The Battle of Flodden Field, otherwise known as the Battle of Branxton Moor, was fought on the 9th of September, 1513.
In the late afternoon of Friday the 9th of September, 1513, two of the largest medieval armies ever assembled came together for a scrap. King James IV of Scotland, in the blue and white corner, brought 34,000 men to the fray. His opponent, Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who was deputising for England’s Henry VIII, was backed-up by 26,000 men-at-arms in the white and red corner. A mere three hours later, the contest was over and everywhere was red. The battle was the heaviest defeat ever experienced by a Scottish army, with the slaughter of the King and the ‘flower’ of his Scottish nobility. At least twelve Earls, fifteen Lords, three-hundred Knights and an estimated tally of ten thousand Scots lay dead on the field of carnage at the foot of Branxton Hill.
That was the Battle of Flodden Field, commemorated in the ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, now an evocative pipe tune, by the poetess, Jane Elliot:
"We’ll hear nae mair lilting at our ewe-milking;
Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away."
In 1502, after fighting off the aggression of King Henry VII of England, James IV signed the ‘Treaty of Perpetual Peace’ and married Henry's daughter, Margaret Tudor. However, that peace lasted only ten years, until 1513, when Henry VIII crossed the Channel and invaded France, taking advantage of the situation caused by the Wars of the League of Cambrai and the Holy League. James had to decide whether to support Scotland’s ally, Louis XII of France, through the ‘Auld Alliance’, which he had renewed the year before, in 1512, or honour the ‘Treaty of Perpetual Peace’. The Queen of France appealed to James’ chivalrous instincts by sending him – ‘her true Knight’ – a letter and a ring, with a plea urging him to attack England. Ever the gentleman, James declared for war.
Issuing a challenge to Henry VIII, James IV summoned the whole force of his Kingdom and crossed the Border on the 22nd of August, 1513. On the 5th of September, he demolished Ford Castle and marched over to the western side of the River Till, where he set up camp on the top of Flodden Edge. Surrey sent a messenger to James, challenging the Scots to meet them in battle on Milfield Plain, but the Scots weren’t so daft as to vacate their advantageous position. Then, on the morning of Friday, the 9th of September, 1513, the English vanguard crossed the river at Twizell Bridge, and the rearguard further south by a ford at Heaton Castle, which no longer exists. All the while, James IV watched and waited and somebody recorded the scene for Sir Walter Scott to write about over two hundred and fifty years later in the sixth canto of ‘Marmion, a Tale of Flodden Field’:
"From Flodden ridge,
The Scots beheld the English host
Leave Barmoor Wood, their evening post
And headfu’ watched them as they crossed
The Till by Twizell Bridge."
For some reason, best known to himsel’, James decided against attacking the English army when most vulnerable. Instead, he created a smoke screen diversion and had his army move to the adjacent Branxton Hill. This was a clever tactical move as it denied Surrey an advantage and meant that the English would have to fight their way uphill. Disappointingly for James and using local knowledge, the English forces easily negotiated the marsh of the Pallinsburn and assembled at the foot of Branxton to the jeers of the Scots. At four o' clock in the afternoon, the Scots opened fire on the apparently vulnerable English, but James’ engineers were too inexperienced to deploy their massive cannon with an effective trajectory. The English fired back with more success, and James might have thought to himself, "Impertinent expletives!" He promptly ordered his left, under the leadership of Lord Home and the Earl of Huntly, to attack on the English extreme right wing, which had given signs of being a bit disorganised. Off went the Borderers, charging down the hill, and tore into Edmund Howard's men, most of whom fled. Those who remained suffered badly until Lord Dacre appeared and engaged Hume’s Scots. By that time, the rest of the English right was under attack from the Scottish Lords, Crawford and Errol.
King James was impatient to get involved and in a moment of seemingly irrational impulse, led his centre charging down the hill towards the Earl of Surrey. At the foot of the hill, the English stood their ground and greeted the charge with an onslaught of arrows. The Scots’ advantage on the high ground, and the idea of the English clambering up to exhaustion and death, was obviously forgotten. At the foot of the hill, the Scottish charge ran into a boggy area, which severely hampered its momentum. Meanwhile, the English right, under Edward Stanley, marched his men to the top of the hill and before he marched them down again, he had taken out James IV’s Highlanders, commanded by the Earl of Lennox and Argyle with his Campbells. At that time, the King of Scots, on foot and surrounded by pikemen and his Flowers of Chivarly, in a press of steel, arrows raining upon them, desperately sought to come to grips with Surrey. Cutting their way towards the English banners, foot by foot, swords and pikes flailing and prodding, it looked like they might reach their objective, less than a hundred feet away. But it was not to be, James was felled by a blow that nearly severed his head from his shoulders. He died in excellent company, tragically so for Scotland.
There at the foot of Brankston Hill, Scotland’s brief participation in the Wars of the League of Cambrai and the Holy League ended. In such a manner perished the Flower of Scotland and in effect, a whole generation of Scottish nobility. The death toll included twelve Earls, the Chancellor of Scotland and fourteen other Lords of Parliament, many Clan Chiefs, the Bishop of the Isles, the Dean of Glasgow Cathedral, and James’s natural son, Alexander, Archbishop of St Andrews. As a result of just two hours’ fighting on that single afternoon, ten thousand Scots, noble and commoner alike, were thrown into pits and happit wi’ red Border clay. For long afterwards it was said that there wasn’t a family in Scotland that didn’t have reason to mourn Branxton. Nothing on such a scale involving the death of Scottish fighting men was seen again until the First World War. Today, a large granite cross marks the battle on the summit of Pipers Hill at the northern edge of the battlefield. It bears the inscription: "To the Brave of Both Nations."