On the 26th of July, 1513, James IV responded to pleas for assistance from France and declared war on England.
War with England was an ever present feature of Scottish life throughout the medieval times, although there were periods of relative peacefulness. In 1502, after fighting off the aggression of King Henry VII of England, James IV signed the ‘Treaty of Perpetual Peace’, which went some way towards easing the traditional enmity between the two nations. Negotiations for that treaty led to James marrying Henry’s daughter, Margaret Tudor, which he did by proxy in 1502 and in person on the 8th of August, 1503, at Holyrood Abbey, in Edinburgh. James IV was treated as an equal amongst the most powerful princes of Europe, including his uncle Hans, King of Denmark, Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Louis XII of France. He also gained favour from Pope Julius II, who was anxious to obtain his support. Even when Henry VIII followed Henry VII onto the English throne in 1509, peace between Scotland and England was maintained. However, that peace lasted only ten years, until 1513, when political and religious strife – was it ever any different – forced James’ hand.
In 1511, the Holy League was formed against France, led by Pope Julius II, who had previously been part of the League of Cambrai, on the same side as the French against the Venetians. Yes, it’s complicated, but Kings and Emperors changed sides in those days as often as they changed their underwear. Henry VIII joined the Holy League and signed the Treaty of Westminster in November, 1511; a pledge of aid to Ferdinand, Maximilian’s successor as Holy Roman Emperor, against Louis XII of France. When Henry VIII crossed the Channel in 1513 and invaded France, James IV found himself faced with a dilemma. He had to decide whether to support Scotland’s ally, Louis XII of France, through the ‘Auld Alliance’ or honour the ‘Treaty of Perpetual Peace’ with England.
Apart from the ancient alliance, since 1491, James IV had a secret pact with the French, which bound Scotland to defend France if she was attacked by England. He had renewed the alliance with Louis XII in 1512, which put him on the opposite side from Henry VIII and the Holy League, but he also had several recent grievances against the English. For a start, there was the non-payment of the outstanding portion of the dowry for his wife, Margaret Tudor. Then, there was the slaying, in a Border fray in 1508, of Sir Robert Kerr, the Warden of the Marches. That had left a festering sore, as Henry VII would not give up the perpetrator, Heron and his accomplice. James was also aggrieved at the defeat and slaying of his sea-captain, Barton, and the seizing of two of his ships by sons of the Howard Earl of Surrey in August, 1511. Barton was accused of pirating, but the Howards were up to exactly the same sort of tricks.
James’ decision wasn’t an easy one to make as he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He struggled to avoid real conflict and was described by an English diplomat at the Scottish court in March, 1513, as being in a wild mood and distraught “like a fey man.” On the 24th of May, James made a last attempt to obtain a truce in a letter to Henry VII. That was ignored and Henry invaded France on the 30th of June. The writing was on the wall as can be inferred from his comments to the King of Denmark, when he wrote that, if France was to be overwhelmed, the turn of Scotland would follow. That was clear from the territorial ambitions of Henry VIII, who only joined the Holy League and invaded in order to expand his holdings in northern France. In such respect, he appeared very much like Edward Plantagenet of earlier times and was equally focused on the conquest of Scotland at the earliest opportunity. The final catalyst came when the Queen of his French ally appealed to James’ chivalrous instincts by sending him – ‘her true Knight’ – a letter and a ring. That letter and its plea urged James to attack England.
It is often suggested that James declared war on England out of foolish and purely chivalric notions, but also in the hope of winning territory while Henry VIII was awa’ in France. It is clear that he also had the option of remaining on the fence and taking no action. However, he thought long and hard about it, and, in the end, determined that national safety was best served by war and invasion. In spite of counsel from some of his advisors and the warning of strange and evil omens, including, so it is said, an apparition, James declared for war.
On the 26th of July, 1513, in true chivalric pomp, James IV caused a herald to challenge Henry VIII and summoned the whole force of his Kingdom. He crossed the Border on the 22nd of August and took Norham Castle on the Tweed and the holds of Eital, Chillingham, and Ford, which he made his headquarters. On the 5th of September, he demolished Ford Castle and marched to Flodden Edge and his fate. For there at the foot of Brankston Hill on the 9th of September, 1513, Scotland’s brief participation in the Wars of the League of Cambrai and the Holy League ended. Now, that’s a story for another day.
If you want to find out a little more, Nigel Tranter tells the story of James IV in a wonderful novel called ‘Chain of Destiny’, which I’m sure you can find on Amazon or Abe Books.
Chain of Destiny: A Novel of King James IV of Scotland,from his Father's Murder to the Field of Flodden