September 1547. King Henry VIII of England is dead. His son, Edward VI, rules in name whilst most affairs of state are handled by the Duke of Somerset as the king is only nine years old. Henry’s attempts to secure a betrothal between his son and Queen Mary of Scotland (five years younger than Edward) before his death have yielded no contract. Henry’s hopes - that the union could cement the nations at a time of disarray in Scotland’s leadership – remain unfulfilled. This process – clumsy in execution – has gained the nickname the rough wooing.
The Earl of Somerset has been planning reprisals on Scotland. He gathers English forces at Berwick, south of the Scottish border. They march into Scotland safe in the knowledge that ships hugging Scotland’s east coast will help with supplies and military support if needed. Scotland has responded to the imminent threat. The Earl of Somerset’s Scottish equivalent, the Earl of Arran, has called every man of working age to his army in Edinburgh. Thus the Scottish forces outnumber the English by roughly two to one. However the English have more cavalry, more cannons and more unified leadership and strategy. This will be the last battle on Scottish soil before the unification of nations under one monarch – James VI of Scotland and I of England - Mary’s son.
As the armies move towards battle the Scottish forces gather at Musselburgh. They establish a strong, commanding position – high ground, marshes to one side of them, sea to the other. They build earthen barricades between themselves and the sea in fear of English attacks by water. They are situated above the River Esk – a barrier the English must breach.
Impulsiveness proves a fatal flaw in the Earl of Arran who unleashes his cavalry on the English on 9 September. His enemies respond by decimating the Scottish riders, forcing them away from the main army.
The next day the Scots continue to advance on their foes. The English, who have not wasted their mounted men, attack Scottish foot soldiers who are arrayed in the tight, defensive formations known as schiltrons. Whilst neither side can claim victory the Scots are now on open ground, open to attack from archers, horsemen and sea vessels with cannons. English bombardment from so many forces is too much for the Scots, who start to retreat and are killed, ruthlessly, in large numbers.
This is a huge defeat for the Scots. In attempts to ensure that the English will never fully own the land Queen Mary is spirited away to France, pledged to the French heir Francis. Her heir James – whose kingship will span Scotland and England – will be fathered by Mary’s cousin and second husband, Lord Darnley.