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The Battle Of Shrewsbury, 1403

In order to appease (as he hoped) the Percy family Henry IV granted them all those parts of southern Scotland that they could conquer. Despite advice from Northumberland that royal assistance was not needed he set out in the summer of 1403 to march to the borders with a small army to support their siege of Cocklaws Castle.

On reaching the Midlands, Henry received news that the Percys were in revolt; after some initial hesitation he summoned the levies of several counties to his banner and force marched to Shrewsbury, arriving there just before the rebels.

At Shrewsbury was Henry’s son the Prince of Wales, who was responsible for defending the English marches from Owain Glyndwr. The Prince, who was aged about 16, had until recently enjoyed the advice and support of Hotspur’s uncle, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, a very experienced soldier who had served John of Gaunt and been steward of Richard II’s household. However, Worcester had deserted, taking with him more than half the Prince’s men. Unfortunately it does not appear how many men we are talking about – the state of royal finances was such that it was probably hundreds rather than thousands.

Hotspur had come south to Chester with an advance guard of two hundred men, presumably mounted. These included the Scottish Earl of Douglas, captured at Homildon the previous year, but now an ally. At Chester he denounced Henry IV as “Henry of Lancaster” and proclaimed Richard II, whom he promised would appear at a rendezvous at Sandiway in a few days. This was sufficient to raise a considerable army in Cheshire itself. It is likely that other recruits came from Flint and other parts of North East Wales and from Shropshire. To these of course were added Worcester’s contribution. Northumberland remained in the North. Either he genuinely fell ill, or he was blocked by Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, or he simply moved too slowly.

Hotspur’s strategy is not clear. Glyndwr, with whom he was presumably in alliance, was many days march away in the south west of Wales. The most likely explanation is that he decided to seize Shrewsbury, which could then have served as a gateway to England for Welsh forces. There is also reason to believe that Hotspur expected reinforcement (that he did not receive) from various English peers. (The chronicler Hardyng reports that some years later Henry IV discovered a casket of letters sent by his nobles to Hotspur at this time. ) After the battle the Duke of York and others were accused of complicity, but absolved from blame by Henry himself. The men of Chester mustered at Sandiway as promised, but needless to say, Richard II did not join them.

It’s a straight road from Sandiway, through Tarporley and Whitchurch to Shrewsbury. Arriving on the outskirts Hotspur realised that Henry IV had forestalled him.

Hotspur chose a good defensive position about three miles north of the town. The ground sloped slightly upwards towards the north, meaning that the King’s men would have to advance uphill against some of the finest archers in England. There were also a number of small ponds, complicating offensive movement.

The sizes of the forces are not known; one source says that there were 20,000 dead. This is obviously absurd. Nevertheless everyone seems agreed that it was an exceptionally hard fought battle, and there were significant casualties

A guesstimate of mine would be that Hotspur had around 5000 men and the King a few more, maybe 7000. By and large the Percy army would be of better quality – more “professional” because it recruited from areas noted for warriors. Many of the King’s men would be amateur county levies from relatively peaceful shires.

Hotspur’s principal known commanders were his uncle, Worcester, and the Earl of Douglas. These were both experienced warriors, particularly Worcester. The important Cheshire knights, Vernon and Venables seem to have been next in rank.

As far as men of rank were concerned, apart from himself Henry IV’s most experienced commander by far was the renegade Scot George Dunbar, the Scottish Earl of March, a personal enemy of Douglas. The Prince of Wales and the earls of Kent, Arundel, Stafford and Warwick were all inexperienced young men in their teens and early twenties.

The Earl of Stafford was the husband of Henry’s cousin, Anne of Gloucester. Just prior to the battle he was created Constable of England (replacing Northumberland) and given command of the van.

The likely line up of the royal army being:

Prince of Wales     King         Stafford

(Left)                    (Centre)      (Right)

The battle opened with the traditional exchange of arrows, the shooting of the men of Cheshire being particularly devastating. Stafford was killed very early in the battle and the Prince was severely wounded in the face – though he continued to fight after treatment.

Hotspur and Douglas led an attack on the royal standard. Their objective was simply to kill the King. Fighting around Henry was bitter, and his standard bearer, Sir Walter Blount, was killed. It is known that Henry himself was engaged personally in the fighting.

Hotspur’s men thought that they were winning. A cry of “Henry Percy -King” rose from them. But then Hotspur was struck down – possibly by a stray arrow and the cry changed to “Henry Percy – dead”. The rebels routed off the field, pursued for miles by relentless royalists.

Worcester was taken alive, and executed next day in the town of Shrewsbury. As were Vernon and Venables. Douglas was treated as a POW and eventually allowed to return to Scotland. Northumberland was tried, but eventually released having been found guilty only of ‘trespass’ by Parliament – he was to rebel again, and be killed in battle like his son. (Henry was careful never to give another political opponent a Parliamentary trial.)

One King’s side many knighthoods were given, and there were also grants of confiscated lands. Edmund Earl of Kent was apparently created a KG on the field, a distinction so unusual that it suggests some act of exceptional personal bravery.

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