Post-classical history


A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury

I run before King Harry’s victory;

Who, in a bloody field by Shrewsbury,

Hath beaten down young Hotspur and his troops,

Quenching the flame of bold rebellion

Even with the rebels’ blood.

Henry IV Part Two, Act 1, Scene 1

The betrayal and treason of the Percys must have shocked Henry even more than the Epiphany Rising. It had been their support which had allowed him to gather enough troops at Doncaster in 1399 to seize power, and it had been the earl of Northumberland himself who had taken Richard captive. Subsequently Northumberland had been the leading statesman in Henry’s councils and parliament. He and Hotspur had defended the north of England and worked alongside the prince in maintaining control in North Wales. Hotspur was the sole survivor of all those young men and boys who had been knighted with Henry in 1377. He too had been at St Inglevert and had fought with the Teutonic Knights. Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester, was even closer to Henry. He had been his principal representative in negotiations with France, and a leading member of the royal council. Like his brother, he had been a witness at Henry’s wedding, and, even more significantly, Thomas had been the man entrusted with the guardianship of Henry’s eldest son. Just a few months earlier Henry had chosen him to join his half-brothers in accompanying his new wife on her voyage to England. So what occasioned this rebellion against Henry? Was Henry even remotely aware of the impending danger to his regime?

The answer to these questions lies in the expectations of the Percy family. One of the reasons why they had wanted Richard II disempowered in 1399 was because he had sought to reduce their authority in the north. They had supported Henry in the hope that he would reverse Richard’s policy and provide ‘good government’ for the realm, where ‘good government’ meant a form of rule favourable to them. However, Henry had proved not to be their pawn. He had acknowledged his indebtedness to them with many grants in 1399–1401. But the positions he awarded them transferred greater responsibilities, as well as power. What the Percys could not have foreseen was the strength with which the Scots and Welsh reacted to Henry’s insecure rule; their incursions and rebellions forced them to fulfil the responsibilities of their newly secured offices, and to fight expensive border wars in Scotland and Wales. Therefore they did not benefit financially from their positions as much as they had expected, but were more fully occupied than before in the defence of the realm. When they sought reimbursement of their expenses, the money was not forthcoming, because of the impoverishment of the treasury. This in turn was connected to Henry’s promises not to raise taxation. Ironically, it had been the Percys themselves who had forced him to make such promises, at Doncaster in 1399. The Percy family plan of having a tame monarch who would appoint them each to positions of power and levy no taxes turned into a nightmare scenario in which they themselves were responsible for the defence of a realm whose king was unable to meet their costs. Of course, they blamed Henry, not themselves.

Another irony underlying the revolt of 1403 is the Percys’ king-maker status. The very fact that they had been the principal actors in the elevation of Henry as a prospective leader in 1399 was one of the reasons why they now rebelled.1 To understand this, we need to remember that certain positions in medieval society conveyed an informal responsibility to act as a check on the king’s rule. The archbishops and some of the bishops took this responsibility very seriously. Thomas Becket is the most famous example, but throughout the fourteenth century there had been many others.2 It was possible for the great magnates to feel the same political obligation, especially the northern and marcher lords. The Lords Appellant – the heirs of the rebel earls of 1312 – themselves had taken on such a role in 1387. Hence the Percys felt obliged to act as an opposition. Richard had failed them, and had had to be deposed. Now Henry was failing them too. It was their responsibility, they felt, to act as a corrective force.

The problem for the Percys was that their idea of correction was totally out of line with the ideas of duty and homage which governed medieval society. Therefore Henry felt he could chastise them for stepping out of line, and he did. The first we read of this is Henry’s comment in his letter to his son – who was then with Hotspur – that Hotspur’s negligence was partly the reason for the fall of Conway Castle on 1 April 1401. Over the next eighteen months the relationship with Hotspur went from bad to worse. After the battle of Homildon Hill, Henry openly berated Northumberland for Hotspur’s failure to bring the captured earl of Douglas into parliament.3 According to the Brut, Hotspur went to see Henry in person to demand more money for his defence of the Marches. Henry,having nothing in his treasury, tried to brush him off. Hotspur declared that he would not accept such an answer. In the ensuing argument, Henry punched Hotspur in the face.4 According to another chronicle, Henry drew a dagger and threatened Hotspur, who retorted with the challenge ‘Not here but in the field’.5 Whichever version is preferred, by the end of 1402 the friendship between the two had come to an end.

The breakdown of the relationship with Hotspur was not the sole reason for the rebellion. There were three other important factors. One was a growing friendship between the Percys and Glendower. Sir Edmund Mortimer’s decision to marry one of Glendower’s daughters and to side with the Welsh rebel – publicly announced in December 1402 – meant that Hotspur’s brother-in-law was in arms against Henry.6 A dialogue between the Percys and Glendower now opened up, acknowledging a common enemy in Henry. The second reason was that in Hotspur’s and Mortimer’s nephew, the twelve-year-old earl of March, they had a valid hereditary candidate for the throne, and one too young to resist their control. The third reason was the declining position of the Percy family in the north. Henry increasingly gave positions and incomes which the Percys had come to think of as their own to his brother-in-law, Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland. Similarly, the justiciarship of Wales – which had been split between the earl of Northumberland and Hotspur – was given to Prince Henry in March 1403. Hotspur was not recompensed for his loss. Northumberland was, but the lands Henry allocated to him were those of the earl of Douglas, in Scotland, which had not yet been conquered. Furthermore, on the same day as Henry made his son King’s Lieutenant in Wales, he issued a commission for an enquiry into the prisoners taken at Homildon Hill. The reason he gave for placing the prisoners in the hands of a commission was that ‘they [the earl of Northumberland and Hotspur] cannot act honestly because of their interests’.7 It is not wholly surprising that the man who requested this commission was their rival, the earl of Westmorland.

Henry only vaguely anticipated the Percy rebellion; he could not possibly have seen what form it would take. He knew that his friendship with Hotspur was a thing of the past, but he remained confident that the senior members of the family would keep Hotspur in check. In May 1403 the earl of Northumberland wrote to the council reminding them that he and Hotspur were bound to be at Ormiston Castle in Scotland on 1 August to accept its surrender, and asking for payment of arrears for financial support.8 Henry had no reason to be perturbed by this letter; it was typical of those he had received over the last two years. The earl wrote again on 26 June. He stated that Henry had ordered him to receive Ormiston Castle, and that in order to do so he needed money quickly. He claimed that Henry had promised him a sum but had not stated how much it would be or when it would be delivered. There may have been a veiled threat in the earl’s phrase that ‘the good reputation of the chivalry of your realm will not be kept in that place [Ormiston], resulting in dishonour and disaster to myself and my son who are your loyal lieges …’. There was a real concern in his refutation of the rumour that he and Hotspur had received £60,000 since Henry had come to England; the earl protested that they were still owed £20,000. He now urged Henry to command his treasurer to pay this sum for the safety of the kingdom. He signed the letter ‘Your Mathathias’.9

Henry was at Kennington when he received this letter. It greatly alarmed him. The demand from the earl for £20,000 for the safety of the realm had a double meaning: was it to protect England from the Scots or to protect him – Henry – from Hotspur? The signature ‘Your Mathathias’, in the earl’s own hand, emphasised the seriousness of the revolt. Mathathias was the father of Judas Maccabeus. The epithet ‘second Maccabeus’ in England referred to an ideal king; it had been applied to Edward III in his epitaph and had been associated with Henry on his return to England in 1399, when he had received the support of Northumberland. Thus, for Northumberland to claim to be ‘your Mathathias’ was for him to point out he was like a father to Henry. It had been Mathathias who had begun the resistance to King Antiochus’s tyranny, thus making Judas Maccabeus’s victories possible. ‘Your Mathathias’ was a reminder to Henry of just how much he owed Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland.10

Henry set off three days later, on 4 July.11 On 7 July he arrived at Newenham Priory in Bedfordshire, and spent two days there, moving to Higham Ferrers, in Northamptonshire, on the 9th. The next morning he wrote to the council, telling them that the prince had been successful in North Wales (he had destroyed Glendower’s manors of Sycharth and Glyndyfrdwy in May, and had recently relieved the siege of Harlech Castle). He asked the council to send the prince a thousand pounds immediately so he might keep up the good work.12 He added that it was now his intention to go towards Scotland ‘to give aid and comfort to our very dear and loyal cousins the earl of Northumberland and his son Henry in the fight honourably undertaken between them and the Scots’. On this basis historians have generally said that he had no notion of the approaching rebellion. But at the very end of the letter, there is a note to the council to give credence to what the bearer, Elmyn Leget, would say to them on Henry’s behalf. This was a common way of sending secret information: an oral message backed up by a letter of credence. Henry’s journey to see Northumberland and Hotspur almost immediately after receiving the Mathathias letter, when his relationship with Hotspur was one of enmity, leaves little room for doubt that the secret message carried by Leget conveyed his suspicions about the Percys’ loyalty.

From Higham Ferrers, Henry went north, covering the sixty-two miles to Nottingham by the evening of 12 July. There he stopped, having heard rumours of Hotspur gathering the men of Cheshire. He wrote a brief letter to the council ordering them to close all the ports, and went southwest next morning, through Derby and Burton-on-Trent, reaching Lichfield on the 16th. All the Midlands counties’ sheriffs were ordered to send men immediately. The following morning he wrote an urgent letter to the council, the tone of which resembles that of a man in turmoil. Hotspur was in open revolt, proclaiming ‘King Richard is alive’, the rallying cry for those in opposition to the Lancastrians. Henry commanded all the members of his council to come to his aid immediately, with the sole exception of the treasurer, who was ordered to raise all the loans he could.

This could very easily have become a last, pitiful letter from a beleaguered and betrayed king. It was not that he was isolated – Edward, duke of York, and the earl of Dunbar were with him, and so were perhaps two thousand men – but the forces gathering against him were numerous, skilled and motivated.13 Hotspur was at Chester, gathering the best archers England had to offer. The earl of Northumberland was gathering another army in the north, ready to march south and join Hotspur in the Welsh Marches. Glendower was gathering an army in South Wales, preparing to join the Percys at Shrewsbury. There they would meet, seize the prince and march against Henry.

Immediate action was necessary. Henry could not afford to wait for the men of the Midlands counties. He summoned the earl of Stafford to come as quickly as he could and set out with what men he had for Shrewsbury. His only hope was to combine his forces with those of the prince, and to engage Hotspur in battle before the armies of Glendower and Northumberland could arrive. He had to reach Shrewsbury first. On that day, 17 July, Hotspur was gathering his men at Sandiway, about thirty-eight miles from Shrewsbury. Henry was at Lichfield, thirty-nine miles from the town.

In working out what happened next we have a range of sources, the fullest of which are perhaps the least accurate.14 What is clear is that when Hotspur arrived at the gates of Shrewsbury on Friday the 20th, he found the town and its bridges held against him. Lack of battlefield experience over the years had not dulled the king’s strategic thinking. That almost bloodless engagement at Radcot Bridge in 1387 had been won by his bold use of a rapid advance to cut off the enemy’s line of retreat; that was exactly what he did now. He sent a contingent of men ahead to meet with the prince and to defend the town.15 He did not need to get his entire army to Shrewsbury to secure the town and the bridges; indeed, trying to do so would delay him. But sending a smaller force to meet with the prince allowed him to seize the initiative.

It was a brilliant move. By holding Shrewsbury he not only cut off Hotspur from the possibility of meeting up with Glendower’s army, he also trapped him. When Hotspur arrived before the walls of Shrewsbury, he did not just find the town held against him and his plan in jeopardy, he found the king approaching from the east. Hotspur was caught between the town, the river and a royal army. There was nothing he could do but choose the site on which to do battle.


In the twenty-first century it is difficult to convey what ‘doing battle’ meant to Englishmen in 1403. We think of battles as fought by professional, trained soldiers, following strict orders. We think of structured formations and clear lines of command. And we tend to think of medieval people as constantly fighting. These images are misleading. Most of the men with Henry had been pressed to serve their king by the sheriffs of the counties. Apart from a few dozen knights and men-at-arms who lived, ate and slept border warfare with Hotspur, few had actually fought a full-scale pitched battle. More importantly, they had never faced fellow Englishmen in war. The English archers had shredded the tapestry of French chivalry at Crécy in 1346, and since then had dominated large-scale warfare in the same way that machine guns later dominated at the battle of the Somme. Never before had two armies of archers with longbows faced each other. Each man could shoot up to ten or twelve arrows a minute, with an effective killing range of half a mile. At short range their arrows could penetrate the strongest plate armour. To fight a thousand of them meant advancing into a rapid rain of sharp iron, so dense that it darkened the sky. These armies were both equipped with weapons which – to the medieval mind – were capable of mass destruction, and the result of the forthcoming battle was to change perceptions of warfare in England forever.16

There were other reasons to fear the approaching clash of arms. In Anglo-French or Anglo-Scottish conflicts there was a respect for those high-status opponents who fought valiantly. If a man was unfortunate enough to be captured, he could normally expect his captor to ransom him. In civil wars these chivalrous niceties were dispensed with. Hotspur and all his followers were traitors to their king. The king, in their eyes, was a murderer and a usurper. There would be no hostage-taking; this was a conflict of absolute right against absolute wrong. Prisoners could expect to be executed, regardless of how valiantly they had fought or how wealthy they were. This disregard of rank, coupled with the fact that arrows do not distinguish between rich and poor, forced the leaders to anticipate an unprecedented deadliness to proceedings. The king and his son were as likely to be killed as their men-at-arms. Unless Hotspur could be persuaded to give himself up, what would follow would be the bloodiest, most horrific battle yet fought on English soil.

Henry stayed at Haughmond Abbey on the night of Friday 20 July, four miles north-east of Shrewsbury.17 That evening he sent out spies and runners to ascertain the numbers of men with Hotspur and their location.18 They found Hotspur encamped with his men in Berwick Field, two miles outside the town. The chronicle of Jean de Waurin states that Henry was facing eighty thousand men; the Dieulacres chronicle gives sixty thousand. Both are wild exaggerations; John Capgrave states that Hotspur had fourteen thousand men with him, and this is more likely to have been the intelligence Henry received. Thomas Walsingham states that the king had fourteen thousand also.19 Whatever the true numbers, the detail Henry would have most wanted to know was how many Cheshire longbowmen were with Hotspur. Five thousand archers would have been comparable to Edward III’s archery strength at Crécy, easily capable of destroying an army six times its own size, if they had enough arrows. Hotspur had at least a thousand archers, perhaps more.

That night, as Henry consulted with his fellow leaders, he must have realised that the defining moment of his kingship had arrived. This battle was not about two nations fighting over borders. This battle was about him. In many ways it was the battle of conquest which he had not had to fight in 1399, his own battle of Hastings, in which the one question to be resolved was whether he had the right to be king. If what he had done in 1399 and afterwards had been against God’s will – if he had broken the laws of God in dethroning Richard and starving him in prison – then he could expect an arrow to find him out. Being Henry, he took the canny precaution of asking two of his knights to wear his livery. Since it would be the sole purpose of the enemy army to kill him, he would confuse them.

Next morning the runners reported that Hotspur had drawn his army up on a low hill in Berwick Field, a wide-open area sown with peas. The southern approach to this was difficult, being wet ground. The peas’ stems had been wound together, to trip up charging horses and advancing men. The weather was fine, the morning giving way to a hot July day. The earl of Dunbar urged Henry to start the battle as soon as possible. Henry agreed. He heard Mass, took a draught of wine, mounted his horse and gave the order to his marshal to advance.

The king’s men were divided into two battalions, with the prince’s men providing a third force issuing from the town to the south. The vanguard, including the archers, was headed by the earl of Stafford. Henry himself took charge of the main army. In this formation they marched south from Haughmond along the Shrewsbury road, until they were due south-east of the enemy, who were drawn up on a low ridge.20 Hotspur had chosen his spot well, to force the king to attack him by riding up a gradual incline and into the sights of his archers, the classic defensive arrangement employed by English archer-dominated armies for the last seventy years. To advance against Hotspur in that position would be like throwing oneself into the embrace of several thousand murderous arrows. It was obvious that there was going to be a bloodbath.

Henry spent the whole morning trying to avoid the need for battle. He sent the abbots of Shrewsbury and Haughmond to Hotspur, offering a safe-conduct to him if he wished to negotiate, or to send a representative if he wished to present a statement of grievances. Hotspur refused to come in person, but sent his uncle, the earl of Worcester. It seems likely that Worcester carried the Percys’ manifesto, a defence of their rebellion. It outlined Henry’s supposed acts of perjury and openly accused him of ordering Richard to be starved to death.21 Worcester repeated the old complaint about Henry’s inability to maintain a solvent exchequer, or to pay his debts. Henry acknowledged his financial problems, but, with regard to his supposed usurpation, pointed out that he had been elected king. He urged the Percys to put themselves on his grace. ‘I do not trust your grace’, Worcester replied. ‘Then on you lies the responsibility for the blood that will be shed this day’, replied the king.22 Another account states that Henry gave Worcester sufficient assurances that he believed he had done enough to avert the battle, but when Worcester returned to Hotspur he told him that Henry had refused to negotiate. Either way, the talks broke down. Henry decided he had done all he could. There was nothing left to do but attack.

Going among the ranks of men, he urged them that day to fight well. He had been chosen to be king, he insisted to his men, and they would be doing God’s work if they would defend him. Victory would be to the common profit of the realm, he declared. The banners of St Edward and St George were fluttering above him, and the royal standard was beside him in the hands of Sir Walter Blount, one of the men he had asked to wear the royal livery. Henry appointed the earl of Stafford constable of England, and ordered him to lead the advance. The earl, thus honoured, gave the command for the vanguard to march forward. It was by this stage early afternoon.23

Stafford was a brave man. He cannot have doubted that the Cheshire archers were capable of inflicting massive casualties on the vanguard. He would have known that the longbows were at their deadliest when facing an oncoming charge. Thus his force was doubly disadvantaged. He and his men would come within range of the Cheshire archers on the incline before they were able to shoot their own arrows, for stationary men on higher ground have more time to aim and can shoot further than those below them. As a result, Stafford needed his men to advance rapidly. But running forward through a murderous barrage of thousands of deadly arrows only made the task of shooting up a slope – albeit a gentle one – more difficult. Not only that, the Cheshire archers were entrenched, and they had shields to protect them. Nevertheless, shouting and hollering abuse at the Percys, the royal vanguard marched forward. With trumpets and clarions sounding and bows at the ready, Stafford led them into the battle. At a thousand yards from the hill, the first arrows may have reached them. A minute later the sky began to grow dark, as if a cloud was passing over them. Dust began to swirl around the advancing army, but it was not dust that blotted out the sun, it was a volley of arrows. In the words of Thomas Walsingham, ‘the king’s men fell as fast as leaves fall in autumn after the hoar frost’.

No scholar sitting in his study surrounded by old chronicles can do justice to the feelings which now swept across that battlefield. No amount of analysis of the sources – even if the path of truth could be tracked through all the conflicting accounts – could summon up the fear, or the desperate fury of the combatants. Obscured by dust, with trumpets blaring, men screaming in agony and horses whinnying, Henry’s vanguard was cut to pieces. For the men in the front line, the terror must have been beyond anything any of them had ever experienced. But there were enough of them that they kept going, and pressed on towards the rebels. In the words of Jean de Waurin,

after the arrows were exhausted, they put their hands to swords and axes with which they began to slay each other. And the men and horses were slain in such wise that it was pitiable to see. None spared his fellow, mercy had no place, each one tried only to escape and put himself at the head of his party, for there was no friend or relation but each man thought only of himself, so they fought with such equality of bitterness that it was a long time before one could conjecture to whom would remain the day and the victory. But at length, by the prowess of the earl of Douglas and his companions, the king’s vanguard was overwhelmed.24

The first words of this passage probably contain the key to understanding the battle. Although the Cheshire archers killed a great many men in the vanguard, they began to run out of arrows, allowing the vanguard directly to engage the rebel army’s position. It was the earl of Douglas who defeated them, and forced them back, not the rebel archers themselves.25 Thus it seems that, although the king’s vanguard under Stafford lost the initial stage of the battle, they performed the all-important task of sapping the strength of the Cheshire archers.

It was at this stage in the battle that the earl of Stafford was killed.26 All resistance to Douglas now gave way. The king’s vanguard ran back in terror. Walsingham states that four thousand of Henry’s men fled.27 In the meantime the Cheshire archers ran down the slope and ripped their arrows out of the dead and dying bodies of the king’s vanguard, and started shooting again. Seeing his vanguard in flight, Stafford’s banner down, and the enemy charging towards him, Henry knew that it fell to him to show leadership, to stop the fleeing men. Regardless of how many knights were wearing royal armour, there was only one genuine king, and only he could give the decisive order to advance. Having sent a message to the prince to attack Hotspur’s army on the flank, thus further diverting the archers, Henry commanded his trumpeters to give the signal for the main body of the army to charge.

The two armies clashed at the foot of the slope, near where Battlefield church stands today. Almost every chronicler stresses how bitter the fighting was. It was ‘the heaviest, and unkindest, and sorest battle that had ever taken place in England’, wrote the author of the Brut, ‘for there was the son against the father, and the brother against the brother, and kin against kin’.28 According to Waurin, the rebels were encouraged by the appearance of victory, and charged into the fray ‘where the cry and noise were loudest on all sides, trumpets and clarions made a marvellous clamour’. Waurin continues with the most evocative descriptions of the fighting:

and it was horrible to hear the groans of the wounded, who ended their lives miserably beneath the hooves of the horses. There was such slaughter of men whose bodies lay soulless that the like had not been seen in England for a long time … for as I have heard tell by word of mouth and by writing it is not found in any book of this chronicle that there was ever in the kingdom of England since the conquest of Duke William so horrible a battle or so much Christian blood spilled as in this one … King Henry who was concerned in this matter more than any man, disturbed by the defeat of his vanguard, which was destroyed, with a loud voice began to exhort his men to do well, and throwing himself into the battle did many a fine feat of arms so that on both sides he was held to be the most valiant knight, and it was said for certain that on that day with his own hand he slew thirty of his enemies …29

Even allowing for exaggeration, there is no doubt that Henry himself led his men straight into the thick of the fighting. The king’s presence only exacerbated the viciousness of the situation, for the strategic aim of both sides was to kill the enemy leader. Those Cheshire archers who still had arrows now aimed through the swirling dust cloud at the king. Those who were fighting the prince on the flank aimed at him. One arrow flew from the bow of a Cheshire archer straight into the prince’s face while the visor of his war helmet was raised, penetrating into his skull just below his left eye. Despite this, as the hand-to-hand fighting raged, Hotspur saw his position weakening. His archers were all but a spent force, and his men-at-arms and infantry were being overwhelmed by Henry’s. The situation was growing desperate. Something had to be done.

What happened next is one of those moments when history itself turns to watch in solemn admiration at the courage of men. Hotspur decided to stake everything on one great charge straight towards the king. Gathering thirty of his most trusted supporters, including the earl of Douglas and his uncle, the earl of Worcester, he urged them all to couch their lances together in preparation.30 Henry himself was still in the thick of the fighting, oblivious of the impending force of thirty knights about to smash their way through to him. But the earl of Dunbar saw what was happening, and immediately understood that the king was in great danger. A group of charging mounted knights with lances could suddenly smash their way through a mass of infantry and motionless cavalry, scything through the battle. Dunbar shouted to Henry, urging him to withdraw. Henry seems to have been reluctant; if anyone saw his banner leaving the battlefield they would presume that all was lost. But there was simply no time to lose. As Hotspur and his fellow knights charged through the fighting infantry, Dunbar persuaded Henry to fall back. In so doing the oncoming knights were drawn further and deeper into the killing mass. If Henry had looked back he would have seen the brave Sir Walter Blount, still holding the royal standard, struck down.31 He would have seen several of his other knights slain. But he would also have seen Hotspur’s charge fail as the thirty were caught on the swords of the royal men-at-arms, their horses’ legs broken by the axes of the infantry who, unable to flee, stood and fought for their lives.

No one knows who wielded the blow which stopped Hotspur. But gradually the charge of the thirty knights slowed to a halt, and the royal soldiers in their fury rushed in and cut him down. On seeing Sir Walter Blount killed as he wore Henry’s spare royal armour, the rebels sent up the shout that ‘King Henry’ was dead, and started yelling ‘Harry Percy King’. Encouraged, the rebel army renewed their efforts. Astounded, Henry raised his visor and yelled back, ‘Harry Percy is dead!’ Again he roared it, ‘Harry Percy is dead!’ That was it; the challenge was over. In his own mind, and in his own conscience, God had spoken. It had not been an unequivocal judgement in his favour, as the wound his son had received was so grave it was unlikely that he would live, but Henry had been given the victory. The rest of the battle was a foregone conclusion from that moment on. The rebels, seeing their beloved Hotspur dead, and the earls of Worcester and Douglas and several other knights being led from the battlefield as prisoners of the king, knew they were defeated. One instant they had been fighters for justice, striving to rid England of an unjust ruler; the next they were traitors, fugitives from justice. There could be no mercy for them. They would be chased down and slaughtered unless they fled. In a very short time the battlefield was cleared of all those who could run, leaving the king’s men to cut the throats of those who could not, as twilight settled down across the field of bloody corpses and trampled peas.


We tend to judge battles historically by how famous they are today. By that reckoning, Shrewsbury barely ranks in the top twenty. It was not like the great battles of the previous century, all of which had been gloriously won or lost against the Scots or the French. It had much more in common with the inglorious civil wars of the later fifteenth century. Indeed, it is possible to describe it as the first battle of the Wars of the Roses, the series of conflicts between the houses of Lancaster and Mortimer or York for the throne. Yet even that comparison is misleading, for it was followed by fifty years of domestic peace. If it was the first ‘War of the Roses’, then it is a strange episode, for it started on about 9 July 1403 and was over within a fortnight. That is hardly the pattern of a dynastic struggle.

But therein lies the importance of Shrewsbury. By his timely and decisive action, Henry prevented Hotspur’s rising from becoming a full-blown dynastic conflict. It was a very serious rising – it had three earls among its leaders and a suitable hereditary candidate for the throne in the form of the young Edmund Mortimer – and it could easily have led to a more general civil war. It is thus valid to pose the question, what if Henry had lost? What was really at stake that day?

If Henry had been killed at Shrewsbury, the royal army would have fled and the wounded prince would probably have been captured. Power in the north would have shifted back decisively in favour of the Percys. The Lancastrian claim to the throne would have been left between the captive ailing prince and his brother, Thomas of Lancaster, who was still in Ireland. The Lancastrians would have been ousted. Hotspur, being a rash fellow, may well have tried to claim the throne for himself, by right of conquest, but it is unlikely he would have achieved widespread support outside the north, and so we can see him being forced to accept the young Edmund Mortimer, his wife’s nephew, as king. How different English history would have been if Edmund Mortimer – a weak, unconfident character with no aptitude for war or even kingship – had succeeded to the throne instead of the victor of Agincourt! And how differently Henry IV would be viewed now if he had lost at Shrewsbury. What would he have been to the intervening centuries but an example of God’s judgement on a man who dared to overthrow and murder a divinely anointed king?

The course of English history teetered on this confrontation. Never before had a Plantagenet king led his men to victory in a pitched battle on English soil, and yet Henry had now done so, by showing chivalric leadership of the highest order. The significance of divine retribution on Hotspur, and not Henry, was powerfully felt throughout the realm. In symbolic terms, it was of profound importance. Hotspur’s body was initially carried off to Whitchurch for burial, but that night Henry gave orders for it to be brought back to Shrewsbury. The hero’s corpse was placed in a sitting position and propped against an axe stuck between two great millstones, so everyone could see he was dead.32 Later the head was cut off and sent to be displayed in York. The battlefield too acquired a symbolic status. Although only about two thousand men had died, more than half of those present had either fled in fear or had been badly wounded or killed.33 A large number of the dead – between 1,100 and 1,800 – were placed in a mass grave. Certainly a large number of men had died in a relatively small space.34 The king’s vanguard had been torn apart by the arrows of the Cheshire archers. Many of the wounded had been trampled to death in the same place. Dozens of Hotspur’s men had perished there too, overwhelmed by the king’s army. Building a church on the battlefield was not only respectful to the dead, it was a powerful statement. The church told people that they could expect a similar fate to Hotspur if they defied the king. The message equally applied to Glendower’s Welsh rebels, just across the border.35

It would have been easy, in such victorious circumstances, to have lapsed into complacency. At this point in his chronicle, Jean de Waurin launches into a paean of honour to Henry (extraordinarily, for a Frenchman).36 But, contrary to Waurin’s assumption that he returned in triumph to Westminster, Henry neither went to Westminster nor lapsed into self-congratulatory inactivity. The men he had just crushed had once been his ardent supporters, not his enemies. Killing Hotspur had not reversed any of their complaints against his rule. Most significantly, Hotspur’s father was still at liberty, with an army, and Glendower was likewise in the field. To return to Westminster and pretend a triumph would have been foolish.

Henry wrote to the earl of Westmorland on 22 July, the day after the battle, ordering him to take immediate action against Northumberland, and to arrest him if possible. On the 23rd he showed the earl of Worcester Hotspur’s dead body, and let him weep over the corpse. When that lachrymose ceremony was complete, he had the earl beheaded for treason along with two other knights captured in the battle, Sir Richard Vernon and Sir Richard Venables. Then he set off to the north in pursuit of Northumberland. He was at Nottingham at the end of the month and reached his great fortress of Pontefract by 4 August.37

There was no doubt as to the earl of Northumberland’s complicity in the Percy revolt. Their manifesto had borne his name as well as those of Worcester and Hotspur, and the number of men whom he had gathered at Tadcaster showed that he had every intention of marching against the king. When he learned of the defeat at Shrewsbury and his son’s death, he retreated to Newcastle upon Tyne. With Westmorland advancing to intercept him, and Robert Waterton in the field preparing to cut off his retreat, Northumberland had little room for manoeuvre. Unfortunately for him, the loyal men of Newcastle had also heard of Hotspur’s defeat. They refused to admit his army and would only allow him within the walls with a small retinue. For some reason Northumberland decided this was still a suitable course of action and entered the town, leaving his army outside. Outraged at being abandoned, with Waterton and Westmorland in the field, Northumberland’s men attacked the town. Hastily Northumberland disbanded the army and slipped away, taking refuge in Warkworth Castle. He was still there when Henry wrote to him demanding that he come to York and make his submission.

There were several gates to the city of York, and over one of them the head of Hotspur was placed. Perhaps Northumberland was made to enter the city by that same gate, and to look up and see the face of his dead son, drained of blood and with sunken eyes. Even if he did not, the symbolism of having to make his obeisance to Henry in the same city must have been crushing. Henry had promised in his letter that he would spare the earl’s life, but with betrayal on this scale there was absolutely no hope of any real reconciliation.

In order to save his life, the earl subjected himself utterly. He denied any knowledge of the rising and pretended that his son had acted without consulting him. Henry heard these pleadings and told the earl he would be allowed to address parliament. He took him to Pontefract and made him seal documents directing his officers to surrender all the castles held for him. When that task was done, he ordered all the knights and esquires in the county of Northumberland to swear an oath of loyalty to him: a forerunner of the general oaths of loyalty and allegiance which were to become so regular a feature of political control in the wake of rebellions in Tudor and Stuart times. The earl himself was despatched to Baginton, near Coventry, to wait for the next parliament. As a final precaution, Henry executed a hermit for threatening him with his false prophecies.38 Only then could he feel he had neutralised the rebellion.


On the same day as Henry concluded his arrangements with Northumberland at Pontefract, he ordered the sheriffs to send men to meet him at Worcester, ready to make another foray into Wales. The date he set was 3 September; it only gave him eighteen days to make the necessary preparations with his fellow leaders. Nevertheless, he was there on the day. The momentum was with him. Unfortunately his old money problems were with him too, and he was delayed for a week at Worcester. There he held a council and commanded all his leading magnates to reaffirm their oaths of loyalty. At the same time he was receiving letters from his old friend Richard Kingston, archdeacon of Hereford, telling him that Herefordshire was on the verge of attack, and if Henry did not send help soon the local gentry would desert him to make their own peace with Glendower. Henry went to Hereford as soon as he could, and stayed there from 11 to 15 September, ordering the provisioning and garrisoning of the castles in the area. When he was satisfied, he took his army into Wales again, on the long road to Carmarthen.

Henry’s fourth campaign in Wales followed the pattern of his second, that of 1401, being a short military dash to south-west Wales. He was at Michaelchurch on 19 September and at Devynock, on the road to Carmarthen, on the 21st. Three days later he rode into Carmarthen itself and immediately set about ordering the reinforcement of the local garrisons, the repair of strategic walls and the provisioning of the castles. Then he promptly turned around and headed back to England, returning to Hereford by 3 October. Perhaps he believed that Wales was essentially secure as long as the castle garrisons remained in place. In that he was not wrong, not in the long term at least, so it is unfair to accuse him of not being thorough enough in his suppression of the Welsh people (as some historians have done). As we have seen, he was willing to be more lenient towards the loyal Welsh than many members of parliament, who saw persecution as a sign of strength.

Another complication in the Welsh situation was developing at this same time. The ‘pirate war’ with France had been going on for nearly two years, since the duke of Orléans had commissioned the earl of Crawford to start attacking English shipping in early 1402. Henry had responded by tacitly encouraging the English pirates to respond by attacking French ships. The famous John Hawley of Dartmouth was just one of many wealthy mariner-merchants who jumped at the chance to supplement his legal trade with stolen French goods. Gradually the whole conflict had assumed a broader, more vigorous form. In August 1403 Plymouth was sacked. But on 4 October 1403 a force of French and Bretons landed in South Wales and began to attack Kidwelly Castle and the area around it. Coupled with Glendower’s attack on Cardiff, which was launched just after Henry withdrew into England, this presented an altogether new combination of threats. At Bristol on 23 October he wrote to the council urgently asking that they give letters of safe-conduct to men serving with the earl of Warwick in Brecon. ‘Necessitas non habet legem’ (‘necessity has no law’) he wrote in his own hand on the letter. The phrase sums up Henry’s kingship: neither legally correct, nor wholly lawful, but done anyway, because the safety of the nation is more important than the law.

Thus the year 1403 drew to a close. The great danger of the Percys’ rebellion had been faced and defeated but otherwise Henry was beleaguered. His money problems were as bad as ever, Glendower was stronger than ever, and now Henry had further French hostility to deal with. On 14 October the duke of Orléans sent his third and final insult to Henry.39 In November he received another challenge from the count of St Pol, and in December that count attacked the Isle of Wight. At Carnarvon in January, the besieged constable could not spare a single man to take a letter requesting a relief force because he had only twenty-eight men to hold the castle against Glendower.40 All Henry could do was to despatch men to face the worst threats, and borrow what money he could to pay them. A contingent of Devonians was ordered to assemble to defend Cardiff; another was gathered at Dunster to sail to Carmarthen. It all added up to an extremely stressful situation. As Henry and his wife travelled to Abingdon to spend their first Christmas together, they could have been forgiven for wanting to turn their backs on the problems of the realm. But if they enjoyed a break for a few days, it was a short relief. By 14 January 1404 the king was back at Westminster preparing for a meeting with an angry parliament. And the next plot to remove him from the throne was quietly being hatched.

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