The Battle of Otterburn
5th August 1388 (alternatively, 19 August)
Scots under James, 2nd Earl of Douglas against English troops commanded by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland
The latter half of the 14th century was a time of political instability and continuous tensions between Scotland and England, with periods of uneasy truce punctuated by regular raids along the border by both sides. Under the terms of the peace treaty that followed the Battle of Neville's Cross (1346) the Scots promised to pay a regular ransom. They stopped paying the ransom in 1377. The truce itself expired in 1384, and as the expiration date neared both sides prepared for war. Richard II of England demanded the remainder of the ransom money and the return of 'English' land along the border.
King Robert II of Scotland refused to bow to Richard's demands and made an alliance with France, the French promising equipment and troops if war broke out. Border raids increased after the treaty expired, and French soldiers joined Scots in raiding Wark Castle. The English retaliated by burning monasteries near the border. Unfortunately, the Scots fell out with their French allies and the French troops returned to France.
In 1388 Edward II was under threat from his own rebellious barons, and the Scots took advantage of the political instability in England to launch a three-pronged attack, with forays into Ireland, East March, and West March. The eastern prong of the attack was led by the Earl of Douglas with about 6,000 men. Douglas raided south as far as Durham before turning for home.
The Earl of Northumberland sent his son Henry, dubbed 'Hotspur' for his impetuous temperament, to intercept the Scottish retreat, with some 8,000 men under his command.
The armies met in a minor skirmish near Newcastle, in which the silk pennon, or banner, affixed to Percy's lance was captured by the Scots. according to legend, Percy vowed to recapture the pennon, and Douglas, entering into the chivalric nature of the event, agreed to allow him the chance. The Scots retreated north-west from Newcastle. True to his nature Percy followed immediately without waiting for reinforcements from the Bishop of Durham.
A more prosaic interpretation of events is that Percy realised that he outnumbered the Scots and in his role as a guardian of the March he was obliged to pursue them back to Scotland. Douglas, for his part, may simply have been trying to meet up with the Scottish army in the West March and might not even have known that Percy was in pursuit.
The Scots tried unsuccessfully to capture Otterburn Castle, and then made camp a mile west of Otterburn. Against advice from his council of war, Douglas decided to stay where he was, either to make another attack on the castle the following day, or to allow Percy a chance to recover his pennon. The Scottish nobles took off their armour and relaxed, unaware that the English were close behind them. So confident were the Scots that Douglas did not even bother to post sentries.
The English army appeared in the early evening. It seems likely that Percy was unaware that the Scots were camped outside Otterburn. He was likely looking for a suitable place to camp for his own men, who were strung out in a long column reaching as far back down the road as Ponteland.
When he saw the Scottish encampment Percy had two choices. He could attack immediately and hope that the element of surprise would see Scottish resistance crumble. Or he could muster his men and await the dawn, confident in his superior numbers and the devastating effect of the English longbow in combat. Not surprisingly, Percy chose to attack immediately.
Percy sent a part of his army in a sweep to the north, hoping to prevent Scottish retreat, and launched a full frontal attack with the remainder of his men.
The Scots barely had time to arm themselves, and Douglas rushed into battle without a helmet. Douglas may have been guilty of rather staggering overconfidence before the battle, but he was about to win lasting fame for bravery once the fight began. He gathered whatever troops he could muster and launched a counter-attack, swinging north around Percy's right flank and using the natural cover of the land to burst from shelter and fall upon the unsuspecting English.
By this time the moon was out, shedding a surreal light on the battlefield. The poor visibility meant that archery was almost useless, and the fighting took place in grim hand to hand combat, halting when clouds covered the moon and beginning afresh when wind whipped away the cloud cover.
Some time in the night Earl Douglas was slain, but because of the poor visibility his death was not realised until morning, and the Scots fought on, pushing the English steadily backwards over a field slippery with blood. As dawn broke the English resistance crumbled and the soldiers ran. Hotspur and his brother Ralph were both captured.
The Bishop of Durham reach Ponteland on 20 August at the head of 7,000 men, only to meet soldiers fleeing the battlefield in disarray. So demoralising was the defeat that the Bishop withdrew without making contact with the Scottish army.
When news of the defeat reached Richard II's court in London a scapegoat was needed, but rather than blame Hotspur for his rash decisions, the Bishop of Durham was held responsible for arriving too late. Hotspur was perceived as a romantic figure rather than a poor military leader, and became a national hero. King Richard himself contributed to Hotspur's ransom, as did Parliament. Hotspur would have his revenge against the Scots in 1402 at the Battle of Homildon Hill.
As for Earl Douglas, his body was carried back to Scotland and buried beside his father's tomb in Melrose Abbey. A stone was erected to mark the place where his body was found.
A cross was erected near the battlefield, known as the Percy Cross. It originally stood at the spot where the fighting was fiercest, but in 1777 it was moved 180 yards west. The battle site is now farm fields, and accessible via a public right of way just south of Otterburn Hall Farm. There are no interpretation panels on the site itself, but there are several useful panels and a good view across the battlefield at the Percy Cross site, 1 km west of Otterburn village on the A696.
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