Flodden 1513: the biggest ever Anglo-Scottish battle

Just over five hundred years ago, a Scottish army invaded England in an attempt to thwart Henry VIII's challenge to their independence. George Goodwin describes what happened when the two sides clashed at Flodden Field

King Henry VIII, shown here around 1520, was in his early 20s when his decision to attack France challenged the position of James IV. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In 1542 King Henry VIII published a declaration asserting “the true and right title that the king’s most royal majesty has to the sovereignty of Scotland”. As evidence, he cited ‘history’ and the ancient division of Britain together with documentary ‘proof’ that the kings of Scotland had paid homage to their English superiors no fewer than 17 times from the 10th century onwards.

Although this was an act of the mature and tyrannical Henry, it exactly matched his behaviour 30 years before, when in 1512 he had parliament describe his brother-in-law James IV, King of Scots, as “the very homager and obediencer of right to your Highness”. In 1512, this was a means of indicating that the young Henry was now an active king, no longer passively accepting the peace policies of his father, Henry VII, but one preparing to emulate the actions of his hero Henry V by invading France. But for James IV, it was an extraordinarily hostile act, threatening this gifted monarch’s achievements over two decades and, in particular, that of having finally gained England’s apparent recognition of Scotland’s independence.
In his attempt to deter Scotland from its Auld Alliance with France – an alliance that implied the possibility of mutual military support should either be attacked by England – Henry VIII’s belligerence was unnecessary and counter-productive. It was to be the fundamental cause of the greatest ever Scottish invasion of England and the biggest Anglo-Scottish battle – at Flodden, in Northumberland 500 years ago, on 9 September 1513.
Henry VIII’s assertion in early 1512 was all the more noteworthy because, just a decade before, Henry VII and James IV had negotiated the countries’ first permanent peace agreement since 1328. Its purpose was made clear in its name: the Treaty of Perpetual Peace.

Anglo-Scottish peace

The new amity had been marked by the proxy betrothal of James IV with Henry VII’s eldest daughter, Margaret, then 12. The marriage took place in Edinburgh in 1503, after Margaret made a journey of six weeks from her father’s new Renaissance palace of Richmond. But to call it a mere journey is to undervalue it completely. Organised by the lord treasurer, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, Margaret’s royal ‘progress’ was display on a magnificent scale, and that was its point. It was designed to show that Henry VII’s Tudor dynasty was secure and permanent. Henry had ascended the throne in 1485 with a very dubious claim to it. He was in a vulnerable position – one that the continental powers and, closer to home, Scotland, could exploit to their own advantage.
The Channel may have geographically separated the island of Britain from the continent, but in no way did it do so culturally and diplomatically. Henry VII wanted to increase the prestige and recognition of his dynasty through the marriage of his eldest son, Arthur, to a daughter of the great new nation of Spain. Its rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, would only give their consent provided there was peace and stability both inside England and with Scotland.
James IV knew this and following border warfare in 1496 and 1497 he had offered peace, but at a price. It was paid through the eventual marriage of the ‘Thistle and the Rose’ and the terms of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace – but also because the treaty was negotiated between two sovereign kings. For Henry VII, who had spent 14 long years of exile in Brittany and France and who contemporaries said “preferred peace to war”, this was a price worth paying.
James IV may have been described as now ‘filial’ to Henry VII, but he was by no means subservient to him. On the contrary, he acted with complete self-determination, taking full advantage of the opportunities offered to him as a Renaissance king in a period of extraordinary change. This was a time of great invention, of printing, effective artillery and seaworthy ships of broad-beamed stability. James brought the last two together in a way that was revolutionary, building ships as gun platforms that blasted the bases of the Lords of the Isles and brought their lands under his domination.
For the first time in history, this King of Scots effectively ruled what we now know as Scotland and brought nobles from all over the country into his councils. Royal printers were licensed to produce a great number of works, among them the Scotichronicon, an epic history of the Scots, one that stressed the separate independent identity of Scotland and its people with such authority that it was with justification that Walter Bower, its 15th-century co-author, wrote that “Christ, he is not a Scot who is not pleased with this book”.
James did not just claim independence of action within Europe. He gave naval support to his uncle King Hans of Denmark and commissioned the largest and most powerful ship in Europe, the Great Michael, and offered it to Pope Julius II for use in a crusade against the Turks. Julius had more pressing concerns in Italy, but in 1507 James was awarded the papal prize of the Blessed Sword and Hat – the first King of Scots in more than three centuries to receive it.
James competed with other rulers in the magnificence of his display, in court ceremonial, tournaments and in palace architecture. At a time when many courts sought the services of Erasmus, the influential scholar from the Netherlands, it was James who secured them as tutor to his illegitimate son Alexander for a lengthy stay in Italy. All this magnificence came at a cost, but James’s competent ministers extended royal administration and taxation on an unprecedented scale and he was able, just, to balance the books. The English “homager and obedience” declaration of 1512 upset everything.

A new king flexes his muscles

There had been no immediate change when the 17-year-old Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509. The Treaty of Perpetual Peace was not in doubt and in 1510 his ministers even negotiated a treaty with the French.
But by 1512, with the aid of Thomas Wolsey, Henry had learned to assert himself, entering into an anti-French alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and the papacy, and demanding Scottish obedience. This James could not ignore, but though he did renew the Auld Alliance with France, he made attempts to avoid war on British soil. There were many months of Scottish ambassadorial shuttle diplomacy, seeking to solve the main dispute between the papacy and France. James also attempted to limit his support of France to naval warfare, which, surprisingly, did not breach the terms of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace.
In the late summer of 1512, Baron Dacre, Henry’s warden-general of the Marches (the English and Scottish Marches were buffer zones on each side of the Anglo-Scottish border), wrote to Henry that he thought a little diplomacy and four to five thousand angels (or around £1,500) would settle the Scots. And as late as the early summer of 1513, some of Henry’s ministers were anticipating a limited naval war with Scotland. But, by then, the die was cast.
James’s policy of peace with England may have been sensible, but, following centuries of Anglo-Scottish hostility, it was not popular. It was respected because of James’s outstanding personal authority. Yet Henry’s belligerent approach not only threatened the peace, but also that authority. James could not be seen to bend the knee and instead had to face the likely consequences of a land war with England. He could not contemplate doing that in isolation. But, by the summer of 1513, a France about to be invaded jointly by Henry and Maximilian was prepared to pay a good price in money and weaponry for Scottish support. Thus on 22 August, when Henry VIII, the bulk of his nobility and his first-rate soldiery were fighting in France, James crossed the river Tweed, the historical boundary between Scotland and England.
His initial successes were outstanding. He took the border fortress of Norham within six days, together with the subsidiary one of Wark. The castles of Etal and Ford followed. By the end of the month, James was in control of the entire English East March. He had time to prepare an impregnable position on Flodden Hill and wait for the arrival of Henry’s secondary army, equipped with antiquated weaponry and commanded by the 70-year-old and arthritic Earl of Surrey, a man whom James had got to know and like 10 years before, after Margaret’s grand progress had reached Scotland.
On 5 September, Surrey was close enough to the Scottish army to send Thomas Hawley,  Rouge Croix Pursuivant (a heraldic appointment with diplomatic and ceremonial duties), with an offer of battle on the 9th. Hawley was met some distance from James’s camp and detained to prevent him reporting the Scottish position. The next day, James sent his own Islay Herald back to Surrey, full of compliments and with the news that he accepted the challenge. With work done, Islay then went off for a major drinking session with the English York Herald, indicating that there was honour among heralds at least. Soon after, the released and returned Rouge Croix revealed the strength of James’s position: the English would be advancing into a crossfire of emplaced modern artillery and their disordered columns would then be wiped off the field by the all-conquering military manoeuvre of the day – the pike charge.
That James believed that the time and place had been agreed would explain his volcanic reaction when Rouge Croix returned to the Scottish camp on the 7th with a letter from Surrey stating that it had been agreed they would fight on the flat ground of Milfield Plain, and asking why James was showing no sign of moving from his fortress on Flodden Hill. James’s reply was given by a servant who communicated his fury with the words, “that it was not fitting for an earl to seek to command a king. His grace will take and hold his ground at his own pleasure and not at the direction of the Earl of Surrey.”
That was the entire nub of the matter, and a response to Henry as much as Surrey. James was not some sort of British lord under the sway of the English king, but a sovereign in his own right and a chivalric one at that. How dare Surrey doubt his word. The matter was settled. Thus it may have been of little surprise to James that, next day, Surrey’s force was seen to be marching north-eastwards, surely towards security within the English fortress of Berwick. When they halted that evening they were far closer to Berwick than to the Scottish position on Flodden Hill. James may not have gained the great victory he wanted, but by holding his ground, he had won the ‘honour’ of the day.
Perhaps James could not be expected to have appreciated one crucial point. Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and his eldest son, Thomas the Lord Admiral, were desperate men. They had both expected to be close to their king on his glorious campaign in France, but they had angered Henry VIII and been sent, ingloriously, to command his second army. ‘Honour’ to the Howards was a more minor consideration. The Howards needed a battle because they needed a victory. Anything else and they were finished.
Thus as the English army began to move at 5am on 9 September, it was no longer heading to the north east, but moving to the west and then, having crossed the river Till, heading south. The Howards aimed to cut off James’s return route of just a few miles to the border by taking Branxton Hill, slightly to the north-west of the Scots’ position. They were ready to give battle at 4pm – but from a position a few hundreds yards away, below the hill, as the Scottish army had got there first. James was to have his battle after all.
What was to become known as the battle of Flodden was both the last medieval and first modern British battle. The ‘last medieval’, because the longbow played an active part for the final time; the ‘first modern’, because it began with an exchange of artillery fire.
The English guns were more effective, but this was a mere prelude to the Scottish pike charge. James had equipped the Scots with the weapon which, when employed en masse, had proven itself on the battlefields of Europe. The Scots, in four columns, around a hundred yards apart, began to advance at intervals in the standard echelon formation (with units arranged diagonally behind one another). The first group under Lords Hume and Huntly smashed into the troops of Surrey’s younger son, Edmund Howard, with such success that many of them broke ranks and ran – and Surrey was forced to send in his reserve, Dacre’s cavalry, to hold the line.
The second group, facing the Lord Admiral, were not so successful, losing momentum as they hit boggy ground at the bottom of their part of the hill. This was disastrous: the success of a pike charge lay in its momentum. That lost, the disordered individual pikes became a hindrance and were dropped in favour of swords and other side arms. Equipped with an eight-foot bill, an agricultural tool for scything, the English common soldier now had the advantage over a four-and-a-half foot sword.
The third group, led by James himself, faced Surrey. In spite of the difficulties of the ground and the discarding of the pikes, the Scots pushed Surrey’s troops back. If James had killed Surrey, the day should have been his. He got within a spear’s length – but no further. With the Admiral’s section crunching through their opponents, James’s group was now being attacked in the flank. The Scots were extraordinarily brave in the face of this onslaught; they did not break, but fought on.
The fourth part of the Scottish echelon, lightly armoured Highlanders, had hardly advanced when they started falling under a hail of arrows from Sir Edward Stanley’s flanking attack. Stanley’s men could then shoot volley after volley of arrows into the rear of James’s forces. The Scots could only fight on, hoping that nightfall would save them. For many it did. But not James, the last British king to be killed in battle, nor his brilliant son Alexander, nor 21 peers, not to mention the sons of peers, the gentry and the common soldiery. The Battlefields Trust estimates that when the battle commenced the Scots had between 35,000 and 40,000 men and the English 26,000. At its close the Scots had lost 10,000 and the English 4,000.
Flodden was an appalling Scottish defeat. Yet, in spite of the loss of their king and so many lords, and in spite of the extraordinary faction fighting during the minority of James V (just 17 months old when he became king after Flodden), the basic administration and very entity of Scotland held together. That was a tribute to the two decades of brilliant rule by James IV – as also was the ability of James V, in spite of his weaker position, to provoke Henry VIII into his 1542 declaration of sovereignty over Scotland.
The Anglo-Scottish War of 1513 was not of James IV’s making, but such was the seriousness of Henry VIII’s challenge that he had to respond. At Flodden, James had failed to realise the desperation of the Howards and the existence of the groundwater at the foot of Branxton Hill. Without one of these factors, the day would have ended very differently. Flodden has been allowed to obscure King James IV’s achievements. These were great and long lasting, including the creation of Scotland itself. Perhaps with Flodden’s 500th commemoration this year, it might be time to give him his due.

7 key moments in the battle 

1

Opening salvos

The lighter English field guns are more effective than the heavier Scottish siege guns, which have a much slower rate of fire.

2

Scots pikemen attack

The first part of the pike attack under Lords Hume and Huntly smashes into the English right under Surrey’s son Edmund Howard. His line begins to break.

3

Dacre rescues

Surrey throws in his reserve – Lord Dacre’s cavalry. Edmund is  rescued by John ‘the Bastard’ Heron and Dacre shores up the position. After bitter fighting both sides stand off. Meanwhile the second group of Scots pikemen advance against the Lord Admiral’s position. 

4

In the mire

The second group hits boggy ground. The momentum is lost and their pikes useless. The English billmen wade in.
5

King enters battle

James IV attacks Surrey’s English centre and, despite poor ground, has some success, getting to within a spear’s length of Surrey himself. 

6

Highlanders routed

Stanley ambushes lightly armed Highlanders with his archers. They are slain or forced to flee. 

7

English arrowstorm

Stanley’s archers send volleys of arrows into James’s men from the rear. The Scots are attacked on three sides and the king is killed in fierce fighting.


James’s horrific injuries

James IV (right) was the last British king to die on a battlefield. He was identified the day after Flodden by the English lord, Thomas Dacre, who had got to know him well during an Anglo-Scottish expedition against the Border Reivers – lawless raiders along the border – in 1504. Such familiarity was necessary because James had appalling injuries. One was caused by an arrow in his lower jaw, which would probably have disabled him sufficiently for attacking English billmen to move in and slash him with their weapons, virtually severing his left hand and finally, mercifully, slicing him across the throat. It was a horrific death for a great and proud king.
Flodden changed the collective destiny of the Howard family: Henry VIII gave Surrey the title of Duke of Norfolk and made the Admiral an earl. But, bearing in mind James’s wounds, the way that the Howards celebrated the famous victory might seem in poor taste. Their arms were augmented with an escutcheon that was a variation on the Royal Arms of Scotland. Only the top half of the lion rampant was shown, to ensure that the key element could be seen: the arrow piercing the lion’s mouth.

The battle of the royal gene pool

In 1513 Henry VIII and James IV were royal rivals at the most fundamental level. James had a baby son and heir whereas Henry did not. More importantly, Henry’s lack of a child made James, by right of his queen, Henry’s elder sister Margaret, the effective heir to the English throne. As relations deteriorated, James was not slow to point this out. Furthermore, the Scottish monarch reinforced his ‘Britishness’ through chivalric display and by claiming the legacy of King Arthur: Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh had its name at this time and Stirling Castle had long been claimed as the site of Camelot.
As to the question of whose genes would flow through future generations, this was a contest that James IV would win: he is an ancestor of Elizabeth II, whereas Henry VIII is not. Henry VIII’s children all died without issue. James IV and Margaret Tudor’s granddaughter was Mary, Queen of Scots, and their great-grandson was James VI who became James I of England. James’s daughter Elizabeth was the ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia and her grandson became George I on the death of Queen Anne.
Kings also compete to emulate their predecessors. Henry VIII’s ambition to be compared to Henry V through success in France was a fundamental cause of the wars of 1513. A triumph at Flodden for James IV would inevitably have brought favourable comparison with Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314.
George Goodwin is the author of Fatal Rivalry – Flodden 1513: Henry VIII, James IV and the Battle for Renaissance Britain (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013)