A Field of Blood and Glory: Flodden Field

Battle of Flodden field by Sir John Gilbert (1878)
Battle of Flodden field by Sir John Gilbert (1878)

On the 9th of September 1513, the Battle of Flodden Field was fought. The battle was won at a terrible cost. As many as ten thousand Scots were killed in contrast with nearly four thousand Englishmen. Among the many Scot nobles and clerics, was their King, James IV.

To understand the conflict, we have to go back to the beginning. James IV had just renewed the Scottish-Franco alliance with Louis XII. He had sent armies to the Northern borders of England and agreed to meet the Earl of Surrey (later Duke of Norfolk) on the field on the ninth of September. The Earl knew the King very well, having attended the wedding ceremony between the King and his (then) young bride, Princess Margaret.
Katherine was appointed Regent in Henry’s absence. As Regent, Katherine could muster troops, appoint sheriffs, issue warrants and replace Bishops at will. When Katherine learned of James IV’s advancement, she wasted no time. Relying heavily on Henry’s best generals, she used them on the field to confront the King of Scots. The Stewarts have gained a bad reputation as being impulsive and reckless but they were some of the best generals in their times and were very experienced. James IV had many ships at his disposal and like Henry who named one of his ships after his sister (or as some suggest, his mistress Mary Boleyn, years later), he had one named after his wife Margaret who rivaled Henry’s in size and magnificence. James IV believed that with Henry out of the country, he stood a chance.

Queen Katherine of Aragon

Katherine proved him wrong. She wasn’t any royal consort. She was the daughter of the Catholic Kings and her parents had taken her to the battlefield when she was very young and she had seen her father at the head of armies, and her mother give commands, and inspect her troops and meet with the soldiers (low and high-born) and inquire about their well-being. And this knowledge prepared Katherine for the road ahead. So when James realized that this wasn’t going to be as easy as he originally planned, he decided to retire but the Earl of Surrey taunted him, accusing James of cowardice.

James immediately responded by accepting the Earl’s challenge:
“Show the Earl of Surrey that it beseemeth him not, being an Earl, so largely to attempt a great Prince. His Grace will take and hold his ground at his own pleasure and not at the assigning of the Earl of Surrey.”

James IV rode ahead with his armies, and it was chaos from the start.
Although James IV brought with him heavy artillery, their position made it almost impossible to use it.
When the battle began on that cold afternoon, the Scots met their enemy in silence, as they had been advised by James’s French advisers to take them by surprise. And it worked, but as soon as the first formation (headed by Huntly and Hume) took another route after James IV launched the second formation, the Scots were lost. And amidst all the chaos, the English took advantage to strike a deadly blow at their foes.
This was a huge turning point as the King realized that they were about to lose. The nobles pleaded with him to leave but James not going to abandon his men. He was either going to go down as a coward, or as a king who fought to the very end. Besides, he had put everything into this enterprise, leaving now would be a stain on his honor. So he continued fighting. After his standard-bearer fell, James charged one final time, intending to take Surrey down with him, but he was interrupted by the onslaught of soldiers that came charging at him.

“His armour could not save him now. Pierced below the jaw by an arrow, his throat slashed by the unforgiving English bill, he fell dying, choking on his own gore. He had got to within a spear’s length of Surrey” (Porter)

With the King dead, the country not only mourned their fallen monarch, but also half of their brothers, fathers and sons who’d been part of the fighting.

And as was customary after the battle, James IV’s body was stripped naked and the Queen Regent had the intention of sending it as a trophy to her husband, but many thought it was too crude so she settled for his bloodstained coat instead, with a letter attached that attributed her victory to Henry:
“In this Your Grace shall see how I can keep my promise, sending you for your banners a King’s coat. I thought to send himself unto you, but our Englishmen’s heart would not suffer it. It should have been better for him to have been in peace than have this reward. All that God sendeth is for the best … To my thinking, this battle hath been to Your Grace and to all your realm the greatest honor that could be, and more that ye should win all the crown of France.

The reason why Katherine was able to command so much respect during this time was because she played both on the fears and gender expectations of the day. England did not have a good view on ruling women like her mother’s kingdom but it had a long history of female Regents and Katherine took advantage of this. While she attended council meetings to hear her generals speak of war tactics, she spent her spare time making standards, banners and badges for the soldiers to wear on the day of the battle. When she learned the towns were not sending the reports she requested, she chastised them and give them a strong warning that they would have to reply within the next fifteen days or pay the consequences. Mary I took a lot of lessons from her mother when her time came.
Flodden was Katherine’s shining moment. She showed she was her mother’s daughter in more ways than one; and her daughter Mary would later follow her example in 1553 when she met with her men, low and high-born she recruited to fight for her, for the crown that had been stolen from her. A year later, she would do the same, this time inspecting her troops and giving an encouraging speech while mounted on her white horse before they confronted Wyatt and the rebels.

James IV
James IV

And while Katherine had her time in the sun, it is important that we remember James for something other than his tragic death. He is a man who gambled and who lost. But he is also a King worth remembering because under his reign, a lot of improvements were made to castles, and he was an avid reader, a patron of artists and intellectuals as his brother-in-law and a skilled musician, and on top of that, a skilled knitter. During his lifetime, he enjoyed good relations with his neighboring country following his marriage to the eldest daughter of Henry VII; but after his brother-in-law’s ascensions, tensions renewed as James decided to support France and Henry decided to side with his wife’s father against said country. Ultimately, this would be repeated with his successors, both his son and granddaughter, both of whom would suffer terrible defeats at the hands of their Tudor cousins with the latter being beheaded.

Sources:

  • Sister Queens: The Noble and Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana I of Castile by Julia Fox
  • Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
  • Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey
  • Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder by Leanda de Lisle
  • On this day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
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