Flodden Field

With the English right wing and centre divisions now engaged, the left wing under Lord Stanley ascended the hill and fell upon the wild highlander rearguard of the Campbells and the McLeans. The Scots put up a fierce resistance, but Stanley’s force proved too strong and most were killed, including the clan chiefs. James, seeing the battle was going against him, led his troops in a wild charge towards the English banners and, fighting valiantly, was killed within a spear’s length of Earl Howard, reportedly being hit first by an arrow and then being struck by a billhook.

The defeat became a bloodbath with more than 9,000 Scots killed, including many of the country’s clan chiefs and leaders. English losses were reckoned at 4,000. The battle is thought to be one of the last true medieval clashes fought with bows, pikes, bills and swords. It is also the first battle in which artillery was significantly deployed. The Scots infantry, armed with pikes of some 15 feet long, while a fierce weapon to oppose cavalry, proved no match for the English bill, a six foot long weapon combining spear, axe and hook, which proved more useful in close combat and on the boggy ground.

Most historians attribute the defeat more to Scottish inexperience rather than English valour. The charge by James was foolhardy and did lead to the destruction of his army, made worse by the Scots habit of placing their officers and leaders at the front of a battle while the English commanded from a central point at the rear. An official English report on the battle noted the Scot’s iron spears, but concluded, “The English halberdiers decided the whole affair, so that in the battle the bows and ordnance were of little use”.

The herald Thomas Hawley, the English Rouge Croix pursuivant, brought news of the victory to Queen Catherine, together with the bloodstained surcoat of the dead Scottish king which, together with his iron gauntlets, she had delivered to Henry in France.

James’ body was taken to Berwick on Tweed where it was viewed by captured Scots courtiers who acknowledged it was the king’s. It was then embalmed in Newcastle and finally brought to Sheen Castle near London, where, in a lead coffin, he remained unburied for some years. By the time that James V1 united the English and Scottish thrones in 1603, the bones of his ancestor had long vanished, His banner, sword and armour were taken to the shrine of Saint Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. In the manner of the time, much of the armour of the Scottish dead was stripped by the Border Reiver factions of both the English and Scottish armies and was sold on the battlefield, and some 350 suits of armour were taken to Nottingham Castle.

The role of Scottish dead included twelve earls, fifteen lords, many clan chiefs, three bishops, two abbots, an archbishop and the king himself. Perhaps the last word should go to the Scot Lord Lindsey, who before the battle, advised the king to withdraw, comparing their situation to “An honest merchant playing dice with a trickster and wagering a gold rose-noble against a bent halfpenny”. James being the gold piece, England the trickster and Earl Howard the halfpenny.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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