History explorer: the battle of Flodden
Katie Stevenson tells Spencer Mizen how the Scottish Borders were thrown into turmoil by a titanic Anglo-Scottish clash
It’s 1514 and the kingdom of Scotland is in a state of utter disarray. An English army has just defeated a Scottish invasion force in a titanic battle, Scotland’s king is dead, and bands of English marauders are roaming the borderlands preying on the weak and vulnerable.
The Scottish Borders have, it seems, never been at a lower ebb. But there’s some fight left in the people yet. For out of the town of Hawick rides a small band of youths determined to teach the English raiders a lesson. They catch up with their foe at nearby Hornshole and put them to flight, before returning home with a captured English banner.
Cold-hard historical truth? Heavily romanticised legend? To the people of Hawick it hardly matters, for the story of the ‘Callants’ – as the youths of 1514 are more widely known – is as woven into the story of Hawick as the wool trade on which the town built its prosperity.
The Hawick Callants’ exploits have been commemorated in art and memorialised at the spot where the Hornshole skirmish is said to have taken place. Yet, most visibly of all, they are celebrated in the heart of Hawick itself. There, dominating the town’s high street, is a statue of one of the Callants on horseback, raising the captured banner aloft in triumph as he enters the town, fresh from the skirmish.
This statue – unveiled in 1914 on the 400th anniversary of the event it commemorates – is an imposing symbol of martial prowess. But, more than that, it is a representation of the Scottish Borders’ defiance in the face of adversity. And what adversity. For a year earlier, just over the English border at a place called Flodden, the Scots had suffered one of their greatest military reversals, in the largest ever Anglo-Scottish battle. Not only would this defeat cost thousands of lives and rip the heart out of the nobility, it would help define the way that the people of Scotland thought about their country and its history for centuries.
Best of enemies
To the casual observer, it may appear that the English and Scottish were constantly at each other’s throats from the time of Edward I’s wars of conquest in the 13th century to the union of the crowns in 1603. Yet, as Katie Stevenson, senior lecturer in late medieval history at the University of St Andrews, explains, just a few short years before the battle of Flodden, relations between the two nations were actually relatively good. So much so that in 1503, Henry VII of England consented to his 13-year-old daughter Margaret marrying James IV, Scotland’s dashing, accomplished (and 30-year-old) monarch.
“This was a union with benefits for both nations,” says Katie. “Historians have often portrayed it as a real coup for James – he was, after all, marrying into this fantastic Tudor dynasty. But you’ve got to remember that, in 1503, the Tudor dynasty was in its infancy, and desperately trying to establish its legitimacy. The Stewarts, on the other hand, had ruled Scotland for 130 years and oversaw a relatively settled administration. Henry was all-too eager to buy into that stability.”
And it wasn’t just Scotland’s stability that made the alliance an appealing proposition for the English. James IV, the man, was an attractive proposition too. “He was in every sense a renaissance prince,” says Katie. “He was a great patron of the arts and sciences, conducting science experiments in his own courts and keeping track of the latest developments in Europe. He was a far more outward-looking monarch than his predecessors, and that created a confident, attractive atmosphere at court.”
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An English invasion
But James’s outward-looking nature was to set him on a collision course with his southern neighbour – for in 1509 the English throne passed to Henry VIII, a monarch with designs of his own in Europe.
“Henry was an ambitious, bellicose king who yearned to reclaim English territory in France,” says Katie. “That presented James with a serious problem, for Scotland had an agreement to come to France’s aid in the event of an English invasion. So when, in June 1513, Henry did just that – allying himself with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and the papacy in a conflict with France – James was forced to act.”
That action – a diversionary tactic designed to draw English resources north while Henry and the bulk of his nobility were on campaign in France – was an invasion of England. And it met with early success. Within a matter of days, James had taken the border fortress of Norham and the castles of Etal and Ford. Now, with a sizeable chunk of north-east England under his control, he awaited Henry’s response.
“I don’t think Henry ever seriously considered returning to England to confront James himself,” says Katie. “In his view, the Scottish invasion was a mere sideshow to the more significant events going on in France. But James had to be dealt with, and so Henry sent the Earl of Surrey, an experienced commander from a successful military family, to face him.”
The two sides met at Flodden in Northumberland on 9 September 1513. We can’t be sure how many men were involved in the clash – the Battlefields Trust estimates that James’s army numbered between 35,000 and 40,000, while the Earl of Surrey brought 26,000 men. Other sources suggest that the two sides were more evenly matched. Either way, it was a huge clash – one in which the Scots suffered a crucial disadvantage.
“It had been raining heavily in the days before the battle, and the ground was extraordinarily muddy,” says Katie. “That proved catastrophic for the Scots, because the tight, claustrophobic, boggy conditions seriously compromised the effectiveness of the long pikes that they used in battle.”
At first, James’s army appeared to be gaining the upper hand, an initial pike attack smashing into the English right flank and causing the line to buckle. But when a second pike attack floundered in the mud, the English pounced. First their footsoldiers – with their shorter, more manoeuvrable bills – made ground. Then Surrey’s archers moved in, raining arrows down on the Scottish ranks. By now the Scottish were firmly on the back foot but it wasn’t until news broke that their king had been cut down – part of his body allegedly removed from the battlefield and identified by an English lord the next day – that the fight left the Scots. James remains the last monarch to die on the battlefield in Britain.
With James’s death, the 1513 Scottish invasion of England was well and truly over. In the past, the defeated invaders might have limped back over the border to lick their wounds and fight another day. Flodden was different. Not only had the Scots’ charismatic leader been cut down, they’d lost perhaps 10,000 of their men on the battlefield, including a huge chunk of the nobility. And it was this last fact that made Flodden such a black day in Scottish history.
“In most battles of the time, knights would be taken hostage and ransomed,” says Katie. “But that doesn’t happen at Flodden. The fighting was incredibly tight, intense, hugely claustrophobic, and so you get this situation where the nobility are massacred too. With such a loss of life among the ruling classes, the impact on Scottish society must have been shocking.”
It is hard to know exactly what life was like in Scotland in the immediate aftermath of Flodden because, for the next 50 years of so, the battle all but disappears from Scottish records. And it would be another three centuries before Flodden began to have a major impact on Scottish culture. Now, with the nation in a political union with the auld enemy, the battle began to enjoy a new – and deeply romanticised – afterlife.
Chivalry and loss
“Marmion, Walter Scott’s 1808 poem about Flodden, was a watershed moment for the battle’s place in the Scottish national consciousness,” says Katie. “Marmion introduced Flodden to the world. And the idealised portrait that it painted of the events of 1513 instantly made them useable to the people of Scotland as watchwords for suffering, chivalry and loss.”
Subsequent events in Scottish history only served to reinforce Flodden’s relevance to the nation’s vision of itself. “Suffering and loss have been a continuous theme of the past 300 years,” says Katie. “You’ve got mass emigration as thousands of young men left for the New World to find work, you’ve got the resentment and dislocation of rapid industrialisation and, of course, the terrible death tolls suffered by Scottish regiments in the two world wars. Time and again, Flodden has provided the Scots with a way of talking about what happens when large numbers of men are no longer around.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Scottish Borders. “There’s little doubt that the bloodbath at Flodden had its greatest impact on Scotland’s border towns,” says Katie. “As James’s invasion dragged on, as more men were needed to garrison the captured castles, you can bet it was from this area that they’d have been pulled in. And it’s probable that the huge losses suffered at Flodden would have fallen especially heavily on Border towns like Hawick and Selkirk.”
Accordingly, Hawick and Selkirk were at the vanguard of the post-Scott movement to memorialise Flodden. In Selkirk the most obvious manifestation of this is the Fletcher Monument, a bronze statue, erected in 1913, to commemorate the return to the town of the only survivor of 80 Selkirk men who fought at Flodden. The hero is depicted bearing an English flag that he has just cast to the ground amid the bereaved, weeping wives and children. Barely a year later, Hawick followed suit with the Callant statue.
It’s more than five centuries since the men of Hawick fought and died at Flodden. But a stroll down the high street to the Callant statue leaves you in no doubt that the battle continues to loom large in the imagination of the Scottish Borders today.
Katie Stevenson is a senior lecturer in late medieval history at the University of St Andrews. Words: Spencer Mizen.
Battle of Flodden: 5 more places to explore
The Flodden memorial (Northumberland)
Where a Scottish king was cut down
The best place to start any tour of Flodden is the granite cross memorial. Erected in 1910 to commemorate the dead of both nations, it offers wonderful views across the battlefield. Fully illustrated boards help you to visualise the battle as you walk around the site.
Go to visitnorthumberland.com
Selkirk (the Scottish borders)
Where a sole survivor is honoured
Legend has it that, of all the men from Selkirk to fight at Flodden, just one survived. His name was Fletcher and the Fletcher Monument, a statue of this defiant warrior holding aloft a captured English banner that he brought back to Selkirk in the aftermath of the battle, takes pride of place in the town centre.
Go to visitscotland.com
Hornshole memorial (near Hawick, Scottish borders)
Where Borders pride was restored
The famous Callants may have hailed from Hawick but it was at nearby Hornshole that they reputedly put English raiders to the sword and captured their banner. Today their exploits are marked by a memorial near Hornshole’s bridge.
Go to flodden1513.com
The Flodden window (Coldstream, the Scottish borders)
Where the battle is remembered
One of the most eye-catching memorials to the events of 1513 is a stained-glass window in Coldstream parish church, unveiled in 2009. You can also visit the nearby Tweed ford which James IV’s ill-fated army crossed on 22 August 1513 before invading England.
Go to flodden1513.com
Sybil’s Well (Flodden)
Where Marmion is said to have died
In the 19th century, Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford commissioned Sybil’s Well, a Gothic niche set into rockface on Flodden Hill. What makes the well so pertinent to Flodden – or at least the legend of Flodden – is that it’s here that Marmion, the hero of Water Scott’s famous poem about the battle, is said to have died.
Go to pmsa.org.uk