The bodies might be gone but the Tudor appetite for desecration still chills the blood

A team of medieval jousters practice before the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden at Traquair House in May (PA)

More than fourteen thousand men were killed at Flodden five hundred years ago this month. But archaeologists, excavating the battlefield in Northumberland have found no remains of the ordinary Scottish and English combatants. The ground is boggy and as work came to an end this week, the team director Chris Burgess explained, “a burial pit here would flood”. We do know the fate, however, of the most significant figure to be killed in the battlefield – James IV of Scots.

King James was found after the battle lying near the royal Scottish banner of the red lion rampant. According to one account that reached France he was still alive, but only just. His left hand was almost severed, his throat gashed, and an arrow was shot through his lower jaw. The English battlefield commander, the Earl of Surrey, was rewarded by Henry VIII for his victory with the restoration of the family title, Duke of Norfolk, and he chose an augmentation to his family arms that still recalls the spectacle of James’s body as the life left him: a red lion rampant, with an arrow through its head.

James’s corpse was brought to London from Flodden and paraded through the streets slung over a horse, just as Richard III had been paraded through Leicester after he was killed at Bosworth. It was then delivered to the Carthusian Monastery at Sheen, but it could not immediately be buried there. James had died an excommunicate, after having defied Papal orders that he not attack England while Henry was in France fighting in a Papal cause. Henry had to ask permission for James to be buried in sacred ground. A request for a funeral at St Paul’s was, however, soon granted.

Strangely, however, Henry never would bury James at St Paul’s or anywhere else. After the dissolution of the monasteries, and in the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, the body was still at Sheen, where it was found cast “into an old waste room amongst old timber, stone, lead, and other rubble”. Later some Elizabethan workmen cut off James’s head “for their foolish pleasure”. It still had his red beard when a Londoner rescued it, keeping it in his house, saying it smelled nice. Eventually he had it buried at St Michael’s Church, Wood Street, in the City of London.

The Church burned down in the Great Fire of 1666 and today a pub marks the burial spot of the last king to be killed in battle on British soil. Was this treatment simply because James was an old enemy, who also happened to be Henry’s brother in law? Or does it reflect something else that was going on at the time? Desecrating the bodies of enemies had a long and grisly tradition, but it was not only the bodies of enemies that were carelessly treated as the century progressed. I noted recently in the Catholic Herald, that body of Henry VIII great grandfather, Owen Tudor, now lies under a housing estate.

Did people become inured to the desecration of bodies during the Reformation period? Monasteries, churches, and individual tombs engraved with prayers for the dead or figurative religious art, were destroyed during the reigns of three Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. People must have often seen human bones simply dumped amongst the ruins.

There is description of Henry VIII’s men after Flodden rounding up the loose horses of the fallen. They are even listed – a bay trotting horse, a grey mare with one eye, a nag with a cloudy face – all living reminders of their former riders. Similarly, all around us, in broken stone, and place names recalling a Greyfriars, or a Blackfriars, there are haunting echoes of the dead violated in their graves during the later Tudor period. Like the bodies at Flodden these desecrated corpses have vanished, but the story of that violence still chills the blood.