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Centuries of military struggle between Scotland and England have produced some epic contests, still seared into the folk memory of the two countries, from the humbling of English knighthood at the spear points of doughty Scots commoners at Bannockburn in 1314 to the death of Scotland’s impetuous but chivalrous King James IV at Flodden in 1513. Among the multitude of other famous battles is one whose name is less readily recalled, fought outside Musselburgh on September 10, 1547.

Perhaps one reason why the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh (cleugh being a narrow glen or valley in Scots-Gaelic) has been all but forgotten is because its political consequences were so slight. England’s ambitious Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had come to Scotland to win a bride, at the point of a sword, for his young master, the 9-year-old King Edward VI. In that, however, he would fail–Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was spirited away to France, dashing English hopes of a union of the two crowns.

Yet, in one respect, the battle was highly significant. Historians have tended to regard the British Isles as a military backwater in the 16th century, but a close examination of the campaign suggests that Pinkie Cleugh was the first ‘modern’ battle on British soil–featuring combined arms, cooperation between infantry, artillery and cavalry and, most remarkably, a naval bombardment in support of land forces. Such an interpretation places Britain in the mainstream of military development 100 years earlier than is generally accepted.

Upon his death in January 1547, the megalomaniac English King Henry VIII had bequeathed to his nation an ongoing war with Scotland. His major diplomatic ambitions had been in continental Europe, but securing the volatile northern border with Scotland was an essential prerequisite for campaigning in France. The ideal solution to Henry’s problem would have been a union of the two crowns through the marriage of his young son, Edward, to the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. Certainly, in that time of political and religious upheaval there were many Scottish nobles who were not unreceptive to the idea. However, Henry’s approach to courtship–the ‘rough wooing’ that saw English armies rampage throughout the border country, behaving with the utmost brutality in an attempt to intimidate Scotland into acquiescence–drove many potential allies into the pro-French camp.

After Henry’s death, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Protector of England as regent to the child King Edward VI, devised a new strategy to win the ‘bride’ for his master. He hoped to not only successfully invade Scotland but also establish permanent garrisons in strategic positions across the country, holding it in virtual subjugation.

William Patten, secretary to the English commander, wrote an eyewitness account of Somerset’s campaign, The Expedition Into Scotland, 1547, in January of 1548, while events were still fresh in his mind. In marked contrast to the vague accounts by monastic chroniclers, 16th-century record-keepers like Patten left behind more detailed accounts, which make it clear that Renaissance battles were more sophisticated than their medieval predecessors. Patten describes a campaign that would not seem unfamiliar to a student of the Napoleonic wars.

The 16th century was a transitional period in the European ‘art of war.’ In the course of the so-called Great Italian Wars, triggered by French King Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494, the weapons and tactics of medieval warfare were gradually supplanted by new methods, involving the operation of cavalry, artillery and infantry arms in an increasingly complex tactical synthesis. Vast phalanxes of well-drilled pikemen and missile troops armed with the harquebus (a matchlock firearm fired from a portable support) and later the musket maneuvered on the battlefields of Cerignola (1503), Ravenna (1512) and Pavia (1525). Light cavalry, notably mercenary Albanian stradiots, Spanish genitors and German Reiters, developed an increasingly important independent role. Men-at-arms, heavy cavalry still armored from head to toe, enjoyed a renaissance of their own, back in the saddle after the decline of the ‘English’ tactic of dismounted fighting. The most potent heavy cavalry was the French Compagnie d’Ordonnance, a permanent professional force employed directly by the state.

The British Isles, locked in internecine conflicts in the latter half of the 15th century, were apparently on the peripheries of the military revolution. England’s armies generally clung to the old dismounted ‘bill and bow’ formations that had worked so well at Agincourt in 1415. Scotland, threatened by a powerful and aggressive neighbor, relied on peasant levies armed with bow, spear and two-handed sword for defense. The Wars of the Roses, however, had not entirely isolated England from developments on the Continent. Foreign mercenaries had brought pikes and handguns to English battlefields (with little success against native bows and bills), and English men-at-arms, despite their traditions of dismounted combat, had fought once more from the saddle to play a decisive part in the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

Light cavalry–referred to as ‘prickers’ by the Yorkists–had also played a vital role for the rival armies, gathering intelligence, carrying out feints, and skirmishing with their enemy counterparts. The cream of English light cavalry were Northerners–reivers from the volatile Anglo-Scots frontier who served in all of King Henry VIII’s campaigns in France.

English infantry, too, had not been untouched by modern developments. Under Henry VIII, the English had experimented widely with gunpowder weapons, particularly for naval use, as the ordnance recovered from the sunken warship Mary Rose has indicated. In terms of ‘professionalization,’ England maintained small numbers of garrison troops in the Calais Pale and at Berwick, but Henry’s most important standing units were afloat. According to the Calendar of Scottish Papers, 1, 1547­63, the armada that accompanied England’s land forces northward in 1547 was crewed by 9,222 mariner-soldiers. Those men, along with the men-at-arms and ‘Gentlemen Pensioners’ of the Royal Bodyguard, are an indication that Henry took greater steps to create large-scale, standing forces than has been recognized in the past.

One important feature of the military revolution was the increased size of armies. To fill out their armies, princes competed for the services of large bodies of international mercenaries, the most highly prized of which were Swiss and German (Landsknecht) pikemen. The 42,000 men amassed by Henry VIII in 1544 for his so-called Enterprise of Boulogne included 4,836 foreign horse and 5,392 foreign infantry. The 16,000-man army that Somerset would lead across the Tweed River into Scotland in 1547 also contained a significant proportion of foreign specialists, most notably a complement of mounted harquebusiers under a Spanish captain, Sir Pedro de Gamboa.

The majority of Somerset’s troops were armed in the old style, with bow and bill–an archaic combination perhaps, but one that had not yet been rendered obsolete. Firearm development had been slow, and only 600 of Somerset’s soldiers carried such weapons. The handgun and the harquebus that had supplanted the crossbow on the Continent had operated from the peripheries of the battlefield, from behind walls and entrenchments. English bowmen did not operate on the peripheries, and the light arrows they fired at distant targets were designed to gall, not kill. Their rate of fire, which the harquebus could never match, disordered their enemy and, as at Agincourt, could provoke him into a premature attack. When the enemy closed he would be met, at shorter range, by heavier, deadlier arrows. Using a secondary weapon, such as a bill or maul, bowmen were then expected to melee with their enemy, be he high-born knight or lowly peasant. To exchange the longbow for the harquebus would have involved abandoning a tested tactical doctrine in return for a missile weapon with only moderately greater range and penetrative power.

While some English equipment was archaic, more modern technology was also employed, including an impressively large artillery train, under a master gunner appointed directly by the king. Under Henry VIII’s enthusiastic patronage, artillery tactics had become surprisingly sophisticated. At Pinkie Cleugh, the guns accompanying the army would be manhandled into action speedily and with devastating effect. The warships of Somerset’s accompanying naval force, commanded by Lord Edward Clinton, were very effective floating gun platforms, capable of battering enemy ships into submission, or sinking them, with long-range gunfire rather than by ramming or boarding, as had been the traditional practice. From positions in the Firth of Forth, they would support the English land forces at Pinkie with a timely and effective shore bombardment.

Despite the oft-quoted view of the English as primarily infantry oriented, Somerset had amassed some 4,000 cavalry, under the overall command of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland, for his invasion of Scotland. That considerable mounted arm included the light cavalry, Northern Horse and Gamboa’s mounted harquebusiers (‘hackbutters’ to the English). Among the heavy cavalry were 500 ‘Bullerners’–men-at-arms from the garrison of Boulogne–the Gentlemen Pensioners of the Royal Bodyguard and a force of ‘demi-lancers.’ The latter were lance-armed cavalry whose horses were unarmored and who had replaced their own leg armor with stout, thigh-length boots, a compromise of protection for increased speed, mobility and flexibility.

On the face of it, the Scottish army still seemed medieval in its organization. Every man was expected to equip himself for war according to his income, from suits of plate armor for the nobility to brigandines for the less exalted. Legislation also specified acceptable weapons–spears, pikes, light axes, halbards, bows, crossbows, handguns and two-handed swords. To check that men met those requirements, ‘wappenschaws,’ or musterings, were held, at which men presented themselves fully equipped.

The Scottish army of the 16th century had few professional soldiers, nor any permanent force comparable with those on the Continent. It was also particularly deficient in cavalry, since the country was economically unable to support a force of heavy cavalry on the Continental model. Scotland had its own border reivers, who harried the English as they moved north, but they were outnumbered by their generally better-equipped English counterparts. The majority of Scots who faced Somerset at Pinkie Cleugh fought on foot, as they had always done.

William Patten’s description of Scottish soldiers at Pinkie indicates that most were equipped with protective brigandines or ‘jacks,’ helmets, targes, pikes and swords of high quality. Alongside the pikemen served the Highlanders, generally less well-armored than the Lowland levies, but formidably armed with longbow, ax, two-handed sword, or with some form of light ax, such as the Jedburgh stave–useful in the confines of a melee or for hooking cavalrymen off their steeds.

The standard Scottish infantry weapon was the pike, a weapon that had come to dominate European battlefields in the late 15th century. Well-drilled Swiss and Landsknecht formations were not only invulnerable to heavy cavalry but, by using rapidly moving mass columns of pikes and halbards, they had transformed themselves into an offensive weapon as well. The English, whose bowmen had scored a rare success against mercenary pikemen at Stoke in 1487, were slow to adopt the pike. But for the Scots, who, like the Swiss, were less intimidated by enemy cavalry than they were by missile weapons, the pike was an ideal weapon with which to rapidly close with and engage English bow and bill formations.

After the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the Bishop of Durham reported that the Scots had advanced ‘in good order, after the Almayne’s [German’s] manner.’ An inherent weakness in reliance upon pike columns had already been demonstrated at Cerignola, in 1503, when Swiss pikemen had floundered before Spanish entrenchments, well garnished with cannons and harquebuses. At Marignano in 1515–a battle that was to have distinct echoes at Pinkie–a Swiss pike column was halted by a French cavalry charge, then decimated by artillery fire. Nevertheless, the pike was still formidable against an enemy maneuvering for position.

Scotland had also developed a keen interest in the gunpowder revolution, but an indigenous gun-founding industry was slow to develop and the country remained dependent on foreign imports. Legislation demanded that merchants carry at least two ‘hagbutts’ (harquebuses) and powder on homeward voyages from the European mainland. The Scots chief missle weapon at Pinkie Cleugh remained the bow, but they clearly had enough guns to worry the English. One estimate of 1522 referred to the Duke of Albany’s forces on the border having a ‘marvelous great number of hand gonnes’ and 1,000 arquebus à croc–heavy harquebuses mounted on wagons. Scotland’s commitment to ‘pike and shot’ formations clearly demonstrated that, in terms of tactics and equipment, their army, too was developing on the same lines as other European armies.

The English army crossed the Tweed River into Scotland on September 1, 1547, while its supporting fleet skirted the coastline. Light cavalry preceded the advance, probing cautiously along the route north and skirmishing with their Scottish counterparts. Small garrisons, sometimes comprised of only a handful of men in the path of the invader, resisted until they were overwhelmed. The English made prominent use of their firearms in those skirmishes, including Gamboa’s mounted harquebusiers, who clashed with Scottish light horse outside Dunbar.

The Scottish horse–borderers for the most part, who likely had close kin in the English ranks–shadowed the advancing army. The reivers, whether English or Scots, were dangerous adversaries (indeed, given their unpredictability and uncertain loyalties, it was dangerous even to have them on one’s own side). Somerset’s army now eyed the large bands of Scottish troopers warily. The Scots laid ambushes, tempted the English to break formation and employed cunning ruses de guerre to disrupt the advance, at one point trying to tempt an English galley to come ashore, to what would have been an inhospitable welcome, by waving the Cross of St. George on the shoreline. Their success, however, was limited; the English harquebusiers, both on foot and mounted, kept them at arm’s length.

The English finally drew close to the main body of the Scottish army, which was perhaps 26,000 strong, on September 9. The Scottish commander, James Hamilton, the 2nd Earl of Arran–who, like Somerset for King Edward, was serving as regent for the 5-year-old Queen Mary–had selected a strong position following the line of the river Esk, along Edmonston Edge, between Musselburgh and Inveresk. To their left lay the Firth of Forth, and to their right lay an area of extensive marsh. Before them the ground sloped away, with the Esk flowing along the base of the ridge. The natural strength of the position had been enhanced with field fortifications, furnished with cannons and arquebus à croc. With no open flank to turn, the English faced the prospect of assailing the position head on, fording the Esk under fire and advancing up the exposed slope of Edmonston Edge. To add to English worries, the Scottish horse had gathered on the western end of Fawside Brae, a hill overlooking the English army. There, they watched as the English columns formed up in preparation for their assault.

No longer content to keep the Scottish border horse at a distance, Somerset dispatched a body of his own light horse, backed up by heavier demi-lancers, to clear them from the Brae. Patten claimed that there were 1,500 Scots cavalry, supported by 500 concealed infantry. The Scottish horse drew back, apparently hoping to draw their impetuous English pursuers on to the pikes of the concealed infantry, but they had miscalculated the speed of the business-like demi-lancer, who moved faster than the fully armored man-at-arms. The retreating Scots were overtaken and for three miles fought a running battle with sword and lance, in which weight and numbers were clearly on the English side. The Scots cavalry was badly cut up and was able to play no significant part in the next day’s battle.

With his cavalry arm lost, Arran sent two proposals to Somerset. The first offered the English safe passage home if they disengaged. If they would not agree to disengage, Arran offered to settle the matter by personal combat between Somerset and his chosen champion, George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, each to be supported by 20 men. Somerset rejected both proposals.

Scottish hopes of victory were now pinned on their pike-equipped infantry. The question the Regent Arran faced on the morning of September 10 was how best to use that force.

Somerset could have had little doubt that the Scots would fight a defensive battle–the strength of their position suggested that–yet he could still be confident of victory. Experience in the Italian wars had taught Europe’s soldiers that even an enemy in a strong defensive position could be reduced with intensive artillery fire, and Somerset did not lack cannons. Even more important, his navy had taken up a position in the Firth of Forth from which it, too, could assail the Scottish left flank.

Eighty warships accompanied Somerset’s expeditionary force, of which the largest, Henry Grace à Dieu, displaced 1,000 tons and carried 50 guns. Each gun was served by a professional gunner, commanding a gun crew that was drawn from the ship’s complement of mariner-soldiers. Well able to strike a small, bobbing target on the open sea, the English gunners in the Firth of Forth would have no difficulty hitting the Scots’ positions on shore. Moreover, by employing a tactic similar to the cavalry caracole, whereby troopers armed with firearms attacked in column, discharged their weapons and retired to the rear of the column to reload, the English fleet would be able to maintain a sustained bombardment of the Scottish position. A handful of Scottish cannons pointed vainly out to sea to meet that threat, but the lurking menace in the Firth of Forth rendered the position of the Scottish left flank untenable.

Facing the prospect of being blasted out of his defenses, Arran had few courses of action open to him. Retreat was not one of them–with his battered cavalry force unable to screen a withdrawal, the English troopers would have ridden down his slow-moving infantry. Arran’s only other option was to use his pike columns, as modern tactics dictated, as a shock weapon. With sufficient speed and momentum, he hoped to deliver a blow at the right moment to avenge the Scottish defeat at Flodden and send the invaders reeling homeward. Arran’s decision to attack at Pinkie Cleugh has been seen as rash folly, but as it happened, he came closer to success than he had a right to have hoped.

Somerset, meanwhile, was seeking to position his artillery to its best advantage. A particularly useful position would be the hill where Invereske Church stood. This was on the east bank of the Esk, jutting toward the Scottish lines and slightly higher than the positions on Edmonston Edge. The English army, now drawn up along Fawside Brae, turned to march toward that position, presenting the Scottish troops opposite with a temptingly open flank. Somerset had a precedent for believing he could maneuver as he pleased in front of a Scottish army. In 1513, the Duke of Surrey had marched around James IV’s army on Flodden Edge, while the Scots had remained resolutely fixed in their position until it became apparent that the English had cut off their line of retreat. Arran, however, did not let pass a similar opportunity to strike at a disorganized enemy on the move. If his pikemen could cover the ground quickly enough, the English would not have time to form up or get their cannons into position. A spectacular victory seemed to lie within his grasp.

The Scots were formed into three massive columns of pikemen, just as the Swiss traditionally fought. The ‘main battle,’ in the center, was commanded by Arran himself; the ‘forward,’ or right wing, was led by Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus; and the ‘rearward,’ or left wing, was commanded by the Earl of Huntly. Huntly was supported by the largest contingent of Scottish missile troops–Highlanders armed with bows.

The unexpected, ferocious onslaught took the English by surprise–Patten commented that the Scots moved at the pace of cavalry rather than infantry. English bowmen and billmen stumbled their way into a semblance of order; pioneers and gunners struggled to manhandle cannons into position. It was a race against time, and one that the English might easily have lost if it had not been for two factors–the floating batteries in the Firth of Forth and Somerset’s large cavalry force.

Huntly’s rearward was in range of the ships’ guns, and they opened fire with deadly effect. The lightly armored Highlanders broke and fled immediately. Cannonballs crashed into the tightly packed ranks of Huntly’s pikemen, killing swathes of a men at a time. Huntly checked his advance and moved his column inland, colliding not with the English but with Arran’s main battle. The two columns coalesced into one battle, somewhat disordered, but nevertheless able to resume their advance. Angus’ forward came up on Arran’s right flank, and the Scots pressed on. Alongside all three battles, men manhandled cannons and arquebus à croc forward to provide support for the assault columns. Despite the intervention of the fleet, the outcome of the battle still hung in the balance.

Somerset now saw no recourse but to throw his heavy cavalry, the Gentlemen Pensioners and the Bullerners of Boulogne, against the oncoming Scots. Heavily armored, carrying lances, swords and maces, and mounted on powerful destriers (war horses), the English men-at-arms were a potent force, but it would require discipline and nerves of steel to drive a charging horse at a phalanx of resolute pikemen. The English horse had not been expecting such a task that morning and had left their horse bards in camp. They would have to not only charge pikes but also melee, on unarmored horses, against men armed with ax and sword–ideal weapons to hamstring mounts and topple their riders to the ground. This would be bloody work and, had Somerset hoped to break the Scottish columns, a desperate and foolhardy gamble. But that was not his intention–he needed the cavalry only to halt the columns, to gain time for his infantry and artillery.

Experienced French officers had been drilling the Scottish pikemen, and Patten noted the effectiveness of the Scots’ defense against the oncoming charge: ‘They thrust shoulders…nigh together, the fore rank, well nigh to kneeling, stood low before their fellows behind holding their pikes in both hands, and herewith on their left [arm] their bucklers; the one end of the pike against their right foot, the other against the enemy breast high; their fellows crossing their pike points with them forward; and thus, each with other, so nigh as place and space will suffer, through the whole ward so thick, that as easily shall a bare finger pierce through the skin of an angry hedgehog, as any encounter the front of their pikes.’

Both sides brought more artillery pieces into action now, and a pall of dark smoke hung over the battlefield. ‘Herewith waxed it very hot, with pitiful cries, horrible roar, and terrible thundering of guns besides,’ wrote Patten, adding that ‘…each man [was] stricken with a dreadful fear…death to fly and danger to fight.’ Into that maelstrom charged the English heavy cavalry. The Scots were not their only obstacle–a wide ditch crossed the path of their advance, taken at a leap by many, but others stumbled and tripped, blocking the progress of those behind. Furthermore, the field in which the pikes halted to receive the charge was traversed by deep furrows, and the English cavalry struggled to gather momentum. The Scots in the front ranks dared the English to come on, shaking their pike points and crying: ‘Come here, lounds! Come here, tykes! Come here, heretics!’

Whatever the impediments to their charge, the English collided with the pike columns with sufficient force to send a shock wave rippling through Huntly’s ‘battle.’ But the pikemen did not break, and the leading ranks of English cavalry, including Edward Shelley, lieutenant of the Bullerners, collapsed into a tangled mass of dead and dying men and horses. Other Englishmen began to retire back up Fawside Brae, their leaders hoping to re-form for another charge; yet for some, according to Patten, the’sober, advised retire’ turned into ‘a hasty temerious flight,’ and a ‘few lewd soldiers’ panicked and fled the field. More determined men-at-arms tried to hack down the pike points with sword and mace, but with little success. Lord Arthur Grey of Wilton, commander of the English horse, emerged from the melee bleeding badly from a pike thrust through the mouth and throat.

Sir Andrew Flammack, bearer of the King’s Standard, was surrounded by Scots during a fight for possession of the banner. He seemed doomed until Sir Ralph Coppinger, a Gentlemen Pensioner, rushed to his rescue, and the two fought their way to safety. Flammack somehow retained possession of the standard, but the Scots were left in triumphant possession of the staff, which had snapped off in the struggle.

Bloodily repulsed, the English horse withdrew up Fawside Brae. For a moment, the Scots stood victorious on a battlefield strewn with English dead, but their fate was already sealed. English hackbutters, cannons, and longbows were positioned in strength before them. Besides the few cannons manhandled forward by exhausted gunners, the Scots’ own missile strength had melted away under the shore bombardment from the English fleet. Their bloodied cavalry force hung on the edge of the battlefield, eyeing the English baggage train but unwilling to commit itself. The pike columns, now robbed of their momentum and close order, were alone. At the ditch that had held up the English cavalry charge, Sir Peter Mewty had positioned a detachment of harquebusiers who now opened fire on the stationary pikemen. Sir Pedro de Gamboa’s mounted harquebusiers galloped past the Scots, discharging their weapons into their ranks. Archers on the English right flank unleashed the arrow storm once more. Worst of all, the English cannons opened fire on the Scots with hail shot at a devastatingly short range.

Unable to resume their advance, the Scots wavered, faltered, then broke–starting with Arran himself, who ‘took hastily to horse.’ Casting down pikes, swords, jacks and any other encumberences in their haste, the Scottish infantry might have made good their escape if pursued only by English foot. Remarkably, however, the English horse had rallied, and with the deaths of friends still fresh in their minds, they embarked on a merciless pursuit. A horrific slaughter ensued until Somerset, shocked by the bloodletting according to Patten, reined his enraged troopers in.

Pinkie Cleugh was the last formal battle to be fought between England and a Scottish national army; subsequent engagements involved armies of Scots rising up in rebellion to oust their English occupiers. The English had lost about 500 men during the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, but Scottish casualties exceeded 5,000, and 1,500 more were taken prisoner.

Somerset reaped no tangible gains from his victory. He went on to occupy Edinburgh, but with Queen Mary safely in France, Scotland remained intransigent. The garrisons that were established (the largest of which was at Haddinton, where 4,529 troops were stationed) led precarious existences. A French expeditionary force landed at Leith, and Somerset’s weary garrisons struggled to maintain control over the territory they occupied. Their raiding parties found resistance stiffening and noted the increasing presence of tough and well-equipped French soldiers among their opponents. England itself was in a rebellious mood; Somerset himself was ousted by a coup d’état, and his successor had no interest in pursuing war in Scotland. In 1550, even Edinburgh was abandoned.

Perhaps Somerset’s campaign–the ruthless invasion, followed by the bloody, futile slaughter of a beaten enemy and the pointless, brutal subjugation of the civilian population–deserves to slip into oblivion. Yet the significance of the battle goes beyond its inconsequential political context. The tactics and the weaponry employed by both sides were ugly portents for the future. The military reformation had clearly touched England and Scotland; 100 years after Pinkie Cleugh it would be carried to every corner of the British Isles, bringing misery and suffering in its wake.

This article was written by Gervase Phillips and originally published in the August 1997 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!