The Battle of Flodden Field

Flodden Field 1513

Flodden Field, battle monument
Flodden Field, battle monument looking towards Branxton Hill © David Simpson 2021

The ‘Auld Alliance’

The Battle of Flodden Field was the bloodiest and most famous encounter between England and Scotland on English soil. It took place eight miles north west of Wooler near the village of Branxton on September 9th, 1513, during the reign of Henry VIII of England and James IV of Scotland.

In that year England was at war with France, with King Henry focused on military engagements across the English Channel. In May, the French Queen sent a missive to James IV of Scotland to renew the ‘auld alliance’ and assist the French, by invading England.

In the coming months French cannon and pikes were delivered by sea along with experienced French officers to help drill the Scottish army into shape. King James soon commanded an army fit for a large-scale invasion of England.

Milfield Plain
Milfield Plain, site of a battle that took place in August 1513 in the weeks before Flodden © David Simpson 2021

In August 1513, a relatively minor battle took place on Milfield Plain north of Wooler in which an army of Border Scots who had been ravaging the Till valley under Lord Home were heavily defeated in an ambush by the men of Sir William Bulmer of Brancepeth. Over a thousand Scots were slain and only sixty lives lost by Bulmer on the English side but the English knew that 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 at Cornhill with an army of between 60,000 to 100,000 men.

Earthworks of Wark on Tweed castle
Earthworks of Wark on Tweed castle © David Simpson 2021

Firstly, they captured the great English stronghold of Wark on the south bank of the Tweed to the west. They then headed north east along the south bank of the Tweed, where they bombarded, burned and finally captured the formidable Tweedside fortress of Norham Castle, after a five day siege.

Norham Castle
Norham Castle © David Simpson 2021

This stronghold was an important gain for the Scots and it is said that it was betrayed by an Englishman from the garrison who escaped, hoping to find favour with the Scottish king. James, apparently took the English traitor’s advice, who helped identify the weakest points of the castle’s defence, and then James had him hanged.

After taking Norham, the Scots proceeded south along the River Till and seized the castles of Ford and Etal within this low lying valley.

King James’ pretext for the invasion of England had been 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.

Ford Castle
Ford Castle © David Simpson 2018

King James made Ford Castle, (a Northumbrian stronghold of ‘the Bastard’s’ half brother) his battle headquarters, where only the lady of the house, Elizabeth Heron, was present. Her husband was absent, imprisoned as a hostage at Fast Castle in Scotland, in revenge for the murderous deed of his kinsman.

Until early September the Scottish king remained at Ford while his men rested. During this time it is said, again in legend, that he was fully occupied by the diversionary amorous attentions of Lady Heron, which delayed James in pursuing his military plans.

Whatever the King’s battle intentions may have been at Ford, his actions had so far amounted to 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, had gathered men 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 (notably the dales of Wensleydale and Swaledale).

From here, Surrey marched north to Durham where he prayed before the shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral and collected the sacred banner of the saint – always good for morale in time of war.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral where the English army leader, Surrey prayed at St Cuthbert’s shrine © David Simpson 2020

Surrey then continued north to Newcastle, where he was joined by thousands of fighting men from Northumberland, Durham and Cumberland who had gathered within the town walls. They included the retainers of the Bishop of Durham and those of Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, as well as Bulmer of Brancepeth and the horsemen of Cumberland Borderer, Thomas Dacre (the 2nd Baron Dacre of Naworth Castle near Brampton).

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 English notables who took part in the battle included names such as Scrope; Grey; Collingwood; Danby; Conyers; Gascoigne; Middleton; Mauleverer; Darcy;  Bowes; Appleyard; Tunstall; Fenwick; Pickering; Thwaites; Ogle and Lumley.

A particularly important inclusion in the English army was the crack regiment of archers under Sir Edward Stanley. Another was the well disciplined and organised marines of the Lord Admiral, Thomas Howard, who was Surrey’s eldest son. The Lord Admiral was in turn supported by another unit of men under his younger brother, Edmund Howard.

Marching north from Newcastle, Surrey’s men stopped first at Alnwick and then continued north west to nearby Bolton and then onward to Wooler Haugh where they began preparing for battle.

Military movements prior to the Battle of Flodden Field
Military movements prior to the Battle of Flodden Field © David Simpson 2021

A camp on Flodden Hill

In the meantime, King James had moved his Scottish army from its headquarters at Ford Castle and crossed to the western side of the River Till where they set up camp on the top of Flodden Hill.

Discovering the Scots had relocated, the English sent a messenger challenging the Scots to meet them in battle on the broad vale of Milfield Plain north of Wooler. The Scots refused. They were not willing to vacate their advantageous lofty position for the flat level fields of Milfield. For the time being at least, they would remain where they were.

The River Till, Milfield Plain and the Cheviots
Weetwood Bridge across the River Till, Milfield Plain and the Cheviots. Photo © David Simpson 2018

By this stage the English and Scottish forces were roughly equal, with around 30,000 men each. At nightfall, from Watch Law hill to the east of the Till, English officers assessed the Scottish positions on Flodden Hill. On the morning of September 8th, the English crossed the River Till to the east of Wooler at Weetwood Bridge and made its way north, skirting the eastern side of Doddington Moor where their movements could not be seen, before encamping at Barmoor Wood to the north of Lowick.

Doddington Moor
Doddington Moor © David Simpson 2021

The day of the battle

On the 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 from Barmoor. The Lord Admiral crossed the river by a ford called Mill Ford near Heton Castle (now gone) and the vanguard under Surrey crossed further north at Twizell Bridge. According to the Sir Walter Scott’s ballad ‘Marmion’ this all took place in full view of King James:

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.

In fact these movements were hidden from the view of King James and his army could only see that the English army had proceeded north. James decided against attacking the vulnerable English army as it manoeuvred. Instead, as he saw the English approaching from the north he ordered the burning of camp refuse, creating a dense wall of smoke, which temporarily blocked out the English view of his movements.

Branxton
Branxton © David Simpson 2021

When the smoke finally cleared, the entire Scottish army had moved their position north westward from Flodden Hill to the nearby Branxton Hill to the south of the village of Branxton. It is important to note that the Battle of Flodden Field was known for many centuries as the ‘Battle of Branxton’.

The move to Branxton Hill was a significant one for King James since the English could well have planned to occupy this hill, as Sir Walter Scott suggests in his poem, but now all that lay between them and the Scots was lower lying land. This meant that when the English attacked they would have to fire their artillery and fight their way uphill, and the Scots had the advantage of being able to charge down the slope or fire down towards their enemy.

Branxton Hill
Looking south to Branxton Hill as viewed from the Flodden monument © David Simpson 2021

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 nature of this landscape in times past.

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 boggy and mossy area was quickly negotiated by a substantial section of the English army by means of the ‘Branx 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.

Pallin's Burn
In the dip below, the treeline of the Pallin’s Burn as viewed from the Flodden monument © David Simpson 2021

The battle begins

It 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 and vulnerability of the Scottish gunmen was exposed.

The Scottish guns, though superior to the English artillery in many respects were heavier and in their move to Branxton Hill they had not had time to dig them in properly, exposing the guns and gunmen to English fire. Manoeuvring the Scottish guns to shoot downwards upon the English also proved a challenge. By comparison the lighter English artillery could easily target the Scottish guns and the men who operated them, picking them off one by one.

Layout plan of The Battle of Flodden Field, 1513
Layout plan of the Battle of Flodden Field, 1513 © David Simpson 2021

Unable to handle their cumbersome artillery, the Scots were missing their targets while the English fired back with much greater precision 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, tired, hungry and a long way from home. Edmund’s followers were supposed to have been backed up by a reserve of English borderers under Thomas Dacre, but these men had temporarily left the battle scene, when their horses were seemingly spooked by the gun fire.

James ordered the Scottish left wing, composed mainly of Scottish borderers under the leadership of Lords Home and Huntly, 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.

Flodden Field, battle monument
Flodden Field, battle monument © David Simpson 2021

The brave who remained were quickly slaughtered until Edmund Howard – a potentially valuable hostage – was virtually the last remaining man on this wing of the English side.

Fortunately for the English, Dacre and his English Borderers now reappeared on the scene and engaged in a battle with their Scottish Border counterparts. John Heron ‘the Bastard’ and his band of men waded in with their support in brutal fashion and came to the rescue of Howard.

So, the opening stages of the battle resembled a kind of grand Border fray, with many familiar reiving families involved in the action. Meanwhile the English right wing, under the leadership of Surrey’s eldest son, the Lord Admiral, had come under attack from that section of the Scottish army led by Lords Crawford, Errol and Montrose who had charged downhill towards them. 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 impulse he wildly led his Scottish centre charging down the hill towards the English centre that was commanded by the Earl of Surrey.

View from Flodden battlefield
View looking north west to Scotland from the Flodden monument © David Simpson 2021

The sight of King James and his men must have struck terror in the English hearts but they stood their ground protected by the archers of Stanley to the east who fired upon the Scottish centre with an onslaught of arrows. This had been anticipated by King James who had prepared his front men with wooden shields that protected against the terrifying shower of arrows.

However, at the base of the hill the Scottish charge of both King James’ centre and that of Errol, Crawford and Montrose was considerably slowed and brought to a virtual halt by an unexpected ridge and a boggy area at the foot of the hill. Furthermore, with this loss of momentum the English with their lethal billhooks were able to destroy the Scottish pikes followed swiftly by the brutal slaughter of the pikemen.

The Scottish right wing was yet to engage in battle. Here were the fierce looking highland clansmen, under the leadership of Matthew Stewart, the Earl of Lennox and Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyle, who were preparing to come to the assistance of their king. They were taken by surprise by Edward Stanley’s skilled longbowmen who had charged up the hill to the east and fired upon their rear. It was too much for the highlanders. Some fled for their lives, while others including the Campbells clan chief and chief of the McLeans battled on until they fell amongst the slain.

Flodden battlefield site
The Flodden battlefield site is a relatively peaceful location today © David Simpson 2021

Now, King James and his men at the centre were boxed in with Stanley to the rear. A reserve Scottish unit under the leadership of the Earl of Bothwell seems to have had little impact or perhaps little will to engage at this stage of the battle.

Defeat was occurring all around for the unfortunate Scots and so in desperation the Scottish king began a charge towards the English banners held high where Surrey and the English leaders were located. His actions proved fatal; the king was felled from his horse almost unrecognised by his enemies and unnoticed by his men in the confused melee of the fight. The following morning he was one of ten thousand Scottish victims who lay dead upon 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 in this later stage of the battle 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 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 a low priority for the borderers in those days gone by.

Flodden monument
Flodden monument © David Simpson 2021

A victory for the English

Fighting continued into the twilight of the evening and in the days that followed, Dacre’s men harried and plundered the Scottish Borders. However, the Battle of Flodden Field was now over. A decisive victory for the English.

For the Scots the battle was a disaster of enormous 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.

The king’s body was embalmed and carried south to London in a lead coffin, the head later removed and treated with indignity as a trophy.

It is said that every great family in Scotland mourned the loss of someone at the Battle of Flodden. The dead would be remembered in the famous Scottish pipe tune called ‘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 erected in 1910 on a spot known as ‘Piper’s Hill’ marks the site of the Battle of Flodden. It is inscribed;

‘TO THE BRAVE OF BOTH NATIONS’

Today a battle trail of walks and a car drive enable the visitor to explore the battle field site of Flodden with a number of information boards to set the scene. A starting point is the village of Branxton itself where a charming red phone box, repurposed as ‘the world’s smallest visitor centre’ displays information relating to the battle.

Flodden Visitor Centre, Branxton village
Flodden Visitor Centre, Branxton village © David Simpson 2021

A pretty feature of the village is the ‘Neo-Norman’ church of St Paul. Mostly rebuilt in 1849, only the base of the chancel arch survives from the Norman period while the arch itself is of the 13th century. The slain from the battle field were brought to this church on that fateful day in 1513.

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