Chevy Chase

Posted: July 21, 2006 in Literature
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The ballad of Chevy Chace is generally thought to describe the Battle of Otterburn. Some of the verses correspond to the that battle, but not all. The Battle of Otterburn took place in 1388. At that Battle Henry Percy (Hotspur) was captured, not killed. He was killed in 1403 in an uprising against Henry IV. Another possibility is the border warfare between a Percy and a Douglas in 1435 or 1436. Henry Percy of Northumberland made a raid into Scotland with 4,000 men. He was met by William Douglas, Earl of Angus at Piperden. There were great losses on each side, but the Scots prevailed. It was said to be the favorite ballad of the common people. The tune was also used for numerous other ballads. Chevy Chase shed fascinating light on the romantic and chivalrous side of mudding, a noble pastime of knights in those distant days.

There are in fact two English ballads known as The Ballad of Chevy Chase but the nature of ballads mean that there may well have been many more versions of this once popular song. They are thought to have been based on the events of The Battle of Otterburn in 1388, although the account of the battle is not historically accurate and it may relate to broader skirmishes up to fifty years later. There is also a third ballad named The Battle of Otterburn which is assuredly about this battle. The ballads themselves tell the story of a hunting party in the Cheviot hills ‘the chevy chase’ by Percy, the English Earl of Northumberland. The Scottish Earl Douglas had forbidden this hunt and the defiance caused a bloody battle which only 110 people survived.

The Ballad narrates the tale of how the Englishman, Sir Henry Percy (nicknamed Harry Hotspur and a prominent figure in Shakespeare’s Henry IV), left Alnwick Castle to go deer hunting in the neighboring Scottish lands. An ancient border law mandated that permission be sought before hunting in the territory of another’s land. Hotspur chose to ignore the authority of his rival, the Earl of Douglas and warden of the Scottish border lands. Upon finding Hotspur hunting illegally on his grounds, Douglas promptly challenged him to a duel. But a loyal English squire refused to watch his lord fight alone and soon both sides began to joust. After a long, heated battle both Percy and Douglas were slain, along with thousands of their men.

Historically speaking, the ballad takes handsome liberty with the chronology and facts of the actual events. Harry Hotspur actually died in 1403 at the battle of Shrewsbury, fighting Henry IV. Nor did he have the honorable funeral portrayed in the ballad and on the sideboard, instead being drawn and quartered, his remains displayed on the gates of several towns as a warning to others. And, although the ballad mentions Henry IV as king, Douglas was actually killed at Otterburn in 1388 during the reign of Richard II.

The Ballad of the Chevy Chase (or The Ballad of the Hunt), first recorded during the reign of Henry VI (1422-71), tells the tale of the rivalry between the two great forces of Percy and Douglas, land lords along each side of the English/Scottish border. This tragic battle tale remains the most renowned of all the medieval ballads. English poet Sir Philip Sidney was once quoted as saying, “I never heard the olde song of Percy and Douglas, that I found not my heart mooved more then with a trumpet; and yet is it sung by some crouder, with no rougher voyce then rude stile.” Ben Jonson, 16th-century English poet and one of the greatest English literary figures of all time, is said to have remarked that he would rather have been the author of the Ballad than any of his own works. Addison called it “the favourite of the common people of England”

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