Gateway to the Classics: Stories From English History, Book II by Alfred J. Church
Stories From English History, Book II by  Alfred J. Church

Flodden Field

I have said that peace was made between England and Scotland by the help of the Spanish ambassador: To give it a better chance of lasting, King James asked the English King to give him his daughter Margaret in marriage. For some time he had been unwilling to do so, for he loved a lady in his own country. When she died—poisoned, it is said, along with her three sisters by an enemy of her family—he delayed no longer. The two were betrothed, but as Margaret was very young—she was born in 1489—the marriage did not take place till August 1503, and she was barely fourteen. During the rest of Henry VII.'s reign the peace lasted, though there was always more or less trouble on the Border, and other causes of complaint were arising from time to time. The most serious of these may be told, for it is an interesting story.


A Knight.

There was a certain Andrew Barton, the most famous of the British seamen of the time. Barton had had the honour of commanding the fleet which had carried the Pretender when he was sent away from Scotland, but he was in fact little more than a pirate. Many years before certain Portuguese had plundered a ship belonging to John Barton, Andrew's father, and in 1506, though it had happened so long ago, King James made this an excuse for giving Andrew and his two brothers leave to seize and plunder such Portuguese ships as they could lay hold of. But Portuguese ships were not always to be found; now and then the brothers Barton would seize an English merchantman, if they suspected it had Portuguese goods on board, and sometimes even without this reason. The English Government complained, but without effect. At last the King—Henry VII. had by this time been succeeded by his son, Henry VIII—proclaimed the Bartons to be pirates, and gave his Admiral, Sir Edward Howard, a son of the Earl of Surrey, leave to attack them. In 1510 Sir Edward, with the help of his brother Sir Thomas, took two of their ships in the Downs, and Andrew Barton was killed in the fight. King James demanded satisfaction for his death, and, as may be supposed, was but ill pleased when Henry replied that the death of a pirate was not a matter with which kings should concern themselves.

Two years afterwards the Scottish King determined to make war upon England, all the more readily because Henry had invaded France, and had, of course, taken the greater part of his English soldiers with him. He went against the advice of his wisest counsellors, and his wife, Queen Margaret, prayed him with many tears to give up his purpose. It was said too that he had other warnings: that St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, appeared to him in the shape of an old man, and told him that the war would end in disaster; and that a voice was heard calling the King, and the nobles who were urging him on to make war, to answer for their deed before God. Still he persisted in going, and took with him—a war with England was always popular in Scotland—the very largest army that had ever been gathered in the country.

On August 22, King James with his army crossed the Border. If he had marched on at once, he might have done the enemy a vast amount of damage, for the Earl of Surrey, who was in command of the English troops, was not strong enough to meet him. But he wasted the time in the most foolish way, and so lost his chance. The weather grew wet and stormy; the stock of food failed, and a great part of the army left him to go home, for armies could not be kept together in those days as well as they can now. Lord Surrey sent a herald challenging King James to fight on a certain day which he named, Friday, September 9. Of course there was no reason why James should wait so long; indeed there was excellent reason why he should not, namely, that his army was growing weaker, and Lord Surrey's growing stronger, every day. The Earl of Angus, who was the most famous soldier in the army, begged him not to accept the challenge, but only got the insulting answer that if he was afraid he might go home.

The Scottish army was posted in a strong place, where Lord Surrey did not like to attack it. What he did therefore was to try to draw it away. By the advice, it is said, of his son, Sir Thomas Howard,—now Lord High Admiral of England in the place of his brother Edward, who had been killed at Brest in an attempt to destroy the French fleet,—he marched northward, and so got between the Scottish King and his country. James might either have stayed where he was, in which case Lord Surrey would have been bound to attack him, or he might have fallen upon the English army while it was crossing a river which was in its line of march. He did neither, but moved from the high ground where he had been encamped—Flodden Edge it was called—to a place called Brankston, which was somewhat lower down.

At four in the afternoon the battle began. Both sides had cannon, but those of the English were the better served of the two, and did so much execution among the enemy that these lost no time in coming to close quarters. At first it seemed as if they were going to win the day. The men of the Border, sturdy soldiers who had been used to war ever since they could ride a horse, fell on the right of the English line, where yet another Howard, Sir Edmund, younger brother of the Admiral, was in command. Sir Edmund's troops came from Cheshire; they were used to be led by a Stanley rather than by a Howard, and they were not accustomed to Border ways of fighting. Their line was driven back and broken, and though Lord Dacre came up to their help with the English cavalry, and the Admiral, who was in command of the right centre, also sent them some support, they never quite recovered their ground. On the left of the English line things went very differently. Here Sir Edward Stanley's archers threw the Highlanders into confusion with their showers of arrows. The mountaineers charged in vain, they could not break the line, and bearing as they did no armour but a shield, they were easily cut down by the English men-at-arms. Meanwhile the Admiral had advanced with his main force, and had beaten back, though not without a fierce struggle, the divisions opposed to him. This done, he turned to attack the Scottish King himself where he stood in the centre, throwing himself on one flank, while Stanley attacked the other, and Lord Surrey came on in front. The Borderers, who might have come to James's help, are said to have refused to move. They had done their part, they said, and would do no more. The King, with a splendid courage, stood firm in his place, and would neither fly nor yield. What followed may best be told in Sir Walter Scott's noble words—

"But yet, though thick the shafts as snow,

Though charging knights like whirlwinds go,

Though bill-men ply the ghastly bow,

Unbroken was the ring;

The stubborn spear-men still made good

Their dark impenetrable wood,

Each stepping where his comrade stood,

The instant that he fell.

No thought was there of dastard flight;

Linked in the serried phalanx tight,

Groom fought like noble, squire like knight,

As fearlessly and well;

Till utter darkness closed her wing,

O'er their thin host and wounded King."

The battle still went on till the night fell. Then Surrey drew off his men, hardly yet knowing what had happened. The King was lying dead, his head cloven by a bill-hook, and round him were hundreds of the best born in all Scotland. There was not a noble family in all the land but lost one or more of its sons. The survivors silently left the place where they had made so gallant a stand. The Scottish army had ceased to be.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: True or False?  |  Next: The Great Cardinal
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.