After Flodden: Women’s History Month IV

  23 Mar '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

This week, in our series of Women’s History Month extracts from Rosemary Goring’s Scotland: Her Story, we encounter an instance of women being told to stay at home and keep quiet. The day after the catastrophic Battle of Flodden, which took place on 9th September 1513, Edinburgh’s town council issued a proclamation that men should make ready to defend the city but that women and vagabonds should not furnish a distraction in the streets, and that gentlewomen should go to the church to pray. As Rosemary points out, one consequence of Flodden’s vast death toll was that women stepped into men’s shoes anyway.

Proclamation by town council of Edinburgh, 10 September 1513

The Battle of Flodden was a calamity for the country in every respect. With an estimated 10,000 men dead, including James IV and his son Alexander, women had to step into their shoes, from the dowager queen to the widow of the customs and excise officer in Edinburgh, not to mention the countless ordinary roles of farming, fishing and building. This proclamation by the town council was written the day after the battle, before the full extent of the disaster was known. Its view of what women are capable of is not flattering.

The X day of September, we do you to wit, for as Miele as thair is and greit rumour now laitlie risen within the toun, touching our Soverane Lord and his army, of the quhilk we understand that thair is cumin na veritie as yit, quhairfoir we chairge straitlie and commandis, in our Soverane Lordis name and the Presidentis, for the Provost and Bailzeis within thus Burgh, that all maneir of persounis, nybouris within the samyn, haif readie thair fensabill geir and wapponis for weir, and compeir thairwith to the said Presidentis at jowing of the comoun bell, for the keiping and defens of the toun against thaim that wald invaid the samyn.

And also chairgis that all wemen and speciallie vagaboundis that they pass to thair labouris, and be nat sein upoun the gait clamourand and cryand, under the pain of banisching of thair persounis but favouris: and that the third, wemen of guid, pass to the Kirk and pray, quhen tyme requiris, for our Soverane Lord and his army, and nybouris being thairat.

Five hundred years after the battle, Rosemary’s historical novel After Flodden was published. It tells the story of Louise Brenier, a young Leith woman with family ties to James IV’s court, who certainly didn’t stay at home and pray. She goes in search of her brother Benoit and is swept into a whirl of danger, political intrigue and romance in the Borderlands. The TLS called it ‘A swashbuckling tale in the best tradition of adventure fiction…charged with melancholy and menace.’ This short extract from the first chapter sets the scene:

The first soldiers back from the field at Flodden reached Edinburgh on horseback two days after battle, so torn in clothes and body they were more like crow bogies than men of arms. No-one could mistake them for soldiers who had slipped their leash. Even those unharmed smelled of steel and blood. As news spread of the Scottish army’s rout, of the king’s death and the devastation of Scotland’s troops, fear licked through the city. The king is dead! The English are coming! Word spread fast. Church bells were set ringing, a heart-stopping knell that seemed to mark every one of Flodden’s dead.

Mothers and daughters had heard what advancing armies were wont to do. With too few men to defend them, they hung sheets and shifts from their windows, flags of surrender that whipped at their windowsills all that night, and for many to come. At their doors they gathered their fire-irons and long-handled pots, a housewife’s armoury. They set their household on watch, taking turns to sleep, but there was little rest for anyone that night. In the dark, builders piled their carts high with lime and stones. The next morning, before full light, work began on a new wall, facing south towards the road the English would ride if they came to capture the capital – as surely now they would. Stones were slapped into place by a chain gang, sweat oiling every face despite the cold and wind. The bricklayers worked in near silence. Only when the wall had risen higher than their heads did they relax sufficiently to talk. Their conversation was so gloomy, though, it was worse than silence, and slowly they resumed their miserly habit with words, breaking it only to shout for mortar or rubble or ale.

In a small house in the port of Leith, two seagull’s miles from Edinburgh Castle, the days that followed the news from Flodden were a modern sort of torture. Louise Brenier had heard of the rack and the boot, of what they did to traitors, enemies and spies in the dungeons beneath the castle, but what she and her mother suffered as they waited for Benoit’s return was surely almost as cruel. She felt physical pain, listening for the foot on the stair that never came, or watching the vixen’s ears prick, as if she had heard his voice on the dockside, and then lie flat when she knew it was not him.

When word of the battle reached Mme Brenier, her daughter learnt that blood drains faster from a face than wine from an overturned bottle.

From After Flood by Rosemary Goring – read on…

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