There’s no point in beating around the bush, Henry Harry Hotspur was a man of war. If there was an issue north of the border, he was there. By the tender age of fourteen he’d already made a name for himself, and did his best to then pursue the Percy family tradition of protectors against the Scots until his demise at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.
During his fighting years, he was bestowed many honours, including being made warden of the marches, Governor of Bordeaux, and deputy to John of Gaunt. He was knighted by Edward III in 1377, and created a Knight of the Garter in 1388. So, all in all, he was quite a force to be reckoned with.
But how come ‘Hotspur’? Usually one thinks of a nickname as a fond labelling between friends. But, oddly enough, it was the Scots who granted him this unusual title. It was probably a cynical response to the fact that Henry was always ready to do battle; he was certainly one to dig his heels in, as we shall see.
The Richard Years
It’s of note that Harry was knighted at the same time as Richard II and Henry IV (then Henry Bolingbroke). After that, and for many years, he supported Richard as king, whilst building his status as a military commander and doing his duty with gusto. However, by 1399, as with other members of the Percy family, he became disillusioned with Richard’s stance and switched allegiance to Henry Bolingbroke. It’s not known precisely why this change took place, but it’s likely to have been triggered by Richard’s handling of the situation at the Scottish border. It’s known that the Percy family felt Richard was weakening the English hold at the borders. Whatever the true reason, however, with Henry Bolingbroke being no favourite of Richard’s beforehand, Hotspur’s defection shifted the balance.
To set the scene, it’s worth knowing that Bolingbroke, though a cousin of the king, was a disillusioned one. Being the son of John of Gaunt, whose possessions had been seized by Richard when he died, it was already anticipated that he would be of a mind to seize the crown. Why not, if second prize is still to retrieve his inheritance? The Percy family rallied behind him. Richard was captured. And the king was brought before Bolingbroke to answer for his actions.
The Henry Years
Richard was swiftly deposed and the Percy family were handsomely rewarded for their support by the newly crowned Henry IV.
Having reached this point in Hotspur’s story, however, a little additional context would be useful before launching into the next stage of his ‘warrioring’ career. Whilst the various battles had been going on, Edmund Mortimer – Hotspur’s brother-in-law – had been captured by the Welsh. Despite protestations from Hotspur, Henry had refused to pay the ransom for him and this hadn’t gone down well. Bolingbroke’s reticence had possibly existed because Mortimer’s nephew was technically the rightful heir to the throne because of his descent from Lionel; Lionel being the second surviving son of Edward III, where John of Gaunt – Henry’s father – was only third. Whether this reason was further buttressed by other issues is a matter for debate, but Henry’s appreciation of the Percy family had started to wear thin anyway.
When, in 1402, Hotspur and the Percy family won a battle against the Scots at Humbleton Hill and captured the Scottish leader, the Earl of Douglas, the tide began to change. Hotspur’s father seemed content to hand over the prisoners. Hotspur, on the other hand, wasn’t. The king owed them wages and he wasn’t prepared to be the king’s lackey any longer. Harry joined forces with the Welsh and now rebelled against Henry.
His force met the king’s substantial army at Shrewsbury. His father’s support, though, was slow moving and couldn’t join him in time. The ensuing battle was fierce. Lacking in numbers, the rebels’ strength waned and Henry Percy was struck down and killed. It’s said that despite the circumstances, when his body was brought to Henry IV, the king wept. But once rumours started to abound that Hotspur was still alive, his corpse was then exhumed and put on display. His head was sent to York, and his four quarters were dispatched to London, Newcastle, Bristol and Chester. He was posthumously declared a traitor and his lands were forfeited to the Crown.
Henry “Hotspur” Percy’s can only be described as an inauspicious end. Nevertheless, his notoriety blossomed as one of William Shakespeare’s best-known personalities. Though fact and fiction do not fully meet in Shakespeare’s plays, his ebullient character remains etched in history, partly due to Shakespeare’s writing. However, if England’s most famous playwright isn’t quite enough to trigger a legacy in all minds, one of England’s best known football clubs perhaps is. It’s said that Tottenham Hotspurs derived their name from Harry Percy, whose descendants owned land where the club’s first ground was built in Tottenham Marshes.
The association is probably very apt. As seems to be the case with football teams, Harry Hotspurs’ fortunes also fluctuated during his life. But his legacy is one we still encounter on a daily basis, and that, if nothing else, is testament to the impact he had.