Battle of Flodden Field

Battle of Flodden Field

On August 11, 1513, following English king Henry VIII’s invasion of France, King James IV of Scotland declared war on England and, on August 22, crossed the border with a large army. Aided by James’s slow advance, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, raised an English army to resist the invasion. The Scottish army included not only the king but most of the great nobles of the realm and numbered about 30,000 men. Most of the Scots were untrained infantry levies who were armed with the 18-foot pike. The Scots also had 18 artillery pieces, drawn by 400 oxen. Too heavy for field use, the artillery slowed the army’s advance.

Surrey had perhaps 25,000 men. Except for some 1,500 cavalry all were infantry, armed with the longbow and with the bill (an English version of the continental halberd), an eight-foot weapon with an ax head and designed for slashing. Anxious that James not escape as he had during a previous invasion in 1497, Surrey issued a challenge to the Scottish king to do battle on September 9.

James accepted. He was confident of his superior numbers and heavy artillery, and many of his men had armor and carried heavy wooden shields to protect against the longbow. Notions of honor and chivalry may also have influenced his decision, as Surrey hoped. James replied that he would wait for the English until noon on that day.

James planned a defensive battle and drew up his forces in a long line on high ground in Northumberland known as Flodden Ridge. The Scottish artillery was dug in and well situated to cover the obvious English approach from the south. Surrey realized that any attack on this natural fortress would be suicide.

Surrey used his knowledge of the local terrain to great advantage. In a surprise move, he marched his forces rapidly around those of his adversary, crossed the Till River, and placed his men between the Scottish army and Scotland. This forced James to abandon his position and take up a new one to the north on Branxton Hill, near the village of Branxton (hence the alternate name for the battle).

The ensuing Battle of Flodden Field (Branxton Moor) was the last major battle in which the longbow played a significant part and one of the first in which gunpowder artillery was prominent. The English had 22 guns. They were lighter than those of the Scots, which made them far easier to manipulate and quicker to load; they were also of higher muzzle velocity and thus able to outrange the Scots’ guns.

Surrey’s tactics and generalship were excellent. The Scottish pike proved illsuited to the Scots’ fighting method, discipline, and the terrain. The highly effective harassing fire by the English artillery and longbowmen steadily wore down the Scots and forced them into a series of charges, which almost succeeded before they were broken up and beaten back by the English infantry and cavalry in a melee battle that lasted some three hours, from late afternoon until nightfall. First the English destroyed the Scottish flanks, and then they annihilated the center. The battle was extraordinarily hard-fought and bloody, but it ended in a complete English victory.

While English losses were on the order of 1,500 killed, the Scots sustained some 10,000 dead. Few prisoners were taken. Among the slain were King James IV (the last British monarch to die in battle) and most of his leading nobles. The king had fought bravely but had been both outmaneuvered and out-generaled. As a reward for his victory, Howard, Earl of Surrey, was raised to Duke of Norfolk. The Battle of Flodden Field was one of the most complete English victories over Scotland in the long history of wars between the two kingdoms and ended any serious Scottish threat to England for some time to come.

References

Elton, Geoffrey. England under the Tudors. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Guy, John. Tudor England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Knightly, Charles. Flodden: The Anglo-Scottish War of 1513. London: Almark Publishing, 1975.

Sadler, John. Flodden, 1513: Scotland’s Greatest Defeat. London: Osprey, 2006.