The Battle of Otterburn

Battle of Otterburn 19th August 1388

Otterburn, the main village in the Rede valley, is famous the world over as the site of the Battle of Otterburn, which was fought to the north west of the village on the 19th August 1388. This battle was the bloodiest and best Known encounter between those great arch enemies of the Borders, the Percys of Northumberland and the Douglases of Scotland.

These two great families were not lawless clans like the Border Reivers of later centuries, but were wealthy landowning earls, the most powerful men in the border region, who fought each other as chivalrous knights defending their respective sides of the national boundary.

Both families are of ancient lineage, the Percys supposedly descended from a Viking warrior who settled in Normandy, acquiring the name De Percy from the name of a French village. The Douglases were descended from Flemish immigrants who came to Scotland in the reign of David I.

First head of the Douglas clan had been William De Douglas, who took his name from the lands of Douglas Water near Lanark, which were granted to him an Abbot of Kelso. William’s descendants became rich and influential landowners in Scotland and later members of his family included Jamie, `The Black Douglas’ (1286 – 1330), a friend and supporter of Robert the Bruce – a man greatly feared on the English side of the Border;

Hush thee! hush thee!,
Little pet thee.
Hush thee!,hush thee!
Do not fret thee.
The Black Douglas
Shall not get thee.

It was during the reign of Richard II that the Scots, under the leadership of a certain Earl James Douglas, invaded northern England with an army of some 4000 men and ravaged the Northumberland and Durham countryside as far south as Brancepeth. Hamlets and villages were left burning and many of the local inhabitants were slain, though some fled to safety, taking refuge behind the walled defences of Durham City and Newcastle.

The region had been largely unprepared for this Scottish attack, though Harry `Hotspur’ Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s son, was at Newcastle with his brother Ralph, ready to repel any Scottish attack upon that town.

The Scottish raid led by Douglas is commemorated in a lengthy Border Ballad recorded by Sir Walter Scott;

It fell about the Lammas tide,
When the muir-men win their hay,
The doughty Douglas bound him to ride
Into England to drive a prey.
He chose the Gordons and the Grahams,
With the Lindsays, light and gay;
But the Jardines wald not with him ride,
And they rue it to this day.
And he has burn’d the dales of Tyne,
And part of Bamburgh Shire;
And three good towers on Redeswire fells,
He left them all on fire.

As the `auld enemy’ were returning from County Durham with the spoils of their raid, there was only a minor skirmish at Newcastle. The Scots did not really have the time or the resources to launch an attack upon the strong defences of that town and the English, under Hotspur had not yet mustered a large enough army to pursue the Scots, as they headed north.

Legend has it that during the skirmish at Newcastle, Douglas in the true tradition of that age of chivalry, challenged the Percys to battle by seizing Hotspur’s pennant, exclaiming that it would hang from the Douglas castle at Dalkeith, for all Scots to see. Naturally Hotspur responded to the challenge and warned Douglas that he would not leave England alive.

The ballad of Otterburn records the visit of Douglas to Newcastle;

And he march’d up to Newcastle,
And rode it round about;
`O wha’s the lord of this castle,
And wha’s the lady o’t ? ‘
But up spake proud Lord Percy, then,
And O but he spake hie !
`I am the lord of this castle,
My wife’s the lady gay’
`If thou’rt the lord of this castle,
Sae well it pleases me !
For, ere I cross the Border fells,
The ane of us shall die’
`Had we twa been upon the green,
And never an eye to see,
I wad hae had you, flesh and fell;
But your sword sall gae wi’ me.’
`….. gae ye up to Otterburn,
And wait there dayis three;
And if I come not ere three dayis end,
A fause lord ca’ ye me.’

Crossing the Tyne near Newcastle, the Scots continued northwards burning the castle of Ponteland on their way, as they headed for Redesdale. Here they took up camp on the site of an ancient British hill-fort near Otterburn. According to the ballad there was little in the way of provision for Douglas at Otterburn ;

The Otterburn’s a bonnie burn;
`Tis pleasant there to be;
But there is nought at Otterburn
To feed my men and me.
`The deer rins wild on hill and dale,
The birds fly wild from tree to tree;
But there is neither bread nor kale,
To fend my men and me.

The legend states that Douglas was willing to endure this lack of provision in order to honour the terms of the challenge in which he had agreed to wait for Percy;

`Yet I will stay at Otterburn,
Where you shall welcome be;
And, if ye come not at three days’ end,
A coward I’ll ca’ thee.

While Douglas lay encamped at Otterburn, Henry Percy’s army had increased in size, though it could have been bigger, but Hotspur instead of waiting for the support of the Prince Bishop of Durham immediately marched his own army of 8000 men north to Redesdale, arriving at Otterburn in the late evening of 19th August 1388.

Although his men were tired and there was only the light of the moon to help them see, Percy was determined to attack the Scots there and then, so giving his men the element of surprise (we can see why Shakespeare gave him the nickname `Hotspur’). It was decided that the attack would be two pronged, with a body of men under the leadership of Thomas Umfraville, Lord of Redesdale attacking the Scots from the rear, while Percy continued the advance from the south.

With chants of A Percy !, A Percy ! , Hotspur’s contingent made their onslaught on the Scottish camp, but their shock and horror can be imagined when they discovered that in the confusion of darkness, they were not raiding the main camp, but instead a small encampment of Scottish servants and camp followers, who nevertheless still fought back.

Hotspur’s mistake was costly for it meant that the English had now lost the element of surprise from their attack and the noise quickly alerted Douglas, whose men began to attack the English flanks with chants of a Douglas!, A Douglas!.

For a time the Scots seemed to be easily winning the battle, perhaps helped by the absence of Thomas Umfraville’s contingent, which had got lost in the moors to the north. Eventually Umfraville decided to give up the plan of attacking the Scots from the rear and retraced his steps to rejoin the main English forces under Hotspur.

The reunification of the forces of Umfraville and Percy regained an advantage for the English, but the Scots began to fight more fiercely than ever. Douglas, sensing the danger rose to the challenge and began to violently hack his way through the English forces using a battle axe, rousing the chants of A Douglas! A Douglas ! as he proceeded. The Earl was to suffer for his actions; three spears pierced his body bringing wounds to his head and thigh. He fell from his horse and lay dying as the battle continued all around him.

The most senior of Douglas’s men, clustered around their dying leader to give him protection, but the earl urged his men to keep on fighting. According to the Otterburn ballad, he told his men he had foreseen his fate;

But I hae dream’d a dreary dream
Beyond the isle of Skye
I saw a dead man win a fight
And I think that man was I.

Gradually the Scots regained control of the battle as the English began to tire from their long and hurried march from Newcastle. As more and more Englishmen were captured or slain, many of Percy’s men began to flee the battlefield and Hotspur was eventually captured and forced to yield to a Scottish noble called Lord Montgommery, who had taken over the command from Douglas, who was by this time dead.

Despite the loss of their leader, the outcome of the Battle of Otterburn was a decisive victory for the Scots, who lost only two hundred men compared to English losses of over a thousand. The body of Douglas was taken back to Scotland and he was burried with honour at the abbey of Melrose in Tweeddale. Hotspur and his brother Ralph, were later released for a ransom.

In 1402 at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, near Wooler the Hotspur was at war with the Douglas family once again but in the following year when he was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, he was ironically fighting on the same side as the Douglas family in rebellion against the king.

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