and disband his forces.

Moreover, James was warned never to take the counsel of women.

This latter was seen as a reference to the fact that it was the Queen of France who'd appealed to James personally. She had sent him a ring from her own finger, as a token of her regard, if he'd just invade England for her.

It was apparently not meant to allude to the fact that Mother Mary was issuing commands via Her angels.

Though shaken to the core, after the figure had strode out of the church, James was still committed to his war. He told a good number of people what had happened in Linlithgow, but did not retract his orders.

The Scots marched to Flodden Hill.

The Battle of Flodden by Nathaniel Williams

A Deadly Flodden Prophecy in Edinburgh

In Scotland's capital city, the merchants and their customers were going about their business, when something quite spooky occurred.

Image: Edinburgh MercatMiles away, in Edinburgh, before the battle was even fought, the citizens stood shocked and terrified. There was no source for that ghostly voice.

A city full of witnesses peered around the area by the Mercat. But the monotone seemed to come from Heaven itself.

The Mercat was no hidden back alley. This central location was where the merchants raised their stalls, and items of great import were communicated to the people. The surrounding buildings contained the city seats of commerce, justice and religion. Criminals were hanged by the back wall.

On the evening of September 8th 1513, a ghostly voice recited names, one after the other. It went on for hours and thousands of people heard it.

Many recognized the names being spoken. They belonged to loved ones or local noblemen, who had marched away days before to invade England. They had answered the call to arms of their king, James IV, who was doing this to aid the French.

The English would be forced to fight a war on two fronts, if both Scotland and France adhered to the Auld Alliance.  While Henry VIII led his army into France, it was left to his wife Queen Catherine of Aragon - riding alongside the Earl of Surrey - to defend their realm from the Scots.

Those names, sounding across the Mercat as an unemotional litany, could be matched to live men stationed upon Flodden Hill.  The Fateful clash wouldn't come until morning.

When it did, the significance of the Mercat names selected would be tragically and horrifically apparent. The spectral voice only read out those who would die. 

Over 17,000 names were heard in Edinburgh on the eve of Flodden. To this day, no-one knows from whence it came.

Ghosts Stories from Edinburgh

Supernatural tales about Flodden aren't the only spooky fare on offer in this historic city. Sometimes you feel like the ghosts outnumber the living.

Flodden's Ghostly Congregation in Edinburgh's St Giles

Thousands of men died on the Flodden battlefield without having received the last rites. So they came back to hear them read.

News did not travel fast in 16th century Scotland. At least not by today's standards.

Northumbria may have been border country, but it was still a very long, hard ride to reach Edinburgh from Flodden.

Even the next day, the burgesses of Scotland's capital city were still talking about 'a great rumor', rather than the fact of the disaster befalling their king's campaign.

But one man knew very well what had occurred. Gavin Douglas, the Provost of St Giles's Cathedral, had spent the night doing his duty as God's representative on Earth.

Today, St Giles, in the center of Edinburgh, is a massive building. Back in 1513, before the Reformation partitioned off so much of its space, it was even bigger still. Fifty chantries lined its walls, as generations of nobility had endowed the edifice.

On the night of September 9th 1513, as around 17,000 men lay dead or dying at Flodden, Provost Gavin Douglas was alone in his cathedral.

He was possibly trying to work out the meaning of the ghostly voice the night before, in the Mercat just outside his door. If so, then he was also about to become the first person in Edinburgh to get the answer.

Without the great cathedral doors opening, his aisles and pews began filling up. As the clergyman looked on, with his heart in his mouth, he saw thousands of phantoms gazing mournfully back. They kept on coming, until they filled every foot of available space.

Every man there was a Catholic. They had died without the last rites. Provost Douglas understood this, though it was not spoken in the eerie silence.

He put on his robes and prepared his altar. One by one the apparitions lined up before him. As each dead Scot received his last rites, he disappeared, then came the next.

So no, Provost Douglas didn't need to hear of any 'great rumor'. He'd spent the whole night discerning very well the tragedy that had befallen Scotland; and he'd not shrunk from doing his best.

Flowers O'The Forest by the Scots Guards

This lament was composed to honor the fallen of Flodden. It is often played at Scottish funerals and memorials today.

Battle of Flodden History Books

Fatal Rivalry: Flodden, 1513: Henry VIII and James IV and the Decisive Battle for Renaissance Bri...

Flodden 1513: the biggest and bloodiest Anglo-Scottish battle. Its causes spanned many centuries; its consequences were as extraordinary as the battle itself. On September 9, 151...

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Flodden 1513: Scotland's greatest defeat (Campaign)

Osprey's examination of the Battle of Flodden, in which the Scottish and English armies clashed on 9 September 1513. The Scots were superior in terms of artillery and well-train...

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The Battle of Flodden Field: The Defeat of the Scots by the English, 1513

A fateful day for Scotland. The Battle of Flodden Field was founded upon the soundest of military maxims-'to take the enemy in rear whilst he is directed upon another enemy.' Unfo...

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Phantom Re-Enactment of the Battle of Flodden

Over the centuries, numerous reports have come from eye-witnesses on and around the Flodden battle-site. They've heard or seen it all happening again.

Flodden MemorialTurn left onto the B6352, from Northumbria's A697, and you are driving along a stretch of road known as the most haunted in Britain.

It is here where countless drivers have slammed into an emergency stop, to avoid men in 16th century costumes wandering across the road.

It is here where too many travelers have heard the sounds of pikes on bills, and the screams of dying men.

It's little wonder then that this is an area which attracts a lot of ghost-hunters. Especially around the anniversary of the battle.  Reputedly, the entire clash is replayed, in the vale between Flodden and Branxton Hills, every September 9th.  Though the sightings continue all year round.

The Site of the Battle of Flodden

This ghostly battle re-enactment is generally viewed as a 'recording' rather than sentient apparitions fighting. Ghost-hunters refer to it in terms of the landscape itself replaying events, as if the very rocks beneath recoil from what happened there.

Others note that most of the dead are buried in mass graves on the site. It may be that they really are seeking never to be forgotten, until their bodies are removed to consecrated ground.

If so, then those phantom battles should abruptly stop, if archaeologists are successful.  As part of the 500th anniversary events and memorials, there is a bid to find the final resting place of Flodden's fallen.

Though, of course, the opposite could be true. Flodden field's ghostly residents might be seen with ever more frequency, as their mortal remains are disturbed.

What do you think?

Ghost Stories from Northumbria

These creepy tales hail from the very north of England. Northumberland (or Northumbria) is the county where all those Scottish border battles took place.

More True Hauntings from Britain and Ireland

Next to Culloden, the Pass of Killiecrankie is seen as the most haunted battle site in Scotland. Jacobite soldiers and a ghoulish woman are still encountered there.
On April 16th 1746, the last pitched battle on British land took place on Drummossie Moor. Up to 2000 Jacobites lay dead, or injured and dying, in the heather. It was never over.
Are there Hungry Fields in Ireland waiting to trap unwary walkers? And if so, what ghosts lurk within? True Irish hauntings as recounted to me.
Gigantic white dogs, screeching hags taking to the air, rogue candles lighting the darkness and owls outside your window, all part of dying if you're Welsh.
Updated: 09/12/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 09/06/2013

I'm looking forward to my contract with great glee. LOL

cmoneyspinner on 09/06/2013

Yeah. Sometimes decisions can be fatal.

I'm wondering how to contact the History Channel. This is good stuff!!

JoHarrington on 09/06/2013

I agree with every word of that, and so did most of the people around James IV. All of his counselors, plus his wife, were against invading England in this instance. This is why some have assumed that the 'angel' was someone dressed up. He was sent by one of James's council to try and dissuade him.

Unfortunately James wouldn't see sense on this one.

cmoneyspinner on 09/06/2013

Jo, You are a qualified historian and speak as such.

Me? I'm just a peacemaker-type thinker, viewing a situation hundreds of years later way after the fact and going: "I would have figured out a way not to go to war."

I was watching an old movie the other night and the husband was sick but he was a soldier. His wife said he should ask not go back. He said that wouldn't be honorable. She said: "So what! You'd be alive and you'd be with your family!" I sided the wife. I say her logic was flawless. :) Of course the guy died and left her a widow.

I am reminded of a quote I heard in YAM - yet another movie. :) The old man says to the young manly man who is gung-ho for getting into battle, trying to urge him to reconsider his position:

- "I've taken part in many wars in my lifetime. And at the time the reason for going to war always seemed so very important. No I can't even remember what we fought them for."

Sadly, not everyone lives through a war and are around to give others such sage advice.

Bottom line? I HATE WAR!!!
(And I'm sure you do too, Jo. We are sister peacemakers.)

Please don't get me started on Syria!

JoHarrington on 09/06/2013

frankbeswick - He could have dismissed Margaret Tudor as a tender hearted woman, who knew nothing of politics.

I think that James IV regretted not listening to Mother Mary, when he was dying on Flodden battlefield, in the midst of the worst battlesite massacre of Scots ever.

JoHarrington on 09/06/2013

cmoneyspinner - It wasn't a matter of friendship. It was a matter of chivalry, which was very important back then. If he didn't come to the aid of the lady, then he wasn't a gentleman and possibly not even a man. (Beyond the biology.)

They most definitely were real, but it wasn't a friendship. it was part of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, where one would always come to the aid of the other. If James IV didn't help France now, then he couldn't count on France helping next time England invaded them!

It was politics, chivalry and pride.

frankbeswick on 09/06/2013

Yet the king's wife, to whom he had a greater and more lasting commitment than he had to the queen of France, beseeched him not to go to war. Should he not have preferred her counse to that of the queen of France?

Let's presume that there is some truth in the angel legend. If Mary the mother of Jesus, who is pretty close to God, sends you a message, you had better listen. She is a very senior person.

cmoneyspinner on 09/05/2013

Yes he probably said that he had committed to the Queen, but if he really had a good relationship with the Queen he could have confided in her, told her he had a change of heart and would she allow him to choose an alternative plan. What are friends for?

These are real people we're talking about. Real people who can and should have been able to talk to each other. Leaders of countries talk to each other all the time. Game changers happen!! Plans for war can get changed. At least ... that's what they say in the documentaries I watch. (O.o)

I say it was the king's pride. I'm done!

(Jo, you know what a hard head I am. Don't try to change my opinions with facts.) :)

JoHarrington on 09/05/2013

That's precisely what he told his advisors and friends. He had already committed to helping the Queen of France, and his chivalry wouldn't let him desert her, when she'd asked him personally.

cmoneyspinner on 09/05/2013

I believe in angels. I also believe the human mind is quite powerful. In the case of James, I think he had deep-seated misgivings about going to war and wasn't himself fully DECIDED, but had already COMMITTED to it. At that point, his pride wouldn't let him back down even if it was the right thing to do. "Pride goes before destruction." :)

That's my take. He's dead now. We'll never know!

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