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The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, 1547 
By Kai Isaksen
As we enter 2014, the 700th-year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and the year of the referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, it may be appropriate to look back at other battles fought between the Scots and the English.

Throughout the centuries, the two nations have fought several epic battles – some well-known like Bannockburn, Flodden, and Cullodden – and others more obscure to the general public, but no less fascinating from a historical point of view.

One such forgotten battle was the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, fought close to the town of Musselburgh, just east of Edinburgh, in 1547.

Many historians have argued that the outcome of the battle had no political consequences and that this may well be why the battle has been largely forgotten outside historical circles.

However, historians also tend to agree that the battle was indeed significant, in that it can be argued to be the first modern battle on British soil, a battle featuring the first real combined arms operations (as we define it through modern eyes), using infantry, cavalry and artillery, as well as naval bombardment, in a coordinated and mutually supportive way on the battlefield.

Historical background for the battle

English King Henry VIII had been busy with more than beheading wives during his reign of England, which came to an end in January 1547 when he died. Although his primary focus had been directed at mainland Europe, securing the border with the Kingdom of Scotland in the north had been high on his agenda as well, if only to secure his back for his planned operations in France.

The border between the two countries had not been settled properly and there were regular instances of cross-border raids and attacks from both sides. King Henry, well-versed in using marriage as a political tool, had hoped to achieve a political union with Scotland, by marrying his son, Edward, to the young Mary, Queen of Scots.

This map shows the lines of advance and the location of the Battle, just outside Musselburgh in East Lothian.

There was some support among the Scottish nobility for the idea, but since Henry tended to back up his marriage proposal with a show of military force in the border areas between the countries, there was also strong opposition in Scotland towards the idea. The traditionally strong links between France and Scotland also played a part in swaying the Scottish nobles against accepting the idea of a marriage union between the two kingdoms.

When King Henry VIII died in January 1547, Edward, now King Edward VI, was still underage, and the kingdom was ruled in effect by the Protector of England – Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset.

Somerset had fully supported the notion of a marriage union between (now) king Edward VI, and Mary, Queen of Scots, but had found King Henry VIII “soft handed” in forcing the marriage through. Consequently he devised a strategy which included an invasion of Scotland and establishing garrisons in the key cities to ensure “loyalty to the union”.

Warfare in the 16th century

The 1500’s were in many ways a major transitional period in European warfare, with new weapons (gunpowder), new tactics, and new ways of deploying cavalry, infantry and artillery being developed.

Armies now started to deploy a combination of pikemen and missile troops (bow, cross-bow and more frequently the harquebus) and a bit later the first muskets started to make an appearance on the battlefields, changing the way armies manoeuvred and fought. The light cavalry, in contrast to the heavy cavalry of earlier times, started to become more important, and mobility rather than armour was seen as critical for the mounted soldiers. Heavy cavalry, still heavily armoured, tended to stay in the saddle, rather than dismounting to fight, as had been the trend of the late 1400’s – partly motivated by experiences of the English fighting Scots.

The various Italian city states were in many ways driving the innovation at the time, while Britain was considered by many historians as a bit of a backwater in terms of military development at the time. English armies at the time would still deploy the same tactics that had worked well at Agincourt in 1415, with a combination of dismounted knights and longbows. The Scots tended to rely on clan militias, armed with spears, bows and massive two-handed swords (claymores).

Harquebus (arquebus) image from Wikipedia.

During the Wars of the Roses, foreign mercenaries had brought with them some elements of modern warfare to England, though, for instance the use of pikes and harquebusiers. But, these mercenaries had shown limited results against the traditional English longbows and dismounted knights.

Henry VIII had initiated experiments with gunpowder weapons during his reign, with the focus on naval guns, and he had also gone to some trouble to create a larger standing (professional) army than was normal at the time. England also traditionally maintained garrisons at key locations (Berwick, Calais, etc.) in peace time, and relied on levies and county forces to muster armies for campaigns. King Henry VIII also created a standing naval force which included early versions of marines- estimated to be close to 10,000 men in 1547.

A general trend in Europe at the time was an increase in army size and large groups of mercenaries who offered their services to the monarchs of Europe. Swiss and German pike men, Albanian and Croatian light cavalry, and Italian harquebusiers were a feature of many of the armies that took to the fields. King Henry VIII’s army that fought in France in the 1540’s, consisted of around 25% foreign mercenaries that offered specialist capabilities that the English themselves could not muster.

The English invasion army in 1547

The Duke of Somerset had amassed an army of some 16,000 soldiers for the invasion of Scotland in the late summer of 1547. The army included a company of mounted harquebusiers from Spain, as well as Italian and German mercenaries.

However, the main part of the army was still organised and armed along traditional English lines, with longbows and armoured knights that would dismount to fight. The bow still held the advantage in terms of rate of fire over the harquebus, but the gunpowder weapons tended to cause greater damage to the enemy per round fired. High rate of fire had served the English well at Agincourt and commanders still relied on the longbows to disrupt the enemy, and saw no major advantage in replacing it with the harquebus.

It is estimated that between 500 and 700 of the troops had gunpowder weapons, corresponding to only around 4% of the troops, so it was very much still a traditional army that crossed the river Tweed.

The English army included a sizeable artillery component, led by a master gunner appointed directly by the King.  King Henry VIII had actively sought to develop the artillery and had employed continental experts as well as English ones, to develop the tactics and doctrines for use of artillery in battles. At Pinkie Cleugh, the artillery would show how effective it could be, if handled correctly and according to tactical doctrines.

The Royal Navy, under Lord Edward Clinton, would also take part in the battle, supporting the army with artillery fire from their position in the firth of Forth. The Royal Navy had been transformed into a force deploying ships with artillery, meant to engage and sink enemy ships, rather than boarding (or ramming) as had been the traditional method of naval warfare. The heavy guns, despite still lacking in accuracy, would play an important part in the battle.

Nearly a quarter of the English army consisted of cavalry, including both light cavalry (the Spanish mounted harquebusiers) and some 500 heavy cavalry from English garrisons in Calais and Boulogne.

The Scottish Army in 1547

The Scottish army still relied on a medieval organisation, where every man was still responsible for his own equipment and clans organised their fighters into companies according to territorial adherence. This meant that the equipment varied greatly between the soldiers; some of the nobles had suits of plate armour, whereas most had leather or no armour at all. Weapons varied between axes, swords, spears, pikes, bows, crossbows, and a few hand guns. There were strict regulations about acceptable weapons, and regular musterings were held to check that each man complied with the regulations for equipment. There were few professional soldiers, and no permanent force like the continental armies had evolved into.

The Scots also generally lacked cavalry, and what was present tended to be light cavalry on horses that doubled as work horses in civilian life. The Scots did have a company or so of “reivers” (mounted infantry operating in the border areas between England and Scotland who served as scouts for the Scottish army).

The Scottish army was further divided into Lowland and Highland components, each with its own tactics, training and traditions. At Pinkie Cleugh, then, it was mainly a foot army that faced the English, as had been most Scottish armies through history.

The Scots had been faster than the English to adopt the pike as the standard infantry weapon, partly stemming from their experiences from using heavy spears to defend against cavalry (as for instance at Bannockburn) in earlier battles.  Scottish infantry tactics in 1547 had evolved based on influences from the continent, where Swiss pikemen had led the development of new fighting techniques (rendering the pike an offensive weapon as well as a strong defence against cavalry). At the outset the pike should have been an ideal weapon to deal with the English arms and tactics at the time of the battle, save for the emerging role of the artillery.

Although Scotland was quite familiar with gunpowder weapons, the relative weakness of the Scottish economy had prevented a domestic gun powder industry to develop.  Therefore, the Scots relied on imports, mainly from France, for their weapons and supplies. They had even implemented legislation to force all traders to carry back harquebuses and gunpowder from their visits to mainland Europe, and by the time of the battle of Pinkie Cleugh, it is estimated that the Scots had as many as 1,000 harquebusiers in the field. The Scots were, in other words, well on the way to develop an army similar to the “pike and shot” armies that operated in mainland Europe. On paper then, the Scots in some ways fielded the more modern force of the two armies on the 10th September 1547, despite some historians claiming that the Battle pitched an English “renaissance army” against a Scottish “medieval army”.

The Battle

On 30th August 1547, the English army, led by the Duke of Somerset, crossed the river Tweed at Berwick and marched north into Scotland. At the same time, the Royal Navy support ships sailed north along the coast, aiming for the town of Dunbar as their first target.

The English were aware of Scottish “reivers” operating in the area, and proceeded slowly and carefully along the roads northwards. Small skirmishes between light cavalry from both sides took place, and the Scots put up spirited fights along the way as small garrisons were attacked by the English. Outside Dunbar, the Spanish harquebusiers are reported to have taken part in the combat for the first time, driving the Scots away with accurate and devastating fire.

The Scots laid carefully planned ambushes along the way to slow the English down and give the main army time to muster. But the English used their harquebusiers to keep the Scots from closing ranks.

Still, by the time the English closed on the Scottish Army on the 9th September, the Scots had amassed some 25,000 soldiers, led by the Earl of Arran, James Hamilton – the Scottish counterpart to Somerset, as he too served as Protector of his Kingdom while the Regent was under age.

The Scots had chosen to place their forces along the bank of the river Esk, between the towns of Musselburgh and Inveresk, forming a strong defensive position. Their line was anchored on the Firth of Forth to the left, and they were positioned along a ridge, with the river and gently sloping terrain to their front. They had built field fortifications to further strengthen their defensive positions. These had stationary heavy harquebuses, essentially light artillery. The entire line was designed to deny the English a flank they could turn and force them to advance up the slope of the ridge straight into the Scottish fire after they had crossed the river on the only bridge available at the time. The Scottish cavalry was stationed in front of the Scottish lines, along the Fawside Brae, a hill overlooking the English positions, giving the Scots a perfect view of the English preparations for battle.

The first decision of Somerset when his forces arrived during the 9th, was to dispatch a force of cavalry to drive the Scots from the Fawside Brae. The Scots initially drew back, planning to lure the English onto the pikes of around 500 hidden infantry. However, they miscalculated the speed of the English lancers, which moved quicker than heavily armoured cavalry, and the Scots were caught in the open and forced to fight a retreating battle for two miles.

The English cavalry now had the advantage of numbers and slowly gained the upper hand, and proceeded to maul the Scottish cavalry badly, in fact so much that the Scottish horse would play no significant in the main battle the next day.

In the evening of the 9th of September, the Earl of Arran, having lost most of his cavalry, offered to settle the matter in personal combat between his champion, the Earl of Angus and the Duke of Somerset himself. He also offered the English safe passage south, should they choose to leave Scotland.

Somerset rejected both proposals, probably at this stage feeling he could win the battle, despite the Scots still outnumbering him and occupying the better defensive terrain.

Somerset may have had some cause for optimism. The Italian wars had shown that artillery could almost negate the advantage of strong defensive positions if deployed correctly. In fact, Somerset had brought with him an impressive array of artillery in different sizes, and he had with him skilled artillery officers that had surveyed the Scottish positions during the afternoon of the 9th.

Furthermore, his naval support had now reached the Firth of Forth and taken up positions just outside Prestonpans, ready to support the army with their heavy artillery. A total of eight to twelve warships were now on station, the largest carried 50 guns alone. Despite the relative inaccuracy of the ship artillery at the time, the professional English gunners would have no problems hitting the Scottish positions. The Scots could muster only about 10 cannon against the naval squadron off shore, and these would do hardly any damage to the ships.

For the Scots the situation was bleaker. Having lost most of the cavalry in the skirmish on the 9th, the Earl of Arran had to rely on his strong pike formations to defeat the English. The loss of his cavalry had also rendered the option of retreat impossible.

Also the strong threat of English artillery bombardment rendered his defensive positions potentially useless, so he was faced with a difficult choice; stay in his positions and face the bombardment, or move out to engage the English on open ground, where his pikes could make a possible difference.

As it was, he chose to follow the modern tactics developed in Europe, and use his pike formations in an offensive role, hoping to push through so he could engage the English gunpowder weapons and artillery fast.

Historians, seeing the battle through modern eyes, have criticised his decision to move out of defensive positions that day, but at the time it must have seemed like a prudent thing to do.

As it was, he came very close to defeat the English and avenge the loss at Flodden.

The English were focused on getting their artillery positioned and had identified the hill on which Inveresk Church was located on the East bank of the river Esk. This would have allowed them to fire down into the Scottish defensive positions along the ridge.  Consequently, in the morning of the 10th September, the English began to march east towards the hill in order to gain that advantage.

The English did not expect the Scots to leave their defensive positions, so did not worry that such a move would expose their flank to an attack by the Scots – after all, the Scottish cavalry was all but destroyed. It is possible that Somerset was influenced by his experience from the Battle of Flodden in 1513, where he had been able to march at will in front of the Scots, who stayed fixed in their defensive positions.

The Earl of Arran, having already decided to take the fight to the English, reacted quickly when the opportunity presented itself; copying the Swiss practice of organising pike columns, he sent three large columns of pike onto the field at Pinkie Cleugh.

He, himself, commanded the centre, while the Earl of Angus commanded the right wing, and the Earl of Huntly commanded the left wing. Huntly also had a sizeable contingent of Highland archers at his disposal. These three columns, from right to left, crashed into the English flank around noon on September 10th.

The English were caught completely by surprise, first by the fact that the Scots had left their defensive positions, and then by the speed of the Scottish advance, compared by contemporary sources as “more akin to cavalry than infantry.” The English all along the line struggled to get organised, gunners struggled to get their guns into position and infantry to form up in ranks.

The Scots came close to rolling up the entire English line, but two main advantages saved the English; the Royal Navy on the Firth of Forth, and the massive cavalry force Somerset had brought with him.

On the left side of the Scottish line, the Earl of Huntly’s column was within range of the massive guns on the English ships in the Firth of Forth. The ships opened fire with devastating accuracy, and the Highlanders were caught out in the open. They broke ranks after a short while and fled back towards the Scottish defensive positions. The tight ranks of pikemen were the next to be hit by the massive cannon balls from the ships which tore great holes in their ranks.

The Earl of Huntly, seeking to get out of range of the ships, moved his column inland – towards the centre of the Scottish army. As a result, his column crashed into, and merged with, the central column, commanded by the Earl of Arran at the critical point when this had just begun to engage the English army.

The ensuing disorganisation caused the attack to lose some momentum at a critical point, but the Scots pressed on. The fire from the ships had slowed the Scottish attack down enough for the English to organise their forces for defence.

The Duke of Somerset, realising the battle hung in the balance, decided to order his cavalry – heavy and light – into the battle, and these charged straight at the massed pikes of the Scots. As it was, the English heavy cavalry had expected to largely be left out of the battle, given the absence of Scottish cavalry, so they had not fully kitted out and were now forced to attack the Scots on unarmoured horses.

It would be a bloody affair against the pike wielding Scots, who also had axes and swords ideal for cutting at the legs of the horses.

Luckily, Somerset did not need his cavalry to defeat the Scots, and his intention was just to slow the Scots down so he could position his artillery and infantry for a counter attack.

The Scots had been well drilled in the use of pikes against cavalry, and held against the cavalry charge, as could be expected, but the charge had halted their advance. The English horse faced horrible losses, including several high ranking commanders – Lord Wilton emerged from the charge having taken a pike thrust through his mouth and jaw - but they had bought the time their army Commander-in-Chief had needed.

At one point the King’s standard bearer was surrounded by Scots but managed to fight his way out of it with assistance from Sir Coppinger, who saw the danger and rushed to assist.

The English cavalry now retreated up the side of Fawside Brae, having taken horrible losses, and for a moment the Scots held the field. However, the sacrifice of the English horse had allowed the rest of the army to get into position, and the Scots now came under heavy artillery fire from several directions.

The English harquebusiers and longbowmen joined in, and the Scots faced a hail storm of missiles thrown at them. The Highland archers were in full flight after the naval bombardment, so the Scots had nothing to answer the English bombardment with and the remainders of their cavalry had no stomach for a fight after their defeat the day before.

Predictably, the Scottish pike formations broke under this heavy fire, their momentum broken and their tactical advantage wiped out. It is said that the Earl of Arran himself was among the first to flee the field, taking flight on horse.

The Scottish infantry threw down their weapons and fled as fast as they could, and could have had a chance to get away, had the English horse not rallied by now and swept down from the Fawside Brae, pursuing the fleeing Scots, inflicting massive casualties in the chaos.

In the end, Somerset called an end to the slaughter, allowing the last bands of Scots to escape.

The site of the Battle is marked by this memorial and commemorated annually by the population of Musselburgh and Inveresk..


The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was the last pitched battle fought between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland; later battles were fought between Scottish armies risen in rebellion against the English Crown rather than between two national armies.

The English lost between 500 and 1,000 men at Pinkie Cleugh (general consensus seems to be around 600), whereas the Scots lost at least 5,000 killed – some sources claim as many as 15,000 - with a further 1,500-2,000 captured – most of these in the cavalry pursuit after the Scottish line broke under English artillery bombardment. The Scottish army had effectively ceased to exist.

However, there were few long term political consequences from the battle. Although the English advanced to occupy Edinburgh a couple of days later, the Scots had sent their young queen to safety in France, so there would be no marriage and union between the two Crowns at this stage.

The English left a garrison of nearly 5,000 men at Haddington in East Lothian, and a few other garrisons scattered around in the borders area, harassing the civilian population with regular raids and punitive expeditions to keep the Scots at bay. A couple of years later the French sent an expeditionary force to Scotland, landing at Leith harbour and proceeding to harass the English forces at every opportunity. The well-trained French soldiers rallied parts of the Scottish forces that had fled the field at Pinkie and kept up resistance.

When Somerset himself was dethroned by a coup, Edinburgh was abandoned in 1550, barely three years after the battle, and slowly the English forces retreated back south across the border leaving the English with no gain from their victory..

As it stands, the Battle of Pinkie remains one of the largely forgotten battles in the wars between Scotland and England, but it did not lack in drama or bloodletting.

The battle gave a glimpse of the future in terms of combined arms tactics and the artillery emerged as a major player on the battlefield.

Once again a massive butcher’s bill financed military innovation.

....and “Cleugh” is a Gaelic word for a cleft or ravine, or a narrow valley.
* * *

© 2023 Kai Isaksen.

Published online: 06/22/2014.

Written by Kai Isaksen. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Kai Isaksen at:

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