Monday, 9 September 2013

The Significance of the Battle of Flodden

These are a few fairly rapid thoughts, typed out on the morning of September 9th. It will be interesting to see further contributions.

Today is the five hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. Those of us who know about it, and who care a bit about it, do wonder why it is not better known. Presumably part of the reason is that it has not been taken up by historians as a battle of any great significance – unlike, for example, Hastings, Bannockburn, the Marne, Gettysburg, Kursk and so on. These were battles that changed the course of history.

So, what about the significance of Flodden?

Clearly it was of huge significance for all those killed that day – probably over 10,000 Scots and over 1,000 English. All those families suddenly turned up-side down. In Scottish history it is seen as important that so many of the great ones of the realm were killed, not merely one of Scotland’s more successful kings, but all those earls and abbots and so on. Since genealogy and family history are important to aristocracies the memory of that day has been kept alive in castles and stately homes all over the country. We, in our more democratic age, might consider the death of one earl as no more nor less significant than the death of one half-trained feudal levy clutching a pike, for “every man’s death diminishes me.”  The Selkirk Common Riding every year commemorates the fact that of 80 men who left the town to join James, only one returned.

In the history of warfare there are some interesting points to be sure. As a reminder that generals ought not to get stuck in the thick of the fighting, that modern weaponry is only useful if soldiers are properly trained in its use, and that impressive siege guns were less useful in an open battle than light field guns, then Flodden did provide some lessons to be learned. But the military revolution being pioneered by the French and the Spanish continued regardless of the events in Northumbria (and see the works of  Geoffrey Parker for more on this.)

As far as England was concerned the significance was slight. Surrey’s remarkable triumph did not save England from invasion. James’s army was really engaged on a great raid, as a diversionary tactic in a wider European war. The slaughter at Flodden exacted terrible revenge for the raid, but James was on his way home anyway; nothing much was altered.

Possibly the raid, and Flodden, reinforced the powerful anti-Scottish feelings in England in general, and in Henry VIII’s arrogant head in particular. An analysis of gentry/lairdly marriages in the period has found only one cross-border marriage. The two sides really did regard each other as aliens. James IV’s marriage to Margaret Tudor (Henry VII’s daughter, Henry VIII’s sister) might have begun a slow change in this ancient hostility. After Flodden there was no chance of that. The dreadful wars surrounding the Rough Wooing, and the overweening ambitions of Henry VIII and Protector Somerset brought generations of misery that, but for Flodden, might not have happened. Ninety years later, of course, James had the last laugh when his descendant, not Henry VIII's, became the first king, James VI and I, of both kingdoms. But if the 1503 marriage of the Thistle and the Rose had brought a more lasting peace, perhaps the intervening years would have been less troubled. Of course the rift came not so much with Flodden itself as with James’s decision to take the French, not the English side in the war. Certainly this renewing of the Auld Alliance, and rejection of partnership with England, were significant.

James IV was having a pretty successful reign. He was popular with his nobles, asserted royal authority extensively, and presided over a lively renaissance court. His death was inevitably followed by faction fighting, since his heir was an infant. But that heir eventually grew up to be a reasonably successful James V. Scotland’s very dreadful decades in the sixteenth century had three big causes: the feuding rivalries of the great families; the struggle for dominance between England and France – into which Scotland inevitably was dragged – and the Reformation upheaval. I suppose if Scotland had had a succession of monarchs who took the throne as adults, rather than babies (as James V, Mary Queen of Scots and James VI all did) they might have weathered the storms better. But there would still have been storms and James VI did weather them in the end. So maybe James IV’s death didn’t change all that much.

Part of the great tragedy of Flodden is that so many died for so little gain on either side. The one definite winner was the Howard family. They had been Yorkists, and the head of the family had been killed at Bosworth in 1485. His son, as Earl of Surrey, commanded the English at Flodden – in itself a bit of a put-down as Henry VIII’s glitterati had gone with the King to France. It was thanks to his great victory, however, that he recovered the Dukedom of Norfolk, which the Howard family still holds.

If you want to know more about James IV you might like my piece about him that is available on Kindle. It is short and not very expensive.

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