BBC presenter Fiona Watson talks about the Battle of Flodden

25 July 2013
imports_CESC_0-6vuwb3ce-100000_24509.jpg BBC presenter Fiona Watson talks about the Battle of Flodden
We interview Dr Fiona Watson about the impact of the Battle of Flodden, ahead of the opening of a new exhibition of paintings depicting Flodden. ...
BBC presenter Fiona Watson talks about the Battle of Flodden Images
We interview Dr Fiona Watson about the impact of the Battle of Flodden, ahead of the opening of a new exhibition of paintings depicting Flodden.

What do you think was the most crucial factor in things going so wrong for the Scots at Flodden?

Apart from crossing the border? Somewhat less flippantly it is largely down to a combination of the fact that the English were able to use small firearms to cut a swathe through the Scots pikemen at a distance and the fact that the Scots infantry were not practised in using the new, longer pikes, employed so skilfully at the time by German mercenaries.

Do you think that King James's commanders and leaders had any idea that he could actually be killed whilst taking part in the battle?

Well, I suppose so long as kings are actively participating in battle, there is always a chance they will be killed, but obviously this was not supposed to happen. We have to remember that James was thought of as a successful military leader, having presided over the 'Daunting of the Isles' in the 1490s. He also had a lot of advice from French experts and there was a very definite plan, even if the main aim of the campaign - as the English believed - was to retake Berwick, which had been held by the English since 1482, not to fight a pitched battle.

Do historians know whether anyone tried to advise James IV against taking a leading role in the battle?

Later historians claim that the Scottish nobles didn't want to fight a pitched battle - because they were more used to hit-and-run raids - but it was James's French advisors who encouraged him to go down that route. But no-one at the time seems to have suggested that James shouldn't be there and we have to remember that English kings had not necessarily given up on it either - Henry VIII was personally on campaign in France and his father had of course taken on and killed Richard III in 1485. Scottish kingship is still about actually fulfilling the twin functions of defender of the realm and giver of justice, rather than presiding over an apparatus of government that delivers those things. The irony here is that James's very popularity meant that so many came from all over the country to follow the king into battle, only to be killed there.

What would have happened in the royal court in the days following James's death?

I imagine it would have been pretty chaotic, since so many of Scotland's leading men were killed with James. Obviously the first priority was to have Prince James crowned, but since he was less than 2 years old, there was the usual infighting for the role of regent.

Unfortunately James's mother, Margaret Tudor, was not a particularly effective politician, unlike her successor, Mary of Guise.

Fortunately, however, the English did not see that here was a very definite opportunity for taking over the northern kingdom, as the Scots expected. Interestingly too, the Scots under the regent, John, Duke of Albany, took a long time, despite Flodden, to give up on the notion  of sending large armies south of the border.

Do you give any credit to the rumours of the day that James actually survived Flodden?

Er, no. It is quite common in times of national stress in the Middle Ages to hear that great leaders (or even not so great ones) were not dead but would return in times of need or were living their lives out in contemplation somewhere obscure.

Why do you think James IV was so fond of Stirling Castle?

The Stewarts were particularly fond of hunting and there was some good sport to be had near the castle. It was also renowned for its spectacular views and I think it is no accident that James IV built his great hall with an enormous window looking out over the Ochils. I wonder, too, if it represented a break from the cares of government - I'm sure they conducted business at Stirling, but there may have been a sense of it being something of a holiday home away from Edinburgh, rather like the Loire chateaux.

What are you most looking forward to seeing in the exhibition ?

I am very much looking forward to seeing this iconic episode in Scottish history, which I normally experience in words, transformed through the power of art. The ability of Iona's work to get us to think again about what Flodden meant, and still means, is remarkable. 

Catastrophe to Crown is an art exhibition featuring the work of historical artist Iona Leishman and will be at Stirling Castle from 8 to 29 September 2013. Dr Fiona Bruce will open the exhibition on 8 September, the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden.

Read our interview with Catastrophe to Crown artist Iona Leishman.

The September/October issue of History Scotland magazine contains expert analysis on the impact of the Battle of Flodden. Get your copy here.

(Image copyright Stephen McKay)
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