Sunday, 12 May 2013

Shakespeare and Shrewsbury. What's the Link?

One of Shakespeare’s plays has its grand finale here in Shrewsbury. Not many people seem to know that. The play is Henry IV Part I, and its dramatic climax takes place out at Battlefields and is one of the pivotal moments in English military history, being the point at which the long bow really came into its own. All the key political figures of the day were in that play [not to say anything of on that battlefield].  King Henry IV was there, riding out from Shrewsbury Castle to take up position in a pea-field, along with his son and heir, the hapless Prince Hal, who would one day have a personality transplant and become the Henry V of Agincourt fame. The scion of the ambitious Percy family, Harry Hotspur, was there.  Lord Edmund Mortimer was there, descendant of Edward III, tied by marriage alliance into the Percy family.  Even that great Welsh hero, Owen Glendower, who Shakespeare famously accused of ‘calling forth spirits from the vasty deeps’ was there [though not for long – he came as far as Bicton Water Tower apparently, saw the lie of the land and turned back].

And Sir John Falstaff was there.  Not that he was a key player on any other stage than Shakespeare’s.  But on that stage he’s reckoned, alongside Hamlet, to be one of Shakespeare’s two greatest characters.   Imagine it - a character of that stature in the works of Shakespeare, and connected to our town.

I think that’s something worth shouting about, but I don’t hear anybody doing any shouting.  At the very least it’s something to know about.  I bet everybody in Elsinore knows about Hamlet, yet here on the killing fields of Shrewsbury, where the great Sir John Falstaff even went so far as to fake his own death, do I ever hear anybody talking about it, or mentioning the connection, or naming their pub after this most famous of Shakespearean drinkers?  No I don’t.   

So what’s the story behind the Battle of Shrewsbury? I’m no historian, but here’s the gist of it.  Back in 1399 when Henry Bolingbroke [named after the place of his birth, Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire] usurped the throne of England from his one-time playmate and cousin, Richard II, becoming King Henry IV, he did it with help from the powerful Percy family. However, arguments and rivalries quickly broke out and the Percys started planning rebellion. In particular they wanted to put the under-age Earl of March – another of Henry’s cousins in the Plantagenet line - on the throne in Bolingbroke’s place, pulling in an alliance of lords, including the man known to many as the ‘Welsh Prince’, Owen Glendower, all of whom were linked to each other by marriage.

Complicated?  Well, you should see Henry IV’s family tree. [] His great, great grandfather was the mighty Edward I, his father John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and King of Castile.  His uncle was the Black Prince, and his grandfather started the Hundred Years War.  And that’s only a small handful of the men in the family. There were more kings, queens, princes, princesses, lords, ladies, rivals and coups in the making in the Plantagenet family than there are stalls in Shrewsbury market – and I’m not exaggerating here.

There are those who believed Henry IV seized the throne by starving the legitimate king, Richard II, to death, and those who reckoned, given the wealth of other claimants, that Henry’s claim to the throne [and indeed position in the family pecking order] was very weak indeed.  The Percys clamed that they’d only supported him to help him get back stolen lands – they’d no idea he was aiming to make himself king. 

Whether or not this is likely, in the summer of 1403 when Henry picked up on rebellion in the Percy camp, drawing in several of his cousins in what was plainly a major coup, he acted quickly. Hearing of forces gathering against him in Cheshire, with a view to marching on Shrewsbury which was garrisoned by his eldest son, the sixteen year old Prince Hal of Shakespeare’s play, and hearing too that the Earl of Worcester, had defected to the Percy side, taking with him a thousand men, Henry headed north-west to intercept the conspiritors before they could join forces with Owen Glendower and the Welsh. 

A race for Shrewsbury took place, which the king won.  The famous Percy son, Harry Hotspur, found himself isolated on the north side of the town, with the River Severn and the king’s army between him and any hope of Welsh reinforcements.  For a day or so he lurked around Harlescott, then with no sign of Glendower turning up and the king’s forces advancing upon him, Hotspur and his men were forced back to take up positions in the most famous pea-field in English history, now known as Battlefields.

For a while, a stand-off took place, during which it seemed neither side was keen to fight.  The abbots of Shrewsbury and Haughmond attempted to mediate and indeed Hotspur appeared to be amenable, reality having hit home when his reinforcements still failed to show up and even his father – as Shakespeare would have it – cried off sick on the big day.  However, King Henry was unwilling to back down.  

Finally, with only two hours of daylight left, battle commenced. The king’s men advanced, and Hotspur’s archers opened fire, driving them back. This is reckoned to be the first time that English longbow men turned upon each other on English soil.  Seizing this opportunity, Hotspur ordered a counterattack. In the ensuing battle, however, he lost his life, at which point it was over for the Percys, and indeed for the battle as a whole.

Shrewsbury was short, but savage. It was the bloodiest battle in English history. At the end of the day the ground was so strewn with bodies that the field itself could no longer be seen.  The political significance of the Battle of Shrewsbury was to secure the line of Henry Bolingbroke and break the power of the Percy family, but from Shakespeare’s point of view, it was very much the precursor to Agincourt.   

Shakespeare has Prince Hal transformed by battle into the son and heir his father had always wanted him to be.  He places Harry Hotspur’s body at Prince Hal’s feet. But just in case we’re taking all this too seriously, he places Falstaff at Prince Hal’s feet too – his old drinking partner and alternative father-figure pretending, like the coward he so often was, to be dead to avoid having to fight.

I’d love to see a production of this play. There are so many strong characters in it, and moments of real pathos. Hotspur was brave, proud and impetuous, absolutely full of himself, in many respects exactly the sort of son that Henry IV would have loved to have - and given the son he did have, Hotspur’s being Henry’s enemy was one of the tragedies of the tale.   Then there was Hal, the wayward son with the calculating mind who used and discarded people at will. A bit of a shit is the way I’d describe Henry IV’s precious son – on a mission to please only himself, yet eventually, as Henry V of Agincourt, he was regarded as one of England’s greatest kings. Then there was Owen Glendower, the hero of the Welsh and yet a mystery unto himself, tied by bonds of marriage to the Percy family, but tied to nobody when it came to his own will.  Then there was Falstaf, mentor to Prince Hal, instructing him in the practices of criminals and vagabonds, yet loving him like a real son. Space here doesn’t do justice to what he was all about.

And then there were the lords.  Back in the day, in their own territories each of them lived out their lives as demi-kings, powerful beyond belief, and treacherous too.  To my mind, there’s not a hero amongst the lot of them.  Perhaps the only hero is Shakepeare, who told their tangled tale. 

Ten years ago, at the celebration to mark six hundred years since the Battle of Shrewsbury, and before an audience of Shropshire schoolchildren, I interviewed ‘Parkinson-style’ all the main protagonists in that battle. The venue was Battlefields Church, built over a mass burial pit for the purpose of singing masses for the souls of the dead in battle, and later to  pray daily for the soul of the king. The hosts were the Battlefields Preservation Trust.  One by one, Hotspur, Henry IV, Prince Hal and all the others came clanking out of the ‘hospitality suite’ [ie the vicar’s vestry] in full body armour to be quizzed about the part they’d played in the lead-up to the day and the battle itself. It was brilliant. The children were thrilled. At the end of the interviews they trooped outside to line up with Henry and Hal on one side of the churchyard and Hotspur and the Percys on the other, and charge each other armed with rubber truncheons in a re-enactment of the battle.

Shame a film wasn’t made of the occasion.  Nor have I ever seen any photographs. However, I do know that the BBC filmed Henry IV Part I as part of their Hollow Crown series, recently seen on BBC 4.  Here’s a clip from it.  Prince Hal is getting his come-uppance from a father who’s had enough. Watch it all the way through.  It’s quite a shocking clip:

This isn’t the only film of Henry IV Part I doing the rounds, however.  Shrewsbury College of Art & Technology made a film of the play a year or so ago, in conjunction with the British Youth Film Academy.  Apparently it was premiered in Shrewsbury this January. I’m sorry I missed it. I’d love to talk to anyone who was involved in it, or know if it will be shown again.  For those of you who are interested, here's the link:        

'For I profess not talking, only this -
Let each man do his best. And here draw I
A word whose temper I intend to stain
With the best blood that I can meet withal
In the adventure of this perilous day.
Now, Esperance! Percy! And set on!
Sound all the lofty instruments of war,
And by that music let us all embrace,
For heaven to earth, some of us never shall
A second time do such a courtesy.'

[Henry IV, Part I - Act 4 Sc 2 - Hotspur ]


  1. Thank you for this excellent summary of the battle and the play. You're right, it is a very neglected part of Shrewsbury history. Perhaps because there is nothing much to see except the church, some street art in Harlescott and several road names.
    Here I am on my lunch break at a factory in Yeomanry Way, off Knights Way, Battlefield. But we don't make longbows here - just windows!

  2. Greeatings, Suetortoise! Yes, we have Percy Road and Hotspur Rd and Greenfields [not Redfields!] and as you say Knights Way and Battlefield. But where's the Jolly John Falstaff? The patron saint of drunks & crooks - which of our many town hostelries should be the pub for him?

  3. Don't you think he would have steadily worked his way through them all?

  4. Well, I combed the play for drinking instances in Shrewsbury, but could only find Falstaff in action elsewhere - Cheapside, and places like that. His only activities in Shrewsbury were on the battlefield, and then he wasn't that active, lying down and playing dead in the hope of not being chopped to pieces. However, I still reckon a pub in his name should be here somewhere. He's too famous a character not to make something of.

    Incidentally, there WAS an Owen Glendower pub out on the Shrewsbury/Welshpool road in the Bicton area, which is the point at which he's reputed to have turned back, thus leaving Percy to his fate, but I gather it closed down and is now an Indian restaurant called the Saffron Cottage.

  5. We have The Two Henrys out at Battlefield, of course.