Even at its busiest, the tiny village of Branxton, three miles from the Scottish border, is a tranquil place. But these peaceful surroundings actually belie a turbulent past. A large cross sits on a small hill above the village, in memory of the men who died in what has been called the last medieval battle fought on English soil.
In August 1513, while Henry VIII was fighting in France, the Scottish King James IV, an ally of the French monarch, took advantage by invading England from the north. With an army of 40,000, he captured the Northumbrian castles of Wark, Norham and Etal, then encamped on Flodden Hill to prepare for the English counter-attack.
The Earl of Surrey, however, outflanked the Scots and set his smaller English army on the low ridge that runs between Branxton village and the present site of the monument, erected in 1910. His retreat cut off, James moved his forces north to the slopes of Branxton Hill.
On the battleground
from the car park opposite St Paul’s church, follow the rubble footpath along the base of the hill and up to the monument.
Continue along the field edge and down to a bridge over a little stream. This was the low ground where, on 9 September 1513, the battle was fought. Conditions were poor: the land was a quagmire after weeks of wet weather, and the day itself was one of squally rain.
Cross the bridge and turn left toward the corner of the field. Go through the gateway and follow the hedgerow and line of oaks steadily uphill to the next field boundary. It was here that both armies faced one another.
It is worth spending some time sitting on the seats here (under a brolly if needs be) to gaze over the battlefield, and imagine how the soldiers might have felt anticipating the coming conflict, or how the scene might have unfolded as the day wore on. A series of display boards at intervals, depicting the battle, should aid your contemplation.
The Scots initially had the advantages of a larger army and holding the higher ground, and indeed won the first skirmish on the western flanks. Their heavier canons, however, proved very cumbersome, and overshot their targets.
The lighter English guns were more manoeuvrable, faster to load and more accurate, while the English longbowmen made a devastating impact.
When the infantries clashed in the swamp between the hills, the long pikes of the Scots, successful against charging cavalry, turned out to be useless in close combat against the shorter English billhooks. In two hours of vicious fighting, around 10,000 Scots were killed, including King James and most of his nobility, while English losses were considerably smaller.
Back to the village
Walk along the hedgerow until you reach a road, but instead of following this, carry on up for a short distance to a signpost indicating a footpath in the adjacent field.
Again, follow the hedgerows along and down to re-cross the burn. Continue along the eastern edges of the next two fields, then parallel to the road back into Branxton village.
While passing through the village, you will see a notice inviting you to explore the John Fairnington sculpture garden. Do not miss the opportunity. Entry is free, though voluntary contributions are welcomed. The garden is full of his quite remarkable artwork.
Before crossing to the car park, visit St Paul’s church, where the bodies of some of the slain, particularly nobility, were brought following the battle. The implications of this intensive battle determined the histories of both countries during the succeeding centuries, and has echoes even to the present day, more than 500 years later.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car, follow the A697 north from Wooler for about nine miles, then turn left on to a minor road to Branxton. The car park is at the west end of the village.
FIND OUT MORE
The Lavender Tea Rooms
Etal TD12 4TN
The Blue Bell Inn
Crookham, Cornhill on Tweed
An exhibition devoted to the battle is on display at Etal Castle, to the east of the A697.
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