Fordyce Maxwell: Why does Battle of Flodden matter?

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HISTORY is always divisive. There’s also a journalistic truism that no matter how much you know about a subject some reader will know more.

And, a final caveat before mentioning the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, the before, during and after of the battle took place over countryside I’ve walked in and worked on since childhood without thinking much about it.

I know the basics: that on 9 September, 1513, more than 10,000 Scots were killed, including James IV, and that some historians see Flodden as a big step towards the Union of the Crowns almost a century later.

All that is some way from my peripheral links with the annual Coldstream Civic Week remembrance of Flodden. Two of my brothers have led the Flodden cavalcade, as have a brother- in-law and two nephews, but apart from rare appearances as horse-holder I haven’t been involved.

Even now, with all respect to those who have worked hard to establish the UK’s first cross-border eco-museum to commemorate “the battle that shaped our nations”, I hadn’t become too interested until a recent local exhibition. The explanation on a series of large boards of what led to the battle and, more specifically, how it turned out the way it did is the clearest I’ve seen.

That’s good, because much about the battle is still unclear. Some reported sightings of approaching armies seem impossible from where they were supposed to have been made. The Scottish army’s route to reach the border from Edinburgh is unclear. My question “Why does that matter?” raised eyebrows and blood pressure among the historians I put it to. But I didn’t push my luck by asking why, at a remove of five centuries, does it matter if we don’t know what happened beyond the basics?

Is it a Scottish thing to make so much of a catastrophic defeat when Flodden is an unknown battle as far as most of the English public south of Wooler is concerned?

Perhaps, but enthusiasts on both sides of the border have managed to gain a £900,000 grant for their quincentenary commemorative efforts. Good work until we consider the Scottish Government’s £5 million towards a Bannockburn commemoration for 2014 – but that, of course, was a thumping win and isn’t there a referendum of some sort next year? Meantime, even with interest partly revived, I’ll give the planned Flodden re-enactment a miss, wondering, as always, why grown men think it’s a good idea to recreate children’s “take that, you’re dead” games and engage in awkward sword play. A minute’s silence would surely suffice. «

Twitter: @FordyceMaxwell