Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Border Reivers: Part Eight

As well as the legal and illegal civil actions undertaken by the Reivers, the political situation between England and Scotland flared into warfare at several points in the sixteenth century. Times of war would have been particularly dangerous for the inhabitants of the borders, who, by most accounts, preferred to carry on their lives unaffected by state politics. The skills of the Reivers were greatly valued by both states, however, who used Border Staves for scouting out enemy movements and occasionally undertaking important battlefield actions. On the whole, both the English and Scottish armies distrusted the borderers, feeling that such people would change allegiance as they saw fit – famous accounts exist of the Crosses of St George and St Andrew (the two national flags) being sewn only loosely to the borderers’ clothing, so that it could be discarded at the rider’s discretion.  Nevertheless, the Border Staves were considered to be amongst the best light cavalry of their era.

Henry VIII’s invasion of France in 1513 prompted a Scottish invasion in support of their French allies (the Scottish government, incidentally, proscribed the practice of martial arts in the form of football and golf!?!). The main Scottish cavalry force was raised from borderers. After several weeks of pillaging and laying siege to castles, the Scottish army of 40,000 (with 5,000 French allies) was met by an English army of around 30,000 men. Despite being out-numbered, the English billmen and archers were effectively organised, in comparison to the poorly trained, mostly pike-armed Scottish force.

The forces joined battle at Flodden Hill, and the action began with an artillery exchange. The Scottish left wing (including their border troops) rushed forward into a hail of cannon and archery fire, but succeeded in pushing their opponents back (onto to be caught out by an English reserve whilst plundering the dead).

The right of the Scottish army suffered heavily from archery fire, and broke, leaving that flank open for the English army to surround the remaining Scots ad kill James and 10,000 of his men in battle.

According to George Macdonald Fraser, Solway Moss should be considered ‘From a Scottish point of view, … the greatest military disgrace in the nation’s history’. (1971: 251)

An 18,000 strong Scottish army marched into north west England in November 1542 on King James’ orders. The might of the Scottish crown was this time to be opposed only by the English Warden, Henry Wharton, and his 3,000 borderers of Reiver extraction. Wharton set warning beacons alight, shadowed the invading force, and sent small raiding parties to harry the invader’s path.

Wharton decided to give battle (I’m not sure what made him decide to do this, given that he was outnumbered 6:1) on the bank of the River Esk at Solway Moss. Wharton’s Reiver force harassed the river crossing of the Scottish force, darting around the edges and generally making a nuisance of themselves. This, combined with some uncertainty amongst the Scottish leaders as to who had overall command, led to widespread panic breaking out amongst the Scottish footmen, who rapidly dissolved into a disorganised rabble, at the tender mercy of the English horsemen. The Scottish army again routed, all for the recorded loss of seven English dead and one prisoner.

Political manoeuvring between the English and Scottish crowns led to all out war again in the late 1540s. An English army crossed the border on 1 September 1547, and encountered a large Scottish force about 10 kilometres from Edinburgh nine days later.

The 16,000 English troops were deployed in an extended formation to the east of the River Esk. This force included 4,000 cavalry and 80 cannons, and was also supported by an English fleet. The Scottish army numbered 25,000, and had fortified its coastal flank against the English ships’ cannons.

The English and Scottish cavalry clashed early in the battle; this encounter saw the Scottish horse destroyed as an effective fighting force. The Scottish leaders attempted to bargain their way out of trouble – even offering personal combat between the respective leaders! This failed, and the Scottish pikemen appear to have made an impetuous charge towards the English forces. In doing so, they came under fire from the English fleet and land forces, and were hen hit by an English cavalry charge. This effectively ended the battle, al bar the bloodthirsty pursuit which followed.