Battle of Otterburn: "A Dead Man's Victory;" Scottish Raiders Defeat Pursuing English

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Battle of Otterburn: "A Dead Man's Victory;" Scottish Raiders Defeat Pursuing English

Battle of Otterburn, by S. Walsh
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 19-20, 1388

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

Before the unification of England and Scotland, the two countries fought a variety of border wars from the 13th through the 16th centuries. There were also a number of cross-border raids that irritated each country, sometimes to the point of immediate retaliation. One of the more unusual battles during this span was the battle of Otterburn, fought on the evening and night of August 19 and 20, 1388 (according to Jean Froissart, the 14th century French chronicler; both Scottish and English histories say it was on August 5-6. For consistency's sake, I will use Froissart's date).

Background to the Battle

The history of border enmity between England and Scotland is well known. From the time of William the Conqueror, the tribes and clans of Scotland resisted nearly all attempts by invaders to subjugate their lands. Beginning in the 13th century, England and Scotland waged many wars, not to mention a plethora of cross-border raids which fostered a sort of "cold war" mentality in the border marches.

Representation of Henry Percy and his wife; Painting by Robert Smirke; scene from; "King Henry IV," Act II, Scene 3
Representation of Henry Percy and his wife
Painting by Robert Smirke; scene from
"King Henry IV," Act II, Scene 3

After the expiration of a truce between the two nations during the summer of 1388, the great magnates of Scotland decided to test the English defenses. In addition, there was a certain amount of tension between the Neville and Percy families, the two English houses with responsibility for guarding the Scottish border. A large Scottish gathering near Jedburgh resolved on a two-pronged campaign. Two raiding forces were organized, with one attack set to cross into northwestern England towards Carlisle, which was the center of the Neville lands. James Douglas, the 2nd Earl of Douglas, decided to test the resolve of the border defenses. The major targets were the cities of Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The latter city happened to be a major mustering point for the northern border wardens of northeastern England.

Scottish Army

Douglas mustered his forces, which totaled about 2400 soldiers, including 300 knights and mounted men-at-arms, and the rest apparently divided between pikemen, other infantry, and a few mounted archers. Douglas's force was fully mounted, which accounts for the rapidity of their movement over the next couple of weeks. [Modern historians speculate that most mediaeval armies had a ratio of knights/men-at-arms to infantry at 1:7; therefore, 300 trained cavalry and about 2100 infantry would be about right.] In addition, the Scots apparently had a large number of servants, boys to hold horses, and other camp followers, pushing the total number of Scots close to 2900.

Otterburn Campaign, First Phase

The Scots crossed the border on or about August 14, and rode over 40 miles into English-held territory before they finally made their first attacks. They raided widely throughout Northumberland, as far as Durham. They then headed for the estates of the Percy family in and around Newcastle, arriving at the city on about August 16. The Scots were not equipped to besiege the town. Therefore, they made several lightning attacks on the estates and settlements just outside the city's defenses, then left under cover of darkness in the wee hours of the morning of August 18. They hoped to slip back across the border without further incident and before English troops could muster to oppose them.

The warden of the East March for England was Sir Henry Percy, the son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, age about 24. Even in his short life, he had acquired the nom de guerre of "Harry Hotspur" for his impetuous nature and volcanic temper. According to Froissart, the Earl of Douglas had captured Henry Percy's personal pennon in a personal duel, a great dishonor in that time period [see illustration below]. On the morning of the 18th the English awoke to find the Scots gone. Apparently, the Scots had sent their captured plunder, which included cattle and horses, on the way back to Scotland sometime around midnight of the 18th, then Douglas's force left sometime before dawn.

Pennon of Henry "Harry Hotspur" Percy; Captured by the Earl of Douglas during the Otterburn campaign
Pennon of Henry "Harry Hotspur" Percy
Captured by the Earl of Douglas during the Otterburn campaign

True to form, Percy felt the need to cleanse his family's tainted honor, if we believe Froissart. More likely, Percy believed that Douglas's small force was the vanguard of a larger army bent on a full-scale invasion. He was partly correct, as English informants had told of the Scots' army, which spurred Percy to call for reinforcements even before the Scots crossed the border. Newcastle was likely packed to the gills with fighting men.

English Army

Nonetheless, young Harry organized a force bent on pursuing the raiders. It consisted of 600 mounted knights and squires, along with about 2600 footmen and mounted archers. [Another source, the UK Battlefields Resource Center, says Percy commanded a force of 8000 men.] He ignored calls to wait for reinforcements promised by the Bishop of Durham. Once his force acquired enough horses to have his entire command mounted, Hotspur left Newcastle in pursuit, probably on the morning of the 19th.

Second Phase: Prelude to the Battle

Despite the head start he acquired, Douglas made a near-fatal mistake early on August 18. His forces paused in their march to attack, capture and destroy the castle of Ponteland, about seven miles from Newcastle. By making this ill-advised attack, Douglas gave away the direction of his raiding party's withdrawal to his enemy. Later that afternoon, his men struggled along but were exhausted from the near-constant riding and fighting. The Scottish commander decided to stop past the village of Otterburn – which is about 31 miles from Newcastle and 16 miles from the Scottish border – and make camp for the night.

Douglas posted his force just north of the road which led to his homeland, about a mile northwest of the village. The area chosen was hilly and forested. The main camp was placed on the gentle slopes of a prominent hill called Blakeman's Law, which boasted the ruins of an ancient Iron Age hill-fort, with moors to the north. A secondary camp for the servants and camp followers was established among some marshy, mosquito-infested terrain south of the road and to the north of the nearby River Rede. The horses and captured cattle were released to forage in the marshes, where the servants could keep an eye on them.

The next day, Wednesday August 19, the Scots assaulted nearby Otterburn Tower, but failed to take it. Afterwards, the Earl of Douglas held a council of war with his officers and chief knights. His subordinates urged him to immediately head for the border. Douglas, however, overruled them, and ordered his men to set up camp and rest before leaving the next day. He ordered that fallen timbers from the surrounding woods be arranged to give the two camps some protection. Douglas was so sure that he would escape detection that he didn't bother to post sentries – another shocking misstep by a supposedly experienced battlefield commander. However, he did send out scouts to range the area and look for English pursuit.

[Froissart states that Douglas, rather than immediately withdraw towards Scotland, decided to remain in the area for two or three days to give Harry Hotspur a chance to win back his captured pennon. It is a wonderful tale, emphasizing the "chivalric ideal" and all that. Perhaps it even actually happened that way. However, I rather doubt it…]

Battle of Otterburn

As dusk approached, the English force appeared. This pursuing force had ridden nearly 10 hours that day, in hot, sultry summer weather. In the process of looking for a campsite for the night, the English sighted the enemy encampment. Seeing his prey lounging about preparing to bed down for the night, Percy had a difficult decision to make. He did not have the full forces available to him (the reinforcements led by the Bishop of Durham were still a day's march away) and his own men were strung out all the way back to Ponteland. His soldiers were tired and needed rest. On the other hand, it was likely that the Scots would pull out early the next morning and cross the border before the English forces were concentrated, and Hotspur would lose his chance at revenge.

Therefore, Harry Hotspur decided to waste no time and immediately attacked the Scots. He arranged his men into two forces, a right wing under his own command, and a left wing under the command of Sir Matthew Redman and Sir Thomas Ogle. Their mission was to advance down the main road toward the Scots' encampment near the road, hopefully blocking their escape and attacking the Scottish rear, while the remainder of the English force attacked towards the encampment's left side. Meanwhile, the rest of Percy's force was strung out down the road to Newcastle.

The English left wing broke into the Scottish camp, shouting, "Percy! Percy!" However, Percy had made a serious error of his own: he had mistaken the servants' encampment for the main Scottish camp with nary a Scottish warrior to be seen. Despite this, these brave servants and camp followers, rather than simply cut and run, picked up any weapon they had at hand and fought back. They also sent a messenger to the main camp to alert the Earl of Douglas. Despite the suddenness of the attack, the Scots quickly recovered. [Douglas had actually anticipated something like this occurring. Prior to the appearance of the English, he had ordered his men to construct impromptu wooden barricades in the woods on the outer fringes of the two camps.] Almost immediately, the earl sent a force of spearmen to back up the servants, allowing the remainder of his raiders to arm themselves. Douglas is described in one chronicle as being unable to fully don all his armor. One of his knights, John Dunbar the 1st Earl of Moray, did not have time to put on his helmet "…owing to the confusion of the sudden onslaught of the enemy; so he rushed forward with uncovered face to marshal the line of the battle."

Douglas quickly formed his men, one contingent (essentially the Scottish right wing) under the command of the Earls of March and Moray, was sent toward the sound of the fighting in the servants' camp. This force met the main onslaught of the English right wing. Then Douglas led his left wing in a flanking movement from the lower slopes of Blakeman's Law, using the heavily forested terrain to mask their movements.

"Battle of Chevy Chase" (alternate name for Otterburn); Artist and date of creation unknown; Image courtesy of
"Battle of Chevy Chase" (alternate name for Otterburn)
Artist and date of creation unknown
Image courtesy of

He struck the flank of the English right wing taking them by surprise. The Scots answered their enemy's battle cry with one of their own, "A Douglas! A Douglas!" At about the same time, Sirs Redman and Ogle pushed the Scottish camp followers out of their camp, sending them fleeing for the border. The English left flank pursued the servants like hounds after foxes all the way to the Scottish border, taking at least 65 percent of the total English force out of the fight.

By this point, the sun was near to setting, robbing both sides of light. [The sun usually sets around 8:00 pm at this time of the year in the northern latitudes.] The battle degenerated into a confused melee with men striking out at anything that moved, often hitting a friend as often as a foe. Sometimes the fighting would cease when clouds covered the moon, only to resume when the wind blew the clouds away.

[Froissart had actually spoken to five participants of the battle within a year after it took place, men from both sides. Apparently, one of them said that the only light on the battlefield came from a full moon. It is for this reason that Froissart dates the battle to the 19th of August, as there would have been a new moon on August 5.]

The English superiority in longbowmen was completely negated by the night fighting. The Scots, with a day's rest and relaxation under their belts, dominated the fighting. Eventually, the Scots forced the English to retreat sometime in the wee hours of the morning of August 20. During the confused fighting, Harry Hotspur was captured by the Scots, as was his brother Ralph, who was badly wounded in the leg.

Imaginative depiction of the battle of Otterburn, a late 14th century; Miniature from an edition of Chroniques by Jean Froissart
Imaginative depiction of the battle of Otterburn, a late 14th century
Miniature from an edition of Chroniques by Jean Froissart

When the English force broke, not all of the contingents routed. Several chronicles stated that a few English units withdrew in good order, and even fought back against pursuing Scots. About 100 Scots were killed and another 200 captured in this phase of the battle.

Unaware of the situation at Otterburn, the Bishop of Durham continued his march to the battlefield with reinforcements. They reached Newcastle on the day of the battle. He decided to rest his troops briefly, then set out after dark. After marching only two miles, the Bishop's force met large numbers of English soldiers fleeing the battle. Their panicked reports of the English defeat and rumors that the victorious Scots were in hot pursuit unsettled the advancing force, causing all but about 500 men to flee. The Bishop returned to Newcastle, and gathered more reinforcements — said to be 10,000 men by Froissart, almost surely an exaggeration – and set out again to confront the Scots at Otterburn.

Setting out again on the morning of the 21st, the Bishop's force approached Otterburn, probably on the afternoon of the same day. However, the Scots had received reports of the approaching English reinforcements. They were lined up and ready for the English, blowing horns and shouting abuse and challenges at the advancing enemy. Seeing the discipline of the Scottish force, the Bishop ordered a withdrawal southward, allowing the raiders to return home unmolested.


By the light of the morning sun, according to Froissart, the English losses totaled 1840 men killed, 1000 wounded and 1040 captured – some precise figures, there. Other historians state English casualties were anywhere between 550-1500 killed. Besides Hotspur and his brother Sir Ralph Percy, 21 other English knights were captured by the Scots and held for ransom, as was the custom of the time. As important nobles, both of the Percy brothers commanded considerable ransoms: Hotspur's was 3000 pounds sterling (worth £1.65 million in today's currency), while his younger brother's was £900.

Froissart reckoned the Scottish losses somewhat lighter, at about 100 dead, with another 200 captured, while another chronicler said the Scotts suffered 500 killed. Unfortunately, the Earl of Douglas was struck down early in the battle. His body was found the next morning, naked and stripped of his armor with three spear wounds and a huge gash in his neck. It was not learned generally until after the fight that Douglas probably fell in the heat of battle, and his death was not noticed by his soldiers.

Footnote #1: One of the ballads written about the battle includes a scene where Percy, wishing to surrender to the Earl of Douglas, is directed by a Scottish soldier to a bush. Lying under the shrub was the body of the late Earl of Douglas. This is the origin of the legend of the battle of Otterburn being won by a dead man, when actual credit for the Scottish victory should go to George Dunbar, Earl of March, who led a final contingent of Scottish reinforcements into the fight.

Footnote #2: Despite the obvious foolishness of Sir Henry Percy, he received no official rebuke or reprimand for his conduct at Otterburn. In fact, King Richard and many members of Parliament contributed to Hotspur's ransom. After an official inquiry by the Royal Council, the Bishop of Durham was designated the official scapegoat.

Death of Harry Hotspur at the battle of Shrewsbury, 1402; Illustration by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (1910)
Death of Harry Hotspur at the battle of Shrewsbury, 1402
Illustration by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (1910)

Footnote #3: Despite his service to the British crown, Henry Percy rebelled against Henry IV in 1403. Seeking to merge his forces with Welsh rebels, Hotspur's forces were intercepted and defeated at the battle of Shrewsbury. Hotspur was killed when he raised his helmet's visor to get some air (as he was wearing plate armor which restricted air circulation) and was struck in the mouth with an arrow and died instantly.

Footnote #4: Harry Hotspur was a character in William Shakespeare's historical drama, "Henry IV, Part I."

"Percy Cross," marking site of the main fighting of the battle of Otterburn; Image courtesy of
"Percy Cross," marking site of the main fighting of the battle of Otterburn
Image courtesy of

Footnote #5: Today, about a mile northwest of the village of Otterburn, in a grove of trees north of Highway A696, stands the "Percy Cross," which marks the site of the main action of the battle. The present-day cross was erected in 1777 to replace a standing stone which marked the site of where the Earl of Douglas's body was found.

Footnote #6: Several ballads were composed about this battle. One of them, "The Battle of Otterburn" by Sir Walter Scott, contained the following stanza, supposedly the Earl of Douglas having a premonition of his death prior to the battle. It was used in 1956 as the opening narration to the British World War II spy thriller film, The Man Who Never Was:

But I have dreamed a dreary dream,
From beyond the Isle of Skye,
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I think that man was I.

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