War on the Scottish Border: The Battles of Otterburn & Homildon Hill, 1388-1402

The violent life of the medieval knight and men-at-arms was defined by the societal structures of feudalism, crucial to the early periods of Anglo-Scottish conflict from the First Edwardian War (1296-1328) into the start of the 15th century when the English turned their attention to the kingdom of the Scots yet again. Especially true during King Edward I’s early reign when the major battles of the Scottish War of Independence were being decided in 1296-1314, ending with the Treaty of Northampton in the year 1328 which made Robert the Bruce (b.1274-1329), Robert I, King of Scots. [1]

King Robert the Bruce, slays the English knight Sir Henry De Bohun at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314

Shortly the signing of the treaty in a letter dated July 1328, King Robert sent a letter to Henry de Percy, second Baron of Alnwick [2] (b.1299-1351) affirming Baron de Percy and his heirs their rightful claim to the southern territories of the Scottish Kingdom. Of the several notable Scottish knights who witnessed the King affixing his seal that day was a member of the Douglas clan, James the Lord of Douglas, patriarch of a family who would break this vow in the years to come, seeking war with the Percys for more than one hundred years thereafter. [3][4] The Douglas clan although never ruling as kings themselves, held immense power in Scotland as one of the most influential and respected clans of the Highland or Lowland regions.

The Douglas Clan like the Percys of Alnwick, were a family of legendary martial prowess within their own ancestral lands. They could call many men to their banners and these warriors were loyal and battle-hardened men. The Percy-Douglas rivalry is a distinct segment of the Douglas clans history especially within a violent society of inter-clan blood feuds, plotting, assassinations, and violent usurpation carried out by the noble classes.

Later Arms of the Earl of Douglas, Right
The 'Lion Rampant Azure', the coat of arms of the de Percy family, Left

Guardians of the Northern border-Percy service to the crown on the Anglo-Scottish border, 1346-1399

Percy family service to the throne and to the Kingdom of England was formalized by the traditional title of Lord of the Marches, not a symbolic title or styling at all, as such they were house charged with protecting the North and the realm from Scottish incursions and raids, this was of course a pragmatic and lucrative position for the Percy’s as the paramount house of North from 1346-1408. The Barons of Alnwick in the mid 1300’s had success and honors bestowed upon them fighting in the Edwardian Wars against the Scots, as well as in France in the growing conflict across channel; at home the Percy’s held the titles of sheriff of Northumberland and lord of the Scottish Marches concurrently. Under King Richard II’s minority and later reign, the Percys reached almost the apex of their political power and influence, rapidly falling after the undeniably influential events of Henry of Bolingbroke’s Usurpation in September 1399 and their aftermath.

As it stood, the lords of Alnwick Castle beginning with first Baron Percy of Alnwick (b.1273-1314) were often the de facto sovereign lords of not just Northern England and the Border, but of the territory beyond the border where the Percy’s and other lords made claims for land and estates in Scotland. At the behest of King Edward III and later Richard II and his councilors during his minority, the crown often deferred to the judgments of the Percy family, the most experienced lords when dealing with the Scots. As a continuously hostile kingdom, Scotland did pose a legitimate threat to England alone or allied with France, as they had been throughout the early 1300’s. Overtly militant Scottish nationalism declined sharply following the Battle of Neville’s Cross in October of 1346 when the King of Scots, David II, was defeated in Durham, North England. Imprisoned in the Tower for many years thereafter Scotland’s national embarrassment eventually ended when he was ransomed and returned to Scotland as king in 1363. The Percy’s role in the North during the 1300’s pronounced as it was did not mean that the Baron’s of Alnwick stayed locked away in their castles within Northumberland and on the borders. Most served in a multitude of different capacities for King Edward III and later for his young son King Richard II. In Scotland, the Percy Barons commanded men of the North in battle from Falkirk in 1298 to Neville’s Cross in 1346. In fact Percy family service on the border with Scotland could be easily overshadowed by their families' service in Wales in the two major uprisings 1277-1282 and 1400-1415, and in France in some of the critical battles of the Hundred Years’ War. Henry Percy, the third Baron of Alnwick (b.1320-1369) who was then known as Henry de Percy le Fitz, had fought at Crécy in August of 1346 under the command of the Earl of Arundel and served later in Gascony as the commander of the garrison there. Towards the end of King Edward’s reign into King Richard II’s minority a number of mostly minor border skirmishes were fought between the English and the Scots from 1346-1384.

With very few pitched battles fought; the Anglo-Scots border conflicts were defined by the unique and sporadic guerrilla, chevauchée war that was fought in the Northern English and Scottish borderlands of this time. By 1385 Edward III’s truce with King David II had long expired and the French had come to Scotland offering aid (the Auld Alliance) before eventually withdrawing, seemingly frustrated with the Scottish medieval bureaucracy. King Richard II marched on Edinburgh during this period as well before his retreat back into England to deal with the rise Lords Appellant in 1387-1388.

[1] Also known as the Treaty of Edinburgh, for the city in which Robert the Bruce signed the Anglo-Scottish treaty, which granted him the right to call himself King of Scots.

[2] Within the town of the same name in Northumberland, today the castle is a tourist attraction, set for numerous films and television shows, and the home of the current Duke of Northumberland.

[3] Anglo Scottish Relations edited by E.L.G. Jones, V.H. Galbraith, & Sir Roger Mynors (Oxford, 1965) pgs. 343-345

[4] Including Robert the Bruce’s bastard son, and Thomas Randolph, the Earl of Moray, Anglo Scottish Relations pg. 345

The Otterburn War 1388

What can be appropriately termed the Otterburn War of 1388-1389, began with the expiration of yet
another Anglo-Scottish truce in June of 1388. The Scots had been planning a full scale assault on the North and on English territory for some time amassing a substantial number of Clan levies and Scottish knights in the south for a major action against the Northern lords who they knew were divided. The War began with several surprise seaborne raids conducted by the Clan Douglas on Carlingford, Ireland and the Isle of Man. [1] During the Otterburn War the Scots were led at least politically speaking by two men, the 71 year old King Robert II, a man not known for his martial acuity or prowess, and his son John Stewart, the Earl of Carrick, future king Robert III. Militarily speaking, King Robert II’s other son Robert, the Earl of Fife, was another major figure. For the Scots their army of border raiders (reivers) and knights during the Otterburn War was led by different many clans and clan chiefs. The Douglas clan, however was principal among them, led at this time by James (b.1358-1388), the Earl of Douglas & Mar and Sir Archibald Douglas (d.1400), known as the ‘Grim’ by the English for his “terrible countenance in [battle]” during the border conflicts. [2]

A very clever strategy was devised by the Earl of Fife and the Lord of Douglas in which after mustering strength in Jedburgh forest, near the English controlled Jedburgh castle, the Lord of Douglas would invade the West March threatening the Percy’s land in Durham and Newcastle. [3] The main Scottish host commanded by the Earl of Fife and Archibald the Grim invaded the East March, crossing over into the Cheviot hills, raiding and pillaging deep into Northern England virtually unopposed. The raid captured many noble prisoners and loot in the process. With the Earl of Douglas marching on Newcastle, Hotspur as Warden of the East March chose to call his banners to meet the Douglas van in the field and destroy it before they could advance further into his families’ lands. The next chapter in the long running Percy-Douglas feud could not have been written better by the classic chronicler-poets of the middle ages or by the 19th century fiction writers either. Hotspur and the Earl of Douglas met in single combat outside the gates of Newcastle in a spirited and quick melee that saw the Douglas capture the pennon of Hotspur, the Blue Lion of the House of Percy in clash of sword, shield, lance, and mace. Froissart describes that the Earl of Douglas won Hotspurs standard by “force of arms” besting the younger knight charging him with a lance, unhorsing Hotspur and giving him a concussion.

Scottish spearman in schiltron formation charge into combat against the English at Otterburn near the Cheviot Hills or 'Chevy Chase' in 1388

As he fled the field Lord Douglas allegedly remarked to Hotspur, “Sir, I shall bear this token of your prowess into Scotland and shall set it on high on my castle of Dalkeith, that it may be seen far off.” That evening Hotspur had to be almost physically stopped by his brother Sir Ralph and the other Percy knights from going after Douglas into the night and attempting an attack on his camp to win back his standard. [4] Hotspur and the men of the Northumberland would have their chance to redeem their honor when the knight ordered his forces to march to Redesdale near Otterburn by way of Newcastle sometime during the daylight hours of August 4th though the French chronicler Froissart maintains the battle was fought on the 19th under a full moon. Despite multiple conflicting contemporary accounts, no accurate date or location can be ascertained from the surviving histories of the Battle of Otterburn.

The day before the battle the Earl of Douglas and his army besieged Otterburn castle but unsuccessful in their attack so they withdrew to within site of the castle making camp and simple defensive works to await the sunrise. This was a strategy which caused great contention amongst the chieftains of the Douglas army, many of whom wished to withdraw further north to within the safety of the border and the Cheviot Hills.[5] Hotspur’s forces had been marching for the better part of a day and must have arrived near the site of the Scottish camp somewhat fatigued, though most of the men-at-arms, and archers rode horseback to the battlefield. The Scottish camps at Otterburn that evening had as many as 2,000 to 3,000 men in them under the command of the earls of Douglas, Moray, and March. [6]

Battle of Otterburn, August 1388

Around 500 more armed servants were in the camp as well, “bonnie boys” as they were known to Sir Walter Scott, tasked with tending to the their lords and their lords' horses while encamped. They fought died beside their masters on the evening of the battle when the Northern cavalry attacked them unawares at their camp.[7] The English had a few hundred less in their army spread between two major battles. A force comprised of archers and spearmen predominantly with 200-300 men-at-arms skirmishing in the vanguard with the Percys.[8] All accounts roughly agree that the Battle of Otterburn began when Hotspur’s men found the Scottish camp after their march from Newcastle and began deploying to the battlefield piecemeal, men-at-arms and spearman charging forward in confusion and excitement, initially surprising the Scots who might have been eating their supper and making merry as the evening had begun to set in. Many of the Scottish lords and knights including the Earl of Douglas who did not done his breast plate or helmet to a disastrous outcome later, simply were surprised by the sudden attack (ambuscade) and had to rush into battle and organize their disciplined forces accordingly. [9]

The Percy's Attack the Scottish Camp at Otterburn

Hotspur and his men were now mostly all dismounted and began attacking the Scottish camps in a disorganized and bloody melee, led by Sir Henry and a number of other prominent Northumbrian knights. Sir Matthew Redman, a most capable Northern knight who served many years on the border was charged with attacking the servants’ camp with his mounted force of around 200 men or so. Since there was no ransom for a ‘bonnie boy’ or a commoner spearman or archer, the knights of this age could and sometimes did slaughter them without mercy during and after the battle. Sir Redman ended up fighting in almost a separate battle entirely, cutting a large swath through the Scottish lines “dealing death and mortal wounds all the way” to the border according the Scotchtricon, an act which Froissart misconstrues as cowardly, self preservation. [10]

The skirmish line at Otterburn, the Earl of Douglas is to the left-front in a red brigandine illustration by S. Walsh (Osprey)

The skirmish continued with intensity for what Froissart and the Scothtricon believe was well into the night time, though the battle may have in fact been much shorter and may have ended just as the summer sun went down past eight o’clock or so. The Percy’s flank took a mauling from the organized and ferocious attacks of the Earl of Douglas’ regiments, whose spearmen killed hundreds of Englishmen in the tilt, including many levies of Newcastle and the surrounding villages. [11] The turning point in the Battle of Otterburn was the re-deployment of the Earl of March and the Earl of Moray's armies nearer to the Earl of Douglas’ position; a counter attack so ferocious that it nearly smashed the English line entirely.

Battle of Otterburn depicted in a painting by J.H. Mortimer

The Scotchtricon credits Scottish knight Sir John of Swinton with first breaking through the Northumbrian's battle lines; severely wounding Sir Ralph Percy in the process, leading to his capture by Sir Henry Preston of Craigmillar. This may be just another case of historians reinforcing the ‘Great Man’ theory of the 18th and 19th centuries but it does illustrate the greater social conscience of the knight and individual chivalry in this period, where pageantry, honor, and bravery in battle were held in highest esteem. In the historical chronicles of the age, the pageantry and chivalric codes of kings, nobles, abd knights abound. Froissart's account as and other sources usually agree that by the time the Scots broke Hotspur’s lines, capturing his brother, many notable Northern knights and eventually Hotspur himself, the Earl of Douglas had been slain, cut down with his esquires and standard bearer attempting to rally his vanguard in the fiercest part of the battle. [12] When the Battle of Otterburn ended both sides claimed victory since the Earl of Douglas lay dead, yet the leader of the English army, Hotspur, had been captured. The English had lost about 500, dead or dieing on the battlefield; the Scots lost perhaps several hundred more than that having brought more men to field.

The Earl of Douglas' body is borne away by the grieving Scottish knights of Otterburn, illustration by S. Walsh (Osprey)

The two young Percy knights of Northumberland were a lucrative prize for the Scottish lords who captured them though for the Scots the battle was a pyrrhic victory, their respected chieftain and general heartbreakingly killed in the melee. Though his death had no effect on his armies’ victory, it did basically end the Otterburn War, inducing the Douglas armies to march back to Scotland, winning only plunder and one substantial victory over the Northern army. Sir Henry and his younger brother Sir Ralph Percy were eventually ransomed for a small fortune. Sir Ralph, just a teenager, being worth £900 alone, Hotspur as a well known knight and the heir to the Earl of Northumberland, was worth ten times that. [13] The English fortified the borders once again after 1389 preventing another major Scottish incursion until 1401-1402 amidst the upheaval caused by the Welsh Uprising.

Battle of Homildon Hill, September 14, 1402

The Battle fought at Homildon or Humbleton Hill in September of 1402 was a renewal of the frequent in some instances bloody skirmishing born from the constant turmoil, rivalry, and blood feuding on the Anglo-Scottish border. Seeing an opportunity to plunder the North while the Percy’s were distracted with their campaign in Wales and with the continued dissent and treasonous behavior of many nobles, the Scots began raiding south in the spring and summer of 1402. In 1400, the new Earl of Douglas, Archibald the 'Tyneman' (d.1424), Scots for the ‘tin man’, known also as ‘the looser’, because of his incessant battlefield failures during his lifetime, decided to cross the border to raid Northumberland. In just weeks the Scottish host had laid waste to the county while the Percy’s were in the far south-west fighting in Wales for King Henry IV.

Northerners arraying for the Battle of Homildon Hill by A. Spratt

These incursions were seen as particularly treacherous because the Scots had been in diplomatic talks with the Earl of Northumberland for months before the Earl of Douglas began his campaign. These peace talks had begun after Henry invaded Scotland in 1400, the last time an English king would lead an army into that country. The renewal of the Anglo-Scottish border conflict became official when the Tyneman called many other notable lords and chieftains to the Douglas banner to raise an army numbering perhaps 10,000-12,000 men, the largest seen since 1388 to reave and burn Northumberland. They also sought retribution against George Dunbar, the Earl of March, a Scottish nobleman who had gone over to the Northumbrians and who now sat on the war council of Hotspur.

In this capacity Dunbar won a bloody skirmish bordering on a massacre at Nesbit Moor in June of 1402, where the notable Scottish knight and Otterburn veteran Sir Patrick of Hailes was cut down. After a lucrative campaign of pillaging and plundering the Scots attempted to withdraw north to the safety of the Cheviot Hills. Hotspur and Dunbar knew this would be the Scots strategy and they knew they would be slowed by their large baggage, provision, and plunder caravans. They choose to meet the Earl of Douglas in battle near the foot-way to the Cheviot Hills at a place known as Homildon (Humbleton) Hill.

Battle of Homildon Hill, 1402

Percy forces at the Battle of Homildon Hill consisted of an overwhelming majority of archers, perhaps comprising more than half of the estimated 7,000 men that Hotspur and Dunbar commanded on their approach to the Scottish positions on the outcrops of the Cheviot Hills. The Scots fielded probably less than 10,000 men by now and though slowed by their immense plunder which Hotspur remarked on himself, were still a powerful and mobile fighting force. This army was led by the Tyneman, the Earls of Angus and Moray, and many other notable Scottish knights who had fought at Otterburn in 1388. As many of the Middle Age chroniclers recorded, both English and Scottish, Hotspur again showed great impatience, wishing to charge up the hill at the Scots where the banner of Clan Douglas was being held high for him to see. George Dunbar the Earl of March, an experienced war-captain and one time enemy of the English urged caution in council to Hotspur. The Earl of March eventually convinced him as it believed, to attack with a full onslaught of archery. The ‘arrow storm’ as it was called then and today was used to break the Scottish ranks with the bane of Scottish infantry in the middle ages, the English longbow.

The ‘arrow storm’ at Homildon caused death and serious wounds to thousands of Scottish defenders during the battle and was just one example of the horror and panic which sustained and even semi-accurate arrow fire could inflict on an infantry force during this age. The Scots led first by the Earl of Douglas and then by Sir John Swinton, the latter a hero at the Battle of Otterburn, charged the English positions unable to break spears or cross swords with the English knights at the foot of the hill, waiting for them eagerly. Swinton was wounded mortally in the charge after giving an impassioned speech taunting the Scottish knights and noblemen for inaction, lying in the field with the hundreds of other Scots who fell charging down Homildon. The Earl of Douglas took five serious wounds despite his “immense and elaborate armor” and was captured along with at least 1,000 Scottish knights and most of the notable lords who called their banners to raid Northumberland.

Battle of Homildon or Humbleton Hill

Hotspur had won a major victory in the rout At Homildon capturing the Earl of Douglas and many of his retainers, avenging his defeat and dishonor at Otterburn. Hotspur enjoyed his decisive and bloody victory for only a couple of weeks before word of it reached Westminster and King Henry. Finding it perfectly within his right since the battle had taken place within his realm, the king ordered that all the major Scottish lords be brought before him or his constable so that he may collect the ransoms paid from their houses in due time. He must have taken great offense to this letter following the battle, more so later when allegedly confronted by King Henry himself and asked if he, like his brother in-law Sir Edmund Mortimer, was a traitor. Mortimer by December of 1402 had married one of Glendower’s daughters becoming an ally but remaining a captive of the Welsh until his death at Harlech Castle in 1409. Indeed, Hotspur had become a traitor already. He feigned loyalty for the last time he would see the king in person, until he met the royalist army in battle at Shrewsbury in July of 1403.

[1] Bower, Walter Scothtricon Translated, Edited by D.E.R. Watt. Vol. VII. (Aberdeen, UK 1996)

[2] ScotichroniconWalter Bower

[3] Froissart’s chronicles alleges that the Scottish plan to make War with the North was announced at a great springtime feast in Aberdeen in which many great chieftains attended and debated going to war.

[4] Chronicles of Froissart

[5] Armstrong, Peter Battle of Otterburn 1388, Bloody Border Conflict (2010) pgs. 40-45

[6] Sir Walter Scott’s poem, The Battle of Otterbourne

[7] Battle of Otterburn 1388, Bloody Border Conflict pg. 30

[8] Chronicles of Froissart, ‘How Sir Matthew Redmen Departed from the Battle to Save Himself’

[9] Robson, James Border Battles and Battlefields with notes and illustrations. Preface by Sir George Douglas. (J & JH Rutherford 1897) pgs. 34-39

[10] Chronicle’s of Froissart

[11] Battle of Otterburn 1388, Bloody Border Conflict pg. 19

[12] Including the Northern lords Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, Sir Henry Fitzhugh, & Sir Robert Umfraville, as well as John Hardynge, who recorded his experiences in the battles of Homildon and Shrewsbury. See Bibliography.

[13] The Earl of Northumberland appeared before King Henry IV with many of the captives, his son and the Earl of Douglas absent of course, a heated discussion ensued with the Earl remarking “God grant you better counsel!” Chronicle of England.