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Otterburn or Chevy Chase


COTLAND had determined on an in vasion of England, but hearing that the people of Northumberland were assembling an army on the eastern frontier, thought it better to let the Earl of Douglas, with four or five thousand men, attempt a smaller incursion, and achieve what he could.

Douglas, with this comparatively small force, crossed the mountainous borders of England, and issued forth near Newcastle, slaying, plundering, burning, and loading his army with spoil, as was the manner of these Border wars. The Earl of Northumberland, long used to this kind of warfare, sent his two sons, Sir Henry Percy (Hotspur) and Sir Ralph, to Newcastle to defend the town.

The brothers threw themselves into the place, and as, soon after, the Scottish earl drew out his followers before the walls with insolent defiance, the English sallied out to skirmish with them. Douglas and Hotspur encountered each other hand to hand, and it chanced that Douglas, during the struggle, got possession of Hotspur's spear, to the end of which was attached a small flag embroidered with pearls, on which was emblazoned a lion, the cognizance of the house of Percy.

Douglas shook the trophy aloft, and declared that he would take it into Scotland, and hang it over his castle of Dalkeith.

"That," said Percy, "shalt thou never do; I will regain my lance ere thou canst get back into Scotland."

"Then," said Douglas, "come to seek it, and thou shalt find it before my tent."

It is unnecessary to say that this conversation must have taken place from the walls, after the Percies had re-entered the town.

The Scots' army having completed the purpose of their invasion, began to retreat up the vale of the little river Reed, which, by a tolerable road, led to the frontiers of the two kingdoms.

They encamped at Otterburn, a place about twenty miles from the frontier, on August 19th, 1388.

The Scots were roused at midnight by the sentinels, who brought tidings that the English were approaching, and, rushing hastily from his tent, Douglas perceived by the moonlight Hotspur advancing, with a body of men equal, or superior in number, to his own. Percy had already crossed the river, and was marching towards the left flank of the Scots.

Douglas drew his men out of the camp at once, and with great military skill rapidly changed the position of his army, presenting its front to the English. Hotspur, meantime, marched through the deserted camp, where he found only a few servants and stragglers, and the English believed that the Scots had deserted their camp and retreated. They were a little disordered when the moon, coming from behind a cloud, showed them the army of their foes drawn up in order of battle. The fight commenced with great fury, the soldiers on either side shouting "A Percy, a Percy," or "A Douglas, a Douglas," as the case might be. For the names of these warriors were so famous that each array trusted in the skill and courage of its leader. The Scots were outnumbered, and were giving way, when Douglas ordered his banner to advance, attended by his best men.

Douglas, himself shouting his war-cry, rushed forward, clearing a road with blows from his battle-axe, and bursting into the thickest of the fight. But at length he fell under three mortal wounds. Had his death been known, the Scots would probably have been discouraged and defeated but the English did not recognise him, and only thought some gallant man at arms had fallen, for Douglas had rushed out of his tent at the first alarm without his helmet.

The Scottish nobles had, however, followed him, and found him dying among his faithful squires and pages, who lay slain around him. A brave priest, named William of North Berwick, stood defending the dying warrior with a long lance.

"How fares it, cousin?" asked Sinclair, the first friend who reached him.

"Indifferently," answered Douglas, "but blessed be God, my ancestors have died on fields of battle, and not on down beds. I sink fast, but let them still cry my warcry, and conceal my death from my followers. There was a tradition in our family that a dead Douglas should win a field, and I trust that this day it will be accomplished." 1

The nobles obeyed him; they covered the dead earl with ferns, and again rushed into the battle, shouting, "A Douglas, a Douglas!"

"Hosts have been known at that dread sound to yield; And Douglas dead, his name has won the field."

Both Hotspur and his gallant brother had meantime been taken prisoners, and scarcely any man amongst the English escaped death or captivity.

Hotspur became the captive of Sir Hugh Montgomery, who obliged him to build a castle for him as his ransom.

The battle was disastrous to both sides, the Percies being taken and the Douglas slain.

Otterburn has been the subject of many songs, and Froisant says that, with one exception, it was the best fought battle of that period of hard blows.

Chevy Chase

Chevy Chase is probably only a fiction founded on Otterburn. In the ballad, Percy makes a vow that he will enter Scotland, and hunt deer in the Border woods belonging to Douglas for three summer days. "Tell him," said Douglas, when the vow was repeated to him, "that he will find one day more than enough." At haymaking time Percy kept his word, and marched across the Border with 1,500 chosen archers and greyhounds for the chase. The hunt went on merrily, and Percy gazed on the slain deer, and ate venison hastily dressed in the greenwood; then he said to his archers: "Douglas is not come, and we have kept our vow: let us now be gone." But one of his squires at that moment announced the sudden appearance of Earl Douglas, with 2,000 Scottish spears attending him. Douglas haughtily inquires what men they are who slay his fallow deer. The Percy answers him, they will not tell him; Douglas recognising him, defies him to mortal combat, and Percy accepts the challenge. Springing from their steeds, they draw their swords.

"Then stepped a gallant squire forth,
Witherington was his name;
Who said, 'I would not have it told
To Henry our king for shame,

'That e'er my captain fought on foot,
And I stood looking on;
You are two earls,' said Witherington,
'And I a squire alone.

'I'll do the best that do I may,
While I have power to stand;
While I have power to wield my sword,
I'll fight with heart and hand.'

This doughty squire kept his word so well, that we are told in the ballad:

"When his legs were shot away,
He fought upon his stumps."

The English bowmen followed his lead, and his words closed in a flight of arrows.

Douglas and his spearmen at once charged on the archers, who then engaged with sword and axe. The leaders met in in the midst of the conflict: "Yield thee, Percy," cried Douglas; "yield thee; I will freely pay thy ransom, and thy advancement shall be high with our Scottish king!"

"'No. Douglas,' quoth Earl Percy then,
'Thy proffer I do scorn,
I would not yield to any Scot
That ever yet was born.'

With that there came an arrow keen
Out of an English bow,
Which struck Earl Douglas to the heart
A deep and deadly blow."

"Fight on, my merry men," cried the dying Douglas; and Percy, much affected, took his hand and said, "Earl Douglas, I would give all my land to save thee; a more redoubted knight never perished by such a chance."

The fall of Douglas was seen by one of his devoted followers, who at once hastened to avenge him.

"Sir Hugh 'Montgomery was he called,
Who with a spear most bright,
And mounted on a gallant steed,
Rode fiercely through the fight.

He passed the English archers all
Without or dread or fear,
And through Earl Percy's fair bodie
He thrust his hateful spear."

An English archer's arrow avenges Percy's fall; and in spite of the death of the leaders the battle continues to the break of day, and but few of either side returned home.

This greatly resembles the battle won by a dead Douglas, when Percy was taken prisoner by Sir Hugh Montgomery, but the tragedy is much deeper in the ballad than in the reality.

The pennon and spear of Percy in either case were carried to Montgomery's Castle of Eglinton, and it is said that when a late Duke of Northumberland asked for their restoration, Lord Eglinton replied, "There is as good lea land here as at Chevy Chase; let Percy come and take them."

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1. Sir Walter Scott.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004