A cavalcade of over 350 horses headed for Flodden on Thursday, on the annual pilgrimage to the battle site to pay homage to the English and Scots soldiers who died on that fateful day in 1513.
In a battle that lasted little over four hours, 10,000 Scots and 4,000 English troops lost their lives, every clan and noble family in Scotland lost their menfolk, the Scots lost their King, James IV, and Scotland was a country so weakened that it eventually was forced into a union with its auld enemy.
Every year as part of the Coldstream Civic Week celebrations the Coldstreamer leads a cavalcade of horses and riders to the top of Branxton Hill where an oration is given about the battle.
This year it was Coldstreamer James Balmbro, flanked by his right and left hand men, Jamie Nicolson and Colin Leifer, who led the riders across Coldstream Bridge to Flodden, and immediately behind them was his father, ex-Coldstreamer Derek Balmbro, who was also flanked by his right and left hand men from 1985, Michael Shepherd and Les Turnbull.
At the top of Branxton Hill this year’s orator, Northumbrian poet and novelist Noel Hodgson, was introduced to those gathered for the Flodden service.
Speaking about the annual pilgrimage from Coldstream to Flodden Noel said: “It is, unquestionably, the most impressive show of yearly remembrance to those who fought here at Flodden, over 500 years ago. The ride-out from Coldstream is both symbolic and spectacular; a fitting and poignant tribute to our border history and to the soldiers from both sides, whose courage and sacrifice is today, both praised and lamented.”
Speculating on what would be going on in the minds of those heading for the battlefield, Noel continued: “We may ask ourselves what filled their thoughts and hearts?
“Clearly, the sorrow of farewell to family and friends: surely, the nervous excitement of an adventure and challenge the like of which they’d never faced before.
“Without doubt, coerced by their superiors, there’d be a sense of valour and honour fighting for their king and country. And as their journey lengthened, buoyed by increasing numbers at mustering points, like Edinburgh, Elm Kirk and Coldstream - York, Durham, Newcastle and Alnwick, their belief and confidence would have been bolstered.
“Yet despite these aspects, the reality of war would loom larger as their travel brought them closer to the enemy; the English eventually camping at Wooler and the Scots on Flodden Hill. For the novice and inexperienced soldiers, anxiety and trepidation would by now breathe heavily upon them, and their spirits be noticeably weakened by the fatigue and misery from the long march, with their clothing and bedding dampened from rain-soaked days and nights.
“Yet, despite the fears and gloom, and some desertion, both armies endured and boldly prepared themselves for an imminent encounter.
“I can only imagine the faith, the motivation and courage both sides needed to complete their final journeys to confront the other: The Earl of Surrey’s English marching via Barmoor to cross the River Till, and King James’s army departing Flodden hill to move across to Branxton Moor in order to block the enemy’s northern approach.
“We can read about the battle, learn of the fortune and misfortune of the ranks as the conflict unfolded. But it is only here, on the field itself, that we can truly sense and envisage the events of that fateful collision. It is only here, at the place, that we can wonder and imagine the dreadful action, in all its fury and horror.
“Yes, it’s only here on the battle ground, with an awareness and perception that we can properly appreciate the battle’s wrath and brutality, and its pitiful scenes of destruction and carnage!
“The din of medieval war would have been shocking. (Oddly enough, the French had instructed the Scottish pikemen to attack in silence, but that was soon discarded) After the initial explosions of cannon fire that must have terrorised the ranks, the roaring and screeching of men, in hand to hand fighting, would be awe-inspiring.
“Very few would die instantly. Soldiers struck down, screaming in agony; men staring with anguish, clutching their wounds, pleading for mercy, wailing for help from fathers, brothers, sons, friends; whilst other dying victims lay sobbing, moaning and groaning in pain; and some, without a sound and empty faced, drawn towards the deepest silence of all - their journey’s end.
“The dead were heaped into pits. For every English corpse there were at least three Scots. Enemies in life, united in death, they lay together, undivided; their pale, feeble looking bodies, stripped and silent. Once buried they were hidden forever, lost to everything meaningful in life, and to everyone who knew them - save in memory.”
“Flodden evokes in us many emotions. In hindsight, it is easy to judge its futility, its waste, its loss. But its aura of tragedy remains, etched in the soul of our land’s heritage.
“The monument on Piper’s Hill is a lasting and solemn memorial to the brave of both nations. Likewise, this annual ride is a powerful testimony of remembrance; an act of pilgrimage and homage to Flodden’s unique and unforgettable story.
“Returning home, after a meeting in March with organisers to discuss this day’s proceedings, I chanced to read a newspaper article regarding the German Airbus that had recently crashed into the French Alps, killing all 150 passengers and crew on board. At the scene of the disaster, the Mayor of Le Vernet, the nearest village to the crash site, was quoted as saying that - “From now on we shall be the guardians of this place, and of the memory of those whose lives were ended here.”
“And it occurred to me immediately, that this is exactly what our visit today heralds. In this ceremonial journey to the field each year, Coldstream has indeed become a true guardian of Flodden and, ‘of the memory of those whose lives were ended here!’ For this act of service, you deserve further recognition, and I salute you for it, with praise.”