A Kingdom in Crisis: Henry IV and the Battle of Shrewsbury

Alastair Dunn discusses the battle and its repercussions in its 600th anniversary year.

On Saturday July 21st, 1403, the vigil of St Mary Magdalene, two armies met just outside Shrewsbury. One was led by Henry IV (1366-1413), king of England since the summer of 1399, and the other by his erstwhile ally, Sir Henry Percy (1364-1403), son of the Earl of Northumberland, and better known to history as ‘Hotspur’. The ensuing encounter was the hardest fought battle between Englishmen since that of Evesham in 1265. Engaging the royal forces with cries of ‘Henry Percy King!’ the rebels threatened to undo the Lancastrian revolution of 1399, and plunge England into renewed turmoil.

The stakes at Shrewsbury could not have been higher for Henry IV, as both he and his eldest son Hal, the future Henry V, were present at the battlefield. The last battle fought between Englishmen, that at Radcot Bridge (Oxon) in 1387, had been little more than a posturing skirmish, and although some were killed, most of the energy had been expended in manoeuvre and flight. But Shrewsbury was an entirely different affair. The widespread use of archers, more than 2,000 in Prince Hal’s retinue, and nearly 870 in that of Hotspur (as estimated by Philip Morgan) ensured a heavy death toll. The prince himself was struck in the face with an arrow which, had it landed with more force and accuracy, could have inflicted the type of fatal wound sustained by King Harold at Hastings, as shown on The Bayeux Tapestry.

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