When we think of Katherine of Aragon, we tend to think of her as Henry VIII’s aggrieved first wife—worn out by miscarriages, humiliated by false pregnancies, and abandoned for a newer model because she was unable to satisfy Henry’s obsession for a male heir. The battles we associate with her name are legal battles.
But in fact, in an earlier, happier time, Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England (and Queen Isabella of Castile’s youngest daughter), successfully defended her adopted country against invasion by Scotland. The only reason she didn’t lead an army onto the field was bad timing.
In June 1513, Henry VIII prepared to go to war against Louis XII of France alongside the pope and the Emperor Maximilian. In anticipation of his absence while on the continent, Henry named Katherine Regent and Governess of England, Wales, and Ireland. Her powers as regent included the authority “to fight and wage war against any of our enemies in our absence.” She had the authority to assemble an army and “arm and equip them for war and to station, prepare and lead them” (emphasis mine).
Katherine’s regency was not a polite fiction. Government documents carried the official imprimatur “teste Katerina Anglie Regina” (witnessed by Katherine, Queen of England). Signing herself “Katherine the Qween”
, she ruled on appeals to pardon felons and signed warrants for payment of government expenses. She appointed minor officials. She settled questions related to the estate of the Countess of Somerset and a long-running dispute over ecclesiastical jurisdiction between the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Winchester. And when Henry’s brother-in-law, James IV of Scotland, mustered troops across the border in Scotland, Katherine enthusiastically organized England’s defense.
Writing to Thomas Wolsey, who was responsible for many details of the expedition to France, Katherine described herself as “horribly busy making standards, banners and badges”—a description that hid the full range of her preparations for war behind a ladylike camouflage of needlework. Her mother had organized the Spanish war against Granada. Now Katherine proved herself to be her mother’s daughter. She summoned able-bodied men to fight in England’s defense. When the mayor and sheriffs of Gloucester ignored her letters asking how many men and horses they could supply, she followed up with a sharply worded order to answer within fifteen days. (They did.) She sent a fleet of eight ships with troops, heavy artillery, and gunners toward the Scottish border to reinforce the army, which was under the command of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. She levied stores of grain, beer, and rope; suits of light armor; and the then enormous sum of ten thousand pounds, to be held by the abbot of St. Mary, near York, in case of need.
On August 22, James invaded England with thirty thousand men, backed by modern French artillery and financed by the French crown. He captured four English castles in quick succession and then settled into a fortified camp at Flodden Field.
Howard had been in the north since early August. Now he mustered his forces at Newcastle.
Concerned that James might defeat Howard, Katherine raised a second army from the Midland counties, then a third, which she intended to lead herself—as a strategist if not as a field commander.
On September 9, she moved out with what contemporaries described as “a great power” or a “numerous force.” She carried with her two helmets, at least one of them decorated with “crown gold” by the royal goldsmith. She never had a chance to wear them.
That same day, the Earl of Surrey defeated James IV at Flodden Field. King James was killed in the battle.
The battle which ensued actually took place on the slopes of Branxton Hill and contemporaries often referred to it by that name. Over the centuries, it became known by the name of James IV’s first encampment at Flodden. Today it is peaceful farmland, in a remote and beautiful corner of England, about four miles from the town of Coldstream and an hour and a half’s drive from Edinburgh. It has been claimed that the battlefield is one of the best preserved of its period in Europe. The position of the various English and Scottish divisions, or ‘battles’, as each individual unit was then known, are clearly shown on markers that explain the course of the fighting. On a clear day it seems a tranquil spot, with little trace of the terrible events that took place there five hundred years ago.
But on the afternoon of 9 September 1513 the weather was atrocious, as it had been for weeks, and the hillside was blanketed in low, swirling cloud and smoke from the fires set when the Scots had abandoned their first camp, all blown about by a blustery wind as the rain continued to fall. Atop Branxton Ridge was the entire Scottish army, having swiftly moved the mile and a half from Flodden Hill to meet Surrey’s threat. Though the ground was not of James IV’s original choosing, his larger numbers and commanding position should have given him the advantage. His guns had been hurriedly dragged over the wet ground and now stood ready to fire at his command. The Scots were compelled to react quickly to Surrey’s bold seizing of the initiative but they did not lack confidence as they peered downhill at the smaller English force.
At the Scottish army’s centre, commanding the largest division, was the king himself. There would be no place in the rearguard for James Stewart. The counsel of some of his commanders that, for the sake of his kingdom, he should stay back until the course of the fighting became clear, was angrily dismissed. James believed that he must be visible to his soldiers and he may have had some concerns about the reliability of the Highland and Border troops. There had been a significant number of desertions after the fall of Norham Castle. His presence would unite and, he hoped, inspire the entire Scottish force. More fundamentally, his character and the principles by which he had always lived, the very fabric of his belief in kingship, would not allow him to skulk in the rear. He believed that his honour would be forever diminished if he did not enter the combat with his troops. Surrey had read him well.
James and his commanders drew up their troops in a diamond formation, ‘four up and one in reserve, with each of the forward units just a bowshot distance from its neighbour’. On the left were ten thousand men commanded by Lord Hume and the earl of Huntly, a combined force of Highlanders and Borderers, with the latter more numerous. In the left centre three earls, Errol, Crawford and Montrose, commanded seven thousand men from central Scotland and the Lowlands. The main ‘battle’, fifteen thousand strong, was to their right and led by James IV himself, with the royal household troops at their core, fighting under the banners of St Andrew and St Margaret. To the king’s right were five thousand men commanded by Argyll and Lennox, Highlanders and their chieftains, and a small group of Frenchmen. In reserve, and originally on the extreme right but eventually moved behind the king, were five thousand men from the Lowlands and Borders led by the earl of Bothwell. It was as impressive an array of unity behind their sovereign as Scotland would ever see.
The battle began in the mid-afternoon with a great volley of fire from James IV’s artillery aimed at the English army below. The Scottish king hoped to inflict severe casualties in the heart of the opposing force and, essentially, to pound it into a state of such weakness that it would be overwhelmed by his superior numbers in any subsequent hand-to-hand fighting. The admiral, Surrey’s son, who had arrived at the foot of Branxton Ridge before his father and the rest of the English forces, took his men back down to the other side of the small intervening ridge and desperately called for his father’s aid. The sound of the guns and the glimpses of the Scottish army, tightly drawn up in pike formations, convinced him that he would be wiped out if the rest of the English did not arrive swiftly.
Yet King James’s beloved cannons faced difficulty from the outset. They had been hurriedly positioned on soft ground and were firing downhill, making it difficult to gauge the range that they needed to inflict real damage on the English. Most of the shot flew over the heads of Howard’s men. And the Scottish gunners, under their master gunner, Robert Borthwick, were inexperienced. It has been suggested that James did not order the use of sighting rounds at this point because he did not want to reveal his position but the guns were, in any case, unstable and their position could not be quickly changed. When Surrey and his younger son, Lord Edmund Howard, arrived with Dacre’s men to back up the admiral, it became clear that they would have to combine their formations in a manner that could match the Scots. This they achieved impressively. The admiral retained the largest group of English soldiers in the vanguard, a total of about fourteen thousand men, his brother to his right and Sir Marmaduke Constable to his left. The rearguard, probably somewhat under twelve thousand men, was commanded by Surrey himself, with Lord Dacre’s cavalry behind him, ready to move as needed. Yet to appear was the Lancashire magnate, Sir Edward Stanley, whose detachment was still struggling to reach Branxton.
The English had smaller guns but their lighter ordnance was far more easily moved and their gunners were quick and accurate. They also had the advantage of firing uphill. Soon they began to inflict considerable casualties on the Scottish gunners and some of the men in the centre, under James IV’s direct command. Surrey, meanwhile, had moved the English army forward. They stopped in a marshy area at the foot of the main climb up to Branxton Ridge, where a small stream ran. The line where they halted can be plainly seen today and the ground is still damp, even in dry weather. In 1513, it became the site of a terrible slaughter.
James IV now decided that he must commit the Scottish host to the fight. The English guns were making a mockery of his state-of-the-art technology and his losses were mounting. He would defeat the English with his pike formations and their French captains and he himself would take the field. Although it may seem obvious with hindsight that he could merely have refused to give battle, or at least ensured that he personally had a safe route back into Scotland if things went awry, the character of James Stewart meant that such considerations would never have entered his head. It would be a memorable contest, the greatest test of his generalship and a timely demonstration to the rest of the world that he had mastered the latest arts of warfare. Above all, it was to be a vindication of his very personal style of kingship, an inspiring example to be recounted and admired through the long winter nights. He was forty years old and the grey was beginning to show in his reddish hair. This was his supreme moment. And so, at about five o’clock, he gave the order to advance.
On that gloomy and cold autumn afternoon, the English army at the foot of Branxton Ridge saw a fearsome sight. The Scots were moving down the hill towards them, in complete silence, as they had been trained by their king’s French advisers. There were no battle cries, no Gaelic screams or imprecations. Clutching their fifteen-foot-long pikes, the Scots, many of whom were barefooted in order to get a better grip on the slippery slopes, moved remorselessly towards their foe. None would have anticipated what transpired over the next couple of hours.
First of the Scottish divisions to move was the vanguard commanded by Hume and Huntly. Engaging Edmund Howard’s forces, the weakest in the English formation, it met with immediate success as many of the younger Howard’s men took flight and his standard bearer was cut down by the Highlanders. Eventually, he was rescued by the bastard John Heron but by that time his part in the fighting was effectively over. Determined to press home his advantage, James IV now committed his second division to commence their descent; he intended to follow them closely. He did not know that Hume, who had been harried by Dacre’s Border cavalry, was about to retire to the top of Branxton Ridge and would take no further part in the fighting. Whether or not an agreement had been reached among the Borderers on both sides to hold back from further combat, the truth is that when the king needed Hume’s help, it was not forthcoming. Without it, the king and his troops faced a much more difficult task. Nor was it yet apparent that the second division, trapped by a small stream at the foot of the main hill and the slight rise behind it, were about to be cut to pieces by Englishmen wielding a weapon far deadlier than a pike in hand-to-hand fighting: the shorter agricultural hedging implement known as the brown bill, or halberd. For it was on these two factors – the uneven, boggy ground and the deadly use of a weapon that the Scottish had underestimated – that the outcome of the battle of Flodden was to hinge.
Even at this point, there were those among the king’s advisers who implored him not to risk himself. They pointed out that if he entered the fray he would not be able to command effectively but this very salient point was not what James IV wanted to hear. For him, there was now no going back. Yet even as he moved off it must have been apparent that things were not going according to plan for Errol, Crawford and Montrose, though the full extent of the disaster being wrought on the second Scottish division was not yet apparent. Hemmed in and unable to use their pikes, the men fought heroically but all three earls and hundreds of their followers were cut down by the English.
James’s huge ‘battle’ advanced down the slopes of Branxton Ridge, crossed the stream and mounted the small hill beyond. It was a stirring and colourful spectacle, even on a day without a hint of sunlight. The king himself, under his red and gold royal banner, was clad in full armour, over which he wore a gold and scarlet surcoat decorated with the royal arms of Scotland. His household knights and nobles who fought with him that day were richly dressed and armoured, too, partly for show but also to protect them from English arrows. But at Flodden this much feared weapon, the staple of English armies for centuries, inflicted far less damage than the continued volleys of shot and the viciously wielded bill. Soon there were many dead in the king’s division but it continued forward without breaking, intent on making a conclusive breakthrough of Surrey’s lines. But the English fell back at key moments of the Scottish advance, regrouping and luring their opponents ever onwards into tighter and tighter combat, cutting them down remorselessly. This brutal fighting continued for upwards of two hours, as the Scots tried unsuccessfully to counter with their swords and James, caught in the thick of the encounter, could neither summon his reserve under Bothwell nor compel the Highlanders, watching from the top of the ridge, to come to his aid.
In the end, Bothwell moved first, probably without orders, since James was not in a position to issue any. His intervention made matters worse, since he attacked Surrey’s rear with five thousand men and inadvertently put pressure on the Scots engaged in close-quarters combat ahead of him. The Highlanders, perhaps riven by internal disputes about the best course of action and dissuaded at first by one of James IV’s French commanders from charging down the hill to his aid, eventually realized that they must commit in order to save the day for Scotland. But they were prevented from doing this by the belated arrival of Sir Edward Stanley and his troops. Mounting the hill, Stanley’s men loosed their arrows in great numbers at the Highlanders, shooting most of them in the back. Lacking the protective clothing of the royal division, the Highlanders were mowed down before they could come to James’s assistance.
Without hope of rescue, James and his men fought on with great bravery. Eventually, their bulky armour and ineffective weapons told against them. As his losses mounted, the king probably realized that he could not win. But he would not surrender. He would not allow himself to be taken prisoner, to sit in London at the king of England’s pleasure, or even to try to flee. How could he return to Scotland after such a defeat? In one last desperate effort, he gathered his household troops and made for Surrey’s banners, apparently hoping that if he could kill the earl, the English might yet concede. But the carnage intensified and, as his own banner-bearer was killed beside him, he knew what he must do. Thrusting himself forward into the midst of his enemies, he made his final charge. In the press of men and weapons he must have realized that he had only moments to live. His armour could not save him now. Pierced below the jaw by an arrow, his throat gashed by the unforgiving English bill, he fell dying, choking on his own gore. He had got to within a spear’s length of Surrey. And as the blood of the last king of medieval Scotland seeped into the muddy earth of Northumberland, his magnificent guns stood deserted on the hill above, the mute witnesses of his destruction.
Katherine was in Buckingham, forty miles north of London, when she received the news, along with a portion of the Scottish king’s surcoat, decorated with Scotland’s royal arms. She sent the surcoat to Henry in France.
Traditional military histories of the battle take little notice of Katherine’s role as regent and quartermaster and do not refer to her intention to lead her troops into the field. At most, they mention that she sent James IV’s bloodied surcoat on to Henry in France as what one author condescendingly dubs “a handy souvenir.”
Her contemporaries were more generous. They acknowledged that she had played a key role in the war and pointed out that Katherine’s defense of the home front was more important than anything Henry accomplished in his military adventures in France. Isabella must have been proud.