In 1403, a rebellion broke out in England that would culminate in one of the bloodiest battles to ever take place on English soil. On 21 July 1403, King Henry IV with his son Hal, the future Henry V, went head to head with a Northern traitor – Henry ‘Hotspur’. The Battle of Shrewsbury would pit rebel against royalist. Englishman against Englishman. At stake was the crown of England.
The battle culminated in a decisive victory for King Henry IV, including the death of ‘Hotspur’ Percy, the capture of the Earl of Douglas, and the collapse of Hotspur’s rebellion. The lessons learned would also go on to prove crucial at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, one of England’s most important triumphs in the Hundred Years’ War.
Here we explore 10 facts about the battle – many of which feature in our documentary, The Battle of Shrewsbury, where Dan Jones teams-up with Professor Michael Livingston to discover how the battle not only changed the history of England – but put the future Henry V on his own path towards destiny.
1. Rebellion stemmed from the king’s failure to sufficiently reward the Percy family
The powerful Percy family from the north of England had supported the first Lancastrian king, King Henry IV – helping him seize power when he took the throne from Richard II in 1399. King Henry IV’s 16 year old son Henry, known as Hal, was invested as the new Prince of Wales. However the kingdom was still bitterly divided, and numerous plots to topple Henry IV were being concocted.
Head of the Percy family was Henry Percy, the first Earl of Northumberland. By 1399, he was almost 60, so his son, Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy took the lead, quickly becoming acquainted with war, fighting in campaigns along with Edward III and Richard II.
Despite the Percy’s being lavished with money, titles, and land by the new king (and seen as peacekeepers in a new kingdom), they began to feel disgruntled as King Henry IV flexed his royal power. Disagreeing with the king’s governance, Hotspur began to think he might make a better king. In October 1402, Henry IV called parliament, during which he and Hotspur met. It is unclear what was discussed, but after this, Hotspur rode back north with rebellion in mind.
Hotspur had also been successfully campaigning against rebellious Welsh patriot Owain Glyndŵr, but had not received payment for his services. Subsequently, the Percys formed an alliance with Glyndŵr and others discontent with Henry’s rule, including Edward Mortimer, with the aim of conquering and dividing-up England.
2. Sir Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy was named after his fiery temperament
With his fiery temper, energetic leadership, and swiftness in approach to battle, Henry had been nicknamed ‘Hotspur’. The Scots had also praised his incredible speed on his horse, and it was said he must have ‘hot spurs’ on his boots for his horse to run so fast.
(As the Percy family also owned land in the area known as Northumberland Park and at Tottenham Marshes in London, Henry’s nickname ‘Hotspur’ helped inspire Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, as this land is also where the club played its first games. His name also inspired the team’s famous emblem of a fighting cock.)
3. Upon reaching Shrewsbury, Hotspur’s army had grown to around 5,000 men
Shrewsbury in Shropshire was a bustling transport hub and a centre for the wool trade from Wales – strategic to the royal cause, and a perfect place for the rebels to strike.
Hotspur travelled south to join other rebels and aimed to march on Shrewsbury, mustering a rebel army along his way, including the Cheshire archers. On 9 July 1403, his flag was raised in nearby Chester. Meanwhile, King Henry IV, having decided to extend an olive branch to the Percy family, gathered 1,000 men to march north to help the Percy’s with a routine summer of campaigning against the Scots. However, on 12 July, Henry arrived in Leicester and heard about Hotspur’s rebellion.
For the next 9 days, the three forces under Hotspur, Hal and Henry IV headed to Shrewsbury. When Hotspur arrived, he found Hal’s flag already raised, and the next day, Henry IV’s army appeared, taking Hotspur by surprise. The rebels retreated to the north, while the king’s forces (now numbering 7,000) also made camp, intending battle the next day.
4. The battle only began a few hours before dusk
Both King Henry IV and Hotspur were skilled military leaders, each with considerable support from nobles and soldiers. Both armies faced each other on 21 July 1403, and attempted to negotiate a peaceful compromise for many hours. When this failed, the battle commenced, with only a few daylight hours remaining.
The battle saw fierce fighting between the two sides, with both employing traditional medieval warfare tactics, including archery, cavalry charges, and hand-to-hand combat.
5. The Battle was the first time that massed troops of archers faced each other using the longbow on English soil
The majority of both armies would have been archers. In the 14th century, archers had been the secret weapon of English armies fighting abroad, along with their super weapon of the longbow. This was now in the hands of both sides for the first time, and the battle highlighted its deadly effectiveness, with thousands of arrows in the air at one time.
6. Hotspur held the advantage of higher ground
At the battle’s start, Hotspur and the rebel forces held a slightly elevated position, meaning their arrows were more effective and they did not have to fight uphill. When a gap opened in the right side of the king’s flank, Hotspur seized the opportunity, prompting his men to charge downhill. This resulted in the two lines crashing into each other, descending into hand-to-hand combat.
However while this took place, Prince Hal saw an opening and demonstrated strategic acumen by employing ‘command and control’ tactics. He directed his section of the line to turn inward, attempting to encircle the approaching rebels.
In the melee, Hal was struck in the face by an arrow. Despite this potentially fatal injury, he remarkably pulled the arrow shaft out of his face and continued fighting. This pivotal moment showcased the resilience and leadership of the 16 year old heir to the throne, who, despite a near-fatal encounter, maintained his composure and continued to command his troops.
7. Hotspur was killed when he was shot in the face by an arrow after opening his visor
The key to the battle for the rebels remained the king. After initial success, including bringing down the king’s banner-man, Hotspur launched forwards alone, and was struck and killed. Word of Hotspur’s death quickly spread, abruptly concluding the battle as the rebels’ morale crumbled without their leader.
8. Most rebels were killed during the rout
Casualty numbers were high on both sides, with an estimated 1,500 royalists and even more rebels, including prominent nobles and knights, losing their lives.
Whilst the initial battlefield clash caused significant casualties, the disorderly retreat of the rebels in the rout proved even more deadly. (The rout was the most dangerous part of any battle.) As they fled the battlefield attempting to avoid being cut down, the pursuing royalist forces engaged in a moving massacre, leaving no room for captives as there was no-one to sell them to or ask for a ransom – these men were traitors and rebels to the kingdom.
King Henry IV’s forces emerged victorious, successfully quashing the rebellion. To dispel rumours of Hotspur’s survival, his body was quartered, and various parts were displayed across the country, with his head was impaled on York’s north gate.
However, despite the apparent consolidation of Henry IV’s authority, the Battle of Shrewsbury did not completely eliminate opposition to his rule, and further challenges and conflicts persisted during his reign.
9. Hal, the future King Henry V, received innovative life-saving surgery
After the Battle of Shrewsbury, royal surgeon John Bradmore was entrusted with saving Prince Hal’s life by extracting the arrowhead lodged in his face.
Bradmore documented the entire operation, revealing that the wound was 6 inches deep. Although Hal had pulled out the arrow shaft during the battle, the arrowhead remained lodged in his face near his spine.
To extract the arrowhead, Bradmore devised ‘tents’ using elder rods wrapped in linen, soaked in a mixture of honey and rosewater (which served as an antiseptic to prevent infection). Bradmore began with a thin rod, gently easing it into the wound, progressively using wider rods to reopen the wound.
After several days, he employed a specially designed tool – essentially long smooth tongs with an internal screw mechanism – which he invented and sketched for the records. This tool gripped the arrowhead from the inside, allowing Bradmore to successfully extract it, and in doing so, saved Hal’s life.
10. Lessons from the battle were later deployed at The Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Shrewsbury had a profound impact on Prince Hal, later known as King Henry V. The brutal lessons learned in this battle influenced his tactics in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Remembering the effectiveness of the longbow, Henry V brought a higher ratio of bowmen to infantry than any previous army. Additionally, he included a medical corps, recognising the importance of medicine based on his personal experience after Shrewsbury.
Henry’s experiences at Shrewsbury also shaped Henry’s personal approach to battle. At Shrewsbury, he had been a bold, risk-taker, and the fact this paid off and he survived a potentially fatal wound reinforced his belief in a divine purpose for his life. This spiritual conviction fuelled his sense of destiny to become king.
Without the lessons learned at the Battle of Shrewsbury, there might not have been a Henry V or subsequent victory at Agincourt – a triumph that helped establish England one of the strongest military powers in Europe.