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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James V: The Legacy of the Thistle and the Rose

James V

10 April 1512: James V of Scotland was born at Linlithgow Palace. He was the only surviving child of James IV and Margaret Tudor-eldest daughter of Henry VII of England and Elizabeth of York.

James V has gone down in history was one of the most “unpleasant and rapacious, priest-ridden” monarchs. His father has also gotten the same treatment. James IV lost his life -along with half of the Scottish nobility- in the battle of Flodden. James V was not so unlucky, but a month after the horrible defeat (yet again) of Scottish forces by English forces; he fell ill. Sensing his death he made arrangements, appointing Cardinal Beaton, the Earls of Argyll, Huntly and Moray as his daughter’s Regents. There is a myth that was proliferated to make it appear as the Stewarts -especially Mary, Queen of Scots- were the worst things that happened in the history of the world. This was that on the day of his death, James V’s last words were “It started with a lass, it will end with a lass”. In her biography of the Tudor and Stewart dynasties, Linda Porter points out that at the time of his death, James V would be so sick that he would be unable to move his lips, let alone speak!

James IV and Margaret Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
James IV and Margaret Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.

James V was no fanatic but he did enforce harsh laws against his population. In this he was no different than other monarchs. He married two times, first Princess Madeleine of France and later Mary of the notorious and ambitious Guise family. With the latter, he had many children although only one survived, and she became the first Queen Regnant of the British Isles: Mary I Stewart of Scotland otherwise known as Mary, Queen of Scots.

“Until more balanced judgments appeared in recent years, James V was dismissed as the most unpleasant of the Stewarts, a rapacious, priest-ridden seeker of international recognition … But such a view overlooks his achievements: The cultural riches of his court and the importance he placed on good government .. Though half a Tudor by birth, [James V] was entirely a Stewart in his approach to kingship and more than equal to the prolonged rivalry with the uncle that he never met.” (Porter)

While people continue to view him according to Tudor historiography; the real James V as the rest of the Stewarts, was an incredible, fascinating man. His father had started great architectural projects that were largely influenced by Burgundian architecture. He surrounded himself with musicians and scholars, and when he met his young bride, Princess Margaret, she was surprised to find a great spectacle and pageantry waiting for her that lasted for almost three days. Their marriage ceremony was also very grand. James V inherited his father’s taste for architecture and war. Not one to engage openly against other countries, he nonetheless continued to aggrandize his navy by building better and bigger ships, and it was during his reign that Scotland earned the reputation as one of the most illustrious courts in Christendom. James V had been impressed by the French court when he went to visit there to marry his first wife (Madeleine) and he wanted his country to be on part with the other major Christian powers. Although James V’s childhood was surrounded by ambitious and rapacious courtiers who kidnapped him and held him hostage -such as his first stepfather, the Earl of Angus- he was nonetheless a strong and effective King who traveled the countryside often and loved to be seen by his people. He was not as learned as his uncle, Henry VIII, but he surrounded himself with many who were, and invited many scholars to his court to encourage the Humanist current among his subjects.

Not surprisingly his daughter has been given the same treatment. Until recently this has changed but there are some who still follow the popular view. Mary, Queen of Scots was James V only legitimate heir. In the words of Plantagenet Somerset Fry, it would "have been better if she had not been born". This goes to show how the myth of the "evil" and "ineffective Stewarts" still predominates. Furthermore, he adds, she was "hot-tempered" and lacked "political judgment."
Not surprisingly his daughter has been given the same treatment. Until recently this has changed but there are some who still follow the popular view. Mary, Queen of Scots was James V only legitimate heir. In the words of Plantagenet Somerset Fry, it would “have been better if she had not been born”. This goes to show how the myth of the “evil” and “ineffective Stewarts” still predominates. Furthermore, he adds, she was “hot-tempered” and lacked “political judgment.”

His daughter’s Regents soon encountered problems because of the Scottish Reformation. Although Mary I of Scotland returned to her native land after the death of her husband and her mother (who was her last Regent); by then, the Reform movement had grown too strong. Scotland was split between Catholics and Protestants. The latter fought ardently as the former. John Knox was their best known leader and he penned many pamphlets against the “monstrous rule of women”, criticizing female Catholic rulers (while abstaining himself from criticizing the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I). Mary, contrary to popular myth and the words of Plantagenet Somerset Fry who perpetuated this in his book; was an active Queen who like her forefathers traveled the countryside, loved riding, reading, composed verses and poetry, and was a Renaissance Tomboy who would not be afraid to use men’s clothes when playing tennis. Her decision of marrying her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley however proved her undoing. To this day it is unclear if she was her murderer (many historians have begun questioning the authenticity of the Casket letters). Trying to escape, she was captured by Bothwell and in spite of her armed guards, his men overpowered her and it a Queen in a time when women were little more than property and when family honor meant everything, she had to swallow her anger and her “shame”, and deny that he had raped her and to achieve that, she married him. As everyone suspected, he fled when her enemies captured her and miscarried their twin children. She escaped thanks to her allies and fought to regain her kingdom (even after she had been forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son, James). But her forces lost a major battle at Langside and this convinced her cause was lost. And what she did later proved to be the greatest mistake in her life: Pleading to her cousin Elizabeth I for help. Unlike the  romantic take on Mary’s story in the famous 70’s movie Mary, Queen of Scots; the two women never met. As soon as Mary stepped into England, she was aprehended and for the next two decades she was transferred from house to house under the guise that it was for her own protection. Finally, her involvement in the Babbington plot, doomed her and convinced her cousin that she had to go. She was exectued on February 1587.

James VI of Scotland and I of England.
James VI of Scotland and I of England.

What seemed like a defeat for the Stewarts proved to be anything but.  Fate, true to Mary’s motto “In my end is my beginning”; favored James V’s grandson -James VI. James VI became King of England in 1603 after Elizabeth I died. Nearly a hundred years later, the last monarch of the Stewart dynasty through an act of parliament officially united both Crowns creating what is now known as the United Kingdom.  James V might have lost the battle that day when he was taken by illness; but his line was far from finished. In his end was his beginning, his daughter’s beginning, and in her end was her son’s beginning and the beginning of the Stewart dynasty as the rulers of a United Britain.

Sources:

  • Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
  • Tudor. Passion. Murder. Manipulation by Leanda de Lisle
  • On this Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
  • The Kings and Queens of England & Scotland by Plantagenet Somerset Fry

Illustrated Kings and Queens of England: A great book to get people started on the history of the English Monarchy

Illustrated_kings_and_queens_of_england
Illustrated Kings and Queens of England by Claire Ridgway, Timothy Ridgway and Verity Ridgway. This an easy, accessible and fantastic read. Very comprehensible and straight to the point. And albeit it is very short, it has all the important details, grounded in fact and well researched that dispel the myths about many of the English Kings since Alfred the Great of Wessex who was the first who proclaimed himself King of the Anglo-Saxons or England.

Everyone who is a teacher or has a daughter, cousin or sibling whom she or he wants to get started on the period, should get them started with this book. You will enjoy it. I devoured it one day. I could not put it down. I don’t know if I am going to go down in to the field of education, but if I continue down the path I am heading, this is the book I will be recommending to my students.

The book starts with a short summary of the first known human settlements on Great Britain then it moves to a quick overview of the Isles occupations by later groups such as the Celts, Romans, Germanic tribes, etc to the point that it starts from Alfred of Wessex. As stated, Alfred “the Great” of the kingdom of Wessex was the first of the Anglo-Saxon kings who is recognized as the King of he English, because he called himself so. From there it moves to all the Kings and Queens to the present Queen Elizabeth II.
Filled with interest tidbits and details, this book doesn’t disappoint.