IT WAS one of Scotland’s most catastrophic defeats, a battle that robbed the country of its king and countless lairds.
Now, in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of the battle of Flodden, an expert has blamed the defeat on the Scottish army’s inability to master their weapon of choice: an unwieldy, 18ft pike.
The forces of James IV were destroyed by the English troops of Henry VIII because they were unable to use their long pikes properly and did not have enough time to get used to them, according to military archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard, of Glasgow University.
The long continental pikes were at their most deadly when wielded by a phalanx of men moving in a straight line on level ground. While one line could take up a defensive position, a second could thrust their pikes forward at the enemy.
But the terrain at Flodden, in Northumberland, meant that, instead of marching on level ground in a co-ordinated manner, the Scots had to charge downhill and the weapons were so unwieldy the soldiers ended up bunching together.
As a result, they were easily fought off by English troops using shorter, more versatile polearms that were just 8ft long.
Dr Pollard recreated a portion of the battle to find out why 10,000 Scots were killed. About 20 “pikemen”, chosen from hundreds of re-enactors, were told to advance down a hill similar to the one the Scots negotiated in 1513. He found they bunched up and broke their lines, meaning the weapons would have been hopeless against the massed ranks of the English.
James IV, known as the “Renaissance King”, equipped his army at the last minute with 18ft pikes, normally found in continental Europe. They would have been unfamiliar to the Scots and Dr Pollard said the men would have had little practice with them. “These are complicated weapons and it’s a complicated drill – there can be little doubt that the Scots didn’t have enough practice to operate them effectively,” he said.
“Your traditional Scottish spear was 8ft long, these were 18ft long. I tried to handle one of them – they’re incredibly cumbersome. They would probably have preferred to use a regular spear.”
He added: “They needed to be able to use [the pikes] en masse. The effectiveness is on open ground. Due to the English flanking them, they had to attack down Branxton hill – it was raining and it looks like they came unstuck.
“We did it close to where they were doing the re-enactments. We found a slope but it was short and dry. Nonetheless, it was clear it had an impact on the cohesion of the men. They started to bunch up.”
The English waiting at the bottom of the hill were able to parry the pikes and “hack the Scots to pieces”, Dr Pollard said.
Additionally, the men were bogged down in the mud and the Scots’ cannons could not fire downhill, rendering them all but useless.
Dr Pollard explained the English would have used polearms, which were about 8ft long.
He said: “They originate as hedging tools with blades or hooks mounted on the end. They’re much more old-school and don’t take as much training. The bill is much easier to use at close quarters. I think they would have used it to parry the pikes.”
He said the Scots’ unco-ordinated downhill advance meant the pike could not be used to full advantage. “It only works if it’s being used as a bloc,” he said. “Even on the relatively shallow slope we used, we were getting them veering off in another direction. It’s practically impossible to maintain the cohesion of the unit – the spearheads were all over the place.”
Dr Pollard now hopes to recreate the battle on a larger scale in rainy conditions to more accurately determine what happened.