Battle of Otterburn

The Battle of Otterburn took place according to Scottish sources on 5 August 138812, or 19 August according to English sources34, as part of the continuing border war between England and Scotland.

A Spy in the Chapel

In 1388, news of internal troubles in England reached Scotland. King Richard II was far away dealing with his rebellious subjects, and it seemed like an ideal time to the Scots for a large scale border foray, though probably not for a full scale war.

The Scottish Army mustered at Jedburgh on the 5th August 1388, and in order to keep their war plans secret the Scottish leaders retired to a nearby church in order to confer. The English were not unaware that something big was about to happen, and had meanwhile despatched a squire to obtain information on the Scottish plans. The squire, who had suitably disguised himself, entered the church whilst the meeting was in progress, and heard all their plans. On leaving the church however, the spy was alarmed to find that his horse had been stolen. Deciding that it would be better not to make to much of a fuss, the squire set off on foot, but the sight of a man of the cloth wearing boots and spurs setting off to invade England alone was sure to arouse suspicion, and he was quickly apprehended.

Under interrogation (and one can imagine how that was done in Medieval days) our luckless spy was persuaded to reveal the English plan, which was to let the Scottish army pass, and then to slip behind them to wreak havoc in the rear, which would bring the Scottish Army back, giving the English time to recruiit a larger army.

Greatly pleased with this information the Scottish leaders resolved to thwart the English plans by launching two invasion, one in the west led by the Earl of Fife to attack Carlisle, whilst an Eastern force of 3000 men-at-arms and 2000 infantry, led by the young Earl of Douglas was to head towards Durham.

Young Douglas' force set off rapidly through Northumberland scarcely pausing to destroy, but on reaching Durham they set about burning, slaughtering and pillaging the city before setting off back to Scotland with their spoils. Meanwhile the English who had thought that Douglas' force was only the vanguard of the entire Scottish Army, and had planned to give battle in south Durham or North Yorkshire were taken completely by surprise by the Scottish tactics.

Percy's Pennon

Should you think that things were not going particularly well for the English, then read on, things were going to get worse…Much worse.

Laden with their loot the Scottish raiders made their way slowly back towards their homeland. The Percy family of Alnwick Castle were old rivals of the Douglases, and any confrontation between these two families was sure to cause trouble. On receiving news of the Scottish raid Lord Percy despatched his two sons, Sir Henry and his brother Ralph to Newcastle to raise the town against the invaders. Arriving at Newcastle the two brothers found that the Scots were resting outside of the town.

For two days fierce skirnishing raged. Fierce Hand-to-Hand fighting to defend the barricades, and the two Percy brothers were in the heat of fighting. In a particularly hot skirmish the Scots managed to take Sir Henry's Pennon (a long triagular flag carried on a lance which served as the rallying point for the Knights's followers). Defiantly James Douglas taunted Sir Henry to come and take the Pennon back.

Sir, I shall bear this token of your prowess into Scotland and shall set it high on my castle of Dalkeith,that it may be seen far off.

This naturally enraged Sir Henry who publicly vowed to recover the Pennon. His fellow Knights however, fearing that this would lead into an ambush coucilled caution. The next day the Scots departed leaving the still angry Sir Henry still determined to regain his Pennon.

For the next few days the Scots continued on their way home, burning and pillageing as they went. At last they stopped at Otterburn to attack the Castle there. This was the chance that Sir Henry had been waiting for. Leading his Army out of Newcastle he hastily chased after Douglas, meaning to bring him to Battle at the earliest moment.

The Battle

The Percy and the Dowglas mette,
That eyher of other was fayne;
They struck together, whyll that the swette,
With swords of fyne Cologne.

Sir Henry Percy and his army arrived before the Scottish camp on the evening of the 19th August. So far he had acted cautiously as many of his followers feared that they were marching into a trap, but once there Sir Henry did not hesitate. The Scottish camp was concealed in a wood and Percy did not realise how close he was until the alarm was sounded.

As night fell, Percy had to decide whether to attack immediately or risk the Scots slipping away or that Douglas might receive reinforcements during the night. The ambitious plan that he came up with was to devide his force. One wing was to march around the Scottish Camp to attack it from the North, whilst he himself would lead the other wing on an assault from the South. A night attack through woods with a devided force is not the most intelligent of plans-and so it proved to be.

Percy's men surged forth, only to find that instead of being the main Scottish camp they were in fact attacking only the baggage park. The few guards there being quickly despatched, but the main Scottish camp lay some way off to the North West.

Douglas, for his part, hearing the sound on conflict acted promptly. A detatchment was sent off directly to hold up any further English advance, whilst Douglas himself led a large force 'from about a mountain' to fall on the English right flank. The fighting was bitter and the English, though hard pressed, fought with relentless courage.

Meanwhile, the other wing of the English army, having gone to far in the dark, eventually arrived at the main Scottish camp only to find it empty. Umfraville, the leader of this wing then led his men towards the sound of battle raging to the south, arriving on the English right flank, by then a disorganised melee of intermixed English and Scots combatants. The extra numbers now began to tell in favour of the English. Douglas, seeing his men now being pushed back, took his battle-axe and with his followers charged straight into the English mass. Taking out man after man he was finally encounted by three spears at once, and was there slain. A shout went up follow Douglas and the Scots countercharged. The fighting was again fierce but this time the Scots prevailed. Sir Ralph was wounded and taken prisoner by Sir John Maxwell, whilst Sir Henry was defeated in a hard fought duel with the Lord of Montgomery , and was taken prisoner too.

The fighting continued for a little while longer, but with their main leaders captured the battle was all but won. Many of the English Nobles were captured to be held for ransom. All bar Sir Matthew Redman of Berwick, who seeing the battle lost, took to his horse and departed to save himself. He was not to get very far…

Sir Matthew, Sir James and the Bishop

Ah, sir knight, turn; it is a shame thus to fly: I am Sir James of Lindsay: if ye will not turn, I shall strike you on the back with my spear.

When Sir Matthew left the field of battle his departure was noted by a Scottish Knight, Sir James Lindsay, who set off in pursuit, taunting the fleeing Sir Matthew for more than three miles. Eventually, Sir Matthew's horse foundered and fell under him. Taking courage he now drew his sword and prepared to meet his adversary. Sir James thrust with his spear, but Sir Matthew dodged out of the way. Sir James dismounted and took hold of his battle-axe that he carried on his back whilst mounted. They fought for some time, one with axe and the other with sword, until a couple of blows by Sir James winded his opponent, who was forced to yield.

Sir James Lindsay, I yield me to you

They then agreed that Sir Matthew would return to Newcastle and within fifteen days return to Scotland to pay Sir James his ransom. And with that agreement they remounted their horses and took leave of each other.

Sir James had not ridden more than half a mile in the dark and mist when he himself ran slap bang into the path of the Bishop of Durham with 500 English troopers. The Bishop had come north leading 10,000 English soldiers with the intention oj joining forces with Percy, but arriving at the battlefield with only his advance guard, and seeing that the battle was already lost, had decided to return to Newcastle to await the arrival of the remainder of his army. Taken prisoner himself Sir James was escorted with the Bishop into Newcastle. When Sir Matthew heard that his 'Master' was in Newcastle he went immediately to the Bishop's lodgings to visit him. As both were now technically prisoners (ie Sir Matthew to Sir James, and Sir James to the Bishop) they agreed between themselves that the former ransom was now null and void, and so that night dined together as equals.


When the Scots heard that the Bishop of Durham with 10,000 men was approaching they released the majority of their captives (including the wounded Sir Ralph) under promise of ransom to be paid. However the Bishop failed to attack, and so with their loot and more important prisoners returned home bearing the body of their young leader.


  • Seymour, William. Battles in Britain 1066-1746. Wordsworth Publishing, 1997
  • Warner, Philip. Fontana British Battlefields (The North). Fontana Publishing, 1975

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