This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

September 2002


9 September 1513:   James IV of Scotland killed at the battle of Flodden.

A turquoise ring and an appeal to chivalry brought about the downfall of the glittering reign of James IV, and with him died the brief flowering of the Renaissance in Scotland.

James IV was perhaps the most personable of the Scottish Stewart kings, but he bore some odd quirks of character. Presiding over a stylish and brilliant court, James was inwardly a melancholy man who wore an iron chain around his torso as penance for the guilt he felt over the assassination of his father James III, an event that brought him to the throne at an early age. Although he was the only Scottish king to have a smiling portrait painted, fits of guilt and depression would continue to dog him throughout his life.

But another side of his character was suddenly revealed when, in May 1513, an envoy arrived in Edinburgh from the Queen of France. That Queen was none other than the former Duchess Anne of Brittany, who some years before had reluctantly accepted a marriage to the king of France in an effort to preserve some remnant of her country’s independence. Now France was at war with England, and Scotland was a traditional ally of France, but James up to this point had resisted French pressure to join in the war against England’s Henry VIII who, after all, was James’ brother-in-law.

But Anne knew there was another way to mobilize the Scottish king, and on that spring afternoon in Edinburgh her envoy made an appeal that Anne knew James could not resist. Presented with a turquoise ring from the lady’s own slender hand, James was told that Anne had named him as her personal champion in the grand tradition of romantic chivalry. The ring itself was carefully chosen to bear a message that James would not fail to recognize: in the medieval lore of gemstones, turquoise symbolized faithfulness. As Anne’s champion, James was implored merely to “take three steps” into England and “strike one blow” on her behalf.

The nobility of Scotland responded with enthusiasm to James’ call to arms, and on 22 August 1513 James led a well-equipped array of Scottish knighthood across the border into England. Busy with the war in France, Henry VIII did not take to the field to meet James himself, but instead appointed one of his canniest noblemen, the Earl of Surrey, to deal with the Scottish invasion. For all his honorable intentions, James’ generalship was uncertain at best, and by the morning of 9 September he found that Surrey had managed to position his substantial English army between James and Scotland. Surrey did not launch an attack upon the Scots, but kept his forces in their hilltop position, threatening to cut the Scots off from their homeland.

Fearing entrapment in enemy territory, James decided to abandon the strong defensive position he occupied and ordered an immediate headlong attack upon the English. Plowing straight into the midst of the English lines, the Scots were soon surrounded, and after a day of desperate hand-to-hand fighting, James and nearly all of his army were annihilated.

Although the English did not follow up their victory with an invasion of Scotland, the shock to Scotland was profound when news came that her popular king and the cream of Scottish knighthood were lying dead on a muddy Yorkshire hillside. The battle of Flodden would be recalled in years to come as the tragic end of a brief golden period in Scottish history, and to this day James and his fallen army are commemorated in the song “The Flowers of the Forest.” With its haunting tune and lyrics bespeaking of senseless loss, “The Flowers of the Forest” is played by lone bagpipers at military funerals in Scotland and Ireland, and in the United States can sometimes be heard at funerals of police officers and firefighters.

Ironically, James himself had no funeral. His body was never positively identified among the slain of Flodden Field, leading to a lot of speculation then and now as to what really happened to him. Most likely, the searchers were thrown off by looking for James’ iron chain, not realizing that James would have had to leave off the chain before donning his close-fitting plate armor.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2003 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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