Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Battle of Shrewsbury, 1403

By Annie Whitehead

Last time, I explored the history of the medieval town of Shrewsbury. My visit there also included a walk round the site of a bloody battle which took place in 1403, between royal forces and rebellious nobility.


Just four years earlier, in 1399, Richard II was ousted as king of England by his ambitious cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who then became Henry IV. Usurpations haven’t happened all that often in English history, and Henry couldn’t have done it without help. Among those who assisted him were the powerful northern Marcher lords, the Percy family of Northumberland.

Still, even if you are the richest in the land, wars don’t come cheap. The Percys claimed that the king owed them £20,000 and they were also peeved that Scottish nobles who’d been captured at the battle of Homildon Hill in 1402 had not been ransomed. This meant, of course, that Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, was also being denied a source of income.

It was Percy’s son, also Henry but nicknamed ‘Hotspur’, who was instrumental in the battle of Shrewsbury. He had been given high office in Wales, where he’d been busy trying to bring the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr to heel. But yet again, payment was withheld and Hotspur did a ‘u-turn’, entering into alliance with Glyndŵr and Edward Mortimer, a powerful Marcher lord. Their claims superficially rested on the financial injustices, but Henry IV saw this as a bid for his crown, and an attempt to replace him. Their proposed candidate for the throne was the earl of March, nephew of Mortimer.

The battle at Shrewsbury was fought on 21 July. Rebel troops had gathered in Cheshire, where Hotspur issued a proclamation which suggested that Henry IV was not king but merely ‘Henry of Lancaster’ and that Richard II was in fact still alive. The rebels marched south and Hotspur was accompanied by his uncle, Thomas Percy, 1st earl of Worcester and Archibald Douglas, 4th earl of Douglas.

Shrewsbury was garrisoned by the eldest son of the king, whose name was ‘Harry’ and who would go on to make a bit of a name for himself at Agincourt as Henry V. Here, though, he was not leading the battle. King Henry IV managed to intercept Hotspur before he could join forces with Glyndŵr. Henry got to Shrewsbury before Hotspur on 20th July and this left Hotspur stuck on the north side of the town, and with the king’s army and the River Severn between him and the Welsh.

The next morning, with no sign of Glyndŵr and with the king’s troops advancing from the town, there was nothing for it but to stand and fight. Several hours of parlaying preceded the fighting, but it could not stave off the inevitable. The picture below shows the suggested positions of the armies, with the Percys on the ridge and the king’s troops having to force their way up the slope. The fighting lasted until nightfall.


Estimates suggest that the king had at his command some 14,000 men while the rebels had 10,000.*

Both sides seem to have had difficulty in recognising coats of arms and there was a great deal of confusion during the battle. It was rumoured that Henry IV had died, but in fact the king was removed to safety. Nevertheless, royal casualties were heavy. The losses have not been calculated with certainty but to walk round the site is to get some idea of the scale of the fighting and, indeed, the numbers of casualties. Estimates are that the dead numbered around 1,600 on both sides, with at least 3,000 wounded subsequently dying from their injuries or killed by looters seeking booty.

The longbow played an important and decisive role in the fighting. The battle began with an archery onslaught, in which Hotspur’s Cheshire bowmen appeared superior and the English Chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, said that the royal troops fell “like leaves in Autumn, every one [arrow] struck a mortal man". ** Famously, the Prince of Wales was struck in the face by an arrow and it is incredible that he survived. The arrow sank into his cheek (the surgeon stated that it was the left, although I have seen debates in which people argue that he might have meant the left as he looked at it.) That the prince survived was down to the skills of his surgeon, John Bradmore, who later described in detail how he used a specially designed implement, using a sort of corkscrew motion, to extract the arrow-head and then treated the wound with honey and alcohol.

Prince Henry survived, and no doubt learned a great deal about the effectiveness of the longbow in battle, but the other leaders involved were not so lucky. Hotspur led a charge directly at the king and was surrounded and killed. Other rebel leaders survived, but not for long. Thomas Percy was tried and beheaded. The earl of Northumberland, Hotspur’s father, was not executed but was stripped of his office as Constable and of several castles, which were thenceforth to be controlled by royal officers.

Hotspur’s body, first buried at Whitchurch, was exhumed and put on display at Shrewsbury, and then was cut up, the parts being sent to various cities and his head sent to York and displayed at Micklegate Bar.


Battlefield Church was constructed on the orders of the king, to commemorate the fallen, and it has been suggested that it stands on ground where most of the fighting took place. There is an area of the churchyard which does look as if it might be the site of a mass grave, but archaeology has not confirmed this.


The church itself is no longer open to the public. It was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene as the battle took place on the eve of her saint's day. In 1410 the chapel was converted into a college of chaplains, where a master and five chaplains said daily mass for the dead. The existing church is the only chapel building to survive and in 1548 the college was closed. In 1982 the church was declared redundant.

There are two visitors’ points. The first is at the southern side of the battle area, and gives views across to the church and offers a walking trail. The area is still agricultural land and is easy to imagine the forces lined up, and to envisage where the fighting might have taken place. On the northern side of the site, the Battlefield 1403 complex houses an exhibition which gives information about the battle and a walk back down to the church. Slightly further north is a village called Upper Battlefield, suggesting to me that the fighting might have extended further still.

Top- from the south. Bottom - from the north

I was there on a sunny September day, and presumably it would have been warmer still in the month of July when the battle was fought. It all looks very bucolic now, but not for nothing did Edith Pargeter call this A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury.***


*The Annales Henrici Quarti offers the figure of 14,000 Royal troops, while Jean de Waurin, a medieval French chronicler, estimated 60,000. It seems that Henry's army was the larger, but in his Chronicle of England John Capgrave suggested that Hotspur had, "as is wrytyn, XIIII thousand men".

**The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham (1376-1422) by David Preest (Translator), James G. Clark (Translator)

*** Her novel about the battle, and the events leading up to it.

[All photos by and copyright of the author]

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Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, including To Be A Queen, the story of the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Her new book, about Anglo-Saxon Women, will be published by Pen & Sword in 2020.

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