The ‘Auld Alliance’
The Battle of Flodden Field was undoubtedly the most famous confrontation between the English and Scots ever fought on English soil. It took place eight miles to the north west of Wooler near the village of Branxton on September 9th, 1513 in the reign of Henry VIII.
In that year England was at war with France and it was the French queen who persuaded King James IV of Scotland to renew the ‘auld alliance’ and assist the French by invading northern England.
Money and arms were sent to Scotland from France in the following months enabling King James to build up an army for a large scale invasion of England. In August 1513 the first minor battle took place on Milfield Plain near Wooler in which an army of Scots under Lord Home were heavily defeated. The English knew this was only the ‘warm up’ for a greater battle that would inevitably follow.
King James invades
On August 22nd, King James of Scotland crossed the River Tweed at Coldstream, entering England with an army of between 60,000 to 100,000 men. They burned the fortress of Norham on the Tweed and the nearby castles of Ford and Etal on the River Till. King James’ pretext for invasion was revenge for the murder of Robert Kerr, a Warden of the Scottish East March, who had been killed in a fray by a Northumbrian called John ‘the Bastard’ Heron in 1508.
King James made Ford Castle, (a Northumbrian stronghold of the Heron family), his battle headquarters, where only the lady of the house, Elizabeth Heron was present. For a number of days the king remained at Ford while his men rested.
During this time it is said he was fully occupied by the amorous attentions of Lady Heron. Whatever the King’s battle intentions may have been at Ford, his actions so far amounted to little more than a large-scale border raid. In fact many of his men had already returned home to Scotland with booty of English goods and livestock.
The English prepare for war
Meanwhile, to the south, the English were busy preparing for battle. Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who had been left in charge of the defence of England while Henry VIII was away fighting in France, mustered a force in London and marched north to Pontefact where he held a Council of War. Here he was joined by the fighting men of Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
From here, Surrey marched on to Durham where he prayed before the shrine of St Cuthbert in the cathedral and collected the sacred banner of the saint – always good for morale in time of war. Surrey then continued north to Newcastle, where he was joined by the men of Northumberland and Durham. They included the retainers of the Bishop of Durham and those of Percy, Lord Dacre, and William Bulmer of Brancepeth.
Henry Percy, ‘the Magnificent’ Fifth Earl of Northumberland, (a descendant of Harry Hotspur) did not take part in the battle since he was away in France helping the king with the siege of Thérouanne and Tournay but the earl’s brothers, Lionel and William Percy did join up with Surrey’s men. Other additions to the English army included a crack regiment of archers under Sir Edward Stanley and the men of the Lord Admiral, Thomas Howard, who was Surrey’s eldest son. He in turn was supported by his younger brother Edmund. Marching north, Surrey’s men stopped first at Alnwick and then continued north to Wooler, where they began to prepare for battle.
A camp on Flodden Hill
By this time King James had moved from his headquarters at Ford Castle and crossed to the western side of the River Till where he set up camp on the top of Flodden Hill. To here the English sent a messenger challenging the Scots to meet them in battle on Milfield Plain north of Wooler. The Scots refused. They were not willing to vacate their advantageous lofty position for the flat levels of Milfield. For the time being at least, they remained where they were. By this stage the English and Scottish forces were roughly equal, with around 30,000 men each.
The day of the battle
On the following drizzly morning of Friday 9th September, 1513, the English assembled for battle and in two parties made their way north along the eastern flank of the River Till. The rearguard crossed the river by a ford at Heaton Castle (now gone) and the vanguard crossed further north at Twizell Bridge. All this took place in full view of King James. Sir Walter Scott sets the scene:
From Flodden ridge,
The Scots beheld the English host
Leave Barmoor Wood, their evening post
And headful watched them as they crossed
The Till by Twizell Bridge.
High sight it is, and haughty, while
They dive into the deep defile;
Beneath the cavern’d cliff they fall,
Beneath the castle’s airy wall.
By rock, by oak, by Hawthorn tree,
Troop after troop are disappearing;
Troop after troop their banners rearing
Upon the eastern bank you see.
Still pouring down the rocky glen,
Where flows the sullen Till,
And rising from the dim-wood glen,
Standards on standards, men on men,
In slow procession still,
And sweeping o’er the Gothic arch,
And pressing on in ceaseless march,
To gain the opposing hill.
Although king James could clearly see the movements of the English as they crossed the River Till for some reason he decided against attacking them at this early stage when the enemy was at its most vulnerable. Instead James ordered the burning of camp refuse, creating a dense wall of smoke, which temporarily blocked out the English view of his movements.
When the smoke finally cleared, the entire Scottish army had moved their position northward from Flodden Hill to the adjacent Branxton Hill. It is worth noting that the Battle of Flodden was known for many centuries as the ‘Battle of Branxton’.
It was an important move by James since the English could well have planned to occupy Branxton Hill, as Sir Walter Scott suggests in the poem, but now all that lay between them and the Scots was flatter land. This meant that when the English attacked they would have to fight their way uphill, and the Scots had the advantage of being able to charge down the slope towards their enemy.
Before the English could contemplate battle and get anywhere near the Scots they had to cross one major obstacle, a large marshy area formed by the Pallinsburn, a tributary of the River Till. Indeed the name Flodden itself is a reference to the marshy flooded landscape.
James thought this would hold the English up and tire them out but he was mistaken; the English had men with knowledge of the local countryside and the mossy area was quickly negotiated by means of the Branxton Bridge, a feature unknown to King James. The English began to assemble in a field at the foot of Branxton Hill with the awesome sight of the Scots looking down upon them.
The battle commences as a border fray
The time was four o’ clock in the afternoon, when the Scots opened fire on the English, who looked so vulnerable down below. The battle commenced. Almost immediately the inexperience of the Scottish gunmen became apparent. Unable to handle their cumbersome artillery, the Scots were missing their targets while the English fired back with much greater precission until gradually the Scottish guns and gunmen were blown to pieces.
James was quick to react; he noticed a weakness in the right wing of the English army, a section of mainly Lancashire and Cheshire men under Edmund Howard, whose men looked rather disorganised and hungry. Edmund’s followers were supposed to have been backed up by a reserve of English borderers under Lord Dacre, but these men seem to have fled the battle scene.
James ordered the Scottish left wing, composed mainly of Scottish borderers under the leadership of Lord Home, to attack this English ‘Achille’s heel’. Home’s men gladly obliged and went charging down the hill towards the English right wing, causing most of Edmund’s men to flee.
The brave who remained were quickly slaughtered. Fortunately for the English, Lord Dacre and his English borderers reappeared on the scene, rescued Edmund and engaged themselves in a battle with their Scottish counterparts. John Heron and his men added support.
So the opening stages of the battle resembled a kind of grand border fray, with many of the familiar border reiving families, involved in the action. Meanwhile the remainder of the English right wing, under the leadership of Surrey’s eldest son, the Lord Admiral, now came under attack from the Scottish section, led by Lords Crawford and Errol. The Battle was now well under way.
King James attacks
King James, excited by the scene before him was impatient to get involved with the action. In a moment of irrational impulse he wildly led his Scottish centre charging down the hill towards the English centre, commanded by the Earl of Surrey. The sight of King James and his men must have struck terror in the English hearts but they stood their ground and greeted the charge with an onslaught of arrows.
At the base of the hill the Scottish charge was considerably slowed down and almost brought to a halt by an unexpected ridge and a boggy area at the foot of the hill. This was a stroke of luck for the English, for it meant that the Scottish charge lost its momentum. A fierce battle now began at the base of the hill.
Now only the Scottish right wing and English left wings were yet to engage in battle. This time the English took the initiative with Edward Stanley marching his men up Branxton Hill towards the Scots at the top of the hill. Here the Scots army was comprised of fierce looking highland clansmen, under the leadership of the Earls Lennox and Argyle, but Stanley’s skilled fighting men were too much for the highlanders. Some fled for their lives, while others including the chiefs of the Campbells and McCleans, remained to be slain.
Defeat was occuring all around for the unfortunate Scots so their king desperately began a charge towards the English banners held high where the English leaders were located. His actions proved fatal; the king was felled from his horse almost unrecognised by his enemies. The following morning he was one of ten thousand Scottish victims who lay dead on the field of battle.
The attitude of the borderers
Amidst all this slaughter it is interesting to note the attitudes of the border reiver factions of the English and Scottish armies who showed their true colours as the fight progressed. Mosstroopers and reivers from both nations, most notably from the dales of Tyne and Teviot gathered together under the leadership of Lord Home and began stripping the slain of their possessions and plundering the baggage of both armies as the night of fighting continued. National pride and identity were seemingly a low priority for the borderers in those days gone by.
A victory for the English
The Battle of Flodden was a decisive victory for the English. For the Scots it was a disaster of gigantic proportions, with many of the most important members of Scottish society killed or slain in the conflict. The Scottish dead included twelve earls, fifteen lords, many clan chiefs an archbishop and above all King James himself. It is said that every great family in Scotland mourned the loss of someone at the Battle of Flodden that day. The dead would be remembered in the famous Scottish pipe tune, ‘The Flowers of the Forest’:
We’ll here nae mair lilting at our ewe milking,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae,
Sighing and moaning on a ilka green loaning,
The flowers of the forest are a wede away.
Today a large granite cross marks the site of the Battle of Flodden. It is touchingly inscribed;
‘TO THE BRAVE OF BOTH NATIONS’