With Henry VIII away fighting in France, the Scottish King James resolved to invade England. The decision was to cost him his life.
In 1513, King Henry of England, together with Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, was besieging the city of Therouanne during the Catholic’ League’s war against France. The French Queen Mary persuaded James IV, the Scottish king, to revive “The Auld Alliance” and divert Henry’s attention by invading England and sent him money and weapons to arm and equip his army. Henry had recently angered James and opened old wounds by claiming to be the overlord of Scotland and the Scot relished the opportunity to get back at Henry, despite being married to Margaret Tudor, Henry’s sister.
When Pope Leo X learned of the Franco/Scottish arrangement, he wrote to James, threatening excommunication for breaking his treaties with England, but without effect. James was then excommunicated which only made him more determined and he collected a force of warships which he sent to help the French. On the 26th July, James wrote to Henry asking him to cease his attacks on the French, but Henry dismissed the request and warned that any retaliatory move against England would be resisted.
In August James crossed the River Tweed near Coldstream with an army of some 30,000 men. He dressed up the reason for his invasion by claiming that he came to seek revenge for the murder of Robert Kerr, Warden of the Scots Marches, by John “The Bastard” Heron, Lord of Ford Castle. By the end of August he had captured the castles of Norham, Etal and Ford.
James made his headquarters in Ford castle and remained there for some days and in the words of the Scots chronicler, Robert Lindsay, “Enjoyed the company of Lady Heron and her daughter”. Some sources maintain that the two women dispensed their favours in return for an undertaking that the castle would not be destroyed.
Up to now, his invasion had amounted to little more than a border raid and many of his men, content with the plunder so far gained, returned to Scotland with their booty.
On the 27th August 1513, Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, acting as Regent, issued warrants for the property of all Scotsmen in England to be confiscated and, when on the 3rd September she learned that James’s forces had crossed the border, she ordered Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who had been put in charge of England’s defences in Henry’s absence, to muster a force in London and her Chancellor, Thomas Lovell, to raise an army in the Midland counties. The two armies, now numbering around 25,000, met at Pontefract and held a Council of War. They then marched to Durham where Surrey and his officers prayed in the Cathedral and collected the sacred banner of St Cuthbert. This ancient flag had been carried by the English in great victories over the Scots in 1138 and 1346 and was reckoned a powerful talisman.
Surrey then moved on to Newcastle where he was joined by the men of Northumberland and Durham, including retainers of the mighty Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Lord Percy was himself in France with the king, but his brothers, Lionel and William Percy joined Surrey’s force and together they marched to Alnwick and on to Wooler where they made camp.
In keeping with the custom of the day, the English herald, Roger Croix came to Ford to agree a place for battle and suggested the 4th September as a suitable date, James however, favoured moving south to Berwick on Tweed, but some of his officers felt that they had “done enough” for France and, with winter approaching, wanted to return to Scotland. James moved his men south, crossed the River Til and camped at Flodden Edge outside the village of Branxton.
The Earl of Surrey sent his herald to James complaining that the Scot’s position was akin to a fortress and requested that the two sides meet in battle between 12 and 3 pm on Friday 9th September on Millfield Plain as previously agreed between heralds. Surrey then moved some troops to block James’ route north and by doing so, threatened the Scot position.
On the 9th September, the English began to cross the Twissel Bridge and in another example of the strangely chivalric rules of war at the time, the historian Pitscottie records that King James would not allow his artillery to fire on the vulnerable English during this manoeuvre. Instead, he ordered the burning of the camp rubbish creating clouds of smoke that obscured the view of his camp from the English. Behind the smoke he moved his troops to a new position on Branxton Hill, where they placed their artillery consisting of Five Curtals, two Culverins, four Sakers and six Serpentines, a formidable array. With the advantage of high ground and with a wide marsh at the foot of the hill, James felt that he had command of the battleground. The English however, with their local knowledge, used Branxton Bridge, a route not known to James, to cross the marsh and arrived at the foot of the hill looking up at the formidable army that faced them.
At 4 pm, the Scots began their artillery barrage on the English lines, but the inexperience of the gunners meant that little damage was caused. The English artillery, with its experienced gunners, soon found the range of the enemy and in a short time had destroyed many of the Scots guns. Some of the Lancashire and Cheshire men in the English army had been on the march for some days and were hungry and disorganised. Seeing this weakness in the English right wing, James sent his left wing, commanded by Lord Home, charging down the hill to attack and was initially successful in breaking the English line, but, learning nothing from history, they ran straight into a wall of Cheshire archers, whose longbows caused havoc among the attackers. When James saw the attack faltering he decided on an “All or nothing” charge at the English. He led his main force in a headlong rush down the hill, abandoning the advantage of the high ground. His charge was slowed down by an unexpected ridge and a marshy area at the foot of the slope and all momentum was lost as he reached the English line.