Battlefield! Hotspur and Henry IV at the Battle of Shrewsbury


After the Battle of Shrewsbury, on July 21st, 1403, it was reported that the fields could not be seen beneath the sheer volume of fallen men. This was one of the bloodiest battles ever held on British soil. An estimated 5,000 were buried in a single mass grave on the site, in Battlefield, Shrewsbury. The Collegiate Church of St Magdalene was built over, or near to, this grave, as a lasting memorial to them. To this day, prayers are spoken for the dead, on the anniversary of the battle.

The cause of the conflict was a personal grievance, held by Henry Percy (aka Harry Hotspur) towards his erstwhile friend, Henry IV. Whoever emerged victorious would be King of England.

Henry IV and Harry Hotspur: Uneven Odds on the Battlefield

Hotspur felt betrayed. He had arrived in Shrewsbury with around 14,000 men, most of whom were angry with him. They had been recruited in Cheshire, and on the march south through Shropshire, in the belief that Richard II would lead them. They hadnt known, until now, that Richard was dead and this rebellion was a bid to place another family on the throne.

Several English noblemen had promised to support Hotspur. He had letters from them, but only his uncle, the Earl of Worcester, arrived on the day. Amongst those diplomatically absent was the Earl of Northumberland, Hotspurs own father.

Moreover, this rebellion had only become reality, when Owain Glyndwr indicated that the Welsh would fight alongside Hotspur. Thousands of trained Welshmen, bringing years of experience from successfully fighting the English, could well win the day for Hotspur. He had expected Glyndwr to have arrived by now. Unfortunately the Welsh army was 100 miles away, in Carmarthenshire, South Wales. They were fighting a Flemish army, which had come to defend Baron de Brian at Langharne Castle.

The lack of substantial support left Hotspur with a mostly untrained army. He was up against Henry IV, with his 60,000 highly experienced English militia. But Hotspur had the high ground and Henry had his back to both Shrewsbury and the Welsh mountains. If Glyndwr did arrive, as everyone was expecting, then the Plantagenet king would be trapped.

Cheshires Welsh Longbows Cause Carnage at the Battle of Shrewsbury

The Battle of Shrewsbury was significant for opening another chapter in British military history. It was the first time that Welsh longbows were used by Englishmen against their own, thus proving that they were now as devastatingly competent with them as their Celtic cousins. Both sides had this relatively new weapon, but it was Henry IVs side who used them first.

Crouching and running, with their longbows half drawn, the Royalist archers raced across the pea fields to fire upon the rebels. But upon the ridge were longbowmen from Chester, who were experienced in their use. They didnt move a muscle until the Royalists were halfway there, then the Cheshire men unleashed their arrows. Few survived in the fields below.

Henry IVs Cavalry in Disarray on the Killing Fields of Shrewsbury

With the death-toll rising in the fields, the surviving Royalist archers turned and fled back towards the safety of their own troops. Their panic infected the horses of the cavalrymen, who had been approaching, in the belief that the archers could clear a path for them. Riders were thrown off rearing horses and trampled underfoot. Worst of all, the men-at-arms were forced into the range of the Cheshire longbowmen.

Without Hotspurs men taking a single injury, it seemed that he was going to have a decisive victory. The carnage below was almost leisurely. All he had to do was stay on the ridge and watch a vastly superior army become annihilated.

Taking note, whilst fighting on the battlefield, was the young Prince Hal. Twelve years later, as King Henry V, he would employ an unusually large number of longbow archers in the Battle of Agincourt. The lessons learned in Shrewsbury went on to win France for the English.

The Cavalry Charge of Harry Hotspur

The Earl of Douglas was advising Hotspur on the ridge. He recommended that Hotspur take a troop of thirty knights and charge down the hill into the heart of Henry IVs guard. There were four men down there in Royal armour – the king and three decoys – and they were the target. As soon as they were dead, Hotspur was to grab the crown and be declared King of England there and then. It must have sounded so attractive. Hotspur did it.

In many ways, the charge was a great success. The Royal Standard was lost in the melee, leading Henry IVs army to believe that their king was dead. The three decoys were all killed too. The whole guard was in chaos with many of the leading knights of the day slaughtered in that single fray.

But Prince Hal had a cooler head than most. Despite the danger to his father, Hal used the distraction to lead his own troops behind the rebels on the ridge. Now the men of Chester were exposed and endangered. Their firepower was no longer massacring Royalists in the field and the rebels were trapped. Henry IV had a fighting chance again.

The Battle of Shrewsbury: A More Stubborn Fight… was Never Known

For the next three hours, there was hand to hand fighting across the 100 hectares of the Battlefield site. The battle was as desperate as it was ferocious. Even by nightfall, no-one was quite sure who had won. Perhaps no-one had, as the corpses of Englishmen piled up.

By the time the dust settled, just one fact alone rendered the Battle of Shrewsbury a victory for Henry IV. Harry Hotspur was amongst the dead.