The battle of Flodden was the biggest ever Anglo-Scottish battle. But why did the two sides come to blows, and what, more than 500 years on, can we learn from the battle? Here, historian George Goodwin rounds up the fundamental Flodden facts:
When: 9 September 1513
Where: Branxton, Northumberland
Who: The armies of James IV, King of Scots, and English king Henry VIII
Why: James IV and Henry VII had agreed a Treaty of Perpetual Peace in 1502. James believed this had brought formal recognition of Scottish independence.
But when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 he tore up the treaty, and in 1512 had parliament describe James as “the very homager and obediencer of right to your Highness”.
Under the treaty, Scotland could still maintain its Auld Alliance with France – an alliance that implied the possibility of mutual naval support should either be attacked by England.
Forced to avenge the insult of Henry tearing up the treaty, and in support of France, who was about to be invaded by Henry, James invaded England.
What happened in the battle of Flodden?
On 22 August 1513 James crossed the river Tweed, the historical boundary between Scotland and England, with the largest-ever Scottish army to invade England. His success was immediate. He took all the major fortresses in Northumberland.
On 5 September the Earl of Surrey (the commander of Henry’s army) sent diplomat Thomas Hawley to the Scottish side with an offer of battle. The next day James sent his own Islay Herald back to Surrey, accepting the challenge. The armies would go to battle on the 9th.
James’s army was in a fantastic position on the top of Flodden Hill, and to attack would have been suicidal for Surrey. So he sent Hawley back to argue that the sides had agreed to fight on flat ground.
Outraged, James communicated his fury with the words “that it was not fitting for an earl to seek to command a king”.
The next day, Surrey moved his army north-eastwards towards Berwick. The following morning they doubled back, and James realised they were going to attack his army from the rear.
James got to Surrey’s intended position – Branxton Hill – first. He still had the advantage of higher ground.
How the battle unfolded: At 4pm there was an exchange of artillery fire, but neither the guns nor, indeed, the archers worked well because of appalling weather.
James launched a pike attack against the English right flank. It began to crumble. Panic threatened to grip the entire English army. This was a decisive moment. Surrey now threw in his reserve and held the line.
James’s second line attacked but hit boggy ground, and so all momentum was lost.
They dropped their pikes and brought out their swords, but were then fighting against the 8½ foot bill, an adapted agricultural scything tool. The English common soldier now had the advantage.
The Scottish third unit, under King James himself, hit the same boggy ground. However they still pushed Surrey’s own troops back. Had James been able to kill Surrey, he would have won the battle.
But instead the Scots were now under attack from three sides, with English archers adding to the carnage by firing into the rear of the Scottish forces. Of the 34,000 Scottish soldiers, 10,000 were killed. This compared to 4,000 on the English side.
James IV was also killed in the battle, as was almost all his nobility. The English side was victorious.
Catherine of Aragon and Flodden
The involvement of Henry VIII’s queen in the defence of England has largely been written out of history, says John Edwards, often restricted to a tongue-in-cheek remark she made to Henry’s minister Thomas Wolsey that she was confining herself to “making standards, banners and badges”. But in fact, while her husband was engaged in largely ineffective manoeuvres in north-eastern France, Catherine gave executive orders.
But Henry’s Spanish wife was now acting as a patriot for her adopted country, using hostile language against both the French and the Scots. She regarded her husband’s expedition to France as a crusade, since Louis XII had rebelled against Pope Julius II. As for the Scots, she boasted in 1512 that the English “would conquer and annihilate the kingdom of Scotland, according to the fashion in which the Catholic king [her father, Ferdinand] treated the king of Navarre [who had been defeated and conquered, also in 1512]”.
It was no idle boast. Surrey’s northern army inflicted a military, political and social disaster on the Scots at Flodden in Northumberland on 9 September 1513. By the time that famous battle had reached its bloody conclusion, King James IV, a number of his bishops, and much of the Scottish nobility, lay dead on the field.
Despite her own role in the great victory, Catherine told her husband that: “This battle hath been to your grace and all your realm the greatest honour that could be, and more than ye should win all the crown of France.”
Looking back from a distance of 500 years, the battle of Flodden can be regarded as a high point in Catherine’s life, says Edwards. Here was a queen who, almost from the day she arrived in England, had been a favourite of the English people. Here was a woman whose keen intellect had impressed some of the sharpest minds in 16th-century Europe. And now to these accomplishments could be added a display of grit, initiative and no little skill in the midst of a national emergency.
What were the outcomes and the significance of the battle?
– Shock for the Scots: the Scots went into shock at the loss of a great king. But 17-month-old James V was crowned just over a week later, and the basic administration of Scotland held together.
– Triumph for England: the Earl of Surrey and his son the Lord Admiral were rewarded by Henry VIII and Surrey was made Duke of Norfolk.
– Fatal errors: James suffered a catastrophic defeat for two reasons: first, Surrey reinforced at a crucial moment; secondly, James’s soldiers fought on ground he had not properly surveyed.
– A win-win for the independence debate: interestingly, James can be claimed by both sides of the Scottish independence debate. By the ‘yes’ campaign as the king who believed he had finally negotiated independence for the Scots; and by the ‘no’ campaign as the father of the line of eventual Stuart kings of both Scotland and England starting with James VI and I. He and not Henry VIII is a key ancestor of Elizabeth II.
George Goodwin is a fellow of the British Library and the Royal Historical Society
This article was first published in September 2013