Battlefield! What caused the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403?


Battlefield, in Shrewsbury, is the site of an important battle that occurred in 1403. The stakes were high and the timing was potentially disastrous for England. Whoever emerged victorious would rule the country, but might have to do so at the cost of ceding English border land to the Prince of Wales. England was already fighting wars on three fronts; and their enemies were watching, as civil war threatened to divide the nation.

The Battle of Shrewsbury was not inevitable. Henry IV and Henry Percy had been friends, previously working together to secure the formers crown. The king and his army had actually been marching to support the Percy family, in their troubles with Scots, when he received the news of his friends rebellion. Even at the 11th hour, decent communication might have stopped the fight, but instead it became one of the bloodiest battles fought on British soil.

England in the Decades Before the Battle of Shrewsbury.

The 14th century had been a tumultuous time for England; and the 15th wasnt shaping up to be any better. Scotland and Wales had both been conquered, then lost again to Robert the Bruce and Owain Glyndwr respectively. The Hundred Years War, over possession of France, had begun with the bloody Battle of Crécy and an English victory.

The Black Death swept through the world; 40% of the population of England were dead in the plague pits and whole regions of the country were still deserted. Great social change had followed in its wake, sparking the Peasants Revolt and signalling the death knell of Feudalism. Inclement weather had brought three years of famine. The plague had never totally gone away, recurring several times to kill the English children. (They hadnt been born in 1348, so hadnt been exposed to the Black Death in order to build an immunity, like their parents had.)

The Great Schism had split the Catholic Church, with one pope in Rome and another in France, dividing the loyalties of the faithful, including those in England. This wasnt the only thing testing the presumed will of God. Two English kings had been usurped and deposed – Edward II in 1327 and Richard II in 1399 – bringing into question the notion that monarchs ruled by divine right.

What Led to Henry IV and Henry Percy (Hotspur) Clashing at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403?

All of these were within living memory for those lining up on the battlefield in 1403 or, at least, their parents could remember it. Most of these major events had taken place during the last fifty years and some of them were still ongoing. But it was the last that had led to this moment.

Richard II was defeated in battle by Henry Bolingbroke. The king had been imprisoned, before being murdered, a year later, in Pontefract Castle. Bolingbroke had been aided and abetted by his friend, Henry Percy. Now Bolingbroke was ruling as Henry IV; and Percy, better known as Harry Hotspur, didnt think that he had received his due.

Why Did Harry Hotspur Turn Against Henry IV?

The Scots were frequently harrowing the Percy familys land, in the north of England, without Henry IV sending assistance. Moreover, a son-in-law of Hotspur had unsuccessfully led an English raid against the Welsh, resulting in his capture by Owain Glyndwr. Henry IV had refused to intervene, which had infuriated Hotspur. The Percy family had to cede some of their own property to the Welsh ruler, in order to retrieve their family member. Henry IV had declared that treason, as English land had been willingly handed to Wales.

Bristling at being branded a traitor, Hotspur decided to avenge Richard II. Despite Hotspurs own part in that usurpation, he now marched in Richards name, raising his rebel forces in Chester. Many of the common soldiers didnt yet know that Richard II was dead. They thought they were fighting to reinstate their king, not to raise a new one.

Owain Glyndwr, Prince of Wales, and the Reason why Shrewsbury Became the Battlefield.

Hotspur negotiated with Glyndwr to bring the experienced Welsh army to fight alongside them, as the Cheshire men were largely untrained. It was an attractive prospect for Glyndwr, as Shrewsbury was pro-Welsh, and could easily become part of Wales under these terms. The men of that town would answer Glyndwrs rallying call, despite Shrewsbury being in England.

Henry IV knew this too, which is why he took his own forces there, doubling their usual marching pace to get there quickly. It pre-empted and safeguarded against Glyndwr seizing Shrewsbury through sheer opportunism. It also placed Henry IV exactly where he needed to be to stop the Shropshire men taking up arms against him. Nevertheless, it must have been an anxious situation for Englands king. If he could defeat Glyndwr, then Henry IV would already have control of Wales. Now the Prince of Wales was threatening to take Englands crown too.

Hotspur arrived in the town the day after Henry IV did. He was expecting to find Glyndwrs golden dragon flying from the gates, but instead he saw the leopards of the English monarch.

How A Breakdown in Communication Caused the Battle of Shrewsbury.

On the morning of July 21st, 1403, Henry IV looked across 100 hectares of fields to where his erstwhile friend, Harry Hotspur, had occupied the high ground on the ridge beyond. The king assessed the situation and sent the Abbot of Shrewsbury to offer peace, pardon and a redress of all grievances.

It should have worked. Hotspur was inclined to accept the terms, but first he wanted to ensure that Henry IV knew exactly what had gone wrong. Hotspur sent his uncle Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester, to negotiate the terms of peace. But the Earl wanted war, so he insulted the king instead of delivering his nephews message. The Battle of Shrewsbury was fought within the hour.