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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



The Battle of Otterburn. Manuscript image from Froissart's Chronicles. BnF


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

Fytte I

THE PERCY out of Northumberland,
    An avow to God made he  
That he would hunt in the mountains  
    Of Cheviot within days three,  
In the maugre° of doughty° Douglas, 5despite; formidable, mighty
    And all that e’er with him be.  
The fattest harts° in all Cheviot  deer
    He would kill and carry away.—  
‘By my faith,’ said the doughty Douglas again,  
    ‘I will let° that hunting if I may!’ 10  hinder
Then the Percy out of Banborowe1 came,  
    With him a mighty meinye,°  company of troops
With fifteen hundred archers bold  
    Chosen out of shirès three.2  
This began on a Monday at morn, 15  
    In Cheviot the hills so hye;°  high
The child may rue that is unborn,  
    It was the more pitye.  
The drivers through the woodès went  
    [All] for to raise the deer, 20  
Bowmen bicker’d° upon the bent°  skirmished; coarse, wild grass
    With their broad arrows clear.  
Then the wild° thoro’ the woodès went  game
    On every sidè shear;°  several
Grayhounds thoro’ the grevès glent° 25  groves darted
    For to kill their deer.  
This began on Cheviot the hills abune°  above
    Early on a Monenday;°  Monday
By that it drew to the hour of noon  
    A hundred fat harts dead there lay. 30  
They blew a mort° upon the bent,  sounded the kill on the horn
    They ’sembled on sidès shear;°  on al
To the quarry° then the Percy went  the prey
    To the brittling° of the deer.  cutting up
He said, ‘It was the Douglas’ promise 35  
    This day to meet me here;  
But I wist he would fail, verament!’°  truly
    —A great oath the Percy sware.°  swore
At the last a squire of Northumberland  
    Lookèd at his hand full nigh; 40  
He was ware° o’ the doughty Douglas coming,  aware
    With him a great meinye.  
Both with speär, bill° and brand,°—  battle-axe; sword
    ’Twas a mighty sight to see;  
Hardier men both of heart nor hand 45  
    Were not in Christiantè.  
They were twenty hundred spearmen good,  
    Withouten any fail:  
They were born along by the water o’ Tweed  River
    I’ the boun’s° o’ Teviotdale. 50  boundaries
‘Leave off the brittling of deer,’ he said;  
    ‘To your bows look ye take good heed,  
For sith° ye were on your mothers born  since
    Had ye never so mickle° need.’  much
The doughty Douglas on a steed 55  
    Rode all his men beforn;°  in front of
His armour glitter’d as did a gleed,°  a burning coal
    Bolder bairn° was never born.  fighter
‘Tell me whose men ye are,’ he says,  
    ‘Or whose men that ye be; 60  
Who gave you leave in this Cheviot chase  
    In the spite of mine and of me?’  
The first man that him answer made  
    It was the good Lord Percye:  
We will not tell thee whose men we are, 65  
    Nor whose men that we be;  
But we will hunt here in this chase  
    In the spite of thine and of thee.  
‘The fattest harts in all Cheviot  
    We have kill’d, to carry away.’— 70  
‘By my troth,’° said the doughty Douglas again,  I swear
    ‘The one of us dies this day.  
‘[Yet] to kill allè these guiltless men  
    Alas, it were great pitye!  
But, Percy, thou art a lord of land, 75  
    I an earl in my countrye—  
Let all our men on a party° stand,  apart
    And do battle of thee and me!’°  Let you and I fight
‘Christ’s curse on his crown,’ said the lord Percye,  
    ‘Whosoever thereto says nay! 80  
By my troth, thou doughty Douglas,’ he says,  
    ‘Thou shalt never see that day—  
—‘Neither in England, Scotland nor France,  
    Nor for no man of woman born,  
But, that (and fortune be my chance) 85  
    I dare meet him, one man for one.’  
Then bespake a squire of Northumberland,  
    Richard Witherington was his name;  
‘It shall never be told in South England  
    To King Harry the Fourth° for shame. 90  Henry IV
‘I wot you bin° great lordès two,  I know you are
    I am a poor squire of land;  
[Yet] I’ll ne’er see my captain fight on a field  
    And stand myself and look on.  
But while that I may my weapon wield 95  
    I’ll not fail, both heart and hand.’  
That day, that day, that dreadful day!—  
    The first fytte° here I find:  "chapter" of a ballad
An you’ll hear° any more o’ the hunting of Cheviot,  If you wish to hear
    Yet there is more behind. 100  

Fytte II


The Englishmen had their bows y-bent,  
    Their hearts were good enow;°  enough
The first of arrows that they shot off  
    Seven score spearmen they slew.  
Yet bides the Earl Douglas upon the bent, 105  
    A captain good enoghe;°  enough
And that was seenè verament,  
    For he wrought them both woe and wouche.°  mischief
The Douglas parted his host in three,  
    Like a chief chieftain of pride; 110  
With surè spears of mighty tree°  strong wood, timber
    They came in on every side;  
—Throughè our English archery  
    Gave many a woond° full wide;  wound
Many a doughty° they gar’d° to dye, 115  valorous man; caused
    Which gainèd them no pride.  
The Englishmen let their bowès be,  
    And pull’d out brands° that were bright;  swords
It was a heavy sight to see  
    Bright swords on basnets° light. 120  helmets
Thoro’ rich mail and manoplie°  gauntlets
    Many stern° they struck down straight;  strong men
Many a freyke° that was full free  brave man, warrior
    There under foot did light.  
At last the Douglas and the Percy met, 125  
    Like to captains of might and of main;  
They swapt° together till they both swat°  exchanged blows; sweated
    With swordès of fine Milan.°  Milanese steel
These worthy freykès for to fight  
    Thereto they were full fain,° 130  eager
Till the blood out of their basnets sprent°  spurted
    As ever did hail or rain.  
‘Yield thee, Percy,’ said the Douglas,  
    ‘And i’ faith I shall thee bring  
Where thou shalt have an Earl’s wages 135  
    Of Jamie our Scottish king.  
‘Thou shaltè have thy ransom free,  
    —I hight° thee here this thing;  pledge
For the manfullest man thou art that e’er  
    I conquer’d in field fighting.’ 140  
But ‘Nay’, then said the lord Percye,  
    ‘I told it thee beforn  
That I would never yielded be  
    To man of a woman born.’  
With that an arrow came hastily 145  
    Forth of a mighty wane;°  swain, fellow
And it hath stricken the Earl Douglas  
    In at the breastè-bane.  breastbone
Thoro’ liver and lungès both  
    The sharp arròw is gone, 150  
That never after in his life-days  
    He spake mo words but one:  
’Twas, ‘Fight ye, my merry men, whiles ye may,  
    For my life-days bin gone!’  
The Percy leanèd on his brand 155  sword
    And saw the Douglas dee;  die
He took the dead man by the hand,  
    And said, ‘Woe is me for thee!  
‘To have sav’d thy life I’d have parted with  
    My lands for yearès three, 160  
For a better man of heart nor of hand  
    Was not in the north countrye.’  
[All this there saw] a Scottish knight,  
    Sir Hugh the Montgomerye:  
When he saw Douglas to the death was dight, 165  doomed
    Through a hundred archerye  
He never stint° nor he never blint°  stopped; blenched, flinched
    Till he came to the lord Percye.  
He set upon the lord Percy  
    A dint that was full sore; 170  blow
With a surè spear of a mighty tree  
    Thro’ the body him he bore,  
O’ the t’other side that a man might see  
    A large cloth-yard and more.  
An archer of Northumberland 175  
    Saw slain was the lord Percye:  
He bare a bent bow in his hand,  
    Was made of a trusty tree.  
An arrow that was a cloth-yard long  
    To the hard steel halèd° he, 180  pulled
A dint that was both sad° and sair°  serious and fierce
    He set on Montgomerye.  
The dint it was both sad and sair  sure and fierce
    That he on Montgomerye set;  
The swan-feathers that his arrow bare° 185  bore
    With his heart-blood they were wet.  
There was never a freykè° one foot would flee,  fellow
    But still in stoure° did stand;  battle
Hewing on each other, while they might dree,°  endure
    With many a baleful° brand.° 190  deadly; sword
This battle began in Cheviot  
    An hour before the noon,  
And when the even-song bell was rung°  Early evening, around 5pm
    The battle was not half done.  
They took [their stand] on either hand 195  
    By the [lee] light of the moon;  
Many had no strength for to stand  
    In Cheviot the hills abune.°  above
Of fifteen hundred archers of England  
    Went away but seventy-and-three; 200  
Of twenty hundred spearmen of Scotland  
    But even five-and-fifty.  
There was slain with the bold Percye  
    Sir John of Agerstoune,  
Sir Roger, the hendè° Hartley, 205  gentle
    Sir William, the bold Herone.  
Sir George, the worthy Loumlye,  
    A knight of great renown,  
Sir Ralph, the richè Rabye,  
    With dints° were beaten down. 210  blows
For Witherington my heart was woe  
    That ever he slain should be:  
For when both his legs were hewn in two  
    Yet he kneel’d and fought on his knee.  
There was slayn with the doughty Douglas, 215  
    Sir Hugh the Montgomerye,  
Sir Davy Lambwell, that worthy was,  
    His sister’s son was he.  
Sir Charles a Murray in that place,  
    That never a foot would flee: 220  
Sir Hew Maxwell, a lord he was,  
    With the Douglas did he dee.°  die
So on the morrow they made them biers  
    Of birch and hazel so gray;  
Many widows with weeping tears 225  
    Came to fetch their makes° away.  mates
Teviotdale may carp° of care,°  complain from sorrow
    Northumberland may make moan,  
For two such captains as slain were there  
    On the March-parts° shall never be none. 230  the Scottish Marches
Word is come to Edinboro’,  
    To Jamie the Scottish King,  
Earl Douglas, lieutenant of the Marches,  
    Lay slain Cheviot within.  
His hands the King did weal° and wring, 235  wail
    Said, ‘Alas! and woe is me!  
Such another captain Scotland within  
    I’ faith shall never be!’  
Word is come to lovely London  
    To the fourth Harry, our King, 240  
Lord Percy, lieutenant of the Marches,  
    Lay slain Cheviot within.  
‘God have mercy on his soul,’ said King Harry,  
    ‘Good Lord, if thy will it be!  
I’ve a hundred captains in England,’ he said, 245  
    ‘As good as ever was he:  
But Percy, an I brook my life,°  if I enjoy life, as I live
    Thy death well quit° shall be.’  acquitted, avenged.
And as our King made his avow  
    Like a noble prince of renown, 250  
For Percy he did it well perform  
    After, on Homble-down;3  
Where six-and-thirty Scottish knights  
    On a day were beaten down;  
Glendale glitter’d on their armour bright 255  
    Over castle, tower and town.  
This was the Hunting of the Cheviot;  
    That e’er began this spurn!°  kick
Old men, that knowen the ground well,  
    Call it of Otterburn. 260  
There was never a time on the Marche-partès  
    Since the Douglas and Percy met,  
But ’tis marvel an° the red blood run not  if
    As the reane° does in the street.  rain
Jesu Christ! our balès bete,° 265  relieve our suffering
    And to the bliss° us bring!  eternal happiness
This was the Hunting of the Cheviot:  
    God send us all good endìng!  

  1. Sir Henry "Hotspur" Percy was not made Commander of Banburgh Castle until 1403.
  2. 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."
  3. Homildon, Humbledon, or Humbleton, is in Glendale, Northumberland. The Battle of Homildon Hill was actually fought in 1402, between Sir Henry "Hotspur" Percy and Archibald, Earl of Douglas.

Introduction, glosses, and notes by Anniina Jokinen.

Ballad text from:

The Oxford Book of Ballads. Arthur Quiller-Couch, Ed.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910. 664-675.

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