When two boys named Henry and James play “Capture the flag”, it’s not really a big deal.
If Henry and James happened to be grown men, the game might be played with a little more vigor.
If Henry and James happened to be grown men from opposing nations; England and Scotland, now we have a spectacle, like a soccer match.
If Henry and James are nobles in the year 1388, we have a battle.
This week’s Scottish music inspiration comes from my study of Scottish history, specifically the Battle of Otterburn. I’ll begin addressing the music portion first, but I found the story of this battle to be so compelling, that I retold it below using “The Chronicles of Froissart” as my source. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I did!
The Battle of Otterburn is another Child ballad (#161). I’ve posted one other Child ballad on the site already, “Riddles Wisely Expounded”. I highly recommend checking that one out if you have time. The Battle of Otterburn is an extremely long song with 11 verses, and since I will be retelling the story of the battle below, this article will be plenty long. I will spare you the verses, but you can read through them here: The Battle of Otterburn.
The song I chose to feature is by June Tabor, and has more anglicized lyrics, which I found to be easier to understand. You can find those lyrics here: Lyrics to The Battle of Otterburn as sung by June Tabor. I also chose this version because I enjoyed her interpretation and arrangement. If you really like her work you can explore and purchase her music here: June Tabor’s Discography
If you’d prefer to hear a more traditional Scottish rendition, try this one by Tony Cuffe.
Now, on with the story.
Henry “Hotspur” Percy the Earl of Northumberland, and James Douglas the 2nd Earl of Douglas did indeed play what amounts to the ultimate game of capture the flag in 1388, though with more dire consequences. Earlier in the year, Douglas captured Percy’s pennon at a skirmish near Newcastle. At the start of our story, the Scottish are occupying two English cities, Carlisle and Otterburn. (*See note at bottom of the article.)
Percy: Team England (Boooo!)
Douglas: Team Scotland (Yayy!)
Fast forward to the month of August in 1388. Percy, indignant at his defeat, and wishing to reclaim his pennon, sent an invasion party close to the border of Scotland under the pretense of a “hunt”. After scoping out their Scottish enemy, the scouts returned to Percy and reported that their opponent did not have more than 3,000 men defending Otterburn.
That evening over dinner, Percy chats with his buddy the Bishop of Durham (who himself commanded a force of 10,000)—
Bishop: Do you need help with those guys?
Percy: Nah, I got this.
Percy was right to be confident. He had an impressive force of 600 spears, knights and squires, and 8,000 footmen. 8,600 against 3,000? That’s a three to one advantage! Phhft, it’s practically not even a fair fight. Nevertheless, not wanting to waste the “element of surprise” Percy immediately sets out to Otterburn under the cover of night.
Thinking they had stormed the chamber where the Scottish soldiers were sleeping, the Englishmen burst into the lodgings of their enemy yelling “Percy! Percy!”. To their surprise, they found only valets and servants. Where were the soldiers?
Deep within the encampment, the well-organized Scottish soldiers heard the commotion at the entrance. The alarm raised, they had time to arm, outfit, and organize themselves under each of their captains. Silently, with only the bright light of the moon to guide them, the Scottish stole away from their lodgings and went around a hill which gave their position the advantage.
Bring it on, English.
Meanwhile, the English foolishly burrow their way further into the encampment, finding more and more men to busy themselves with, giving the Scottish plenty of time to circumnavigate the hill. The trap was set.
“Douglas!!” Yelled the Scottish, as they leapt upon the surprised Englishmen.
A fierce battle ensued, both sides “envious of who should win the honor of the campaign”. Incredibly, despite all odds, the Scots held their ground, no—they regained their ground! The Earl of Douglas, young, strong, and brave, came forth with his banner and cried, “Douglas, Douglas!” Heartened by the turn of events and the valiance of his men, he pressed into the fray expertly brandishing his axe.
“He went ever forward like a hardy Hector, willing alone to conquer the field and to defeat his enemies: but at last he was encountered with three spears all at once, the one struck him on the shoulder, the other on the breast and the stroke glinted down to his belly, and the third strake him in the thigh, and sore hurt with all three strokes, so that he was borne perforce to the earth and after that he could not be again relieved.” –Froissart
On the bright side (or rather in this case, the dark side, since it was nighttime), neither English nor Scot saw who had just been felled. Had they known that the fallen solider was the Earl himself, the battle might have turned out much differently—the English celebrate the victory, the Scots flee—demoralized by their fallen leader.
Douglas’ man-at-arms John Sinclair, who was in close pursuit of Douglas saw his master fall, and rushed to his side.
Douglas: John, take up my banner and fight. Do not tell anyone that I am dead!
He took up the banner, and with his comrades around him, fought the English back beyond where the Earl lay, who was by then, dead.
Across the battlefield, Percy was engaged in hand-to-hand combat against a Scottish knight, Lord Montgomery. They fought for so long, that when the Scottish forces had reclaimed their ground, Percy was surrounded and was forced to surrender. He was taken prisoner by Montgomery.
Percy got spanked, and the Scots have their victory, again.
Even though the Englishmen were in greater numbers than the Scots, Percy made a tactical error—his forces had traveled that same day from Newcastle, a full six miles. Without stopping to rest, they ambushed fresh and well-rested Scots. If you learn one thing from this tale, don’t ambush a fresh and well-rested Scotsman.
The Englishmen yield, and I am quite amazed to see how sportsmanlike these two armies are to each other in the aftermath.
“the Scots were courteous and set them to their ransom, and every man said to his prisoner: ‘Sirs, go and unarm you and take your ease; I am your master’: and so made their prisoners as good cheer as though they had been brethren, without doing to them any damage.” –Froissart
This story isn’t over yet, though. Remember the Bishop of Durham? The guy with an army of 10,000? Yeah, he’s pissed off.
Upon hearing the news that Percy is under duress, he called up 7,000 of his men, and stormed out of Newcastle, determined to squash the Scottish vermin. Two miles out of Newcastle, the Bishop meets an English soldier with the Scottish hot on their trail.
Bishop: I demand to know how the battle is going.
Englishman: Terribly, sir. We are all defeated, and here come the Scots right now!
Upon hearing this, the Bishop hesitated. It is still nighttime, and visibility is poor. He turned to his advisors and asked:
Bishop: What should we do? Do we fight now and risk getting killed?
Advisors: *shrug* I dunno, man.
Bishop: Well the longer we stand here and do nothing, the more likely we’ll get killed. We can’t do anything to help Percy right now. Let’s just go home and try again in the morning.
(They are super helpful advisors.)
The next morning, the Bishop set out to Otterburn again with his army, now 10,000 men strong. Two miles out of Newcastle, the Bishop’s men are spotted by a Scottish spy, who hasted back to Otterburn to raise the alarm.
At Otterburn, the Scots debate what to do. Should they relinquish their hold on Otterburn and run away? Or stay and fight?
What a silly question. Stay and fight, of course!
They drew their forces together in such a way that there was only one entry. They put all the prisoners together and made them promise that, rescue or no rescue, they should be their prisoners. After everything was prepared, they told all their minstrels to play as loudly as they could, “Make it sound like the biggest party in the world is happening right here, guys.”
“The foot-men bear about their necks horns in manner like hunters, some great, some small, and of all sorts, so that when they blow all at once, they make such a noise, that it may be heard nigh four miles off. They do this to frighten their enemies and to cheer themselves.” –Froissart
This tactic was not lost on the Bishop of Durham. By the time the Englishmen were within a mile of Otterburn, it seemed that all the devils in hell were among them. When the Bishop was within two bow-shots, the Scots blew their horns again, long, loud, and mighty.
The bishop sized up his opponent. He realized that the Scots had strong ground, and it was to their advantage. If he engaged, the English might actually lose. Frustrated, he turned away, doing nothing.
When the Scots saw the Englishmen retreat and realized that there would be no battle, they went to their lodgings and partied hearty.
In all, 1,040 English were captured and 1,860 killed. The Scots fared much better; only 200 Scots were captured and 500 were killed. The Scots prepared to leave Otterburn with Percy and 40+ knights in their custody.
On their way home, they stopped at Melrose, an abbey of black monks on the border between both realms. There the soldiers rested and buried the Earl James Douglas. A reverent funeral was given, they laid a tomb of stone on his body, and hung his banner over him.
The soldiers all went their separate ways to their own homes. Some had prisoners, and those were ransomed. “The Englishmen found the Scots courteous and gentle in their deliverance.” It is said that the Scots raised 200,000 franks from the ransoms during this campaign, far more than any of the major Scottish campaigns prior.
When news came to the other company of the Scots that were occupying Carlisle, they were elated and disappointed they had not been at Otterburn to fight. This force also decided to dislodge and to draw into their own country.
Conclusion? Not necessarily a “happily ever after”, but such a decisive victory by the Scots kept the two sides apart for some time, and that’s good enough. Besides, Scottish people can never pass up an opportunity to poke a little fun at their English neighbors.
And just remember—don’t ambush a fresh and well-rested Scotsman.
Sources & Notes:
- The Chronicles of Froissart, Pages 370 – 380
- * Refer to the map at the beginning. I wanted to draw attention to the distance between Otterburn & Newcastle. In the story, Percy and the Bishop traipse back and forth between these two locations within the span of a single evening, which is impossible for a force of 8,000-10,000. It’s 30 miles, and Foissart says it’s only 6 miles. Either this event happened over several days, or the cities are wrong.