The future King Henry V was hit by an arrow to the face at the Battle of Shrewsbury – how did he survive? This was the topic of a paper given by Michael Livingston at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Livingston, an Associate Professor at The Citadel, explains what happened in one of the most remarkable cases of battlefield surgery from the Middle Ages – the arrow wound suffered by the future Henry V at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.
Prince Henry was only 16 years old when he marched with his father’s forces to Shrewsbury in western England to fight against the rebel army led by Henry “Harry Hotspur” Percy. With English longbowmen on both sides of the battle, arrows caused many of the dead and wounded, including Henry Percy, who was killed when he lifted up his visor and was struck down by a shot.
According to one chronicler’s report, Prince Henry was also “hurt in the face by an arrow.” A much more detailed account survives in the Philomena, a medical tract written by John Bradmore. The account was originally in Latin, and a Middle English translation of it survives as well.
Bradmore had been in the service of the crown since at least 1399. He notes in his work that before he arrived, others had tried to pull the arrow out of the prince, but while the shaft did come free the arrowhead remained buried six inches deep. Various medical experts had tried to remove the arrowhead with potions and other cures, but had no success. Finally, he caem on the scene, and examined the wound. Bradmore writes that Prince Henry:
was struck by an arrow next to his nose on the left side during the battle of Shrewsbury. The which arrow entered at an angle (ex traverso), and after the arrow shaft was extracted, the head of the aforesaid arrow remained in the furthermost part of the bone of the skull for the depth of six inches.
Bradmore then explains how he treated the wound, first by enlarging enough so that he could remove the arrowhead:
First, I made small probes from the pith of an elder, well dried and well stitched in purified linen [made to] the length of the wound. These probes were infused with rose honey. And after that, I made larger and longer probes, and so I continued to always enlarge these probes until I had the width and depth of the wound as I wished it. And after the wound was as enlarged and deep enough so that, by my reckoning, the probes reached the bottom of the wound, I prepared anew some little tongs, small and hollow, and with the width of an arrow. A screw ran through the middle of the tongs, whose ends were well rounded both on the inside and outside, and even the end of the screw, which was entered into the middle, was well rounded overall in the way of a screw, so that it should grip better and more strongly.
The screw finally latched onto the arrowhead and then Bradmore had it slowly pulled on it, and “by moving it to and fro, little by little (with the help of God) I extracted the arrowhead.”
The next part of the treatment involved healing and closing the wound. The doctor squirted white wine and put into the wound a probe made of barley, flour, honey and and flax fibres. For the next twenty days he repeated the process, cleaning the wond and making the probes smaller and smaller. This allowed the wound the heal naturally and eventually close.
Bradmore also notes that he was particularly worried that the young prince might suffer from seizures and that he would put ointments on his neck to soothe his muscles. Livingston suggests that this indicates that the arrow struck Henry at a downward angle. He adds the entrance wound was likely below the eye next to his nose.
Livingston also suggests that the wound was on Henry’s right side – when Bradmore describes the wound being “next to his nose on the left side” he meant that it was his own left, and not on the patient’s left. This might explain why contemporary portraits of the King always show him from the left side, never revealing what is on the right side of his face, which may have been somewhat disfigured from the scars of the wound.
John Bradmore was well rewarded for his medical efforts – he was granted an annuity of ten marks until he died in 1412. Meanwhile, Prince Henry would be absent from his duties for most of the next year, likely continuing his recovery.
Livingston adds one final thought: during his teenage years Prince Henry was known as having a wild youth, but by the time he became King in 1413 his personality would change remarkably, becoming a pious and disciplined leader. One can speculate that such a devastating wound, which almost killed Henry, could have left some psychological trauma as well.
See also Saving Prince Hal: maxillo-facial surgery, 1403, by Jo Cummins