The Battle of Flodden, 9th September 1513
The text of a short illustrated talk given by Tony Kench to the Worshipful Company of Bowyers at its 'Poitiers Supper' on 20 November 2013, marking the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden.
The Battle of Flodden, in Northumberland, took place between England and Scotland 500 years ago on 9 September 1513. It saw the largest Scottish army ever raised, and it is reckoned to have been the last big battle in which the longbow played a decisive role, and also the first British battle that involved an exchange of artillery fire.
At the end of June 1513, the young King Henry VIII had taken the main English army to Calais, hoping to achieve a military success early in his reign while the French King was away attacking Italy. The French responded by invoking the treaty with their 'auld ally' Scotland, persuading the Scots to invade northern England while Henry was away, and thereby try to distract the English from their French expedition.
King James IV of Scotland was a popular and charismatic monarch, with a strong sense of chivalry. He had military ambitions, but little military experience (the Spanish ambassador in Scotland wrote in 1496 that he was "not a good captain because he begins to fight before he has given his orders"). He had however pulled together for this attack an unprecedented army of at least 30,000, including highlanders as well as lowlanders; it was the largest Scottish army ever raised. With active French help he had also been working for some time on re-arming, retraining and modernising the Scottish forces, with a costly new navy and much emphasis on heavy siege cannon.
His army was newly equipped with 17 pieces of the latest continental siege artillery, including 12 one-and-a-half-ton culverin and 5 massive three-ton cannon, each taking 32 oxen to move. The majority of his army comprised large squadrons of men newly trained by the French in the formation use of the 20-foot pike. Pike phalanxes were being used by the dominant Swiss army of the time, and had recently been adopted by the French; they had originally been pioneered by the army of Philip of Macedon in the 4th century BC. These phalanxes were capable of over-running or scattering conventional infantry and cavalry, but were highly dependent on maintaining tight formations and tight discipline, which was not easy to do.
The English commander was the 71-year-old Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, a veteran military leader who had fought at Bosworth, and who had been charged by Henry VIII with defending the northern border while he was away. There wasn't a permanent Northern English army at the time, but long-term arrangements were in place to enable a trained and paid army to be summoned from the landowners very quickly, and he was able to muster an English army of some 20-22,000 from the northern shires within 10 days of the Scots crossing the border. A permanent logistical base was already in place at Newcastle, supplied by sea.
The English army was largely made up of mixed groups of longbow archers and billmen. Billmen were mainly armed with 8-foot billhooks, vicious things based on hedging tools, that could stab, slash and hook. The archers took the first role, engaging at distance, then the billmen took over the main role in close combat, with the archers also later joining in the mop-up with their daggers. This was pretty much the same set-up the English had been using ever since Crecy and Agincourt, but with the introduction of the billhook as the main weapon for close combat. They were supported by 1,500 light cavalry, and also 18 of the new 'Falconet' light field-guns, 4-ft long, which were light to manhandle, easy to aim, had a rapid rate of fire, and shot 2-inch, 2-lb lumps of metal with a range of up to a mile.
The Scots Invade
The Scottish army crossed the River Tweed border at Coldstream on 22nd August 1513, and used their heavy siege cannon to destroy four nearby Northumberland castles: Wark, Norham, Etal and Ford. Then on 5th September they moved from Ford to dig their guns into a strong position facing south at the top of Flodden Hill, giving due notice that they were awaiting battle with the English on the 9th.
The English had a good network of local scouts, who reported back that attacking an entrenched Scottish gun position up a steepish hill without cover would not be a good idea. Surrey sent a herald to James IV declining his offer of a battle at Flodden Hill and suggesting they find somewhere more level. This apparently enraged the Scottish King as being disrespectful, which may have been Surrey's intention; he was keen to goad the Scottish King into fighting a decisive battle.
The English Circle Round
Surrey quietly set about circling round to the right to come at the Scots from the north, first setting up a base camp at Barmoor Castle on the 8th. It wasn't an easy journey because of having to cross the River Till with the guns, the only dry stone bridge being at Twizel, near the Scottish border. The main body of the English army arrived at Branxton, north west of Flodden, in the afternoon of the 9th. The weather was extremely wet, after several days of continuous heavy rain.
King James had got wind of the English approach from the other side of the hill by early on the morning of the 9th, and moved his army a mile and a half westward across to the top of Branxton Hill, facing north toward the English approach, so that he was ready for battle to commence that afternoon. His army was not however dug in as it had been on Flodden Hill.
The Scottish Line
The Scots were deployed in three main groups, ready for their French-trained, Swiss-inspired tactic of attacking in echelon, left group first. The lead group, on the west side, was commanded by Lord Hume and the Earl of Huntly. The centre group was commanded by the Earls of Crawford, Erroll and Montrose. Their third group, the largest, was commanded by King James himself. All three of these groups were mainly pikemen, trained to operate in tight phalanx formations, sometimes with some highlanders protecting the sides.
On the far right, the east side, was a separate independent force of highlanders under the Earls of Argyll and Lennox, who came armed with their traditional heavy double-handed claymores.
The English Line
Seeing the Scots, the English also arranged themselves in three main groups, each of which comprised both archers and billmen, along a ridge that ran across the far side of the dip at the bottom of Branxton Hill.
The smallest English group, some 3,000 on the west side, was commanded by Sir Edmund Howard, Surrey's youngest son. The main central group of some 9,000 was commanded by Surrey's eldest son, Thomas Howard, the Lord Admiral, who had come with 1,000 professional soldiers by ship to Newcastle from the French campaign. Surrey himself commanded the third group of some 5,000, opposite King James's force. His light cavalry group of some 1,500 under Lord Dacre was held in reserve at the rear.
The fourth English group of some 3,000 was that of Sir Edward Stanley, comprising mainly archers from his Cheshire and Lancashire estates. They had taken a different route, only arriving on the east side when the battle was already in progress.
Opening Artillery Exchange
The battle started with an artillery exchange, initiated by the Scots about 4pm. The much-feared heavy Scottish cannon turned out to be ineffective: they were designed for sieges, not battlefields; they were hard to aim, had a massive recoil and a slow rate of fire, and did little harm in practice to the English lines.
The English light field guns were much more effective. Their rate of fire was much more rapid, they were easy to aim, and sent 2-in/2lb lumps of iron and lead whanging straight into the Scottish gun crews and the tightly-packed Scots formations, at a distance of 600 yards. This was far beyond longbow range, something they had not previously experienced, and as intended, it caused the Scots to throw away the advantage of their hilltop position by charging down the hill rather than stay at the top to be shot at.
Phase 1: Charge to the Scots
On this west side, Branxton Hill was shallower, flowing smoothly into the meadowland below, and the Scots pike formations held together well. After 200 years of suffering disruption by showers of English arrows, the Scots came with thicker armour and better shields this time, and for once the English longbows didn't stop them, not helped by the wet weather either. The pikemen's phalanxes prevailed, reaching the English positions intact; the English troops were either over-run by the pikes, or forced to scatter, which is what many seem to have done, some joining up later with the other English groups to the east. It was a classic textbook success for the pike formation.
Edmund Howard sent urgent word to his father for help, and Surrey promptly sent in Lord Dacre's cavalry, whose main objective was to block the Scots force from turning on the English centre, and in this it was effective. The Scots commanders on the west side, Home and Huntly, seem to have concluded that having won their part of the battle, it was up to the rest now, and they left the battlefield with their troops. It is possible they were thinking they should take up a defensive position in case the English made a break for the undefended Scottish border, but there was some scepticism about this at the time.
Phase 2: Devastatingly to the English
Seeing their pikemen's success on the left, the Scots centre group under Crawford, Errol and Montrose promptly sounded the charge too, similarly rushing headlong down the hill. Unfortunately, invisible from the top of Branxton Hill, at the bottom of the hill before the land rose again slightly to the main English positions, there was a stream that in heavy rain had become waterlogged and boggy, halting the Scots pikemen and forcing them to stagger through a foot of heavy mud.
This broke up their tight pike formations, and as they struggled out of the morass in disarray, the English billmen set on them with a vengeance. The 20-foot pikes were no use in close combat, and the 8-foot English billhooks, which could slash, stab or hook, completely destroyed the Scottish force. The English were under orders to take no prisoners, and they didn't. It was a total annihilation.
Phase 3: Decisively to the English too
Seeing this happening from the top of Branxton Hill, King James still had over half his army intact and could have considered various options, but instead he took the brave and chivalric, but some say foolhardy decision that he must fight alongside his men, and led his own third group charging straight down the hill too. He and his men fought bravely through the mud, at one point coming within ten feet of Surrey's personal retinue, but in the end the result was the same. The King was slain by a billhook, and almost all of the Scottish nobility present were killed too.
What had happened was that while King James's group made good headway and pushed the English third group back, Surrey had cannily let them come further forward still, so that the victorious English centre, under the Lord Admiral, could come at them from the side and rear too, with devastating effect.
Final Phase: Cheshire Longbows and Highland Claymores
The Highlanders on the Scottish right did not move to join the battle, for reasons unclear, perhaps having no clear orders. Meanwhile Sir Edward Stanley's force had finally arrived on the east side of the battlefield, and on being told there was still a force of Scots intact at the top of Branxton Hill, went up around the east side of the hill and caught them by surprise. Accustomed to fighting fiercely with claymores but little armour, the Highlanders had no defence against the longbow, and were either slain or scattered, playing no further part in the battle. The last hope of any Scots success was gone; the whole battle had lasted only about three hours.
The Casualty Count
By traditional accounts 10,000 or more and certainly at least 7,000 Scotsmen were slain at Flodden, including the King and a large proportion of the nobility, most of them having been bogged down at the foot of Branxton Hill and cut down by the English billhooks. By contrast, as documented by the army pay records after the battle, only about 1,500 Englishmen had been killed or wounded.
The thousand English bodies from the battlefield were taken next day to nearby Branxton church, which still stands. A mass grave was arranged for the Scottish dead, but was left unmarked; in fact there's just been a 500th anniversary grant from English Heritage to try to find where the bodies were buried and to mark the site, but they don't seem to have found the site.
The Flodden Monument
In 1910, close to the centre of the battlefield, the Flodden Monument was erected to the dead of both sides, and since the 1950s the regiment and citizens of Coldstream, just over the Scottish border, ride out on horseback to the Monument every August to intone the bagpipe lament, place a wreath and sound the Last Post; it's a sombre service of remembrance very similar to that we use to honour the fallen of the First World War: "we shall remember them".
I witnessed this remembrance at the Monument in 2013, and it was clear that in those parts at least, Flodden, 'that dreadful day', is deeply ingrained in the Scottish psyche.
Flodden's Place in History
It was a devastating defeat for the Scots, and was pretty much the end of any realistic Scottish ambitions that they could take on the English at war. It also led somewhat acrimoniously toward the ending of the Auld Alliance with France. There was one more big battle in 1547 under Mary Queen of Scots at Pinkie, not far from Edinburgh, but it had an equally one-sided result.
Flodden was also the swansong of the longbow as a weapon of war, the last big battle where it played any kind of decisive role. For Pinkie thirty years later, the English took lots more field guns, which had proved their superiority as a distance artillery weapon, and also some of the new arquebus muskets. Flodden had been one of the last great mediaeval battles; Pinkie marked the beginning of a new era.
Good Result for the Howards
Flodden had been a great victory personally for the Howard family. The Earl of Surrey, after being on the losing Yorkist side at Bosworth in 1485, had had his titles stripped and been imprisoned for three years in the Tower of London, before working hard to regain the trust and favour of Henry VII, who was keen on reconciliation. Now, after Flodden, Surrey was restored by a grateful Henry VIII to his former title of Duke of Norfolk, and the Howard family name was returned to its accustomed prominence. A heraldic augmentation for the Howard family coat of arms was awarded in perpetuity, an armorial showing the lion of the Scottish Royal Shield with an arrow through its head.
The Stuart Succession
England and Scotland did of course come together less than a century later, in one of those oddities of succession. King James IV had married Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's sister, the daughter of Henry VII, as part of Henry VII's attempts to bind everyone together. Their son was James V (1513-42), their grand-daughter was Mary Queen of Scots (1542-68), and their great-grandson was James VI (1568-1625). On the English throne, meanwhile, the Tudor dynasty of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth ended up with no heirs, and in 1603 the English had to turn to the Stuart heirs of Margaret Tudor as the rightful successors to the English throne; hence the invitation to James VI to become King James I of England, and to begin what led to the Union.
20 November 2013
"Flodden" by Niall Barr, Shrivenham Staff College, 2003
"Flodden: A Scottish Tragedy" by Peter Reese, 2003/2013
"The Battle of Flodden" by Clive Hallam-Baker, 2012
Battlefield visit for the Coldstreamers' Ride-Out, August 2013