If the battle of Bannockburn represents Scotland's greatest victory against the English then Flodden represents its worst defeat. On September 9, 1513, a Scottish army under the command of their king, James IV, was utterly crushed by an English army under the command of the Earl of Surrey. In the appalling close quarter combat, King James, most of the Scottish nobility, and maybe up to 8,000 Scottish solders were slain. With James IV dead, his infant son became king which brought all the internal struggles and internecine violence that accompanies a kingdom run by regents. Scotland, which before the battle had been emerging as a real player in European politics, never recovered from this catastrophe.
The most interesting facet of author Niall Barr's book is that the Scot's seemingly had all the advantages. The army James IV led over the English border in 1513 was probably the largest (btw 30-40,000 men) and the best equipped (it had a large train of siege artillery and most of its men were armed with 18ft long pikes- the weapon which had helped make Swiss armies almost invincible on continental battlefields) that Scotland had ever fielded. The Scots had also adopted Swiss tactics- phalanx-like pike formations attacking in echelon. The English army that faced them was smaller in size (around 26,000 men), had only light field guns, and most of its men were armed with weapons that were considered obsolescent in the early 16th century, the bill and the longbow. James was also able to draw the English army into battle on ground of his own choosing- a hill upon which his pikemen could charge down and literally overrun their opponents. Thus, the Scots had advantages in numbers, artillery, position, and were using the most modern weapons and tactics of the day. Yet, it was the Scots who were slaughtered. How did this happen?
Barr believes that from a strategic and operational standpoint James IV did everything right. This is contrary to Scottish tradition which portrays James as a frivolous and unrealistic man who blundered his country into war and then botched the campaign. Barr discounts these judgements and makes a strong case that James was actually very level-headed in invading England in 1513 (at the time the English king, Henry VIII, was in France with his best troops) and that he also made good decisions on the campaign. However, Barr believes the Scottish defeat at Flodden was because of poor tactical theory. The Scots quite simply were carrying the wrong sort of weapons and fighting with the wrong sort of tactics.
Barr spends an entire chapter focusing on the Swiss military system of the early 16th century and explains why it was the envy of Europe. Thus, he lays the groundwork to show why that system failed the Scots so badly at Flodden. Swiss armies were renowned for their discipline, training, and high morale which enabled their pike formations to retain their cohesion. This cohesion was vital to their success. The Scottish army at Flodden was a feudal levy with minimal training, little discipline, and brittle morale. When, because of a lack of training, the Scottish pike formations lost their cohesion the English were able to rush in among them. In close quarters, a Scot armed with an 18ft long pike was at a huge disadvantage against Englishman carrying an 8ft bill. Even then disaster could have been averted if the Scots had copied the Swiss combined arms approach to combat. The Swiss did not entirely rely on pikemen, but instead had sizeable formations of halberdiers, crossbowmen, and handgunners to break-up enemy formations and engage in close quarter combat. But before Flodden, the Scots had decided to live (and thus die) with the pike alone.
Barr's analysis and detail is fascinating. He dedicates an entire chapter to describing the first artillery duel in British military history which the English won and caused the Scots to abandon their strong position. He also explains why the Scottish nobility suffered such horrendous losses- a rarity even for a late medieval battle. Overall, this an extremely well-written account of a battle that is virtually unknown outside the U.K which is surprising considering its size and the devastating effect on the loser.