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.
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.
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.