My short story in the BETRAYAL anthology, Family or Fealty?, is about Thomas Percy, probably the most able—if the least flamboyant—member of the Percy clan in this period. But, Shakespeare notwithstanding, I don’t really think he was the motivating force behind the rebellion that led to the Battle of Shrewsbury. He had much to lose, and nothing to gain. So what led to this disastrous conflict?
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, Sir Henry (nicknamed 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 Henry 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 (and in Henry’s custody). 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.
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 before 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.
Where did Thomas Percy fit into all this? His family’s fortunes were his own. Win or lose, there’s a better-than-even chance that he would rise and fall along with them, whether he participated in the rebellion or not. In the end, I suspect he couldn’t conceive of fighting against his own kin.