By D Furius Venator
This battle was fought on 21st July 1403 between English rebels led by the powerful Percy family from northern England and royal forces under King Henry IV. The Percies had helped to put Henry on the throne a few years previously, deposing Richard II (who was murdered shortly afterwards on Henry's orders) but had grown disenchanted with his rule because they felt he was not giving them sufficient support against the Scots. The Percies formed an alliance with the Mortimer family, who had some claim to the English throne and with Welsh rebels under their great leader Owain Glyn Dwr. Cheshire, which had never been happy under Henry IV was a useful recruiting ground also, as Cheshire archers were reputed the best in England.
While Owain Glyn Dwr and his Welsh spearmen struck into south Wales, the leader of the Percies, Henry Percy (called Harry Hotspur because he was swift to charge into battle) rode south into Cheshire accompanied by about 160 men at arms (including 20 Scots under the Earl of Douglas who had been captured but agreed to fight for Hotspur against Henry). Hotspur could take no more men south with him because of the threat from Scotland, the bulk of his forces had to be left to guard against 'the Weasel Scot'. He spread the rumour that Richard II still lived and would be restored to the throne. Cheshire turned out for him in force including many veterans of the Hundred Years War and former members of Richard II's bodyguard of archers, who had been recruited exclusively from Cheshire.
When his force had mustered, Hotspur was not able to conceal the fact that Richard was dead but the rebels were not dismayed and proclaimed The Earl of March (the chief of the Mortimer family the rightful king). They then moved south toward Shrewsbury where Prince Henry had a small royalist force of about 2000 men. The rebels were considerably strengthened when nearly half of the Prince's men, 107 men at arms and 866 archers deserted to Hotspur. These deserters were under the command of the Earl of Worcester, Hotspur's uncle.
The Prince with his reduced force prepared to defend the town of Shrewsbury, which was well walled and nearly entirely enclosed by the River Severn, only two bridges and a narrow neck of land near the castle gave access. Before Hotspur's men could mount an assault King Henry arrived with his army and the rebels, now outnumbered, withdrew a few miles.
The exact numbers are unknown. It is possible to make a reasonable guess for both sides however.
The rebels comprised Hotspur's household of about 160 men at arms and the 107 men at arms and 866 archers led by Worcester that had deserted from Prince Henry. To this must be added the forces of the Mortimers and the Cheshire levy, as well as some Shropshiremen. Cheshire had previously mustered about 2000 archers for various campaigns and we know that Hotspur had met with general (but not total) support from that county. Six of the seven former companies of Richard II's bodyguard fought at Shrewsbury so we might guess at about a 75% turn out for Cheshire overall. that would give roughly 1500 archers and perhaps another 200 men at arms. If the Mortimers and Shropshire combined contributed as many as Cheshire then Hotspur would have fielded around:
700 men at arms and perhaps 4000 archers.
The Royal forces were certainly superior in numbers. We know that Prince Henry was left with about 100 men at arms and 1000 archers after the desertion to Hotspur. The king's army is harder to estimate. There was a muster of Cheshire loyalists under Lord Stanley and the levies of the midlands counties had been called out and had joined the king on his march to Shrewsbury. Because of events during the battle it seems unlikely that the king mustered more than twice the rebel numbers. A rough guess, including the Prince's men, might be:
1500 men at arms and 6000 archers.
Hotspur drew up his army on a low ridge a few miles north of Shrewsbury. King Henry drew up his army about 400 yards distant. Both sides formed up in divisions or 'battles'. The royalist battles were commanded by the Earl of Stafford who held the right wing, the king himself in the centre and Prince Henry on the left. For the rebels, Hotspur commanded the centre and Worcester opposite Stafford. Because the rebels were fewer in numbers Prince Henry's command was not immediately threatened as the royal line was longer than that of Hotspur's men.
It took until gone noon for the armies to draw up in proper order and there was a brief and fruitless attempt at negociation, the king demanding submission and trusting to his mercy, the Percy's refusing. 'On you must rest the blood shed this day,' was how King Henry concluded the talks.
About 3pm the royalists advanced to attack through the pea field that lay between them and the ridge on which stood the rebels. The archers went first followed by the men at arms. The king's men were thrown into disorder as the stems of the plants had been woven together by the rebels, impeding their progress. With the range advantage conferred by their position on high ground, Hotspur's longbowmen opened fire as the royal troops struggled onward. Henry's disordered archers were brought down 'like apples fallen in the autumn', their attempts at returning fire hampered by their disorder and the difficulty of shooting uphill. They began to fall back. Stafford was killed and numbers of his men fled the field. The king managed to reform most of his army out of range of Hotspur's arrows. Prince Henry received a dreadful face wound that disfigured him for the rest of his days but remained with his men.
Hotspur saw his opportunity to win the battle with a swift charge to destroy the king's battle before it could properly reorganise. Accompanied by his household troops he launched a mounted charge straight at the king, the rest of his army following on. This charge 'made an alley in the midst of the army', a great wedge cutting through toward the king. the royal standard bearer was killed and Douglas, fighting at Hotspur's side allegedly cut down several men who were dressed as the king, 'I marvel to see so many kings rise thus one after the other,' was his comment. It is supposed that King Henry deliberately disguised himself in plain armour whilst salting decoys amongst his force. This does seem a rather romantic notion but it makes a good tale.
But Hotspur was killed struck by an arrow when he raised his visor to see more clearly. Seeing him fall the royalists raised a great shout of 'Harry Percy dead!' and the rebels wavered. At this moment Prince Henry's men, who had been unengaged in the melee took the rebels in flank and rear and the rebels broke and ran, except for some groups of die-hards who were still holding out as night fell.
'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.' 1600 men were buried in a mass grave and many more died of wounds later, an extremely high percentage for a medieval battle and reflecting both the savage nature of the fighting and the effect of the longbow on the lightly armoured archers of the royalists. Unusually also, the winners suffered the higher losses (again the effects of the rebels' initial arrow storm).
The surviving rebel leaders were executed. Hotspur's body was pickled in salt and displayed in Shrewsbury market before being beheaded and quartered. His head was sent to York for public display.
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