1496 and 1497 War on the Border


Mons Meg with its 20″ (510 mm) calibre cannon balls.


Scottish soldiers.

In late 1495, James IV began harbouring the imposter who presented a remarkable challenge to the English throne. Claiming to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of Edward IV’s two sons – immortalized in history as the Princes in the Tower – Perkin Warbeck carried out his grand pretence with sufficient plausibility that some of the great European powers accepted his story at face value. Or at least, they deemed it useful to do so, recognizing Warbeck’s potential as a lever for extracting concessions from the insecure Henry VII.

From March to November 1492 Warbeck had been at the court of Charles VIII. At that time it suited the French King to promote the Pretender’s nuisance value, as King Henry, himself a former French royal guest, was using an expedition in Brittany to act in the style of a more established English monarch. But by the end of that year Henry, just like his predecessor Edward IV, had been bought off by the French, thereby demonstrating the limitations of his military might, the unfinished nature of his business at home and France’s more pressing business elsewhere.

From France, Warbeck moved to Mechelen in the Duchy of Burgundy, where the Dowager Duchess, Edward IV’s sister Margaret, received him as the long-lost nephew he purported to be. Late the following year, with Margaret’s blessing, he travelled to Vienna and was treated royally by Emperor Maximilian. Their support for the Pretender seriously alarmed Henry, for he understood all too well the danger posed by a claimant – however precarious the claim – who enjoyed the backing of foreign powers. After all, for the best part of a decade and a half, Henry had been just such a claimant himself. Most dangerous of all would be one who, again like himself, was able to make common cause with malcontents at home. In January 1495, after months of evidence gathering by his ministers and agents, Henry exposed a conspiracy that included men at the very heart of his regime – even the titular heads of the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ of the King’s own household, his Chamberlain (Sir William Stanley) and his Steward (Lord Fitzwalter). It seemed that they had weighed their chances with the King against those with Warbeck and, remarkably, decided for the latter; particularly so for Stanley, whose late intervention at Bosworth had been so crucial. Both men were removed, but despite Henry’s success in rooting out malcontents and his strenuous diplomatic efforts, foreign support for Warbeck persisted. Maximilian sponsored both a rebellion in Ireland and an attempted invasion of England, and though neither enterprise succeeded, Warbeck did gain a place on the British mainland: on 20 November James IV received him at Stirling Castle.

James was promised that the frontier town of Berwick would be returned to Scotland when Warbeck became king, but it is extremely doubtful that he viewed his guest as anything more than a counterfeit gambling chip in the game of European diplomacy. That, however, was exactly what made him such an asset. In giving Warbeck token support, James could strengthen links with Emperor Maximilian and gain recognition from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Warbeck’s prospects duly featured as the first part of the discussions when a Scottish embassy was received by Maximilian. But as soon as they tactfully could, the ambassadors, led by James’s senior minister, Bishop Elphinstone, introduced the Scots’ main business: a possible marriage between their master and the Emperor’s daughter, the widowed Margaret of Austria.

In their turn, the Spanish joint rulers sent an embassy to James. The aim was to offer him false promises and persuade him to break with Warbeck, thereby neutralizing the threat to Henry. With the English throne secure, they would be in a position to proceed with the marriage of their daughter Katherine to Henry’s heir, Prince Arthur. The task of the ambassadors, Don Martin de Torre and Garcia de Herrera, however, was made all the harder by their arrival being delayed; as a result, their instructions from Spain arrived at the court of King James before they did. Not hesitating to open the correspondence, James learned that he was to be flattered and deceived. Thus when Torre and Herrera eventually arrived, the tables were turned: they rather than the king were ‘in the dark’. James received the ambassadors with Warbeck at his side, and took the opportunity to give a full theatrical performance, no doubt insulting both the ambassadors and the name of Henry VII. Certainly the meeting was sufficiently remarkable for Ferdinand and Isabella to write to their permanent ambassador in England expressing dismay ‘for what the King of Scotland did in the garden of the Castle, especially as our ambassadors were present’. This was not mere oafish rudeness by James – that was not his style at all. In a character sketch given to Ferdinand and Isabella soon afterwards, the Scottish monarch was described as ‘of noble stature, neither tall nor short, and as handsome in complexion and shape as a man can be. His address is very agreeable.’ James’s behaviour in Stirling Castle’s garden was calculated to gain a reaction. His aim was to be noted and acknowledged by Europe’s rulers.

For, paradoxically, what the fake King of England gave the real King of Scotland was the opportunity for continental recognition of his kingdom’s independent identity. This would be one more step, perhaps even the final one, towards ensuring that Scotland’s monarch was seen as a fully independent ruler of a fully independent country.

Warbeck spent the first few months of his stay in Scotland near the King. James was an outgoing, sociable man, possessing the ability to charm ambassadors as well as to insult them. He may even have considered Warbeck congenial company. Certainly the Pretender must have had something about him to have been so well treated at so many royal courts. The two men were around the same age, given that James was just five months older than the man that Warbeck claimed to be.

A sort of marital alliance was agreed, with Warbeck wedding Lady Catherine Gordon, a royal relative, if a distant one and then only by marriage. In the autumn of 1496 James stepped up his support with a military intervention, notionally on Warbeck’s behalf, which crossed the Tweed into England on 20 September. The would-be King of England stayed in his kingdom for all of one day, during which time he took exception to the killing and pillaging of his ‘subjects’. The King of Scots responded mordantly that the ‘subjects’ in question had failed notably in welcoming their new ruler. With Warbeck back in Scotland, the Scottish forces continued what was in effect a major cross-border raid aimed at plunder and, just possibly, the taking of Berwick by force. For Warbeck it was a failure, but for James it proved a startling success. Enough booty was grabbed for the campaign to pay for itself, and in a fortnight of campaigning in the Tweed and Till valleys, he had demonstrated the effectiveness of his artillery and in the process destroyed the towers of Twizel, Tillmouth, Duddo, Branxton and Howtel. James was in the process of completing the job by reducing the Border stronghold of Castle Heaton to rubble, when scouts informed him that an English relieving army was advancing from Newcastle. Showing strategic wisdom, the King immediately took his own forces back over the border. He could always return the next year to continue the work.

James may have acted cautiously on behalf of his army, but that was not the case on his own behalf. James was accompanied on his foray south of the border by the newly appointed Spanish Ambassador, Don Pedro de Ayala, who it seems was much more to James’s liking than his predecessors. No sooner had Ayala arrived than the King invited him to join the English expedition – for the ride. Though an attack against England was contrary to his country’s interests, Ayala was sensible and sophisticated enough to accept. He did not go alone but took a retinue of servants: there were at least seven, because he later reported that four had been killed and three wounded. The King plunged into the heart of the action, leaving Ayala with no choice but to follow. As part of the detailed character sketch of James, sent to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1498, Ayala included the following observations:

The King is twenty-five years and some months old … He is courageous, even more so than a king should be. I am a good witness of it. I have seen him often undertake most dangerous things in the last wars. On such occasions he does not take the least care of himself. He is not a good captain, because he begins to fight before he has given his orders. He said to me that his subjects serve him with their persons and goods, in just and unjust quarrels, exactly as he likes, and therefore he does not think it right to begin any warlike undertaking without being himself the first in danger. His deeds are as good as his words. For this reason and because he is a very humane prince, he is much loved.

Safely back over the border, James could reflect on his successful campaign. His relations with Warbeck may have cooled on a personal level, and he now saw little of him, but James still considered it politically useful to subsidize the Pretender’s entourage and to keep him in Scotland.

Henry had regarded James’s invasion preparations with anything but equanimity. In spite of the arrests of 1495, there were still more than enough former Yorkists of doubtful loyalty to keep Henry’s network of spies fully occupied. Hoping to stave off conflict, he tried hard to negotiate with James. In May, he even proffered the hand of his six-year-old daughter Margaret for a future marriage. This was an offer of a quite different order to that of a mere knight’s daughter, suggested by Henry in 1492 and, unsurprisingly, rejected outright.

Unswayed by the offer of the infant Princess, James proceeded with his 1496 expedition. That in doing so he had broken a seven-year truce negotiated in 1494 was reason enough for Henry to declare war, but it was James’s open military support for Warbeck that provoked an extreme reaction from Henry. In late October it was agreed by the Great Council that a grant of £120,000 should be duly ratified by Parliament to counter James by land and by sea. This was an incredible sum. It was equivalent to more than twenty times the entire annual ordinary revenue of the Scottish King.

When James’s ‘Maister Spyour’ arrived from England on 5 November and made him aware of the English plans, he changed his usual arrangements for the winter months, including Christmas, and arranged to stay in the Borders. But he did not back down. On the contrary, he himself led a January foray into England known as ‘The Raid of Hume’ after the major Border family who took part. Nor did he seem deterred when he learned further details of Henry’s plans. He was happy to send the Earls of Hume and Angus to a conference in May, but his steadfast refusal to give up Warbeck made this a pointless exercise. James must have known that Henry was in earnest, but nonetheless he pressed on.

And Henry VII was indeed in earnest. Too much so. As a result he was destabilized, not by James but through his own extraordinary overreaction to the Scottish threat. The huge army that was raised to march on Scotland necessitated an equally enormous tax to pay for it. This provoked a major popular rebellion in May 1497. It began in the West, far from the Scottish border and also far from the bulk of the newly raised English army mustering in the Midlands. Soon unrest began to spread as the rebels spilled out of Cornwall and began advancing on London, picking up new recruits along the way; by the time they reached the capital, their number had swelled to 15,000.

The threat was sufficiently serious for Henry’s Queen, Elizabeth of York, to take refuge in the Tower of London with her daughters and her second son, five-year-old Henry. This young child had recently been given a new title to enable him to be presented as the real Duke of York in contrast to the imposter Warbeck. The Queen and her children seemed safe within the Tower, but for the best part of a week they were unsure what turn events might take outside. Finally King Henry’s troops crossed the Thames and forced an engagement at Blackheath, five or so miles from Tower Bridge. The rebels were defeated, but only after a major battle on 17 June. It was one more traumatic lesson for Henry VII, but, as ever, one from which he learned. It was to lead to a complete change of policy towards Scotland.

There was someone else who was bound to be marked by this episode, particularly in light of his experience of being confined with his anxious mother inside the walls of the Tower. That was the boy prince who was later to become Henry VIII.

It cannot be known whether James would have pulled back if Henry’s massive attack had gone ahead. Certainly he never gave any indication that he would. In the event, the time and cost of putting down the Western Rising did more than delay Henry’s plans: it drastically changed them. In July, one of Henry’s most important ministers, Richard Fox, Bishop of Durham, was sent to James with peace proposals.

James, however, did not want to come to terms, certainly not yet. This was no longer about Warbeck; the Pretender had by this time exhausted his political currency and spent too much of the physical kind. At Ayr, earlier in July, Warbeck and Lady Catherine Gordon had been put aboard the appropriately named Cuckoo, which immediately sailed to Ireland. From there Warbeck departed for south-west England at the beginning of September, gained some support from irreconcilable rebels and was then defeated and finally captured by Henry, all within a month. He needed only light persuasion to reveal his true Flemish identity both to Henry and foreign ambassadors, before eventually being sent to the Tower.

There may have been some half-hearted plans to coordinate military actions with Warbeck, but the Scottish King could satisfy his political aims in other ways. James had already started raiding in June. Determined to supplement his reputation of the previous year and impress both an internal and external audience with a demonstration of military power, he found the perfect instrument in Mons Meg, a giant bombard siege gun that had been built for his grandfather, James II. Boasting the ability to fire 330 lb. stone cannonballs with a diameter of around eighteen inches the best part of a mile and three quarters.

Some planning was required to transport the eight-and-a-half-ton monster, travelling at a maximum speed of three miles per day, the forty-two miles from Edinburgh Castle to the north bank of the Tweed and opposite the Bishop of Durham’s frontier fortress of Norham Castle. No fewer than one hundred workmen and five carpenters were needed for this single weapon. The carpenters were pressed into action almost immediately as the gun carriage collapsed on the outskirts of Edinburgh and it took two and a half days to repair. At the beginning of August Mons Meg, along with the remainder of James’s artillery and an army that included many of his nobles, took up position opposite Norham. With the giant bombard and the other guns pounding the castle walls, the King of Scots could impress a three-fold audience. Firstly, his nobles were able to see James fulfil what in their view was his most important role, as the leader of his warrior class. There too was Ayala, this time a safe distance from the action in the company of his fellow Spanish ambassadors on the Scottish side of the border, drinking wine and playing cards with the King, while the siege guns did their work. Lastly, Henry VII’s senior councillor and negotiator, Richard Fox, Bishop of Durham, could not have failed to take note of the giant stones thudding against the walls of Norham, trapped, as he was, inside the castle and aware of the Scottish troops now close to its walls.

James did not capture Norham. But that may not have been his intention. We know from his accounts that he anticipated a short campaign, in order to display military might rather than fully exercise it.

By the time the Earl of Surrey arrived from Yorkshire with Northern Army troops to relieve Norham, the siege party had departed. James arrived back in Edinburgh on 12 August after a two-day journey to discover that Surrey was on the march. Instead of stopping when he reached the River Tweed, the Earl had crossed it and was laying siege to the Humes’ castle of Ayton, a few miles north of Berwick. By the 16th, James was on the move again, accompanied by a small force. But neither side sought a long campaign. Surrey’s troops in the field far outnumbered James’s hastily re-gathered army and there were certainly too many for James to risk a set-piece battle. On the other hand, Surrey had problems of his own, with many of his soldiers falling sick in bad weather.

Physically, the Earl of Surrey was not a big man. His memorial brass showed him to be small and lean, with a long face, aquiline nose and long straight hair. Small he may have been, but he had a commanding presence: Polydore Vergil described him as ‘a man endowed with prudence, dignity, and firmness’. It was enough to hold a sickening army together. Even so, he knew he could not linger long in Scotland.

The result was a brief stand-off between the two forces, enlivened by a great deal of posturing between them. James stayed about fifteen miles away at Cattleshiel near Duns: far enough from Surrey to keep out of striking range while retaining the ability to threaten the Earl’s line of communications and Berwick. The two commanders were also sufficiently close for their messengers to travel between them with challenge and counter-challenge. James offered to fight Surrey in single combat, which the Earl – who was thirty years older than his twenty-four-year-old opponent – wisely declined on the grounds that, as a mere lieutenant of his own monarch, he could not fight the Scottish King.

Nothing happened because further action suited neither party. Besides which, warfare was not cheap and both sides had spent heavily in relation to their resources. James was withdrawing towards Edinburgh by the 20th, and Surrey, after destroying the castle at Ayton, moved back over the Border.

James was delighted with his work. His treasury might have emptied, but then he had also directly (himself) and indirectly (through the Western Rising) given Henry vast expense and a major threat to his throne. Ayton had fallen, but it had no strategic value. Unlike Norham, which had extraordinary symbolic significance, having been the venue where Edward I began his adjudication on the rights of contenders to the Scottish throne and received the homage of ‘King’ John Balliol.

It was no accident that James chose Norham to demonstrate his authority both to his own nobility and to admiring Spanish ambassadors. With James having already rejected peace terms from Henry’s leading councillor, Richard Fox, it was surely all the sweeter that the Bishop was inside Norham Castle as Mons Meg’s enormous gunstones bashed its walls.

James was very pleased with himself. It was with good reason that Ayala was to write of him the following year: ‘I can say with truth that he esteems himself as much as though he were Lord of the World.’

Now with his prestige enhanced in Britain and in Europe, it suited James to begin negotiating a lasting settlement with the English.

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