Hotspur – Sir Henry Percy & The Myth of Chivalry, John Sadler

Hotspur – Sir Henry Percy & The Myth of Chivalry, John Sadler

Sir Henry Percy ‘Hotspur’ was the son of Henry Percy, First Earl of Northumberland, and a major figure on the Anglo-Scottish frontier. He is probably most famous now through his portrayal in Shakespeare’s history plays, where he was portrayed as a rival to the future Henry V, but he was famous in his own lifetime, even gaining credit for his one main defeat at the battle of Otterburn.

We start with a brief history of the Percy family and their rise from relative obscurity into the peerage, the move of the family’s main focus from Yorkshire to Northumberland and the borders, look at how Richard II lost their support and their role in the successful usuption of Henry IV, and how they in turn fell out with the new king. This is all placed against the backdrop of an increasingly violent period on the Anglo-Scottish borders, where both Percy father and son spent much of their time. The account of the politics of the time is good, giving us a clear idea of how the wider diplomatic picture between England and France affected the Percys, and how border warfare differed from the chivalric ideal (not that much medieval warfare came close!).

There are some really quite significant gaps in the text. The biggest is that the chapter on the battle of Otterburn tells us almost nothing about the battle! Instead it turns into a discussion of various historians views on particular elements of the battle, which make very little sense without a good narrative of the battle. The author has covered Otterburn in some detail elsewhere, but you can’t simply assume that all of your readers will have read that work – I certainly haven’t! I did eventually find a more detailed account of the battle had been tucked away in an appendix, a very odd decision! On a lesser scale the section on John of Gaunt’s brief period of refuge in Scotland hints at the reason for his exile, but never actually makes it clear that he was fleeing from the Peasant’s Revolt. 

The accounts of the battles of Homildon and Shrewsbury are much better, combining the narrative and analysis in the main text. A key focus in the account of the Shrewsbury campaign is a look at what Hotspur’s strategy might actually have been – the author doesn’t belief that he was attempting to meet up with Glen Dwr, but instead was trying to defeat Prince Henry’s isolated forces at Shrewsbury before Henry IV could reach the area with the main Royal army. If this is the case then Hotspur’s failure was one of timing rather than having a poor plan, as King Henry was already on his way north with an army when news of Hotspur’s rebellion reached him, and was able to react much more quickly than expected.

Overall this is an excellent biography of Hotspur, looking at him as a man of his time, and making some interesting suggestions about his plans during his failed rebellion against Henry IV.

Prologue: A Storm of Arrows
1 – Worm-eaten Hold of Ragged Stone – The House of Percy
2 – Sensible of Courtesy – A Knightly Apprenticeship
3 – Storm Clouds Brewing – A Scottish Resurgence
4 – Death on St. Oswin’s Eve – The battle of Otterburn 5 (or 19) August 1388
5 – Ill-weaved Ambition – Kingmakers up North
6 – At Holmedon Met – The Battle of Homildon, 14 September 1402
7 – Overmighty Subjects – The Path to Calamity
8 – For Worms Brave Percy – The Battle of Shrewsbury, 21 July 1403
Epilogue: Fair Rites of Tenderness - Legacy

Author: John Sadler
Pages: 256
Publisher: Pen & Sword
Year: 2022

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