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Death in a field of peas: Shakespeare and the Battle of Shrewsbury

Battle of ShrewsburyNot far from Shrewsbury is its Battlefield Enterprise Park, where Shakespeare Comic Books are warehoused and distributed. And not far from Battlefield Enterprise Park are a few pleasantly undulating but nondescript fields dotted with woodland. Six hundred years ago this was the site of one of the bloodiest battles fought on English soil.

The Battle of Shrewsbury took place in a field of peas on July 21, 1403. It saw Henry IV defeat a rebel army led by Harry Hotspur and thus helped secure his monarchy – viewed by many as a usurpation following Richard II’s overthrow and possible murder. It also closes Henry IV Part 1, having shown Hal move from dissipated companion of whores and drunks to heroic prince.

The play depicts a kingdom in turmoil in which the disorderliness represented by Hal’s fat friend, Falstaff, reflects a more dangerous political instability. For while Henry IV is threatened by numerous insurrections, Falstaff is in rebellion against any kind of order. He is supreme Lord of Misrule; drunken, lecherous, false, cowardly and greedy, yet full of wit, charm and gusto. As such he is the counterpart to Henry’s constrained and inflexible character.

Henry probably wasn’t the man you needed if you were after a roistering night out, but in fairness he had other things on his mind. Having previously fought against both the Welsh and Scots on his king’s behalf, Hotspur had turned against Henry and allied himself with both Owen Glendower and Archibald Douglas. These plots and manoeuvrings are in part mirrored by Hal’s scheme to expose Falstaff’s blustering falsehoods with the attack at Gadshill. The play is thus both history and comedy, culminating with the Battle of Shrewsbury, but the depiction of it is sketchy and disposed of in only a few hundred lines.

This isn’t too surprising. Even a stage crowded with extras could never replicate full scale conflict. Instead it is represented by a series of combat encounters between Blunt and Douglas, Douglas and the King, Prince Hal and Hotspur and flurries of conversation between Douglas and Hotspur, the King and Hal amongst others, all building a sense of the speed and movement of battle – though any sense of chivalrous enterprise undercut by Falstaff’s cowardice and comic subterfuge.

As in the play, the actual battle was preceded by a parley between the two camps and fighting didn’t begin until around 4pm. When it finally commenced, it did so with volleys of arrows fired from either side – the Battle of Shrewsbury was
the first in which both armies were equipped with English longbow men. Tens of thousands of arrows would have twanged into the air within minutes and huge numbers of men killed even before they had entered the fray.

Medieval clashes tended to be intensely brutal but short in duration since fighting in full armour on a hot day was simply too exhausting. Four hours after it had begun, the battle was over. It was decided by the death of Hotspur, shot in the head by an arrow. For while Shakespeare was following historical sources in portraying the fight between Scottish rebel Douglas and Sir Walter Blount, who was carrying the royal standard, there was no recorded duel between the two Harrys.

It’s easy to see why Shakespeare should have paired them together, since just as Henry IV and Falstaff represent Hal’s opposing father figures, the two Harrys stand as opposites throughout the play – not least in Henry’s estimation. While he sees Hotspur as the ‘very straightest plant’ and ‘Fortune’s minion and her pride’ he considers his son stained with ‘riot and dishonour’ and hopes it could be proved ‘That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged/In cradle-clothes our children where they lay.’

In the play the Good Harry becomes Bad Harry while the old Bad Harry kills the new Bad Harry, so becoming the new Good Harry. Literature can do this sort of thing. In real life there was more than a twenty year age gap between them, Hal only sixteen in 1403 while Hotspur was a veteran of wars against the French, Scots, Irish and Welsh.

There was, though, a grimmer symmetry since both Harrys were struck down by arrows at Shrewsbury. In Hal’s case, the teenager was hit in the cheek and since the barbed tip meant it could not be simply withdrawn, desperate measures were needed. This involved a metal tube being inserted six inches into the wound around the arrow head, which could then be pulled out without tearing the flesh. The injured area was afterwards bathed with white wine and dressed by the Physician General with a mixture of honey, barley, flour and flax fibres. Harry survived, though horribly scarred.

It is not entirely co-incidence that both Harry’s were shot in the head, as knights were occasionally obliged to lift their visors to refresh themselves. Encased in full armour weighing up to sixty pounds after several hours of fighting on a hot day, the occupant must have been sweltering. Yet removing the helmet or lifting its visor would have exposed them to extreme danger and it is said archers positioned in trees were trained to take advantage of such vulnerability – though even randomly fired arrows would have been a threat.

The problems of armour on a hot day were alluded to by Prince Harry in Henry IV Part II when he is at his dying father’s bedside. Contemplating the two-sided nature of kingship, he says that majesty is like ‘a rich armour worn in heat of day/That scalds with safety’. The image is typical Shakespeare – brilliantly observed, concise, vivid and yet almost casual -‘Scalds with safety’ an extraordinary reminder that wearing a suit of metal in the height of summer may have been a form of torture, however also protecting.

Although at about 12,000 men, Hotspur’s army was slightly smaller than Henry’s of 14,000 it appeared to be winning at the time of his death. Once it became known that the rebel leader had been killed, however, the battle rapidly came to end. Six thousand men had lost their lives, almost a quarter of all those who had taken to the field. The bodies of knights would have been retrieved and returned to their families for burial. Those of the commoner sort were thrown into hastily dug pits, the ground consecrated and they left to rot.

Hotspur’s corpse was buried by his nephew, Thomas Nevill, in nearby Whitchurch – but once rumours began to circulate he was still alive, Henry ordered it to be exhumed and moved to Shrewsbury. It was then displayed in the market place at the top of Pride Hill and later dismembered.

At the same time, the Earl of Worcester, Sir Richard Venables, Sir Richard Vernon and Sir Henry Boynton, all captured rebels, were hanged, drawn and quartered. This means that while hanging, they were emasculated and their stomachs were ripped open, their entrails thrust into their faces. They were then taken from the gallows, beheaded, their limbs hacked off and their heads placed on public view – the earl’s on London Bridge.

The object was clearly terror. Henry wished all who plotted against him to know what fate would befall them. Had he had access to social media, he doubtless would have posted footage on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Lacking the technology, he instead had Hotspur’s body parts sent to Chester, Bristol, London and Newcastle and his head placed on a spike on the North Gate in York.

Today, Pride Hill is a busy pedestrianized shopping area with arcades, fast food outlets, Big Issue sellers and the occasional busker. It’s hard to imagine that only six long lifetimes separate us from the gruesome scenes of July 23 1403, or that rebels fleeing the battle were hunted down in the surrounding villages and slaughtered.

The events are commemorated by a plaque on a cross at the top of Pride Hill and Harry Hotspur’s name has been given to a pub which specialises in Chinese cuisine in Harlescott Lane. The Battlefield Enterprise Park where Shakespeare Comic Books are warehoused by NRG Direct Mail Ltd is a large place with buildings occupied by upholsterers, accountants, garages, beauticians and surveyors amongst others. It is to be found at 7 Knight’s Park, Hussey Road – the latter named after Richard Hussey, owner of Harlescott Manor on whose land the battle was fought.

Should the Shakespeare Comic Book Company thrive, I hope one day to add Henry IV Part I to its list of titles, that it might be despatched from near the field its final action portrays. If so, the book would be dedicated to my old tutor, Dr Alan Charity. Having read the passage in which the Boar’s Head is raided by the Sheriff and his ‘monstrous watch’ he paused in our tutorial to draw from this scene the moral ‘that one should always be polite to policeman’. Doubtless he felt I needed the advice. Clearly there is much to be learned from the study of Eng. Lit.

  1. Photo taken in 2003 at six hundredth anniversary re-enactment of battle.



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