Northumberland is a land of great beauty with a long and turbulent history. Stretched along the English side of the Cheviot Hills, which form the border with Scotland, the countryside has seen many fierce and bloody skirmishes. For centuries the families on both sides of the border raided each others lands, stealing cattle, burning crops and causing violent blood-feuds which lasted for generations. In the Middle Ages life in the Borders was very like the lawless frontier days of the old American West, but today this area is the most peaceful part of all England.
Nestling among the rolling hills lies the small stone village of Otterburn. Through it’s centre runs the high road to Scotland and this fact gives Otterburn it’s place in the history books.
In a pine copse beside the road, a mile north of the village, stands an old stone monument called the Percy Cross. It was at this tranquil spot, on a warm August night in 1388, that an English army under Sir Henry Percy fought an army of Scottish knights under the Earl of Douglas.
Remembered by the name Sir Walter Scott gave it, the Battle of Chevy Chase is famed in song and story. Unlike those other great medieval battles Crecy and Agincourt however, the Battle of Otterburn ended in defeat for the English. It left thousands dead, one leader killed and another captive.
Son of the Duke of Northumberland and heir to one of the greatest northern families, Sir Henry Percy is known to the world as Henry Hotspur. Shakespeare calls him ‘the never-daunted Percy’ and portrays him as a restless hot-head. Proud and arrogant, he was a bold fighter and impetuous to the point of rashness. This was the age of chivalry – that curious blend of martial prowess and courtly manners – Hotspur was very much a man of his time. Honour is the keyword to his character and it was on a point of honour that the Battle of Otterburn was fought.
In hand-to-hand combat outside the walls of Newcastle, Douglas captured Percy’s pennant, making off with it to his castle in Scotland. Enraged, Hotspur hastily mustered an army of some eight thousand men and set off in hot pursuit. The Scots made camp at Otterburn, just a days march from the border at Carter Bar. After a long forced march the English arrived in the late evening. The whole valley of the Rede was bathed in the light of a great harvest moon so, with the impetuous boldness which had earned him his nickname, Hotspur immediately ordered his weary men to attack.
To and fro the battle raged. Douglas was struck down but before he died he ordered his Knights to hide his body under a bush so that his men would not be demoralized by his death. Soon his standard was again streaming out, war-cry rallying his troops to greater efforts. In the thick of the fighting, Harry Hotspur was captured and the leaderless English now fled the field, leaving the Scots triumphant. By the cold light of day both sides counted the cost. The Scots lost about three hundred men, but the English dead were counted in thousands. The body of Douglas was taken from its hiding place to Melrose Abbey for burial. The English dead lie in a peaceful graveyard at nearby Elsdon. History does not record what became of the troublesome pennant.
Henry Percy was ransomed and went on to exact revenge at the bloody battle of Homildon Hill. He died fighting fiercely, at the battle of Shrewsbury, with the son of his old enemy Douglas at his side. ‘By his light did all the chivalry of England move to brave acts: he was indeed the glass wherein the noble youth did dress themselves’ says Shakespeare, and Harry Hotspur remains a folk-hero six hundred years after his most famous hour. Today the silver Rede still winds its way between the gentle hills and past the quiet village of Otterburn. Apart from the Percy Cross, there is little remaining to remind the traveller of the events of August 1388.