ShrewsburyBattle of Shrewsbury
21 July 1403
During the rich history of Britain many battles have been fought between noblemen and their troops in their struggles for royal supremacy.
The Battle of Shrewsbury is particularly notable for a couple of reasons. It was the first time in which English archers fought each other on English soil, demonstrating the deadliness of the longbow, and it was fought over broken promises and the non-payment of a debt.
The protagonists were King Henry IV of England, an the English rebel nobleman Sir Henry ‘Harry Hotspur’ Percy of Northumberland.
The Percys had previously supported Henry IV in a war against King Richard II of England, which ended when Henry IV took the throne in 1399. The Percys subsequently supported Henry IV in Wales, early in the rebellion of Owen Glendower, and in Scotland, in both negotiations and conflict against the Scots.
King Henry IV had also been supported by a number of wealthy landowners to whom he had promised land, money and royal favour in return for their continued support. When the war ended, lands in and around Cumberland promised to the Percys were instead given to a rival. The promised money never materialised, and so the Percys withdrew their support from the King.
Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland and Thomas Percy, 1st Earl of Worcester publicly renounced their allegiance to King Henry IV because he reneged on everything he had promised.
They charged him with perjury because he claimed the throne in addition to his old lands and titles; taxed the clergy despite his promise not to without the consent of Parliament; imprisoned and murdered King Richard II, and did not allow a free Parliamentary election. He also refused to pay a just ransom to Owen Glendower, who was then holding Edmund Mortimer, and retained custody of the Scottish nobles captured at Homildon Hill as prisoners of war rather than permitting the Percys to release them for ransom.
Henry IV was a weak and thoroughly bad king so the Percys decided to overthrow him. Henry Percy, nicknamed “Harry Hotspur”, raised a small group of retainers initially (about 200) in early July 1403 and started the long march south to meet his uncle, Thomas Percy.
Some nobles joined him, but he recruited most of his army in Cheshire, an area hostile to Henry IV, which provided many experienced soldiers, notably its Cheshire archers, some of whom had served as the murdered Richard II's bodyguard.
The rebels then marched towards Shrewsbury, the heavily defended county town in Shropshire.
Meanwhile, unaware of the Percys’ change in allegiance, King Henry IV was marching an army north to assist the Percys against the Scots. On 12 July, at Burton-on-Trent, King Henry heard the news of the Percys’ betrayal.
He instantly altered his plans to meet the immediate threat posed by the Percys. He changed direction and marched west towards Shrewsbury with his army, arriving before the Percys could capture the town. It is not known how many troopseach side had but it is believed that the Percys had c.10,000 men and the King c.14,000.
Both forces arrived in the Shrewsbury area on 20 July 1403 and set up camp to the north and south of the River Severn which loops around the town.
21 July 1403 – The Battle
The King's forces crossed the river at Uffington, about a mile to the east of Shrewsbury in an attempt to cut off Percy's line of retreat to Chester. This failed and the armies took up position in a large field of peas, about a mile south west of where Battlefield Church now stands.
For much of the morning the two sides tried to avoid fighting by holding talks. The Abbot of Shrewsbury and the Abbot of Haughmond presented the King's terms. Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy declined any terms and Thomas Percy spoke to the King, trading insults.
Henry ‘Hotspur’ was somewhat inclined toward accepting the King's position, while his uncle Thomas Percy was not. Negotiations ended near noon, and the two forces advanced closer for the fight.
About two hours before dusk, King Henry IV raised his sword. The battle opened with a massive archery barrage, arrows killing or wounding many men before they could meet in hand to hand combat in the field. The Percys Cheshire bowmen proved were generally superior. Thomas Walsingham recorded how the King's men "...fell like leaves in Autumn, every one [arrow] struck a mortal man."
It is recorded that the Earl of Stafford who was commanding the King's right wing was killed, and his troops fled from the field. Far more than this wing may have fled as well, as there is evidence that some baggage was looted and after the battle the Cheshire rebels were ‘prosecuted’ for taking some 7,000 horses with them.
Enough of the King's men remained on the field, particularly on the left wing under the command of the Prince of Wales. Perhaps in desperation, Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy led a charge aimed at killing the King himself, during which the Royal Standard was overthrown and its bearer was hacked down. ‘Hotspur’ Percy was killed in the charge, shot in the face when he opened his visor.
In the complete confusion of the battle, his death was initially not realised and his Northumbrian knights announced that the King had been killed, and acclaimed 'Henry Percy King!'
King Henry IV was not dead and he retaliated by shouting “Henry Percy is dead!”. The absence of a reply confirmed that Henry Percy was indeed dead, and the battle ended.
It is recorded that many did not know who had won. The King's forces sustained greater losses than the rebels, and Henry IV very nearly lost both his life and his throne.
The 15-year old Prince of Wales, Prince Henry (later King Henry V) was hit in the face with an arrow during the fighting, sustaining a terrible wound. He later recovered due to the skilled treatment of the Physician General who used honey, alcohol and a specially designed surgical instrument. The prince was left with a permanent scar.
Gruesome Aftermath
Henry Percy was initially buried by his nephew at Whitchurch, Shropshire, with honours, but rumours soon spread that he was not really dead. In response the King had him disinterred. His body was salted, set up in Shrewsbury impaled on a spear between two millstones in the marketplace pillory, with an armed guard.
The body was later quartered and put on display in Chester, London, Bristol and Newcastle upon Tyne, and his head was sent to York and impaled on the north gate, looking toward his own lands.
In November his grisly remains were returned to his widow Elizabeth. She interred them in York Minster on the right side of the altar.
The other rebel leaders - Thomas Percy, Sir Richard Venables, Sir Richard Vernon and Sir Henry Boynton were publicly hanged, drawn and quartered in Shrewsbury on 23 July and their heads publicly displayed (Thomas Percy's on London Bridge).
‘Battlefield 1403’
In 2008, the Exhibition Centre ‘Battlefield 1403’ together with a cafe, farm shop, delicatessen and butchery were opened in converted farm buildings just north of the registered battlefield. A recent addition to the complex has been a Falconry Centre. A permissive path leads from the Centre down to the battlefield itself.
There is free parking, a viewing mound, wheelchair friendly public paths around the site and explanatory notice boards explaining the course of the battle. Only a couple of miles outside Shrewsbury, the Centre and site are well worth visiting.
Google Map - Battlefield Visitor Centre

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