Battlefield Of Flodden
( Originally Published 1920 )
" So that the Night Watch of Ryddysdaill shall join the Night Watch of Tyndaill at the Stoneyford."
O watcher at the ford, your streams run low,
The moon is young ; I saw the crescent stoop
O watcher, heard you at the strait no sound
I heard the water wash among the weeds,
The night was still, I rode beside the stream -
There screamed some vermin tangled in a snare,
O watcher, where you marked the driftwood ride
Above this ford you know the haughs are green,
FLODDEN FIELD was the greatest battle fought in Northumberland. But it is one of the " old unhappy far-off things " over the details of which there is endless discussion. There was no Froissart in 1513 to describe the battle and the deeds of heroes, and desperate men fighting for life know only what happens to themselves. Still the main facts are well established, and to piece together a coherent picture of the battle adds to the fascination of a fine Border landscape. Glendale is an angler's Paradise, and the disciple of Father Izaak, if he puts a few books about Flodden into his bag, will even if alone enjoy his Pastime with Good Company. First place should be given to Marmion, the best battle piece out of Homer. Sir Walter with sure instinct seized upon the salient facts, and his account is as true as an imaginative picture need be. A curious effect of his poem was to cast a new glamour over the name Sybil, and that by means of an inexactitude. A very lovely inexactitude ! When Clare, a ministering angel to the dying Marmion, in answer to his agonised cry for water, took his casque and
stoop'd her by the runnel's side,
her eyes caught sight of a little fountain cell, " where water, clear as diamond-spark, in a stone basin fell." As long as I can remember it was a delight to croon over the legend printed in old English letters in the editions of Marmion.
For long this well was identified with a little spring on Flodden Hill, and Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, about the time when she planted the strip of conifers stretching from the hill down to the Wooler road, erected a little fountain for visitors, who could drive in a straight line from Ford Castle to Flodden. At the well they might drink cold water and meditate the scene. But she was a very Protestant lady who did not believe in prayers for the dead. and therefore substituted an invitation to rest for the second line
Drink, weary pilgrim ; drink and stay
The well, now called Marmion's Well, that Scott evidently had in his mind, is close to Branxton, the real battlefield.
In Sir Walter Scott's time the county was bare, as may be judged from his phrase, Flodden" bent," meaning it was covered with bents or rough grass, as in the ballad phrase " the bent and the heather." As late as 1839 the Rev. Thomas Knight, Vicar of Ford, described the hill as " now covered by peaceful flocks and golden cornfields." That was its appearance between the novelist's day and the woody landscape it forms now. The change is of historic importance, as it shows that those who were with James could in good weather better watch the movements of the enemy since these movements were not shrouded by trees.
Sir Walter Scott was well entitled to take liberties with history, and no one can regret his doing so who follows the old road to the hill. " Dark Flodden " is an outspur of the Cheviots which stand behind it in massive formation. Its epithet" dark " renders the effect produced by the oaks crowning the summit. The best way is through a gate just after crossing the burn in which Paulinus is said by tradition to have performed some of his numerous baptisings. The way is now up a lane called " the Sandy Lonnin," which leads past a lovely dene. Canon Greenwell records that upon a swelling piece of ground near this dene several hollows, each covered by a flat stone and filled with burnt bones, were found. In one of these hollows lined with small stones was a necklace of jet beads strung round the neck of an urn. Unfortunately, he adds, neither the urn nor beads have been preserved. No tumulus seems to have covered these graves, but it is surmised that the rounded hill itself formed a natural tumulus. One cannot help regretting that this is all to tell of what seems to have been a pathetic memorial raised by one of the myriad of native British who in prehistoric times peopled these vales. A little further on is a farm with the pleasant name of Blink Bonny. Not far off is another called Encampment, which may have been a most suit-able camp for the army of King James. At Blink Bonny the turnpike is crossed by a road which goes by Mindrum and Pawston to Yetholm in Roxburghshire, and the way continues by a field lane which, with plantation on one side and open ground on the other, leads up to Flodden by the quarry.
Lady Waterford's drive round the summit of the hill was thick with short grass and mosses last time I saw it, but the well and the cup and the water still remain. No pleasanter place to saunter in a summer afternoon.
Oft halts the stranger there,
The scene of the battle was Branxton Hill, not Flodden Hill. Indeed, by many old writers it is called the Battle of Branxton. By a coincidence, it was the Rev. Robert Jones, Vicar of Branxton, who in the early part of the nineteenth century, making a study of the battle the hobby of his life, worked out something like its real history. This account is as well written as it is well informed, and is published in pamphlet form for the convenience of those who like to study the landscape with the written history before them. It is excellent reading. With it the studious angler should put in his bag the clear and concise account of the late Captain Norman - whose obsequies, alas! are taking place as this is being written - and the careful study by Dr. Thomas Hodgkin.
Imagination finds it difficult to reconstruct the landscape as it must have appeared at four o'clock on the misty, drizzling September afternoon when the battle began. The main features, however, are unchangeable. Behind Flodden are the Cheviots, scrub-clad on their lower slopes, grass and bracken and heather further up. A little nearer and you would hear the bleating of their countless sheep. Far away to the north rise the Eildons "cleft in three," romantic ;n the distance. Coldstream, where James crossed into England, is not visible from the hill. "Auld Wark upon the Tweed," which he assailed and took, has disappeared. Etal Castle is but a home for owls and jackdaws. Ford Castle stands restored among its trees. " The sullen Till " serpentines through its green haughs.
Surrey's army had been assembled at Pontefract, whence the soldiers were shipped to Tynemouth. There they were reinforced by 5,000 soldiers sent by Henry VIII from France. Surrey advanced northward by Alnwick, making his camp at Bolton, a village about six miles from that town. In the chivalrous manner of the time, he had offered to meet James in pitched battle at the village of Bolton or on Milfield Plain. But James declining to leave his fastness, Surrey crossed the Till at Weetwood, about two miles from Wooler, and the night before, the battle camped behind Barmoor Wood. Looking down at it today one sees a fertile, highly-cultivated district. This part of Glendale stands high agriculturally. It is laid out in fields hedged with quick in the usual Northumbrian style. Stone-built farmhouses are dotted over it, the red gleam of their pantiled roofs showing pleasantly through the green leafage of sheltering trees. But in the raiding times the scene was different. Until well on in the eighteenth century the land was practically unenclosed and undrained. Broom was a predominant plant. It covered Milfield Plain, and a broad belt stretched from Flodden almost to Wooler. That was the state of things until the time of Matthew Cully of Coupland Castle, a famous agriculturist, who both by precept and example taught the advantage of growing turnips. Only a few patches of broom remain here and there to suggest a state of things to which writers on farming only make brief allusion. You must see Belford Moor in late spring when the " unprofitably gay " broom and gorse are in their glory to realise what the county must have been in the old time.
From the eminence of Flodden Hill the movements of the army may be puzzled out if the day be clear. Critics of Surrey's generalship, however, do not take sufficiently into account the fact that the afternoon was drizzly and misty, of low visibility, in the language of the most recent warfare, following a period of rain that had filled the Till to overflowing. James must have experienced great difficulty in obtaining knowledge of his enemy's movements and Surrey enjoyed the military advantage of approaching under cover of the haze. His plan was to send Howard with the artillery across the single-spanned bridge at Twizel, which is still standing, and so interpose between the Scottish army and the Tweed. No doubt that movement was the first of which James got wind, and he correctly divined its intention. Scott represents him as setting fire to his camp and rushing downhill, but it is four miles from Flodden to Twizel. What James actually did under cover of the smoke caused by burning the camp refuse was to change his position from Flodden Hill to Branxton Hill, a mile northward. Mean-time Surrey himself was leading the rearguard across the Till at two fords which are still known by the names they then bore. One was Sandyford, also called the Cradles, where the Back Burn - the burn of Paulinus - enters the Till. It no doubt was the brook " a tailor's yard wide " of the old chronicler. The other was the Willow Ford, a little down the stream nearer Etal. In that neighbourhood the Till is still lined with willows, as it probably was in the sixteenth century. The obstacle that the rearguard had to get over was a great bog or morass, most of which has now been drained. Parts of it remain, however, between Mardon Hill and the Blue Bell Inn on the Pallinsburn estate. Until very recently the remains of the Branxton bridge existed, by which it was crossed at its worst part. When James, who was not without leadership, saw what was happening, he prepared to charge down the hill, and this was the beginning of the battle. The extent of the forces engaged is not easily determined now. The army originally brought together by the Scottish king was said to have numbered about 100,000, but in those days an army did not grow on the march, and 100,000 certainly does not mean anything like that number of effectives. Captain Norman estimated that the Scots might have had 35,000 soldiers, but those, be it remembered, were " the flower of the army." Then the followers of Huntly and Home shortly after the beginning of the fray withdrew from it, perhaps for plunder, or it may be for reasons connected with precedence, so often a bone of contention with the proud Scot. The relative positions of the armies have been made clear by the cannon balls from time to time turned up by the plough. Those used by the Scots were leaden, while those of the English were of iron. But the feature of the day was the fearful hand-to-hand fighting, and no description of it has ever been or is ever likely to be written equal to that of Sir Walter.
Little remains to be added. The spot at which King James fell is now marked by a great granite monolith with the date of the battle on it, and an inscription as terse and appropriate as could possibly be imagined : " To the Brave of Both Nations."
The old legend that fixed upon the great stone on a level field near Crookham West Field has no basis in fact. The stone is a very ancient one and had stood there for centuries before the battle was fought. The field was part of Crookham Moor, the gathering place of the local clans when a Scottish foray was to be resisted or an English foray made into Scotland.
Of the poetry to which the battle has given rise the finest beyond question is "The Flowers of the Forest." Sir Walter's prophecy has been fulfilled to the letter, but no other tradition, legend, or song describes "the end of the hunting with a homelier or more sincere pathos than the ballad of Jane Elliot.
I've heard them lilting, at our ewe-milking
Dool and wae for the order sent our lads to the Border,
We'll hear nae mair lilting at the ewe-milking,
Of the relics the most poetical are the famous banner carried by the Soutars of Selkirk, now preserved in the town, and the other scarcely less famous borne by the Seven Spears of Wedderburn and now preserved, torn and frayed, in the Castle of Wedderburn.
The following description of the memorial is by Commander Norman, who was mainly instrumental in collecting funds for it. It " stands on a piece of ground generously presented by John Carnaby Collingwood, Esq. (one of the Club members), as consisting of a Celtic Monolith Cross of Grey Aberdeen granite, 12 feet 6 inches high, and 3 feet 9 inches across the arms, raised on a rustic base or cairn, 6 feet high, of rough-hewn granite blocks upon a solid concrete foundation, the whole being enclosed with a fence of massive granite posts connected by galvanised iron bars. The inscription - besides which there is no lettering of any sort - is
in incised letters on a slab on the north side of the cairn. Access to the Memorial is through a wicket-gate in the hedge at the nearest point of the road, 99 yards distant, and by no other way."