Episode 125 – A Brief History: The Bloody Battle of Flodden

On this episode of Tudors Dynasty: A Brief History,  Rebecca tells us all about the Battle of Flodden. Want to learn the details you normally don’t hear? Check this out!


Hosted by: Rebecca Larson

Written by: Kirsten Claiden-Yardley

Editing: Troy Larson (TroyLarsonCreative.com)

Voice Over: David Black 

Music by: Ketsa, Alexander Nakarada, and Winnie the Moog via FilmMusic.io, used by EXTENDED license.






Show Notes & Show Transcription

At 4pm on the 9th of September 1513, the armies of England and Scotland came face to face near the village of Branxton in Northumberland. The subsequent, brutal battle ended with the death of James IV of Scotland and is known today as the Battle of Flodden. 

Relations between the two countries had been volatile since the end of the Wars of Scottish Independence. Just twenty-six years previously James IV had led an army into England and besieged Norham Castle. James’s marriage to Margaret Tudor in 1502 and the accompanying Anglo-Scottish treaty had brought a brief period of cooperation but, by Henry VII’s death in 1509, it was already under strain. 

In contrast to his father, Henry VIII was an energetic young man who was passionate about jousting, hunting and warfare. It was his ambition to establish his military reputation with a war against France. By the end of 1511, he had joined the Holy League against France, and tensions with Scotland were continuing to increase. With the English parliament reasserting overlordship over their neighbour, James IV agreed to resurrect the auld alliance with France. The Franco-Scottish agreement of 1512 stated that James and Louis XII would declare war on England if the other was attacked.

In the summer of 1512, an army commanded by Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, sailed to Spain to join forces with Ferdinand of Aragon against France. On arrival, they discovered that Ferdinand wanted to reclaim Navarre (NUH-Var) instead. Stranded in Spain, the English army came close to mutinying and the expedition returned home a failure.  

It was deeply embarrassing for Henry and planning quickly began for an invasion in 1513, to be led by the king. In Henry’s absence, Catherine of Aragon was appointed regent and, in case James IV did decide to attack England, Henry left Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey, to organise the northern defences. 

Fears of a Scottish attack proved to be correct. Louis XII sent French captains to train the Scots in the Swiss mercenary style of fighting with pikes and, on August the 11th, a Scottish herald arrived at Thérouanne. tare ou an 

The herald instructed Henry to return home or James would attack England. Henry refused and instead ordered his wife to begin urgent preparations to defend the realm.

James  IV led his army into England on the 22nd of August. News reached Surrey at his base in Pontefract on the 25th by which time the Scottish army was already besieging Norham Castle. Norham fell after six days of siege and the Scots moved on to take the castles of Etal and Ford. 

Meanwhile the English were being hampered by poor weather conditions. Roads were flooded and strong winds nearly prevented the Lord Admiral, Surrey’s son Thomas, from bringing   his fleet and men north. Surrey finally mustered his army near Alnwick on the 4th of September. Further south, Catherine had ordered a muster in the midlands and was preparing to march north but the distance and weather meant that this secondary army would be of no immediate use. 

With limited supplies available for a long campaign, Surrey challenged James to a battle to take place on the 9th of September. When he received word that James had accepted the challenge, he moved his army to Wooler, some three miles from the Scottish camp. In Surrey’s opinion, nearby Millfield Plain would be the perfect battlefield. However, it became apparent that James had no intention of abandoning his unassailable position on Flodden Hill. When pressed to say whether he would be descending to the battlefield, James replied that he would not be instructed by Surrey.

The English decided to attempt a flanking manoeuvre and relocate to Branxton Hill, north of the Scottish position. This meant marching some ten miles north on the afternoon of the 8th of September. Then, on the following morning, they had to march west, cross the river Twill and march south into position. Scottish scouts spotted them as they crossed the river and James made the decision to move his army to Branxton Hill. He also ordered that his men burn their rubbish, creating a smoke screen. 

It was not until the Lord Admiral was within a quarter of a mile of Branxton Hill that the English discovered that James had beaten them to their target. With no options left, Surrey’s took up position on Piper’s Hill. The larger Scottish army was split into four main units, possibly with a smaller fifth unit behind the ridge. The English were divided into three main units with a small unit of horse in reserve. A fifth unit under the command of Sir Edward Stanley was still making its way to the battlefield. Between the two armies was a wet, boggy dip in the ground.

The battle began with artillery fire from both sides. The English had the upper hand due to their lighter, more manoeuvrable, field guns which forced James to go on the offensive and charge towards the English. At first the tactic was successful. The right-hand wing of the English army under the command of Edmund Howard was quickly routed by the Scottish unit commanded by Lord Home. The English bills were useless against the longer reach of the Scottish pikes and, with his men fleeing, Edmund was only saved by the arrival of Lord Dacre with the English reserve.

Lord Home had advanced over the easiest ground on the battlefield meaning his men could maintain the momentum needed for the Swiss style of pike fighting. The rest of the Scottish army was not so lucky. Charging down the hill, the two central Scottish units were slowed by the boggy ground. With their momentum lost, they abandoned their pikes to fight with swords and daggers. 

The fighting was frantic, vicious and bloody and, despite their difficulties, the Scots might have won due to the sheer size of their army. That they didn’t was down to two factors. Firstly, Lord Home did not re-engage after breaking the right wing of the English army. Secondly, Edward Stanley’s unit arrived and fell on the right flank of the Scottish army, just as they were going to charge to the aid of their king. James pressed on, desperately trying to reach Surrey, and was slain just a short distance from the English commander. 

Sixteen Scottish noblemen and four leady clergymen died alongside James. Thanks to a “no mercy” order issued by the Lord Admiral, only one thousand and two hundred prisoners were taken. Estimates of the number of Scottish dead range from ten to fifteen thousand men. 

Surrey was rewarded for the victory with the dukedom of Norfolk, forfeited after his father’s death at the Battle of Bosworth. His position as one of England’s leading noblemen was secured. Although Flodden was not a personal victory for Henry VIII, it enhanced his international reputation. It also neutralized the threat posed to England by the Scots who now faced years of internal instability during the minority of seventeen-month-old King James V. 

Follow the script writer, Kirsten Claiden-Yardley on Twitter: @tudor_historian

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