"King Jamie hath made a vow,
Keepe it well if he may:
That he will be at lovely London
Upon Saint James his day"
Flodden Field is a grim, soaked name: soaked in rain, soaked in blood. The name is dark with lowering clouds, heavy against a gangrenous sky of gray and green. It is without warmth, save for the life forces absorbed into the parasitic ground as the great men lay dying. It is a name without horizon; a killing field symbolizing Scotland's shame and despair.
In 1513, King Henry VIII was in France. He rode arched Friesian horses into his small battles, feeling their muscular spirits through his hands and legs. He wore suits of armor tattooed with gems so audacious that they made the sun look away in a fit of pique. His tents were thick with tapestries; animals, a frozen heraldic population, stared from within their embroidered forests. Local girls ran out with wild, scented garlands in their hands to take a look at the young and beautiful English king.
He left his wife at home.
Queen Katherine was made regent in the king's absence. Symbolically, the cold and knight-errant island was hers. But although she was mild and devout, a pale nun in cold velvet, there were fires lurking inside her. Isabella of Castile was her mother: leader of the Spanish Inquisition, a warrior against the Jews and Muslims; fearless, intolerant, brilliant. It was her blood that warmed her daughter's pallid faith.
When it became known in Scotland that the king of England was away to France, James IV – linguist, scientist, builder, adulterer – raised his head from his mistress' breast to listen.
The 'Auld Alliance' with France, nearly 250 years old, had to be honored. England was ripe for invasion. So, despite his queen's protestations and precognitive dreams, a massive army – with an arrogance as heavy as the armor on their backs – was assembled.
Queen Margaret begged him not to go to war with her brother.
"Then bespake good Queene Margaret,
The teares fell from her eye:
'Leave off these warres, most noble King,
Keep your fidelitie.'"
Flodden Field is located in Northumberland, the darkest and saddest of English counties. The two armies met there in October 1513, behind a mourning veil of rain that beaded on the blades of swords like bold crystals. Katherine wisely named the Earl of Surrey – 70 years old, memories of past battles stitched into his skin – as the commander of her army. James, yearning for a chivalry which never existed, led his own army. Overcome by foolish courage, he galloped beneath the royal standard of Scotland, a blood-red lion that roared in dismay.
The result was a famous English victory, at the cost of 1,500 men. But the flat, blank field was suddenly mountainous with 10,000 Scottish corpses, and somewhere amongst them lay James IV, punished for his futile dreams.
His torn and bloody coat was sent to Katherine, who proudly had it delivered to her husband. No one knows what Henry thought as he ran the shattered cloth through his fingers. It is doubtful that he felt any guilt for his widowed sister, mourning far away from home.
"That day made many a fatherlesse child,
And many a widow poore,
And many a Scottish gay lady
Sate weeping in her bower."