This famous ballad probably originated in the early 15th century.
Carried through in oral tradition, however, it underwent many corruptions and alterations before it was first printed in Percy's Reliques (1765) in two
distinctly different versions. The earlier one, below, likely dates from the 15th century, and is thought to be the ballad about which
Sir Philip Sidney said in his Defence of Poesy: "I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas
that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet." The second likely dates from the early 17th century. The events of the ballads center around the
Battle of Otterburn (1388), a border skirmish between
Sir Henry "Hotspur" Percy (English) and James, Earl of Douglas (Scottish). The Scottish won
the day, but the battle cost Douglas his life. The poem takes its name from hunting grounds in the
Cheviot hills, called "Cheviot Chase", not from the action
of the hunt itself. Over time, and the various evolutions of the ballad, events and personages have gotten confused. The poem refers to Hotspur's father,
Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, who was not present at the battle. Both Hotspur and
his brother Ralph were captured by the Scots, and Ralph was wounded, but neither Percy lost his life until years later. The poem also refers to
King Henry IV, though he did not take the throne until a decade after Otterburn; King James
of Scotland, referred to in the ballad, wasn't even born yet in 1388 and wasn't crowned King until 1424. These details suggest that this version may perhaps
have been composed around 1430. —A. Jokinen
Percy, in his Reliques, states: "By these... is probably meant three districts in Northumberland, which still go by the name of shires, and are all in the neighborhood of Cheviot. They are Islandshire, being the district so named from Holy-Island; Norehamshire, so called from the town and castle of Noreham (or Norham); and Bamboroughshire, the ward or hundred belonging to Bamborough castle and town."