Five hundred years ago, in autumn 1513, James IV, one of the most effective and attractive of Scotland’s rulers, led an army of unusual size and quality into northern England. The young Henry VIII had embarked on a military expedition in northern France, and Scotland responded to French calls for aid by invading England. James IV’s army was equipped with an impressive number of modern cannon cast in bronze and was accompanied by Continental experts in the latest techniques in warfare. The army and its cannon made short work of a number of English border castles and towers. In Northumberland, James awaited the English army, led by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Though apparently possessing advantages in ground, equipment and supplies, James allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred by Surrey, who cut off the Scottish army’s route north, forcing it to move to Branxton Hill, where its cannon could not be effectively positioned. James was still confident enough to risk battle against the smaller English army, but the resulting clash on 9 September 1513 was a disaster for the Scots. In a valley to the north of his camp on Flodden Edge, James suffered a heavy defeat. After coming under fire from the English cannon the Scottish forces advanced down the hill into the boggy valley, where their pikes proved no match for the old-fashioned billhooks used by the English. The loss among the kingdom’s leaders was unparalleled in an era in which the taking of wealthy and important prisoners for ransom was standard. James, who had placed himself and his nobles at the head of his army, was hacked to death and his 20-year-old illegitimate son, Alexander, archbishop of St Andrews, died alongside him. Nine earls, 13 other peers and many of Scotland’s lairds and clergy were also killed.
For Scots, the name of Flodden is associated with crushing national defeat and loss. The battle is the best known of a long sequence of military disasters suffered by Scotland in wars with England between the end of the 13th century and the 1540s. As an example of the waste of war, it seemed to retain its relevance for later generations. Like many other Scottish battles, it has its own song (written much later):
The Flooers of the Forest, that focht aye the foremost
The prime o our land, lie cauld in the clay.
Historians have sometimes regarded the battle as a psychological turning point in Scotland’s history. Flodden, it’s said, undermined the confidence of the country’s rulers and governing classes in the ability of their small realm to play a role in Europe, most obviously as a counterweight to England. James IV is seen as having been forced into invasion and battle by the requirements of more powerful states. Flodden left what Alex Massie described in the Scotsman as a ‘shrivelled, enfeebled Scotland’. What had been a confident, cultured and stable kingdom was dogged by ‘a century of instability’. Subsequent generations of Scots showed an understandable reluctance to embark on war with England. Their country increasingly became a pawn of the larger realms of England, France and Spain, until religious alignment, political self-interest and dynastic accident led to the union of the English and Scottish crowns in the person of James IV’s great-grandson and Henry VIII’s great-great-nephew, James VI and I, in 1603.
Defeat has not helped shape the national psyche in England as it has in Scotland. Hastings, a battle of far greater significance, has been generally seen as a formative event rather than a destructive one. In traditional narratives, its losses are balanced out by the progress achieved by Norman rule in the formation of state and nation. In England, Flodden doesn’t appear on the list of iconic national military victories, a list that has always privileged success against the French – at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt – over victories won on these islands. It is striking too that Flodden has been largely ignored in the recent flood of books and TV series about Tudor history. It is still remembered in Northumberland, where the battle was fought and won by an army overwhelmingly recruited from northern England. The men of the region saw the Scots as their ancestral enemies and their victory outshone anything achieved in Henry VIII’s French campaign. The efforts of northerners in defence of Tudor England are interesting, given their – sometimes exaggerated – support for Richard III against Henry VII in 1485 and the widespread support for the Pilgrimage of Grace, the massive northern revolt against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536: dislike of Scotland trumped dislike of the Tudors. The recent coverage of the Tudors has focused on Henry, his queens, his children and his court, and on the period after 1530; diplomacy and war with the Continental powers have provided the broader setting. Scotland’s role is confined to the soap opera of Mary Queen of Scots and her more significant but much less glamorous son, James VI.
Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513 provides a welcome antidote to the usual run of work on the period. George Goodwin places the events of 9 September 1513 in the context of the two kingdoms and their interrelated royal dynasties over the quarter-century leading up to the battle. He follows most Scottish historians in being impressed with James IV’s qualities as a ruler. Like his Tudor contemporaries, he seems a much more tangible figure than his predecessors, no doubt partly as a result of the survival of the financial accounts of his household, as well as many diplomatic letters and portraits. The architecture of his residences at Stirling and Linlithgow and the quality of the work of the court poet William Dunbar have encouraged praise of the culture of James’s court. After a difficult beginning to his reign, he had come to possess the easy and secure authority that previous Scottish kings had lacked and which may have been envied by the Tudors. The readiness of almost all of Scotland’s great nobles to serve in the royal army in 1513 was a mark of James’s standing within his realm.
James and Europe’s other monarchs ruled over increasingly defined states in a world dominated by the formation and breach of leagues and alliances. James’s decision in 1502 to seek peace with England, sealed by his marriage to Margaret Tudor, Henry VII’s daughter, the next year, was a pragmatic one. The match, lauded by Dunbar as the marriage of ‘the Thistle and the Rose’, didn’t mean stable peace let alone a friendship between Tudors and Stewarts that might point to future union. Relations between James and his Tudor in-laws were never smooth, and the maintenance of links with France was both a matter of Scottish pride and a useful counterbalance.
Like his brother-in-law, Henry VIII, James IV regarded leading his kingdom in war as a central duty of a monarch and saw the preparation for conflict as a pleasure. His construction of a small royal navy – with the Great Michael, for a short time the largest warship in Europe, at its heart – was testimony to his financial resources and his interest in military technology. Henry’s response was to build a slightly larger ship, a decision marking the start of his own long-term interest in the navy. James’s new fleet meant he could play a role in a European conflict as an ally of France without breaking the terms of his treaty with England by waging war on the border. But when Henry went to war against France in 1512 a naval campaign alone did not satisfy James. The despatch of the Scottish fleet, it could be argued, should have been enough to fulfil Scotland’s obligations to France. James entered the conflict not because he was trapped by the terms of the Auld Alliance but because he wanted to be involved in person. Seventeen years earlier it had been the desire for war with England which had prompted James to take full control of his kingdom’s affairs. The 23-year-old king backed the English pretender Perkin Warbeck in 1496, hoping for the chance of martial adventure in northern England. His rashness on campaign led the Spanish ambassador to say that James ‘loves war’ but was ‘not a good captain’. The new campaign was similarly a matter of personal choice. James had no real objectives beyond forcing Henry to abandon his expedition to France, though Goodwin suggests that he may have hoped to annex lands along the English border and recover Berwick-on-Tweed. James’s decision to await the advance of Surrey and then to commit his army to battle were those of a king intent on humiliating his brother-in-law.
In many ways, Henry’s delusions matched James’s: although his invasions of France from 1513 to the 1540s didn’t lead to military catastrophe they were ruinously expensive. His goals – the recovery of Gascony or Normandy and even the capture of the French throne – suggest that he failed to grasp the reality of international power politics. Such delusions may have been common to kings who ruled increasingly well-defined and centrally administrated states but who lived in a more medieval mental world, one of challenges to single combat, claims to thrones and leadership in battle. A lack of realism in foreign policy is hardly unique to the early 16th century, however, and we should be careful not to see James’s death as a result of his following medieval ideals in a modern world. For more than a century before Flodden, Scottish armies had been careful to avoid full-scale battle against the English. In campaign after campaign the Scots had retreated in the face of the enemy, surviving to resume war or diplomacy. James’s decision to fight and its acceptance by his subjects was a consequence of his authority and, perhaps, a belief in his power. There is a link between the king’s successes and his ultimate failure.
Thousands of his subjects died alongside James. The scale of the loss accounts for Flodden’s place in the history of Scotland. Writing in the 1560s, Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie claimed that on the night the army left Edinburgh, a ghostly voice named a long list of individuals summoned to appear before the devil within forty days. Only one of them returned from Flodden. Artists, writers and musicians have been drawn to the story. Walter Scott set Marmion around the battle and several 19th-century painters depicted its widows and survivors. The annual Border Ridings restage the return of the survivors to their hometowns.
The losses suffered by the Scots fell heavily on the governing class: it’s significant that Edinburgh’s financial accounts were returned for that year by two women, although women were normally not allowed to carry out such official duties. The arrangements for young heirs to inherit the estates of fathers killed ‘at the field in Northumberland’ are dry, legal evidence of the impact of the battle throughout Scotland. The special measures used to give widows and fatherless children access to the properties held by the dead of Flodden make clear that there was seen to be a need to respond to the unprecedented death toll. With its king dead on the battlefield, Scotland was exposed to the dangers of rule by a child monarch. The accession of the one-year-old James V initiated a decade and a half of competition for influence between rival parties within Scotland and attempts by Henry VIII and his French rivals to draw the northern kingdom into their orbit.
The impact of Flodden on Scotland’s status and security can be exaggerated, however. Though the number of deaths among the landed class was exceptional, it’s likely that most of those in the Scottish army returned home. In terms of the future of the realm, although the new king was a child, the majority of the heirs of those slain at Flodden were adults able to take up active roles in their estates and in the kingdom. By the end of 1513, less than four months after the battle, a government to act for the young king had been established, the alliance with France had been renewed and plans made to continue the conflict with England. The country did not collapse, crops were sown and harvested and rents collected. After all, Scotland had plenty of experience of collective disaster. Other defeats since 1296 had left it facing invasion and conquest; Flodden had no such aftermath. Though the long minority of James V witnessed factional rivalries and periods of open conflict, these were no more damaging than those during the early reigns of previous kings, including James IV himself. In 1528, James V assumed personal control of the kingdom, enjoying the authority, if not the popularity, of his father.
What was new after Flodden was the active involvement of English and French kings in Scotland. But this wasn’t a result of the defeat so much as a product of the increased reach, resources and ambitions of the 16th-century monarchies. The period saw the creation of sprawling dynastic unions like the Habsburg Empire, the Burgundian Netherlands and the new Spanish monarchy. The web of dynastic connections would ultimately shape Scotland’s future, but not yet. During his reign James V took a pro-French stance even though, as the son of Henry VIII’s sister, he was also a possible heir to the English throne. Rather than James IV’s death at Flodden, it was James V’s premature death in 1542 that marked the watershed in Scottish and British history. Scotland became the subject of a competition between England and France for the hand of the infant Mary Queen of Scots and control of the kingdom. This ‘rough wooing’ ended with Mary’s departure for France and her marriage to the dauphin Francis. Just as Scotland was drawn into the French empire, England was made part of the Habsburg one via Mary Tudor’s marriage to Philip of Spain in 1554. Both British realms, however, were detached from these dynastic unions by the failure of either marriage to produce children as well as by political and religious reactions against union with Continental, Catholic kingdoms. It was the emergence of two adjacent Protestant kingdoms together with the failure of the Tudor line that would bring Scotland and England into dynastic union. James VI’s accession to the English throne reflected Scotland’s continued status and independence: ninety years after Flodden, he had scooped up the rewards of his great-grandfather’s English marriage.
The 500th anniversary of Flodden didn’t pass unmarked. Commemorations were held on the battlefield and in St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. At the moment, such events are inevitably considered in relation to the coming referendum on Scottish independence. Some have contrasted Flodden’s commemoration with the preparations to mark the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn later this year. The implication is that the planned celebration of Robert Bruce’s victory over Edward II of England in 1314 reflects the political agenda of the SNP Scottish government in a way that Flodden does not. The difference in the treatment of the two battles was evident in the monument erected at Flodden before the 400th anniversary, at the high point of Unionist Scotland. The inscription commemorates ‘the brave of both nations’. By contrast, the inhabitants of the village of Ceres in Fife put up a memorial in the summer of 1914 ‘to commemorate the vindication of Scotland’s independence on the field of Bannockburn 26th June 1314 – and to perpetuate the tradition of the part taken therein by the men of Ceres’. Ceres still holds games in late June to recall the battle.
The celebrations of Bannockburn aren’t mere political posturing, however: they reflect historical tradition. Bannockburn had major contemporary significance: it secured and symbolised the status of Scotland as an independent kingdom, preserved it from foreign conquest and marked the severing of ties with its southern neighbour. But commemoration is shaped by contemporary events and attitudes. In the 20th century, gatherings held to remember Flodden and Bannockburn had a new meaning in the context of modern war. Rather than as a lament for Flodden, ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ is now played to remember the First World War’s Scottish dead. Unlike Bannockburn, but like the First World War, most people think Flodden’s significance and lessons lie in the numbers who died. This message can’t easily be exploited by politicians or journalists. As a historical reference point for Scots that is largely without meaning for the English, Flodden serves as a reminder that the different countries and regions of these isles are products of diverse and even conflicting histories which define and distinguish us as much as they point to a shared past.