A historic defeat for the Scots
The Battle of Flodden, fought in the north of England in September 1513, is not very much remembered these days, but it turned out to be crucial in the development of England and Scotland in the coming two centuries. James IV of Scotland
invaded the north with a force almost twice as large as that of the English defenders. He had a better cannon and was closer to his line of supplies.
Yet by the time the day was over, James was dead and his army had been savagely decimated. The day belonged to his English rival,
Henry VIII, who was not even on the field, being occupied by fighting a war in France.
All this, and much more besides, is recounted in a book that came out last year. “Fatal Rivalry” by George Goodwin, a British author, gives a detailed account of the developments leading up to the battle, as well as the battle itself.
The author gives James credit for being one of the first Scots rulers to give the country a united front. Having brought the highlands and the western islands under fair control, he turned to the European scene and set out to make his country an international leader.
He had married Henry’s older sister and had produced a male heir. That was something Henry did not have. So since James’s son was a Tudor on his mother’s side, James could claim to have him succeed to the English throne, as well as to the Scottish throne.
Henry had married Catherine of Aragon, and their progeny, male and female up to the year of the battle, had been born either dead or had died shortly after birth.
Henry was anxious to emulate his famous ancestor, Henry V, in battle against France. So he left Catherine as regent in his absence. The author gives her high credit for innovative executive ability in organizing support for her husband’s efforts, as well as coping with the needs to support the troops dealing with the invasion from Scotland.
Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, led the English forces getting ready to meet James in the north. He had about half as many troops as the Scots, including many of his own retainers. The author makes clear that the echoes of the devastating Wars of the Roses were still within living memory, and the efforts had been made by England’s rulers to keep lordships from amassing too large a body of supporters.
But James entrenched on Flodden Hill, placing his cannon to meet a frontal charge by the English. So Surrey instead outflanked him and approached from his right rear. James had to quickly reverse his position and as a result did not have his cannon in secure emplacements so they could not bring as steady a fire against the approaching foe.
James counted on his main effort being a charge of troops wielding 30-foot spears in the form of a hedghog which would scatter an enemy armed with shorter weapons. It was a tactic which James knew had won several engagements in Italy.
But when the Scots spearmen charged en masse, they ran into a swamp which lay between their force and that of the English. They were slowed down and their spears become encumbrances. The English were able to charge with their shorter wapons, chiefly a bill with a sharp blade at the top. They got among their foes and did immense damage. James, who had charged with his troops, was cut down by several slashes and was not recognized until viewed by people who had met him on diplomatic trips in peacetime.
Goodwin, the author, is a member of the Battlefield Trust and speaks of having walked the battlefield. He also has a good eye for history. He tells how Henry patched up a truce with the French by having his younger sister, Mary, marry the elderly Louis XII of France. Then there’s a footnote pointing out that the only time before that an English princess had married a French monarch was when a granddaughter of Alfred the Great married a Carolingian ruler more than 500 years before.
Surrey was rewarded for his victory by being made Duke of Norfolk. Another footnote points out that he had two granddaughters who married Henry VIII. One was Anne Boleyn and the other was Catherine Howard. Both lost their heads.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.