Sir Hotspur's Uprising: The Battle of Shrewsbury, July 21, 1403

See the Battle between House Percy and Clan Douglas during the Anglo-Scots border conflict: Otterburn to Homildon Hill 1388-1402 for more.

The motivations behind Sir Henry Percy, known to the Scots as 'Hotspur' (b.1364-1403), transformation from loyal knight in service to the realm regardless of whom was sitting on the throne in Westminster into a rebel and attainted traitor looking to kill his lawful king in battle, were complex. There is still some doubt historically as to exactly what Hotspur looked to accomplish in his rising. Certainly a catalyst for Hotspur's rebellion was a reaction to a society in both himself and his father were apart of. This hegemony and societal structure defined by the tenets of feudal service in the age of chivalry (coming to an end by the mid 1400's), amidst the violent life of the Anglo-Norman knight.

Death of Hotspur on the field at Shrewsbury

Both henry and his father the Earl of Northumberland expected titles, a moderately high salary, and a greater degree of autonomy in general. These men had additional personal  grievances against King Henry IV and his household. Greatest amongst these were the apparent nullification of funds owed to the two men for service in Wales fighting for the King. Evidence supports that Hotspur may have had designs of his own in regards to the throne of England and/or Northumberland in 1402-1403, his motives are lost to history. No theory has ever been proven nor debunked by modern historians. [1]

Hotspur's Rising 1402-1403
Nearing forty years old in the summer of 1402, the knight Sir Henry Percy began his rebellion with a proclamation which was entirely based on a lie crafted with the sole purpose of raising support in Cheshire, where former kings men and veterans of the Cheshire Guard, the household guard of the the deceased & dethroned  ‘Good King Richard’, King Richard II, still resided by the hundreds.

Hotspur had apparently made earlier calims that King Richard was returning from exile to ride at the head of the rebel army and that his father the Earl of Northumberland was bringing a Northern host to meet them and the Welsh as well. His pro Ricardian stance certainly won him admirers and soldiers within a few days time in the city of Chester with hundreds of former Cheshire Guard archers and ‘watchmen’ flocking to his standard. [2] For More see the post Prelude to Wars of the Roses, Usurpation, Rebellion, and medieval warfare 1387-1403.

As Hostpur continued his march south in later June and into July, he began to collect a diverse rebel host made up of Northumbrian men, Cheshire, Welshmen, and Scotsmen. He began even to hear whispers of king associated with his name when the Cheshire men soon realized that King Richard would not be rising from the dead to lead them into London. It was clear in late June that it would be Hotspur alone who would lead this army south to face the royal army led by King Henry and the young Prince of Wales.

King Richard II, who from beyond the grave inspired numerous plots against King Henry IV from his imprisonment to death 1399-1400, until the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403

Battle of Shrewsbury July 1403

The single most intriguing event taking place before the Battle of Shrewsbury was the defection from the royal army(and therefor from the Kings' Peace) of Hotspur’s uncle the Earl of Worcester just days before the battle was fought. Almost nothing is known about the events surrounding his betrayal of the Prince of Wales who the Worcester had known well. He had been a retainer and battle-companion of young Prince Henry as a commander during the King's campaign in Wales, 1400-1403.

The impact militarily on paper at least was significant, the Earl of Worcester bringing 1,000 men, mostly archers and lightly armed men of foot, over to Hotspurs rebel army. Another interesting caveat pertaining to the composition of Hotspurs army was the appearance, amongst the many other varying banners of the rebel army, of the ‘heart of Robert the Bruce’ and stars of Clan Douglas [3].

Since the Northern victory at Homildon Hill in September 1402 a number of Scottish knights had been held captive by the Percys. The most notable among them Archibald the fourth Earl of Douglas (b.1372-1424), who along with twenty or so others were allowed to fight with Hotspur at Shrewsbury, their motives maybe fed by a simple lust for battlefield honors and glory. Most probably they were fighting for their release from Northern custody. Historically no accounts survive which can equivocally answer the question, what did Hotspur hope to gain in leading a rebel army south? His personal grievances and dispute with King Henry over the Anglo-Welsh conflict aside, historians have debated his motives and greater ambitions for centuries. Was he a would-be usurper or a rebel knight hoping to threaten King Henry’s power for his own vain glory? Or was Hotspur the legitimate heir to a Northern throne, capable of uniting the North and the Midlands under the banner of the blue lion? Most likely not.

Hotspurs’ military campaign south began and ended on the 21st of July 1403, when his rebel army met the royalist van commanded by King Henry and the Prince of Wales near Shrewsbury in Shropshire county not far from the Welsh border. The location of the battle hints that he may have been trying to join his army with the Welsh rebels in arms under Sir Owain Glyndŵr after all. Prince Henry who was just sixteen but already proving to be a ruthless but effective campaign and battlefield commander having served in Wales, held Shrewsbury. From here he led the Shrewsbury garrison and his own in raids across the border designed to stymie the Glyndŵr rebels.

Minor skirmishing had taken place on Hotspur’s approach to the town on the 19th and 20th with houses being set ablaze on the outskirts of the town, assumingly caused by flaming arrows and pitch. Though not fought in the town itself, it is thought that Berwick field where the modern day ‘Battlefield Church’ lays, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen in 1406, is the site of this most famous battle. [4]

The Prince held his ground despite being outnumbered after the betrayal of Worcester, patiently awaiting the arrival of his fathers’ royal army, likely well over 3,000 men or more. The king and his retinue marched from Lichfield some thirty miles away arriving in time for the first round of peace talks. [5]

Hotspur and his war council must have sat nervously in the rebel lord’s tent on the evening of battle, drinking, and feasting, after which they debated on the best strategy for the upcoming battle. Having a much smaller than his royal enemy, Hotspur must have known well before he took field that if he could kill both the king and his heir in the coming battle he would win control of the throne and gain the crown (and/or independence for his father's realm) by nightfall, though he may have doubted his ability to do so with such a small, ill equipped army, most of whom were men of suspect loyalties.

Hotspur controlled an army dominated by Welsh and Cheshire veterans. His families’ own traditional enemy, the Earl of Douglas fighting beside him in a very ironic twist of fate. On the morning of battle an almost anti-climatic amount of time was spent between the two sides attempting to agree to a truce or some sort of frivolous terms. Long after Hotspur in reply to King Henry's final demands sent a ‘rebel manifesto’ as John Barratt names this correspondence. Sir Henry’s retort outlined his armies’ grievances, the once loyal knight denouncing the “Forsworn, Perjured, and False” King Henry, calling him an oath breaker, regicide and a tyrant. [6] 

This letter sent by Hotspur and signed in his name must have been poorly received, with both sides seemingly unwilling to depart the field without participating in at least a skirmish. Hotspur may have sent the Earl of Worcester just hours before the battle, trying to work out a last minute truce, both sides not at all eager to make terms with one another. [7] Henry and the Prince had already taken the field deciding to bring the fight to the rebel army in three separate battles, the vanguard commanded by the king, flanking him the Prince of Wales and Edmund Stafford, Earl of Stafford.

Battle of Shrewsbury 1403, from the English Reader, 1912

Battle of Shrewsbury

The Battle of Shrewsbury began under an intense volley of arrow fire from the disciplined and accurate Cheshire archers commanded by Hotspur. Thomas Walsingham, writing in the Historia Anglicana, notes the effectiveness of the Cheshire rebels’ fire during the opening to battle, poetically remarking that “men fell on the king’s side as leaves fall in the autumn after a hoar frost.” The king’s army in turn sent a volley back, killing many rebels as the order was given soon after by King Henry to advance and attack the rebel vanguard. The carnage inflicted on the royalist battle lines was significant.

Hundreds were killed or very seriously wounded within a matter of minutes under the rebel arrow storm, which must have been particularly frightening for the younger, inexperienced royalist soldiers who had never been under that kind of thick, deadly fire before. Two out of the three of the royalist battles were maimed in the arrow storm at the Battle of Shrewsbury; the Prince of Wales seriously injured by a Ricardian arrow to his cheek, the Earl of Stafford was killed by an arrow as well, most of his men fleeing in panic after his death.[8]

The royal army of King Henry seemed at first to have been on the cusp of defeat, their infantry slaughtered by the longbow volley as the Scots had been charging down Homildon Hill into their demise in 1402. Historically the infamous Hotspur lust for combat and battle honors has been the main reason given by historians for why he chose to charge the kings household in a wild attempt to slay him, to win the battle and the crown with one swing his sword.

Looking at the military realities of the Battle of Shrewsbury however, one can surmise that Hotspur and the Earl of Douglas must have observed the effect that the arrow storm had on the royalist army. They were jolting, not broken yet but at a very critical stage in their deployment onto the battlefield itself, where the melee would inevitably take place.

Charge of Hotspur and the Tyneman at the Battle of Shrewsbury, 21st of July 1403

Though their background as Anglo-Scots border warriors may have influenced their strategies during the battle in a general sense, both men more than likely realized that their force could not hope to survive a renewed assault by King Henry’s army. The decision to charge the king, though seemingly an unwise one because it exposed Hotspur to enemy fire during the hastened advance, was actually a wise decision from a tactical and strategic standpoint.

The rebel army stood a strong chance of being routed, captured, and executed en masse if they meekly awaited the onslaught of the royalist army still greatly outnumbering them. Instead, as Hotspur might have agreed, “Fortune favors the bold” and he decided to make a charge for the standard of King Henry, daring to meet the king and his knights face-to-face  in order to win the battle by the sword or die in the effort. The high water mark of Hotspur’s rebellion came just moments later as Hotspur, the Earl of Douglas, and around fifty of their household knight’s charged the royalist banners. This was a furious and ultimately costly attempt to capture or kill Henry and rout his army. Though it is popularly believed that the charge was made on horseback by hundreds of Percy knights, the reality, as it so often is, was much less magnificent or dramatic. The rebels most likely made the fateful charge dismounted with cries of Esperance (the Percy family motto) filling the evening air at the very height of the battle.

A melee ensued at the king’s royal standard just feet from King Henry, with every major account differing as to what happened next. From what is known from the surviving accounts of the battle, Sir William Blount the king’s standard bearer was slain, his helmet and skull caved in with a powerful blow from the Earl of Douglas’ warhammer. At some point during the melee however, as the rebels reached the king, Hotspur was either cut down by an enemy knight, or killed by a stray arrow to face as he lifted his visor to survey the field. Cries came from both sides saying their leaders had been killed, but it was Hotspur who turned up dead at the conclusion of the battle, a decisive victory for King Henry and his royal army.

Fighting continued until twilight set in and the whispers of Hotspur’s death began to echo across the battle lines. By nightfall the rebels had begun a full retreat, the dead rebel lords' army disintegrating as his men attempted to flee back home or merely for their lives as they tried to evade capture from the vindictive royalists executing any rebels in arms.

Death of Hotspur by Richard Caton Woodville

Though Hotspur’s body was recovered from the fray, and taken for burial by a Neville cousin to a nearby church, the King eager to prove to all of England that the rebel was dead, intercepted the body. From here his body suffered the indignity of a ritualized & symbolic post-mortem execution, despite Hotspur’s standing as the one time preeminent knight of North England, and of maybe the whole country. The Earl of Worcester was apprehended after the battle and  beheaded in the Shrewsbury marketplace a day later, after which he was quartered, his head stuck on a pike above Old London Bridge, the rest of his corpse sent to the four corners of England. Surprisingly the Earl of Douglas who was captured in the rout escaped death as well. Ransomed by the king he would live to fight the English again, suffering his last major defeat with his death at the Battle of Verneuil, in Normandy during the Hundred Years' Wars in 1424. So ended the July 1403 Uprising of Hotspur, a usurpation plot hardly realized and most certainly not imaginative. Most certainly a a decisive victory for the Lancastrians it is arguably the most important battle fought in the British Isles between 1350-1455.

[1] Duby, Georges The Chivalrous Society (University of California-Berkeley Press, 1980) pgs. 100-152

[2] History of England under Henry IV, Vol I

[3] Reference Picture II. The Douglas clan earned the heart in their heraldry after Robert the Bruce ordered Sir James Douglas, the ‘Black Douglas’ to carry his heart to Jerusalem, in part to atone for the murder of Sir John Comyn, the Red, a political rival, inside a Greyfriars church in 1306. The Earl of Douglas failed however, loosing his life in Moorish Spain at the Battle of Teba in 1330.

[4] War for the Throne: Battle of Shrewsbury, Battle Geography and Topography

[5] War for the Throne: Battle of Shrewsbury