In the second part of this blog series, we look at the bloody events on the day of the battle of Shrewsbury in which Harry Hotspur rebelled against King Henry IV, as well as the aftermath of the battle.
Read Part 1 here.
SATURDAY 21 JULY, 1403: MORNING
Hotspur gives two trusted esquires, Thomas Kneyton and Roger Salome, the Percys’ manifesto against the king, and commands them to deliver it to Henry in person. The king dismisses Kneyton and Salome gently and courteously, and tells them to inform Hotspur and Worcester that he would despatch an answer with his own envoys.
A conference is soon held with the purpose of attempting to avoid battle. The king’s envoys appear in the rebel camp and invite Hotspur and Worcester to attend upon the king personally, as, they say, Henry earnestly hopes to remove their grievances and avoid bloodshed. According to chronicler Thomas Walsingham, Hotspur is moved by the graciousness of the king’s message, but for reasons still unknown to historians, does not attend upon the king himself, instead sending his uncle Worcester, accompanied by one or two knights, as his envoy.
The king is represented at the conference by two of his envoys (historians differ on exactly who these men were). Henry offers terms to the rebels, but is told by Worcester, “You rob the country every year and always say you have nothing… You are not the rightful heir… We cannot trust you.” Hotspur’s response to an offer of pardon is apparently, “I do not have confidence in you”. The king replies to Worcester, and states that “on you must rest the blood shed this day, and not on me”, and gives the order to his men to prepare for battle. According to Walsingham, Worcester returns to Hotspur after this conversation and reports “the contrary… royal replies; thus he inflamed the mind of the young man and impelled him to battle”.
The king divides his army into three, commanded by himself in the centre, the Earl of Stafford on the right, and his son the Prince of Wales on the left. Dunbar may have persuaded the king to fight as soon as possible, before Hotspur is able to increase his army by uniting with Glyndwr.
(Lomas believes it is unlikely the king’s army had more than 8,000 men, and claims Hotspur probably had around 5,000. Percy family historian EB DeFonblanque uses the testimony of Hotspur’s favourite page John Hardyng to estimate 20,000 men in the king’s army and 14,000 in Hotspur’s. Boardman, meanwhile, believes the rebels had 9,000-10,000 men, and the king’s army around 14,000. Historians agree that Hotspur was outnumbered, but that his army contained many Northerners who he had previously led to great victories as well as the infamous Cheshiremen, and some of the kingdom’s best archers from both Cheshire and Wales, while the king’s forces contained many inexperienced recruits gathered quickly from around London.)
Hotspur asks his page to bring him the sword he had worn at Homildon Hill, but is informed that the weapon had been left in the village where they had rested the previous day. Walsingham claims Hotspur’s colour changes at this news, with him exclaiming, “now I see that my ploughshare is drawing to its last furrow, for a soothsayer once told me in my own country that I should perish at Berwick. Alas! he [deceived] me by that name, which I believed to mean Berwick in the north.” DeFonblanque notes the coincidence that Hotspur’s first and last military actions are both associated with the name of Berwick.
Before the battle begins, Hotspur addresses his soldiers. Again, Walsingham’s chronicle reports his words: “This day will be a glorious one to all of us if we conquer, or will set us free for ever if we are defeated; for it is better to fall on the battlefield in the cause of the common weal [prosperity or wealth], than after the battle to die by the sentence of our enemies.”
SATURDAY 21 JULY, 1403: AFTERNOON
Hotspur’s army is positioned on a slope, with at least part of their line standing behind a field of peas. These crops prove to be a great physical disadvantage to the royal army’s initial assaults during the battle.
Who begins the battle is unclear. John Hardyng claims the first move is made by the Prince of Wales, while Rose believes Worcester’s Welsh longbowmen, commanded by the Earl of Douglas, begin by firing on the royal army at around midday, with infantry on both sides suffering great loss from the arrows flying across the battlefield. DeFonblanque agrees that the sun is high as the battle begins, but according to Boardman, fighting does not begin until mid-afternoon. In the slaughter of the archery duel, Hotspur’s Cheshiremen make a bigger impact with their arrows, but it is not decisive, and the battle soon becomes a hand-to-hand melée.
This move away from archery probably comes as a relief to both armies; as Boardman explains, “incredible disarray and casualties could be perpetrated by the bow in the opening few minutes of battle… shooting had to be matched until either side had run out of arrows or had yielded to a greater weight of casualties… [the carnage] was too difficult for any body of men to bear indefinitely.”
Trumpets sound, the rebel army advances and their cavalry charge twice, crying “Esperance Percy!”, but are stopped on both occasions by royalist soldiers bearing seven-foot spears fitted with axe-blades, shouting “for St George!” in response.
Hotspur is determined to strike at the king himself, and so he and Douglas gather thirty knights together and launch an all-out assault as they fight through enemy lines in what DeFonblanque calls a “furious onslaught”, aiming for the royal standard, which shows the king’s location. Walsingham describes how Hotspur and Douglas, “in spite of the rain of arrows and the dense bodies of horsemen, urged their men against the king’s person alone, and concentrated all their arms on him”, with Hotspur’s charge through his enemies compared to leaves falling under an autumn gale. They reach the standard bearer and he is killed, struck from head to shoulder. The Earl of Stafford attempts to rescue the standard and is also killed, as is anyone standing nearby, such as Sir Walter Blount, a knight of the king’s household.
The Earl of Dunbar, however, sends two decoys – knights with closed visors wearing Henry IV’s arms on their surcoats, or possibly wearing the king’s armour itself - into the battle to confuse the rebel leaders. He also persuades the real king to withdraw from the fighting as soon as Hotspur’s aim to kill Henry becomes clear. Hotspur engages in hand-to-hand combat with the first decoy knight, and kills him. A cry is raised that the king is dead, but the second ‘king’ appears. Douglas kills the second decoy with his axe, but still the king is seen on the battlefield, and Hotspur and Douglas are pushed back towards their own lines. The chronicler Adam of Usk records Douglas crying in wonder: “Have I not slain two king Henrys with mine own hand? ‘Tis an evil hour for us that a third yet lives…”
At some point in the battle, the Prince of Wales is hit in the face with an arrow. Wounded, he is still able to fight on, and leads the left division of the royal army towards the rear of the rebels’ army, outflanking their right division. Chronicler Edward Hall describes his efforts: “the prince Henry that day much helped his father, for although he were sore wounded in the face with an arrow, he never ceased to fight where the battle was most strongest, or to encourage his men when their hearts were most daunted”. Shrewsbury takes place twelve years before his most famous victory at Agincourt, but Prince Henry already shows signs of the great leader he would become.
The Cheshiremen, undeterred by the Prince, cry “Henry Percy King!” repeatedly. But the Prince’s manoeuvre pushes back Hotspur’s right flank, forcing them into his centre, enclosing the rebel army on two sides. Boardman describes a “terrible crush” with both armies so tightly packed together that falling men are not only dying of their wounds, but also of suffocation. Royal archers begin to shoot arrows into the crowd, with horsemen mounted above the foot soldiers, adding to the chaotic crush.
Towards the end of the battle, Boardman notes that the sun sets early, and fighting continues under a total eclipse of the moon. The rebels attempt to fight their way out of being totally surrounded by the Prince of Wales, and some of the king’s army retreat due to confusion over the death of his decoys. Hotspur and his surviving men-at-arms are isolated from the rest of their army.
Exhausted from hours of fighting, Hotspur lifts his visor, either to survey the battle, to wipe his brow, or to get some air, and an arrow hits him in the face, smashing through his eye socket, or possibly his brain. He is killed instantly. However, nobody knows who killed him; contemporary chroniclers and modern historians agree that he was killed by an unknown hand.
The king begins to cheer “Henry Percy dead!” and the royal army joins in, spreading the fatal news. Lomas believes the battle lasts between two and three hours, while DeFonblanque gives an estimate of five, and Boardman believes it to last until the evening, but agrees with Lomas on its duration. The Cheshire forces flee, and the rebel leaders soon surrender. Worcester and Douglas are taken alive, though Douglas has sustained a wound to his ‘cullions’ (testicles). This Percy rebellion is over.
SATURDAY 21 JULY, 1403: AFTERMATH
Men from both sides, according to various chronicles, collapse in heaps, tired, beaten and bloody. It has been, says Gregory’s Chronicle, “one of the worst battles that ever came to England, and the unkindest”. The number of dead on the battlefield is between 1,500 and 2,300, with a further 3,000 wounded; burial pits are dug within a three mile radius.
The king apparently weeps when he sees Hotspur’s corpse, though some historians attribute this weeping to Worcester, who, according to the Chronicle Monast. Albani, proclaims on seeing his nephew’s body that he no longer cared for anything that evil fortune might have in store for him. Regardless, Henry orders Hotspur’s body to be buried respectfully. This is carried out by Thomas Neville, Lord Furnival, a member of the king’s army. Worcester, meanwhile, is tied to his horse and led to Shrewsbury Castle.
MONDAY 23 JULY, 1403
Worcester is formally executed at Shrewsbury (though this may have happened the previous day). The Chronicle of London describes him as being “drawn and hanged and his head smitten off". His head is then "sent to London and there set upon the Bridge” as a warning that rebellion against the king would not be tolerated. Two leading Cheshire knights, Sir Richard Vernon and Sir Richard Venables, meet the same fate. There are reports that Henry wishes to spare Worcester, but is talked out of doing so by his advisors.
THE DAYS FOLLOWING THE BATTLE
Henry hears that rumours are spreading that Hotspur has escaped the battle and is raising another army. The Chronicle of London states that, in order to prove to the rebels that their hero was dead, the king has Hotspur’s body “taken up out of his grave, and bound upright between two mill stones, that all men might see that he was dead”. The body is publicly displayed in the marketplace at Shrewsbury, guarded by armed sentries.
A few days later, it is rubbed in salt, quartered and beheaded. Quartering was customary for those deemed guilty of treason. Hotspur’s limbs are sent to Newcastle, London, Bristol and Chester, again to prove his death and to remind the whole realm of the penalty for rebellion, while his head is put on a spike over the northern gate of York “lest his men would have said that he had been alive” (the English Chronicle of Richard II and Henry IV). The Archbishop of York is said to denounce the king as a “bloodthirsty beast” for exhuming and mutilating Hotspur’s corpse in this way.
The Earl of Northumberland, meanwhile, has been absent from the battle and the events leading to it. John Hardyng accuses the earl of having failed his son, but there may be valid reasons for his absence. According to some stories, he was prevented from joining Hotspur in battle by forces blocking his progress south, commanded by Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmorland. Others claim he discovered the outcome of the battle en route and made the decision not to continue south. Yet more reports claim he remained ill in Northumberland. DeFonblanque’s version of the story combines these possibilities: too ill to ride his horse, the earl was nevertheless carried forward in a litter at the head of his army when he was met by the king’s troops under the command of Westmorland, and he fell back to the county of Northumberland on hearing of his son’s death.
THE WEEKS FOLLOWING THE BATTLE
The king pays messengers to travel the kingdom proclaiming Hotspur’s death. According to DeFonblanque, a warrant signed by Henry for the arrest of Hotspur’s wife, Elizabeth Mortimer Percy, is given to a man named Robert Waterton, but the arrest appears never to have been carried out.
The messengers are followed by other courtiers, who are sent to warn people against speaking ill of the king or his government.
The Earl of Northumberland is summoned to York to plead for his life as a result of his own part in the rebellion.
The king’s need for public awareness of Hotspur’s treason against him is satisfied, and he allows the body parts to be gathered by Hotspur’s wife Elizabeth for burial, probably in York Minster. His reign is secure - for now.
Thomas Percy’s head is taken down from London Bridge and buried alongside his body in Shrewsbury.
The Earl of Northumberland is caught in another rebellion, and his plans to divide the country into three parts and rule with Mortimer and Glyndwr are never realised.
Douglas, who has been held captive since the battle, is released after swearing loyalty to Henry IV and his heirs. Returning home, he immediately begins raiding the Border, as his family had done for generations.
The Earl of Northumberland is killed during another rebellion against Henry.
Henry IV dies and is succeeded by his son the Prince of Wales, now King Henry V.
Hotspur’s son becomes the 2nd Earl of Northumberland.