As noted in the text, some rather fanciful figures are quoted by the chroniclers for the number of participants in the battle of Shrewsbury. Jean de Waurin in particular stretches belief far beyond breaking point by stating that eighty thousand men were in the host which faced Henry.1 The modern guide to Battlefield church is hardly more restrained in suggesting there were thirty thousand royal troops and twenty thousand rebels. Even some usually reliable contemporary writers, such as Thomas Walsingham and the author of the Dieulacres chronicle, say that there were fourteen thousand men in each army, with the implication that there were twenty-eight thousand men present on 21 July 1403. Against this, the number of slain is in several cases said to be under two thousand. If this was the case, and only one in twenty men perished, why do all the chroniclers agree that it was one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil?
The key problem in assessing the scale of the battle is this tendency of chroniclers to exaggerate numbers. Armies are enlarged to biblical proportions as well-educated, cloistered writers wrote their dramatic accounts in the only language of battle they knew: a mixture of Old Testament stories, classical history and earlier chronicles. In general, unless they could talk up a skirmish to sound like the great battles of the past, it would hardly merit inclusion in a book. But from the mid-fourteenth century there was an increasing desire to know accurate casualty figures, at least with regard to men of quality. After Crécy the victors collected the heraldic surcoats of the dead, thereby accounting for the knights and esquires killed. As a result, casualty figures (as opposed to the total numbers involved) can be a more accurate way to approach the scale of a battle. Of course casualty figures are often exaggerated too. Adam Usk states that sixteen thousand men died at Shrewsbury, and the Scottish chronicler Wyntoun suggests seven or eight thousand.2Nevertheless, correlating the various lower figures allows us a greater degree of reliability, if only for the reason that the smaller a number is, the easier it is for contemporaries to count, or estimate, accurately.
The starting point has to be the mass grave. Several chroniclers mention this, and interestingly they give different figures for the number of bodies in it. This suggests they were not all using the same source. The Dieulacres chronicle, which gives the total number of dead as between five and six thousand, states that the mass grave contained the suspiciously precise figure of 1,847 bodies.3 The Brut states 1,100 bodies.4 Other accounts mention the mass grave but give no number of corpses.5 There can be little doubt therefore that a mass grave of some sort existed. It is also worth noting that the narrative of the battle implies that many men died in the same space, with the wounded royal vanguard dying under the hooves of charging horses. A mass grave would have been a sensible solution to the problem of burying all these bodies quickly.
This brings us to the well-known set of dimensions given to the grave: apparently it was 159 × 60 feet, and 60 feet deep. Leaving aside the incredible depth, which may be a mistranscription of IX (nine) for LX (sixty), there are reasons to doubt these dimensions. Allowing six square feet for each corpse, this would equate to a burial of 1,802 bodies. However, medieval burials were not so regular (bodies were often piled on top of one another), and we have to suspect that the dimensions were based by the writer on the reported number of dead, not an observation of the grave itself. In addition, a grave of that area with a depth of just nine feet – let alone sixty – would be very difficult to back-fill evenly, and we would expect considerable subsidence on the site. None is to be seen, except the sunken and overgrown area associated with the fishponds of the collegiate buildings. Although large numbers of bones have reportedly turned up near the battlefield church in the past, archaeologists today have great difficulty finding any, even though thousands of decaying corpses would not have been carried very far. Given that the church was constructed within six years of the battle, it is unrealistic to suggest the mass grave lies very far from the site. The lack of subsidence in the vicinity and the paucity of bones on archaeologists’ spades allows us to infer we are looking for a relatively small number of corpses, not seven or eight thousand.6
The figures in the Dieulacres chronicle, given above, imply that only a third of the dead were buried in the mass grave. The Brut suggests only the 1,100 who were buried in the mass grave were killed. The continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum has a total of just 1,600 men dead.7 On this basis, it would seem unreasonable to suggest that more than three thousand men were killed, and perhaps as few as 1,600 died on the battlefield, with several hundred of those not being buried in the mass grave (being of higher status). This causes us to address the main question again: why was it universally described as such a bloody battle?
Consider the number of men of quality killed. Capgrave and Walsingham both mention a total of two hundred Cheshire knights and esquires, plus an unknown number of common men.8 This is likely to be a reasonably accurate figure, for the surcoats could easily have been counted. This many men of quality is not a high proportion of the dead when compared to battles like Crécy or any other battle in which the English archers took part, but it is a high figure for a hand-to-hand battle, and it is a very high figure for Englishlosses. Traditionally men of quality were ransomed, not killed. Archers do not take hostages, however, and herein we probably have the real reason for the horrific descriptions of the battle. The Dieulacres chronicle gives the figures of twenty-eight knights dead on the king’s side and eight on Hotspur’s. Many of these knights can be identified from the various chronicle accounts.9 The total – thirty-six dead knights – bears comparison with the forty or so knights killed at Towton (1461), which is usually described as the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses. It was not so much the numbers killed that made reports of the battle so deadly, it was the indiscriminate method of killing. If we consider the likelihood that the people who would have spread the story of the battle to the chroniclers were among the ‘knights and esquires’, we can immediately see why they were horrified by what they had seen.
The figure of fourteen thousand in the king’s army may be a little exaggerated, but it is unlikely that Henry would have fought a battle with many fewer, and to his forces we must add those guarding the prince. That his vanguard was defeated by the Cheshire archers despite this, and yet Hotspur’s army fought on until the evening, suggests that Hotspur had a force which, if smaller, was not negligible. If Henry had fourteen thousand men, and if four thousand of those were in the royal vanguard which fled during the battle, and three thousand of the royal army were badly wounded and died later (as Walsingham states), and about half those actually slain on the battlefield were in the royal army, then maybe as many as eight thousand men (considerably more than half the royal army) either fled during the battle, were badly injured or killed. Furthermore, if one-third of the injured whom Walsingham describes later died of their wounds, then one in seven men in the royal army did not survive the encounter. And this was the winning side. Similarly, if Hotspur had a force of about ten thousand – easily enough to overwhelm Henry’s vanguard – and if one thousand of those were killed on the battlefield and a similar number were wounded as on the royal side, we can understand why the battle was shocking despite there being fewer than two thousand corpses in the mass grave. At the start of the day there had been twenty-four thousand men; at the end there were just six thousand royal troops standing, surrounded by two thousand corpses and between three and four thousand injured and dying men. The rest had fled. For the knights and esquires who circulated accounts of the conflict, it was especially shocking to see several hundred heraldic surcoats in the dust. It is not going too far to say that it was at Shrewsbury that the northern English gentry was forced to realise that loyal service in a fifteenth-century civil war necessitated facing the risk of an indiscriminate and ignoble death, whichever side they were on.