The battle of Flodden 500 years on

Standing in Bannockburn’s shadow, is the battle of Flodden’s quincentenary just an inconvenient anniversary, asks Alex Massie

The Flodden Monument at the top of Piper's Hill. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

IF IT weren’t for the history, Branxton Hill in north Northumberland would be an ordinary patch of farmland essentially indistinguishable from a thousand other northern English fields. But there is history – and tragedy – aplenty here. As the clouds part, the land is washed with sunshine, the barley whispers in the breeze and you remember that the fate of a nation was once decided on these quiet and ordinary fields. For this is Flodden.

Five hundred years ago this place was a charnel house; on these fields were piled high the bodies of the Scottish dead. All very gallant; all very dead. Ten thousand of them, it is reckoned, though it is hard to be precise about these matters half a millennium later. At any rate, Scottish corpses outnumbered their English counterparts two to one. Among them King James IV himself, his natural son, the bishop of St Andrews, and no fewer than 13 earls. All of them lying cold in the clay.

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For centuries Flodden was the yin to Bannockburn’s yang. To recall one was to implicitly recall the other. They balanced one another perfectly; one a triumph the other a disaster. But no more, I think. The 700th anniversary of Bannockburn next year will be loudly celebrated; the 500th anniversary of Flodden next month will be recalled with barely a whisper.

Bannockburn is a simple tale of the kind we like best. Heroic Scottish underdogs resisting English aggression. Fighting not for honour alone, nor for land or property, but for liberty. Even the more complicated elements of the Wars of Independence have been ironed out of history. The modern cult of Wallace is of such revived potency that it would be no surprise to discover that many Scots now think he, not Robert the Bruce prevailed at Bannockburn. Perhaps Bruce – conflicted, criminal, Bruce – is too complicated for modern tastes.

Flodden is complicated too. In this respect as well it is as far from Bannockburn as it is possible to imagine. If Bannockburn is seen – from a Scottish perspective – as the last heroism of a war of necessity, Flodden might be considered the greatest folly of what was, at least arguably, a war of choice. One fought on foreign – that 
is to say, English – soil too. A reckless piece of misadventure whose fatal consequences ruined and enfeebled an entire kingdom.

If it is not quite the case that liberties won at Bannockburn were lost at Flodden the latter battle was still, in its way, a staging post on the path to Union. Perhaps that helps explain why there is little official enthusiasm for commemorating Flodden. A recent discussion – debate seems too grand a term – of Flodden in the Scottish Parliament drew only a trio of speakers whose remarks, in any case, chiefly seemed based upon Wikipedia’s histories of the time.

The Scottish Government’s website is just as silent. Four years ago the government announced extra cash would be found to subsidise school trips to Bannockburn. According to Keith Brown, then the schools minister, Bannockburn was a “seminal point in Scottish history” that has “developed an iconic status around the world”. In addition to trips to Bannockburn the government announced it would help fund school visits to Culloden and to Robert Burns’ birthplace too. Doubtless these places are also deemed sufficiently seminal and iconic.

But not Flodden. As the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn looms, the government diverted a further £5m of public money towards the construction of a new visitor centre at Bannockburn. No-one, I think, would argue this is reprehensible. Bannockburn is an essential part of the national story. And Flodden is beyond Scotland’s immediate control. But the Scottish Government has shown little interest in the historic site. In fact, the visitor centre there is a disused red telephone box, purchased from BT for £1.

So who remembers Flodden anyway? And does it matter if the battle fades from memory? Perhaps it depends on where you’re from. Speaking at Flodden earlier this month, Michael Moore, Secretary of State for Scotland, but, more importantly, MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, put it well: “Some will struggle to understand why so much attention is still paid to a military defeat of such magnitude. Some will wonder at the relevance of the events half a millennium after the catastrophe. Some will miss the point of the commemorations entirely.” But not in the counties of southern Scotland. As Moore insisted, “We hear the echoes of the events in our Border songs, our verses and our histories”.

And we do. The Border hills are still dotted with castles and peel towers that testify to this place’s fighting past. The great ruined abbeys of Melrose, Jedburgh, Kelso and Dryburgh stand as reminders of the destruction wrought by English invasion. The ballads and poetry of the borderland run to melancholy and violence in equal measure.

Speaking in Selkirk a century ago Lord Rosebery, the former prime minister, declared that he did not “think it is necessary for me today to go in detail into the history of the battle. It is in reality familiar to every man, woman and child. It is the disaster that has sunk deepest into the Scottish heart, and has caused the longest and most open wound.”

Rosebery was in Selkirk to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Flodden and to unveil a memorial to the battle. That memorial – a statue of a border warrior returning home with a captured English banner – was paid for by public subscription. In Selkirk, legend and history has it, some 80 men left to fight for King James and only one returned. Named Fletcher, he was, the story insists, so overcome with grief that he could not find the words to express the scale of the disaster that had befallen Scotland and, more particularly, Selkirk. Instead he waved – or cast – his banner before lowering it to the ground in silent tribute to the fallen.

This is delicate stuff. It is a story that, like a fading watercolour, cannot withstand too much rigorous sunlight. Be that as it may and to borrow from the myths of the American west, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. In any event, the re-enactment of Fletcher’s flag cast is the emotional zenith of Selkirk’s annual Common Riding celebrations. And when the town silver band plays The Flowers Of The Forest as the last flag is lowered, I swear you can feel the history. It is an ancient ritual in which memory and loss are mixed with pride and a certain defiance. We are still here and we still remember.

If I dwell on Selkirk’s loss it is because it is my home town. But in truth, all Scotland was stricken by Flodden and its consequences. The Scottish army that marched into Northumberland was the largest assembled by any Scottish monarch. It was, for perhaps the first and last time, a truly national army.

As Andrew Lang, the 19th century folklorist and historian, described the Scots order of battle: “Home’s Border spears and Huntly’s Gordons, Errol’s and Crawford’s men from Perthshire, Fife and the Merse were on the Scots’ left, then the royal division in the centre, with Bothwell’s and the Celtic levies of Argyll and Lennox on the right.” Writing as the 400th anniversary loomed, Lang insisted: “This defeat was the great sorrow of Scotland and even now, in any great national misfortune, people say ‘There has not been the like since Flodden.’”

The Flodden memorial, unveiled in 1910, salutes the dead from both nations. But as you look south from the ridge upon which this granite cross stands, it seems inexplicable that the Scots should have been defeated at all, far less that they should have been so utterly routed. King James’s army was positioned on the high ground of Branxton Hill, looking down upon the English forces, commanded by the Earl of Surrey, below. Even today it is apparent that this was a position of some strength. And yet the Scots sacrificed this great advantage, moving down the hill to meet the English on a more level fighting field.

It proved a disastrous, self-inflicted blunder. 
Initially, as Sir Walter Scott imagined the battle in Marmion three centuries later: “The stubborn spearmen still made good/Their dark impenetrable wood.” But as the Scots advanced they were undone by boggy ground underfoot. The pikemen stumbled and slipped and their impenetrable forest of spears split asunder. In close-quarters action, the 18-ft pike proved no match for the shorter, more versatile, English billhook. Chaos ensued; a massacre followed.

Something more than a king died that day. James’s Scotland had been an outward-looking country, playing its part in European affairs. Parliament had passed what we still consider the world’s first education act, decreeing that aristocratic sons receive instruction. Universities and colleges were founded. The poetry of Dunbar and Henryson – superior it became customary to note, to any English versifiers between Chaucer and Shakespeare – reflected the muscular confidence of a country on the make.

But James was trapped between honouring the auld alliance with France – itself resisting English invasion – and maintaining the Treaty of Perpetual Peace he had signed with Henry VII in 1502. That treaty had been sealed by marriage between James and Henry’s daughter Margaret in 1503. She now complained of “the unnatural spectacle of seeing my husband arrayed in mortal combat against my brother”. To no avail; as her brother, Henry VIII, invaded France in June, so her husband James prepared to invade England.

The calamity produced a shrivelled, enfeebled Scotland. The infant James V succeeded his father but the country was open to the less than tender mercies of both French and English interference. Factionalism was rife and nearly a century of instability followed. James IV’s marriage would prove consequential, however. With Elizabeth I of England childless, it was James’s marriage that made his great-grandson, James VI, the heir to the English throne.

Though there was not, as is often claimed, a “Union of the Crowns” (it being a personal rather than a formal union) it remains the case that uniting the kingdoms of Scotland and England (and Ireland) in a single body helped pave the way to eventual political union. If that was, as the Earl of Seafield described it in 1707, “the end of an auld sang” it was an ending that had its beginnings, in some respects at least, in 1503 and 1513.

No wonder Flodden stands for something more than a simple – if ghastly – military catastrophe. It was not the last battle fought between English and Scottish armies but it was the last great battle of its type. It did not close the book on Anglo-Scottish animosity, but after Flodden it was never hard to discern which side had the upper hand.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Flodden took on this different hue. As Scots and English collaborated in Empire, Flodden became reimagined as the last squabble between two proud nations now happily yoked together in peace and prosperity. The melancholy was touched with romance too. As Rosebery, again, put it: “And so, like the Scottish knights in 1513, we still rally round King James IV at Flodden, and while we deplore the slaughter, we pray that Scotland may remain worthy of their high example, and that she may bear in her proud bosom sons and heroes worthy of that glorious and tragic tradition.”

And perhaps that too helps explain why Flodden is so widely forgotten today. It is inconvenient and perhaps too complicated to remember it. As the old lament goes:

“I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking,

Lassies a-lilting before dawn o’ day;

But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning;

“The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away”. «