Scottish Borders Battles - Flodden

The great battle of Flodden was fought on the 9th of September, 1513. The defeat of the Scottish army, mainly owing to the fantastic ideas of chivalry entertained by James IV, and his refusal to avail himself of the natural advantages of his position, was by far the most disastrous of any recounted in the history of the northern wars. The whole strength of the kingdom, both Lowland and Highland, was assembled, and the contest was one of the sternest and most desperate upon record.

For several hours the issue seemed doubtful. On the left the Scots obtained a decided advantage; on the right wing they were broken and overthrown; and at last the whole weight of the battle was brought into the centre, where King James and the Earl of Surrey commanded in person. The determined valour of James, imprudent as it was, had the effect of rousing to a pitch of desperation the courage of the meanest soldiers; and the ground becoming soft and slippery from blood, they pulled off their boots and shoes and secured a firmer footing by fighting in their hose.

"It is owned," says Abernathy, "that both parties did wonders, but none on either side performed more than the king himself. He was again told that by coming to handy blows he could do no more than another man, whereas, by keeping the post due to his station, he might be worth many thousands. Yet he would not only fight in person, but also on foot; for he no sooner saw that body of the English give way which was defeated by the Earl of Huntley, but he alighted from his horse, and commanded his guard of noblemen and gentlemen to do the like and follow him. He had at first abundance of success; but at length the Lord Thomas Howard and Sir Edward Stanley, who had defeated their opposites, coming in with the Lord Dacre's horse, and surrounding the King's battalion on all sides, the Scots were so distressed that, for their last defence, they cast themselves into a ring; and being resolved to die nobly with their sovereign, who scorned to ask quarter, were altogether cut off. So say the English writers, and I am apt to believe that they are right."

The battle was maintained with desperate fury until nightfall. At the close, according to Mr. Tytler, "Surrey was uncertain of the result of the battle: the remains of the enemy's centre still held the field; Home, with his Borderers, still hovered on the left; and the commander wisely allowed neither pursuit nor plunder, but drew off his men, and kept a strict watch during the night. When the morning broke, the Scottish artillery were seen standing deserted on the side of the hill; their defenders had disappeared; and the Earl ordered thanks to be given for a victory which was no longer doubtful. Yet, even after all this, a body of the Scots appeared unbroken upon a hill, and were about to charge the Lord-Admiral, when they were compelled to leave their position by a discharge of the English ordnance.

"The loss of the Scots in this fatal battle amounted to about ten thousand men. Of these, a great proportion were of high rank; the remainder being composed of the gentry, the farmers, and landed yeomanry, who disdained to fly when their sovereign and his nobles lay stretched in heaps around them." Besides King James, there fell at Flodden the Archbishop of St. Andrew's, thirteen earls, two bishops, two abbots, fifteen lords and chiefs of clans, and five peers' eldest sons, besides La Motte the French ambassador, and the secretary of the King. The same historian adds—"The names of the gentry who fell are too numerous for recapitulation, since there were few families of note in Scotland which did not lose one relative or another, whilst some homes had to weep the death of all. It is from this cause that the sensations of sorrow and national lamentation occasioned by the defeat were peculiarly poignant and lasting—so that to this day few Scotsmen can hear the name of Flodden without a shudder of gloomy regret."

The loss to Edinburgh on this occasion was particularly great. All the magistrates and able-bodied citizens had followed their King to Flodden, whence very few of them returned. The office of Provost or chief magistrate of the capital was at that time an object of ambition, and was conferred only upon persons of high rank and station.

The name of Sir Alexander Lauder appears upon the list of the slain; Angus was one of the survivors, but his son, George, Master of Angus, fell fighting gallantly by the side of King James. The city records of Edinburgh, which commence about this period, are not clear upon that point, and I am rather inclined to think that the Earl of Angus was elected to supply the place of Lauder. But although the actual magistrates were absent, they had formally nominated deputies in their stead. I find, on referring to the city records, that "George of Tours" had been appointed to officiate in the absence of the Provost, and that four other persons were selected to discharge the office of bailies until the magistrates should return.

There seems to be some uncertainty whether the holder of this dignity at the time of the Battle of Flodden was Sir Alexander Lauder, ancestor of the Fountainhall family, who was elected in 1511, or that great historical personage, Archibald Earl of Angus, better known as Archibald Bell-the-Cat, who was chosen in 1513, the year of the battle. Both of them were at Flodden. It is impossible to describe the consternation which pervaded the whole of Scotland when the intelligence of the defeat became known. In Edinburgh it was excessive. Mr. Arnot, in the history of that city, says,—

"The news of their overthrow in the field of Flodden reached Edinburgh on the day after the battle, and overwhelmed the inhabitants with grief and confusion. The streets were crowded with women seeking intelligence about their friends, clamouring and weeping. Those who officiated in absence of the magistrates proved themselves worthy of the trust. They issues a proclamation, ordering all the inhabitants to assemble in military array for defence of the city, on the tolling of the bell; and commanding, 'that all women, and especially strangers, do repair to their work, and not be seen upon the street clamorand and cryand; and that women of the better sort do repair to the church and offer up prayers, at the stated hours, for our Sovereign Lord and his army, and the townsmen who are with the army.'"

Indeed the council records bear ample evidence of the emergency of that occasion. Throughout the earlier pages, the word "Flowdoun" frequently occurs on the margin, in reference to the various hurried orders for arming and defense; and there can be no doubt that, had the English forces attempted to follow up their victory, and attack the Scottish capital, the citizens would have resisted to the last. But it soon became apparent that the loss sustained by the English was so severe, that Surrey was in no condition to avail himself of the opportunity; and in fact, shortly afterwards, he was compelled to disband his army.

The references to the city banner, contained in the following poem, may require a word of explanation. It is a standard still held in great honour and reverence by the burghers of Edinburgh, having been presented to them by James the Third, in return for their loyal service in 1482. This banner, along with that of the Earl Marischal, still conspicuous in the Library of the Faculty of Advocates, was honourably brought back from Flodden, and certainly never could have been displayed in a more memorable field. Maitland says, with reference to this very interesting relic of antiquity,—

"As a perpetual remembrance of the loyalty and bravery of the Edinburghers on the aforesaid occasion, the King granted them a banner or standard, with power to display the same in defense of their king, country, and their own rights. This flag is kept by the Convenor of the Trades; at whose appearance therewith, it is said that not only the artificers of Edinburgh are obliged to repair to it, but all the artisans or craftsmen within Scotland are bound to follow it, and fight under the Convenor of Edinburgh as aforesaid." No event in Scottish history ever took a more lasting hold of the public mind than the "woeful fight" of Flodden; and even now, the songs and traditions which are current on the Border recall the memory of a contest unsullied by disgrace, though terminating in disaster and defeat.

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