Leader of Battles (V): Medraut 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...











2 comments:

  1. Fascinating post, David! I added Harry to my gallery of Henrys in History :-) (somehow I forgot about him) and shared your post on FB. Hope you don't mind :-)

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