In the Middle Ages, there were two prominent and influential families in England – the Nevilles and the Percys. The Percy’s power was concentrated in the North, and as a result, they were the chief defenders of the Scottish border. They were aided in their battles by strongholds in the form of great castles at Alnwick, Warkworth, Bamburgh and Prudhoe.
Perhaps the best remembered Percy is Henry ‘Hotspur’, who first served and then rebelled against King Henry IV, before being slain in battle.
Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy (henceforth referred to just as Hotspur to avoid confusion with any other Henry Percy) was born on 20th May 1364. In addition to being a Percy, he was, in fact, also descended from the Neville family, which made Hotspur one of the most important noblemen of his time. His parents were Henry Percy, 4th Lord Percy of Alnwick, and Margaret Neville, the daughter of the 2nd Baron of Neville.
Not much is known about Hotspur’s birth, and he was possibly born at his family’s home in Alnwick. Even as a child, he was a fierce fighter, and diligently carried on his family tradition of defending the country against a Scottish invasion by patrolling the border with his father. His eagerness to go into battle and impulsive nature earned him the nickname of Hotspur. When he was only 13, Hotspur was knighted by King Edward III, shortly before the old King’s death.
At the coronation of King Richard II in 1377, the older Henry Percy was made the 1st Earl of Northumberland. The teenaged Hotspur, now heir to an Earldom, began his service in the army the very next year, where he fought for the King at the Siege of Berwick. Hotspur continued to serve loyally King Richard II, who was, in fact, younger than he was, for the next two decades. In 1386, he was sent to fight in the 100 Years War in Calais but had to be hurriedly called back to England to fend off an attack from the French.
Around this time, Hotspur married Elizabeth Mortimer, the daughter of Edmund Mortimer and his wife, Philippa. Elizabeth’s mother was the daughter of Lionel of Antwerp, and a granddaughter of King Edward III; her father was descended from Roger Mortimer. Hotspur and Elizabeth had two children together: a son and a daughter.
1388 saw a crushing defeat for Percy. Earlier that year, Hotspur had been made a Knight of the Order of the Garter by the King.
In August, a Scottish army, headed by James Douglas, began to raid Durham and Newcastle. The Earl of Northumberland chose to remain at Alnwick to protect the castle from the siege, and instead sent Hotspur and his brother Ralph to prevent the forces from advancing. By the time the Percy brothers reached Douglas’s camp, he had already laid siege to Otterburn Castle. Despite being tired after their long journey, Hotspur’s men attacked Douglas’s army. Disorganised and unprepared, Hotspur’s troops lost over a thousand men in the battle, while the Scottish army lost only a few hundred.
James Douglas had been killed in the Battle of Otterburn, but that made no difference to the Scots, who were just as willing to fight without his leadership. They captured the two Percy’s and kept them, prisoner, demanding a large ransom for their release. Hotspur and Ralph were eventually freed after the ransom of 7,000 marks was handed over. It is believed that King Richard himself contributed 3,000 marks towards their freedom. The decisive victory by the Scots resulted in a few years of calm between the two warring countries.
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in England. By 1399, the Percys had begun to lose faith in King Richard as sovereign, mainly because he was attempting to weaken their hold in Northern England. A few years previous, Hotspur had been appointed the deputy to John of Gaunt. In his Duchy of Aquitaine; he had become closely acquainted with his son, Henry Bolingbroke, who had been exiled by the King. Therefore, when Bolingbroke returned from exile, the Percys withdrew their loyalty to King Richard and joined Bolingbroke in his attempts to depose the King. The Earl of Northumberland is said to have played a part in capturing King Richard and having him imprisoned while Hotspur contributed to the effort by raising an army of the new King. When Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV, he rewarded the Percy’s for their support. Hotspur received the castles of Bamburgh, Roxburgh and Berwick, and was granted the wardenship of the East March, as well as a hefty annual pension.
The Percy’s had had no qualms about betraying the previous King in favour of King Henry, and yet the new King trusted them completely. The trust would prove to be a mistake in the years to come when Hotspur himself led a rebellion against the Crown.
Within a year of Henry IV ascending the throne, the Welsh rebellion began. Owain Glynd?r was proclaimed as The Prince of Wales by his followers and started to muster an army. His cousins, Gwilym and Rhys ap Tudur (William and Reese Tudor) launched a guerilla attack on the English and captured Conwy Castle. Hotspur and an army that included the King’s young son, the real Prince of Wales, marched to Conwy and recaptured the castle. But the Welsh were far from subdued and captured Sir Edmund Mortimer, Hotspur’s brother-in-law. To make matters worse, The King refused to pay him the full amount due for his services, saying Hotspur himself was to blame for losing control of Conwy in the first place. Despite that, Hotspur was appointed Royal Lieutenant in North Wales and handled quashing the Welsh uprisings.
As if the Welsh uprisings weren’t enough for the English to contend with, the Scots tried to invade England again in 1402. James Douglas’s son, the new Earl of Douglas, led the troops. Unfortunately for the Scots, Hotspur managed to bar all their paths, and when they reached Humbledon, the English army attacked. The Scottish cavalry were no match for the English archers, and Douglas was captured by Hotspur.
A heated dispute arose over Douglas’s incarceration between Hotspur and The King, who wanted the Scotsman surrendered over to him. Hotspur refused to do so until The King had paid the ransom to release Edmund Mortimer from Welsh captivity, and, greatly angered, The King drew his sword. Hotspur remained defiant, and told The King that they would settle the matter “not here, but on the field.”
By now, Hotspur had grown discontented with the new King Henry too. The King’s injustice over paying Hotspur his salary, as well as his failure to subdue the Welsh rebellion and free Edmund Mortimer had already created a rift between the two. The issue over the Scottish prisoners was the final straw.
In July 1403, Hotspur and his uncle, Thomas Percy, gathered an army and marched against the King. When King Henry got wind of the Percys’ plans, he marched to Shrewsbury with his men. The two armies met in the Battle of Shrewsbury, the first battle that saw English soldiers fighting each other in the country.
The battle raged for days, during which the Prince of Wales was severely injured. Finally, by the impulse nature that had earned him his nickname, Hotspur charged at the King, sword raised. He raised his visor to get a better look and was shot in the face. Hotspur died on the spot, but his death wasn’t noticed immediately. When it was clear that Hotspur was no longer fighting, but had, in fact, been killed, the battle came to an end.
It is said that King Henry wept when he first saw Hotspur’s dead body after the battle. His head was cut off and impaled on a spike in York, but his corpse was displayed at the marketplace in Shrewsbury. Finally, Hotspur’s body was handed over to his widow, who buried him at York Minster.
Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy predeceased his father, and as a result never became The Earl of Northumberland himself. After the death of the 1st Earl, Hotspur’s son, another Henry Percy, succeeded his grandfather to become the 2nd Earl of Northumberland. The present Earl of Northumberland, Ralph Percy, is a direct descendant of Hotspur, through the female line.
Today, the Percys of Northumberland are known for their possession of Alnwick Castle, which was famously used as the Hogwarts castle during the filming of the Harry Potter movies.