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The Battle of Flodden


One of the worst military disasters in Scotland’s history

On the 9th of September 1513, an invading Scottish army under King James IV fought an English army under Catherine of Aragon, fighting on behalf of her husband King Henry VIII of England. 

The two sides met at Flodden Hill, Northumberland.  The defeat was catastrophic for Scotland’s leadership, claiming the lives of the King as well as many leading nobles.

In 1513 the relationships between England and Scotland were fractious. James IV, King of Scots, was an ambitious, determined and powerful figure in his kingdom, and keen to make Scotland a player in the European theatre of politics. Henry VIII, King of England, had been ruling his kingdom for some four years, and similarly had grand ambitions, claiming overlordship of both Scotland and large parts of France.


James IV of Scotland


A chance for James IV to assert his position in Europe emerged when rivalries between city-states (including the Papal States) in Italy came to a head, spilling into a wider European conflict. England had sided with Pope Julius II in a war against France, using the pretence of loyalty to the Pope in order to expand English control in France. James IV, though technically at peace with England, had been angered by Henry VIII’s claims in Scotland. The ‘Auld Alliance’ between Scotland and France had been dormant for some years, but Henry VIII’s departure for France in April of 1513 presented the opportunity James IV desired, to revive the alliance with France and attack England.



Henry VIII (1491-1547)

Setting off in mid-August, James IV brought his army of 30,000, as well as artillery including the Mons Meg cannon, to the river Tweed, which he crossed on the 24th of August. Besieging and destroying several castles in England, James IV made progress south. In keeping with the tradition of chivalry, James IV had notified Queen Catherine of his intention to invade a full month before the invasion took place. As a result, the English managed to prepare an army and supplies ahead of James’ arrival.

Meeting at Flodden

The two armies met at Branxton village in Northumberland. The Scottish army had been stationed at Flodden hill, but under threat of a flanking manoeuvre by the English, moved to another hill near the village. In this movement, the Scottish army was not able to properly set up its artillery; the English army, however, was able to begin an extensive and destructive bombardment of the Scottish infantry on the hill from their position lower down.

Unwilling to sustain any more losses, the Scottish infantry moved at pace down the hill towards the English line. Initially maintaining the compact ‘sheltron’ formation with long spears, the Scottish infantry began to lose its shape as the ground was uneven and muddy. Upon reaching the English, the infantry were unable to reform. In the face of the shorter, more flexible English weapons (the ‘bill’, a spear with hooks), the Scottish army was massacred. Among the casualties were King James IV himself, along with dozens of Scottish nobles and leading Churchmen.

The Aftermath & Legacy of the Battle

After the battle, the English army pressed north into Scotland. The state of chaos following King James’ death meant that no formal defence was organised. In this of this, towns in the Borders region of Scotland took to creating their own militia to defend themselves from the English pillagers; these groups of armed townsmen with no formal military training were called Common Riding. Though existing before the battle of Flodden, these organisations are recognised today for the role they played in the aftermath of the defeat.

Several towns in southern Scotland also hastily constructed walls around their urban settlements to allow for improved defence against English pillagers. The Flodden Wall in Edinburgh is one such example, though this fulfilled an economic as well as military function, allowing for more control over the entrances to the medieval burgh.

Image & Audio © National Museums Scotland, University of Glasgow / Francis James Child, National Galleries of Scotland, Lennoxlove House LtdLicensor Scran

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