Most history fans will know all about the Battle of Flodden of 1513. Big English victory, crushing Scottish defeat … and the Scots lost their king on the battlefield, too, of course. However, in the blood, mayhem and general confusion that followed, no one seems to quite know for sure what became of James IV’s body. If he died at all, that is.
Accounts of almost all aspects of the story vary – sometimes wildly. What is known for sure is that his army lost heavily and his reign very much ended on that fateful autumn day a little over 500 years ago. He was almost certainly slain in the field, possibly after having stripped himself of his royal regalia to prove he could and would fight as fiercely as any ordinary soldier. He was known to be fearless in the fray and such a demise would not have been out of character.
In the mess that was left after the battle it could not have been easy identifying the ex-monarch, especially if he’d removed his royal garb. Lord Dacre was supposed to have found the corpse, probably on the small hill on Branxton Ridge overlooking Branxton Church. Dacre then had the body taken to Berwick, where it was identified by two Scottish courtiers, before it was embalmed and taken, firstly, to Newcastle, then York, and afterwards onto London (Sheen Priory in Surrey). In the meantime, what was left of the late king’s royal gear found its way to Durham Cathedral.
There was a suggestion that the body be forwarded to English King Henry VIII, but this seemingly never happened. Then rumours of James’ survival began circulating. In Lucan-esque fashion, he was spotted abroad on several occasions, having slipped away at the height of the battle and thence into exile in far off lands; and there were counter-rumours that he had escaped the battlefield and was caught and killed during the Scottish retreat. Some claimed that the recovered corpse was actually that of a ‘Lord Bonhard’.
The ‘official’ body lay at Sheen Priory, London, for a good while. Henry VIII wanted to show some respect and have it interred at St.Paul’s, but as James had been excommunicated this proved difficult and it seems to have just kicked around the priory for years. After the Reformation it seems to have gone missing, though another story has it that the head was secreted away and hurriedly buried in the charnel pit of St.Michael’s Wood Street in the centre of London. This church has long since disappeared, and the site is now occupied by a pub (ironically called The Red Herring). Sheen Priory, on the other hand, is now a golf course.
But check out these, too:-
- Two Scottish castles claim (without any evidence) to be the true burial site of James;
- In the 18th century, the owners of Hume Castle in Berwickshire found a skeleton with an identifying chain belt down its well – which then either went missing or was whisked off for burial at Holyrood Abbey;
- … Roxburgh Castle has made a similar claim;
- And then there was the story of the ‘royal body’ pulled out of the ground somewhere near Kelso;
- Oh, and there is also a tall tale involving spectral riders snatching the body from the battlefield to prevent the English getting their hands on it.
At last, though, a fact: if King James IV of Scotland was slain in the mud and blood of Flodden Field, which is very likely, then he achieved the notable feat of being the last Scottish – or, indeed, British – monarch to be killed in battle. But can we have such a fact without a body?