Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513, George Goodwin, Edinburgh Book Festival

I attended a presentation by George Goodwin on his recent book Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513 at last month’s Edinburgh Book Festival. It tells the story of the rivalry between King James IV of Scotland and Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII of England, which ended with James’s defeat and death at the Battle of Flodden.

James came to the throne in 1488 after his father James III was killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn. James IV was not officially involved in his father’s death, but later wore signs of penitence. Goodwin said that James IV was by 1513 arguably the first monarch to be king of all of Scotland. He was a renaissance man and a builder.

James signed a Treaty of Perpetual Peace with Henry VII in 1502, and married Henry’s daughter Margaret Tudor. The penalty for breaking this treaty was excommunication by the Pope. Henry was not interested in English claims to Scotland, but was focused on the security of himself and his realm.

James and Henry both claimed to be the inheritor of King Arthur. Henry named his eldest son Arthur, and James claimed that Stirling was Camelot.

Arthur died before his father, so Henry VII’s was succeeded by his second son, who became Henry VIII on his father’s death in 1509. Pope Julius II wanted the French out of Italy, and encouraged Henry VIII to invade France. Henry could have kept Scotland neutral with a new treaty, but he displayed a lack of tact, treating James as a vassal.

James was allied to both England and France. He had a large navy, including the Great Michael, the biggest warship in Europe, and could have conducted a naval war against England without contravening the terms of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England. However, he chose to invade England in 1513. He was excommunicated by Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, the Archbishop of York.

This was the largest ever Scottish invasion of England: 42,000 men with pikes and artillery. The French had delivered the pikes, but not the promised handguns. The Scottish army enjoyed dramatic early success, capturing all the major fortresses of the English Eastern March. It then took up position at Flodden on a plateau with steep slopes and its own well.

It was opposed by Northern levies armed with War of the Roses weapons, commanded by the 70 year old Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was a friend of James from the time of the King’s wedding. The English did have good artillery, but their best troops were in France with Henry VIII. Queen Catherine of Aragon was ruling England in her husband’s absence.

Surrey asked James on 7 September 1513 to move his army as there was, in the custom of the day, an agreement to fight on flatter ground. James objected to taking direction from an Earl. It was now dishonourable for Surrey not to attack, but he moved his army north towards Berwick, still held by the English, the next day. On 9 September he turned to cut the Scottish lines of communication.

James then moved his army to Branxton Hill. The battle began with an exchange of artillery fire, but it and long range bow fire were ineffective due to the blustery wind.

The Scottish pikes then attacked, successfully at first. Surrey then brought up reserves, and the second Scottish pike unit lost momentum due to groundwater. The Scots dropped their pikes and used their sidearms. The English bills, a polearm derived from an agricultural implement, were more than a match for these.

The English archers were effective, for the last time in a major battle, against the lightly armoured highlanders and retreating troops.

10,000 Scots and 4,000 English were killed. Casualties were particularly heavy amongst the Scottish nobles. James was amongst the dead. His excommunication was posthumously lifted by Pope Leo X because of the suffering that he had endured. Howard regained the title of Duke of Norfolk that his father had lost after fighting for Richard III against Henry VII at Bosworth.

Goodwin said that James’s defeat as a general overshadowed his brilliance as a king. Joan of Arc and William Wallace also suffered defeats. The battle was a strategic victory for Catherine, though Henry had to receive the credit. However, it is James and Margaret’s line that holds the British throne: Henry’s died out.

An excellent presentation about an important battle that is overshadowed by Bannockburn in Scotland and victories over the French in England.



Filed under Reviews, War History

2 responses to “Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513, George Goodwin, Edinburgh Book Festival

  1. Would you say this is an example of winning the battle but losing the war?

  2. I wouldn’t say so, as the English defeated the Scots so comprehensively that the war between the two countries ended with an English victory. The Scottish invasion failed to distract Henry VIII from his war with France, which ended in 1514 with a peace treaty and the marriage of King Louis XII to Henry’s sister Mary. Pope Julius had by then been succeeded by Pope Leo X. The main battle of that war was a minor English victory called the Battle of the Spurs.
    The descendants of James rather than Henry have sat on the British throne since 1603, but that is not a result of this war. It is because Elizabeth I decided that the diplomatic benefits of remaining on the royal marriage market were too great for her to marry and have an heir. The English ruling classes were happy to have James VI of Scotland succeed her, as he was a competent Protestant monarch who had sons.

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