Battle of Otterburn: A Dead Man's Victory
August 19th, 2010 by Siggurdsson
Today in Military History: August 19-20, 1388 Before the unification of England and Scotland, the two countries fought a variety of border wars from the 13th through the 16th centuries. There were also a number of cross-border raids that irritated each country, sometimes to the point of immediate retaliation. One of the more unusual battles during this span was the battle of Otterburn, fought on August 19 and 20, 1388 (according to Jean Froissart, the 14th century French chronicler; both Scottish and English histories say it was on the 5th and 6th of August. For consistency’s sake, I will use Froissart's date). Background to the Battle The history of border enmity between England and Scotland is well known. From the time of William the Conqueror, the tribes and clans of Scotland resisted nearly all attempts by invaders to subjugate their lands. Beginning in the 13th century, England and Scotland waged many wars, not to mention a plethora of cross-border raids which fostered a sort of “cold war” mentality in the border marches. [For previous Burn Pit stories relating to these conflicts, I would direct you to December 3, 2009; “Battle of Solway Moss – November 24, 1542;” May 9, 2010; “Battle of Loudon Hill: Robert the Bruce Defeats English;” and June 23, 2010; “Battle of Bannockburn: Robert the Bruce Routs English, Frees Scotland.”] After the expiration of a truce between the two nations during the summer of 1388, the great magnates of Scotland decided to test the English defenses. In addition, there was a certain amount of tension between the Neville and Percy families, the two English houses with responsibility for guarding the Scottish border. A large Scottish gathering near Jedburgh resolved on a two-pronged campaign. Two raiding forces were organized, with one attack set to cross into northwestern England towards Carlisle, which was the center of the Nevilles. James Douglas, the 2nd Earl of Douglas, decided to test the resolve of the Percys’ border defenses. The major targets were the cities of Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The latter city happened to be a major mustering point for the northern border wardens of northeastern England. [It is speculated that Douglas acted on his own, rather than as a coordinated part of the larger attacked on Carlisle.] Douglas mustered his forces, which included about 2400 soldiers, including 300 knights and mounted men-at-arms, and the rest apparently divided between pikemen and some mounted archers. Douglas's force was fully mounted, which accounts for the rapidity of their movement over the next couple of weeks. The Scots crossed the border on or about August 14, and rode over 40 miles into English-held territory before they finally made their first attacks. They raided widely throughout Northumberland, as far as Durham. They then headed for the estates of the Percys in and around Newcastle, arriving at the city on the 16th or 17th of August. The Scots were not equipped to besiege the town. Therefore, they made several lightning attacks on the estates and settlements just outside the city’s defenses, then left under cover of darkness in the wee hours of the morning of August 18. They hoped to slip back across the border without further incident and before English troops could muster to oppose them. The warden of the East March for England was Sir Henry Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland, age about 24. Even in his short life, he had acquired the nom de guerre of “Harry Hotspur” for his impetuous nature and volcanic temper. According to Froissart, the Earl of Douglas had captured Henry Percy’s personal pennon in a personal duel, a great dishonor in that time period [see illustration below]. On the morning of the 18th the English awoke to find the Scots gone. Apparently, the Scots had sent their captured plunder, which included cattle and horses, on the way back to Scotland sometime around midnight of the 18th, then Douglas's force left sometime before dawn. True to form, Percy felt the need to cleanse his family’s tainted honor, if we believe Froissart. More likely, Percy believed that Douglas’s small force was the vanguard of a larger army bent on a full-scale invasion. He was partly correct, as English informants had told of the Scots' army, which spurred Percy to call for reinforcements even before the Scots crossed the border. Newcastle was likely packed to the gills with fighting men. Nonetheless, young Harry organized a force bent on pursuing the raiders. It consisted of 600 mounted knights and squires, along with about 2600 footmen and mounted archers. He ignored calls to wait for reinforcements promised by the bishop of Durham. Once his force acquired enough horses to have his entire command mounted, Hotspur left Newcastle in pursuit, probably on the morning of the 19th. Douglas, despite the headstart he acquired, made a near-fatal mistake early on August 18. His forces paused in their march to attack, capture and destroy the castle of Ponteland, about seven miles from Newcastle. By making this ill-advised attack, Douglas gave away the direction of his raiding party’s withdrawal. Later that afternoon, his men struggled along but were exhausted from the near constant riding and fighting, besides being weighed down with booty and slowed by the herd of captured livestock. [Their plunder was wealth to the poor Scots.] The Scottish commander decided to stop near the village of Otterburn – which is about 31 miles from Newcastle and 16 miles from the Scottish border – and make camp for the night. Douglas posted his force just north of the road which led to his homeland, about a mile northwest of the village. The area chosen was hilly and forested. The main camp was placed on the gentle slopes of a prominent hill called Blakeman's Law, which boasted the ruins of an ancient Iron Age hill-fort, with moors to the north. [See illustration below.] A secondary camp for the servants and camp followers was established closer to the road, among some marshy, mosquito-infested terrain to the north of the nearby River Rede. The horses and captured cattle were released to forage in the marshes, where the servants could keep an eye on them. The next day, Wednesday August 19, the Scots assaulted nearby Otterburn Tower, but failed to take it. Afterwards, the Earl of Douglas held a council of war with his officers and knights. His subordinates urged him to immediately head for the border. Douglas, however, overruled them, and ordered his men to rest before leaving the next day. He ordered that fallen timbers from the surrounding woods be arranged to give the two camps some protection. Douglas was so sure that he would escape detection that he didn’t bother to post sentries – another near-fatal misstep by a supposedly experienced battlefield commander. However, he did send out scouts to range the area and look for English pursuit. [Froissart states that Douglas, rather than immediately withdraw towards Scotland, decided to remain in the area for two or three days to give Harry Hotspur a chance to win back his captured pennon. It is a wonderful tale, emphasizing the “chivalric ideal” and all that. Perhaps it even actually happened that way. I rather doubt it…] The Battle As dusk approached, the English force appeared. The pursuing force had ridden nearly 10 hours that day, in hot, sultry summer weather. In the process of looking for a campsite for the night, the English sighted the Scottish encampment. Seeing his prey lounging about preparing to bed down for the night, Percy had a difficult decision to make. He did not have the full forces available to him (the bishop of Durham was still a day’s march away) and his own men were strung out all the way back to Ponteland. His soldiers were tired and needed rest. On the other hand, it was likely that the Scots would pull out early the next morning and cross the border before the English forces were concentrated. Therefore, Harry Hotspur decided to waste no time and immediately attacked the Scots. He arranged his men into two forces, a right wing and a left wing, with the latter under the command of Sir Matthew Redman and Sir Thomas Ogle. Their mission was to advance down the main road toward the Scots’ encampment near the road, hopefully blocking their escape and attack the Scottish rear, while the remainder of the English force attacked towards the encampment's left side. The English left wing broke into the Scottish camp, shouting, “Percy! Percy!” However, Percy had made a near-fatal mistake: he had mistaken the servants' encampment for the main Scottish camp, with nary a Scottish warrior to be seen. Despite this, these brave servants and camp followers, rather than simply cut and run, picked up any weapon they had at hand and fought back. They also sent a messenger to the main camp to alert the Earl of Douglas. Despite the suddenness of the attack, the Scots quickly recovered. [Douglas had actually anticipated something like this occurring.] Almost immediately, the earl sent a force of spearmen to back up the servants, allowing the remainder of his raiders to arm themselves. Douglas is described in one chronicle as being unable to fully don his armor. One of his knights, John Dunbar the 1st earl of Moray, did not have time to put on his helmet “…owing to the confusion of the sudden onslaught of the enemy; so he rushed forward with uncovered face to marshall the line of the battle." Douglas formed the rest of his men, then led them in a flanking movement of his own from Blakeman's Law, using the heavily forested terrain to mask their movements. He struck the English right wing taking them by surprise. The Scots answered their enemy’s battlecry with their own, “A Douglas! A Douglas!” At about the same time, Redman and Ogle pushed the Scottish camp followers out of their camp, sending them fleeing for the border. The English left then took itself out of the fight, pursuing the servants like hounds after foxes. By this point, the sun was setting, robbing both sides of light. [The sun usually sets around 8:00 pm at this time of the year.] The battle degenerated into a confused melee with men striking out at anything that moved, often hitting a friend as often as a foe. Sometimes the fighting would cease when clouds covered the moon, only to resume when the wind blew the clouds away. [Froissart had actually spoken to five participants in the battle within a year after it took place. Apparently, they said that the only light on the battlefield came from a full moon. It is for this reason that Froissart dates the battle to the 19th of August, as there would have been a new moon on the 5th.] The English superiority in longbowmen was completely negated by the night fighting. The Scots, with a day's rest and relaxation under their belts, dominated the fighting, forcing the English to retreat sometime in the wee hours of the morning of August 20. During the confused fighting, Harry Hotspur was captured by the Scots, as was his brother Ralph, who was badly wounded in the leg. Unaware of the situation at Otterburn, the Bishop of Durham continued his march to the battlefield with reinforcements . They reached the town of Ponteland, several miles short of the fight. At that time, they met large numbers of English soldiers fleeing the battle. Their panicked reports of the English defeat unsettled the advancing force, causing all but about 500 men to flee. The bishop returned to Newcastle, and gathered more reinforcements -- said to be 10,000 men by Froissart, clearly an exaggeration. Setting out again either on the night of the 20th or the morning of the 21st, the bishop's force approached Otterburn, probably on the afternoon of the 21st. However, the Scots had received reports of the approaching English reinforcements. They were lined up and ready for the English, blowing horns and shouting abuse and challenges at the advancing enemy. Seeing the discipline of the Scottish force, the bishop ordered a withdrawal southward, allowing the raiders to return home unmolested. Aftermath By the light of the morning sun, according to Froissart, the English losses totaled over 1800 men killed, 1000 wounded and 1040 captured. Other historians state English casualties were anywhere between 550-1500 killed. Besides Hotspur and his brother Sir Ralph Percy, 21 other English knights were captured by the Scots and held for ransom, as was the custom of the time. As important nobles, both Percys commanded considerable ransoms: Hotspur's was 3000 pounds sterling (worth 1.65 million pounds in today's currency), while his younger brother's was 1000 pounds. Froissart reckoned the Scottish losses somewhat lighter, at about 100 dead, with another 200 captured, while another chronicler said the Scotts suffered 500 killed. Unfortunately, the Earl of Douglas was struck down early in the battle. His body was found the next morning, naked and stripped of his armor with three spear wounds and a huge gash in his neck, likely from a battle axe. [One of the ballads written about the battle includes a scene where Percy, wishing to surrender to Douglas, is directed by a Scottish soldier to a bush. Lying under the shrub was the body of the late Earl of Douglas. This is the origin of the battle of Otterburn being won by a dead man, when actual credit for the Scottish victory should go to George Dunbar, Earl of March, who led a final contingent of Scottish reinforcements into the fight.] It was not learned generally until after the fight that Douglas probably fell in the heat of battle, and his death was not noticed by his soldiers. Footnote #1: Despite the obvious foolishness of Sir Henry Percy, he received no official rebuke or reprimand for his conduct at Otterburn. In fact, King Richard and many members of Parliament contributed to Hotspur’s ransom. After an official inquiry by the Royal Council, the bishop of Durham was designated the official scapegoat. Footnote #2: Despite his service to the British crown, Henry Percy rebelled against Henry IV in 1403. Seeking to merge his forces with Welsh rebels, Hotspur’s forces were intercepted and defeated at the battle of Shrewsbury. Hotspur was killed when he raised his helmet’s visor to get some air (as he was wearing plate armor which restricted air circulation) and was immediately hit in the mouth with an arrow and died instantly. Footnote #3: Harry Hotspur was a character in William Shakespeare’s historical drama, “Henry IV, Part I.” Footnote #4: Today, about a mile northwest of the village of Otterburn, in a grove of trees off the highway, stands the Percy Cross, which marks the site of the main action of the battle. Footnote #5: Several ballads were composed about this battle. One of them, “The Battle of Otterburn” by Sir Walter Scott, contained the following stanza, supposedly the Earl of Douglas having a premonition of his death prior to the battle. It was used in 1956 as the opening narration to the British World War II spy thriller, “The Man Who Never Was:” But I have dreamed a dreary dream, From beyond the Isle of Skye, I saw a dead man win a fight, And I think that man was I.
Posted in Uncategorized, top stories | 1 comment