John Sadler takes us on a tour around Flodden Field, and explains how the terrain played such a major part in the campaign.
The Battle of Flodden was fought because Henry VIII planned to invade France in 1513 in support of the Habsburg Emperor. His fear was that his brother-in-law, James IV of Scotland, an ally of France, would take the opportunity to attack Northern England.
James, stung by Henry’s contemptuous rebuttal of several ultimatums, pushed ahead with plans for an invasion of Northumberland, his efforts boosted by supplies of bullion, arms, and a cadre of military advisors from France. He had resolved to drill his raw levies in the advanced pike tactics developed and practised with great élan and success by the redoubtable Swiss mercenaries.
The English host was led by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, 2nd Duke of Norfolk – England’s venerable senior commander, who had started his long career as a Yorkist during the Wars of the Roses. The English were inferior in numbers to the Scots.
Most contemporary commentators give the English between 16,000 and 26,000 men, made up mainly of the retainers of the magnates and of the shire levies from counties north of the Trent. The Lord Admiral, Thomas Howard Junior, brought a stiffening of 1,200 marines from the fleet, and Lord Dacre furnished some 1,500 border horses. Surrey also had an artillery train, though his was made up of lighter field pieces.
These English guns could not compare with the Scots’ artillery in terms of weight of shot, but they were faster-firing and more manoeuvrable – on the field, the English gunners would emerge victorious from the opening artillery duel.
After the initial Scottish muster on the Burgh Muir, the host moved south to the border to commence the siege of Norham, the Prince Bishop’s great stronghold by the River Tweed. The castellan had advised Surrey he could hold out until relieved, but the Scottish artillery was too formidable. After five days of bombardment and escalade, the fortress surrendered.
James went on to take the lesser strongholds of Etal and Ford, both of which were then slighted. There is no indication that he intended to seek battle, his objective could have been attained without the hazard of a general engagement. He may have wished to put his army to the test, but the first position he chose, astride Flodden Edge and overlooking Millfield Plain, was an entirely defensive one. The guns were well dug-in and the terrain worked in the Scots’ favour. Surrey’s decision to attempt an outflanking manoeuvre and occupy Branxton Hill was a bold one. But it nearly came unstuck as a significant gap opened between his and The Lord Admiral’s division. James chose not to exploit the opportunity, but to await his enemies’ full deployment. This was fully consistent with Swiss doctrine.
Hostilities began with a brisk artillery duel. The heavier Scottish ordnance, having been dragged over the intervening saddle, could not be properly dug-in (the gunners were by no means Scotland’s best as many were attached to the fleet). Very quickly, the English gunners established fire supremacy, as their Scottish counterparts fell or deserted, and round-shot began to fall amongst the densely-packed ranks of spears.
For James, this was intolerable. He unleashed Home and Huntly’s powerful division on the Scottish left. They charged to the dip at the foot of Branxton Hill, where they encountered a far lesser obstacle than the gunners; Edmund Howard, the youngest of the three Howards, and his weak brigade on the English right instantly folded. Only Edmund Howard himself, with a handful of knights, kept the field and fought on against hopeless odds. A timely intervention by Dacre’s horses restored the position, shoring up the crumbling flank. Home’s unwillingness to continue the fight smacked of treachery and collusion – scarcely an unusual arrangement in border warfare.
Meanwhile, King James and the division of Errol, Crawford, and Montrose, hurled themselves downhill against the English centre. The ground, however, proved far more difficult than the view from the hilltop suggested: the dip was deeper and the banks more marshy than either appeared. The momentum of the charge, key to success with pikes, was lost, and with it, cohesion. The Scots struggled through wet and mire, to find themselves slogging up a rise to meet the English line, which surged forward to engage. Their pikes proved no match for the formidable English bill now that impetus was lost. Most dropped staves to draw swords, and The Lord Admiral’s men swiftly gained the upper hand. D’Aussi’s reserve merely added to the scrum, and many Scots began filtering away.
Only the highland division under Lennox and Argyll remained uncommitted, and the clansmen were scattered by Edward Stanley – though the Stanleys came late to the fight, an opportune and brilliant flank attack broke the highlanders and killed their chiefs. Appeals to Home to bring his and Huntly’s men into the ring fell on deaf ears. James had, in fact, battered a salient into the mass of the English centre, one which was in danger of being annihilated as the bills closed in. The King and his nobles, encased in fine harness, fought on doggedly, whilst many of the commons decided upon discretion. In a final quixotic gesture, James and his household men flung themselves upon Surrey’s banners. The King of Scotland died almost unseen in the ruin of his proud army. As dusk fell, the English were masters of the field. Perhaps as many as 8,000 fell in total; the English losses made up only 1,000. Flodden was the worst of Scotland’s many defeats on the English border.
Today, there is a car park in Branxton and the church is well worth a visit. The monument, erected in 1910, is a large granite cross on Piper’s Hill. Directly ahead of you stands the ridge itself, and one can see the commanding nature of the Scottish position. Although the marshy dip has been diminished as an obstacle by subsequent field drainage, it is still clear how difficult this incline leading up to the English position would have been.
Stand at the top of the ridge, however, and these obstacles are not apparent: we can see why James, with no scouting, had been so dangerously misled. Some battlefield archaeology has been carried out recently, and the digging continues. Flodden Edge, south of the Branxton position over the undulating saddle which links the two, still has evidence of the earlier gun-pits. Standing here, looking over the plain, one can easily discern why Surrey had shuddered at the thought of a frontal assault.
Take the track beyond the cross towards Branxton Stead, and ascend Branxton Hill. Turn left by the farm and pick up the road back down to Branxton. Marden Farm is to your right and a footpath links this to the settlement. Nearby, at Etal Castle, English Heritage has mounted an excellent display and interpretation of the battle; the castle, featured in the action of 1513, and the site are well worth a visit. Norham should also be on anyone’s itinerary: the castle still dominates the river crossing and village below, and the magnificent stone keep underlines the importance of the Prince Bishop’s castle in border warfare.