Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Battle of Otterburn, 5th August 1388

by Annie Whitehead

It fell about the Lammas tide,
When the muir-men win their hay,
The doughty Earl of Douglas rode
Into England, to catch a prey.*

On this day, in 1388 (according to the Scots) the Battle of Otterburn took place, between the forces of the English, led by Harry Hotspur and his brother Sir Ralph Percy, and the Scots, led by James, 2nd Earl of Douglas.


The battle was a famous victory for the Scots in an ongoing series of border disputes and skirmishes. But it had wider implications for Scotland, causing long-lasting political ripples.

The king of Scotland at the time of the battle was Robert II. He was fifty-five when he unexpectedly became king, and his rule was undermined by the fact that, like John Balliol before him, he was considered by the Scottish nobles to be only their equal, not their superior.

Robert, though, was courageous and ambitious. The expectation was that he would take up the honorary title of High Steward of Scotland, but in 1326 a parliamentary act of succession named him as heir behind prince David and thus the most important magnate in Scotland.

When Edward III of England threatened war, Robert, aged just sixteen in 1333, led an army against him at the Battle of Halidon Hill. Then in 1334 he narrowly escaped capture when his lands were overrun by Anglo-Balliol enemies. David was taken into exile, but Robert stayed to fight, and gained many followers. Thus, when David returned to rule, he could never completely shake off the powerful Robert. When David died unexpectedly in 1371 he was succeeded, as per the arrangement, by Robert.

England still controlled a large area of Lothian and the border country, so it made sense for Robert to allow his southern earls to agitate to regain their lost territories. He also halted trade with England and renewed treaties with France. By 1384, the Scots had retaken most of occupied lands, but when the English and French began to talk of peace, Robert was reluctant to commit to all-out war and obtained Scottish inclusion in the peace treaty. This peace strategy was a factor in a virtual coup in 1384, when Robert lost control, first to his eldest son, John, earl of Carrick, and then from 1388 onwards, John’s younger brother, Robert, earl of Fife.

In a council at Holyrood in November 1384 is was recorded that “because our lord the king, for certain causes, is not able to attend himself personally to the execution of justice and the law of the kingdom, he has willed…that his first-born son and heir…is to administer the common-law everywhere throughout the kingdom."

Carrick’s rule brought control of foreign policy to a coalition of powerful magnates headed by James, 2nd earl of Douglas. Robert’s refusal to initiate war led to his removal from power altogether. Carrick, Douglas, and the king’s third son, Robert Stewart, earl of Fife, joined the French on campaign in 1385. The Scots and French quarrelled, the English burned Lothian, including Edinburgh, and the Scots had no choice but to accept truce until 1388. For Robert II, back in his lands in the west, this had little import, but Carrick began to struggle with lawlessness in the north, particularly with the ambition of Alexander Stewart.

What has this to do with the battle of Otterburn?

The 'modern' Otterburn Castle

On 5th August, or the 19th, depending on which sources you opt to believe, Douglas decided to lead a raid into England. The earl of Northumberland sent his two sons to engage with Douglas while he himself stayed at Alnwick

According to the chronicler Froissart,** the first fighting included a meeting of the earl of Douglas and Henry Percy in hand-to-hand combat, in which Percy's pennon was captured.
Froissart ~  There were many proper feats of arms done and achieved: there was fighting hand to hand : among other there fought hand to hand the earl Douglas and sir Henry Percy, and by force of arms the earl Douglas won the pennon of sir Henry Percy's, wherewith he was sore displeased and so were all the Englishmen. And the earl Douglas said to sir Henry Percy: ‘Sir, I shall bear this token of your prowess into Scotland and shall set it on high on my castle of Dalkeith, that it may be seen far off.'

Douglas then destroyed the castle at Ponteland and besieged Otterburn Castle (now Otterburn Tower).
Froissart ~ from thence the Scots went to the town and castle of Otterburn, an eight English mile from Newcastle*** and there lodged. That day they made none assault, but the next morning they blew their horns and made ready to assail the castle, which was strong, for it stood in the marish. 
Percy attacked Douglas's encampment with a surprise attack in the late afternoon:
Froissart ~ It was shewed to sir Henry Percy and to his brother and to the other knights and squires that were there, by such as had followed the Scots from Newcastle and had well advised their doing, who said to sir Henry and to sir Ralph : ' Sirs, we have followed the Scots privily and have dis- covered all the country. The Scots be at Pontland and have taken sir Edmund Alphel in his own castle, and from thence they be gone to Otterburn and there they lay this night. What they will do to- morrow we know not : they are ordained to abide there : and, sirs, surely their great host is not with them, for in all they pass not there a three thousand men.' When sir Henry heard that, he was joyful and said : ‘Sirs, let us leap on our horses, for by the faith I owe to God and to my lord my father I will go seek for my pennon and dislodge them this same night.'
During the battle, Douglas led the left wing, while John Dunbar, earl of Moray, commanded the right. Hotspur’s men, having ridden up from Newcastle, were tired and disorganised as they made their way onto the field. Hotspur was so overly confident that he attacked the Scots while the rest of his force was still marching up through Otterburn.

The banner of Douglas
Despite Percy's force being around three times the size of the Scottish force, Froissart said that 1040 English were captured and 1860 killed, against the Scottish losses of  200 Scots captured and 100 killed. The Westminster Chronicle estimated the Scottish casualties at around 500. When the bishop of Durham advanced from Newcastle with 10,000 men, he was apparently so impressed by the ordered appearance of the Scottish force, the 'din they set up with their horns', and their seemingly unassailable position, that he declined to attack.
Froissart ~ The same evening the bishop of Durham came thither with a good company, for he heard at Durham how the Scots were before Newcastle and how that the lord Percy's sons with other lords and knights should fight with the Scots : therefore the bishop of Durham to come to the rescue had assembled up all the country and so was coming to Newcastle. But sir Henry Percy would not abide his coming, for he had with him six hundred spears, knights and squires, and an eight thousand foot- men. They thought that sufficient number to fight with the Scots, if they were not but three hundred spears and three thousand of other.

the battle site)

During the battle on a 'moonlit night', Douglas was killed. His death made no difference to the outcome of the battle and was not noticed until much later. It was a victory for the Scots; the Percys were both captured, with the remaining English force retreating to Newcastle.

 (the monument at the battle site - made from a lintel taken from the kitchens at Otterburn Castle (the second picture shows the iron hooks where cooking pots were hung)

The death of James caused the Douglas inheritance to fall into dispute, Carrick became isolated, and another coup was inevitable. On 1 December Carrick was forced to sign the lieutenancy over to his brother Robert, earl of Fife. Fife vowed to deal harshly with Alexander Stewart in the north, and Robert II was once more under the control of one of his own sons, called upon to appear at council only to confirm grants to Fife and his followers. Robert died in 1387.

His reputation has been sullied, by chroniclers who either support David before 1371 or who favoured Carrick and Fife in the later years of the reign. In 1521 John Mair wrote that he could not hold Robert ‘to have been a skilful warrior or wise in counsel.'

From the Ballad of Otterburn 

** Froissart claimed to have spoken to eye-witnesses:
It was shewed me by such as had been at the same battle, as well by knights and squires of England as of Scotland, at the house of the earl of Foix, — for anon after this battle was done I met at Orthez two squires of England called John of Chateau- neuf and John of Cantiron 
***The distance is much greater – about 30 miles.

[all illustrations - public domain images. Photographs by and copyright of the author]


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, is scheduled for release later this year, and she is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
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1 comment:

  1. Great article!! Really enjoyed this. I'm curious though about why there was a dispute about the date or is that worthy of another post?


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