On the Banks of the Esk: The Battle of Pinkie, 1547

Battle of Pinkie

Having recently moved to Musselburgh in East Lothian, it dawned on me that I’m very close to a number of famous battlegrounds.

Living not far from the site upon which the Battle of Prestonpans was fought in 1745, I fully intend to take a stroll along that way at some point and delve into that story. Today, however, I’ll be looking closer to home in Musselburgh, to the Battle of Pinkie, also known as the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh.

Fought on 10th September, 1547, the Battle of Pinkie is a notable event in British history as it marks the final pitched battle between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England before the Union of the Crowns in 1603. The battle was a disastrous defeat for Scotland and came to be known as ‘Black Saturday’.

However, to understand why the Battle of Pinkie was fought, what happened and how it influenced British history, we must first delve into the period leading up to the battle, to a time that is known as the ‘Rough Wooing’.

The Rough Wooing

The Rough Wooing was, as the name might imply, a period in which the Kingdom of England sought to foster closer relations with Scotland. Suffice to say, Scotland was less than keen.

Toward the end of his reign, King Henry VIII made attempts to secure an alliance with Scotland through marriage. This was, in part, to prevent Scotland from further cosying up to France and solidify England’s political dominance on the British mainland.

Traditionally, there had been fears that Scotland would be used by the French as a means to weaken England’s position and, in the event of war, offer France easier entry to mainland Britain.

Under Henry’s proposals, Prince Edward, his young son and heir to Jane Seymour, would marry the infant Scots princess, Mary, and thus the alliance would be secured. However, Henry’s attempts to woo Scotland with diplomacy failed. In response to this, Henry made war against Scotland to force the kingdom into accepting the marriage.

The Burning of Edinburgh in 1544 by an English army is seen as the first major action of the ‘War of the Rough Wooing’. 

One year later, the Battle of Ancrum Moor, fought just outside Jedburgh, saw a Scottish victory temporarily stop English incursions into the Scottish Borders.

In January 1547, Henry VIII died. Following his death, Edward Seymour, Edward VI’s maternal uncle, was appointed Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. Seymour continued the late king’s policy of ‘wooing’ Scotland with war and issued further demands that Scotland accept the marriage.

It is worth mentioning that there were religious elements at play during this period as well. A large contingent of Scots opposed any marriage or alliance out of fear that religious reformation in Scotland would be influenced – or commandeered – by England.

Edward Seymour did little to allay these fears, having also insisted upon the imposition of Anglican reforms on the Scottish Church.

The pawns were set. England threatened war, and Scotland – under the leadership of its regent, the Earl of Arran – was willing to meet the challenge.

Marching to war

In early September 1547, Seymour arrived in Scotland at the head of a sizeable, well-equipped force that was supported by an equally imposing fleet.

Seymour’s infantry was comprised of billmen and longbowmen, supplemented by several hundred mercenary arquebusiers, artillery and 6,000 cavalry. This army was a modern, capable force for its day which also included Spanish and Italian mounted arquebusiers.

Contemporary author and historian William Patten, himself an officer in the English Army, travelled with the force to Scotland. Patten’s account of the campaign place the size of the English army at 16,800 fighting men, supported by more than 1,400 labourers.

Read more Rambling History

Travelling along Scotland’s east coast and maintaining contact with the fleet, English troops were viciously harassed by border reivers. Despite this, the force continued its advance in parallel with another force on the west coast.

Under the command of Thomas Wharton, a diversionary invasion force of 5,000 men advanced northward, taking Castlemilk in Annandale and burning Annan. To oppose the English invasion, the Earl of Arran could draw upon a sizeable number of pikemen, supported by bowmen and artillery. Led by Arran and the Earl of Huntly, Scotland’s infantry placed them in good stead before battle.

Accounts from the time place the size of the Scottish army between 22,000 and 23,000, while English sources claim as high as 36,000 men. In regard to cavalry, Scotland could not muster the same numbers as their opponents. Led by the Earl of Home, Scotland could field just 2,000 lightly equipped cavalrymen.

Chivalry before battle

Taking up a defensive position on the west bank of the River Esk, Arran sought to prevent Somerset from progressing past Musselburgh and toward Edinburgh. Artillery positions were created by the Scots, with some located on the army’s left flank and pointed out to sea to dissuade the English fleet from encroaching too close.

Before the battle had even begun, the Scottish army lost a significant portion of its cavalry force due to the actions of the Earl of Home. In what was by this point an antiquated gesture of chivalry, Home is said to have led 1,500 Scots horsemen to the English encampment and challenged an equal number of English cavalry to fight.

Accepting the challenge on behalf of the English host, Lord Grey rode out and met the Scots at the head of 1,000 heavily armoured men-at-arms and some 500 demi-lancers. The ensuing melee was a mess for the Scots, with several hundred dead and the remaining either badly wounded or routed.

Home was also badly wounded in the engagement and his sons were taken hostage.

Battle of Pinkie

During the dead of night on the 10th September, as both sides lay restless, Seymour received a challenge from the Earl of Arran.

To avoid bloodshed, Arran proposed the two meet on the field and settle the matter themselves. Another duel, but this time Arran hoped to come away victorious. Seymour declined the challenge. Having been rejected once, Arran is also said to have challenged Seymour again, this time with the offer of a duel between 20 champions from either side to fight and win the day.

The battle begins

Dawn arrived on the 10th September, and with it the English host began to advance.

With an English fleet on his left flank and the risk of contending with superior artillery, Arran moved across the River Esk and advanced rapidly toward the English army. However, having left the safety of their own artillery positions, Arran’s forces came under heavy fire from the English fleet; the incoming fire forcing the left flank further inland and causing much confusion.  

A swift cavalry charge from the English forces sought to halt the advance on the Scots’ right flank, but faced with armoured pikemen, the situation was dire. Lord Grey, commander of the English cavalry, is said to have been wounded by a Scottish pike, which plunged through his throat and into his mouth.

Despite initial success in repelling the English cavalry, the Scottish army found itself grinding to a halt, sustaining heavy casualties from the onslaught of English artillery on both land and sea.

Battle of Pinkie
Lord Grey’s cavalry charge at the Battle of Pinkie

Experienced arquebusiers and bowmen deployed by the English also inflicted serious damage on the Scottish force.

Under such an onslaught, the Scots began to falter and eventually broke – with a rejuvenated English calvary force hot on their heels. Many retreating Scottish soldiers drowned in the Esk and boggy terrain while others were run down.

In his account of the battle, William Patten describes a sorry scene for fleeing Scots troops.

He wrote: “Soon after this notable strewing of their footmen’s weapons, began a pitiful sight of the dead corpses lying dispersed abroad, some their legs off, some but houghed, and left lying half-dead, some thrust quite through the body, others the arms cut off, diverse their necks half asunder, many their heads cloven, of sundry the brains pasht out, some others again their heads quite off, with other many kinds of killing.”

According to Patten’s account, the retreating troops were pursued relentlessly for several miles in multiple directions, with some fleeing toward Leith and Edinburgh itself while others made their way south toward Dalkeith.

The aftermath

Precise information on the number of dead and wounded is, as expected, scarce and varied. Some estimates place Scottish losses as high as 15,000 men. However, this is disputed.

Some contemporary figures suggest the Scottish army lost some 6,000 men, with many more taken prisoner. English losses of just 250 men are also believed to be too low given the early casualties suffered by Lord Grey’s cavalry detachment.

What is clear is that the Battle of Pinkie all but destroyed Scotland’s army and marked another disastrous military defeat. But it was that, and only that.

In a political sense, Scotland would survive and despite absolute victory at the Battle of Pinkie, the situation did not improve for England. Rather than ensuring English domination and forcing Scotland’s acceptance of the alliance, defeat at Pinkie led to closer Franco-Scots relations.

The infant Queen Mary was eventually smuggled out of the country, after which she was granted shelter in France and betrothed King Henry II’s heir, Francis. The Auld Alliance remained strong, and in the following year English fears of a French incursion to the north came true.

With the arrival of a French army in Scotland in 1548, England was placed in a precarious position. This, combined with a French assault on Boulogne pressured the English to withdraw.

In 1550, peace was secured.


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