FLODDEN: A Tale of Two Queens (Guest Post)

Guest article by Leanda de Lisle

The battle of Flodden, which took place in Northumberland over five hundred years ago, is not only a story of fighting men. It is also a tale of two Queens. Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots, who lost her husband in the battle on 9 September 1513 and Katherine of Aragon, Queen, Captain General of the English army that killed him.  It is a story of a devastating defeat, but also of ultimate triumph.

For Margaret Tudor it began in August 1513, when she bid her husband James IV of Scots, farewell at Linlithgow palace, West Lothian. Legend has it that she begged her husband not to leave her, and was angry that he intended to make war on her brother, Henry VIII.  In reality, her chief concern was for her husband’s life. Born an English princess, she was, as she often asserted, ‘a Scotswoman now’.

The relationship between the royal brothers in law had broken down after Henry VIII had claimed he was the rightful overlord of Scotland. A furious King James was determined to punish him, and when Henry had led his army into France in June 1513, looking for glory in a continental war, James had decided to plan his own invasion – of England.  Having parted from Margaret Tudor, James crossed the border into Northumberland on 24 August at the head of the greatest army ever gathered in Scotland.

Fortress after fortress fell to the Scottish king. But Henry VIII was certain his wife, Katherine of Aragon, would be a match for James. She was the daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile, who had thrown the Moors out of Spain. He had made her Captain General of his armies in England his absence, and Katherine, busy organizing artillery and gunners, wrote to re-assure him that she was ready for a fight and, ‘My heart is very good to it’.

Not that Katherine underestimated James. The French had trained large numbers of his men in the use of the Swiss pike: fearsome weapons, eighteen to twenty-two feet long, that could stop a cavalry charge in its tracks. When her battlefield commander, the Earl of Surrey, reached James’s army at Flodden, Katherine was already preparing a defensive line further south, in case Surrey lost to the Scottish king.

The battle of Flodden began after days of appalling weather, with the Scots pikemen advancing down Branxton hill. The wind and rain battered them and the soft ground broke up their formation, but they remained in good order, walking in eerie silence. The English described them as ‘Germanic’.

At Linlithgow palace Margaret Tudor could only await news from the battlefield. A room in the northwest Tower, with sweeping views across open countryside, is that, at which, in romantic tradition, Margaret scanned the horizon for the expected messengers.  Rumours of many dead reached Edinburgh on 10 September and it was not long before Margaret learned the full, and terrible, story.

The English had counter attacked the pikemen on foot, using the bill, a simple hook on the end of a pole. This allowed them to strike the Scots at close quarters. But, one Englishman complained, the Scots were ‘such large and strong men, they would not fall when four or five bills struck them’.  A desperate struggle had been fought ‘with great slaughter, sweating and travail’ on both sides before the battle had ended in defeat for the Scots. Ten thousand of them lay slain: ‘The prime o’ our land.. cauld in the clay..’ is how they are remembered in the pipers lament ‘The Flowers of the Forest’,  played today at the funerals of fallen servicemen.

The dead included earls, lords and even bishops. But the most significant was Margaret’s husband. His body had fallen near the royal Scottish banner of the red lion rampant. King James’s left hand was almost severed, his throat gashed, and an arrow was shot through his lower jaw. The English commander, Surrey, was rewarded for the English victory over James with the restoration of the family title, Duke of Norfolk and chose a new augmentation to his heraldic arms. Still used by the family, it recalls the spectacle of James’s corpse: a red lion rampant, with an arrow though its head.

That night the English soldiers, who had lost 4000 of their countrymen, toasted their victory with Scottish beer – which they commented was surprisingly good. Katherine of Aragon, meanwhile, wrote to her sister in law to assure her, ‘The Queen of England for the love she bears the Queen of Scots would gladly send a servant to comfort her’ in her grief.  But to Henry, Katherine expressed a rather different emotion – pride that she had helped to kill a king.

Katherine had wanted to send James’s head to France, ‘but’ she complained, ‘our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it’. Instead she sent Henry the chequered surcoat taken from James’s body, which she suggested he use as his banner. Looking at it, ‘rent and torn with blood’ Henry said James had, ‘paid a heavier penalty for his perfidy than we would have wished’. And years later, when Henry planned to divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn, he still recalled with trepidation her ability to ‘carry on a war’ as ‘fiercely as her mother had done in Spain’.

James’s body was brought to London from Flodden and paraded through the streets slung over a horse.  Katherine received it at the Carthusian Monastery at Sheen, and later, at Henry’s request, the Pope gave permission for it to be buried at St Paul’s. But, for whatever reason, Henry never buried James, and in the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, the body was still at Sheen, where it was found cast, ‘ into an old waste room, amongst old timber, stone, lead, and other rubble’.

Later some Elizabethan workmen cut off James’s head ‘for their foolish pleasure’. It still had his red beard when a Londoner rescued it, keeping it in his house, saying it smelled nice. Eventually he had it buried at St Michael’s Church, Wood Street, in the City of London. The Church burned down in the Great Fire of 1666 and today a pub marks the burial spot of the last king to die in battle on British soil.

Margaret Tudor’s life after her husband’s death was not to be an easy one. Under the terms of James’s will his ‘most dearest spouse’, became regent of Scotland for their infant son, making her the first Tudor woman to rule a kingdom. But it was a position from which she was soon ousted. The Scots never really forgave her for being English born. It was through Margaret, however, that the Scottish crown would eventually triumph over that of England, for in dynastic matters having children was still more important than winning battles.

It was Margaret, and not Katherine of Aragon, whose heirs would carry forward the royal bloodlines of England, as well as Scotland. In 1603, on the death of Elizabeth I, Margaret’s great-grandson united the crowns of England and Scotland as James VI & I. The ghosts of the Flodden were laid to rest at last, with peace between the once warring kingdoms, a victory for all.

About the Author:

I was born in Westminster, London and read History at Somerville College, Oxford University, before taking up national newspaper and magazine columns, and later publishing best selling Tudor and Stuart history.

After Elizabeth: The Death of Elizabeth & the Coming of King James, was runner up for the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year award. My next book, the New York Time best selling biography, The Sisters Who Would be Queen; The tragedy of Mary, Katherine & Lady Jane Grey, provided the non-fiction basis for Phillippa Gregory’s 2017 novel The Last Tudor, and was described by Professor John Guy as ‘gripping’ and ‘an unrivalled account’.

Tudor; The Family Story (1437-1603), was a Sunday Times top ten best-seller and reader reviews average over four stars on both Amazon and Goodreads. My latest book, White King, is a biography of Charles I and his loss of three kingdoms. Based on my new manuscript discoveries, with many never before seen royal letters, it describes the descent of his kingdoms into failed states, and the true role of his remarkable and maligned queen.

I regularly write and speak on matters historical for TV, radio, and a number of publications including the Times, the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, the Daily Express, BBC History magazine, History Today, the Literary Review, the New Criterion and the Spectator.

I have a free podcast on itunes and soundcloud called 10 Minute Tudors, and a website leandadelisle.com.

Books by the Author:

Tudors Dynasty Podcast – Episode Two: The King and His Early Victories


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Katherine of Aragon: In All Her Glory

Early on in her marriage with the King of England Katherine of Aragon found herself very loyal to Spain and her father, Ferdinand of Aragon. Author, Alison Weir states in her book The Six Wives of Henry VIII, that Katherine greatly influenced her husband on the interests of Spain – sometimes more than the interests of England.

It was obvious that Katherine was still very loyal to her father and her home country. At this point in their marriage Katherine was Henry’s “go-to” on advice of any nature and she would not approve anything without her father’s sanction. My how things changed in twenty years.

Untitled design (1)
Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon & Ferdinand of Aragon

In 1511, with the assistance from his queen, Henry VIII had grown very fond of Ferdinand of Aragon and it appeared he would do anything to appease his wife and father-in-law. Along with her father, Katherine began to turn her husband’s mind against France – the enemy of Spain. This feat was not necessarily a difficult one because Henry hated the French anyway. Henry VIII had become war-hungry and was contemplating war with France before the pressure was put on him from Katherine to do so. He believed that England had a claim on France through his predecessor’s�victories. Henry V had won France in the Battle of Agincourt and unfortunately over the years France gained its independence back. The King�felt that France should be his and was anxious to defeat the French in battle and go down in history as a victorious king.

Katherine of Aragon by Michel Sittow
Katherine of Aragon by Michel Sittow

In November of 1511, the plotting of Katherine and her father came to fruition when Henry agreed to sign the Treaty of Westminster – Henry and Ferdinand pledged to help each other against their mutual enemy, France.

In 1512, Henry VIII sent an army into France; They failed miserably.

Katherine convinced her husband to mount another attack upon France in 1513. The King led this attack himself instead of putting his trust into one of his men. Ferdinand of Aragon�was also mounting�an offense against France at the same time. The Venetian Ambassador is quoted as saying, “the King is bent on war, the Council is averse to it; the Queen will have it, and the wisest Councillors in England cannot stand against the Queen.” That statement says a lot about the power of persuasion Katherine had over her husband.

This article will chronicle the Battle of Flodden and Katherine’s involvement as regent of England. Please bear in mind that Katherine of Aragon was pregnant with her third child at this time, something which is not often spoken about. The pregnant regent who went to war with Scotland.

June 1513

King Henry along with the pregnant Queen Katherine by his side, road from London to Dover at the head of 11,000 men. At Dover castle Henry officially named Katherine regent upon his departure. He had commanded the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham and the elderly (70-year-old) Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey as her advisers.

Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham & Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey

The King had requested that the Earl of Surrey escort Katherine back to London. Katherine was very distraught for Henry’s safety when she bid him farewell at Dover, but Surrey was able to comfort her on their way back to London and calm her nerves.

July 1513

By late July in 1513,�Katherine, the regent, was informed at Richmond Palace that the Scots were planning an attack on England and were beginning to mobilize their troops. Scotland, and King James IV were allies with France. They were aware that the King was in France at the time and probably assumed that they could easily defeat an English army while the King was absent from his throne.

August 1513

James lV of Scotland
James IV of Scotland

On the 22 August 1513, the Scottish king (James IV) had an army of 80,000 men strong that crossed the border into England. They advanced into Northumberland. At the same time the Scots entered England, Surrey was heading north with his troops to meet them.

Queen Katherine received news of Henry’s victory at Th�rouanne on the 25th of August. She immediately wrote a letter of congratulations to Wolsey:

Master Almoner; what comfort I have with the good tidings of your letter I need not write it to you; for the very account that I have sheweth it the victory hath been so great, that I think none such hath been seen before: all England hath cause to thank God of it, and I especially, seeing that the King beginneth so well, which is to me a great hope that the end shall be like. I pray God send the same shortly, for if this continue so still, I trust in Him that every thing shall follow thereafter to the King’s pleasure and my comfort. Mr. Almoner, for the pains ye take remembering to write to me so often, I thank you for it with all my heart, praying you to continue still sending me word how the King doeth, and if he keep still his good rule as he began, I think, with the company of the Emperor, and with his good council his grace shall not adventure himself so much as I was afraid of before. I was very glad to hear the meeting of them both, which hath been, to my facying, the greatest honour to the King that ever came to prince. The Emperor hath done every thing like himself. I trust to God he shall be thereby known for one of the gallantest princes in the world, and taken for another man that he was before thought. Mr. Almoner, I think myself that I am so bound to him for my part, that in my letters I beseech the King to recommend me unto him; and if his grace thinketh that this shall be well done, I pray you to remember it. News from hence I have none, but such as I am sure the council have advertised the King of*, and therby ye see Almighty God helpeth here our part, as well as there. I trowe the cause is as…..here say, that the King disposeth himself to him so well, that I hope all…shall be the better for his honour, and with this I make an end at ….the xxv day of August.

G. Katherina

September 1513

James lV of Scotland
James lV of Scotland

While Henry was away dominating the French Katherine had to defend England when James IV of Scotland took the opportunity to invade England on behalf of his ally, France, while the King was away.

When James IV crossed the border into England, the queen rallied 40,000 soldiers and emulated her mother Isabel I of Castile. Katherine urged the troops to defend their country and “remember that the Lord smiled upon those whose stood in defense of their own! Remember that the English courage excels that of all other nations upon Earth!”

In early September Katherine traveled north to Buckingham where she awaited news from Surrey – while waiting she made a speech to the reserve troops who were camped outside the town. She urged them to victory for England’s just cause against the Scots. However, the reserve troops would not need to fight because word would soon arrive of Surrey’s victory at Flodden on 9 September 1513. It turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles ever seen in British history. Ten thousand Scots lay dead on the moor and among them was their king, James IV. Surrey sent the Queen the Scottish king’s banner and the bloody coat he had died in as their trophies. Katherine in turn sent them to Henry as proof of their victory. Along with the trophies she sent this letter to Henry:


My Lord Howard hath sent me a letter open to your Grace, within one of mine, by the which you shall see at length the great Victory that our Lord hath sent your subjects in your absence; and for this cause there is no need herein to trouble your Grace with long writing, but, to my thinking, this battle hath been to your Grace and all your realm the greatest honor that could be, and more than you should win all the crown of France; thanked be God of it, and I am sure your Grace forgetteth not to do this, which shall be cause to send you many more such great victories, as I trust he shall do. My husband, for hastiness, with Rougecross I could not send your Grace the piece of the King of Scots coat which John Glynn now brings. In this your Grace shall see how I keep my promise, sending you for your banners a king�s coat. I thought to send himself unto you, but our Englishmens� hearts would not suffer it. It should have been better for him to have been in peace than have this reward. All that God sends is for the best.

My Lord of Surrey, my Henry, would fain know your pleasure in the burying of the King of Scots� body, for he has written to me so. With the next messenger your Grace�s pleasure may be herein known. And with this I make an end, praying God to send you home shortly, for without this no joy here can be accomplished; and for the same I pray, and now go to Our Lady of Walsingham that I promised so long ago to see. At Woburn the 16th of September.

I send your Grace herein a bill found in a Scotsman�s purse of such things as the French King sent to the said King of Scots to make war against you, beseeching you to send Mathew hither as soon as this messenger comes to bring me tidings from your Grace.
Your humble wife and true servant, Katharine. -� Hanson, Marilee. “Letter from Katharine of Aragon to her husband, King Henry VIII 16 September 1513″��

Battle of Flodden courtesy of http://www.douglashistory.co.uk/history/Battles/flodden.htm
Battle of Flodden courtesy of http://www.douglashistory.co.uk/history/Battles/flodden.htm

Here is a contemporary account of the events at the Battle of Flodden:

When the two armies were within three miles of each other Surrey challenged the King of Scots to�battle, by Rugecross; who answered he would wait for him till Friday at noon. At eleven on 9 Sept. Howard passed the bridge of Twyssell with the vanguard and artillery, Surrey following with the rear. The army was divided into two battles, each with two wings. The Scotch army was divided into fivebattles, each a bowshot distant from the other, and all equally distant from the English, “in grete plumpes, part of them quadrant,” and some pikewise, and were on the top of the hill, being “a quarter of a mile from the foot thereof.” Howard caused the van to stale in a little valley till the rear joined one of the wings of his battle; then both advanced in line against the Scots, who came down the hill, and met them “in good order, after the Almayns manner, without speaking a word.” Earls of Huntley, Eroll, and Crawford met Howard with 6,000 men, but were soon put to flight, and most of them slain. The King of Scots with a great power attacked Surrey, who had Lord Darcy’s son on his left. These two bore the brunt of the battle. James was slain within a spear’s length of Surrey; many noblemen with him; no prisoners taken. At the same time, Lennox and Argyle joined battle with Sir Edward Stanley, and were put to flight. Edmund Howard was on the right-wing of Lord Howard with 1,000 Cheshire and 500 Lancashire men, and many gentlemen of Yorkshire, who were defeated by the Lord Chamberlain of Scotland (Alex. lord Hume). Mr. Gray and Sir Humphrey Lyle are taken prisoners, Sir Wynchard Harbottle and Maurice Barkley slain; Edm. Howard was thrice “feled,” when Dacre came to his relief and routed the Scots, after having eight score of his men slain. The battle began between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, and the chase was continued three miles with great slaughter; 10,000 more would have been slain if the English had been horsed.

The Scots were 80,000, of whom 10,000 were killed; the English lost only 400. [“The Borders not only stale away as they lost 4 or 5,000 horses, but also they took away the oxen that drew the ordnance, and came to the pavilions and took away all the stuff therein, and killed many that kept the same.” (fn. 7) ] The English and Scotch ordinance has been conveyed, by the help of Dacre, to Etall Castle. The King of Scots’ body is brought to Berwick. No great man of Scotland has returned, except the Chamberlain.�

October 1513

katherine of aragon 3Her involvement in the Battle Flodden had exhausted her so much that she worried she might miscarry the child. While she never made it to the battlefield she is said to have traveled as far as Buckingham. Nonetheless, the preparation and everyday rigor of planning the war had taken the toll on her body and unborn child. On the 8th of �October, prior to Henry’s return to�England, Katherine delivered a premature son. He died shortly after birth. It’s sad to see such a victory in battle became a defeat in producing an heir for the king. I often wonder how Henry reacted.

I cannot tell you the number of times a queen consort of England was named regent while the king was away and in turn was in charge of the safety of the country and succeeded. The number cannot be high. It seems that Katherine’s upbringing as a Spanish Infanta and daughter of two powerful Catholic monarchs helped her to victory at the Battle of Flodden. I have no doubt that had another queen been named regent during the time that England would have lost many more men and possibly its throne to Scotland.

References & Sources:

��http://englishhistory.net/tudor/letter-katharine-aragon-husband-king-henry-viii-16-september-1513/, February 27, 2015


Weir, Alison; The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Weir, Alison; The Children of Henry VIII
The Anne Boleyn Files: Victory for Regent Catherine of Aragon