Today is the 500th anniversary of the bloody Battle of Flodden. On 9 September 1513, in a field in northern England, thousands of men, including King James IV of Scotland and many of his nobles, died when an English force met and defeated a raiding Scottish army.

Two weeks ago I stood on Flodden Field on a breezy yet mild autumn afternoon. The feeling that overwhelmed me was one of exposure. The site of the battle is in the middle of nowhere, the surrounding countryside rural and largely unoccupied. The surface of the battlefield, at the time of our visit an expanse of closely cropped corn stubble, appeared to move as shadows from the clouds above swept across the ground. It felt like a place where the earth and heavens meet, where the elements battle on a daily basis. It was eerily quiet.

It is hard, painful, to imagine how the sounds of battle would have smashed that silence, how the fields would have become scarred, laden and infused with the horror, the air befouled. But the battle passed in hours. Within twenty years, perhaps, the land would have shown no visible sign of what had gone before. Unlike the lengthy military campaigns in France and Belgium during the First World War, there was insufficient time for a weight of eloquently written literature to emerge documenting the valiant suffering of those who participated. There were not enough men who returned to their families to share their tales and create a narrative, and of those who did, perhaps there was a lack of will to relive that barbarous day.

That lack of will seems to continue into today. The national Scottish focus is firmly on the Battle of Bannockburn, the 700th anniversary of which is next year.[1] So far, there has been very little coverage, but what you are likely to read about today, to the extent that Flodden is even covered as part of the ‘news cycle’, is the ‘forgotten’ Flodden. That is likely to be the hook, and hence Flodden’s ‘story’.[2]

Some articles will feature pub-quiz style trivia and coincidence to evidentially demonstrate the importance of this event. For example, did you know:

  • James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) was the last king to die on a battlefield in Britain;
  • James IV was married to Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII, through whose line arose the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland;[3]
  • James IV’s body is thought to rest below an English golf course.

Others may drag military historians, battle re-enactors and role-play enthusiasts into the fray to explore the significance of tactics and technology in the outcome at Flodden. Former generals questioning James IV’s decision to lead, literally,[4] a charge from the safety of Branxton Hill into the dangerously boggy ground below the English line. Bearded chain-mail-wearing geography teachers demonstrating the frailty of the old-school pike when faced with the more street-savvy bill. Gamemasters questioning why James IV took to the field at all, as a quick glance down the character sheets would suggest that the dice were heavily loaded against him in any direct confrontation with an English force.[5]

Broadsheets and tabloids will likely search for resonances. The battle will be compared with the Scottish victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314, with theories espoused as to why the English have not celebrated their triumph, with the finger pointed at British unionism, consolidated by contemporary embarrassment over English imperialism. The slaughter at Flodden may be likened to that in the sodden battlefields of the First World War,[6] whose first centennial commemoration will generate much copy over the next few years. Scotland’s ability to exist independently with different foreign and economic policies to that of England may also be touched on.[7]

Flodden’s story is perhaps best understood locally. The anniversary will be commemorated in Branxton by a memorial service attended by distant relatives of leaders of both armies.[8] Local volunteers have also conducted excavation work on the site of the battle in an attempt to gain recognition of the battlefield burials as war graves. Where the violence of the Battle of Flodden was once felt, its narrative is not forgotten.

In Hawick, a nearby Scottish border town famous for its knitwear,[9] stands a monument that was erected in 1914 in memory of a skirmish at Hornshole in 1514 between young men of Hawick and an English army (or handful of men, depending on your source). The young Scots routed the English, and took the Bishop of Hexham’s flag. This victory was remarkable, given that most of the town’s young men had died at Flodden the previous year. The statue is a horse, bearing a young man who holds aloft the spoils of the encounter. Known affectionately as Ken the Horse, it was sculpted by William Beattie, who died whilst serving in the British forces in France in 1918. In 1921, his father Thomas, himself a master craftsman, carved an inscription to his son on the monument, together with a Latin inscription to remind the people of Hawick of the suffering, sacrifice and achievements of their young men:

“You may overwhelm it in the deep; it arises more beautiful than ever.”

For me, Flodden’s story is not found in the factoids, the tactics, or its wider context in Scottish, British or European history. It is found in the silence.

Sheffield-based James Pennock is a history graduate. You can see all of James’s History Matters blogs here.

Image: James Pennock on Flodden Field, 2013 ©Caroline Dodds Pennock

[1] Many thanks to Charles West for informing me that the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn is heralded by a countdown at its official website

[2] I have been mulling this article over since my wife and I visited the site of the Battle of Flodden on 28 August, which is on the outskirts of the English village of Branxton in Northumberland. I’ve read recent media coverage, discussed it with other history academics, thrashed around various approaches, until this final act of inspiration (Desperation? – Ed) i.e. the story becomes the story.

[3] It was this marriage which gave rise to the James VI of Scotland’s claim to the English throne, resulting in his accession as the first Stuart monarch of England and Ireland (as James I) in 1603, and subsequently the Union of the Crowns.

[4]  I use ‘literally’ here with its 2012 Oxford English Dictionary definition, to indicate that he not only led the charge through authority as King of Scotland, but also led it physically, shoulder to shoulder with his spearmen. For readers aged 25 and below, don’t worry about it – this is a footnote for the pedantic geriatric.

[5] Due to King Henry VIII of England’s absence on military campaign in France, the English army was considered very much a second-rate force. It was led by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, grandfather of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard who were both unfortunate enough to lose their heads in their love of Henry VIII.

[6] Accounts of the number of lives lost vary dramatically. There were between 1,500 and 4,000 English casualties, compared with anywhere between 5,000 and 12,000 Scottish dead. These men fell within three to four hours of battle, many dying during fierce hand-to-hand combat. Putting this into rather blunt context, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, around 30,000 to 35,000 men were killed.

[7] James IV was drawn into this conflict through the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France. When Henry VIII moved against the French King Louis XII in 1513, having allied with the Pope and Spain, the French asked that James IV help to divert English attention through a diversionary foray into Northumbria, and also by lending to them the Scottish fleet. It could be argued that James IV was motivated by the desire to show that Scotland could play a part in international politics, and we may perhaps see some counter-factual fare in the Daily Mail imagining how the vote for military action in Syria may have gone were it to have been made by an independent Scottish parliament.

[8] See for further discussion of the local commemoration of the Battle of Flodden, and of the wider political context.

Tags : 500th anniversary of FloddenBattle of FloddenFloddenrelationship between Scotland and EnglandUnion of the Crowns
James Pennock

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