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Battle of Otterburn



Battle of Otterburn
Reconstruction by Andrew Spratt


The Battle of Otterburn took place on the 5 August 1388, as part of the continuing border skirmishes between the Scottish and English.

There are varying accounts of a battle that took place in 1388. One version is that of a large hunting party upon a parcel of hunting land (or chase) in the Cheviot Hills, hence the term, Chevy Chase. The hunt is led by Percy, the English Earl of Northumberland. The Scottish Earl of Douglas had forbidden this hunt, and interprets it as an invasion of Scotland. In response he attacks, causing a bloody battle which only 110 people survived.

The best remaining record of the battle is from Jean Froissart's Chronicles in which he claims to have interviewed veterans from both sides of the battle. His account is still regarded with some concern as details, such as the distance between Newcastle upon Tyne and Otterburn, are incorrect.

The Scottish James Douglas, 2nd Earl of Douglas decided to lead a raid—one of a continuing series on both sides of the border—into English territory. It was timed to take advantage of divisions on the English side between Lord Neville and Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland who had just taken over defence of the border.

The Scots divided their forces with the main force and their baggage train heading towards Carlisle while a raiding party including Earl Douglas ravaged the countryside around Durham and Newcastle. Henry Percy sent his two sons Henry "Hotspur" Percy and Ralph to engage while he stayed at Alnwick to cut off the marauders' retreat.

Froissart says that the first fighting included a meeting of the Earl Douglas and Henry Percy in hand to hand combat, in which Percy's pennon was captured. Douglas then moved off destroying the castle at Ponteland and besieging Otterburn castle. Percy attacked Douglas' encampment with a surprise attack in the late afternoon but first encountered the Earl's serving men, giving the bulk of the forces time to muster and attack them on their flank.

During the battle on a moon-lit night Douglas was killed and the Percys were both captured, with the remaining English force retreating to Newcastle. Despite Percy's force having an estimated three to one advantage over the Scots Froissart records 1040 English were captured and 1860 killed whereas 200 Scots were captured and 100 were killed. The Westminister Chronicle gives a more reliable estimate of Scottish casualties as being around 500 or so. When the Bishop of Durham advanced from Newcastle with 10,000 men he was so impressed by the ordered appearance of the Scottish force, the din they set up with their horns, and their seemingly unassailable position, that he declined to attack.

Such a decisive victory kept the two sides apart for some time. In 1402 the Earl Douglas' cousin attempted to emulate his great victory and hopefully survive but the Battle of Humbleton Hill was almost an exact reverse of Otterburn and a great defeat for the Scots.

Of such renown was the battle of Otterburn that several ballads were composed in its honour including The Battle of Otterburn and The Ballad of Chevy Chase (Child ballads 161 and 162). Chevy Chase rather mangles the history of the battle and may be confusing other conflicts at around the same time but it is still cited as one of the best of the ancient ballads.

Cartoon - Douglas lying dead under a bush Hotspur pennon Battle of Otterburn
The battle of Otterburn: won by a dead man  Percy's pennon - click to enlarge The Death of Douglas and Capture of Sir Ralph Percy by Sir John Maxwell
Painted by by Samuel West; held in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.
Pennant of James, 2nd Earl of Douglas
2nd Earl at Otterburn
The Earl at Otterburn - Cigarette card
Skirmish line at the battle of Otterburn - S. Walsh (Above)
The Earl of Douglas's body being removed from the battlefield - S. Walsh (Above)
Percy's Cross
Percy's Cross, in the woods of Otterburn 
The morning after the battle, the site where Sir James Douglas, Earl of Douglas had been slain was marked with a standing stone. This remained in place until 1777 when Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland expressed an interest in building a monument to the battle concurrent with construction of the Turnpike Road. The relevant landowner however didn’t trust the Duke but agreed to do the work himself and removed the battle stone to form the foundations of the new monument. This he erected closer to the road so it could be visible to passers-by and reduce any interference from the Duke.
The battle continued by moonlight and the Scottish leader, the 2nd Earl Douglas, was mortally wounded. He was worried that his death would encourage the English, so he told his men to hide his body beneath a bush so nobody could see it.

The battle of Otterburn: won by a dead man When Percy offered to capitulate, he was directed surrender to the bush under which Douglas was lying and so the battle became famous because it was won by a dead man.











See also:
•  The Otterburn video
•  Southdean Church - where the planning meeting was held 

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Location: Northumberland. W of village & n of A696 or s of village nr Elsdon at Battle Hill 

Amongst the trees at the side of the A999, just beyond Otterburn is the Douglas Cross which is believed to be the spot where Percy was killed. 

There is parking there and information boards relating to the Battle.

The battle stone is 150 metres east of Percy's Cross

See also:
•  Map of the battlefield

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Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024