Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Scenes of a Medieval Battlefield

Yesterday I headed up to North Northumberland, very close to the Scottish border, to the site of the Battle of Flodden. It is a very quiet and, in winter, desolate area, with beautiful but bleakish views of the Cheviot Hills and, really a stone's throw away, Scotland itself. Nearby is a small and exceedingly peaceful village, called Branxton. It is in all respects the middle of nowhere, but in 1513 somewhere in the region of 14,000 men were killed there in a matter of a few hours (a casualty rate apparently higher than on the first day of the Battle of the Somme). The retreating army of James IV, who had invaded England, were cut off in their path back North by an army led by the Earl of Surrey. James IV himself was among the dead.

The battlefield itself is very moving, because it is so well preserved. You can go on a relatively simple 1 hour hike around it, and information boards tell you what went on at various stages. It seems more-or-less unchanged since those days. The Scots primarily lost because of the weather and terrain - it had been raining in the area for weeks and on the day there was a rainstorm; the main body of Scottish pikemen got bogged down in knee-high mud in a marshy area which they hadn't realised was there. They lost their order and got pinned down by English longbowmen, and when they finally made their way clear in small exhausted groups they were killed easily by English men-at-arms with billhooks.

Even though that area has been drained now and it hasn't been a particularly wet winter, I had an inkling of what it must have been like - the mud was pretty thick underfoot, by turns slippery and thick. I certainly wouldn't have relished trying to navigate it dressed in armour and carrying a 14 foot pike.

I took some photos and thought I'd share them on the blog as a matter of interest for people interested in medieval conflicts.


A guide to the battle. 

The monument, to the dead of both nations. It's difficult to imagine Scotland and England at war with each other these days in some respects, and yet on the other hand I'm sure if Nicola Sturgeon could arm herself with a 14 foot pike in the name of Scottish independence she'd do it gleefully.

This is where the Scottish left flank stood, looking down the hill. The smaller slope in the middle distance is where the English were positioned. 

This is looking 45 degrees to the right from the same position, looking across to where the English centre and left flanks would have been positioned.

Looking parallel across the initial Scottish positions from roughly the position of the left flank.

The view the Scottish centre would have had, looking down at the English positions. If you'd had this view that day, the chances were pretty good that within a couple of hours you'd be dead or injured. From this point you can see Scotland in the distance (the Scottish town of Coldstream is about 4 miles away). An odd quirk to the battle is that the Scottish were positioned in the south and were attacking north. This is because they were heading back to Scotland and the Earl of Surrey had brought his army around to block off their path. 

This is where most of the fighting took place. The Scottish pikemen advanced down the slope (i.e. from the left of this picture towards the right) and then became bogged down here. So this is where the melee happened, and probably where James IV was killed as well. In those days political leaders who took their countries to war had real skin in the game. 


  1. I've been there with the family - it's pretty good from what I remember

  2. I would like to have a way of modelling battles with dice but I find the standard rpg battle material unconvincing, chainmail et al. The way to go would be to get hold of some Westpoint (or other) lectures on ancient battles, decide what is important that depends on chance and what is important that depends on decidibles (numbers, morale, veterans, brilliance). Maybe Chainmail et al provide excellent probabilistic models but it would be very useful to read basic analytic material pitched somewhere between historical battle reports a la John Keegan and the clumsy abstractions of rpg battle mechanics.

    1. ==The Scots primarily lost because of the weather and terrain - it had been raining in the area for weeks and on the day there was a rainstorm; the main body of Scottish pikemen got bogged down in knee-high mud in a marshy area which they hadn't realised was there.

      This is an interesting example of the problem of demarcating chance and decidables. With modern technology terrain and weather are decidables as they should be to locals/defenders in ancient times but invaders are likely to view terrain as a mix of decidable and chance.

    2. It would be an interesting project. Whenever I read accounts of medieval and ancient battles I'm always struck by how simple they are - the reasons for victory can often be put down to a small set of errors or chance occurrences.

  3. Great post.
    I have been interested in the same idea - how to translate the effects of a battle into rpg terms, ask it has occasionally come up in a long running campaign. The Companion (BX) rules set had some information on this for fantasy systems and I have used various bodges of this myself. The Slingshot magazine chaps probably have the type of material you want Kent - Society of Ancients (SoA).

    1. I have thought about the BX (Rules Cyclopedia) battle system quite a bit. I think it works reasonably well for what it is, but it's not all that realistic.