Shropshire History

Battle of Shrewsbury

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The Main Protagonists

 

King Henry IV

Henry Prince of Wales

Henry (Hotspur) Percy

  

  

  

1367

Born on 15th April at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire (hence his other name of Henry Bolingbroke), son of John of Gaunt.

 

1377

Was a first cousin and childhood playmate to King Richard II and they were admitted together to the Order of the Garter.

 

1387

Participated in the Lords Appellants' rebellion against the king but was not punished.   Instead, Richard elevated Henry from Earl of Derby to Duke of Hereford.

 

1392

Undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he made offerings at the Holy Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives. Later he vowed to lead a crusade to “free Jerusalem from the infidel” but died before this could be accomplished.

 

1398

A remark regarding Richard II's rule was interpreted as treason by the Duke of Norfolk. The two dukes agreed to undergo a duel of honour but, before the duel could take place, Richard II decided to banish Henry from the kingdom to avoid further bloodshed.

 

1399

John of Gaunt died and Richard cancelled the legal documents that would have allowed Henry to inherit Gaunt's land automatically. Henry and Thomas Arundel (who had lost his position because of his involvement with the Lords Appellant rebellion) returned to England while Richard was on a military campaign in Ireland. Henry began a military campaign and confiscated land from those who opposed him, ordering his soldiers to destroy much of Cheshire. Henry quickly gained enough power and support to have himself declared King Henry IV. He imprisoned King Richard II and was crowned on 13th October and was the first English king to take the coronation oath in English. Henry's mother heiress to considerable Lancaster estates and thus he became the first King of England coming from the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenets.

 

1400

An assassination plot (the Epiphany Rising) was foiled and Richard II died in prison of starvation. Henry was suspected of having him murdered. Owain Glyndwr declared himself Prince of Wales and began a rebellion against Henry.

1386

Born 16th September at Monmouth Castle (hence his other name of Henry of Monmouth), eldest son of King Henry IV.

 

1398

His father was exiled by King Richard II, who took the boy into his own charge and treated him kindly.

 

1399

King Richard II was overthrown and his father became King Henry IV. As heir apparent, he was created Prince of Wales, Duke of Lancaster, Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester and Duke of Aquitaine at his father's coronation. He spent time at Queen's College, Oxford under the care of his uncle Henry Beaufort, who as Chancellor of the university.

 

1400

Created High Sheriff of Cornwall.

 

1402

In command of part of the English forces fighting against Owain Glyndwr in Wales. Then in charge of the garrison at Shrewsbury Castle.

 

1364

Born on 20th May at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, the eldest son of Henry Percy Earl of Northumberland.

 

1377

Knighted by King Edward III.

 

1380

In Ireland with the Earl of March.

 

1385

Appointed Warden of the East March (eastern part of the border of Scotland) and accompanied King Richard II on an expedition into Scotland. As a tribute to his “speed in advance and readiness to attack” on the Scottish borders, the Scots bestowed on him the name “Haatspore”.

 

1386

Sent to France to reinforce the garrison at Calais and led raids into Picardy.

 

1387

In command of a naval force in an attempt to relieve the siege of Brest.

 

1388

In appreciation of his military services, he was made a Knight of the Garter. Reappointed as Warden of the East March and commanded the English forces against Earl James Douglas at the Battle of Otterburn. He was captured but soon ransomed for a fee of 7000 marks.

 

1395

Returned to England and took part in Richard II's expedition to Ireland, then returned to Aquitaine.

 

1399

Supported Henry Bolingbroke on his return from exile. Percy and his father joined Bolingbroke's forces at Doncaster and marched south with them. After King Richard's deposition, Percy and his father were rewarded with lands and offices. He had civil and military responsibility in both the East March and North Wales, where he was appointed High Sheriff of Flintshire.

 

1402

Appointed royal lieutenant of North Wales. With his father, Earl of Dunbar and Earl of March he beat a Scottish force at the Battle of Homildon Hill.

 

The Build Up

Spring 1403

The Percy family were the most powerful nobles in England.  Henry Percy was the 1st Earl of Northumberland and Thomas Percy was the 1st Earl of Worcester. Henry IV had promised them “land money and favour” for supporting him against King Richard II, plus putting down the rebellions of Owain Glyndwr in Wales and the Scots. When the fighting ended, however, the lands in Cumberland that had been promised to the Percys were instead given to a rival and the promised money amounting to £20,000 never materialised. Henry was not deliberately refusing to pay them but he simply did not have the resources. The King did grant the Percys extensive lands in southern Scotland but these were still in Scottish hands and they quickly realised that the King had presented them with a poisoned chalice.

 

They were also annoyed at the King’s insistence of keeping the Scottish nobles captured at Homildon Hill the previous year as prisoners of war rather than applying for their ransom. To the Percys, who had led the victorious English troops there, this was further depriving them of what they considered to be due reward. Northumberland’s son, Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy, had also incurred expenses on behalf of the king in several successful campaigns against the rebellious Owen Glyndwr. However, he too was unpaid so he abandoned Wales and returned north. Yet another grievance had arisen when the King refused to ransom Hotspur's brother-in-law, Sir Edmund Mortimer, who had been captured earlier in the year by the Welsh. Henry's rather unconvincing explanation was that he had no wish to fund Glyndwr's rebellion but Hotspur suspected the real reason to be that Mortimer was uncle to the English Earl of March (another Edmund Mortimer), whose claim to the English throne was stronger than Henry's own. A furious interview between the King and Hotspur followed, which contemporaries reported ended with Henry calling Hotspur "Traitor" and striking him in the face. Hotspur stormed out, shouting "Not here, but in the field". The Percys now decided to support the Earl of March as rightful heir to the throne.  

 

In a complete reversal of allegiance, the Percys formed an alliance with Glyndwr and Edward Mortimer, publicly renouncing their allegiance to King Henry. They charged him with perjury, based on his claiming the throne instead of just his old lands and titles. Also with taxing the clergy (despite having promised not to without the consent of Parliament), murdering King Richard II and not permitting a free Parliamentary election.

 

5th July

Hotspur raised a small group of 160 retainers and with the Earl of Douglas started the long march south to meet his uncle, Thomas Percy Earl of Worcester.  The danger from Scotland meant that most of the veteran Percy troops in the north had to remain in place to protect the border. To replace them, Hotspur decided to recruit an army from Lancashire, Cheshire and Wales.

 

9th July

In Chester, the call to rebellion went out to the men of Cheshire and to Glyndwr's supporters in north-east Wales. Hotspur proclaimed that King Richard II was still alive and that he and the Earl of Northumberland would shortly arrive.  Because of its proximity to the Welsh Border, Cheshire had long been a source of battle-hardened troops. Richard II had recruited his elite bodyguard there, the Cheshire Archers. They had a core strength of about 300 men and were mostly career soldiers with considerable experience in the French wars. Dismissed by Henry from their previous position, the men of the guard were foremost in attempts to overthrow the new regime. Hotspur decided that Cheshire would provide the nucleus of his army and hoped for further recruits from the Mortimer estates on the mid-Wales border and support from his new ally Glyndwr. Glyndwr's strategy, however, was to avoid conventional warfare with his lightly equipped forces and it is unlikely that he ever considered joining with Hotspur to fight a set-piece battle. Instead, early in July, a Welsh army of about 8,000 spearmen launched a major offensive into south-west Wales, with the aim of diverting government forces there and from the Welsh Border. Taking advantage of this, Hotspur, with troops raised in Cheshire, would advance southwards 30 miles to Shrewsbury, headquarters of the small force of veteran troops commanded by the 16-year-old Henry, Prince of Wales. These disposed of, the rebels would be able to replenish their limited military supplies from the stores of Shrewsbury Castle and be masters of most of the Welsh Border. In the meantime, the elderly Earl of Northumberland would raise another army from his Yorkshire estates and move south, with the eventual intention of linking up with Hotspur.

 

12th July

King Henry was marching an army north to assist the Percys against the Scots but, when he reached  Nottingham, he received the first reports of Hotspur's activities in Cheshire. The Scottish Earl of March George Dunbar, an experienced soldier who was serving the King, urged him to take the immediate offensive. Gathering support as he went, including a contingent of Cheshire loyalists under Sir John Stanley and the militia of the Midlands counties, Henry marched towards Shrewsbury.

 

17th July

Rebel supporters were mustered at Sandiway, south of Chester. The response was encouraging, officers and men of Richard's old bodyguard answered the call almost to a man, many wearing their old badge of the White Hart. Considerable numbers of the Cheshire gentry also came in and brought with them relatives and neighbouring minor gentry, each of whom could muster a small retinue of armed followers. No longer able to conceal Richard's death, Hotspur revealed his true programme. He said that Henry had broken his word when he seized the throne and had exacted illegal taxes from the people. The rebels vowed to replace him with the English Earl of March, whom they proclaimed rightful King. Hotspur headed south into Shropshire, recruiting as he went, though a number of those who joined would claim later that "they were prevailed upon by promises and threats". Hotspur was also joined by his uncle, Thomas Percy the Earl of Worcester. Worcester was an experienced soldier who had served as King Henry’s commander in South Wales and had been tutor to the young Prince Henry. He had been with the Prince at Shrewsbury and it is possible that he had intended to capture both him and the town. If so, the plan failed but Worcester brought with him 8 knights, 96 esquires and 866 archers from the Prince's army of professional soldiers. This was almost half of the total and the loyalty to the Lancastrians of the badly-paid remainder was uncertain.

 

20th July

Hotspur arrived at the northern gates of Shrewsbury but Prince Henry's men refused him admission. The rebels prepared to assault the town but, before they could do so, the King and his army arrived and entered the town from the south. The rebels withdrew north to camp for the night around the village of Berwick. King Henry forded the River Severn at Uffington and camped for the night around Haughmond Abbey, from where he could threaten the rebel flank. Hotspur and Worcester were now in serious trouble. Outnumbered, they could no longer hope to take Shrewsbury whilst any attempt to retreat northwards threatened the disintegration of their army at the hands of the pursuing royalists. The only alternative was to stand and fight.

 

21st July

Percy left Berwick, aware that his options were severely limited. The looked-for support from Glyndwr and Mortimer had not materialised, the River Severn blocked his path south, the King’s forces were now harrying his troops who were for the most part raw recruits and he was out-numbered. Flight was not an option and his own untried forces were likely to disintegrate under pressure. Deciding to face his enemy, Percy now sought the most favourable ground. With memories of his defensive victory at Hambledon Hill, Hotspur looked for a similar position and decided upon a low ridge extending for 2 miles to the north-east of Berwick and close to the Whitchurch road.  This is a flat plain with a ridge on the north side running east to west and it was here that Percy chose to make his stand. Deploying his 7,000 troops along the ridge, he faced the 10,000 strong royal army drawn up only a few hundred yards away, downslope to the south. Both armies were formed into three divisions. In the case of the royalists, the right wing was led by the Earl of Stafford, the centre by the Earl of March, and the left by the Prince of Wales. The rebel centre was commanded by Hotspur and the wings by the Earl of Worcester and Sir Hugh Browe. Archers formed a continuous line, 3-4 deep in a chequerboard formation, along the front of both armies. Behind them would be dismounted men-at-arms with only the immediate household troops of the leading commanders remaining mounted to act as a reserve.

 

 

For much of the morning the two forces parleyed. The Abbots of Shrewsbury and Haughmond were used by King Henry to offer terms. It appears that Henry Percy was inclined to accept the King's offer but his uncle Thomas Percy was not. Thomas outlined the rebel demands and Henry responded that they should submit and trust to his mercy. "We cannot trust you" was Thomas's uncompromising reply. The royalists may have been deliberately prolonging talks whilst further reinforcements joined them and apparently some rebels had deserted and come over to the King. Worcester's response ended any hope of a peaceful resolution. "On you must rest the blood shed this day" retorted the King, "forward banner". The battle started about two hours before sunset.

 

The Battle

 

King Henry raised his sword and the battle began with a general advance by the royalists. They had to move uphill through a large field of peas, whose stems had been woven together by the rebels in an attempt to impede the advance. As the royalist ranks became disordered, Hotspur's archers opened a devastating fire "so thick and fast that it seemed to the beholders like a thick cloud". The king's men went down "like apples fallen in the autumn wind". Royalist archers attempted to reply but were evidently overwhelmed. It was normal practice for an archer to carry two quivers, giving him a total of 48 arrows. The average archer could be expected to fire at a rate of about 10 shots per minute. Assuming that Percy's men opened fire at a range of about 300 yards, and that about 3,000 archers were involved, they could in theory have fired some 60,000 arrows in the time it would have taken the Royalist troops to reach their position. King Henry's men never got that far. Both Stafford's and the King's divisions began to fall back in disorder. Percy sent his men-at-arms in pursuit and a fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued. At this stage the rebels had the upper hand, having pushed the royal troops back several hundred yards. Stafford was killed and many of his men, including a number of loyal Cheshire troops, made off and stole mounts from the horse lines to the rear. The King's division, though shaken, managed to halt back on its start line.

 

      

 

Hotspur's next move was to launch a general counterattack. He was still outnumbered and his decision was a rash action which threw away all his advantages. However, it is quite probable that Hotspur's archers had exhausted most of their arrows and, if the royalist forces rallied, they might overwhelm the rebel position by weight of numbers. He came very close to victory. Spearheading the rebel assault were Hotspur and the Earl of Douglas with their household troops, possibly all mounted. The impetus of this charge of about 100 men "made an alley in the midst of the army" and their objective was King Henry himself. The Royal Standard was overthrown and its carrier Sir Walter Blount hacked down by the Earl of Douglas. One account says that Douglas killed 2-3 men dressed as decoys in the King's personal livery. Certainly King Henry seems to have been in some danger and was persuaded to withdraw from the fighting. Many of Hotspur's men had left the field in pursuit of fugitives from Stafford's division so he was still faced by superior numbers.

 

At this moment, the men of the Prince of Wales' division wheeled to the right and took the rebel centre in flank and rear. Percy’s forces were now hemmed in between the two Royal divisions. In the bloody fighting that followed, the Prince of Wales was hit in the face by an arrow but, after remarkably successful surgery, he was to survive. The wound left a scar, however, and this is why portraits of him show his head in profile. In the confused melee in the centre, Hotspur was killed by an arrow when he raised his visor to see more clearly. Percy’s death was not realised at first and the Northumbrian knights incorrectly hailed the death of Henry IV and acclaimed Henry Percy King. Henry IV was very much alive, however, and retaliated by shouting “Henry Percy is dead”.  At this point the battle came to an end and it is recorded that many did not even know who had won. Percy’s troops fled and Henry’s forces pursued them for three miles. An interesting fact here is that Hotspur had been told some years previously by a witch that he would die near Berwick. He had assumed that this meant Berwick on Tweed. Just before the battle, however, he learned that there was a small hamlet nearby called Berwick. On hearing, this his face went white as he knew he would die in the battle.

 

 

This was the first battle in which English archers fought each other on English soil and it demonstrated the deadliness of the longbow. The average war bow measured about 6ft in length and was made of yew. It had a "draw weight" of 80-160lb and a range of up to 300 yards with lighter arrows, though less with some of the heavier-headed armour-piercing "bodkin" type which were used against armoured knights and men-at-arms. A well-trained archer could in theory loose off up to 10 arrows a minute. Thus a massed formation of archers could produce a volume of fire unequalled in warfare until the early 20th century. The average archer seems to have taken with him into battle two sheaves of arrows, 48 in all. After these were gone, unless re-supplies came up from the baggage train, he would have to fight as an ordinary foot soldier with sword, axe or dagger.

 

Aftermath

 

At dawn the following day, the extent of the royalist victory became clear. Those who were present said they “never saw and never read in the records of Christian times of so ferocious a battle in so short a time or of larger casualties than happened here". Probably about 2,000 men were killed, not counting the many wounded who died later. It is reported that the field was hidden by the bodies of the dead. Around 1,600 were interred in a great burial pit but others were buried where they fell over a 3 miles radius. Most accounts agree that the Royalist forces suffered the heavier losses, though at least 200 Cheshire gentry are said to have fallen, along with an unknown number of their followers.

 

Hotspur was initially buried at Whitchurch but rumours soon spread that he was not really dead so, in response, the King had him disinterred. His body was salted and set up in Shrewsbury impaled on a spear in the market place with an armed guard.  It was later quartered and put on show in various corners of the country. His head was sent to York and impaled on the north gate, looking towards his own lands. His quarters were sent to Chester, London, Bristol and Newcastle upon Tyne. In November his grisly remains were returned to his widow Elizabeth who had them interred them in York Minster. Thomas Percy, Sir Richard Venables, Sir Richard Vernon and Sir Henry Boynton were publicly hanged, drawn and quartered in Shrewsbury on 23rd July and their heads publicly displayed, Thomas Percy's being placed on London Bridge. The Earl of Douglas was eventually ransomed. In the aftermath of the battle, King Henry sent to the Cheshire loyalist, Sir John Stanley, to ask what should be done about his rebellious home county. Stanley had received an arrow wound in the throat "so as he myght speke rattelynge in the throate" and advised vengefully "Brene and sle”(burn and slay). The King chose not to heed this suggestion as Cheshire fighting men were essential to the continuing war in Wales.

 

In 1409, King Henry paid for a chantry called Battlefield College to be erected on the site, in which the chaplains offered prayers for the souls of all those who had died and for the King. The chapel was replaced in 1460 by a church, which was further restored in 1862. It is now all that remains and it became the local St. Mary Magdalene parish church. Each year an anniversary service is held in memory of those who died in the battle. A drain being dug in a corner of the churchyard inadvertently opened part of the burial pit. Workmen were surprised by the mass of bones which they thought showed the hurried nature of the burials.

 

 

The site of the battlefield (SJ513171) remains as agricultural land, though it is now fully enclosed as hedged fields. The Shrewsbury by-pass (A5124) crosses the very southern edge of the battlefield, from east to west, along the probable line of Henry’s deployment. Access is via metalled and fenced public footpaths laid out by the local authority in a circular route around the battlefield, including the church. A viewing mound and car park to the south has also been provided. Battlefield 1403 was opened in 2008 as an exhibition centre about the battle and a new permissive path leads from the centre down to the battlefield itself. The battle itself and many of the key people involved appear in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1.