This week, on the 500th anniversary of Flodden—perhaps the most decisive and certainly the bloodiest defeat inflicted on us Scots by our southern cousins—the Coldstream Common Riding took a crowd of people and horses to the very field just over the Border where the event took place. Despite its antiquity, Flodden resurfaces in Scots culture much as the ‘we wiz aye rubbish’ recurs among the footsoldiers of the Tartan Army to explain away yet another glorious defeat.
The Hootsmon covered the event, relating that Dr Tony Pollard, of Glasgow University, had concluded the defeat was a result of the Scots infantry being incompetent with long 18ft pikes with which the King James IV had equipped them. While lack of training may have been a factor, it is crudely simplistic to explain it all away on that basis.
First of all, the Scots of the early 16th century were not particularly warlike. While England had engrossed itself in the its first Civil War (more colourfully described as the ‘War of the Roses’) for most of the previous century, the Scots had developed their economy and were busily trading their wool, hides, timber, etc with both the Low Countries and the Hanseatic Ports. Given that roads were non-existent and ships could carry over 100 tons of goods in relative safety, East Coast ports from Aberdeen to Berwick prospered and resultant riches flowed across much of the country.
Once the Tudors sat firmly on the English throne, their pre-occupation with glory through empire in France reasserted itself, bolstered by the energy and ambitions of one of their most dynamic kings, Henry VIII. In between discarding wives and reinventing religions, Henry ran afoul of the League of Cambrai. When war broke out between them, this put James IV of Scotland (called the Renaissance King for developments made during his reign) in an invidious position as an ally by Treaty with both England and France.
Henry rather decided things for him by reasserting the claim—long dormant since the days of Bruce and Longshanks—of English feudal superiority over Scotland and James resolved to contest this militarily while Henry was away in France besieging Thérouanne. In the previous twenty years, James had not had his troubles to seek; this was a time when he contested the unbridled power of the Lord of the Isles and had managed to bring some form of credible rule to the unruly Celtic fringes of his kingdom.
But subduing the Lewis MacLeods, Mull Macleans and other proud clans, he relied on ships and artillery—which the Gaels could not counter—and the growing shrewd legal powers of the Campbells, who were learning to fight more effectively with quill and parchment than their clansmen ever did with broadsword. In fact, there was almost no ground combat and so the Scots came to 1513 with little or nothing by way of an army.
In theory, all the great houses kept armed retainers and could be called upon to raise regiments in times of war. But there had been no real war beyond clan skirmishes and border rieving for almost two centuries. Although peasants were liable for military training, little took place so the number of trained soldiers available to James was trivial, as long as his traditional source of hairy-arsed berserkers were largely sulking in the Highlands because of recent rough handling of their proud chiefs.
James mustered an army of over 40,000 but few of these were professionals (true of most armies of the time) but, more importantly, were given little training. Sensibly, James confined himself to capturing Border castles and providing a distraction from France. Henry had, however, anticipated even this; he drew his army in France exclusively from England’s southern counties. The Earl of Surrey had been left in the North: in response to the Scottish invasion, he mustered troops from across the northern and midland counties and by early September his army of 26,000 assembled at Alnwick.
When the two forces met at Flodden, James had chosen powerful positions on hilltops and Surrey was unable to persuade James to relinquish it at first. In a clever maneuver, he swung East, crossed the River Till and advanced on the Scottish rear. James reacted fast enough to this, pivoting from facing down Flodden Edge (South) to down Branxton Hill (North) in good order to again face Surrey.
Dr Pollard may be right in that few of the Scots soldiers had seen these 18ft pikes before but they should not have been ignorant of them. Since before Bannockburn, Scots lowlanders had fought in schiltrons. These were blocks of spearmen who operated much as the Greeks had fought—as a phalanx of spears. Not all Scots pikes were as long as 18ft but the principle of holding together and advancing as a hedgehog of points was fundamental. Each schiltron held thousands of men and was tactically a good defense against infantry or cavalry as several rows of spears protruded in front of the first rank. Only well directed fire from archers or artillery could reach in to decimate their ranks and break them up.
At Flodden, the Scots deployed two such schiltrons on the left under Lord Home (and led by the Lords Crawford and Errol) two more in the centre (Lowlanders under King James himself) plus a right wing of two Highland composite regiments under the Earls of Lennox and Argyll. Arrayed on a hilltop they outranged both English archers and artillery below: the position was effectively impregnable. The Scots had an array of artillery with them but were particularly ineffectual in their use.
Feeling that the English right under Howard looked vulnerable (they were Lancastrians not too happy to be there and Dacre’s English Borderers had yet to appear to reinforce them), Crawford’s schiltron marched down the hill “in good order”, was reinforced by Errol’s and appeared close to success when Dacre appeared and his tough men soon created stalemate. Unaware of the event turning against Home the King, impatient to be in on the victory, led the centre schiltrons down, again in good order. But they ran into a ridge and a boggy area and so lost momentum before encountering the Earl of Surrey’s English centre. The English were also equipped with pikes and outmatched the Scots use of them—which may be where Pollard’s take comes from.
Decisive was the action of the English left under Stanley which included a particularly well trained regiment of archers. The longbow was no longer the secret weapon of Agincourt or Crecy but it still packed a punch. It allowed Stanley’s men to climb the hill under its steady fire to meet Lennox and Crawford’s Highlanders on more than even terms. The Scots battle disintegrated from its right wing. Despite the Scots infantry having insufficient training in use of the long pike and spear, it was the schiltrons of their left wing that had the most success and, had James been less impatient the in the centre, would have repulsed Surrey’s men had they simply stood their ground.
By staying on top of the hill, they would have been in a position to support the right and avoid the disintegration that flowed from there. For the period, a 18-foot spear or pike was still a formidable weapon if in the right hands and used en masse. That the Scots infantry were poorly drilled in its secrets lay more with James and his commanders than the poor troops whose grandfathers had long forgotten the teamwork skills that normally made a Scots schiltron a formidable fighting machine.
Rather than blaming the weapon, a proper analysis of Flodden would blame impetuous decisions that James made before he became the last British king to die in battle—along with twelve earls, fifteen lords, many clan chiefs and an archbishop, plus 10,000 ordinary Scots. This is around 1/3rd of Scots engaged and several times more than the 4,000 English dead—more than enough to affect virtually every family in Scotland and send a panic through the nation that didn’t properly die until the crowns were united almost 200 years later.
It seems the real explanation for the defeat lies in the peaceful, invasion-free century that preceded Flodden and ‘warlike’ Scots lost the easy familiarity with daily warfare that had once been so much a part of life. It also lies in the indifferent leadership from the bulk of Scots nobility and equally poor professionalism of their gunners. It is quite likely that the traditional schiltrons lost some cohesion as they descended the hill and the 18ft poles of their weapons may have contributed to that. But a major element of leadership in any military consists of playing the strengths and avoiding the weaknesses of the forces under command.
For all he had achieved in peace, James IV was simply not up to the job in war. He and 10,000 of his subjects paid the ultimate price.