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Issue 40 - The Rough Wooing

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Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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The Rough Wooing

James Irvine Robertson delves into the history of a rough royal courtship.

In his declining years, and having recently beheaded the fifth of his six wives, Henry VIII of England wanted glory, and glory was to be found in battle on continental Europe against France. But Scotland was locked into the Auld Alliance with his enemy and this needed to be broken for him to have any chance of success.

This strategy lay at the heart of what was the last attempt by England to invade and conquer its northern neighbour.

Subsequent conflicts were about the control of the government of Great Britain.

But this last campaign would prove to be the bloodiest of them all.

In 1542, Henry asked the Scottish king, his nephew James V, to repudiate the Alliance and turn Protestant. The Scots king declined.

Henry sent 3,000 troops north and James gathered an army of some 18,000 to meet them. The two forces met, or nearly met, at Solway Moss in the Borders. The Scots fled at the sight of the English. The latter lost some seven men, the Scots several hundred and 1,200 prisoners were taken. On hearing the news of the debacle, James turned his face to the wall and died, leaving his six day-old daughter Mary as his heir.

Henry VIII, like Edward I before him, thought his problems were over. He could marry his heir Edward to the infant queen; he would become her guardian, and the two kingdoms would be united under his control.

He released many of his noble captives on condition that they would help him achieve his objective. He had further support from the increasingly powerful Protestants. The Treaty of Greenwich in July 1543 seemed to confirm the deal. It would unite the crowns and Mary of Scotland would live in England until her marriage.

But the Regent of Scotland, the Earl of Arran, was unwilling to surrender Scots independence, as was the wily anti-English Cardinal David Beaton of St Andrews who was the backbone of the nation’s resistance faction. The latter took the infant queen to Stirling Castle, safely out of Henry’s reach.

The English king, unused to being thwarted, reacted with fury and broke the Treaty by seizing Scots merchant ships trading with France. Scots of all classes were outraged; Arran and Beaton had the people behind them. Parliament revoked the Treaty and renewed the Auld Alliance with France.

Henry next sent north a punitive expedition with instructions to ‘put all to fyre and swoorde, burne Edinborough towne, so rased and defaced when you have sacked and gotten what ye can of it, as there may remayn forever a perpetual memory of the vengeaunce of God lightened upon them for their faulsehode and disloyailtye.’ And ‘putting man, woman and child to fyre and sworde without exception, where any resistance shall be made agaynst you,’ Edinburgh and everything within a seven mile radius was laid waste. So was Fife.

The town of Dunbar was set on fire and its population burnt in their beds. The destruction continued through the year; 192 ‘towns, towers, stedes, barmkyns, parish churches, and castell houses’ were taken and burnt, including Melrose Abbey. Livestock stolen in the same period amounted to 10,386 cattle, 12,429 sheep, 1,296 horses and 200 goats.

If Henry was trying to win over Scotland, he was not going about it the right way.

History should have taught him that such tactics had never worked in the past and would not work now. In an echo of William Wallace’s campaign 250 years earlier, a small Scots force managed to surprise and rout an English army of 5,000 at the Battle of Ancrum Moor, killing 600 and capturing a thousand.

It was the greatest military reverse of Henry’s reign, and his European enemies exulted in his humiliation.

The French realised that there might be a useful second front in the north in their war against the English. They sent 3,500 soldiers who landed in Dumbarton in June 1545. But Scots resistance was undermined by sections of the nobility sympathetic to England and a Protestant alliance, which allowed another English expeditionary force under the Earl of Hertford to ravage the south of the country, burning the abbeys of Kelso, Jedburgh and Dryburgh.

In May 1545, Henry sanctioned a plot to eliminate Cardinal Beaton. Asmall group of disgruntled Fife lairds and Protestant zealots, who included the Reformer John Knox, burst into the cardinal’s castle in St Andrews, where they assassinated him and proceeded to hold the castle for England for a year until it fell to a sea-borne assault from French galleys.

Henry died in January 1547. The Earl of Hertford, now Duke of Somerset, was named Protector of England. And he redoubled efforts to force the Scots marriage for the 10 year-old king. This time he came north with an army of 17,000, including for the first time some 4,000 heavy cavalry and artillery. Arran, uniquely, sent the Fiery Cross through the kingdom and gathered 25,000 men who met the invaders at Pinkie Cleugh, half a dozen miles east of Edinburgh. It has been described as a conflict between an army of the Renaissance and one of the Middle Ages, and the last battle to be fought between the kingdoms of Scotland and England.

The result was a catastrophic defeat for the Scots. Amongst those captured was the Earl of Huntly, who remarked that he ‘did not so much mislike the match as the rough manner of wooing’ and thus gave the name to the campaign.

Following the Scottish defeat, power began to move from Arran to the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise. She appealed for more French aid, and its price was the betrothal of the infant Queen of Scots to Francis, the heir to the French throne. Shortly after the landing of another 5,000 French troops at Leith in June 1548, Queen Mary left for France, where she would marry the Dauphin, be widowed and finally return to Scotland 13 years later.

The English seized and occupied the town of Haddington, east of Edinburgh; fighting continued but Henry’s policy had failed.

The Treaty of Norham of June 1551 put the seal on peace. The Rough Wooing had achieved nothing except an enormous drain of resources, appalling casualties and a delay in the implementation of the Reformation in Scotland.