Henry 'Hotspur' Percy

Born: May 20, 1364

Spofforth, Yorkshire, England

Died: July 21, 1403

Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England (age 39)

Hotspur in History

Henry Percy, eldest son of the future Earl of Northumberland (also named Henry), was, in his day, looked at as the archetypal man of war. He was knighted by King Edward III (soon before the old king's death) in 1377 and began fighting in wars by the time he was fourteen. The Percy family had long been known as protectors against the Scots in the north of England, and Henry made sure that reputation was continued. Throughout his youth Henry continued to gain a reputation as a brave warrior. He fought in many battles in Scotland, Ireland, France and even Asia. Furthermore, he was created a Knight of the Garter in 1388 and made warden of the marshes on several different occasions. The Scots, the people with which Percy fought with the most, gave Percy the nickname "Hotspur" due to the fact that he was always ready to do battle. Hotspur was briefly captured by the Scots in 1388 after the Battle of Otterburn (although the Scottish commander Douglas was killed) and ransomed for a large sum.

Throughout the next ten years, Hotspur continued to loyally serve King Richard II and build up his status as a military commander, fighting in battles whenever the opportunity arose. By 1399, however, the Percies, like many others, had become disillusioned with King Richard. The most likely reason for the Percy defection was their dislike of the king's handling of the border situation with Scotland and the fact that he was weakening their hold in England's north. Therefore, the Percies put their support behind Henry Bolingbroke, a cousin of the king's who had been unjustly exiled the previous year and had also been disinherited when the king seized the possessions of his recently deceased father John of Gaunt to fund his Irish expedition. It is not known whether the Percies believed that Bolingbroke was back in England merely to retrieve his inheritance (mainly the Duchy of Lancaster), but they must have known that his seizing the crown was highly likely. When Richard returned from Ireland, Hotspur's father Northumberland played in integral part in capturing the king and bringing him before Bolingbroke, while Hotspur seems to have played a large part in procuring an army to support the soon to be king. After Richard was formally deposed (and soon after killed) the Percies were showered with immense amounts of rewards (mainly through lands and titles) by the newly crowned King Henry IV. As a result, the Percies continued to loyally serve Henry and resumed their position as the protectors of northern England. Unfortunately, by 1403, the Percies would once again rebel against a king.

In 1402, the Percies won an extremely important battle against the Scots at Humbleton Hill. The Scottish leader, Archibald, Earl of Douglas, was, with several other noblemen, captured. After the battle was fought, King Henry demanded that the Percies hand over their prisoners to him. Northumberland willingly did so but Hotspur was not so eager to do so, claiming that the prisoners rightfully belonged to him (Douglas in particular). In addition, Hotspur was still angry with the fact that Henry had refused to ransom Edmund Mortimer (Hotspur's brother-in-law), who had been captured by the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower (and had married his daughter). It is most likely that the king refused to do so because of the fact that Mortimer's nephew, the young Earl of March, was, technically (though ambiguously), the rightful King of England because of his descent from Lionel, second surviving son of Edward III (Henry was descended through Edward's third son, John of Gaunt). These issues, combined with the fact that Henry's gratitude in general towards the Percies had seemingly run out, caused the northern family to rebel against the man that they had been so instrumental in putting on the throne.

The Percies joined forces with the Scots and with Glendower and the Welsh in rebellion against the king. Unfortunately, the army that was led by Hotspur (and also included his Uncle Thomas, Earl of Worcester, and the Scottish Earl of Douglas) was cut off by the forces of the king (and the young Prince of Wales, the future Henry V) before it had the opportunity to join with the forces of Northumberland and Glendower. A battle ensued at Shrewsbury that saw significant losses on both sides. Hotspur was killed during the battle, and Douglas and Worcester were captured (the latter executed). Thus ended the life of a true warrior; he was thirty-nine. The king was certainly upset for the loss of his longtime friend but realized his death was for his own benefit. After being buried briefly, Hotspur's body was put on public display to prove that he was indeed deceased and to provide an example for prospective future rebels. For all the glory Hotspur achieved in the battlefield, he will most be remembered as a man who betrayed, and was ultimately killed by, his own countrymen.

Hotspur in Shakespeare

Appears in: Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1

Within Shakespeare's plays, Hotspur is portrayed as a youth who is young enough to be the son of King Henry IV. In reality, Hostpur was actually two years older than Henry. He is first seen in Richard II when he and his father, Northumberland, have joined forces with Henry Bolingbroke against the king. Throughout the play, Hotspur (although in rebellion against the rightful king) is portrayed as a man who is unswervingly loyal to Bolingbroke. Their relationship is furthered in 1 Henry IV when King Henry goes so far as to say that he wishes Hotspur and his own son, Prince Hal, were switched at birth. The relationship is damaged, however, when Hotspur refuses to give over his Scottish prisoners to the king after the Battle of Homildon (historically Humbleton) Hill and further berates the king for not ransoming his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, who has been capture by the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower. Soon after, the Percies plan a rebellion against the king and join forces with the Welsh and the Scots.

Hotspur shows himself to be a brash youth throughout the entirety of the play, scolding his father and uncle for supporting Henry and even insulting his ally Glendower in a semi-comical portrayal of the Tripartite Indenture (Hotspur's presence at the indenture is purely an invention of Shakespeare's. He had actually been dead for two years by the time it occurred). In addition, he is considered to be a direct rival of Prince Hal. This is, once again, an invention of Shakespeare's, considering the fact that the men were actually twenty-three years apart in age. Hotspur does show more moderation at other times in the play. For example, he shares a loving relationship with his wife and allows her to accompany him to the battlefield. In addition, he seems to be more inclined towards peace with King Henry when the two armies are about to engage in battle at Shrewsbury. Unfortunately, just before the battle of Shrewsbury, Hotspur is betrayed by his Uncle Worcester, who tells him that King Henry has refused any offerings of peace.

The battle erupts and the rivalry between Hotspur and Prince Hal reaches its climax when the two meet in single combat. Prince Hal slays Hotspur and becomes the hero of the battle for the royal forces. Hal delivers a heartfelt eulogy over Hotspur's corpse but chides him for being brought down for his "ill-weaved ambition." The fictional knight Sir John Falstaff then appears and stabs the dead Hotspur in the thigh and attempts to take credit for slaying the rash warrior. Hal ultimately acquiesces to his friend's absurd claim. Historically, it is unlikely that Hal (a youth of sixteen) defeated Hotspur (a seasoned general of thirty-nine) single-handedly. Although Hal's slaying of Hotspur is slightly hinted at in Holinshed's Chronicles (Shakespeare's primary source for his history plays) it is more likely that Hotspur was killed in some random charge or even by a stray arrow. Shakespeare, of course, makes the two "youths" rivals to create a better dramatic background for his play. Many scholars will agree that 1 Henry IV is more about the rivalry between Hal and Hotspur (myself included) than about King Henry himself. Their opinions are certainly not without warrant.


Walker, Simon. ‘Percy, Sir Henry (1364–1403)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21931, accessed 19 Oct 2009]

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