St Duthac and the Battle of Flodden

This week’s blog post is contributed by Tom Turpie. Tom completed his PhD in Scottish Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh in 2011. He is currently teaching medieval history at Stirling and Edinburgh.

On 8 August 1513 James IV (1488-1513) set off from Edinburgh with £66 in his pocket and accompanied by a small party of retainers to visit the shrine of St Duthac at Tain. He had returned to Edinburgh by 22 August, when he joined the army mustering of the Burgh Muir for the invasion of England. The 500th anniversary of the Flodden campaign was commemorated in Scotland and Northumbria this September. But why did James chose to spend his final days before the invasion in a gruelling trip to the north?

The close relationship between one of Scotland’s most interesting monarchs and the shrine at Tain is reasonably well known. James visited the relics of St Duthac on pilgrimage at least once a year between 1493 and his death at Flodden in 1513. However, the August 1513 visit was different. Firstly this was an unusual time of year for the king to travel to the shrine. Only one of the 19 recorded pilgrimages made by the king took place in August. He normally visited around the time of the feast day of St Duthac on 8 March, or after the harvest in October. The trip in 1513 was also unusually low key. Most of the flamboyant monarch’s visits to the north were accompanied by his minstrels and a large retinue. So what was the purpose of this final visit?

A chance reference to St Duthac in a historical work from the seventeenth century may provide a clue. In 1631 David Chambers, an exiled Catholic living in France, produced a history of Scotland and England. This work was a celebration of both kingdoms’ Catholic pasts and was aimed at Charles I (1625-1649). Chambers included in this work an otherwise unrecorded legend in which Duthac predicted Scots calamities at the hands of the English and Danes, and prophesised their victory over the Norwegians at the battle of Largs in 1263. Interestingly the pilgrimage of 1513 was not the first time that Duthac had been connected with a military campaign. In similar circumstances in 1482, shortly before summoning the host to face an English invasion, James III (1460-1488) founded a chaplainry dedicated to St Duthac in Tain. A connection between Duthac and warfare also features in a 1521 history of Scotland authored by John Maior (1469-c.1550). John recorded an incident he claimed had occurred at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. One of the fatalities at that battle, which took place just outside Berwick, was Hugh, 4th earl of Ross. His death came as a surprise to John, and presumably to Hugh as well, as the earl had been wearing a holy relic, the shirt of St Duthac which was believed to protect its wearer from harm. This holy garment would later resurface in the royal reliquary collection and was mended on the orders of James IV in 1512.

ImageSt Duthac as represented in Tain.  Image from the collection of Tom Turpie.

So did James IV visit Tain in 1513 in order to seek a prophecy of military victory from Duthac? There are plenty of precedents for this sort of behaviour by in the middle ages. The medieval kings of France visited the Abbey of St Denis before going to war, while their English counterparts would visit a string of northern shrines before any invasion of Scotland. Without surviving diaries or letters we will never be sure of the exact motivations behind the doomed monarch’s last trip to the north. He may well have gone merely to seek the blessing of one of his favourite saints, or because he knew he would be on campaign at his normal pilgrimage time of October. Whatever the exact purpose, the visit by James to Tain in August 1513, his last act before invading England, underlines just how close a relationship the monarch had built up with a small northern town and its patron saint.

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