Robert Hardy impressed on first visit to Flodden

Actor and long bow expert Robert Hardy at the foot of Braxton Hill
Actor and long bow expert Robert Hardy at the foot of Braxton Hill

Stars of the Harry Potter films might be more familiar with Alnwick Castle, but one of them has made a trip to another historical Northumbrian site.

Robert Hardy, who played Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, visited Flodden before giving a talk on the battle at Lady Waterford Hall, Ford.

Actor and low bow expert Robert Hardy with Flodden historian Clive Hallam-Baker and a bill hook at the foot of Braxton Hill

Actor and low bow expert Robert Hardy with Flodden historian Clive Hallam-Baker and a bill hook at the foot of Braxton Hill

As well as being one of Britain’s best-loved actors, Hardy, 86, is an expert on military history, and the longbow in particular. He was a founder-member of the English Heritage Battlefields Panel.

“This is the very first time I’ve visited, which is absolutely shocking considering that I used to live in Scotland, and half of my life has been spent trying to preserve battlefields,” he said.

Clive Hallam-Baker, of Remembering Flodden, invited Hardy to give the annual Flodden lecture and accompanied him on a tour of the battlefield.

The two men enjoyed retracing the routes of the two armies, and imagining the landscape 500 years ago, when what is now a fertile field was a boggy marsh.

Hallam-Baker, a Branxton resident for 27 years, showed off his replica arrows and a very threatening billhook, the like of which would have been used by Scottish infantry.

Hardy was keen to check the terrain and the information boards with his own hand-drawn map, in biro, on a piece of scrap paper he kept in his pocket.

He was amazed at how little the rest of the landscape had changed, and made a case for keeping it that way: “It is absolutely vital that Flodden is preserved because the landscape has hardly changed. We preserve monuments and cathedrals but battlefields are even more worth preserving because of the great events which happened there.”

The afternoon helped persuade Hardy that his personal theory about the battle might be right.

“I become more and more convinced,” he said, “that the main achievement of the battle was by English archers and the sharp moves of their commander, the Earl of Surrey.

“The longbow was very much a superweapon of the time. It’s been agreed pretty conclusively that the Scots’ armour was inadequate to stand up to English arrows, but remember, many of the Scottish troops would have been lightly-clad Highlanders, who would have been even more at risk.

As well as this, Hardy could visualise the impact of early English artillery, which worked much better than the Scottish equivalent.

“English guns shot smaller balls [he puts together his thumb and index finger to show the size] much further.” He was delighted to be able to test his theories on a landscape he had read about since his youth.

“I have read every available account, but until you walk a battlefield, it is difficult to come to any firm conclusions,” he said. “And in the end, because there was so little written, much of what we think has to be just theory.”

When pushed, he admits that this method of thinking has probably helped him in his acting career.

“When you are playing historical characters, I suppose that makes you go back to their context, whether it’s Churchill or Henry V or whoever. And then I got hooked on the context and the history.”

It did not take him long to start thinking of such a context for Flodden.

“Remember, when the King of France ‘Tweeted’ to James IV of Scotland, or their version of it, anyway, to go and attack England, Catherine of Aragon was acting as regent over the whole country.

“Now, there is a great deal of nonsense talked about women at that time, being downtrodden, ignored and so on. This was the queen to Henry VIII, one of the most powerful monarchs we have ever had!

“I’m sure she wasn’t telling Surrey where to place his troops the night before the battle, but she was not exactly ignorant.”

As the walk reached the Flodden Memorial, Hardy got to wondering why the battle still evokes such strong emotions.

“Well, the easy answer,” he said, “is that the English remember it because they defended their country against the invaders, and the Scots mourn a massive defeat. But it has to have something a bit more to than just that, for remembrances to last this long.

“And of course, in these times, when the question of Scottish independence keeps being raised, that lends Flodden an extra flavour. Can you imagine, in a few years’ time, having to show passports on Flodden Field?”

Hardy’s career began with classical parts in the theatre, but he hates the rumour that he became interested in military history after playing Henry V.

“I’ve heard that and it’s a load of rubbish! The truth is that when I was about six years old I discovered two longbows in the attic at home.”

He was discouraged from reading History when he went up to Oxford, however, his school advising him to take English in order to have a ‘Mr Lewis’ as his tutor.

This ‘Mr Lewis’ turned out to be none other than writer C S Lewis, and Hardy also studied under Lord of the Rings Author J R R Tolkien.

He went on to act in many acclaimed theatre productions and feature films, often with his close friend Richard Burton.

He is best known for his role in the BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small, and several of the Harry Potter films.

But his love of medieval history, and the longbow in particular, never left him.

He has published two books on the weapon, Longbow and The Great Warbow.

Interest in Flodden is at a high, approaching the 500th anniversary in 2013, and Hardy is keen to return, especially after his talk was sold-out. “I’d love to come back for the anniversary next year,” he said, “I imagine that will be quite a sight.”