Historical dramas, especially melodramas, are long on drama and soft on historical accuracy. That’s not an observation unique to me, but I was reminded of that truism when watching the second episode of season two of “The Spanish Princess” on Starz.
Entitled “Flodden,” the episode portrays events encompassing a decisive September 9, 1513, battle pitting Scottish lords rebelling against their fealty to King Henry VIII of England. As factually depicted in the series, Henry was off fighting the French in France when King James IV of Scotland chose to cross the border river Tweed into Northumberland as part of an alliance with France.
James had amassed a formidable army. Henry had left his queen, Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish Princess he married in 1509, seven years after she was widowed by the untimely death of Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur, the heir apparent to the English throne, as regent and commander of the army.
The armies met on Flodden Field, near the village of Branxton, just down the road from Crookham where Gilda and I stayed a year ago with our friends, Dave and Gemma Banks.
For dramatic effect, “The Spanish Princess” showed Catherine, in full custom-made armor to accommodate her bulging pregnancy, galloping into battle. Historians believe she never made it to Flodden Field from London, though she has been credited with giving rousing speeches in her battle gear along the way encouraging her subjects to take up arms in defense of England.
The English, according to the cable TV series, were severely outnumbered, with many fighters conscripted from local peasants and farmers armed with pitchforks and other common household implements. In truth, England’s army numbered some 25,000 soldiers. The English vanquished the Scots, killing James and many of his nobility. By some accounts, 17,000 of James’ 30,000 army were killed. Only about 1,500 Englishmen died.
Aside from their mobility being hampered by a muddy, boggy field, the Scots’ weapon of choice—a long lance known as a pike—was ineffective against the shorter, curved-at-the-head weapon—a bill—used by the English. A bill resembles a longer version of a field hockey stick. (Not being a Medieval military expert, I have no idea why a bill would be more effective than a pike.) Though not shown in “The Spanish Princess” battle scene, the English also benefited from lighter, more maneuverable, more accurate cannons. The English also used longbows, said to be “the last effective use of the longbow in English military history.”
Gilda and I walked Flodden Field with Gemma on a blustery September afternoon a year ago, the wind so biting that we could stand the chill for less than an hour. Our jaunt was a prelude to my attending the annual Flodden 1513 Club dinner commemorating the Scots who perished at the battle more than 500 years go. I was Dave’s guest at the almost exclusively male affair held September 14, 2019, in the Scottish Borders town of Coldstream. Turns out, because of COVID-19 restrictions, it was the last commemoration dinner to be held until the pandemic abates.
One or two of those hundred or so in attendance were women. A similar number of men wore kilts. Bagpipes were played. As befits a gathering of Scots and their border town English mates, plenty of spirits flowed. To my surprise, blended whisky was preferred to single malt scotch, the locals saying single malt was for snobby foreigners.
As much as Americans share a common language with the English, it’s a challenge to comprehend everything a Brit speaks. Anyone who has watched English television broadcasts can attest to that reality. It’s all the more cogent when confronted by Scottish dialect. In other words, I had difficulty deciphering most of the speeches, toasts, songs and other entertainment during the commemoration dinner.
Just like Gettysburg’s impact on our Civil War, the Battle of Flodden was pivotal in the annals of England and Scotland. English sovereignty over Scotland, though challenged from time to time, never again was in doubt.
Interestingly, almost a century later, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, her successor was King James VI of Scotland who became King James I of Great Britain encompassing England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.