The Age of Chivalry, by Thomas Bulfinch

Chapter XXXVII.

The Battle of Otterbourne.

It fell about a Lamass-tide,

When husbands wynn their hay,

The doughty Douglas bound him to ride

In England to take a pray.

ANOTHER famous battle in the border-warfare between England and Scotland was fought at Otterbourne. This is a town in Northumberland, and here, as in Chevy Chase, the Douglas and the Percy matched their strength. Earl Douglas was killed in the fight, and Sir Henry Percy, called Hotspur, was taken prisoner. The story as it is told here is from the works of that most entertaining and long-winded historian of chivalry, Sir John Froissart.

We begin in medias res with a Scotch foray, in which the Douglas, with the earl of March and Dunbar and the earl of Moray, has penetrated as far into England as the city of Durham and is now returning to Scotland.

The three Scots lords, having completed the object of their expedition into Durham, lay before Newcastle three days, where there was an almost continual skirmish. The sons of the earl of Northumberland, from their great courage, were always the first at the barriers, where many valiant deeds were done with lances hand to hand. The earl of Douglas had a long conflict with Sir Henry Percy, and in it, by gallantry of arms, won his pennon, to the great vexation of Sir Henry and the other English. The earl of Douglas said, “I will carry this token of your prowess with me to Scotland, and place it on the tower of my castle at Dalkeith, that it may be seen from afar.” “By Heaven, Earl of Douglas,” replied Sir Henry, “you shall not even bear it out of Northumberland: be assured you shall never have this pennon to brag of.” “You must come then,” answered Earl Douglas, “this night and seek for it. I will fix your pennon before my tent, and shall see if you will venture to take it away.”

As it was now late the skirmish ended, and each party retired to their quarters to disarm and comfort themselves. They had plenty of everything, particularly flesh meat. The Scots kept up a very strict watch, concluding from the words of Sir Henry Percy they should have their quarters beaten up this night; they were disappointed, for Sir Henry Percy was advised to defer it.

On the morrow the Scots dislodged from before Newcastle; and, taking the road to their own country, they came to a town and castle called Ponclau, of which Sir Raymond de Laval, a very valiant knight of Northumberland, was the lord. They halted there about four o’clock in the morning, as they learned the knight to be within it, and made preparations for the assault. This was done with such courage that the place was won, and the knight made prisoner. After they had burnt the town and castle, they marched away for Otterbourne, which was eight English leagues from Newcastle, and there encamped themselves, This day they made no attack; but very early on the morrow their trumpets sounded, and they made ready for the assault, advancing towards the castle, which was tolerably strong, and situated among the marshes. They attacked it so long and so unsuccessfully that they were fatigued, and therefore sounded a retreat. When they had retired to their quarters, the chiefs held a council how to act; and the greater part were for decamping on the morrow, without attempting more against the castle, to join their countrymen in the neighborhood of Carlisle. But the earl of Douglas overruled this by saying, “In despite of Sir Henry Percy, who the day before yesterday declared he would take from me his pennon, that I conquered by fair deeds of arms before Newcastle, I will not return home for two or three days; and we will renew our attack on the castle, for it is to be taken: we shall thus gain double honor, and see if within that time he will come for his pennon; if he do it shall be well defended.” Every one agreed to what Earl Douglas had said; for it was not only honorable, but he was the principal commander; and from affection to him they quietly returned to their quarters. They made huts of trees and branches, and strongly fortified themselves. They placed their baggage and servants at the entrance of the marsh on the road to Newcastle, and the cattle they drove into the marsh lands.

I will return to Sir Henry and Sir Ralph Percy, who were greatly mortified that the earl of Douglas should have conquered their pennon in the skirmish before Newcastle. They felt the more for this disgrace because Sir Henry had not kept his word; for he had told the earl that he should never carry his pennon out of England, and this he explained to the knights who were with him in Newcastle. The English imagined the army under the earl of Douglas to be only the van of the Scots, and that the main body was behind; for which reason those knights who had the most experience in arms, and were best acquainted with war-like affairs, strongly opposed the proposal of Sir Henry Percy to pursue them. They said, “Sir, many losses happen in war: if the earl of Douglas has won your pennon he has bought it dear enough; for he has come to the gates to seek it, and has been well fought with. Another time you will gain from him as much if not more. We say so, because you know as well as we do that the whole power of Scotland has taken the field. We are not sufficiently strong to offer them battle; and perhaps this skirmish may have been only a trick to draw us out of the town; and if they be, as reported, forty thousand strong, they will surround us, and have us at their mercy. It is much better to lose a pennon than two or three hundred knights and squires, and leave our country in a defenceless state.” This speech checked the eagerness of the two brothers Percy, for they would not act contrary to the opinion of the council, when other news was brought them by some knights and squires who had followed and observed the Scots, their numbers, disposition, and where they had halted. This was all fully related by knights who had traversed the whole extent of country the Scots had passed through, that they might carry to their lords the most exact information. They thus spoke: “Sir Henry and Sir Ralph Percy, we come to tell you that we have followed the Scottish army, and observed all the country where they now are. They first halted at Ponclau, and took Sir Raymond de Laval in his castle; thence they went to Otterbourne, and took up their quarters for the night. We are ignorant of what they did on the morrow, but they seem to have taken measures for a long stay. We know for certain that their army does not consist of more than three thousand men, including all sorts.” Sir Henry Percy on hearing this was greatly rejoiced, and cried out, “To horse! to horse! for by the faith I owe my God, and to my lord and father, I will seek to recover my pennon and to beat up their quarters this night.” Such knights and squires in Newcastle as learned this were willing to be of the party, and made themselves ready.

The Bishop of Durham was expected daily at the town; for he had heard of the irruption of the Scots, and that they were before it, in which were the sons of the Earl of Northumberland preparing to offer them combat. The bishop had collected a number of men, and was hastening to their assistance, but Sir Henry Percy would not wait; for he was accompanied by six hundred spears, of knights and squires, and upwards of eight thousand infantry, which he said would be more than enough to fight the Scots, who were but three hundred lances and two thousand others. When they were all assembled they left Newcastle after dinner, and took the field in good array, following the road the Scots had taken, making for Otterbourne, which was eight short leagues distant; but they could not advance very fast, that their infantry might keep up with them.

As the Scots were supping,– some indeed had gone to sleep, for they had labored hard during the day at the attack of the castle, and intended renewing it in the cool of the morning,– the English arrived, and mistook, at their entrance, the huts of the servants for those of their masters. They forced their way into the camp, which was, however, tolerably strong, shouting out, “Percy! Percy!” In such cases you may suppose an alarm is soon given, and it was fortunate for the Scots that the English had made their first attack on the servants’ quarters, which checked them some little. The Scots, expecting the English, had prepared accordingly; for while the lords were arming themselves they ordered a body of infantry to join their servants and keep up the skirmish. As their men were armed, they formed themselves under the pennons of the three principal barons, who each had his particular appointment. In the meantime the night advanced, but it was sufficiently light, for the moon shone, and it was the month of August, when the weather is temperate and serene.

When the Scots were quite ready, and properly arrayed, they left their camp in silence, but did not march to meet the English. They skirted the side of the mountain which was hard by; for during the preceding day they had well examined the country round, and said among themselves, “Should the English come to beat up our quarters we will do so and so,” and thus settled their plans beforehand, which was the saving of them; for it is of the greatest advantage to men-at-arms when attacked in the night to have previously arranged their mode of defence, and well to have weighed the chance of victory or defeat. The English had soon overpowered their servants; but as they advanced into the camp they found fresh bodies ready to oppose them, and to continue the fight. The Scots, in the meantime, marched along the mountain side, and fell upon the enemy’s flank quite unexpectedly, shouting their cries. This was a great surprise to the English, who however formed themselves in better order and reinforced that part of their army. The cries of Percy and Douglas resounded on either side.

The battle now raged: great was the pushing of lances, and very many of each party was struck down at the first onset. The English being more numerous, and anxious to defeat the enemy, kept in a compact body, and forced the Scots to retire, who were on the point of being discomfited. The earl of Douglas being young, and impatient to gain renown in arms, ordered his banner to advance, shouting, “Douglas! Douglas!” Sir Henry and Sir Ralph Percy, indignant for the affront the earl of Douglas had put on them, by conquering their pennon, and desirous of meeting him, hastened to the place from whence the sounds came, calling out, “Percy! Percy!” The two banners met, and many gallant deeds of arms ensued. The English were in superior strength, and fought so lustily that they drove back the Scots. Sir Patrick Hepburn and his son of the same name did honor to their knighthood and country by their gallantry, under the banner of Douglas, which would have been conquered but for the vigorous defence they made; and this circumstance not only contributed to their personal credit, but the memory of it is continued with honor to their descendants.

The knights and squires of either party were anxious to continue the combat with vigor as long as their spears might be capable of holding. Cowardice was there unknown, and the most splendid courage was everywhere exhibited by the gallant youths of England and Scotland; they were so closely intermixed that the archer’s’ bows were useless, and they fought hand to hand, without either battalion giving way. The Scots behaved most valiantly, for the English were three to one. I do not mean to say the English did not acquit themselves well; for they would sooner be slain or made prisoners in battle than reproached with flight. As I before mentioned, the two banners of Douglas and Percy met, and the men-at-arms under each exerted themselves by every means to gain the victory; but the English, at this attack, were so much the stronger, that the Scots were driven back. The earl of Douglas, who was of a high spirit, seeing his men repulsed, seized a battle-axe with both his hands, like a gallant knight, and to rally his men dashed into the midst of his enemies, and gave such blows on all around him that no one could withstand them, but all made way for him on every side; for there was none so well armed with helmets and plates but that they suffered from his battle-axe. Thus he advanced, like another Hector, thinking to recover and conquer the field, from his own prowess, until he was met by three spears that were pointed at him. One struck him on the shoulder, another on the stomach, and the third entered his thigh. He could never disengage himself from these spears, but was borne to the ground, fighting desperately. From that time he never rose again. Some of his knights and squires had followed him, but not all; for, though the moon shone, it was rather dark. The three English lancers knew that they had struck down some person of considerable rank, but never thought it was Earl Douglas. Had they known it, they would have been so rejoiced that their courage would have been redoubled, and the fortune of the day had consequently been determined to their side. The Scots were ignorant also of their loss until the battle was over, otherwise they would certainly, from despair, have been discomfited.

I will relate what befell the earl afterward. As soon as he fell, his head was cleaved by a battle-axe, the spear thrust through his thigh, and the main body of the English marched over him, without paying any attention, not supposing him to be their principal enemy. In another part of the field, the earl of March and Dunbar combated valiantly; and the English gave the Scots full employment who had followed the earl of Douglas, and had engaged with the two Percies. The earl of Moray behaved so gallantly in pursuing the English, that they knew not how to resist him. Of all the battles that have been described in this history, great and small, this of which I am now speaking was the best fought and the most severe; for there was not a man, knight, or squire who did not acquit himself gallantly, hand to hand with the enemy. It resembled something that of Cocherel, which was as long and as hardily disputed. The sons of the earl of Northumberland, Sir Henry and Sir Ralph Percy, who were the leaders of this expedition, behaved themselves like good knights in the combat. Almost a similar accident befel Sir Ralph as that which happened to the earl of Douglas; for, having advanced too far, he was surrounded by the enemy and severely wounded, and, being out of breath, surrendered himself to a Scots knight, called Sir John Maxwell, who was under the command and of the household of the earl of Moray.

When made prisoner, the knight asked him who he was, for it was dark, and he knew him not. Sir Ralph was so weakened by loss of blood, which was flowing from his wound, that he could scarcely avow himself to be Sir Ralph Percy. “Well,” replied the knight, “Sir Ralph, rescued or not, you are my prisoner; my name is Maxwell.” “I agree to it,” said Sir Ralph. “But pay some attention to me; for I am so desperately wounded, that my drawers and greaves are full of blood.” Upon this the Scots knight was very attentive to him; when suddenly hearing the cry of Moray hard by, and perceiving the earl’s banner advancing to him, Sir John addressed himself to the earl of Moray, and said, “My lord, I present you with Sir Ralph Percy as a prisoner; but let good care be taken of him, for he is very badly wounded.” The earl was much pleased at this, and replied, “Maxwell, thou hast well earned thy spurs this day.” He then ordered his men to take every care of Sir Ralph, who bound up and staunched his wounds. The battle still continued to rage, and no one could say at that moment which side would be the conqueror, for there were very many captures and rescues that never came to my knowledge.

The young earl of Douglas had this night performed wonders in arms. When he was struck down there was a great crowd round him, and he could not raise himself; for the blow on his head was mortal. His men had followed him as closely as they were able, and there came to him his cousins, Sir James Lindsay, Sir John and Sir Walter Sinclair, with other knights and squires. They found by his side a gallant knight, that had constantly attended him, who was his chaplain, and had at this time exchanged his profession for that of a valiant man-at-arms. The whole night he had followed the earl, with his battle-axe in hand, and had by his exertions more than once repelled the English. This conduct gained the thanks of his countrymen, and turned out to his advantage, for in the same year he was promoted to the archdeaconry, and made canon of Aberdeen. His name was Sir William of North Berwick. To say the truth, he was well formed in all his limbs to shine in battle, and was severely wounded at this combat. When these knights came to the earl of Douglas they found him in a melancholy state, as well as one of his knights, Sir Robert Hart, who had fought by his side the whole of the night, and now lay beside him, covered with fifteen wounds from lances and other weapons.

Sir John Sinclair asked the earl, “Cousin, how fares it with you?” “But so so,” replied he. “Thanks to God, there are but few of my ancestors who have died in chambers or in their beds. I bid you, therefore, revenge my death, for I have but little hope of living, as my heart becomes every minute more faint. Do you, Walter and Sir John Sinclair, raise up my banner, for certainly it is on the ground, from the death of David Campbell, that valiant squire who bore it, and who refused knighthood from my hands this day, though he was equal to the most eminent knights for courage and loyalty; and continue to shout ‘Douglas!’ but do not tell friend or foe whether I am in your company or not; for, should the enemy know the truth, they will be greatly rejoiced.”

The two brothers Sinclair and Sir John Lindsay obeyed his orders. The banner was raised, and “Douglas!” shouted. Their men, who had remained behind, hearing the shouts of “Douglas!” so often repeated, ascended a small eminence, and pushed their lances with such courage that the English were repulsed, and many killed or struck to the ground. The Scots, by thus valiantly driving the enemy beyond the spot where the earl of Douglas lay dead,– for he had expired on giving his last orders,– arrived at his banner, which was borne by Sir John Sinclair. Numbers were continually increasing, from the repeated shouts of “Douglas!” and the greater part of the Scots knights and squires were now there. The earls of Moray and March, with their banners and men, came thither also. When they were all thus collected, perceiving the English retreat, they renewed the battle with greater vigor than before.

To say the truth, the English had harder work than the Scots, for they had come by a forced march that evening from Newcastle-on–Tyne, which was eight English leagues distant, to meet the Scots, by which means the greater part were exceedingly fatigued before the combat began. The Scots, on the contrary, had reposed themselves, which was to them of the utmost advantage, as was apparent from the event of the battle. In this last attack they so completely repulsed the English, that the latter could never rally again, and the former drove them far beyond where the earl of Douglas lay on the ground. Sir Henry Percy, during this attack, had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Lord Montgomery, a very valiant knight of Scotland. They had long fought hand to hand with much valor, and without hindrance from any one; for there was neither knight nor squire of either party who did not find there his equal to fight with, and all were fully engaged. In the end, Sir Henry was made prisoner by the Lord Montgomery.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32