TRAMPLING THE THISTLE; James IV Led Our Finest Army to War. in a Few Hours He and as Many as 17,000 Men Were Dead - and Scotland Would Never Be the Same Again

Daily Mail (London), September 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

TRAMPLING THE THISTLE; James IV Led Our Finest Army to War. in a Few Hours He and as Many as 17,000 Men Were Dead - and Scotland Would Never Be the Same Again


Byline: by Tom Kyle

FIVE hundred years ago, on September 9, 1513, the King of Scots was a happy man indeed. Since his accession to the throne as a 15-year-old youth a quarter of a century earlier, James IV had managed to unite Scotland's warring factions and assert the nation's position as an independent European power.

On that Friday, he was in personal command of the largest Scottish army ever to take the field, dug into a well-nigh impregnable position on Flodden Hill, Northumberland, a few miles from the Border.

They had invaded England a fortnight earlier in support of the Auld Alliance with France, capturing the Northern castles of Norham, Etal and Ford. With the English king, Henry VIII, campaigning in France, an army commanded by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, was mobilised to face the Scots.

Secure on the high ground, James IV waited for Surrey to attack up the slope into the murderous fire of his heavy cannon, before being swept off the field by thousands of Scots pikemen. His position was perfect, his plan flawless. Then, as scouts rode furiously to his side, James Stewart's world began, slowly at first, to fall apart... The breathless riders told their King that the English army was on the move, in a flanking manoeuvre designed to bring them round to attack from the rear. Perhaps the heights were not so impregnable after all. But James was an able commander and reacted swiftly to turn his army around. He quickly realised that the outcome of the forthcoming battle would in all probability depend on who secured a position on top of nearby Branxton Hill.

As the Scots hurriedly began to move, the problem was how to get the 17 heavy cannon, some weighing several tons, that had been dragged by oxen all the way from Edinburgh into a new position in time.

When they set fire to their old campsite, a huge pall of smoke began to drift across the valley. The English vanguard, consisting of 15,000 men under Surrey's son Thomas, the Lord High Admiral, was making for Branxton Hill as fast as they could. As the smoke suddenly cleared, they received a tremendous shock. James IV and 34,000 Scots had gained the hill before them - and with sufficient artillery in place to begin firing.

The Admiral, realising the peril, immediately sent word to his father to bring his 5,000 men to his assistance, along with Sir Thomas Dacre's 3,000 light cavalry. In his haste to help his son, the 70-year-old veteran Surrey neglected to issue orders to Sir Edward Stanley's 3,000 horsemen and archers on his left flank.

Had the Scots attacked at that moment, the English vanguard would surely have been destroyed and the battle won, albeit with half the English army managing to escape. But James did not attack. Defeating half the opposing army would be significant but routing the entire force would be historic. A king crowned on the anniversary of Bannockburn was all too aware how such a crushing victory would echo down the ages.

According to 16th century Scots historian Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, the King declared: 'I am determined to have them all in front of me on one plain field and see what all of them can do against me.' So Surrey had time to rearrange his forces into four divisions to meet the threat. His younger son, Edmund, commanded the right; the Admiral the centre; Surrey himself was on the left and Dacre was held in reserve. At this point, Stanley had lost contact with the main body of the army.

On Branxton Hill, the Scots were arrayed in five divisions.

On the left were Highlanders and Borderers under the Earl of Huntly and Lord Home. Then came the men of the North-East, led by the Earls of Errol, Crawford and Montrose.

The King's great division was next in line. On the right were more Highlanders and Islanders, commanded by the Earls of Argyll and Lennox. The Scottish reserve was commanded by the Earl of Bothwell. It was about 4 o'clock in the afternoon when the battle started. …

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