Book review: Fatal Rivalry: Flodden, 1513, By George Goodwin

Five centuries ago, a well-equipped Scots army faced the English. The result shaped our history

Even today, 500 years after the battle of Flodden, the roll-call of the Scottish dead is shocking, like the cemeteries of the First World War or the names engraved on the Pinkas synagogue in Prague. The Scots lost ten thousand men, with almost their entire nobility and clan chiefs, including their charismatic King, James IV. Yet they had a larger force than the English and a seemingly impregnable position.

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This book banishes the simplistic idea that the Scots army which in 1513 had invaded south as far as Northumberland was a bunch of primitive stone-slingers emerging from the mists. James had some of the most sophisticated cannon in Europe plus battle-hardened soldiers, and he was an experienced and courageous leader. Too courageous, perhaps: one theory was that his insistence on leading the charge in person led to disaster, but this account brings fresh evidence to show a hidden factor beyond James' control.

It's not the only reversal of myths: here is that ultimate put-upon wife, Katherine of Aragon, acting as Regent during Henry VIII's absence on a French invasion, wishing she could send him James's body and enclosing his bloody coat instead. Her commander, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, who with his two sons led the English army, took no prisoners. Contrary to the usual conditions of warfare, defeated Scots were killed on the field with no hope of ransom.

The leading characters in this sad history are portrayed with contextual explorations of the notions of Renaissance kingship, and studies of cultural and technical developments. It is shamefully surprising to learn that the biggest battleship in Europe was in fact owned by the King of Scots – his beloved "Great Michael".

George Goodwin previously wrote a gripping account of the battle of Towton, that most brutal action of the Wars of the Roses. Flodden, "the last medieval and the first modern battle", follows subsequent cultural and technical developments. Goodwin's theory is that the family which emerged most successfully from the Flodden débacle was neither the Tudors nor the Stuarts, but the Howards, whose fortunes soared.

However, James, who according to the portrait reproduced here has a strong claim to be the handsomest man in history, like Banquo won out genealogically. He had married Henry's sister, Margaret, bequeathing a claim to the English throne to his descendant, who eventually triumphed as James I of England and VI of Scotland.