A Kingdom in Crisis: Henry IV and the Battle of Shrewsburry: Alastair Dunn Discusses the Battle and Its Repercussions in Its 600th Anniversary Year

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ON SATURDAY JULY 21ST, 1403, the vigil of St Mary Magdalene, two armies met just outside Shrewsbury. One was led by Henry IV (1366-1413), king of England since the summer of 1399, and the other by his erstwhile ally, Sir Henry Percy (1364-1403), son of the Earl of Northumberland, and better known to history as 'Hotspur'. The ensuing encounter was the hardest fought battle between Englishmen since that of Evesham in 1265. Engaging the royal forces with cries of 'Henry Percy King!' the rebels threatened to undo the Lancastrian revolution of 1399, and plunge England into renewed turmoil.

The stakes at Shrewsbury could not have been higher for Henry IV, as both he and his eldest son Hal, the future Henry V, were present at the battlefield. The last battle fought between Englishmen, that at Radcot Bridge (Oxon) in 1387, had been little more than a posturing skirmish, and although some were killed, most of the energy had been expended in manoeuvre and flight. But Shrewsbury was an entirely different affair. The widespread use of archers, more than 2,000 in Prince Hal's retinue, and nearly 870 in that of Hotspur (as estimated by Philip Morgan) ensured a heavy death toll. The prince himself was struck in the face with an arrow which, had it landed with more force and accuracy, could have inflicted the type of fatal wound sustained by King Harold at Hastings, as shown on The Bayeux Tapestry.

When English armies fought those of their French and Scottish foes, a strict martial code ensured that the social hierarchies were preserved on the battlefield, as invariably the leaders on each side had more in common with each other than with the bulk of their poor--and poorly armed--foot soldiers. Noblemen were to be captured and held in honourable, and comfortable, confinement until the elaborate financial mechanisms for their ransoms had been established. But at Shrewsbury the objective of each side was nothing short of the annihilation of the enemy, and, if possible, that of as many of his kin and supporters as could be ridden down and slain. The leading loyalist nobleman, the Earl of Stafford, a man worth 3,000 [pounds sterling] a year, and a great prize to any French or Scottish squire, was slain on the field together with the knights of his body. Sir Walter Blount, bearer of the King's standard, emblazoned with arms that had flown at Crecy and Poitiers, was hacked down in the midst of the fighting. In the battle's aftermath, the loyalist Sir John Stanley (progenitor of the great earls of Derby), was asked what should be done with the captured rebels. Reportedly choking with blood from the arrow still lodged in his throat, he replied 'Brenne and sle! Brenne and sle! (Burn and slay)'. Although he begged for his life, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, a Knight of the Garter, a former steward of the royal household and a veteran of some of the fiercest battles of the French wars, was put to the axe. However, the Scottish Earl of Douglas was pardoned, perhaps out of respect for his foreign nationality, and for the courage with which he had fought on, having lost (according to one account) one of his testicles. Of course, Hotspur, his uncle Worcester, and his leading supporters, could not have been under any illusions as to their fate should they be defeated, as facing the King on the field of battle, with his banner flying, was a treasonable crime. But how aware of this were the archers and foot soldiers from Cheshire, where Hotspur had been royal justiciar, and a commander of the King's army against the rebel Welsh? Philip Morgan has noted that one mass grave was reportedly filled with nearly 1,500 of the slain rebels.

Ultimately, the rebels were overwhelmed by the larger and better-armed royal force, and the body of their slain leader, Hotspur, was delivered into royal hands. Had Hotspur perished at the hands of his traditional foes, the Scots (as he nearly did at Otterburn, where he was captured in 1388) his body would have been returned with solemn obsequies and mourning, on both sides of the border, to his ancestral seat of Alnwick, for honourable interment in one of the great churches patronised by the Percy dynasty. …

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