The Percies’ resentment of the Nevilles’ growing status in the north was aggravated by their precarious financial position. They had personally borne much of the heavy burden of funding the defence of the Scottish and Welsh marches. Henry IV was tardy in repaying them, the result of his own acute financial problems. In July 1401 Hotspur reckoned that the arrears owed to him and his father had reached £5,000. Two years later they had risen fourfold to £20,000. The Percies were immensely rich, but cash was scarce and their lack of it demeaned them in the face of their followers. As the Earl wrote to Henry in June 1403, unless his fees and expenses were paid ‘the chivalry of your realm will be discredited in these parts and I and my son, who are your loyal lieges, will be dishonoured’. It did not help that the Percies’ tallies from the Exchequer were frequently dishonoured, whereas their Neville rival had so far experienced no difficulty in getting his own tallies paid. After the victory at Humbleton Hill, Northumberland and Hotspur and their followers had been covered in praise and honour but little if anything had been done to clear their arrears and their hopes of rich war profits had been dashed by Henry’s refusal to let them ransom the more valuable prisoners. Hotspur refused to comply with the King’s order to surrender the Earl of Douglas to him, an issue which was still unresolved. Medieval government was based on a combination of sentiment and bluff. The mental barrier to rebellion had been weakened by the events of 1399. One coup d’état by its nature encourages another. The Percies resolved to seize their chance to control the power of the Crown in their own interest.
In about April 1403 Hotspur assembled the Percy tenants and retainers and invaded Teviotdale in Lothian, one of the domains of the Earl of Douglas which had been granted to him by Henry IV after the battle of Humbleton Hill. He laid siege to Cocklaws castle at Ormiston, near Hawick. In May the defenders of this place agreed to surrender it on 1 August unless it was relieved before then by King Robert or the Duke of Albany. There are many odd features of this campaign. There is good reason to think that it was a charade plotted between the Percies and the Earl of Douglas to cover the assembly of a large army without arousing suspicion. Cocklaws was an insignificant stone peel defended by a small garrison. Indeed the Duke of Albany had some difficulty in persuading the general council of Scotland that it was worth relieving. Hotspur also brought Douglas himself on the campaign, although it was ostensibly directed against his domains, and allowed him to recruit troops among his followers in the region. It seems likely that the two men had done a deal by which Douglas traded his liberty for his military and political support against Henry IV. Hotspur had other supporters too. He had obtained sealed letters from prominent English lords, which the chronicler John Hardyng claimed to have seen, pledging their support for a rebellion to overthrow the King.
While the Percies were in Scotland they opened negotiations with Owen Glendower using one of Hotspur’s Welsh squires as a go-between. In July Glendower embarked on an offensive in Carmarthenshire which was probably concerted with Hotspur. The Welsh of the region rose in a body and thousands came to join him. At Llandovery, the nationalist leader mustered 8,240 men, the largest army that he would ever command. They captured Newcastle Emlyn and the royal castle at Carmarthen, one of the oldest English towns in Wales and the administrative centre of the south-west. English officials in Wales despaired. From the walls of Brecon castle one of them reported that the ‘whole Welsh nation’ was in arms. The border counties were gripped with panic. Writing to the King on 8 July the archdeacon of Hereford begged him to come in person to rescue the situation. ‘For God’s love, my liege lord, thinketh on yourself and your estate or by my trouth all is lost else.’ In fact the alarm was probably overdone. Glendower lost 600 of his men in an ambush and was forced to abandon Carmarthen. Shortly afterwards Brecon castle was relieved by a force sent from Herefordshire. Henry IV declined to intervene. He was on his way north. Suspicious perhaps of what was going on in the north, he had evidently decided to take control over Hotspur’s campaign in Scotland and apparently proposed to join him outside Cocklaws. The King had reached Nottingham when he learned that the Percies had risen in rebellion.
Hotspur had withdrawn from Cocklaws into Northumberland with his army. From here he marched on Chester, his old headquarters, accompanied by a handful of men, no more than 200 according to one account, including the Earl of Douglas and a company of his followers. Hotspur had acquired a large following in Cheshire and north Wales during the Welsh rising. He counted on being able to raise a new army there. He had apparently agreed to join Glendower on the banks of the Severn near Shrewsbury. His father would follow, bringing with him the army of Cocklaws and whatever additional troops could be raised among the Percy tenants and followers in Northumberland and Yorkshire. The sixteen-year-old Prince of Wales had recently been appointed as the King’s lieutenant in Wales. He had established his headquarters at Shrewsbury. The third Percy, Northumberland’s brother Thomas Earl of Worcester, was with him there. He was the Prince’s guardian and tutor and a highly influential figure in the counsels of the King. They had a small army under their command, about 600 men-at-arms and rather more than 3,000 archers who had been recruited in the Welsh marches for service against Glendower. When the news arrived of Hotspur’s approach, Worcester made off to join him at Chester. About a third of the army at Shrewsbury defected and went with him.
On 10 July 1403 Hotspur raised his flag at Chester. From here he published two manifestos. One was directed to potential supporters in England and was sent to them in sealed letters. In this document Hotspur presented himself as a reformer. He was acting, he said, in the public interest in order to reform the government, install wise and loyal councillors and stop the frivolous waste of tax revenues by Henry’s officials. The other was addressed to Hotspur’s own army and the military community of Cheshire, who had been Richard II’s most powerful and consistent supporters in his lifetime. To them he presented himself as a revolutionary. He announced that Richard II was alive and was with his father in the north-east. They were raising an army there which would shortly join him to challenge the usurpation of ‘Henry of Lancaster’. Hotspur knew well enough that Richard was dead. The real object, as he admitted to his intimates, was to put the eleven-year-old Edmund Mortimer Earl of March on the throne. The young Earl had the aura of legitimacy in England as the descendant of the senior surviving line of Edward III. He also had a strong appeal for Hotspur’s Welsh allies. His family were major landowners in Wales but unlike other marcher lords had intermarried with the native princely families. The Earl’s uncle, Edmund Mortimer, had become the partisan and son-in-law of Glendower. In a short time Hotspur raised a large army from the men of Chester and north Wales. Contemporary estimates gave him 14,000 men. The figure is certainly exaggerated but Hotspur probably had the largest army currently in the field. They included many of the surviving members of Richard II’s Cheshire guard, office-holders of the late King who had been excluded from favour after his deposition and many others who had lost out in the tumults of the past two decades.
Hotspur’s creation of an army from nothing was a tribute to his skill as a soldier and propagandist and to his famously affable personality. But from the moment that he had done it things began to go wrong. The Earl of Northumberland’s efforts in the north-east took longer than expected. Left to his own devices Hotspur decided to advance against the Prince at Shrewsbury without waiting for his father. His plan was probably to defeat the Prince before Henry IV could reach him with reinforcements, and then join forces with Owen Glendower to confront the King. The movements of the Welsh leader at this point are particularly obscure but according to one report a large body of Welsh wearing Richard II’s insignia on their tunics was making for Lichfield as if to head off the King. Henry IV reached Burton on Trent on about 16 July 1403 and for the first time sized up the rebellion. He summoned men from all the counties of the Midlands to join him on the road. But George Dunbar, who was with him, urged him not to wait for them but to make straight for Shrewsbury with only the men he had about him. They could deal with the Welsh later.
The King reached Shrewsbury on 20 July 1403, just before Hotspur, and joined forces with his son. On the following morning they drew up their combined army in battle array and advanced against the rebels, who were encamped about three miles north of them by the village now known as Battlefield. Hotspur and his men were taken by surprise. There was a brief pause while both sides tried to negotiate. But Henry and Dunbar were determined to fight before Hotspur had time to recover and array his forces. They cut the talking short and attacked. It was a bloody fight between two English armies with similar tactics and weapons. Both sides suffered heavy casualties from the opening volleys of the bowmen. The Prince was severely injured by an arrow in the face which penetrated six inches into his head. Thirty-six knights of the King’s personal retinue were killed around him. The royalists initially fell back. Some of them broke ranks and fled the field. Hoping to seize the advantage of the moment, Hotspur and Douglas gathered their men and charged what they thought was the King’s standard. But Henry IV had two doubles in the host and was quickly removed from danger by his companions. The charge was brought to a halt and Hotspur and Douglas found themselves trapped in the midst of the enemy army. ‘Henry Percy King’, some of his men cried. But at that moment Hotspur was struck and fell to the ground. Henry shouted out that Hotspur was dead. The cry was taken up and passed through the ranks on both sides. The rebel army began to melt away. Douglas, a huge man clearly visible across the battlefield, struck left and right about him and was one of the last to be captured. Wounded in the genitals, he became a prisoner for the second time in a year. All the surviving rebel leaders were captured. On the following morning 1,847 dead were counted on the field. Another 3,000 corpses had fallen in the pursuit, their bodies scattered over a distance of three miles from the site of the battle. The body of Hotspur was pulled out of the mass of corpses and put on display. The Earl of Worcester was taken to see it and broke down and wept. On the next day he was summarily condemned for treason and beheaded together with two of Hotspur’s Cheshire lieutenants.
A week after the battle the Duke of Albany appeared with a large Scottish army outside Cocklaws, thus releasing the garrison from their undertaking to surrender. In England what remained of the rebel cause quickly collapsed. The Earl of Northumberland’s efforts ended in fiasco. The army that he had commanded in Scotland consisted mainly of borderers from Northumberland, many of whom would not fight against the King. The Earl had found more recruits in Yorkshire, the real heartland of his family. But the mustering arrangements were confused and many of them were unable to discover where he was. Eventually the Earl collected all the men he could find and tried to join his son at Chester in time for the decisive battle. Marching south, he found his route blocked by a loyalist force under his arch-rival the Earl of Westmorland. He retreated to Newcastle but found the gates of the town closed in his face. The townsmen would only allow him to enter for the night with a small retinue, leaving the rest of his army outside the walls. Believing that they were about to be betrayed, the men mutinied. Next day the Earl abandoned the fight and fled to the Percy castle at Warkworth.
At the beginning of August 1403 the Earl of Northumberland came before the King at Pontefract, the great fortress of the dukes of Lancaster in Yorkshire where Richard II had been murdered. The Earl, who was in his sixty-second year, was a broken man. He submitted to the King and promised to surrender all his castles in the north of England in return for his life and ‘sufficient’ honour. Henry stripped him of all his offices and held him under guard while his council considered what to do with him. But his fortresses continued to hold out for several months even when presented with written orders to surrender under the Earl’s seal. Henry’s officers were obliged to engage in patient negotiations with the garrisons of the great Percy strongholds at Alnwick and Warkworth and a number of smaller castles including Cockermouth, where most of the Scottish prisoners of Humbleton Hill were being held. At Berwick, which was a royal fortress but held by a Percy garrison, the captain, Sir William Clifford, set out his demands in impudent detail. They reflected a characteristic mixture of self-interest and Percy loyalism: a pardon for Clifford and his men; the garrison to be paid its arrears; the Percy domains to be preserved for the benefit of Hotspur’s nine-year-old son Henry; and Clifford himself to have custody of both Berwick and the young Henry. These issues were not resolved until the following year.
When at the end of the battle Henry IV had sent to the veteran Lancastrian magnate Sir John Stanley for his advice on how to treat the defeated army Stanley, who had been wounded by an arrow in the neck, is said to have replied, ‘rattelynge in the throte’, ‘Burn and slay! Burn and slay!’ Yet when it came to it the King’s vengeance was brief and muted. The heads of Hotspur and Thomas Percy were taken to London and impaled above the gatehouse of London Bridge. Their lands were confiscated and part of them used to endow the real hero of the battle, George Dunbar, who had proved himself to be Henry’s ablest commander in the short time since his flight from Scotland. Most of the rebel dead forfeited their property and the county of Cheshire was fined 3,000 marks plus an extra 300 marks on the city of Chester. Apart from the two defeated captains at Shrewsbury, a handful of ringleaders and a hermit who had preached in favour of the pseudo-Richard at York were executed. But most of the rebels received a royal pardon. They included the Earl of Northumberland, the greatest of them all, who was eventually pardoned at the request of the Parliamentary Commons. He was restored to his domains and left in control of all his fortresses in the north, some of which were still holding out against the King’s forces. The Commons declared that they regarded the Earl’s conduct as treasonable. But they remembered his valiant service against the Scots and were plainly frightened by the thought that the north might be lost. Henry IV could afford to be magnanimous. As the events of the following years would show, the power of the Percies was broken for a generation.
On 14 October 1403 the Duke of Orléans addressed his last epistle to the English King, this time addressing him as ‘Henry of Lancaster’. It was a rambling, eccentric and self-indulgent document in which Louis proclaimed himself the champion of his insulted niece Isabelle of France and of all of French womanhood. ‘If I have loved them and they have loved me,’ he added, ‘then the stock of love has risen and I am grateful and glad of it.’ He formally defied Henry IV, repudiating whatever bonds might once have existed between them, and declared his intention of attacking England as soon as an opportunity arose. Louis’ previous letters to Henry IV had been couched as declarations of private war in the belief that this would not engage the responsibility of the French state or involve the repudiation of the truce. But by now the pretence this was a purely personal vendetta was wearing thin. As the English Chancellor told Parliament the following January, Louis’ letters were ‘a great outrage, a disgrace to our lord the King and a shame and offence to the whole realm’. In spite of its highly personal and undiplomatic tone, the latest letter was clearly conceived by its author as a public act. He directed the clerk of the Parlement of Paris to register it among the royal ordinances. The clerk was surprised and indignant. ‘Prolix, windy and devoid of judgment or consequence’, he wrote in the margin of the register, ‘and why now?’
If the clerk had known more about what was happening in the French King’s council he could have answered his own question ‘why now?’ Louis of Orléans left for his domains on the Loire in mid-October 1403 and passed the rest of the year in the Rhône valley negotiating with Benedict XIII and preparing his campaign in northern Italy. But in Paris the King’s councillors were actively engaged in planning the double campaign against Gascony and Calais intended for the following spring. In Brittany and the Channel ports, ships were being requisitioned and armed for war. One of Louis of Orléans’ chamberlains, Charles de Savoisy, was on his way to Castile to hire more. Meanwhile the French suspended all diplomatic contacts with England. When the English ambassadors arrived in Calais in November 1403 for talks with the representatives of France and Flanders they found that there was no one to talk to. They tried to make contact with the French delegation but their letters were left unanswered for weeks. Discussion with the Four Members about a separate treaty with Flanders were taken over by the Duke of Burgundy and buried.
The French were generally ill-informed about English domestic politics but they did take notice of the Percy rebellion. The brief civil war opened their eyes to the vulnerability of Henry IV’s government at home and the significance of the Welsh rebellion. The French government had employed Welsh mercenaries for many years but they knew very little about Wales. The country was far away and even less accessible than Scotland. So far they had taken little interest in Owen Glendower. But this was about to change. In August 1403 a small squadron of ships sailed from France to make contact with the Welsh leader. The absence of any trace of this expedition in the French records suggests that it may have been a private enterprise of its captain, a knight called Jean d’Espagne, who in spite of his name was apparently a Breton. Towards the end of the month he reached south Wales and landed a company of at least 200 French and Breton soldiers. At the beginning of October the constable of the Lancastrian castle at Kidwelly on the Carmarthenshire coast recorded their arrival and reported that they had joined forces with Henry Don, one of the leaders of the rebellion in south Wales. They had already destroyed the extensive unwalled suburbs of Kidwelly and forced an entry into the borough below the castle.
The French arrived in Wales at a low point of English fortunes there. Henry IV had recently been in Carmarthenshire but had been forced by want of funds to withdraw from the country less than a fortnight after entering it. The castles on which the English depended to hold down the country and defend their colonies were in a bad state. The garrison of Carmarthen, the largest in Wales, was unpaid and refusing to serve beyond the term of its indentures. Other important garrisons were poorly supplied and seriously below strength. Caernarvon, on the Menai Strait, the centre of English administration in north-west Wales, was supposed to be defended by at least a hundred men but had fewer than forty. Harlech, which been under loose siege for several months, was defended by just five Englishmen and sixteen Welsh. Aberystwyth, also under siege, was reported to be on the verge of surrender for want of money, stores and men. These immense fortresses, masterpieces of military architecture constructed by the engineers of Edward I at the end of the thirteenth century, were designed to be defended by relatively small numbers of men on the assumption that they could be rapidly reinforced and resupplied by sea in emergencies. This calculation was rudely disturbed by the appearance of Jean d’Espagne’s squadron with its complement of soldiers. At the beginning of November 1403 he re-embarked his men and sailed north to the Menai Strait to support the Welsh siege of Caernarvon.
Henry IV’s response to the growing threat from France was constrained by his penury and his weak political position. His first instinct was to turn to privateers. On 26 August 1403 the King wrote to the bailiffs of all the leading privateering ports declaring that the Bretons, whom he had previously regarded as friends, were now to be treated as hostile and attacked wherever they could be found. In the following weeks a large fleet of armed privateers was assembled in the West Country ports: Bristol, Saltash, Fowey, Plymouth and Dartmouth. Their leaders were three prominent businessmen, John Hawley the elder, William Wilford of Exeter and Thomas Norton, reputed to be the richest merchant in Bristol. In about the middle of October they sailed against Brittany. In the course of this prodigiously destructive cruise the English captured ten ships off Finistère and another thirty which were found sheltering at Belle-Île laden with wine from La Rochelle. The crews were massacred, some of the ships sunk and the rest taken back to England with their cargoes. Many more were caught and sunk as they fled along the coast. At least eight of the captured ships were Castilian freighters carrying cargoes belonging to neutral merchants whose claims were to be a bone of contention between the Crown and the western seamen for years. Heading back with their spoil, the English completed their campaign with a series of attacks on coastal settlements in Finistère. They landed at Penmarch, burning the town and penetrating fifteen miles inland to destroy villages and manors. The famous victualling station at Saint-Matthieu a few miles north was destroyed. The garrison of Brest came out to challenge the invaders, supported by a large number of Bretons recruited inland, but were driven off with heavy casualties.
The English King was usually well-informed about what the French were doing. Ships were sent out to report on concentrations of shipping in French ports. The German Emperor’s ambassadors told him about Louis of Orléans’ efforts to recruit mercenaries in Germany and gave him a copy of one of his letters. At least one well-placed English spy reported regularly from Paris. Everything that happened in the French royal council, the English diplomats at Leulinghem unwisely boasted to their French opposite numbers, was at once reported to them. It was from this source that Henry’s council learned, probably in October 1403, about fresh operations at sea planned by the Count of Saint‑Pol.
Waleran Count of Saint-Pol was the leading territorial magnate of Picardy and the captain of the permanent French army which was stationed in a great arc from Gravelines to Boulogne to contain the English garrisons of Calais. He was a man with a past to live down. As a young prisoner of war in England in the 1370s he had married Richard II’s half-sister and done homage to the English King for his French domains. In 1379 he had been involved in an abortive attempt to put English garrisons into a number of castles in Picardy and Vermandois. Returning to France on the accession of Charles VI in 1380 he received a royal pardon, but many felt that he was lucky not to have been executed. In 1403 Saint-Pol instituted a blockade of Calais. He stopped overland traffic to the town through Picardy and Flanders, forbade French merchants to have any dealings there and ordered English ones to be arrested on the roads. He also sponsored privateering operations against English shipping in the Channel from the Flemish port of Gravelines in conjunction with professional corsairs from Flanders and Scotland. By October his ambitions had grown larger. He established a base at Le Crotoy at the mouth of the Somme. Here he recruited ships and seamen, mainly from Brittany, and soldiers from Picardy and Flanders, and laid in stores for a long campaign against coastal settlements in England. Shortly afterwards, finding that he had not enough ships, he moved his base to the great centre of French privateering at Harfleur in the estuary of the Seine, where he was able to increase his fleet to about 200 vessels.
On 9 November 1403, taking a leaf out of Louis of Orléans’ book, Saint-Pol wrote a letter of defiance to Henry IV in which he declared his intention of attacking England. He claimed that as Richard II’s kinsman and former ally he had a personal vendetta against the man who had murdered and supplanted him. By portraying his venture in this way Saint-Pol no doubt hoped to enable the French government to disclaim responsibility when the English complained, as they inevitably did. Henry IV regarded Saint-Pol’s venture as a serious threat. He was not deceived by his profession to be acting on his own initiative. The English ambassadors at Calais wrote a long protest to Philip of Burgundy. They found it hard to believe, they declared with self-conscious irony, that these things had been authorised by the King of France or his council and least of all by those such as Philip himself who had personally sworn to observe the truce in 1396.