It was a heavy defeat of the English on the sands of a Fife beach – but the dramatic encounter has largely been forgotten by Scotland’s history books.
The Battle of St Monans was fought in June 1548, just eight months after the slaughter of Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh near Musselburgh.
At the time, the English were pursuing their brutal Rough Wooing campaign against Scotland, partly to break the alliance with France but also in an attempt to force the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry VIII’s son, Edward.
While the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh led to a decisive English victory and between 6,000 and 15,000 Scots dead, the Battle of St Monans signalled a turning point as the High Admiral of England, Thomas Seymour, delivered a disastrous attempt at an invasion in the shadows of Newark Castle, then Sandilands Castle, on the coast.
Historian Leonard Low has done much to illuminate details of the little recorded battle. For years, accounts of the encounter were elusive, not least because the state papers from 1548 were among thousands of Scotland’s historical records that were lost to the North Sea in a shipwreck in the 17th century.
Mr Low, author of The Battle of St Monans said: “The battle was a heavy defeat of the old enemy but it is not recognised in Scottish history. It is incredible.
“When you put it in perspective of the Bonnie Prince Charlie story, 900 died at St Monans – that is more than the combined death toll of his victories at Prestonpans and Falkirk
“Both these conflicts have memorials and countless books on the battles.”
The Battle of St Monans was staged following months of stalemate in the Rough Wooing outside Edinburgh after a string of atrocities, Mr Low said
The violent campaign was launched in 1544 when Henry VIII proclaimed: “Put all to fire and sword, burn Edinburgh, so razed and defaced when you have sacked and gotten what ye can of it, as there may remain forever a perpetual memory of the vengeance of God lightened upon (them) for their falsehood and disloyalty.”
In Fife, the Earl of Wemyss had been charged by Mary of Guise with defending the county at all costs from English invasion.
By 1548, Seymour was manoeuvring his fleet of 60 ships out of the Firth of Forth and heading towards Fife.
Fires were lit on the coast to warn of the impending arrival of the English – and the Scots, who were led by the Earl of Wemyss and James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, the half brother of Mary Queen of Scots – prepared for their arrival.
Residents were rounded up from St Monans and Abercrombie with women amongst those who faced the invaders, some armed with fishing hooks, Mr Low said.
A trench was dug on a slope that rises up from the beach at St Monans and filled with combustibles.
Mr Low said: “It was very well thought out. Around 5,000 English got off the boats and there were the Scots waiting, doing a bit of archery and teasing the English to come from then.
“The English marched up the gradient and the Scots set alight the trench so they walked into a wall of smoke. Then it was a case of ‘boom’ and the Scots charged on them. The outnumbered Scottish force fought them back to the sea and back to their boats. Around 900 men were killed.”
For the English, the planned invasion of Fife ended in “utter disgrace” with Seymour’s attempt to make a name for himself going disastrously wrong, Mr Low said.
His subsequent attempt to land at Montrose ended in similar embarrassment, he added.
Along with the shipwreck papers, the deaths of the major figures in the Battle of St Monans contributed to the lack of accounts of events. Seymour was beheaded in 1549 following an allegation of treason, with James Stewart assassinated in Linlithgow in 1570.
The Battle of St Monans by Leonard Low is available now.