The future King Henry V was hit by an arrow to the face at the Battle of Shrewsbury – how did he survive? Research by Michael Livingston explains what happened in one of the most remarkable cases of battlefield surgery from the Middle Ages.
Livingston, a Distinguished Professor at The Citadel and a leading historian of medieval warfare, has been long interested in the case of the arrow wound suffered by the future Henry V at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. He first spoke about the case in 2013 at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in the paper ‘Prince Hal’s Head-Wound: Cause and Effect’.
Henry was only 16 years old and a prince 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 his visor and then got immediately struck by an arrow to his face.
According to one chronicler’s report, Prince Henry was also “hurt in the face by an arrow” – the chronicler was very much downplaying the situation. Fortunately, 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 explains that he received word that the prince had also been struck in the face by an arrow during the battle. Others had tried to pull the arrow out, but while the shaft did come free the arrowhead itself remained buried under the skin. Various medical experts had tried to remove the arrowhead with potions and other cures, but no one had any success. Finally, Bradmore arrived on the scene and examined the wound. He writes that Henry was:
struck in the face with an arrow beside the nose on the left side. This arrow penetrated from the side, and the head of the arrow, after the shaft was extracted, stood firm in the back part of the bone of the head six inches deep.
Bradmore then explains how he treated the wound, first by enlarging enough so that he could remove the arrowhead:
At the start I used small tents to probe the wound: made from the pith of an older elder, as long as the wound was deep, dried out and tightly sewn into a clean linen cloth. These tents were saturated in rose-infused honey. Afterwards I made the tents larger and longer and thus continued, ever enlarging these tents until I had a width and depth of the wound that pleased me. After the wound had become so dilated and so deep that in my mind I was certain the tents had reached the bottom, I prepared new tongs, small and hollow, the size of an arrow, and a screw that passed through the middle of the tongs. The end of the tongs were threaded inside and out; likewise the end of the screw that passed through the middle of them was threaded around in the manner of a screw so that it held better and more strongly.
The next step was to insert the tongs into the wound, through the hole made by the arrow. Once it was set in, the screw latched onto the arrowhead. Bradmore slowly pulled on it, and “wiggling it to and fro, little by little – with the aid of God – I extracted the arrowhead.”
The next part of the treatment involved healing and closing the wound. The doctor cleansed the wound with white wine and then placed on it an ointment made of barley flour, honey and terebentine. 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. For the next twenty days this process was repeated, allowing the wound to heal naturally and eventually close. Bradmore completes his account by stating, “Thus – thanks to be God! – he was perfectly cured.”
Livingston believes that the arrow struck Henry at a downward angle, with the entrance wound likely below the eye next to his nose. He also suggests that the wound was on Henry’s right side – when Bradmore describes the wound being “beside 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.
Michael Livingston is co-host of the Bow and Blade podcast with Kelly DeVries. You can listen to Michael talking more about this surgery and the Battle of Shrewsbury on this episode of the podcast:
The full account of John Bradmore’s surgery can be found in Medieval Warfare: A Reader, translated and edited by Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.