Flodden 1513 – How unlucky were the Scots?

16 September 2013
imports_CESC_0-m6qm30sr-100000_36548.jpg Flodden 1513 – How unlucky were the Scots?
Historian David H Caldwell discusses why Scotland lost the Battle of Flodden, how prepared the Scots were for war in 1513 and to what extent the defeat was down to sheer bad luck. ...

Historian David H Caldwell discusses why Scotland lost the Battle of Flodden, how prepared the Scots were for war in 1513 and to what extent the resounding defeat was down to sheer bad luck.

The death of James IV in battle at Flodden on 9 September 1513 has left a very long shadow over subsequent Scottish history. In accepting that it was a major national disaster, a crushing defeat at the hands of our old enemy, we Scots have, on the one hand, failed to examine its extent and ramifications critically, and on the other hand have failed to put this one event in context. In a public talk delivered in the National Museums Scotland on the battle’s 500th anniversary and a paper published in the Journal of the Sydney Society for Scottish History the author has attempted to address these issues [1].

Although there are several contemporary accounts of the battle they are not strong on analyses of why the Scots lost. It is to be hoped that archaeological research currently being undertaken on the battlefield will lead to the recovery of evidence that will shed new light on this, the numbers involved and the casualties suffered.

The size of the two armies and the numbers killed are particularly contentious issues, not helped by the typical tendency of many early authors to exaggerate.

It would seem not unreasonable to this writer to suppose that both sides were probably fairly evenly matched at about 20,000 men each, and that the English would have lost 1,500 men to the Scots’ 5,000. Of course, the loss for the Scots of their king and many leaders was particularly devastating, but this did not result in a collapse of government, nor, as far as we are aware, was their widespread failure of families through lack of heirs.

The integrity of the country and its independence was not seriously threatened by the English in the aftermath of Flodden – not until the 1540s. Indeed, the Scottish Governor, the duke of Albany, was determined to continue James IV’s strategy of reducing English border fortresses with a view to the isolation and eventual reacquisition of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. The campaign he mounted against Wark Castle in 1523 was a major effort utilising resources in men, guns and equipment as great as had been sent over the border in 1513.
Supposing the Scots intended to fight in 1513, would that necessarily have been such an ill-judged and rash decision?

They had no reason to look back and think the odds were stacked heavily against them on battlefields with the English. There were several memorable victories won by their ancestors, and many at Flodden would have taken part in previous campaigns with James IV, including the major expeditions into England in 1496 and 1497 that undoubtedly made the English realise that James IV had to be taken seriously as a threat to their kingdom. Hence the 1502 Treaty of Perpetual Peace and the hand of Margaret Tudor, one of the most prestigious marriages made by a Scottish monarch and one which could well have brought James the English throne.


In 1513 the Scots were not only experienced, but well provided with arms and armour and a large and efficiently run artillery train. They had a fleet of warships at sea which, after it rendezvoused with the French, threatened Henry VIII’s safety in returning from France to his own kingdom. Of course, a detailed study of James, the events of his reign and his country’s military capability, throw up some questions of competence, for instance how well trained the Scots were to fight with the pikes that were handed out to them prior to the battle, but overall the picture was good.

There is no evidence that friends and foes did not take Scottish military might very seriously. In 1513 James IV was invading England on behalf of his ally, Louis XII of France (pictured), in the hope of distracting Henry VIII from his invasion of France.

James had tried, but failed, to involve the Danes on his side, and with more success, allied himself with the ‘wild Irish’. The treasurer’s accounts for his reign document an efficient build up and deployment of military and naval resources. The artillery train taken over the Lammermuirs was one of the largest and best ever, well provided with men, powder, shot and other necessities. The quick bombardment into submission of four major English castles, Wark, Norham, Etal and Ford, was one of the most devastating siege operations ever seen in these islands.

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Unlike in 1496 and 1497, however, James stayed in the field awaiting the arrival of the English army under the earl of Surrey. No doubt, with French advisers present, he wanted to fully demonstrate his commitment to Louis XII, but did he really intend to be drawn into battle?

The answer to that will never be known, but a possible interpretation is that James did not expect to fight. He way may well have despised the aged Surrey, slow and ineffective in his response to the Scottish invasion in 1496 and now in 1513 apparently making a meal of the English mobilisation. On 9 September James would surely have drawn up his army in battle formation much earlier if he had envisaged that Surrey was going to turn and challenge him rather than make a feint into Scotland.

Perhaps the very last words that James would have read were on the afternoon of 9 September, in the treatise on warfare written for him a few years earlier by his distant relative, Berault Stuart, Seigneur d’Aubigny, one of the most experienced and respected soldiers of his day.

He stressed the need for an army to be drawn up in proper order of battle in an advantageous location, in good time, in the face of an advancing army. The Scots may barely have achieved that at Flodden. Whether or not they had intended to fight they did not shirk coming to blows. They stood and fought until the gathering darkness allowed both sides to disengage in relative safety.

Even the best of generals – and James IV was not one of those – depend to a large measure on luck. The problem for the Scottish king was that he had no luck at all. His death seems almost to have been seen as an embarrassment by succeeding generations of Scots. He has never been cast in the mould of tragic hero in the same way as other great Scottish losers like Wallace, Montrose and Prince Charles Edward Stewart.

But supposing James had survived to lead a Scottish army home, albeit a much depleted and bedraggled one, might a very different spin have been put on the campaign of 1513? Flodden could still not have been seen as a victory but might the overall campaign have been seen in a much more positive light, even as a success?

Footnote: [1] D H Caldwell, ‘How Well Prepared was James IV to fight by Land and Sea in 1513?’, Journal of the Sydney Society for Scottish History 14 (2013): 33-75.

Dr Caldwell retired from National Museums Scotland in February 2012, latterly as Keeper of Scotland and Europe and Interim Keeper of Archaeology. In a long career involved with Scottish archaeology and history he took a particular interest in warfare and weapons.

QUICK LINK: Battle of Flodden map

(Flodden Memorial image copyright Stephen McKay)