Flodden – The little known battle that changed history

Flodden was fought just after Henry VIII came to the throne, a long time before he became the chubby, wife murdering tyrant so loved by novelists. It’s a battle that people tend to know very little about, but it’s a battle that changed – well world history.

In 1513 Henry was suprisingly – young, handsome and athletic, he was the renaissance prince. Henry VIII would not secure his throne until after the Battle of Flodden.

Young Henry VIII

Young Henry VIII

Leading up to Flodden
It was turbulant times between England and Scotland as well as France ‘The Auld Aliance’. It was Henry’s marriage the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, this linked up not just Spain, but Germany as well through her relatives and the Empires they ruled. If war was to come from France then with these new allies France would surely be crushed. Henry was trying to proove he was the rightful King of England, to do so he revived the ancient English claims to the throne of France. Catherine’s relatives happily agreed to support him. In 1511, Henry led an Anglo-Spanish invasion of Aquitaine, once an English possession. Thanks to the pope, Henry was recognised as King of France and the pope promised to crown him in Notre Dame if Louis was defeated. In 1512 the English held the port of Calais and defeated the French at the Battle of the Spurs, so called because the French knights spurred their horses in a desperate attempt to flee.

Here come the Scots!
Louis’ cause seemed lost but he had a trump card: the ‘Auld Alliance’ with Scotland. Louis sent ambassadors to Edinburgh who urged the Scottish King James IV to invade their mutual enemy from the north and force Henry to fight on two fronts. With Henry and the bulk of the English army fighting in France, James realised the opportunity to extend Scotland’s borders to the humber, or even Thames, was too good to miss.

NPG D23903; King James IV of Scotland and Queen Margaret published by John ThaneIgnoring the protests of his Tudor wife, James sent a letter to Henry, who was besieging the French town of Thérouanne, ordering the English king to raise the seige and return home to face war with Scotland. Henry angrily replied that James, as his brother-in-law, should join him in his war against France and warned that England’s northeren border was well defended. James ignored these threats and left Edinburgh on the 19th of August 1513 with an army of 30,000 men.

The Scots crossed the River Tweed on 24tg of August and besieged the English castles of Ford, Etal, Wark and Norham. James’ powerful train of artillery quickly pounded the English fortresses into submission but the heavy guns had to be dragged by teams of plodding oxen and this slowed the Scots’ progress. By the 19th of September, the Scots army had only just reached the village of Branxton, just five miles south of the Tweed, and were encamped on a low hill known as Flodden Edge. Meanwhile the commander of England’s northern armies, Thomas Howard Earl of Surrey, was marching towards the Northumbrian town of Wooler which he reached on the 7th of September. Here, as the laws of chivalry demanded, Surrey sent a message to the Scots’ King offering battle.

The Battle of Flodden

flod3James agreed to fight at noon on Friday the 9th of September. This delay allowed Surrey to position his army between the Scots’ camp at Flodden and the River Tweed, thus cutting off James’ line of retreat. James saw this manoeuvre but ordered his men not to open fire on the English because it was not yet the appointed time for the battle to begin!

The English drew up in a line below the Scots on the hilltop. Surrey’s hastily assemblrd army was armed with old-fashioned longbows and ‘bills’, a poleaxe eight feet long which combined a viscious, hooked, axe-blade with a spear point. By contrast, the Scots were armed with ‘modern’ weapons, namely arquebuses, an early form of musket, and pikes 18 feet long. The battle began with an exchange of artillery fire but the Scots guns on the top of the hill could not be depressed low enough and most of the Scottish culverin balls flew harmlessly over the English heads. Still thinking in terms of chivalry instead of tactics, James ordered his men to abandon their good defensive positions and advance towards the enemy. As the Scots marched down the slope, they were met by a storm of English arrows but, unlike at Crecy or Agincourt where the English bows had caused chaos in the French ranks, the Scots kept good order.

Battle was joined in the boggy ground at the bottom of the hill where the difference in English and Scottish weaponry became decisive. The unwieldy pikes, which kept the English cavalry at bay during the Battle if Bannockburn 200 years before, proved to be ineffective against English infantry carrying bills. The Englishmen simply chopped the tops off the Scottish pikes then disembowelled the defenceless pikemen.

flod4The battle became a slaughter. After just a few hours of butchert, between 10,000 and 12,000 Scotsmen, more than a third of James’ army lay dead on Flodden Field. Amongst the mangled corpses were the bodies of King James himself and scores of his nobles. The chronicler Robert Lindsay, writing 50 years later, lamented that every titled family in Scotland had lost at least one man at Flodden.

After Flodden
It is often said that the slaughter of the Scottish nobility at Flodden ended Scotland’s ability to function as an independent nation and thus paved the way for the uniting of the kingdoms of Scotland and England as Great Britain. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it is only half the story. Though the Scots lost the battle of Flodden they did not lose the thousand years’ long Anglo-Scottish War and the seeds of Scotland’s ultimate victory were sown in the blood-soaked mud of Northumberland.

In 1603, ninety years after Flodden, the last Tudor monarch, the childless Elizabeth I, died an the English crown passed to James IV’s great-grandson also called James. Thus James VI of Scotland became Jamrs I of England. Though, in 1714, James’ direct descendants would lose the crown to their German cousins, the fact remains it was a Scottish King that finally ascended the English throne and not the other way around.

The Legacy of Flodden
The true significance of Flodden is that it delayed the almost inevitable unification of England and Scotland by almost a century and in that century the Protestant Reformation took root both North and South of the Border. If, instead of dying at Flodden, James IV had fulfilled his boast of ‘capturing York by Michaelmas’, then the French would have invaded England and restored the Yorkist pretender, Richard de la Pole, to the Engish throne. Indeed, in 1513 Richard, the last ‘White Rose’, was busy recruiting an army of 12,000 French mercenaries when the knock-on effects of Flodden forced him to pursepone his planned invasion.

If Henry VIII had been deposed, then there would have been no neef for a desperate search for a male heir to continue the Tudor dynasty. As a result there would have been no split with the Pope and no /church of England. Similarly, if James IV had lived, Scotland might have avoided the religious and political chaos that followed the disastrous reign of Mary Queen of Scots thirty years later.

flod5But, for good or ill, Protestantism did florish in Britain and it fuelled the next two centuries of civil strife in England and Scotland which ultimately ended the absolute power of the monachs in Britain. Later, the British would export their new-fangled ideas about democracy and political freedom, forged during these civil wars, to their colonies in America and around the world. It’s therefore no idle boast to say that without Henry VIII’s victory at Flodden, world history would have followed a very different path. Yet for all this importance Flodden remained largely forgotten … until now. As we approach this momentous battle’s quincentenary, there are plans to use a new concept in museums to restore Flodden’s rightful place in British, European and world history.


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3 thoughts on “Flodden – The little known battle that changed history

  1. me

    Well done. ‘T is true the battle is not well known. A few months ago I led a few-weeks-long discussion of Scottish history, which I titled “Beyond the Castles and Distilleries” and I mentioned that battle.

    • Ian Chisholm

      Its well known in Scotland as a disaster. In the Borders there are still songs about the revenge Surrey took on the population. “After Flodden was decided……Surrey had his troops divided….then oh heaven why slept thy thunder” paraphrased but it refers to the battle at Hornsehole near Hawick where only youths were left to fight the plundering English. The real significance of the battle was to ensure a weakened Scotland would succumb to English pressure to unite…..otherwise Scotland would have remained Independent to this day. The support for the French in the Auld Alliance was always very one sided and we got no promised French support in many other conflicts. James was a poor general ….the Scots still had more troops left after the slaughter and had James delegated one of his nobles as second in command the army could have fought on but with no leader it was impossible. It was James who ordered the new 18 foot pikes, common in France but the Scots were used to the shorter 12 foot pikes……a disastrous battle to test new weapons. James coming off the hill was of course the biggest mistake of all. The song Flooers of the Forest are a wede awa….refers to Flodden ……its untrue to say the battle was not remembered ….maybe so in England but then the victor writes the history.

  2. Dave Coull

    This is “military history”, and the trouble with military historians is, they may know lots of details about their own narrow focus, but precious little about the history of society as a whole.

    “If Henry VIII had been deposed, then there would have been no need for a desperate search for a male heir to continue the Tudor dynasty. As a result there would have been no split with the Pope and no /church of England”

    If Henry VIII had never existed, protestant ideas would still have spread. The development of the printing press ensured that. Huge numbers of protestant pamphlets were being produced on the continent, these were being translated into English, and were being brought into England by merchant seamen. Because of the development of printing, and because of the development of the practice of publishing in “vulgar” languages instead of in Latin, there was a tide which had never existed before, but, as King Canute proved, you can’t stop the tide. Even though only a minority of folk could actually read these pamphlets, they were read out loud to groups of folk by those who could read, and so they had an influence far beyond the number of pamphlets actually sold. As it happens Henry was a very reluctant and half-hearted protestant, even after he broke with the Pope he was very reluctant to make changes from Catholic practice, it was the Pope who had given him the title “Defender of the Faith” after all, and to begin with Henry was a ferocious Catholic who was quite happy to have heretics burned at the stake. A practice that would be continued by his daughter Bloody Mary. And all they achieved was to create lots of protestant martyrs.

    As for Scotland, the idea that Scotland “might have avoided religious and political chaos” is sheer fantasy. No doubt it would have taken a somewhat different form, but, when it’s time for religious and political chaos, it’s going to happen anyway.


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