Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Like leaves in Autumn...

The 21st of July marks the anniversary of the Battle of Shrewsbury, one of the most important battles fought on English soil. Had the result gone the other way in 1403, it's quite possible that England would have been carved into two separate pieces, with a King in the North and a King in London, and Wales would be much larger than it is (and probably independent of England).

These, at any rate, were the terms of the Tripartite Indenture, an agreement drawn up between  the Welsh rebel leader Owain Glyn Dwr, Edmund Mortimer and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. The indenture was drawn up in 1405, two years after Shrewsbury, but it seems likely that similar terms would have been agreed if the rebels had won the battle.

The battle was fought between a rebel army led by Northumberland's famous son, Henry 'Hotspur', so-called for his habit of dashing everywhere at high speed (pity the horses). Hotspur had won a glorious military reputation in the North, despite being on the losing end at the Battle of Otterburn. The Scottish victory at Otterburn, and the exploits of Hotspur and his rival, the Earl of Douglas, were forever enshrined in the Ballad of Chevy Chase. As the great Elizabethan knight, Sir Philip Sidney, said:

"I never hear the old song of Percy and Douglas, that I found not my heart was moved more than any trumpet..."

Hotspur was more than just a romantic figure, and the causes of the battle at Shrewsbury were grounded in hard political realities. Back in 1399, Hotspur and his father had helped Henry of Lancaster, Duke of Hereford, to depose Richard II and place Henry on the throne as King Henry IV. Richard conveniently died in prison, most likely starved to death, and the relationship between the new king and his allies quickly soured. Always short of cash, Henry owed the Percies huge amounts of money, and further angered them by forbidding them to ransom Scottish prisoners taken at the Battle of Homildon Hill. Compelled by these (and many other) reasons, the Percies raised the standard of revolt and marched south to raise an army in Cheshire.

Sweetly oblivious of all this, Henry was marching north to join the Percies to fight the Scots, and only heard of the rebellion on 12th July, when he had reached Burton-on-Trent. Instead of crying about it, he spun around and zoomed down towards Shrewsbury and the Welsh border.

Henry's speed probably saved his throne, not to mention his life. He seized the town of Shrewsbury before the rebels arrived in sight of the walls, and both forces set up camp on opposing banks of the Severn. Attempts at negotiation failed: it is said that Thomas Percy, Hotspur's uncle, deliberately spat insults at the king's envoys in the hope of forcing a battle. His hopes were soon to be realised.

Henry IV and his flattering hat
After some manoeuvring, the armies faced each other on a large open field. The size of the armies is uncertain, but both probably had somewhere in the region of 14, 000 men. Hotspur had recruited most of his men in Cheshire, including the dreaded Cheshire archers, skilled with the longbow. Some Welsh forces may also have joined him, but their leader Glyn Dwr was far to the west in Carmarthenshire, and had received no word of Hotspur's actions. Once again, as at Otterburn, the impetous northerner's desire for haste would prove his undoing.

About two hours before dusk, King Henry raised his sword as the signal to advance, and the sky darkened with a storm of arrows. The Cheshire archers inflicted stinging casualties on the royalists. One chronicler described the king's men falling "like leaves in autumn, every arrow struck a mortal man."

Rather than stand and endure the arrow-storm, men started to turn and flee. The entire royalist left wing collapsed, the Earl of Stafford was killed, and the King's eldest son, Prince Henry (later Henry V), took an arrow in the face. It would later require an especially skilled surgeon, using a mixture of honey and alcohol and an instrument invented on the spot, to extract the missile from the prince's flesh. The scar remained with him all his days.

Things looked bleak for the royalists, but the remnant of the army stood its ground. Hotspur now ordered the archers to cease and led a massed charge directly at the royal bodyguard, hoping to put an end to the battle by striking down his old friend in person. There followed a massive brawl, involving thousands of men scattered across the field, in which the royal standard was beaten down, and the standard bearer, Sir Walter Blount, slain. Hotspur's old enemy Douglas, now fighting on his side, was unfortunate enough to lose a testicle in the fighting (ouch, ouch, ouch!).

Still the royalists held firm. King Henry is reported to have ordered his son off the field, to have his wound tended, but the prince refused and led a counter-charge. Amid the dust and blood and confusion, the cry went up that the king was dead. A tremendous roar erupted from the rebel lines:

"Henry Percy, King! Henry Percy, King!"
Statue of Hotspur at Alnwick

The rumour was false. King Henry was very much alive and fighting desperately at the head of his bodyguard, while Hotspur was dead. During a lull in the fight he raised his visor to gulp in air, and was promptly shot by an unknown archer.

As usual in medieval battles, the death or flight of the leader spelled doom for his men. With Hotspur dead, the rebels had nothing left to fight for save pride. Most fled into the night - it was dark by now - though a few diehards fought on through the night until all were killed or captured.

The aftermath was predictably grim. Thomas Percy and several other rebel captains were subjected to the hideous ritualistic deaths of hanging, drawing and quartering, and their severed heads put on public display. Hotspur was initially given honourable burial, until rumours began to spread through Shrewsbury that he was not dead: instead he had escaped from the battle and would come again, like Arthur, at the head of a new army.

Henry quashed the rumours flat by having Hotspur's naked body exhumed and impaled on a spear between two millstones in the market place. It was later cut into quarters and exhibited again in Chester, London and Newcastle. Thus it could said that Henry Hotspur, the rock star of his time, ended by going on tour...

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Face of a Tudor

'Contemplating the horrific visage of the miserly old Welshman painted by Michael Sittow in 1505, with which we are all so familiar, one may wonder how such a creature could attract any adherents at all.'

Desmond Seward wrote the above in reference to the famous 1505 portrait of Richard III's nemesis, Henry Tudor alias King Henry VII (1485-1509). Below is an image of the painting.

Even for a non-Ricardian like myself, it's hard to disagree with Seward's assessment. Henry does look fairly horrific in this picture, and you have to wonder how Sittow got away with it. The king's eyes are narrow and mismatched, and there is something mean and unattractive about the set of his mouth. All in all, he looks more like an evil Dickensian lawyer than a King of England. Or, as Richard Curtis and Ben Elton put it, he had a face like a ferret.

Is this a fair representation of Henry? The picture hardly tallies with Polydore Vergil's eyewitness description of the king: he said that Henry's 'appearance was remarkably attractive, and his face was cheerful, particularly when speaking.' Vergil goes on to admit that Henry's complexion was sallow, and his teeth in very poor condition, so he wasn't writing a mere panegyric for his Tudor paymaster.

Professor S.B. Chrimes, who wrote the definitive biography of Henry VII, describes him thus: 'We have to think of a man impressive and outstanding - tall, rather slender, dignified, of sallow complexion and rather aquiline features, whose most striking characteristic was the vivacity of his expression and the brilliance of his small blue eyes, especially in conversation.'

The accounts of Vergil and Chrimes are more in keeping with the bust of Henry, made from a plaster cast taken from his death mask. See below.

This Henry, though still a forbidding prospect, is rather more kingly and distinctly less ferret-like than the Witton portrait. It's far easier to imagine this man standing his ground at Bosworth and putting an end to thirty years of dynastic bloodshed. The death mask itself (below) shows a gaunt, dried-up, surprisingly sensitive face, with a hint of melancholy about the eyes.

The mask is perhaps the closest we can get to the real man, shorn of the whims of portrait artists. When I look at it I'm reminded of the confession Henry made to Philip de Commines, while he was still in exile in Brittany. In a rare moment of relaxation, Henry said that 'since the age of five, I have been guarded like a fugitive or kept in prison.'

There is one more portrait to consider. This was drawn in the 16th century, but based on earlier portraits, and shows Henry as a young man, again while still in exile.

Chris Skidmore says of this image: 'It is Henry's eyes, large and weary with dark lines forming beneath them that stand out, just as they would later do for those that met him....it is perhaps this sense of weariness, of a young man who had spent his entire life on the run, in danger of his life, that Henry's tired but determined eyes reflected.'

The eyes, as some wise person once said, are the windows to the soul. They also form a running theme to these portraits, and maybe forge a link between the younger, more attractive Henry and the mean-eyed, tight-lipped 'miserly Welshman' of 1505. By the time Witton painted the king, Henry had survived, often by the skin of his (bad) teeth, twenty years on a throne he won in battle and kept by any means possible, no matter how unpleasant or devious. During that time he had lost his wife and eldest son, and grappled with an endless series of conspiracies, rebellions and betrayals.

The mere effort of survival, of hanging on to his crown, broke his health and reduced him to a paranoid tyrant, personally counter-signing his own account rolls and using money as a means to cure and control all ends. We know from Henry's own letters that his eyesight was failing (no spectacles in those days) and he suffered increasingly frequent bouts of gout and tuberculosis, among other ailments. The TB would eventually kill him, as it did several other members of his dynasty.

Few men, who endured so much, could hope to reach middle age looking like George Clooney. Henry died at the relatively young age of 52, a toothless, wizened, exhausted and generally hated figure, though he left a full treasury and a peaceful and prosperous country. Looking at various portraits of the man, it's easy to see that Shakespeare was quite correct, as usual: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and Henry Tudor's noggin lay the uneasiest of all.