Authors: Gordon Corrigan
The death of Richard II ended a period of vacillation and weak government which precluded any serious resumption of the campaign to realize the cause of English France. On the face of it, Henry
IV – young, healthy, outgoing and popular – was just the man to revive it, but events were to take a different turn and it would be another generation who reignited the flame of English
King Henry IV from his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. In a (presumably unintended) touch of irony it is opposite that of the Black Prince, for the death of whose
son (Richard II) Henry was almost certainly responsible.
Henry Bolingbroke had a peripatetic existence as a child: his mother died of plague when he was only a year old; he was lucky to survive the Peasants’ Revolt; he was
looked after by a variety of guardians and tutors while his father was away campaigning; and he lived in the households of both his father’s second and third wives. In spite of all this, he
seems to have grown into a normal and well-adjusted adult. There can be little doubt that as a young man he exhibited all the qualities of kingship that his cousin Richard, the rightful king, did
not have. A champion jouster and an experienced soldier who served with his father in Spain and with the Teutonic knights in Lithuania, he had travelled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, and
he had gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visited the holy sites. He had learned sufficient guile to side with the Lords Appellant when they seemed to be winning, and to abandon them when it was
apparent that they were not. His usurpation of the throne was generally welcomed by the population and most of the great magnates supported his accession. On the face of it, he should have been a
popular and effective king. The problem of a disputed or not entirely legal succession, however, is that it leaves the way open for objectors to the regime, for whatever reason, to claim that it is
illegitimate and that the usurper cannot therefore levy taxes, wage war, make land grants, treat with foreign powers or undertake any of the other myriad duties of royal government. Throughout his
fourteen-year reign, Henry was plagued by shortage of money, unruly magnates, the Scots, the French, the Welsh and, finally, an uncooperative son.
A shortage of money was something that all English kings had to face most of the time, but it had not escaped the notice of Henry’s subjects that he had inherited
not only the vast wealth of the duchy of Lancaster but also that of his wife, Mary de Bohun, co-heiress to the earl of Hereford. Mary gave Henry four sons – the eldest would become Henry V
– and two daughters before dying giving birth to Philippa in 1394, with her wealth passing to her widower. All that, added to the income of the crown, should, it was not unreasonably
supposed, have been more than sufficient to fund the court and run the country. However, Henry had made large grants of land and money to buy the loyalty of Richard II’s adherents and to
reward his own followers, had rather unwisely given the impression that he did not intend to tax harshly (which many took to mean not at all) and, as he had little or no experience of government,
was not able administratively to control court expenditure. While Parliament did grant him the customs duties on wool, exports of wool were down significantly and so therefore was revenue from that
source. Henry was never able to live within his means, and, as one of his rallying cries had been the repudiation of Richard’s policy of making peace, a resumption of the war with France
would entail even more expense.
In France itself, the removal of Richard and his replacement by Henry was regarded with horror. While quite prepared to discommode the English by supporting Henry in his attempt to recover his
Lancastrian inheritance, the French court drew the line at his becoming king. They claimed to object to the deposing of a rightful king, but in reality the French were worried that Henry might
reject the truce agreed by Richard and that war would follow. France, in any case, was in turmoil. In 1392, Charles VI, the Valois king, had gone barking (literally) mad, the first manifestation
being his setting on and slaying members of his entourage, this followed by his wandering around the palace howling like a dog and forming the conviction that he was made of glass. While casual
killing and the occasional bark might not matter overmuch, a belief that one is made of glass rather militates against taking the field in battle, or indeed doing anything very much, in case of
becoming a breakage. Charles did have periods of lucidity, but these were to become fewer and shorter as time went on. While government theoretically
remained in the
king’s hands, the real power was exercised by his uncle, Philip, duke of Burgundy, when the king was mad, and by his brother, Louis, duke of Orléans, when he was sane. The two did not
get on. Burgundy, who also ruled Flanders, was prepared to come to terms with the English in order to pursue his own interests in France and to protect Flemish trade, whereas Orléans coveted
Aquitaine and also had ambitions in Italy (his wife was Italian). Burgundy supported the pope in Rome (as did England and most Flemings), while Orléans supported the Avignon claimant.
Although Henry IV sent emissaries to the French court assuring them that he stood by Richard’s truce – an action that did not find favour with the war party in England –
Charles VI and Orléans refused to recognize him as king and were particularly incensed by his refusal to send Richard’s child queen, Isabel, back to France. Eventually, in 1400, she
was repatriated but without her dowry, which Henry retained on the grounds that the ransom for Charles’s father, Jean II, had not been paid in full. In fact, Henry could not have refunded the
dowry as there was nothing to refund it with. Calais cost a huge amount to run, particularly with piracy in the Channel once more rife, and, when the garrison mutinied because they had not been
paid, Henry had to buy them off with cash borrowed from Italian moneylenders. And then, that same year, 1400, trouble flared up once more in Wales.
A land dispute involving a Welsh squire, Owain Glyn D
r, and an Anglo-Welsh Marcher Lord, Sir Reynold Grey of Ruthin, a great friend of Henry IV and a member of his council,
had not been resolved to Glyn D
r’s satisfaction. Glyn D
r’s family was of impeccably Welsh origins, being descended from a variety of tribal
chiefs, but had regularly married into English or Anglo-Welsh families – his own wife was a Hanmer, from a family that is still to this day influential in the Welsh Marches. Glyn
r had studied law at Westminster and may have accompanied English armies on at least one punitive expedition to Scotland. But the failure of Parliament to support Glyn
r was the catalyst for the most serious uprising in Wales since the conquest by Edward I in 1283. It was the result of long-held and simmering resentment of the harsh taxation
policies of both the Marcher Lords and the central government, the preference given to English settlers and the Anglo-Welsh, the lack of
career opportunities for local
churchmen and administrators, and the unhappiness of local civil servants who had to implement policies with which they did not agree. In a very short space of time, the rebels had gathered an army
of sorts, declared Wales independent and Glyn D
r Prince of Wales, and demanded the deposition of Henry of Lancaster and the abolition of the English language in Wales. They
invaded the border towns, began the usual burning and looting, and occupied those English castles which had been only lightly garrisoned. The rebellion would drag on for another fifteen years and,
while never a serious threat to the throne, it did distract the king and divert troops that might have been more profitably employed in France.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that Richard’s body had been displayed in public to show that he really was dead, there were those who believed, or purported to believe, that the ex-king was
still alive, and who were prepared to foment trouble in his name or use the possibility that he was still alive as justification for insurrection. Henry faced a number of rebellions or potential
rebellions during his reign, but the most serious was that of the Percy family in 1403. Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, had been Henry Bolingbroke’s ally in the deposition of Richard II
and, with his son Henry ‘Hotspur’, was responsible for guarding the northern Marches against the Scots. On 14 September 1402, Percy had trapped a Scottish army under Archibald Douglas
returning from a raid into England and laden with plunder at Homildon Hill, about forty miles north of Newcastle. The Scots took up a defensive position on the hill in schiltrons – a form of
massed phalanx which had been very effective in the days when the English would attack on horseback. The English, true to the now accepted tactical doctrine, stood back and opened the battle with
the archers shooting into the schiltrons at a range of 200 yards. They could not miss and there was bloody carnage. Douglas realized that, as his own archers were outnumbered and ineffective,
standing still would simply invite wholesale slaughter, so he ordered both his infantry and his mounted cavalry to charge the English. Down the hill they came, but they never met the English
infantry. The English archers withdrew at a measured pace, stopping every few yards to loose another volley of arrows. The Scottish schiltrons faltered and then broke, pursued by the English. The
numbers engaged on each side and the casualties
are obscure, but very large numbers of Scots knights and squires were captured, including Douglas himself, who was blinded in
one eye by an arrow.
It was after Homildon Hill that the Percy allegiance began to waver. There had already been arguments about the cost of policing the Marches and how much was paid or not paid to the Percys, and
it was said that Hotspur had not been reimbursed for his campaigns against the rebels in Wales. Now there was a major dispute over who should receive the ransom of the Scottish prisoners. In the
spring of the following year, the impetuous Hotspur was moving south, ostensibly to join the king in another campaign against the Welsh rebels, when he reached Chester on 9 July and proclaimed that
Richard II was alive and that Henry IV was a usurper. Swelled by the enlistment of a party of the famed Cheshire archers, the army now adopted the white hart badge of King Richard. As Hotspur knew
perfectly well that Richard was dead, he could not keep up the pretence that he was alive for long, and, as the ranks of the rebel army were being swelled by adherents coming in from the areas
around Chester, Hotspur announced that he had discovered that King Richard was in fact dead, murdered by Henry of Lancaster, and that the rightful heir was Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, who was
then twelve years old.
Edmund’s claim was derived from his mother, Philippa, who was a daughter of Edward III’s second son Lionel, formerly of Antwerp but since 1362 duke of Clarence. Lionel was, of
course, older than his brother John of Gaunt, from whom Henry’s claim devolved, and, although it was weakened by being in the female line, it was a plausible claim nevertheless.
As well as the accusations against Henry of usurpation and murder, the usual complaints of unjust taxation, public funds being diverted to private use, corruption
in high places and evil counsellors were given another airing. At some stage, Hotspur had put out feelers to Owain Glyn D
r, and had he been able to join forces with the Welsh
– for whom the French had already announced support – then Henry IV’s position would have become precarious indeed. As it was, the sixteen-year-old Henry of Monmouth,
the Prince of Wales and future King Henry V, was in Shrewsbury as the commander, in name at least, of operations against the Welsh rebels. He and Hotspur had been friends, campaigning
together in Wales, and the prince had learned a great deal from the scion of the Percys. Also on the prince’s staff in Shrewsbury was Hotspur’s uncle, Sir Thomas Percy, earl of
Worcester, who on hearing the news promptly took off to join the rebels. If Hotspur’s army was to link up with Glyn D
r, they had to get across the River Severn and so
headed for Shrewsbury, intending to cross using the two bridges there.
When the king heard that the younger Percy was in rebellion against the crown, he was at Derby, ironically taking an army north to aid the Percys on the Scottish border. Knowing well that he had
to get to Shrewsbury and the Severn bridges before Hotspur, to say nothing of preventing the Prince of Wales being taken hostage, the king marched on Shrewsbury. On 20 July, after a forced march of
thirty-two miles – a considerable feat even for a largely mounted army – he reached Shrewsbury just before Hotspur’s rebels, who were now faced with only two options: stand and
fight, or give up the struggle. Three miles north of Shrewsbury at Hallescote is a low ridge running east to west and about 800 yards long, and it was on that ridge that Hotspur decided to make his
stand. As usual, the chroniclers all differ over the size of the rebel army and all almost certainly exaggerate. If we assume the men-at-arms and infantry were in four ranks, then there may have
been 2,400 of them, and if there were the same number of archers, or slightly more – by now a standard establishment in English armies – then Hotspur may have had around 5,000 troops
altogether. The king probably had slightly more.