Few words can resonate through history with the same solemn, mournful toll that ‘Flodden’ has. “Scotia felt thine ire, O Odin / On the bloody field of Flodden / There our fathers fell with honour / Round their King and Country’s banner.” So goes the second verse of James Hogg’s song ‘The Colour’ (c.1819), recounting the devastation wrought upon Hawick’s townspeople by Surrey’s English forces at Flodden: the largest engagement between Scotland and England in history, and a battle deemed ‘the last great medieval battle in the British Isles.’
James IV of Scotland, called upon by French king Louis XII to honour the ancient ‘Auld Alliance’ between their two kingdoms, amassed the largest invasion force to ever enter England from the north: somewhere in the region of thirty to forty thousand men. His force included a good deal of heavy artillery, but still the bulk of his army was comprised of pikemen – the same style of infantry which Scotland had relied upon in engagements stretching back several centuries (and often – too often, some might say – to their detriment). James’ intention was to divert English resources from their wars in France, as part of the War of the League of Cambria (the English defending Italy and the Papacy from the French, in a highly religious affair). However, the English had long-expected an attack from James, and were well-prepared. Moreover, James, honouring an (arguably outdated) code of medieval chivalry in the fashion which would become characteristic of his campaign, forewarned the English a month early of his plans to invade their country. Thus, queen regent Catherine of Aragorn, in the absence of her husband Henry VIII (who was stoking Scottish ire by publicly declaring his rightful role as overlord of all Scotland), had plenty time to order the raising of an army in the Midlands, to support the forces already-amassed under Lieutenant-General Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Furthermore, Catherine issued warrants for the property of all Scotsmen in England to be seized; a tactical manoeuvre repeatedly constantly throughout history – the goal being to hinder the efforts of any ‘fifth column’ (see British attempts to stop the rise of a Nazi ‘fifth column’ during WWII, or the internment of foreign ‘aliens’ during WWI at Stobs Camp, 1914-16).
Evidently, James IV did not have the element of surprise, for he gave it away out of chivalry. Neither did he have a particularly superior force, given that Henry VIII had appointed the Earl of Surrey as north England’s Lieutenant-General well in advance of the Scottish invasion, and his army was probably of near-equal size to that of the Scots. What’s more, at the field upon which Surrey called James to battle, terrain would once again prove the fatal undoing of the Scottish pikemen.
The Scots, stationed at Flodden Edge, were drawn to do battle nearer to the village of Branxton (hence the alternative name – the Battle of Branxton). The Earl of Surrey moved his forces to block James’ route north, the direction in which the Scots’ army would have to retreat, should things go awry. James was therefore forced to move his artillery a further two miles, to the top of Branxton Hill. The two armies then faced each other across a shallow valley, a marshy burn running across its floor. At eleven o’clock, in the morning of Friday 9th September 1513, James’ army watched as Surrey led his vanguard and artillery across the narrow Twizel Bridge. They were caught in a fatally vulnerable position, and yet, once again adhering to his strict principles of chivalric code, James ordered his own artillery not to fire on the English, allowing them instead to cross safely and form their ranks to their best advantage.
Late in the afternoon that Friday, as the sun began to sink, the Scots began a silent march down toward the valley floor, relinquishing the tactical superiority of their position, and on the English came to meet them. Both sides’ artillery fired over the heads of their advancing infantry, incurring some casualties, and being effectively employed for the first time in a major military engagement on British soil. However, it was not the artillery which would win the day. In fact, most historians agree that the winning factor in this fight was the English army’s use of the bill, a polearm about half the length of the Scottish pike. Effective against cavalry, and on steady ground, the lengthy Scottish pike was little use amidst the slippery mud and marsh-water of the valley floor, whereas the English, their shorter bills allowing them a greater freedom of movement, were able to decimate the Scottish infantrymen. And so they did. King James IV himself died on the end of a bill, but a few metres from the Earl of Surrey. Lord Dacre later discovered the body of James on the battlefield, writing that the Scots “love me worst of any Englishman living, by reason that I fande the body of the King of Scots.” Certainly, Dacre was little loved in the Borders in the aftermath of Flodden.
One can imagine the quiet approach of the Scottish army, Hawick men amongst their ranks, as they met the English and began to cry and shout, the Hawick folk rallying their courage and fighting-spirit with the ancient call of ‘Teribus ye Teri-Odin!’ (the words probably from the Old Welsh “Tyr y bas y tyr y Odin”, variously translated as “Land of Death and Land of Odin”, or “Thor be with us, Thor and Odin”). Though casualty numbers vary greatly from account to account, it is clear that Flodden was a bloodbath for Scotland, whose army lost up to a third of its men; including its King, an archbishop, four abbots, twelve earls, seventeen lairds, perhaps four hundred knights, and as many as ten thousand others. Borderers under Huntly and Hume played a significant role, and suffered huge losses. Sir William Douglas and most of the Hawick men were also killed. (One exception was John Chisholme, who returned with the family pennon, although without his brother, who had been killed.)
There exist many differing theories as to why a Scottish force of such great numbers, such skill, and equipped so well, failed to incur more than about one-and-a-half-thousand deaths on the English, whilst losing so many themselves. Certainly, James IV adhered to an outdated mode of chivalric conduct – including placing his officers in the front line (in the medieval style), where they were vulnerable, rather than at the rear, as the English had done (in the renaissance style). Poor tactical choices, perhaps due to inexperience in leadership, certainly also played a part. Whatever the reasons, though, the fact remains that Flodden broke the back of the Scottish army. In its aftermath, the Borders was left with almost no defence against the marauding troops of English soldiers, turned loose by Surrey and Dacre.
One year later, however, at a local spot called Horn’s Hole, just northeast of Hawick, a small group of youths (many orphaned by the Battle of Flodden) would show the English that the flame of Border spirit could not quite so easily be extinguished.
‘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”.
Dool and wae for the order sent oor lads tae the Border!
The English for ance, by guile wan the day,
The Floo’ers o’ the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The pride o’ oor land lie cauld in the clay.’
- The Flooers o the Forest are a wede away, lyrics by Jean Elliot 1756
‘Scotia felt thine ire, O Odin
On the bloody field of Flodden
There our fathers fell with honour,
Round their King and Country’s banner.
Teribus ye Teri-Odin,
Sons of heroes slain at Flodden,
Imitating Border bowmen,
Aye defend your rights and Common.
… After Flodden was decided,
Surrey had his troops divided,
When he turned them loose to plunder,
O, heaven just! Why slept thy thunder’
- ‘Flodden Field and the Colour or Hawick’s Common Riding’, by James Hogg 1829