Chapter 5 : Scottish Campaigns
Surrey soon proved his worth, and in 1490 was given a major military command, as Vice-Warden of the East and Middle Marches. The work of the Wardens of the Marches was not easy – they had responsibility for guarding the border, not just against the incursions of official Scottish invasions, which occurred from time to time, but, more generally, working with their Scottish counterparts to maintain order in the district between the two nations sometimes called ‘the Debatable Lands’. Wardens from both sides met regularly to hear cases and try to prevent local feuds spreading.
Surrey was given power to negotiate directly with King James IV of Scotland – a man who took a close personal interest in the activities around the border, and frequently heard cases in person. Henry was willing to trust Surrey, but, of course, he was too careful not to have an insurance policy. Surrey’s two oldest sons, another Thomas, and Edward, who were aged seventeen and fourteen respectively, were honoured by being placed in Henry’s own household – prestigious, of course, but providing a strong incentive for Surrey to stay loyal.
In 1494, he was appointed, along with the Abbot of St Mary’s, York, to arbitrate in a disagreement between the city of York and the cathedral chapter. The city minutes record that the Mayor and Alderman were appointed to meet at 7am on the Monday after 9th April, dressed in violet, to attend on Surrey and the abbot and present their case.
Over time, Henry’s trust grew as he recognised Surrey’s military capability. In the early 1490s, Surrey successfully countered James IV’s various campaigns, although James took considerable amounts of booty. A truce was agreed in 1493. Four years later, war once again broke out, as James IV decided to support the claims of another pretender to the English throne, a young Fleming who claimed to be the missing Richard of York. Since Surrey and his father had benefited mightily from Richard’s disappearance in 1483, Henry VII could depend on Surrey to maintain his loyalty, although Warbeck received support from several European monarchs, as well as James.
James granted Warbeck the daughter of one of his premier earls as a wife, and undertook raids into Northern England, ostensibly in support of Warbeck’s claims – although James soon lost interest in him when the young man showed no taste for the dirty business of war. In 1497, James besieged Norham Castle, but Surrey was not only able to relieve it, but to follow up with a punitive attack on Ayton. By now, Henry trusted Surrey sufficiently to allow his sons to join him, and they were both knighted for their part in the Battle of Ayton.
Surrey, pleased with his success at Ayton, took his troops further north – but neither army was in a strong position for further fighting, and exchanged only insults. James, twenty-four and in the prime of life, decided to challenge Surrey to hand-to-hand combat, with the winner to take the much-fought-over town of Berwick. Surrey was thirty years older than James, and such a situation would be a lose-lose for him – what would be the outcome if he were to kill an anointed king in a one-to-one fight? If he lost, then James would believe that his current moral justification for reclaiming Berwick had been enhanced.
Accounts differ as to what occurred next – according to Cunningham, in his 2007 ‘Henry VII’, Surrey returned a polite answer – he was flattered, he said, that the king wished to honour him but he was too lowly as an earl to fight a king. Furthermore, Berwick belonged to his master, and he had no authority to pledge it. Norman MacDougall, however, in his James IV, states that Surrey accepted the challenge, but James then withdrew. The former account seems inherently more likely.
Whilst Henry initially intended to launch a major campaign to punish James, events in the south precluded it – the vast tax that Parliament had agreed could be raised to fund a war against the Scots had provoked Cornwall into rebellion. Henry, having crushed the rebellion, decided to play safe, and look for a longer-term solution to the Anglo-Scottish problem, sending commissioners north on 5th September to negotiate peace and the truce of Ayton was agreed on the 30th.