Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Offa's Dyke Walk - Part Two (Battles of Shrewsbury 1403 & Mortimer's Cross 1461)

A reconstruction of the armour worn by Sir Nicholas Longford, who was knighted by King Henry IV 
on the morning of the battle of Shrewsbury and who was killed later in the fighting

The Battle of Shrewsbury, 21st July 1403

Following our day out exploring Offa's Dyke and the local area and a very pleasant stay in Shrewsbury we decided to get a good start to the next day to enable us to see as much as possible before beginning our journey home.

Our second day would focus very much on the medieval history of this area of the Marches with Shrewsbury very much at the centre of that history being the start point of two very different but similar campaigns for two of England's greatest warrior Princes and later Kings.

My first introduction to the Battle of Shrewsbury was as a sixteen year old school boy reading Henry IV Part One as part of my O' Level English Literature studies. I vividly remember trying to imagine the look of Harry Hotspur, Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff as they made their way to the climax of the story, the battle of Shrewsbury; the inevitable conclusion of the tension in Henry Bolingbroke's, now King Henry IV's troubled court following the coup that brought him to power in place of the weak King Richard II who conveniently died in prison.

The battlefield of Shrewsbury in relation to the town can be seen here, with the field of battle just below and to the left of 'Upper Battlefield' top right.

Thus with school boy memories flooding back, Steve and I set out to explore the battlefield that lies close to the north-east corner of the town close to the modern day ring-road.

This was not Steve's first visit to Shrewsbury or its first appearance on JJ's Wargames, as Steve did a post about his visit back in 2016, including his visit to the Resource Centre and Farm Shop indicated in the satellite view of the battlefield below by the yellow pin.

An overview of the Shrewsbury battlefield with my tentative positions for the various forces, and possible numbers involved, with our path around the field marked in white arrows, starting at the car park.

I should say right up front that as with most descriptions of medieval battle sights, the positions of the various forces, their numbers and who did what to who at any particular time is very often open to debate and still a subject of much of it, given the limited resources available to more detailed archaeological research into these sites and the limited often unreliable primary sources.

So with those caveats out of the way, I have turned to the Battlefields Trust as a major source of guidance for the various explanations about these battle sites and have selected the versions that seem most plausible to me, or as good as any other, having now walked the supposed terrain. 

In addition Steve brought along his copy of the Osprey title covering the Battle of Shrewesbury with Graham Turner's superb artwork helping to bring the events to life. Whilst I turned to Hugh Bicheno's two books covering the battles and events of the Wars of the Roses when looking at Mortimer's Cross.

The view from the car park area and the Royal lines, with the church making a perfect land mark (centre right) indicating the left flank of the rebel line possibly held by the Earl Douglas

A simple summary of the battle fought on the 21st July 1403 sees an embattled King Henry IV working hard to establish his right to rule now under pressure from one of his biggest backers, the powerful Percy family who having bankrolled his bid for power were now calling for that investment to be repaid, but at a time when Henry's coffers were empty.

The star of the Percy clan was the young son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, Sir Henry 'Hotspur' Percy who had been successfully enforcing Lancastrian rule around the country, with two successful campaigns concluded in Wales against the rebellious Owain Glyndwr in 1401 and 1402 and just recently the defeat of the Scots at Homildon Hill and the capture of Scottish nobles including George, Earl Douglas.

The latter battle only added to the strife between the King and the Percy's with the former insisting on keeping the prisoners rather than allowing the Percy's to sell them back for the expected ransom.

Enclosures and the resultant hedgerows have altered the look of what would have been a more open battlefield perfect for the lines of archers on both sides, as the Royal line advanced across the fields seen here.

The result of all this tension saw Hotspur at the head of a rebellion looking to gather in his former adversaries, Douglas and Glyndwr heading towards Shrewsbury and the Welsh Marches where he hoped to rally his supporters in such numbers as to overwhelm any force Henry could hope to muster.

For Henry, it was a race to put his army between Hotspur and the Welsh rebels under Glyndwr and hope to beat the former before the two rebel forces could join together.

The focal point for this race to the Marcher lands was Shrewsbury held at the time by a Royalist garrison under the command of the king's son and heir, Prince Hal, later to become King Henry V, victor of Agincourt, twelve years in the future.

Now very close to the Rebel line with the church tower looming over the intervening trees and where the two lines now battered after the exchange of arrows prepared to close in hand to hand combat

The winner of the race to Shrewsbury was the King who had managed to put his army in between Hotspur and the Welsh border forcing the rebel commander to pull back from the town and find a suitable ground to offer battle, with his enthusiastic if less experienced troops.

The ground chosen found the rebel army atop a slight ridge offering great sight lines for perhaps his most potent force, the Cheshire archers, some of the best bowmen in England and who, following the breakdown in pre-battle negotiations, took a terrible toll on the Royal lines as the king's army closed.

A view of the ridge line held by Hotspur's rebel army across ground on the rebel right flank still open to view as it would have been at the time.

Some accounts suggest that this accurate archery led to the collapse of the Royalist battle under Edmund, Earl of Stafford, possibly acting as a vanguard in the Royalist advance.

The advantage this seemed to offer Percy's rebel army probably explains the rebel attack following up the no doubt confusion in the Royal lines with Hotspur and Douglas pressing hard to get at the king himself and look to end the battle there and then with his death.

St Mary Magdalene's Church occupies the site of the chapel established on the saint's day in 1406 to commemorate the battle and for saying prayers for the souls of the fallen soldiers many of whom are thought to lie close by in mass burial pits.

However the king's supporters closed around their monarch and fended off the assault, holding their ground while Prince Henry started to assert his presence on the rebel right flank by driving in on the rebel line.

At some time during the fighting both Prince Henry and Hotspur took arrows to the face, proving fatal in the case of the latter and leading in turn to the collapse of the rebel line and their pursuit for three miles by the victorious royal army.

The original chapel was converted into a college of chaplains in 1410 and these are the remains of the fishponds created close by to provide the college with fish for the kitchens. In 1548 the college was closed reverting to a Parish Church

As with the actual numbers of men who fought the battle, the numbers that were killed is probably speculative, but one account suggests possibly up to 5,000 men were killed and wounded:

"There fell on the king's side ten knights, many squires, more yeomen, and three thousand were gravely wounded. On the rebel side fell most knights and squires of the County of Chester, to number 200 beyond gentlemen and footmen whose number we do not know."

Blood red, Flanders poppies make a suitable backdrop to any battlefield and these were in full bloom on the edge of Shrewsbury

Close to the site of the battle lies the Battlefield 1403 exhibition site and Farm Shop which is free to look around and has some great exhibits that really help to bring to life the background to the battle, the look of the soldiers and the weapons they were using

There are two full size manikins on view illustrating the look of the knights and the more common archers who would have stood in the lines of both armies that day

The knight depicts the appearance Sir Nicholas Longford, knighted by King Henry IV on the day of the battle.

His harness depicts the late stage of transition from mail to plate armour, still using an aventil (camail) which is attached to his helmet and a mail shirt, but displays the inclusion of plate armour for improved protection.

His helmet (bascinet) is fitted with a 'pig faced' visor which was supposed to protect the face of the wearer from cuts and stabs, not to mention arrow strikes, something, Hal and Hotspur seemed to have forgotten.

The harness is completed with a solid breast plate underneath a short surcoat or jupon which bears his coat of arms (paly of 6 or and gules a bend argent) and a knightly girdle of metal plaques at the hip.

The shoulders are protected by overlapping plates (pauldrons) and his arms by a vambrace (upper and lower) and his elbows with winged counters.

He wears the advanced design of gauntlets, with over lapping plates on his fingers.

His legs are protected by cuisses on the the thighs and greaves on the shins, with an attached poleyene protecting the knees.

On his feet are overlapping plates (sabaton) covering his shoes onto which is strapped the rowel type spur.

Over his shoulder Sir Nicholas carries a heater shield that will be soon made redundant by the advances in armour design.

At his hip he carries a sharp tapered sword and also a rondel typed dagger and he would have also carried a pole arm, such as a pole axe or glave.

The archer illustrated below is fairly typical for the period with a modicum of protection with his open faced helmet, padded jack, greaves and buckler shield.

His principle weapon is the longbow with which he and his fellow archers would have wreaked havoc on the opposing lines of foot soldiers and which came to dominate the battlefields of the period.

It was back in 2017 that I posted about a visit to the Mary Rose in Portsmouth (see the link below), where among the artifacts recovered from the great ship are stacks of long bows many still in their packing cases and the skeleton of one of the archers who displays in his bones the inevitable changes to the body that occur with practice at shooting this weapon.

The skeleton shows a very powerful man with a very developed upper body capable of stepping into and drawing this very powerful bow and more than capable of getting stuck in to a melee situation when required, very different from the tailors dummy in the picture below.

A slightly 'camp' looking archer, but I am sure you get the idea of how these troops appeared on the day

The various types of arrows are displayed below ranging from the short crossbow bolt on the left to the armour piercing bodkin shafts on the right.

Hotspur is reported in some accounts to have been killed instantly by an arrow to the eye, but Prince Hal was hit below the right eye, requiring the king's surgeon to rig up a device to insert around the arrow head and open the wound up to allow the arrow to be extracted without the barbs causing further damage during the extraction - all this without the relief of any pain controlling medication!

King Henry V pictured in profile, which given the unsightly scar he was left with under his right eye
after Shrewsbury explains that this was really his best side!

Prince Henry survived Shrewsbury but his face would carry a reminder of that day with his arrow wound leaving his face badly scarred on one side, likely explaining his side on portrait and giving the later King Henry V the look of a battle scarred veteran rather than the way he has been portrayed in film versions of Shakespeare's great play.

Cry God, for Harry, England and Saint George! - King Henry V as portrayed by Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1944 film version of the play, although I think I prefer Kenneth Branagh's version from 1989.

The battle broke the challenge of the Percy family and consolidated the House of Lancaster in the form of Henry IV as the anointed King of England, but that hold would prove to be tenuous as the greater struggle to maintain and hold on to territory in France and another weak king in the form of Henry the VI, Henry IV's grandson, would cause the whole charade to unravel into the Cousins War or Wars of the Roses.

The Percy coat of arms

As well as the Percy family, other coats of arms of other noble houses were on display at the centre and it was gratifying to note that the Devon Wargames Group is blessed with its fair share of nobility among the lesser yeomanry of the club!

Devon Wargames Group nobility

Battle of Mortimer's Cross,  2nd February 1461
As mentioned in my preamble to the Battle of Shrewsbury its comparison with the Mortimer's Cross campaign is different and similar and the seeds of the latter lie sown in the former in that Henry Bolingbroke usurped the crown from Richard II and seemingly legitimised the later attempts by the House of York to similarly usurp Henry VI by the precedent the former created.

Like Prince Hal, the eighteen year old Edward Earl of March started his campaign from Shrewsbury in the January of 1461 when he learnt of the death of his father at the Battle of Wakefield on 30th December 1460, leaving him as the new Duke of York and potential heir to the throne.

The roads leading from Shrewsbury via Ludlow to Mortimer's Cross (red marker) along which Mr Steve and I travelled enjoying a perfect pub lunch along the way.

The Marches were well known to Edward, spending much of his teens at Ludlow and in the care of other Yorkist Marcher manors, whist his father was away dealing with the power struggle at court.

He was likely to have gained much from this experience getting a schooling in the more practical military matters of policing the Marches rather than the tournament skills based upbringing in a court-orientated household.

Not only that, but the Marcher Lords considered him as one of their own, and they would be by his side in this his first independent command, men such as Herbert of Raglan, the younger Walter Devereux of Weobley and Roger Vaughan of Tretower and Crickhowell.

Satellite view of one of the presumed battlefields, with one interpretation of the two armies and their upper and lower estimated strengths 

During the winter of 1460 and following the victory of Queen Margaret's northern Lancastrian army at Wakefield, the Lancastrians in Wales under the leadership of Jasper Tudor sought to raise an army to march in support of Margaret as she headed south towards London, looking to secure the release of her husband Henry VI and his restoration to the throne

Tudor gathered his forces at Pembroke Castle in South Wales being reinforced by Irish, French and Breton troops from France under James Butler the Earl of Wiltshire who landed at Milford Haven close by. As with the mercenary troops that accompanied Margaret's army, unless they were well supplied they were prone to marauding the local countryside offending friends and foes alike and with Wales in a poor condition to provision an army in mid-winter Jasper felt compelled to march.

"Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?" The parhelion was observed by Edward's army on the morning of the 2nd February as the sun's rays reflected off early morning ice crystals in the air producing the visual effect of three suns. Edward made the best of it, choosing to interpret it as a sign of good fortune from the holy Trinity and adopting the sun motif as one of his badges.

Edward positioned himself at Gloucester, putting his army in a good position to keep a watch on the South West Lancastrians as well as those gathering in Wales and was kept well informed by local retainers of Tudor's march, north of the Brecon Beacons in late January 1461, thus enabling him to intercept them at Mortimer's Cross.

My pictures of the area are very much based on the interpretation of the battle as shown in the satellite view above.

Of course this could be entirely wrong as the sources for this battle are scanty indeed and perhaps with all the attention on the threat to London posed by Margaret's northern Lancastrian army the chroniclers of the time can be forgiven for giving Mortimer's Cross little attention.

The flag of York flutters proudly at the Blue Mantle Cottages, at the junction of the A4110 and the old Roman road, Hereford Lane, thought to be the centre of the Yorkist line at Mortimer's Cross. 

Aptly growing, an oak tree overhangs the view towards the high ground on the Yorkist right where perhaps Yorkist cavalry were placed in ambush. Close to this site once grew the mighty 'Battle Oak' said to have marked the centre of the battlefield.

Apparently the only source of any tactical information for the battle comes from two stanzas from Micheal Drayton's epic poem, 'The Miseries of Queen Margaret' published in 1627, which is not really much to go on!

Again, looking to the right-rear of the Yorkist Line, where March's battle is shown on the map above, the high-ground continues around and to the rear of the Yorkist position.

To quote the poem;

"The Earl of Ormond, an associate then
With this young Tudor, for the king that stood,
Came in the vanguard with his Irish men,
With darts and skains; those of the British (Welsh) blood
With shafts and gleaves them seconding again,
And as they fall, still make their paces good:
That it amaz'd the Marchers, to behold
Men so ill-armed upon their bows so bold.

Now the Welch and the Irish so their weapons wield,
As tho' themselves the conq'rors meant to call;
Then are the Marchers masters of the field,
With their brown bills the Welchmen so they maul;
Now th' one, now th' other, likely were to yield;
These likely to fly, then those were like to fall:
Until at length (as Fortune pleas'd to guide)
The conquest turned upon the Yorkists' side.

The darts describe the throwing spears and the 'skains' or scians, the long dirks carried by the Irish gallowglasses (gallo'glaigh). These mercenary heavy infantry wore mail coats over padded jackets and fought with two handed axes and large 'Claymore' style swords.

Looking out towards the River Lugg from the centre of the Yorkist line from the side of the A4110 

From the poems description, Ormonde's gallowglasses were the Lancastrian shock troops alongside the Welsh billmen, but seemed to have been poorly equipped to stand up to the arrow storm delivered by the Yorkist archers - "Men so ill-armed upon their bows so bold."

Looking to the rear of the Yorkist line towards Mortimer's Cross

As shown in the map view above it is possible that Herbert may have placed mounted light cavalry or hobilars in a re-entrant as seen in the pictures of the high ground to the left of the Yorkist line, but this would have only added slightly to the carnage of what would seem to have been a one-sided battle.

Looking along the A4110 towards the Lancastrian line and the River Lugg to the left of picture 

No notable Yorkists were killed and it seems likely that the Lancastian left under Ormonde and Wiltshire collapsed first and that in the retreat Owen Tudor made a last stand near the village of Kingsland on the modern A4110 to cover the retreat of his son and the rest of the army that was not pursued by Edward.

However he and other Lancastrian knights captured in the battle were shown no mercy after the death of Edward's father and younger brother at Wakefield, being taken back to Hereford and beheaded.

Looking out over the fields from the Lancastrian left flank where Wlitshire's battle is shown

In the wake of Mortimer's Cross, Queen Margaret and her army would find the gates to London barred to her and despite beating the Earl of Warwick at the Second Battle of St Albans on the 17th February 1461, and recovering her husband, Henry VI who had been held captive by him, she was forced to fall back into the north after the news of Mortimers Cross and a growing resurgence of Yorkist forces.

Edward would join with Warwick and enter London on the 2nd March 1461, where he was crowned King Edward IV before heading north in pursuit of Queen Margaret and their eventual show down at Towton, a battle I covered in 2017.

Looking out towards the River Lugg from the Lancastrian centre and right flank

Thank you to Mr Steve for a thoroughly enjoyable two days exploring the Welsh border and that concludes another historic walk with thoughts now turning to other parts of the country to explore in future trips.

However lots of things to come here on JJ's with Roman Legionaries and General Officers painted and based to show you, plus I am off to the Iberian Peninsula this month for an exciting three weeks exploring battlefields and am really looking forward to bringing details of our trip here on the blog.

More anon