| Born at Alnnwick Castle in May 1366, Harry Hotspur was the eldest son and heir of the Fourth Earl of Northumberland. Reared through a bloody and volatile period of history, the young Harry Percy first rode into battle at the siege of Berwick, where his fierce and corageous attack at the front of his father’s troops, at the tender age of 12, earned him the sobriquet of ‘Hotspur’.
Distinguished military service in France and the Scottish Border Wars, coupled with a handsome physique and ‘a sweet contenance except when he was in the grip of a moody passion, to which he was prone,’ according to a contemporary description, made Hotspur the most famous
and influential knight in England.
Hotspur’s constant protaganist was his Scottish counterpart, the Earl of Douglas, who bettered him in single combat outside the gates of Newcastle and captured Percy’s ‘pennon’. Taunting Hotspur to come and get it, the latter impetuously followed the Scottish army towards the border, attacked immediately, after a long march and fought throughout the night.
Here, at the famous Battle of Otterburn, the English were defeated before reinforcements could arrive, Hotspur and his brother Ralph were captured and 3000 English troops were slaughtered while only 300 Scots died. However, Douglas was killed and though Hotspur’s captors considered executing him, chivalry prevailed and the brothers were eventually ransomed.
The 15th Century Ballad of Chevy Chase was based on the Percy/Douglas rivalry and describes a duel between them, caused by Percy’s hunting incursion into the Scottish Borders.
They fought until they both did sweat,
With swords of tempered steel,
Until the blood, like drops of rain,
They trickling down did feel.
In the ballad, Percy and Douglas were both killed. The tune to ‘Chevy Chase’ is one of the most haunting melodies played on the Northumbrian pipes.
Despite the setback at Otterburn, Hotspur and his father remained the most powerful knights in the land, articularly in the north. The 1390s saw Hotspur take part in various foreign campaigns, often accompanied by Henry Belingbroke, the future Henry IV. In 1399, maladministration by Richard II impelled Hotspur to speak out against the King, accusing him of ‘governing foolishly under the influence of evil counsellors’. This outburst and jealously among other powerful nobles led Hotspur and his father to be summoned by Richard to answer charges of treason. They refused, were proclaimed traitors and promptly led a revolt which deposed Richard and placed Henry IV on the throne. Hotspur could now concentrate on the Scottish problem which occupied him until the crushing defeat of the scots under Douglas at Homildon Hill in 1402. However, with funds seriously depleted, Hotspur and his father relied on certain pledged payments by the King, relating to ransom for prisoners and reimbursement for some of the costs of warfare. The new King saw things differently and those funds never materialised so, in 1403, Hotspur and his father again rose in rebellion - the famous Rising of the Percys, immortalised by Shakespeare in his ‘Henry IV’. Hotspur actually had at least as good a claim to the throne as Henry but, at Shrewsbury, his forces were defeated and he was killed with an arrow through the head as he raised his visor to inspect the battlefield.
Had he survived, the course of history might have changed significantly and the Percys might well have been Kings.
The King had great respect for Hotspur, despite their differences, and his body was laid respectfully to rest in a local church. The court decided, however, that an example should be made and, the following day, the body was exhumed and hung between two millstones near the pillory in Shrewsbury. The King is said to have wept over the body and he ordered a chantry to be built on the site of the battlefield so that prayers could be made for the souls of the dead.
Hotspur was clearly one of the most important political figures of the late 14th and early 15th Centuries and is, perhaps, Northumberland’s greatest hero. Revered in his home town of Alnwick, the town is erecting a statue of Hostpur in September 2009 to mark the 700th anniversary of Percy ownership of Alnwick Castle. The Hardy St George Fly Reel was another iconic product of Alnwick and it is fitting that it is being reborn this year.
Duke of Northumberland
Sources: Guide-Book to Alnwick (1981) by the 8th Duke of
Northumberland and Harry Hotspur (1992) by Carol Dixon