Alnwick and District Local History Society

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BATTLE TALK: The Alnwick and District Local History Society welcomed one of its own members, Andy Griffin, to its October meeting to talk about the Battle of Hombledon Hill of 1402.

Hombledon (now Humbleton) Hill is two miles west of Wooler. A stone (Red Riggs) commemorates the battle.

The background to this battle is complex. Its roots arose from the personality and actions of Richard II. In his court, flatterers became favourites, and he promoted individuals above their competence and social status, rewarding them generously. He believed strongly in the Divine Right of Kings, and any opposition was treason.

John of Gaunt was the richest and most powerful man in the kingdom. When his son, Henry Bolingbroke, was exiled, John of Gaunt died, of heartbreak, it was said. Richard II confiscated their estates. Bolingbroke returned to organise a rebellion to regain his land. Other landowners, including Harry Hotspur and the Percies, participated.

They charged the king with misrule. Henry persuaded Richard to abdicate, promising him his life. Richard was, however, incarcerated, tried, and starved to death in 1400. Henry became king as Henry IV.

He inherited a difficult situation. There were a series of plots, including that of Owen Glendower in Wales, which Henry brought on himself by his unjust treatment of Glendower. He appointed Harry Hotspur to defeat this rebellion, but Hotspur sympathised with Glendower, and negotiated a truce. The king was annoyed, and refused to reimburse Hotspur’s costs.

At the same time, there was a problem in Scotland. Henry had taken the Earl of Douglas’s part in a dispute with George Dunbar, and had seized Dunbar’s lands. Homeless, Dunbar was invited to stay at Alnwick Castle. He attacked Douglas in 1402, and won the battle of Nisbet Muir.

In retaliation Douglas raised a huge army of 12,000 to raid England. He laid waste to Northumberland, reaching Newcastle unopposed. Astonished at the lack of opposition, he continued west to Wooler. Here, the English were waiting with an estimated 8,000 men.

The Scots had an excellent position. They fought with long spears, in a close formation called the schiltron. Wearing little protection, the infantry moved slowly forward in a phalanx. This had previously been very effective, but was now out-dated. The English used long-bow archers to very great effect, accurate to 200 yards.

A line of 2,000 crack Cheshire Archers moved round behind the crest of Harehope Hill, where they could not be seen. They were only 40 yards away, and could unleash 24,000 arrows in as little as three minutes. They slaughtered the Scots infantry. When Douglas moved his cavalry into the English as a counter-attack, another group of archers shot and killed the horses.

The Scots ran from the massacre, leaving behind horses and their recently-collected booty. Thirteen aristocratic Scots were taken prisoner by Hotspur for ransom. However, Henry IV demanded that the captives should be sent to him, yet another slight to the Percys. Their resentment led to a rebellion a year later, when they faced Henry at the Battle of Shrewsbury, at which Harry Hotspur died.

The next meeting of the Society will be held on Tuesday, November 22, at 7.30pm when Bob Harrison will be talking on Serried Ranks and Bluebells.