Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton

James IV and Flodden Field

The sun was dropping down the western sky, sending long slanting lines of light across the rolling country, where seventy-four years earlier had been fought the tremendous battle of Bannockburn. That day there had been another fight: that was evident from the number of armed men standing in groups, or to be seen in the distance against the skyline, and from the stragglers who were dispersing over the country. Only a small fight apparently, for no dead were to be seen, and that it was no great national contest for existence was to be gathered from the fact that on both sides were Scots.

A tall, splendidly dressed man on a grey horse spurred hastily from the field, and the amazement on the faces of those who saw him, mingled with the respect with which they saluted him, showed that he was someone of importance, as, indeed, was the case, for this was the King himself, James III., son of James II., and grandson of the King who had died so horribly at Perth. Yet though his army was large and remained on the field, the King fled, for in his cars there rang a prophecy which had troubled him for long, a prophecy that he should die by the hand of his nearest of kin. So much had this saying overshadowed his life that he had actually found a pretext to put his brother to death, lest in him it should be fulfilled; and now, at the Battle of Sauchieburn, where he had fought against his own nobles, it had suddenly come home to him that it might refer to his son James, then only a lad of fifteen, who was in the ranks of the rebels.

Stricken with sudden terror at the thought, the King spurred his horse and rode away. At full speed he went, leaping the Bannockburn in his course, and as he did so a woman, who had been filling her pitcher at the stream, sprang up startled from amid the tussocks of grass, and in her turn frightened the horse, which, rearing, flung its rider over its head. The King, striking heavily on the hard ground, lay unconscious, and the woman, horrified at what she had done, rushed to the mill nearby, which was her home, and brought help. King James was laid upon a bed, and on recovering consciousness told them who he was, and asked for a priest. The woman ran out in search of one, and meeting a stranger, told him of her quest; he said he was himself a priest, and stooping at the low entrance of the mill-door, he passed over to the bed, and there, before the astonished couple could stop him, he stabbed the King again and again, and fled away!

Thus died James III., and his son James IV. reigned in his stead. Yet it is said that in his remorse for his part in that day's work the new King wore ever after round his body, beneath his clothes, an iron belt, to which he added a link every year.

It was through his marriage that the crowns of England and Scotland were, many years later, finally united, for when he was thirty years old he married Margaret, slaughter of Henry VII., King of England. As it happened, this King Henry left only one surviving son, who became Henry VIII., and when he died his three children, Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth, reigned in turn, and then, as there were no more English heirs, the crown came to the descendants of Queen 39) ?> Margaret of Scotland, and so a Scottish line of Kings reigned in England.

However, for the time, instead of uniting the two kingdoms, the marriage seemed to make things worse between them. King Henry VII. of England was a miser, and his son was little better, though liberal enough in spending money on his own pleasures. He refused to give up the jewels and money which his sister Margaret should have inherited from their father, and this irritated the Scots, so that when England began a war with France, the Scots, who were always friendly with France, broke out into war too, and thence arose the disastrous Battle of Flodden Field, the saddest in all Scottish history.

Men were summoned from all parts of the country to support the King on his march into England, and they replied to the number of thousands. Brave was the force that assembled on the slopes, now a part of Edinburgh known as Morningside. Seldom, indeed, had the Edinburgh folk seen such an array of banners and plumes, and flashing swords, and brilliant armor. Nearly the whole of the Scottish nobility were there, and the preparations were like those for a gigantic pageant.

With 50,000 men the King crossed the Border into Northumberland, and took up his position on rising ground above the River Till. His army was not quite close to the river, for there was a flat space between them and it, and, seeing this, the English commander, Surrey, who had arrived with an opposing force, sent his men over to the same side as the Scots. He ran a dreadful risk by doing this, for had King James attacked him while the army was defiling across, as Wallace had attacked the English in like case at Stirling, he would have had a great advantage; however, he failed to make use of his opportunity. The English then formed up on the plain, and at four o'clock in the afternoon the Scots came down upon them, and the battle began. Even with the advantage they gained from descending the hill the Scots could make no impression on the steady English ranks, which stood shoulder to shoulder, and did not give way an inch.

[Flodden Field] from Peeps at History - Scotland  by G. E. Mitton


The King fell at length, and almost all his nobles with him. Never was there such a terrible day of mourning and loss for Scotland; her noblest sons lay dead in hundreds, her army was almost wiped out, and it is said that the whole peerage descended into a new generation almost at once, the sons taking on the titles of their dead fathers. Long did Scotland remember Flodden, and bitter were the laments of the women when the news was brought by the despairing fugitives to Scotland. No one knows where lies the body of King James. It was carried up to London, and the burial place is unrecorded. His son James, a boy of only a year old, became James V. of Scotland.