Harry Hotspur (aka Sir Henry Percy) was a major character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 who died at the hands of his nemesis, Prince Hal, at the battle of Shrewsbury. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that although Shakespeare was one of our greatest bards, he was not a historian and we can’t take his plays at face value. Yes, Hotspur was killed at Shrewsbury. But no, Hal was at the other end of the battlefield leading a flanking movement, still fighting with an arrow embedded in his face. I think that’s an even more dramatic story, but Shakespeare had other ideas (enter Falstaff).
But that’s not all. Hotspur was not Hal’s rival for Henry IV’s affection. In fact, Sir Henry Percy was the king’s age, not the son’s; he was actually born three years before Henry IV. He was knighted alongside Henry Bolingbroke by King Edward III in 1377. They traveled together to the great Tournament at Inglevert in 1390 (Hal would have been four years old at the time).
In reality, far from being the son Henry IV wished he had in contrast to his own wayward offspring, Hotspur had been one of Hal’s early mentors. In the first few years after the usurpation, Hotspur had been made Constable of Chester, Flint, Conwy, and Caernarfon castles—all in addition to his other duties as Warden of the East Marches and Justice of North Wales. To say he had his hands full was an understatement! Hal was put under his tutelage at Chester, and I don’t think it would be totally out of line to suggest the prince might have experienced a bit of hero worship at this stage. He was only about sixteen, and Hotspur was the most famous knight of the age. He was indefatigable.
Even at Hal’s tender age, he was already being primed to take on his first responsibility in Wales. Unfortunately, it was unexpectedly thrust upon him at the end of 1402 when Hotspur grew annoyed at his lack of governmental support (and lack of payment) and resigned his command. Leaving young Hal in charge, he rode off, back to Northumberland. Just like that. How could the prince not feel abandoned?
The Welsh didn’t need much more incentive to rise up again, and they were soon attacking town after town, burning and pillaging. Prince Hal called up troops from nearby shires that owed the king service and went after them, holding his own. He was joined by his father a few months later and together they advanced into the heart of Wales. Unfortunately, their foray turned into a disaster and the English were forced to withdraw because of the terrible weather; the king was nearly killed when a storm blew his tent down on top of him. Henry was only saved because he wore his armor to bed. Their ignominious defeat was only made worse on discovering that the Percies had just won a tremendous battle at Homildon Hill, and came home loaded with hostages, among them the Scottish Earl of Douglas.
As depicted in Shakespeare, King Henry demanded that Hotspur turn over his prisoners and Harry angrily refused, precipitating the conflict that drove him to rebel. That much corresponds to history. In the play, there’s a scene where he conspired with Owain Glyndwr, Mortimer, and his uncle the earl of Worcester. This probably did not happen, though it’s possible some communication took place between them. The Welsh did not participate in the battle of Shrewsbury, though it’s possible they were creating a diversion by a very successful attack on Carmarthen in South Wales. Or the timing could have been a coincidence. Historians just don’t know, but since Glyndwr was occupied at Carmarthen, he couldn’t have been expected at Shrewsbury.
One can only imagine the shock and betrayal Hal must have felt to discover that his former friend and tutor had declared himself his enemy. I doubt he even knew trouble was brewing—it certainly caught his father by surprise. King Henry moved at his usual unpredictable speed and showed up with an army literally in the nick of time. Hotspur withdrew from besieging the town and prepared for battle.
Shrewsbury was a close-fought contest, and Hotspur was in the middle of the action. Shakespeare has him meeting Prince Hal seemingly alone, and they fight a duel where Hal slays his antagonist. And Falstaff takes credit for the killing after Hal walks away—apparently to get help. But of course, that’s all made up. The battle was total chaos and only the shouts of “Henry Percy dead!” turned the tide. His men panicked and fled, and later the trail of bodies stretched up to two miles away, with most of them fatally wounded in the back. No one knows precisely what happened to Hotspur, but after a search his body was found where the fighting was fiercest. Although the king supposedly shed a few tears over his corpse, he didn’t have any problem ordering that Hotspur’s naked body be propped up between two millstones so everyone knew he was truly dead.
While Hotspur fought valiantly, Prince Hal was leading a charge on the enemy flank; he wreaked havoc on the leaderless rearguard. It wasn’t until the fighting was over that Hal collapsed into the arms of his companions. In all probability he was unconscious for days—if not longer. Under almost any other circumstances his wound would have been fatal, for the arrowhead was embedded six inches into his skull next to his eye. It was only under the brilliant ministrations of John Bradmore, the most innovative surgeon in the kingdom, that Hal survived. It was probably a long time after the battle before he learned of Hotspur’s death.
You can learn more about the Battle of Shrewsbury and events leading up to it in my novel, THE USURPER KING.