Battle of Branxton (Flodden) – 1513

King James IV
King James IV

It was early summer 1513, and the 22-year-old King of England, Henry VIII, had travelled with the bulk of his Southern armies to France, in defence of Italy and the Pope, in the siege of Therouanne, part of the War of the League of Cambrai; he fought alongside Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I, against the French King Louis XII. Leaving his Queen, Catherine of Aragon to act as Regent in his absence, he subsequently received a herald with a message that King James IV of Scotland was formally announcing attack (as per the chivalric code of battle) at some point in the near future, as part of his treaty with France, the ‘Auld Alliance’. Louis hoped to distract Henry in the hope that Henry would break off his siege and return his army to England to head off the impending attack.

Instead, Henry, having anticipated such a move (hence taking only his Southern forces), sent word to his chosen commander Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey to mass his Northern armies and head towards the border of Scotland to cut off James’ advance. Some sources claim that Catherine in her role of Regent, reinforced this order when Howard was undecided as to whether it would not be in England’s best interests to meet the attack further South. She reiterated the need to meet battle as far north as possible, in an effort to keep the Scottish armies as far away from the South as possible, and busied herself mustering what men she could gather to form a rear-guard to defend the midland counties should the Scots break through, and the city militia to defend London as a last resort.

Howard sent word by messenger to James, that he expected to meet in battle on or before the 9th September at Milfield in the Northumberland region. Although unusual to give advance contract such as this, Howard knew that James would be forced to oblige or lose face either by not showing up or by going back on his word and taking the battle elsewhere. By this contract he was bound by honour to its word. He subsequently led his forces to Northumbria and after taking control of the nearby castles of Wark to the East and Norham to the west by method of siege, he took a strategic point on Flodden Hill overlooking Milfield Plain.

Later rumours suggest that whilst waiting for Norham to surrender his siege, James dallied at Ford Castle, in the company of Elizabeth, Lady Heron who had been with her husband, a prisoner in Scotland. In return for her release, negotiated with both James and Howard, she had agreed to release prisoners from Ford, whilst maintaining that the castle would not be destroyed in anyway. Ford, and Etal nearby were soon under James’ control. A dubious source of the whole event and its peripheral parts, Robert Lindsay of Piscottie, writing some time afterwards, lays claim to Lady Heron being a willing participant in a delaying tactic, using her feminine charms to divert James’ attention. During his time at Ford, waiting for the surrender of Norham, English chronicler Raphael Hollinshed (later source for William Shakespeare) has it that a substantial portion of the Scottish Army returned home.
During this period of lull before the battle, James IV was said to be contemplating an attack on Berwick on Tweed, but was dissuaded by the Earl of Angus, who attempted to reason with James that their forthcoming action with England was more than enough to fulfill their obligation to France. James in retaliation ordered Angus home. Holinshed states the Earl left in tears, leaving his two sons, George and William to do their duty. Both his sons were killed in the battle.

Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey
Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey

When Howard arrived at Flodden with his forces, he was met by the sight of James’ significantly larger forces encamped on the top of the hill overlooking the proposed battlefield. He sent word via his Herald to instruct James that as per the contract, James should move his forces down to the field so as to ensure affair engagement of both armies on literally a level playing field. As it was, the Scots overwhelmed the English in numbers, some estimates giving that England had an army of around 15-20 thousand men, compared to 60,000 for the Scottish. (more conservative estimates give 25 thousand versus 30-40 thousand). James refused, sending word that he would not bow to the word of a lowly Earl. The Earl responded by taking a majority portion of his fighting force, leaving his non-combatants and dependents at their camp at Barmoor, the traditional campsite of the English for the previous five hundred years when facing battle with the Scots. They faced fairly wet, miserable night before the battle, whilst their fighting menfolk quietly marched Northeast and turned about face to approach from the rear of the Scottish lines. This manouvre served the purpose of attaching an element of surprise to their opponents as well as cutting off their supply, communications and retreat.

When James awoke the next morning, he discovered that the English now faced his rear and hastily decamped, moving his forces to a new position, still elevated but much less advantageous at nearby Branxton on a ridge, and observed the English as they crossed the River Till to set up their opening positions. Allegedly the scots artillery requested permission to fire upon them as they manouvred the bridge, but James refused as a point of honour.

The battle eventually kicked off at around 3pm on the afternoon of the 9th September, with an opening volley of cannon from the Scottish forces, and a subsequent charge from his foot soldiers, armed with long spears. James had brought several heavy guns from Edinburgh to utilise in the battle, his lighter guns being on board his Naval fleet covering the French. Although inflicting quite heavy casualties on the English, the artillery effectiveness was chronically diminished by their position on the ridge, which worked against their optimum range and direction. The lighter English artillery weapons were however, able to effectively aim uphill and achieve a much better angle of fire.

Granite cross, erected in 1910 at Flodden field
Granite cross, erected in 1910 at Flodden field

The Scots infantry, armed with their long spears were inexperienced in their use and compromised by the boggy ground they had to cover. The pikes, around 15 feet long, were proven to been effective defence against mounted attack, however not so good on this occasion against foot soldiers. They nonetheless aimed at the left flank of the English force and were met by an experienced force of English men armed with the long bill-hook; a traditional agricultural threshing tool mounted on an eight-foot-long pole. As the two forces met, the bill-men were able to put their skills to successful use, quickly disarming the pikemen and moving in for the inevitable kill. During this attack they were ably aided by the archers who mounted an onslaught on the Scots as they made their way down the hill. Thinking their initial artillery bombardment had been more successful than it transpired, a large number of the Scots flank withdrew, but instead of reinforcing their centre and far left flanks, they retired; leaving a large hole in their defences which the English were quick to take advantage of.

After three hours of heavy fighting, darkness began to fall and both lines withdrew. The battle ended. It was not until the next morning when it became apparent to the Earl of Surrey, just how resounding a victory he had achieved. All around the battlefield lay the bodies of some ten thousand dead Scots, compared to a relatively small 4000 English. Amongst the dead lay a generation and more of Scottish nobility, including the King himself. James and his nobles had chosen the medieval practice of leading from the front. Surrey and his commanders took the view of leading from the rear. Some may have stated this showed cowardice, as in later conflicts, but in this instance proved that to sit back and give orders to your experienced fighters, whilst maintaining your own health enabled you to continue your task of efficient command. As James proved, however, leading one’s commanders and men into battle served to get a significant number of those commanders killed, leaving nobody to give orders, and nobody to sound the retreat should it be necessary.

Routs and skirmishes continued for a number of days following the English victory. The bodies of the dead were gathered and buried, in various places nearby. It is thought that a number were interred within the confines of the local church at Branxton. Others, particularly the Nobles were sent to Yetholm. A recent archaeological dig took place in a field at Piper’s Hill, as sources claimed this was the site of the burial pits of the dead from the battle. Nothing was found. A commemorative stained glass window (The Flodden Window) dedicated to the archers who were enlisted from Middleton and played an integral part in the English Victory remains in situ at Middleton Church, and is thought to be the oldest surviving war memorial in England.

As for James, there are a number of different stories as to his end. Some claimed he was hit by an arrow as he descended the hill to engage in battle. Others states they witnessed Thomas Howard himself bring down the Scottish King with a long weapon of some description. Some claim that Howard, contrary to reports chose as a result of baiting by the King, to march into battle on foot with his men, to pay penance in a form of trial by combat for his part in the death of Scots admiral Andrew Barton a couple of years previously. The accepted story is that James’ body was identified and recovered by Lord Dacre from the battlefield; his bloodstained coat subsequently presented to Catherine of Aragon, and sent to Henry as a gift in France. His remains were then transported South following embalming, via Berwick, Newcastle, York and Windsor for their intended internment with due ceremony at St Paul’s.

However, this did not happen. Accounts vary but the most endearing one seems to suggest that James was placed into the care of Sheen Priory, where he remained unburied for several years until “going astray” during the Reformation, possibly minus his head, which may or may not have been removed and buried hastily at St Michael’s Church, Wood Street. This church was later destroyed by the Great Fire of London to eventually be replaced by the present Red Herring Public House.

Now to those interesting other theories. James was recorded as having thrown off his coat, preferring to enter battle as an ordinary man, alongside his army. He was known to have worn a heavy iron chain next to his skin around his waist to pay atonement for the indirect part he played in the death of his father James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. The body recovered from the battlefield was not wearing such a chain. Legends of skeletons wearing such chains which were recovered from either Hume or Roxburgh (both are recorded) in later excavations ensure the rumour that James survived the Battle of Branxton (Flodden) backed up by the claim that in her subsequent attempts for a divorce from her subsequent marriage, his widow, Margaret Tudor laid claim to his survival three years after the battle, thus rendering her marriage to Angus null. It was rumoured she met with him on several occasions and that he made his way to Europe via France, eventually living out his days in Italy. He is however historically recorded as the last king of Scotland, and what is now Britain, to have died in battle.

As mentioned, following the battle, Margaret went on to give birth in April 1514, to a posthumous son, Alexander, brother to her infant James V and in 1515 married the aforementioned Earl of Angus. Alexander died in infancy the same year. But that is a whole other story. Catherine of Aragon, herself pregnant with her third child during the events of her time as regent, gave birth prematurely to a son in November 1513. He died at or shortly after birth.


Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Tudor!

The "Darnley Portrait" of Elizabeth I of England. Photo Credit- National Portrait Gallery
The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England. Photo Credit- National Portrait Gallery

What can we say that has not been said about the Virgin Queen? Gloriana shines brightly even now. However, if you were born and have been living under a rock, here is a little bit on my favorite Tudor.

Elizabeth was born to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn on September 7, 1533. Instead of the longed for prince, she was a very unwelcome princess. Henry had moved heaven and earth to marry his mistress to get a legitimate son. This began the long decline of Anne Boleyn, which led to her death on the scaffold when Elizabeth was two years old. No one thought the little girl would amount to anything.

However, Elizabeth was the pawn in the game that makes it across the board and past all the dangers to become Queen. The day of her coronation was probably the happiest day of her life. Witnesses report she was practically laughing with joy when she left Westminster Abbey. But even this happy day was marred with the religious conflict that was rife throughout her lifetime. The ceremony was a compromise between the traditional Catholic ritual and the Protestant practices Elizabeth was reintroducing. Despite this, she was greeted with cheers and applause when she left the Abbey wearing her crown.

Her reign was called the Golden Age and brought in Shakespeare, the New World and dragged England into the Renaissance. However, it wasn’t always rainbows and roses. There were fights over religion, marriage and heirs. The Spanish had to be beaten back. Through it all, Elizabeth persevered and brought England safely through. She refused to marry saying England was her spouse. In what was very much a man’s world, this was a revolutionary statement. Despite all the pressure on her to marry and produce an heir, she resisted maintaining “there would be one mistress here, and no master”.

In November 1601, she made a speech to Parliament, which is widely known as the Golden Speech. In it she said, “It is not my desire to live or reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better.”

And that is the truth I shall leave you with. If you would like to learn more about this amazing woman, please see the links below. Happy Birthday, Elizabeth. Long may you reign!


The Lion’s Cubs-

Elizabeth the early years-

Elizabeth and Mary-

Elizabeth and Mary part 2-

The last days of Elizabeth-

Charles Brandon Part II-   Weathering the king’s love life

A portrait of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk most probably from the later years of his life. Photo Credit-

So in our first post, we discussed how Charles Brandon was the only person who prevailed in the king’s affection through his whole life.  (Please see that post here: : )  There was a rift that opened between them when Charles married Henry’s favorite sister, Mary, but that seemed to be on the mend.  The couple had both begged Henry for forgiveness, putting the blame for the impetuous marriage on Mary.  Charles wrote to Henry, “Sir, for the passion of God, let it not be in your heart against me, and rather than you should hold me in mistrust, strike off my head and let me not live.”  This, plus the diamond called the Mirror of Naples, put them well on the path to Henry’s good graces.  The two were popular as Mary was lovely and Charles was good looking and it was a grand love story.  Then things began to change.

The king had had his share of mistresses, but this one was different.  Anne Boleyn seemed to have staying power.  Anne and her sister Mary, also Henry’s mistress, had been maids of honor to Mary in France.  Anne caught Henry’s eye in 1527, and was determined to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and take Anne as his wife.  Both Mary and Charles were horrified as both were strong supporters of Catherine.  However, they played along as they were dependent on Henry’s good will to survive.  Mary did go so far as to refuse to accompany the two on a state visit to France and Charles warned Henry of rumors Anne had been “unchaste” with her neighbor, Sir Thomas Wyatt.  But that was as far as they could go without endangering their own family.  However, if was enough to earn them Anne’s displeasure.  Mary stayed away from court, only coming to court for her daughter, Frances’, marriage to Henry Grey.  Her health was rapidly failing.  Despite this, Charles could not go to her as he was put in charge of the the new Queen Anne’s coronation.  The two of them were in hot water with Anne, and he had to put his best foot forward.  He was not present when Mary died on June 26, 1533 at Westhope.

Despite his grief, Charles remarried quickly to his son’s betrothed.  Catherine Willoughby was a baroness as well as the heiress to a fortune.  The fact he was nearly fifty and she was fourteen, the same age as his son, did not seem to matter.  His son, Henry, could easily find a new bride.  However, this was not to be as Henry died soon after his father’s wedding.  With his new bride, Charles had two sons, Henry, for the third time, and Charles.  The two poor children died with an hour of each other of the sweating sickness in July 1551.  However, this sad event was far in the future.

In the meantime, Charles was chosen by the king for the dubious task of convincing Catherine of Aragon to accept the annulment of her marriage, the English Church’s break from Rome and the title of Dowager Princess.  That was a tall order and Catherine did not make it easy on her former partisan.  He was to move her to Somersham near Cambridge, which was apparently a manner known for its unpleasant atmosphere.  Catherine informed Charles he would have to “bind her with ropes” to move her.  Charles most certainly did not do that and left after making no headway.  Charles was present for the tumultuous events of the 1530s and witnessed the fall of Anne Boleyn.  He lead forces in the Pilgrimage of Grace, and kept Henry’s kingdom from being torn in two.  The pinnacle of his honors was being made godfather to the newborn Prince Edward.

He and Catherine watched Henry’s marriage foibles from court, but had a seemingly happy marriage themselves.  Charles died suddenly on August 22, 1545 at Guildford, Surrey.  He was 61 years old, which is a great age for someone in that time period.  However, no evidence of illness or cause of death is recorded.  The king was grief stricken and ordered a massive funeral for his friend.  Charles Brandon was buried at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor near the sour door of the choir at the king’s expense.  The epitaph read “Here lies Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who married King Henry VIII’s sister, and died in his reign, August 1545, and was buried at the king’s own charge.”  Even in death, Henry could not let Charles forget he owed everything to him.


Sources available on request

Alas, poor Yorick- The Curious Case of Shakespeare’s missing skull

Shakespeare’s grave Photo Credit-

William Shakespeare was the celebrated poet of the Elizabethan age. (For more on his life, please read our post on him: )

However, his death was shrouded in mystery. He died at age 52, which was relatively young for a person of wealth at that time. There were theories he died of syphilis, picked up at the Southwark brothels near his theater The Globe. There have also been theories that he was murdered. The most likely explanation comes from an account written by John Ward, the Vicar of Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, fifty years after Shakespeare’s death. He writes of a drinking bout with Shakespeare, his friend Michael Drayton and his frenemy Ben Johnson, after which Shakespeare caught a fever from which he never recovered. It has been suggested this fever was typhoid as there was a ditch with filthy, smelly water in it that ran alongside where they met. Even the date is in contention as Shakespeare was supposed to have died April 23, 1616, but some sources have him as being buried April 5, 1616. Whenever it was, Shakespeare was laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon under a strange epitaph. A curse laid out in rhyming couplets: “Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.” Bones were often removed from graves to charnel houses, a process Shakespeare described in several of his plays. It is thought the curse was to keep that from happening.

And unmoved they remained or so we thought. There was a wild rumor in Victorian times that the grave was disturbed. In 1879, The Argosy published an anonymous account of the theft of Shakespeare’s skull in 1794. The account tells of surgeon Frank Chambers, who at a dinner party was told a rich man of literary pretensions, was offering 300 guineas to anyone who could bring him the skull of William Shakespeare. That was a serious sum of money for that time, and it was written that Chambers could not let it go. As Chambers was a surgeon, he was in touch with grave robbers, who had supplied him with fresh corpses for his anatomical studies. This was highly illegal, but not unheard of at the time. Contacting these men, Chambers and three others break into Holy Trinity Church. Using only their hands, they lifted the stone marking his grave and dug with their hands until they found the skull. Then they hastily replaced the stone and escaped into the night with the skull. This account was written off as another addition to the legend of Shakespeare, and classic gothic tale written to sell magazines. Legend goes onto say that Chambers’ big fish got nervous and refused to pay up. He just wanted the skull gone and told one of the grave robbers to put it back. The grave robber didn’t want to risk getting caught in the church and chucked in a vault in the crypt of St. Leonard’s church in Beoley, Worcestershire, 15 miles away.

However recently, Kevin Colls got permission to lead an investigation into Shakespeare’s grave. The Staffordshire University archaeologist and his team used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to examine the grave without disturbing it. They found the poet was buried three feet underground wrapped in a simple shroud, but that his head was missing. At the head end of the grave is what he described as “a very strange brick structure”. There is also evidence of repair to the chancel floor near by. This does not automatically validate the grave robbing story in The Argosy, however. It was not unusual for body parts to be kept or buried with other relatives at that time. Famously, Margaret Roper, daughter of Sir. Thomas Moore, buried her father’s head with her. The team also studied the skull in the crypt of St. Leonard’s church. After a forensic study, they found found it belonged to a 70 year old woman.

There is no conclusive evidence that proves or disproves the grave robbing story. The magazine story did know the grave was shallow, where most people would assume there was a vault or a coffin. That is certainly suggestive. However, if the skull was taken, I would not want to be the one with it. A curse in rhyming couplets means business.


Sources available on request

Charles Brandon-  Best Friend to the King  Part I

In a previous post, we discussed Maria de Salinas, who was the best friend to Catherine of Aragon.    (For more on this, please see this post: )

Henry had a lifelong friend as well who was a witness to his ascension as well as his decline.  It can be argued, that Charles Brandon is the only person who successfully retained Henry’s affection for life.  A feat none of his wives can claim.

Charles Brandon was born in a solidly middle class family.  His father, William Brandon, was a knight and his mother was Elizabeth Bruyn, an heiress.  William was the standard bearer for Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth, and was killed, allegedly by Richard III himself.  Young Charles was only one or two years old at this time.  He was raised by his grandfather, and after his death and his mother’s death, Charles traveled to court.  Because of his father’s service to the Tudor’s, Charles was educated with the royal children.  Charles was two years older than Henry’s first son, Arthur, and they were companions.  When Arthur married Catherine of Aragon in 1502 and moved to Ludlow Castle, Charles stayed behind in the household of Arthur’s brother, Henry, Duke of York.  The two became very close companions.  Although Charles was seven years older than Henry, the two of them shared a love of athletics, hunting and jousting.

In 1505, Charles became engaged to Anne Browne, the daughter of the Governor of Calais and a relative of the powerful Neville family.  At this time a betrothal per verba de praesenti was binding under canon law.  Anne certainly thought she was betrothed as she and Charles had a daughter in 1506.  However, Charles didn’t think much of their contract as he married Anne’s aunt, Margaret Neville Mortimer, a very wealthy widow.  This second marriage was annulled through legal action on behalf of Anne’s family.  The two were very publically married later, and the two had another daughter in 1510.  Anne died two years later, leaving Charles a bachelor at court.

In this time, Arthur had died as well as Henry VII, making Charles’ good friend Henry the next king.  Henry looked with favor on his old friend, and soon Charles was gaining in influence and wealth.  He is described by Dugdale as “a person comely of stature, high of courage and conformity of disposition to King Henry VIII.”  Charles’ marriage shenanigans were far from over, and he was betrothed to his ward Elizabeth Grey and became Viscount Lisle in right of his future wife.  Elizabeth, however, refused to marry him when she came of age.  Apparently, she had heard about his reputation with the ladies.  Henry was trying to convince Margaret of Savoy, who was the governor or the Netherlands, to marry Charles.  Charles’ certainly helped this along by flirting shamelessly with Margaret.  That did not come off either, and Henry had to make a public apology.  This did not stop Henry making Charles the Duke of Suffolk.

This left him single in 1515, when Henry needed him for a delicate matter.  In 1514, Henry’s sister had gone to marry King Louis of France.  Mary Tudor was 19, willful and considered the most beautiful woman of the age.  Louis was 50 and pockmarked.  Mary would do her duty as a princess, but extracted a promise from Henry that she could choose her next husband.  Henry probably agreed thinking she’d never hold him to it, and shipped her off to France.  Three months into her marriage, King Louis died.  French custom dictated the Dowager Queen be sent into seclusion for 40 days to ensure she was not pregnant with the dead king’s heir.  Mary was sent to the Hotel de Cluny with no familiar English attendants, and was shut off from the world behind heavy draperies.  Mary wrote frantically to Henry to remember his promise, “Sir, I beseech your grace that you will keep all the promises that you promised me when I took my leave of you by the waterside. Sir, your grace knoweth well that I did marry for your pleasure at this time and now I trust you will suffer me to marry as me liketh for to do… wherefore I beseech your grace for to be a good lord and brother unto me.” If Henry did not keep his promise, Mary said she would enter a nunnery and “never no man shall know joy of me.”

In the shifting sands of European alliances, Mary was a pawn.  The new king, Francois, knew his alliance with England was breaking and was afraid Henry would marry Mary off to one of the Hapsburgs.  He met with her and in her frightened state, she confessed she had loved Charles since she was a girl.    Francois saw a way out of his difficulty.  Charles had been sent to France to bring Mary home at the end of her mourning.  He met with her and Francois at Senlis on January 27, 1515.  Between Francois and Mary, they convinced him Henry meant for him to marry his sister and that everything would be alright.  Mary gave him an ultimatum saying marry me now or not at all.  Despite his trepidation, Charles married Mary sometime in February 1515.  Francois on the other hand demanded preferential treatment in disputes over Mary’s dowry.

Henry was incensed.  He had lost his best pawn, money and been betrayed by his best friend.  Surprisingly, the two lived.  Instead of losing their heads, the young couple were required to pay back Mary’s marriage portion in installments of 4000 pounds.  All plate and jewels she had been given in France were forfeit as well.  The new Duke and Duchess of Suffolk were poor, but happily together.  The two had three children-  Henry, Frances and Eleanor.  Things seemed to be looking up for the young couple.  Then a new cloud came on to the horizon.  A cloud called Anne Boleyn.

Please see part 2, here:


Sources available on request