FLODDEN. Even now, more than 500 years on, the name contains all the timbre of catastrophe, a place forever accidentally damned for what happened there on a September day in 1513 when the English northern army – effectively King Henry VIII’s reserves – put the might of Scotland to the sword, or rather the bill and halberd, for in the end it was superior English weaponry that doomed the Scots who still fought with the outmoded pike.

It remains without a doubt the worst day in Scottish history, and was caused by King James IV’s adherence to the Auld Alliance.

Even allowing for the usual exaggeration of medieval chronicles, somewhere between 5,000 and 12,000 Scots were killed, including James IV and many of the nobility.

The only wonder is that the English army did not press home its advantage and march north to Edinburgh to capture a whole country. The conclusion has to be that the Scottish casualty figures were not as great as has been reported and that the English army lost more men killed and wounded than history has told us – the chroniclers say 1500, but realistic assessments by later historians suggest at least double that figure.

Famously, it is the battle that the Scots should never have lost as they were superior in number, artillery and position, yet ended up mired in mud and blood with the king dead on the battlefield. Some of the reasons for the most grievous loss must be attributed to James IV himself.

James was a popular king. He had been crowned at Scone after the death of his unpopular father, James III, following the Battle of Sauchieburn in June, 1488. The 15-year-old James had been named as leader of the rebellious faction of aristocrats who were the victors at Sauchieburn, and though he did not directly cause his father’s death, James IV did penance every Lent afterwards.

The Stuart monarch then stood up to the English in the 1490s, renewing the Auld Alliance with France and insulting the English King Henry VII, even more so when he backed the false pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck. That grieved Henry VII so much that he declared war in Scotland in 1496, but then had to break off to defend London against an armed insurrection based in Cornwall and Devon.

For both kings, the need for diplomacy displaced aggression and it got James a royal bride. Princess Margaret, Henry’s daughter and sister to the future King Henry VIII was betrothed to James, who also managed to gain a dowry of £10,000 sterling.

They were married in August 1503, the year after the Treaty of Perpetual Peace between England and Scotland. James promptly spent the majority of the dowry on a fabulous wedding which lasted for five days and included a jousting tournament.

Margaret Tudor soon gave the King three children, two boys and a girl, but all of them died in infancy. In April 1512, however, the future James V was born, and though it was touch and go for him health-wise at first, he survived to adulthood. James IV saw himself as very much a European monarch and a Renaissance prince. He also spoke seven languages, including Gaelic, and he encouraged poetry and literature and supported educational institutions around the country.

He also built a navy, including the Great Michael, the largest and most powerful warship of the day, and made Edinburgh Castle into the country’s most powerful fortress. His greatest achievement was perhaps the unification of Scotland under his rule when he pacified the north and the western isles. WHEN Henry VIII arrived on the English throne in April, 1509, the second Tudor monarch soon picked a fight with Scotland and France. In 1511 Henry joined the so-called Holy League against France put together by Pope Julius II, the Warrior Pope, and his allies Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and the Doge of Venice.

Louis XII of France contacted James and they renewed the Auld Alliance stating yet again that the two countries would come to the aid of each other if attacked by England.

Henry VIII promptly had his parliament describe James as “the very homager and obediencer of right to your Highness.” That was a mistake – James took severe umbrage, and his poor Queen must have been torn by her husband and brother falling out so spectacularly.

In May, 1513, England invaded France and Louis XII duly called on James to attack the north of England as a diversion. But the English king had anticipated that move and had left Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey in command of a northern army.

Surrey was at that time 70 years of age and, unlike James, was a highly professional commander of troops who had fought at Bosworth Field and other battles.

James IV always thought of himself as chivalrous. The Queen of France sent him a letter calling him her champion and James fell for it – he promptly sent Henry a communication that he was to stop his invasion of France or else he would invade England, as the code of chivalry demanded.

Henry’s reply is recorded in the annals of his reign: “Recommend me to your master and tell him if he be so hardy to invade my realm or cause to enter one foot of my ground I shall make him as weary of his part as ever was man that began any such business.”

In truth Henry was worried because he had left his queen, Catherine of Aragon, in charge at home, but he knew Surrey was a sound commander. Many historians think that James merely intended to invade Northumberland and leave it at that, but so easy was the conquest of various castles and settlements that James may well have thought of going further south.

The preparations for the invasion had been remarkable by Scottish standards. The army started off with around 40,000 men, including clansmen from the Highlands, and had more artillery than ever before. We know from records of the expenditure that James had no fewer than 17 massive cannons hauled by 363 oxen. Crucially, however, the Scots lacked training in the most modern forms of warfare and they also nearly all carried pikes rather than the new English weapons – the bill and halberd.

James and his desertion-reduced army reached Ford Castle on the River Till in Northumberland in early September and stayed there – he was rumoured to be enamoured of one of the women of the house.

Surrey had assembled his army just 15 miles from the southernmost position that James had reached and he now proved himself a master of psychological warfare and tactics.

He knew that if James was allowed to go back to Scotland without a battle, then the Scots would merely regroup and invade England again and again to create more diversions that would eventually require Henry to come home from France. So, at some point on September 7, Surrey played his strong card by sending a herald to James inviting him to battle. The king could not refuse.

In those days, heralds were seen as neutral negotiators whose personages were sacrosanct. They were also good spies.

The English herald who went to James reported back that the Scots had taken up a very clever position on Ford Edge, a steep hill rising almost 500 feet. By contrast, the Scottish herald was taken to a place where he could not see the full extent of Surrey’s army.

The English herald was sent back to James to ask if, in terms of chivalry, the Scottish king would come down off the Edge and fight on more even ground – for that was what was expected of a chivalrous knight. James refused saying “that it was not fitting for an earl to seek to command a king” and adding that he would “take and keep his ground at his own pleasure.” But the doubt had been placed in James’s mind that he was not doing the right thing by the code of chivalry.

Surrey’s tactical masterstroke came early on the morning of September 8 when he marched his army round behind the Scots, barring a retreat to their homeland. James quickly moved his army nearer to the hamlet of Branxton, which is why the battle is sometimes known by that name. THE battle began, as arranged through the heralds, on the afternoon of September 9. The Scottish cannon proved ineffective but the lighter English guns were more manoeuvrable and wreaked early havoc.

There is no Scottish account of what happened next, but we know from several English eyewitnesses that at some point James moved his army down from its advantageous position and launched the attack. It was a fatal error.

At first the Scots did well and almost crushed the English right flank. Lord Dacre then arrived with his cavalry and shored up the English forces, which caused James to direct his centre against Surrey’s centre.

Unfortunately the Scottish army found itself traversing a marsh and while they held together at first and repelled English troops with their pikes, Surrey’s centre and wings both held and slowly began to push the Scots into a confused and dying mass.

The bill and halberds chopped into the Scottish troops and at some point James IV, who always led from the front, was killed by a bill stroke as he tried to attack Surrey himself. The English army simply swallowed up the Scots, surrounding them with archers and bill-wielding foot soldiers who quite literally hacked their way through the Scots.

Eventually, with their leaders nearly all dead, the Scottish troops turned and fled.

The body of James was found by Lord Dacre and taken south. The Pope had excommunicated James for supporting France but Henry asked to be allowed to give his brother-in-law a Christian burial. The corpse was lost much later and to this day we do not know where James IV lies. Myths that he survived the battle are just that – myths.

The butcher’s bill was devastating – claiming 11 earls, nine lords, two archbishops, several clan chiefs and thousands and thousands of ordinary soldiers.

Margaret Tudor somehow managed to convene a Scottish council and they took over the running of a country that cowered in fear. Anticipating English invasion, Edinburgh built the Flodden Wall which can still be seen in the city. But no invasion came – luckily, Henry was busy elsewhere. Had Scotland won, British history would have been so different. Had James IV survived, who knows what would have happened to the royal line that eventually gave us the Union of the Crowns in 1603, just 90 years after Flodden.

Sir Walter Scott summed up the battle in Marmion: And turn the doubtful day again, While yet on Flodden side, Afar, the royal standard flies, And round it toils, and bleeds, and dies, Our Caledonian pride!

There is also song, a lament, which is still played across Scotland today. The words were composed by Jean Eliot in memory of Flodden more than two centuries after the battle – proof that Flodden has haunted Scots down the ages.

You know it as the Flowers of the Forest… “I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking, Lassies a-lilting before dawn o’ day; But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning; The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away”.

Dool and wae for the order sent oor lads tae the Border!

The English for ance, by guile wan the day, The Flooers o’ the Forest, that fought aye the foremost, The pride o’ oor land lie cauld in the clay.

I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking, Lassies a-lilting before dawn o’ day; But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning; The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.