Poor skills with weapons lead to Scotland’s worst ever defeat in battle


SCOTS’ poor skills with medieval weapons lead to the country’s worst ever defeat in battle, experts have said.

History experts have recreated a key part of the 1513 Battle of Flodden to determine why Scotland suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the English.

They found the Scots were unable to use their new 18ft-long pikes effectively, as they charged down a hill in the rain.

Poor skills with weapons lead to the country’s worst ever defeat in battle

This meant the English with shorter polearms could cut them apart, and they recorded a triumphant victory on the Northumberland battlefield.

The battle ended with around 10,000 Scots dead, including King James IV and most of the country’s nobility.

Battlefield archaeology expert Dr Tony Pollard of Glasgow University recreated the conditions of the battle during a reenactment at the weekend.
Around 20 “pikemen”, chosen from hundreds of reenactors, were made to advance down a hill similar to the one the Scots army would have done in 1513.

He found the pikemen bunched up and broke their lines – meaning the weapons would be hopeless against the massed ranks of the English.

He said: “Bannockburn was Scotland’s greatest victory, and Flodden its most significant defeat.”

James IV, known as the ‘Renaissance King’ had equipped his army at the last minute with 18ft-long pikes normally found on continental Europe, which would have been unfamiliar to the Scottish troops.

Dr Pollard said the men would have had little practice with the new weapon: “These are complicated weapons and it’s a complicated drill – there can be little doubt that the Scots didn’t have enough to operate them effectively.

“Your traditional Scottish spear was eight feet long, these were 18ft long. I tried to handle one of them, they’re incredibly cumbersome.

“They would probably have preferred to use a regular spear.”

The advance down the hill meant the Scottish advance was ragged, as Dr Pollard’s experiment found.

Dr Pollard said: “They needed to be able to use [the pikes] en masse. The effectiveness is on open ground.

“Due to the English flanking them they had to attack down Branxton hill – it was raining and it looks like they came unstuck.

“We did it close to where they were doing the reenactments. We found a slope but it was short and dry.

“Nonetheless it was clear it had an impact on the cohesion of the men. They started to bunch up.”

The English waiting at the bottom of the hill during the battle were able to parry the pikes and “hack the Scots to pieces,” Dr Pollard said.

As well as the men being bogged down in the mud, the Scots’ cannonballs couldn’t fire downhill, so they were all but useless against the English army.

Weapon-making techniques abandoned 400 years ago were brought back in order to make the pikes for the recreation event at Etal, near Flodden in Northumberland.

Dr Pollard hopes to recreate the battle on a  larger scale in rainy conditions to more accurately determine what happened.

The 500-year anniversary of the battle will take place on 9 September.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Register of Tartans has recorded the Flodden tartan, commissioned by Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum project.