The Battle of Flodden Field (1513)

We have grown used to seeing Henry VIII (he of the six wives) as an old, gouty, crotchety tyrant.  But it was not always so.  In 1513 he was young, athletic, vigorous, and bold.  And what do you do if you are a young, athletic, vigorous and bold English King in the early renaissance?  Why, you invade France. Obviously.

But Henry had a problem.  While he was leading an army against the “old enemy”, the French might reactivate the “auld alliance” with Scotland, prompting a Scottish invasion while he was out of the country.  Henry therefore cunningly raised his army for the Continent only from the southern and midland counties, so that if the French did manage to persuade the Scots to launch an invasion, all the militia of north England would still be available to meet them.

Henry duly set off and was soon winning big victories, most notably the “battle of the spurs” (so-called because of the speed of the French withdrawal).  Under pressure, the French bribed King James IV of Scotland to intervene with large consignments of weapons and “advisors”.  In late summer 1513 James assembled the largest army Scotland has ever mustered, reputed to be nearly 60,000 strong, and crossed into northeast England.

When news reached Henry in France, he wasted no time in raising his standard (the traditional signal to muster for the defence of the realm).  With hand on his sword, he defied anyone who would invade his land and kill his subjects.  The standard was then taken swiftly to London and delivered to the Earl of Surry, with orders to raise an army and drive the Scots out.

The Earl quickly gathered his personal guard and headed north.  Messengers raced ahead of him to the leading nobles of north England, to the border wardens, and to the mayors of the free towns.  At each location the king’s proclamation was solemnly read, and the English people responded.  At the great Stanley family house at Alderley, Sir Edward Stanley assembled his retainers, each with the family emblem of an eagle’s claw on their surcoats.  At Hull the Earl’s son, the Lord High Admiral, landed his sailors and marines, where they marched in companies commanded by the captains of each ship.  At Durham the great standard of St Cuthbert, long used to lead English armies against the Scots, was taken from the cathedral.  At Macclesfield the messenger interrupted a meeting of the town council, and on hearing the proclamation, the mayor, Christopher Savage, immediately adjourned and gathered the town’s 300 militiamen.  All were ordered to meet at Pontefract.

As soon as he could, Surrey moved north to intercept James, issuing a challenge to fight as he did.  The Scottish king accepted, but refused the offer of “a fair field”.  After storming the English border fortresses of Norham, Etal and Ford, he made no further attempt to move south. This may have been because of the terrible weather, which had caused great sickness in his army.  It may have been because James, a known womaniser, had been distracted by the presence of the Lady Heron of Ford Castle.  Whether she really had been “lying back and thinking of England”, or James was held back by English drizzle, the Scots remained on a local hill called Flodden edge.

Surrey was therefore able to make contact, but when he and his commanders saw the Scots they quickly understood why the “fair field” offer had been refused.  The Scottish position was impregnable.  Surrey’s men were outnumbered, the rain was still lashing down, and supplies were critically low.  That night the disastrous news reached Surrey that the beer had run out!  Desperately he decided on an early flanking march to get round the Scottish position.  It seemed essential that the move would be undetected, but the Scots soon realised the English were on the move.  They quickly broke camp, burning anything that could not be moved, and swung round to another piece of high ground called Branxton hill.  The rain had given way to a heavy mist, and combined with the smoke from the burning Scottish camp the top of the hill was completely hidden from view.  The English army was half way across a small stream when a sudden breeze blew the cover of mist and smoke away, revealing the entire Scottish army drawn up in battle array.

The English force had been split by the stream, but the Scots did not attack immediately.  The battle instead opened with an artillery duel.  The Scottish cannon were bigger, but firing uphill the better-manned English guns quickly silenced them.  The English then began to fire shot into the Scottish infantry.  Faced with this, James finally advanced down his hill, but the English had had time to form up.

As the Scots advanced the massed English longbows swung into action.  James had been expecting this.  His pikemen wore heavy armour, and the front ranks had been issued with huge pavise type shields.  The arrows had little effect, but the English held their ground and in hand-to-hand fighting their deadly two handed bills proved more effective than the Scottish pikes.  The English right gave way early, except for the men of Macclesfield, who encouraged by Christopher Savage desperately struggled to hold the exposed flank until help arrived from the Cumberland border horse.

With their flanks secured the English slowly began to grind James’ main pike division down.  His last hope was the Highlander contingent, but as these men advanced, bagpipes blowing, the last English formation, Stanley’s men, climbed up the hill on their right and took them by surprise.  Several savage volleys of longbow arrows decimated them, then with a cry of “For Stanley, Lancashire and England!” Sir Edward led them in a great charge that scattered the Highlanders.  Stanley kept his men in order, and swept them round into the rear of the Scottish pike formations.  Surrounded, the Scots fought to the death.  So great was the carnage that at the end the English soldiers had to remove their shoes, stockings and even trousers, so that they could get a better grip on the ground, churned into mud with Human blood.

Flodden Field was by far the biggest battle fought between England and Scotland, and in fact is possibly the largest battle ever fought in Britain.  It was a smashing Scottish defeat, sometimes called “England’s revenge for Bannockburn”.  Apart from their king, and over 10,000 common soldiers, reputedly every noble family in Scotland lost someone at Flodden.  The great lament “Flowers of the Forest” commemorates the loss, and indeed is still played in Scotland whenever something bad happens.

The English lost about 2000 men.  None of the Macclesfield militia survived the battle.  But none of them ran away either.

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