The fifteenth century witnessed many of the bloodiest battles fought on British soil as conflicts raged between warring factions for the English crown. Names from the later part of the century, such as Towton, Tewkesbury and Bosworth Field will be well known to many. The battle of Shrewsbury may be much less familiar but it was a decisive turning point in the earlier years of the reign of Henry IV. The story of the early years of Henry’s reign is both dramatic and compelling. John Barratt’s gripping narrative is an eloquent testimony to the events of the time and deserves a very wide readership.
John Barratt’s account places the accession of Henry Bolingbroke in to context – his early life, the deposition of Richard II and the lasting influence that Richard was to have on his life, the Percy family, including Henry, Earl of Northumberland and his son, Sir Henry, nicknamed “Hotspur”. Much of the story is dominated by the struggle against the Welsh, led by Owain Glyn Dwr (“Owen Glendower”) and, to a lesser extent, the Scots. In addition to the battle of Shrewsbury, the book also includes two of the battles that preceded it : the Battle of Pilleth (Bryn Glas”) in 1402 against the Welsh and the Battle of Homildon Hill, also in 1402, against the Scots.
We gain detailed insights in to the characters of the main protagonists, their motivation, their allegiances. Running like continuous threads throughout the story are the underlying themes which are the major reasons for the discord and lack of trust. These include the desire of the Welsh to establish independence from English rule, the frustration of the Percy family that in their eyes Henry had usurped the throne in place of the Mortimers, descendants of Edward III’s second, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and perhaps above all, Henry’s own shortage of funds.
As the battles themselves are such a dominant component of the book, the author is at pains to explain in some detail the methods of fighting, the tactics used and the weaponry involved. Whilst a section on the armies of the English, the Scots and the Welsh is included in the main body of the text in the first “background” section, so as not to interrupt the narrative, much of this material is included in “textboxes” which are neatly constructed sub-sections and which can be read independently of the main text. These include helpful explanations of such items as the term “chevauchée” , the “Arrow storm” and siege warfare. The author’s authoritative style comes over clearly and he makes telling use of contemporary comment. For example, what he describes as the “rebel manifesto” presented to Henry IV before the Battle of Shrewsbury is quoted in detail and its part in the narrative is such that the reader knows that only one outcome can follow – the battle itself.
In addition to a helpful bibliography, the reader’s enjoyment is enhanced by the inclusion of very helpful maps, outlining the movement of troops and positions on the battlefields. Inaccuracies would appear to be very few: the date of the death of Henry IV, whilst correct (1413) on the first page of photographs, is incorrectly stated as 1410 in the “Chronology”; also, on page 25, when dealing with a lack of financial support for the Percys from Henry, reference is made to Richard I when sense determines that the king in question is Richard II. The one serious omission however, at least in the eye of this reviewer, is a detailed family tree of the later Plantagenets. The inclusion of such a table for reference would have made the issue of the Mortimer claim to the throne much clearer and thereby enhanced the understanding and enjoyment of the reader.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” is the concluding line of a soliloquy of a sleep deprived, care-worn Henry IV in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part Two (Act III, Sc 1) and is a quotation to which the author makes oblique reference. It could have served as a sub-title to this extremely readable and very enjoyable account of the struggles of a troubled king in a fascinating period of English history.
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