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War of the League of Cambrai: Battle of Flodden

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Battle of Flodden - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Flodden was fought September 9, 1513, during the War of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516).

Battle of Flodden - Armies & Commanders:

Scotland

  • King James IV
  • 34,000 men

England

  • Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey
  • 26,000 men

Battle of Flodden - Background:

Seeking to honor the Auld Alliance with France, King James IV of Scotland declared war on England in 1513. As the army mustered, it transitioned from the traditional Scottish spear to the modern European pike which was being used to great effect by the Swiss and Germans. While trained by the French Comte d'Aussi, it is unlikely that the Scots had mastered the weapon and maintaining the tight formations required for its use before moving south. Gathering around 30,000 men and seventeen guns, James crossed the border on August 22 and moved to seize Norham Castle.

Battle of Flodden - The Scots Advance:

Enduring miserable weather and taking high losses, the Scots succeeded in capturing Norham. In the wake of the success, many, tired of the rain and spreading disease, began to desert. While James loitered in Northumberland, King Henry VIII's northern army began to gather under the leadership of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Numbering around 24,500, Surrey's men were equipped with bills, eight-foot long poles with blades at the end made for slashing. Joining his infantry were 1,500 light horsemen under Thomas, Lord Dacre.

Battle of Flodden - The Armies Meet:

Not wishing the Scots to slip away, Surrey dispatched a messenger to James offering battle on September 9. In an uncharacteristic move for a Scottish king, James accepted stating that he would remain in Northumberland until noon on the appointed day. As Surrey marched, James shifted his army into a fortress-like position atop Flodden, Moneylaws, and Branxton Hills. Forming a rough horseshoe, the position could only be approached from the east and required crossing the River Till. Reaching the Till Valley on September 6, Surrey immediately recognized the strength of the Scottish position.

Again dispatching a messenger, Surrey chastised James for taking such a strong position and invited him to do battle on the nearby plains around Milfield. Refusing, James wished to fight a defensive battle on his own terms. With his supplies dwindling, Surrey was compelled to choose between abandoning the area or attempting a flanking march to the north and west to force the Scots out of their position. Opting for the latter, his men began crossing the Till at Twizel Bridge and Milford Ford on September 8. Reaching a position above the Scots, they turned south and deployed facing Branxton Hill.

Due to continued stormy weather, James did not become aware of the English maneuver until sometime around noon on September 9. As a result, he began shifting his entire army to Branxton Hill. Formed in five divisions, Lord Hume and the Early of Huntly led the left, the Earls of Crawford and Montrose the left center, James the right center, and the Earls of Argyll and Lennox the right. The Earl of Bothwell's division was held in reserve to the rear. Artillery was placed in the spaces between the divisions. At the base of the hill and across a small stream, Surrey deployed his men in similar fashion.

Battle of Flodden - Disaster for the Scots:

Around 4:00 in the afternoon, James' artillery opened fire on the English position. Consisting largely of siege guns, they did little damage. On the English side, Sir Nicholas Appelby's twenty-two guns replied with great effect. Silencing the Scottish artillery, they began a devastating bombardment of James' formations. Unable to withdraw over the crest without risking a panic, James continued to take losses. To his left, Hume and Huntly elected to begin the action without orders. Moving their men down the least steep part of the hill, their pikemen advanced toward Edmund Howard's troops.

Hampered by the severe weather, Howard's archers fired with little effect and his formation was shattered by Hume and Huntly's men. Driving through the English, their formation began to dissolve and their advance was checked by Dacre's horsemen. Seeing this success, James directed Crawford and Montrose to move forward and began advancing with his own division. Unlike the first attack, these divisions were forced to descend a steep slope which began to open their ranks. Pressing on, additional momentum was lost in crossing the stream.

Reaching the English lines, Crawford and Montrose's men were disorganized and the bills of Thomas Howard, the Lord Admiral's men slashed into their ranks and cut the heads from the Scottish pikes. Forced to rely on swords and axes, the Scots took frightful losses as they were unable to engage the English as close range. To the right, James had some success and pushed back the division led by Surrey. Halting the Scottish advance, James' men soon faced a situation similar to Crawford and Montrose.

On the right, Argyle and Lennox's Highlanders remained in position watching the battle. As a result, they failed to notice the arrival of Edward Stanley's division on their front. Though the Highlanders were in a strong position, Stanley saw that it could be flanked to the east. Sending forward a portion of his command to hold the enemy in place, the remainder made a concealed movement to the left and up the hill. Unleashing a massive arrow storm on the Scots from two directions, Stanley was able to force them to flee the field.

Seeing Bothwell's men advancing to support the king, Stanley reformed his troops and along with Dacre attacked the Scottish reserve from the rear. In a brief fight they were driven off and the English descended on the rear of the Scottish lines. Under attack on three sides, the Scots battled on with James falling in the fighting. By 6:00 PM much of the fighting had ended with the Scots retreating east over the ground held by Hume and Huntly.

Battle of Flodden - Aftermath

Unaware of the magnitude of his victory, Surrey remained in place overnight. The next morning, Scottish horsemen were spotted on Branxton Hill but were quickly driven away. The remnants of the Scottish army limped back across the River Tweed. In the fighting at Flodden, the Scots lost around 10,000 men including James, nine earls, fourteen Lords of Parliament, and the Archbishop of St. Andrews. On the English side, Surrey lost around 1,500 men, most from Edmund Howard's division. The largest battle in terms of numbers fought between the two nations, it was also Scotland's worst ever military defeat. It was believed at the time that every noble family in Scotland lost at least one person at Flodden.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1401-1600
  6. Flodden - Battle of Flodden Field

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