On September 9th this year, Scotland commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. It is thought that King James IV declared war on England as a way of diverting his brother-in-law Henry VIII from military action in France. In honouring the “Auld Alliance”, James was responsible for the bloodiest battle in Scottish history.
The fighting began in the early afternoon and by dusk, over 10,000 Scots men lay dead, many as a result of catastrophic errors of judgement on the part of King James and his advisors, including his right-hand man Patrick Paniter. Paniter ordered the Scots cannons to be re-sited, misjudging both the time it took to relocate them and their range of fire. Among the thousands cut down that day were the King himself, his son Alexander, and a great swathe of the Scottish aristocracy, collectively referred to as the “Flowers of the Forest”. Paniter managed to escape. It is the aftermath of the battle, both political and personal, that Rosemary Goring sets out to explore in her debut novel, After Flodden.
As historian and literary editor, Goring has long been fascinated with this dark period in Scottish history. She reveals in The Herald that prior to writing her novel, she began to look at Flodden again in light of recent events on the world stage, questioning both the nature of the men who had prevailing power and how wives, mothers and sisters of those fighting in the battle coped in its aftermath. This re-imagining has resulted in an engrossing, meticulously-researched tale rich in romance, high adventure and political intrigue.
The Flodden aftermath is seen through the eyes of several characters, including Louise Bernier, searching for her soldier brother, Benoit, and Paniter, the King’s shadowy, powerful secretary. In Paniter, the author offers a forbidding picture of a man at times almost paralysed with guilt. Remorse leads him to help Bernier, an adventurous heroine who is determined to discover the fate of her brother.
The first quarter of the novel feels disjointed in part because of the decision to use a non-linear structure, which feels forced. The brilliant opening scene, for example, where Bernier hammers on Paniter’s door, as the once-powerful man weeps in his room, is inexplicably cut short. This abrupt cut in the narrative results in Bernier being left sitting on a bench in the hallway for three chapters as the narrative drifts through a lengthy and often confusing backstory. When the narrative does return to the original scene, its impact has been diluted. The use of an omniscient narrator is also problematic; the perspective switches constantly between Bernier and Paniter, when perhaps use of a first person or third person subjective narration might have given a more intense experience for the reader.
Happily, the novel develops a clearer structure and stronger temporal focus as Bernier makes her epic journey to find out the truth about her brother. She travels to the wild and lawless border country, accompanied, as in all good quests, by characters who are both endearing and enigmatic such as the young orphan, Hob, and the courtier, Gabriel.
After Flodden is an ambitious and sweeping first novel which should appeal to fans of historic romantic fiction. The aftermath of the battle provides a dramatic, thought-provoking backdrop to an intriguing traditional adventure story which, whilst not entirely without its faults, nevertheless makes for an engaging and rewarding read.