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A bit too partisan?
on 22 October 2013
There actually isn't all that much about the Battle of Flodden, possibly the biggest battle ever fought on British soil, in this book. Flodden's obvious rival is Towton, about which Goodwin has already written. As with his account of Towton, Goodwin delves deep. I was in Spain when I read this book and was rather surprised to realise that I was only a few hundred yards from the final resting place of someone mentioned in Goodwin's background (to a war between Scotland and England).
Goodwin does background a lot better than he does foreground; in fact, he should write a compendious history of the Anglo-Scottish wars, because I'd buy it, even if no-one else did. At his best, he is very readable and he does argue his case pretty well.
All the same, Goodwin leans a bit too far to the Scottish side here. Henry VIII is a monster - not an especially hard case to prove, especially when the name Howard crops up frequently. James IV, King of Scots, by contrast, is an all-round Renaissance hero, only ever trying to do the best for his country, which would certainly make him a first for his dynasty. Countless times, Goodwin reminds us what a paragon James supposedly was. It's boring and not at all convincing.
Goodwin really goes off the rails, though, when discussing the Scottish army, which James led to the disaster at Flodden. Goodwin recognises the significance of the Macedonian-inspired Swiss system, but he doesn't appear to draw the right conclusions. I hazard a guess that he knows little about classical history. The army of Philip II and Alexander III of Macedon, the one which Renaissance potentates were desperate to replicate, had, in its centre, a "phalanx", armed with a huge pike, called a "sarissa". Flanking the phalanx were archers and slingers. The real sharp end of the army, however, comprised two elite formations: the Hypaspists (heavily armed and armoured infantry) and the Companions, the heavy cavalry, who had spent every waking moment perfecting their battlefield skills.
Goodwin must know, but refuses to emphasize, that James IV was trying to build a Renaissance/Macedonian army on the cheap. You need a phalanx? Stick an enormous pike in the hands of an untrained soldier and repeat a few thousand times. To be fair, Goodwin is, I think, well aware of this deficiency of the Scots. That still leaves the Hypaspists, the Companions and the artillery.
Scotland couldn't produce forces equivalent to the Hypaspists and Companions because those elite soldiers needed to be devoted to their king - something which no Scottish aristocrat ever truly was - and trained almost from birth. Scotland's inability to breed decent horses was always going to be a problem, too.
James had the phalanx, then, but not much else. At enormous expense, he tried to compensate with artillery. Philip II had found the hard way that artillery could be decisive. The artillery available to James had advantages over the Macedonian scorpions in terms of lethality, but the Scottish cannons were hard to manoeuvre and extremely slow to re-load.
If James was the Renaissance Man of Goodwin's imagination, he must have known that the Macedonian juggernaut stopped working when it lacked its cutting edge: the Companions and the Hypaspists. At Pydna, 168 BC, devoid of the support that Philip II would have taken for granted nearly two centuries earlier, the Macedonian phalanx was chopped to bits by Roman swords. The English at Flodden mostly lacked anything so scientifically lethal as a gladius, but the effect was the same.
All in all, I can give only a lukewarm welcome to this book, which is published to milk the five hundredth anniversary of the engagement, rather than because the author displays any particularly special insight. Since next year sees the seven hundredth anniversary of Bannockburn, I suspect I can guess what Goodwin is working on right now.