Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Siege of Norham Castle 1513, a Walk

Distance:        3.2  miles
Terrain:        This gentle riverside walk is a pleasant one over paths with good surfaces and village lanes. There is only a short stretch of difficult terrain, whcih can be avoided, and one flight of steps to negotiate.
Public Transport:    Norham is served by Munros of Jedburgh bus 67 from Berwick. 
Parking:        There is on street parking in Norham.
Refreshments:    There is a pub in Norham village that serves meals and a bakers selling tasty snacks and soft drinks.


In the spring of 1513 all Europe trembled on the edge of war. Aragon, Venice, England and the Holy Roman Empire had formed a league with the Pope against France, which had invaded northern Italy and was becoming perhaps the most powerful state in Europe.

The war began when King Henry VIII of England landed a large army at Calais, then owned by England, and invaded France. He crushed the French force sent to stop him, then captured the cities of Terouenne and Tournay. King Louis XII of France had for some months been urging King James IV of Scotland to distract Henry by invading England. France and Scotland were, after all, bound by the “Auld Alliance”, an anti-English understanding that dated back generations but had no precise form.

James had been reluctant to act for several reasons. First was that the early years of his reign had been taken up with repairing the damage to the Scots economy and society caused by years of civil war. He had only just managed to get things sorted out and had no wish to risk it all by a war with England. He was, moreover, married to Henry’s sister. James had been happy enough to accept French military advisors to help him raise, equip and train a royal army that would be loyal to himself and permanently on call to help him deal with troublesome nobles. He even had some 5,000 French soldiers in Scotland led by Count d’Aussi. Although he promised repeatedly to attack England, he did nothing.

Driven to desperation by the English attack, Louis sent a ship to Scotland on board were 14,000 French crowns, a considerable sum of cash, plus a letter from Queen Anne of France. The letter was politely phrased, but its message was clear. “I give you this money,” Queen Anne concluded, “to pay for an army. I beseech you to come just three feet into England for my sake”. Such a blatant prod to his military reputation – and from a woman at that – was designed to goad James in to action. James, duly goaded, acted.

On 11 August James declared war on England. He demanded an apology and cash payment to compensate him for the death of a Scottish government official who had been killed during a border clash some years earlier and about whom most people had long forgotten. Eleven days later James marched over the border at Coldstream.

The army which James IV led into England was enormous by the standards of the time, about 40,000 fighting men in all. The royal summons had gone out some weeks earlier to all of Scotland. The borderers sent large numbers of reivers armed as lightly armoured cavalry. The Highlands and the Western Isles sent clansmen clad in plaid and carrying their traditional weapons of sword and shield. The Lowlands supplied men equipped with spear, sword and shield. James himself led his royal army. He also brought with him d’Aussi and the 5,000 Frenchmen.

Significantly for what was to follow, James dragged over the Tweed at Coldstream his artillery train. The Scottish Master Gunner, Robert Borthwick, had spent the previous two years buying guns, gunpowder and balls from the finest gunsmiths in Europe. In 1513 his pride and joy were the Seven Sisters, seven guns bought in Flanders that were mounted on carriages able to traverse open fields and which could, therefore, be used in battle. He also had the formidable siege gun Mons Meg, which was clumsily unwieldy but was able to smash stone walls to fragments.

James was well aware that previous attacks into England had foundered when the English ambushed the Scots as they returned. He was therefore determined to fight whatever army the English sent against him before advancing south to plunder and loot. He also decided to keep more than one route back to Scotland open behind him.

The first route was to be back via Coldstream, the second was to be across the Tweed at Norham. The ford here was the only crossing point that could be used by an army supply train between Berwick and where the River Till ran into the Tweed from the south. It was a strategic crossing point of the first order.

James arrived in front of Norham Castle on 25 August.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.