How Dreams of Scottish Independence Were Crushed in a Matter of Hours in the Battle of Flodden

How Dreams of Scottish Independence Were Crushed in a Matter of Hours in the Battle of Flodden

Patrick Lynch - April 29, 2018

Although the Battle of Flodden in 1513 was arguably one of the most important battles in European history, its importance is little known outside of Britain. In contrast, the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 has become a crucial part of Scottish history and the Scottish government provided millions of pounds of grants to celebrate its 700th anniversary in 2014.

The Battle of Flodden was the culmination of the largest ever Scottish invasion of England and is also the largest Anglo-Scottish battle in history. While the more famous Battle of Bannockburn involved 35,000 soldiers at most, there were probably twice as many at Flodden. The Scottish army was led by King James IV while Henry VIII was the King of England at the time. The conflict is also known as the Battle of Branxton but received its official name because the Scottish army was based at Flodden Edge. It proved to be a bloody and brutal affair as the Scots suffered one of their worst ever defeats.

How Dreams of Scottish Independence Were Crushed in a Matter of Hours in the Battle of Flodden
James IV of Scotland – Wikipedia


In 1502, James IV of Scotland and Henry VII of England had agreed upon the Treaty of Perpetual Peace. The Scottish leader believed it was a formal recognition of his nation’s independence but this notion was quashed by Henry VIII who tore up the agreement soon after becoming king in 1509. Scotland had signed the Auld Alliance with France back in 1295 and was still subject to its terms. Both nations agreed to help one another should one of them get attacked by England and by 1513, French King Louis XII was ready to call in this favor from Scotland.

This was because of Henry VIII’s desire to make England a European superpower. In 1511, he joined in an alliance with Pope Julius II and Spain against France. Two years later, Henry launched his invasion of France and Louis appealed to Scotland for help as per the terms of the Auld Alliance. Although James was initially reluctant, he ultimately acquiesced and both England and Scotland were preparing for war early in 1513.

How Dreams of Scottish Independence Were Crushed in a Matter of Hours in the Battle of Flodden
Thomas Howard aka Earl of Surrey – Famous Biographies

By the end of June, a large English force was on French soil having sailed from Dover to Calais. With the assistance of French troops, arms and ammunition, James was able to assemble the largest force Scotland had ever produced. The Scottish King crossed the border into England in August with an army of approximately 60,000 men. His goal was to draw English forces north to him and reduce the number of soldiers available for the French invasion.

James enjoyed initial success as he captured all of Northumberland’s major forts. However, the English were ready because the Scottish king followed chivalric protocol and informed Henry of his intent to attack one month before his invasion. As Henry was in France by this time, Catherine of Aragon was acting regent and she issued warrants for the seizure of the lands of all Scots in England on August 27. On September 3, she heard about James’ invasion and ordered Thomas Lovell to raise an army in the English Midlands.

However, it was Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who was given command of Henry’s army in the north of England and by early September, he had assembled an army of at least 26,000 men at Alnwick. Meanwhile, James’ forces began to dwindle as he had to spare some men for garrison duty. It is also true that thousands of men deserted him. By the time Surrey sent a diplomat offering battle on September 5, the Scottish army had numbered less than 40,000. Even so, the Scottish King was probably aware that he outnumbered his English counterpart and agreed to fight on September 9.

How Dreams of Scottish Independence Were Crushed in a Matter of Hours in the Battle of Flodden
An overview of the Battle of Flodden 1513 – British Battles

Jostling for Position

Another reason why James was happy to go into battle was because his army held the superior position. Surrey had heard that James was going to position his troops at Flodden Edge on September 7. Flodden Edge is a hill of approximately 600 feet high and Surrey knew that an attack would be suicidal. He asked James to move position so they could fight on flat ground but the Scottish king naturally refused. Apparently, the irate monarch said “that it was not fitting for an earl to seek to command a king.”

After James’ rebuff, Surrey elected to move his army north-east so it would be a few miles east of the enemy position and also on the opposite side of the River Till. It was a clever move because it enabled him to advance against James from the north, thus avoiding the Scottish artillery which was faced south. This new position also prevented James from retreating back to Scotland without a fight. The Scottish king had watched the English army move towards Berwick before doubling back. It was only then that he realized Surrey’s intention so he ordered his men to march one mile to Branxton Hill.

How Dreams of Scottish Independence Were Crushed in a Matter of Hours in the Battle of Flodden
Tactics at the Battle of Flodden 1513 – Remembering Flodden

Let Battle Commence!

Despite Surrey’s clever tactical maneuver, the Scots still held the superior battle position and outnumbered the English. However, it was the weaponry which dictated the course of the conflict, with a little help from the predictably bad weather in the region. The Scottish army excelled in the use of massed pike formations which worked extremely well in battles where there was a lot of movement. It preferred to use the high ground for this purpose but at Flodden, it was a terrible mistake because the ground became mucky and slippery underfoot.

As a result, the Scottish army was unable to move as quickly as normal so when the battle began at 4 pm, the English ultimately gained the upper hand. Initially, it seemed as if the Scots would triumph because their enemy’s right flank started to crack under the strain of the massive pike attack. Surrey knew his army was in danger of collapse so he gambled by throwing in his reserve force in a desperate attempt to hold the line. A second Scottish pike attack was slowed down by the boggy ground and the English held firm.

At this point, the Scots dropped their pikes and pulled out their swords. Unfortunately for them, the English army was equipped with the 8.5-foot long bill which was originally an agricultural tool adapted for combat purposes. Meanwhile, the Scottish gunners at the top of the hill were inexperienced and their cannon shots were inaccurate. In contrast, the English gunners were fast and accurate which meant they were able to inflict serious casualties on their enemies. By now, the Battle of Flodden was in the balance and King James decided to roll the dice with one desperate final gamble.

How Dreams of Scottish Independence Were Crushed in a Matter of Hours in the Battle of Flodden
Depiction of the Battle of Flodden 1513 – British Battles

The Death of King James IV

After the failure of two pike attacks, James knew that his best chance of winning the battle was to seek out and kill the Earl of Surrey. He led the Scottish Third Unit on a charge down the hill but once again, the boggy ground hindered its progress. Contemporary accounts suggest that James fought bravely as he made his way towards Surrey and was little more than a sword’s length away from his opposite number before being cut down. An arrow pierced him below the jaw and his throat was slashed by an English bill. Lord Dacre later found James’ body on the field and two captured Scottish nobles confirmed that it was their king.

The Scottish army quickly capitulated upon the death of its leader and the Earl of Surrey captured the enemy’s guns. When the dust had settled, the Scottish army lost anywhere from 10,000 to 17,000 men. Despite being outnumbered, the English army loss approximately 1,500 men. As well as losing James, the Scots also lost most of their nobles including the Earls of Montrose, Bothwell, Argyll, and Lennox. James’ only son was 17 months old and succeeded him as king.

How Dreams of Scottish Independence Were Crushed in a Matter of Hours in the Battle of Flodden
Tactics at the Battle of Flodden 1513 – History Today


Overall, the Battle of Flodden was a national disaster for Scotland as virtually every noble family lost a brother, father, son, or husband. James IV was the last Scottish king to die in battle on British soil, and the catastrophic defeat ended Scotland’s ambitions of becoming a major European power. Fortunately for Scotland, Henry was probably too preoccupied with his French invasion to order a counter-invasion of Scotland. Henry rewarded Surrey as he became the Earl of Norfolk; it is worth noting that he was 70 years of age at Flodden.

The Scottish Parliament met on October 21 at Stirling Castle and crowned James’ infant son James V. The following month, a French soldier named Antoine d’Arces arrived at Dumbarton with armaments that were sent to Stirling. At this stage, the English were aware of the shipment because they found evidence of it in a paper found in a bag at Flodden. D’Arces pushed for the appointment of the Duke of Albany, John Stewart, as the Regent to rule Scotland until James V came of age.

The Scots were annihilated at the Battle of Flodden because they used the wrong tactics and weaponry. James IV may have been a brave warrior but his failure to properly survey the battleground cost him and his nation dearly. Had he been better prepared, perhaps the Scots could have won and changed the course of history. Incidentally, James IV’s great-grandson, James VI, ultimately became the King of England in 1603 as part of the Stuart line. He gained the English throne after Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir. While James IV failed to make Scotland independent, a member of his family eventually became the enemy’s ruler.


Where Do We Get This Stuff? Here is a List of our Sources

‘Battle of Flodden fights to take its rightful place in Scottish history.’ Robin McKie in The Guardian. August 2013.

‘Your 60-second guide to the Battle of Flodden.’ History Extra. October 2015.

‘Flodden: A Scottish Tragedy.’ Peter Reese. Birlinn Ltd. 2003.

‘The Battle of Flodden.’ Ben Johnson in Historic UK.

‘Battle of Flodden.’ UK Battlefield Resource Centre.