Today – 9 September 2013 – is the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden 500 years ago. Coincidentally, it’s also the anniversary of the day I started Grammar School in 1952 and the day I left England to start a new life in Germany in 1963, though at the time I didn’t know that, blissfully believing I was going for just one year. I prefer not to reflect on how many years ago that was, as it means I have to admit to being over 45.
Both days seem like yesterday but a torrent of water has passed under the bridge since then, and if I dip my toe in it is most decidedly not the same river I was paddling in at that time. Not the same toe, either – I’ve forgotten how often cells regenerate in the human body, but I doubt even the oldest of mine were around in 1963, let alone 1952.
Today archaeologists digging on Flodden Field for remains of the men who slaughtered one another that day paused in their labours to allow a special service to take place honouring the fallen. It was attended by a large congregation, including descendants of those killed in the battle.
If you are the scion of a noble family, it’s easy to find out if your ancestor was there or not. But how can you tell if you are descended from a simple, illiterate pike- or cudgel-bearing foot soldier? Some of the people there claiming to be relatives looked very ordinary to me, hence my question.
By digging around myself – metaphorically, not with the archaeologists – I have traced some of our family tree back to the sixteenth century, though not as far back as 1513. It is very difficult to ascertain who was who among hoi polloi in those days, unless they came to acquire some kind of fame or notoriety. The average law-abiding serf or villein was regarded as scarcely more than the animals he tended, just another pair of hands that the feudal lord could call upon when needed and pack off as cannon fodder when the King wanted to raise an army.
I suppose, once they have found a few bones, there may be a possibility of identifying more present-day descendants by means of DNA. However, unlike with Richard III, we won’t see the unearthing of the bones of James IV of Scotland, who bravely led his men into battle and achieved the dubious distinction of being the last king killed in battle on British soil, because his body was carted off to London and presented as a trophy to the crown. Henry VIII was off fighting the French (and leading from behind to ensure he survived), so it landed with Queen Catherine of Aragon, who had it dumped. By the time his grandson became King of England 90 years later, it had rotted away in a woodshed and there was nothing left to disinter. Thus even if he had wanted to rehabilitate his grandfather, he couldn’t.
There is one beautiful thing to come out of that horrific battle at Flodden field: the lament “Flowers of the Forest” which is played regularly when the Scots are remembering their fallen comrades, especially in the two world wars.