Rough Wooing

Michael Brown

  • Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513 by George Goodwin
    Weidenfeld, 288 pp, £20.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 297 86739 5

Five hundred years ago, in autumn 1513, James IV, one of the most effective and attractive of Scotland’s rulers, led an army of unusual size and quality into northern England. The young Henry VIII had embarked on a military expedition in northern France, and Scotland responded to French calls for aid by invading England. James IV’s army was equipped with an impressive number of modern cannon cast in bronze and was accompanied by Continental experts in the latest techniques in warfare. The army and its cannon made short work of a number of English border castles and towers. In Northumberland, James awaited the English army, led by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Though apparently possessing advantages in ground, equipment and supplies, James allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred by Surrey, who cut off the Scottish army’s route north, forcing it to move to Branxton Hill, where its cannon could not be effectively positioned. James was still confident enough to risk battle against the smaller English army, but the resulting clash on 9 September 1513 was a disaster for the Scots. In a valley to the north of his camp on Flodden Edge, James suffered a heavy defeat. After coming under fire from the English cannon the Scottish forces advanced down the hill into the boggy valley, where their pikes proved no match for the old-fashioned billhooks used by the English. The loss among the kingdom’s leaders was unparalleled in an era in which the taking of wealthy and important prisoners for ransom was standard. James, who had placed himself and his nobles at the head of his army, was hacked to death and his 20-year-old illegitimate son, Alexander, archbishop of St Andrews, died alongside him. Nine earls, 13 other peers and many of Scotland’s lairds and clergy were also killed.

For Scots, the name of Flodden is associated with crushing national defeat and loss. The battle is the best known of a long sequence of military disasters suffered by Scotland in wars with England between the end of the 13th century and the 1540s. As an example of the waste of war, it seemed to retain its relevance for later generations. Like many other Scottish battles, it has its own song (written much later):

The Flooers of the Forest, that focht aye the foremost
The prime o our land, lie cauld in the clay.

Historians have sometimes regarded the battle as a psychological turning point in Scotland’s history. Flodden, it’s said, undermined the confidence of the country’s rulers and governing classes in the ability of their small realm to play a role in Europe, most obviously as a counterweight to England. James IV is seen as having been forced into invasion and battle by the requirements of more powerful states. Flodden left what Alex Massie described in the Scotsman as a ‘shrivelled, enfeebled Scotland’. What had been a confident, cultured and stable kingdom was dogged by ‘a century of instability’. Subsequent generations of Scots showed an understandable reluctance to embark on war with England. Their country increasingly became a pawn of the larger realms of England, France and Spain, until religious alignment, political self-interest and dynastic accident led to the union of the English and Scottish crowns in the person of James IV’s great-grandson and Henry VIII’s great-great-nephew, James VI and I, in 1603.

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