15 June 2021

Special Guest Post by Mercedes Rochelle, Author of The Usurper King (The Plantagenet Legacy, Book 3)


Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

From Outlaw to Usurper, Henry Bolingbroke fought one rebellion after another. First, he led his own uprising. Gathering support the day he returned from exile, Henry marched across the country and vanquished the forsaken Richard II. Little did he realize that his problems were only just beginning. How does a usurper prove his legitimacy? What to do with the deposed king? Only three months after he took the crown, Henry IV had to face a rebellion led by Richard's disgruntled favorites. Worse yet, he was harassed by rumors of Richard's return to claim the throne.

The Percies and the Battle of Shrewsbury


Froissart Chronicles by Virgil Master, Source: Wikimedia

The Percies were such a powerful force in the North they practically acted like rulers in their own kingdom. For much of Richard II's reign and the beginning of Henry IV's, Earl Henry Percy and his son Harry Hotspur alternated between the wardenships of the East Marches and the West Marches toward Scotland. They were experienced in dealing with the tempestuous Scots, and their retainers were fiercely loyal. When Henry IV returned from exile and began his campaign that led to the throne, the Percies were his staunchest supporters; they provided a large portion of his army. Henry Percy was directly responsible for persuading King Richard to turn himself over to Bolingbroke—the beginning of the end of Richard's fall.

Naturally, this was not done out of sheer kindness. Henry Percy expected to be amply rewarded for his services, and at the beginning he was. But the king was uncomfortable about the potential threat of this overweening earl. He soon began to promote his brother in-law, Ralph Neville the Earl of Westmorland as a counterbalance, chipping away at Percy's holdings and jurisdictions. Additionally, the Percies felt that they were not being reimbursed properly for their expenses; by 1403 they claimed that the king owed them £20,000. But even with all this going on, it's likely that the earl may have contained his discontent, except for the belligerence of his impetuous son.

One possible catalyst was Hotspur's refusal to turn over his hostages taken at the Battle of Homildon Hill. This battle was a huge win for the Percies in 1402, where so many leaders were taken—including the Earl of Douglas—that it left a political vacuum in Scotland for many years to come. Once he learned of this windfall, King Henry insisted that the Percies turn over their hostages to the crown. It was his right as king—even if it was against the code of chivalry. 

Though his highhanded demand was probably not the wisest choice, considering the circumstances. There were many possible reasons he did so. He was desperately short of funds—as usual. It's possible he may have wanted to retain the prisoners as a means of ensuring Scottish submission. Earl Henry agreed to turn over his hostages, but Hotspur absolutely refused to surrender Archibald Douglas, letting his father take the blame. One can only imagine that all was not well in the Percy household, either.

There was more at stake. The king had just returned from a humiliating fiasco in Wales, where he had campaigned in response to the English defeat at Pilleth, where Edmund Mortimer was captured by the Welsh. Mortimer was the uncle of the eleven year-old Earl of March, considered by many the heir-presumptive to the throne. Edmund was also the brother of Hotspur's wife. By the time Henry demanded the Scottish hostages, it was commonly believed that the king had no intention of ransoming Mortimer; after all, he was safely out of the way and couldn't champion his nephew's cause. This rankled with Hotspur, and it is possible that he thought to use Douglas ransom money to pay for Mortimer's release himself.


Statue of Harry Hotspur, Alnwick Castle

Hotspur finally rode to London in response to the king's demands, but he went without Douglas. Needless to say, this immediately provoked an argument. When Hotspur insisted that he should be able to ransom his brother in-law, Henry refused, saying he did not want money going out of the country to help his enemies. Hotspur rebutted with, "Shall a man expose himself to danger for your sake and you refuse to help him in his captivity?" Henry replied that Mortimer was a traitor and willingly yielded himself to the Welsh. "And you are a traitor!" the king retorted, apparently in reference to an earlier occasion when Hotspur chose to negotiate with Owain Glyndwr rather than arrest him. Allegedly the king struck Percy on the cheek and drew his dagger. Of course, attacking the king was treason and Hotspur withdrew, shouting "Not here, but in the field!" All of this may be apocryphal, but it is certainly powerful stuff.

The whole question of Mortimer's ransom became moot when he decided to marry the daughter of Glyndwr and openly declare his change of loyalties on 13 December, 1402. No one knows whether Hostpur's tempestuous interview with King Henry happened before or after this event; regardless, a bare minimum of eight months passed until Shrewsbury. Were they planning a revolt all this time? It is likely that early in 1403 one or both of the Percies were in communication with the Welsh. Owain Glyndwr was approaching the apex of his power, and a possible alliance between him, Mortimer, and the Percies could well have been brewing. It would come to fruition later on as the infamous Tripartite Indenture (splitting England's rule between them), but by then Hotspur was long dead.

No one has been able to satisfactorily explain just why the Percies revolted against Henry IV. If they were so supportive of young Mortimer—as was stated in Hotspur's manifesto before the battle—why did they work so hard to put Lancaster on the throne? All evidence points to their self-aggrandisement. And looking at the three years following his coronation, it became evident that King Henry was not willing to serve as their puppet, nor was he willing to enhance their power at the expense of the crown. The Percies' ambitions were thwarted by the king's perceived ingratitude, and the consensus of modern historians is that they hoped to replace him with someone more easily manipulated.

Shakespeare—and some historians—blame Hotspur's uncle Thomas Percy as the one who deliberately misrepresented negotiations between the rebels and Henry IV just before the battle. But frankly, I see no evidence to support this theory. Thomas had nothing to gain and much to lose; in fact, he was executed afterwards. I think Hotspur drove the uprising from beginning to end; it's even possible that he "jumped the gun", so to speak, and refused to wait for his father to show up with reinforcements. No one knows for sure.

Shrewsbury was considered one of the bloodiest battles on English soil. This was the first time archery was used on both sides—already well proven on the battlefields of France. It was a close call. Until they discovered Hotspur's body, no one was even sure who had won the day. Historians agree that for Henry, this came the closest to his losing his crown forever.

Mercedes Rochelle

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About the Author

Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Her first four books cover eleventh-century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England. The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy about the struggles and abdication of Richard II, leading to the troubled reigns of the Lancastrian Kings. She also writes a blog: HistoricalBritainBlog.com to explore the history behind the story. Born in St. Louis, MO, she received by BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended! Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves. Find out more at her website: https://mercedesrochelle.com/ and find Mercedes on Facebook and Twitter @authorrochelle

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