Visiting Flodden

In Military History

On the way home, the day after my visit to Bannockburn and my Scots cousin's wedding, I thought I should celebrate the other half of my ancestry by visiting Branxton, the site of an English victory, better known as Flodden Field.  It was a beautiful June morning, and it was hard at first to relate this orderly, modern agricultural landscape with larks singing above it to the business that was done on that damp, grey September afternoon almost five centuries ago.  Up to 8,000 Scots died, including their gallant king, and English losses were around 1,500, quite severe for such a total victory.  However, CAM 168 (one of my favourites), an excellently laid-out and signed battlefield trail, well-presented exhibits in the museum at nearby Etal Castle and distinctive terrain soon combined to make this a very rewarding visit.

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Etal Castle Museum: the exhibits include a wide range of facsimile weapons, armour and other artefacts.  Note the length of the "Swiss" pikes in the top picture compared to the English bills that made short work of them!

James IV of Scotland invaded England to open a second front in the war between his allies, the French, and Henry VIII.  He was also looking after his country's own interests in terms of internal unity, stronger and, ideally, extended borders, and international reputation, and driven by the classic personal motivations of a renaissance prince.  The campaign made good strategic sense and he had confidence in his army's numerical superiority over the force the English were likely to be able to send against him, in the tactical superiority of his massed pikemen, recently trained in the highly effective, Swiss style of infantry fighting by French "advisors", and in the power of his artillery.  This firepower easily overwhelmed the English border castles of Norham, Ford and Etal.

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The Etal Castle gatehouse and tower house.  Ironically, the captured Scots artillery was taken here after the battle for safe-keeping.

The Scots then dug in on Flodden Edge in a strong position to counter any attack launched from the south.  They could afford to wait whilst the English, logistically weaker and strategically in need of an early and decisive engagement, could not.  King James emphatically rejected an invitation to bring his army down to the plain and decide things there, saying that he would "take and hold his ground at his own pleasure and not at the assigning of the Earl of Surrey [Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, the English commander]".  So far so good, but then, if the tradition is based on fact, in the first of his two notable interventions in the campaign, the colourful Border Reiver, John "the Bastard" Heron of Ford, gave the English the benefit of his local knowledge by advising an expansive flank march.  This took them east out of sight of the Scots and then north and west into a position along a shallow ridge just to the south of the village of Branxton, threatening their rear and cutting off their line of retreat to the border.  Once they knew where the English were, the Scots only had to move a couple of miles, but they now had to fight.   Approximately 38,000 Scots faced 23,000 English over a shallow valley with each army formed into three main divisons with some reserves. 

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The ridge occupied by the English, seen from base of the valley.

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The ridge which the Scots advanced down, seen from the English position on the north side of the valley.

The battle, said to be the first to begin in this way, opened with an artillery duel.  The 18 Scots siege guns were on aggregate much heavier than the 22 English pieces, which were mostly 2-pdrs and the heaviest of them  6-pdrs.  However the Scots' rate of firing was considerably slower and their larger shot, especially the 60lb balls, fired from higher ground into the slope occupied by the English were much less effective, even when the aim was good, because they drove straight into the soft earth instead of skipping across the surface.  Also, their guns were not as well served as the English because some of their best gunners were serving in the Scots fleet.  The more rapid and accurate English fire quite quickly silenced the Scots guns and was then turned on the massive infantry squares.  In the words of the contemporary English Trewe Encountre the Scots "were enforced to come down toward our army": it was that, stay put and be shot to pieces, or turn and run, the wrong way.  The three divisions were to attack in echelon in textbook Swiss style.  The 10,000-strong left went in first and rolled over the severely outnumbered English right, leaving Thomas Howard's son Edmund and a few of his retainers surrounded and fighting for their lives.  However, the Scots had lost momentum and the cohesion that would have kept them immune from cavalry attack.  A charge by the 1,700 English border horsemen stabilised the situation.  The Bastard Heron rode directly to Edward Howard's side and nobly said, according to the 1550 Triumphante Reign of Kyng Henry VIII, "there was never a nobleman's son so like to be lost as you be on this day, for all my hurts I will here lie and die with you".  Both wounded, they fought their way to safety.There are two Bastards in Angus McBride's brilliant depiction of the scene in MAA 279: The Border Reivers, Heron charging in, and the hand-and-a-half "bastard" sword wielded by Howard, hefty enough to parry the highland two-hander but more agile for counter-thrusting and slashing.  

Bastard Heron close-up 

The other two divisions advanced down into the valley in good order, the front ranks protected from English arrows as they came into range by pavise-type shields and good armour.  King James, himself carrying a pike, personally commanded  his main, right-centre division, 15,000 strong.  Whilst their left divison had been able to sweep across firm, level ground at the foot of the valley, the Scots centre and right were confronted by a boggy dip which caused them to falter and lose cohesion.  This was not anticipated by the Scots and almost certainly not planned by the English, but it was fatal.

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The dip at the base of the valley, now drained and hedged, looking east around the point where the Scots central divison became bogged down.

Having lost momentum and no longer able to present a continuous and uniform hedge with their18ft pikes, the Scots were hopelessly vulnerable to the 8ft English bill.  An eyewitness wrote, "Our bills quit them very well and did more good that day than bows, for they shortly disappointed the Scots of the long spears wherein was their greatest trust, and when they came to handstrokes, though the Scots fought sore and valiantly with their swords, yet they could not resist the bills that lighted so thick and sore upon them".  The "disappointment" was not only due to the difficult ground that the Scots columns unexpectedly encountered.  A few weeks training had been totally inadequate to establish the weapons skills, formation drills and discipline that the Swiss had taken a generation to develop.  So, like Richard III at Bosworth, King James led a last-throw charge in the direction of the enemy commander's banner, "rushed into the chiefest press and there fighting in a most desperate manner was beaten down and slain".

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I visited Branxton Church, not far below the crest of the ridge on its north side, before leaving.  This was used as a temporary mortuary for the English dead and it would have been crowded.  The chancel arch is all that survives of the early 16th century building.  But possibly one other relic of this terrible day lives on unchanged.  Although the earliest existing manuscript of the tune dates from the 17th century, tradition has it that the pipe lament known as "The Flowers of the Forest" was originally composed for the Scots who died at Flodden.  It is regularly played today in honour of British war dead and its simple power has not diminished over the centuries.

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