Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty knights,
Balk'd in their own blood did Sir Walter see
On Holmedon's plains.
Henry IV Part 1 Act 1 Scene 1
The battle of Homildon or Hambleton Hill1, sometimes also known as the battle of Millfield, was fought on the 14th September 1402 between an army of Northumbrians led by Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland and force of Scottish raiders commanded by Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas.
Although Scotland and England had been at peace for the past fifteen years, relations had become somewhat fractious once Henry IV supplanted Richard II on the English throne in 1399. Probably in an attempt to distract attention from his domestic problems Henry IV led a somewhat ineffectual invasion of Scotland in August 1400, whilst the government of the Scottish king Robert III became increasingly dominated by the Duke of Albany and the Earl of Douglas, who both favoured a policy of war rather than peace with England. Attempts by the Earl of Northumberland to patch up some kind of truce with the Scots during 1401 came to nothing and thus conflict proved inevitable.
From the Scottish point of view, war generally meant despatching raiding parties across the border. Indeed one such Scots raiding party led by Patrick Hepburn, had already been caught and defeated at the battle of Nesbit Hill in June 1402. A few months later, at harvest time2, the Earl of Douglas decided to chance his arm with a more substantial force, probably comprising in the order of 2,500 men, well disciplined and marching with "banner displayed ... in set and composed order of battle"3.
As Warden of the East March, it was the Earl of Northumberland's job to defend the north-east from such Scottish incursion. But on this occasion he adopted the simple plan of gathering his forces at Alnwick, allowing Douglas the freedom to raid as he willed, with the intention of catching the Scots on their way home. Thus Douglas was able to raid as far south as the Tyne before deciding it was time to go home laden with spoil.
The Scottish army duly arrived at Wooler some fourteen miles shy of the border at Coldstream, only to find that Northumberland was at Millfield, some five miles to their north-west, blocking the route home into Scotland. At this point the Scots could have made a run for it, but that would have meant abandoning their loot. Therefore they preferred to stand and fight and so left the main road (now the A697) near the village of Homildon and took up position half way up Homildon hill.
The Battle of Homildon Hill
With the Scots arrayed in defensive formation on Homildon hill, it appears that Harry Hotspur, Northumberland's eldest son, was eager to avenge his earlier defeat at the battle of Otterburn at the hands of the Scots and was all for charging the Scottish position and beginning the battle as soon as possible.
Fortunately, for Hotspur at least, his father had managed to acquire the services of George Dunbar, 3rd Earl of March, sworn enemy of Douglas and as a Scot himself, well versed in the weaknesses of the Scottish fighting man. It was George who pointed out that since the Percys had gone to the trouble of hiring some archers it would be shame not to put them to some use. Therefore, according to Thomas Walsingham, rather than confront the Scots directly, Northumberland's army took up position at the nearby Harehope Hill, with a ravine between them and the Scottish army. The archers then moved to the foot of the hill and began firing at the enemy. Although the Scots did have archers of their own, "being both fewer and the worser bowmen", according to John Hayward, they were rapidly outclassed during the consequent exchange of missiles despite the advantage they had in commanding a more elevated position.
It wasn't long before the sheer quantity of arrows raining down upon the Scots "made them bristle like hedgehogs"; the Earl of Douglas himself was hit a number of times and lost an eye as a result. Eventually Douglas had enough and decided to lead a charge at the English lines. In the face of the advancing Scots, the English archers simply retreated in an orderly fashion, whilst continuing "letting fly in their retreat so thick as hail amongst their enemies". Such was the ferocity of the fire that the Scots never made contact with their enemy. The Scottish cavalry decided they'd had enough and made a run for it, and the whole army soon disintegrated in their haste to make it to the border. In the subsequent chaos many Scots surrendered "for fear of the death-dealing arrows" whilst others made it as far as the river Tweed only to drown in its waters.
The Scottish death toll that day amounted to some 1,200 including around 500 who drowned in the Tweed. The English loses were slight, with only five casualties claimed.
The victory was of course sweet revenge for Harry Hotspur after his humiliation at the battle of Otterburn, and what made the victory even sweeter was the long list of noblemen made captive after the battle. These
included the Earl of Douglas himself, Murdoch of Fife (the son of the Duke of Albany), three more earls, four barons and around eighty knights. Such a haul of distinguished captives was worth tens of thousands of pounds in ransom to the victors. However the almost perpetually poor Henry IV commanded that the prisoners be sent to London, which left the Percys very much out of pocket and feeling somewhat aggrieved with their king. This later became one of the factors behind their decision to rebel in the following year. As the Elizabethan historian John Hayward was to remark, in this way the Scots prisoners "raised more malice and mischief in England by being captive, than they possibly could have done if they had fortuned to escape".
The battle of Homildon Hill features in William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 where it forms the background to the opening of the play. The Earl of Westmorland reports that;
On Holy-rood day, the gallant Hotspur there,
Young Harry Percy and brave Archibald,
That ever-valiant and approved Scot,
At Holmedon met,
Where they did spend a sad and bloody hour
but that his messenger was "Uncertain of the issue any way
King Henry replies with the information that Sir Walter Blunt has arrived with the "smooth and welcome news" that "The Earl of Douglas is discomfited".
1 The village of Homildon and its nearby hill has been known by various names over the years, including of course Holmedon, and is now known as Hambleton.
2 An ideal time for raiding since it maximised the potential for looting.
3 Contemporary estimates of the size of Douglas's army range from between 10,000 and 20,000; typical exaggerations for the time.
- Richard Brooks, Cassell's Battlefields of Britain and Ireland (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2005)
- Alexander Rose, Kings in the North (Phoenix, 2003)