Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society, December meeting

The Harry Hotspur statue in Alnwick.
The Harry Hotspur statue in Alnwick.

The Battle of Otterburn: Harry Hotspur’s Big Night Out was the talk given by Michael Thompson to Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society.

The interesting thing about the Battle of Otterburn, August 1388, is that its influence was felt throughout Europe for hundreds of years to come.

It was said to have been the most hard-fought and deadly battle, with no conclusion. It was the battle at which men, both young and old, wished they had been.

In those rough and tough times, they were brought up to fight as a serious leisure activity, such as cudgelling, but it started to change the gung-ho attitude to war.

The Douglas and Percy families were constantly waging a territorial war, with the Douglases still laying claim to lands as far south as Durham.

This time they planned to take Carlisle. But by way of a ruse, and with the encouragement of and money from the French, who were planning an invasion, he mustered 3,000 mounted men at Jedburgh, (currently in English/Percy hands), and made a lightning strike from Carter Bar, on horses and hill ponies (with the men’s legs nearly touching the ground), down the well-known drove roads, to Durham.

They had time to loot the city and were on their way north to Newcastle by nightfall.

During their light-hearted siege of Newcastle, Douglas and Harry Percy, subsequently called Hotspur, indulged in jousting, during which Hotspur’s pennant was taken.

Both were Chevaliers and in chivalry the loss of a pennant was serious. A challenge was made for a battle. By first light next morning, the Scots had quietly left, with the pennant and their Durham booty, burning Ponteland on the way to the battlefield.

Hotspur’s father had planned to cut Douglas off but was too late. Against advice, Hotspur left with a small band of fast soldiers before his army of approximately 8,000 could muster and all get through the narrow gates of Newcastle.

In the late afternoon, he arrived at the battlefield, long before the bulk of his men arrived. Douglas and his men were resting on a hill on the other side of a bog, which made a set battle impossible. Clearly they were not expecting Hotspur so quickly.

While some men went around to make a surprise attack from the back of the hill, others, the Reivers, currently riding for Percy, were going through the Durham booty.

All night the battle was fought. The Earl of Douglas was wounded by three spears, and suggested he be hiddenfrom his men under a tree, where he died.

Hotspur’s brother Sir Ralph Percy was killed and Hotspur himself surrendered.

The leaderless Percy men, assuming they were defeated, decided to retreat and many died fighting their way back in the hills between Otterburn and Elsdon – 1,200 were buried at the church.

The Percy Reivers, at the booty end, assumed they had won! The English did lose that battle, but won the battle for Carlisle.

We know the details of this series of events because of the Chronicles and Jean Froissart, the medieval historian/journalist. He had actually interviewed the men, and women, who had been there. Both sides had their own Border armies.

Borderers tended to change allegiances, but all would have known the drove roads well. They travelled light, eating under-cooked meat and an occasional oat cake, cooked on a flat stone carried with them under their saddles.

An Italian observer of the time described the British as ‘massive and prone to violence, don’t ride horses into battle, but they fight fair’.

Richard II was a passivist and seen as a weak king, but he had learned the lessons of his predecessors; that war was an unnecessary expense of life and money. He had no money. The barons, kings in their own lands, had the money.

The French, therefore planned to invade and Richard was happy for the barons to do the fighting.

But he was furious at having to pay huge ransom money for Hotspur especially after the next Battle at Homildon Hill, now Humbleton Hill, west of Wooler.

At the next meeting on Friday, January 19, at 7.30pm in the Jubilee Hall, Rothbury, Andrew Sawyer will give a talk on Bridging the Gap. All welcome, visitors £2.