Battle of Hexham

Barnabe Barnes (1607) (ghost lost play?)

Historical Records

None in the period. Barnabe Barnes’s active period of writing was 1593-1609, but because no version of the play survives, it is impossible to date its composition or say for certain the nature of the manuscript that Isaac Reed held (see below).

All records of the play refer to the sale of it as part of the auction of Isaac Reed’s library held at the firm of King and Lochee in Covent Garden in November and December 1807; no records add anything new about the play beyond its listing from the auction catalogue (see, for example, Fleay, 1:30, Hazlitt, 27, and Chambers 3:214; Bullen’s DNB entry for Barnes suggests that the entry is not in the catalogue, but it is present in all extant copies of the catalogue; Cox’s ODNB entry on Barnes omits the play entirely).

In the auction catalogue, the play is item 7699 and appears beneath the record for “BARNES (Barnaby) Divils Charter”; it reads, in its entirety, “Battle of Hexham in manuscript” (348). Though many names of buyers for other items were jotted down in the margin of the extant copy of the catalogue now at the Library of the University of California Los Angeles, no name appears beside item 7699. A note was added, however, to record that it sold for just 1 shilling (the same note appears in the copies of the catalogue held by the British Library and Harvard [Sisson, 235]). Sisson suggests that the relatively low purchase price may indicate that the manuscript “was either a fragment or in bad condition” (235). In 1815, Thomas Park conducted the first survey of Barnes’s life and work following the Reed auction and he does not mention Hexham, indicating that it must have vanished almost immediately after the sale.

It may be, as Teramura argues, that the Reed catalogue's attribution of the play to Barnes represents a mistake and that there was no lost early modern play titled "The Battle of Hexham."

Theatrical Provenance

None. Barnes’s only other play, The Devil’s Charter, was performed at court by the King’s Men on Candlemas (2 February) 1607 in the same holiday season as King Lear. Hexham may have been intended for a similar event, but there is no evidence of a performance at court or elsewhere.

Probable Genre(s)

Most likely historical. Charles Creighton assumes the play to be a tragedy (177), which would be in keeping with the genre of the only other play by Barnes (The Devil’s Charter). If, however, the Colman play of the same name is indeed derived from Barnes’s play, it may have actually been a comedy (see “For What It’s Worth” below).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The Battle of Hexham

The Battle of Hexham was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses. Fought on 15 May 1464, the battle took place outside of the town of Hexham in Northumberland. After suffering defeat at Hedgley Moor in late April, the Lancastrian commander, Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset, led his remaining force of about 500 men south to camp in Linnell's Meadow, by the river called Devil's Water near Hexham. The Yorkists discovered their location and, led by John Neville, 1st Marquess of Montagu, mobilized a force of 5,000 soldiers against them, marching overnight in order to take the Lancastrians by surprise. In the morning, the Lancastrians found themselves pinned between the massive attacking force and the river at their back; overwhelmed and unable to defend their position, they broke and fled, many hiding in the nearby Swallowship Woods. Over the next several days, Montagu rounded up many of them, including Somerset, all of whom were executed to send a warning to Lancastrian sympathizers in north England (more people died in this aftermath than in the battle itself). The Yorkists also captured a substantial portion of Henry VI’s treasury, which significantly crippled his financial capacity to wage war. In recompense for this, King Edward IV made Montagu the Earl of Northumberland. Lancastrian influence in the north came to a close with this battle and the Wars of the Roses subsequently ceased for five years.

Sources on the Battle

If Barnes based his play on the battle of 1464, numerous published accounts of the event were available to him, most merely repeating variations on the earliest version given by Edward Hall in his The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (1548):

The lord Mo[n]tacute seyng fortune thus prosperously leadyng his saile, was auaunced with hardy corage toward his enemies, & then in passyng forward, he had by his espialles perfite intelligence, that kyng Henry with all his power, was incamped in a faire plain called Lyuels, on the water of Dowill in Exham shire. It was no neede to bid hym hast hast, as he that thought not to lese the occasion, to hym so manifestly geuen, & to leaue the good porte of fortune, to hym opened and vnclosed: and therefore, in good ordre of battail, he manfully set on his enemies, in their awne ca[m]pe, whiche like desperate persones, with no small corage receiued hym. There was a sore fought feld, and no partie by a long tract, could get any aduauntage of the other, till at the last, the lorde Montacute, criyng on his men to do valiauntly, entered by plain force, the battaill of his enemies, and brake their array, whiche like men amased, fled hether and thether, desperate of all succor. In whiche flight and chase, wer taken, Henry duke of Somerset, whiche before was reconciled to Kyng Edwarde, the Lorde Roos, the Lorde Molyns, the Lorde Hungerford, sir Thomas Wentworth, sir Thomas Huse, sir Ihon Fynderne, & many other. Kyng Henry was this daie, the beste horseman of his company: for he fled so faste that no man could ouertake hym, and yet he was so nere pursued, that certain of his henxmen or folowers wer taken, their horses beyng trapped in blew veluet: wherof one of the[m] had on his hed, shesaid kyng Henries healmet. Some say his high cap of estate, called abococket, garnished with twoo riche Crounes, whiche was presented to kyng Edward, at Yorke the fourth daie of Maie. The Duke of Somerset, was incontinently, for his greate mutabilitie and lightnes, behedded at Exam, the other lordes and knightes, wer had to New Castle, and there after alitle respite, wer likewise put in execucion. [2H2v-2H3r]

Holinshed’s account in Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) reads thus:

[T]he Lorde Montacute, was sent into Northumberlande, there to reyse the people, to withstand his enimies. And after this, the King [Edward IV] in his proper person, acompanyed with his breethren, and a greate parte of the nobilitie of hys Realme, came to the Citie of Yorke, furnished with a mightie army, sending a great part therof, to the ayde of the Lord Montacute, least peraduenture, he giuing too much confidence to the men of the Bishopricke and Northumberlande, might through them be deceyued. The Lorde Montacute then hauing suche with him as hee might trust, marched forth towards his enimies, and by the way, was encountred with the Lorde Hungerford, the Lord Roos, Sir Raufe Percy, and diuers other, at a place called Hegely more, where suddaynely, the saide Lordes in manner without stroke striking, fled, and only sir Raufe Percy abode, and was there manfully slayne, with diuers other, saying, when he was dying, I haue saued the bird in my bosome, meaning, that he had kept his promise and oth made to K. He[n]ry, forgetting belike, that hee in King Henries most necessitie abandoned hym, and submitted him to king Edward, as before you haue heard.

The Lorde Montacute seeing fortune thus prosperously leading his sayle, aduanced forward, and learning by espials, that King Henry with his host was encamped in a faire playne called Lyuels, on the water of Dowill in Exhamshire, hasted thither, and manfully set on hys enimies in their owne campe, whiche like desperate persons, with no smal courage receiued him. There was a sore foughten fielde, and long ere eyther parte could haue any adua[n]tage of ye other, but at length, the victorie fell to the Lord Montacute, who by fine force, entred the battell of his enimies, and constreyned them to flee, as despairing of all succours. In whiche flighte and chase were taken Henrye Duke of Somerset, whyche before was reconciled to Kyng Edwarde, the Lord Roos, the Lorde Molins, the Lord Hungerford, Sir Thomas Wentworth, Sir Thomas Husey, Sir Iohn Finderne, and manye other. King Henrie was a good horseman that day, for he rode so fast away, that no man might ouertake him, and yet hee was so neere pursued, that certaine of his Henxmen were taken, theyr horses trapped in blew veluet, and one of them hadde on his head the sayde Kyng Henries helmette, or rather (as maye bee thought) and as some saye, his highe cappe of estate, called Abococke, garnished with two riche crownes, which was presented to king Edward at Yorke, the fourthe daye of May. The Duke of Somersette was incontinentlye beheaded at Exham, the other Lordes and Knyghtes were had to Newcastell, and there after a little despite, were likewise put to death. [3L1v-3L2r; Holinshed Project 1577 edn

John Stow’s account in Chronicles of England (1580) reads simply:

The. xv. of May King Henries power beyng at Hexham, the Lorde Mountacute with a power came thither, and enclosed them round about. There were taken & slaine many Lords that were with King Henry, but he himself was fled iiij. dayes before into Lancashire, where he and other liued in caues full hardly vnknowne more than a yéere. [2Y6r]

John Fox, in his Acts and Monuments (1583), records:

[K]ing Henry issuing out of Scotland with a sufficient power of Scottes and Frenchmen came into the Northcountrey to recouer the crowne, vnto whom the Lord Radulph Percy, & Lord Radulph Grey flying from king Edward, did adioyn, themselues: but the Lord so disposing, king Henry with his power was repulsed in the battaile of Exham by the Lord Mountacute, having then the rule of the North: where the Duke of Somerset, Lord Hungerford, Lord Rosse with certayne other were taken. The Lord Radulph Percy was slayne, the residue fled….In the which moneth of May, were beheaded the duke of Somerset, Lorde Hungerford, Lord Rosse, L. Philip Wentworth, L. Tho. Husly, L. Tho. Findern, beside 21. other belonging to the retinue and household of king He[n]ry 6. [2D3r]

While the final battle of the first part of the Wars was a decisive moment in the larger conflict, it received no attention from other early modern playwrights. Thomas Heywood, however, does mention it in passing in stanza 85 (“1463”) of his Troia Britanica, or Great Britain’s Troy: “Exham field / Was fought by them that Henry would restore, / But to King Edwards powers perforce they yeild” (2P6v). This was published in 1609, however, the same year of Barnes’s death, so it is unlikely to have had any influence on the play.

Legends About the Aftermath at Hexham

Perhaps what attracted Barnes – as with Colman (see “For What It’s Worth” below) – was the rather dramatic idea, in Stow, of the king and his close circle hiding in the caves of Lancashire for over a year (though, according to Hall, Henry was himself at the battle and fled on horseback). Later legend reported (incorrectly) that Queen Margaret arrived on the scene too late to rally the Lancastrians and so she and the prince fled into the forest where they were saved by a group of kind-hearted bandits and concealed in a cave for several days; this became the principle plot for Colman’s play. Whether this anecdote was available to Barnes is unknown, but it does not appear in Hall or the other chronicle histories (it was perhaps derived from the fact that the fleeing Yorkist soldiers tried to hide themselves in Swallowship Woods after the battle).

Though published too late to be a source for Barnes, the “corrected” version of Samuel Daniel’s The Civil Wars Between the Houses of Lancaster and York (1609) – which completed the publication of the first four books of the work in 1595 – blends these legends together:

And yet braue Queene, for three yeares of his Raigne,
Thou gau’st him little breathing time of rest;
But still his miseries didst entertaine
With new attempts, and new aslauts addrest:
And, at thy now-returne from France againe,
(Suppli’d with forces) once more gatheredst
An Army for the Field, and brought’st, to warre,
The scattered parts of broken Lancaster.

And once againe, at Exham, ledst them on
With Scots, and French t’another bloody day;
And there beheldst thy selfe againe vndone,
With all that Rest, whereon thy fortunes lay.
Where, Somerset (late to King Edward gone,
And got his pardon) hauing scap’t away,
With noble Percie, came to bring their blood
Vnto thy side, whereto they first had stood.

Where, the Lords, Molines, Rosse, and Hungerford,
With many else of noble Families,
Extinguisht were; and many that daies sword
Cut-off their names, in their posterities.
Where fled, againe, their lucklesse followed Lord;
And is so neere pursu’d by th’ enemies,
As th’Ensigne of his Crowne was seiz’d vpon,
For him who had before his Kingdome wonne;

And shortly after, too, his person gat.
For, he, now wearied with his long exile,
And miseries abrode, grew passionate,
With longing to returne t’ his natiue soyle.
And se’ing he could not do the fame, in State;
He seekes, disguis’d in fashion, to beguile
The world a time, and steale the libertie
And sight of his deare Country, priuately[.] [Q3r-v]

Daniel incorporates Margaret into the battle at Hexham and, in a passage that sounds like any number of early modern “disguised ruler” plays, offers a variation on the idea of Henry hiding from the fight. If this was, in the late 1590s and early 1600s, the common perception of what happened at Hexham, perhaps it did serve as the plot for Barnes’s play.

The Execution of Somerset

It is also possible, however, that Barnes was drawn to the infamous execution of the great general Somerset, an event significant enough to warrant a prominent woodcut in Holinshed and which the majority of early modern historians and writers who comment on Hexham single out as the most important moment in the battle. One of the earliest printed accounts of the battle appears in John Rastell’s The Pastyme of People (1530), focuses on the executions after the battle: “[I]n the .ii. yere of kyng Edwarde…at a place called Exham in the Northe the lorde Iohn[n] Montegue hauynge the rule of the northe contrey with a great power to hym gathered met with [Somerset’s forces] and skyrmysshed with them and had the victorye where the sayd duke of Somercet the lorde Hungerforde the lorde Roose were taken prisoners whiche .iii. lordes were sone after put to dethe and beheded and dyuers other that were there taken were after put to dethe” ([p. 124]). In his An Epitome of Chronicles (1559), Thomas Lanquet (misdating the battle in 1464) observes, “The lorde Mountague, hauinge the rule of the North, discomfited kinge Henry comyng out of Scotland wyth a great power to recouer the crowne, thys is called the battaile of Exham, in the whiche was taken the Duke of Somerset, the lorde Hungerfourde, the lorde Roos, whiche were a[f]ter put to [d]eathe with many other” (3B4v). Stow’s Summary of English Chronicles (1566) largely repeats from Lanquet: “The lorde Mountague, hauing the rule of the North, discosted king He[n]ry, commyng out of Scotland with a great power, to recouer ye crown: this is called the battaile of Exham, in whiche were taken the Duke of Somerset the lorde Hungerford, the lorde Roas, whiche were after put to deathe with many other” (R5r). William Baldwin, in The Last Part of the Mirror for Magistrates (1578), reflects, “as fewe raignes beginne without bloud, so King Edwarde to keepe the co[m]mon course….did execution vppon the Duke of Somerset, and the Lordes Hungerford, & Rosse, whom hee tooke prisoners at Exham fyelde” (L6v). William Allen, in A Conference about the Next Succession to the Crown of England (1595), notes, that Somerset “vvas taken and beheaded in the…quarrel at Exham, in the yeare 1463. dying vvithout issue” (T5v).

References to the Play

None in the period.

Critical Commentary

Reverend Alexander Grosart, in his 1875 edition of Barnes’s poems, refers to Hexham and Devil’s Charter both as Barnes’s “so-called plays” (even though the latter was published in 1607 and survives). More problematically, however, he also gives Hexham the title of “The Battle of Evesham” (viii), an error that some later records of the play have repeated (see, for example, Sibley, 11). Evesham was indeed another notable conflict of the War of the Roses, but the sale of Reed’s library clearly gives the title as “The Battle of Hexham”.

For What It’s Worth

On 11 August 1789, a three-act historical musical comedy – one of the first of its kind – debuted at the Haymarket theater with the title The Battle of Hexham, or Days of Old. Written by George Colman the younger, it ran for 20 performances and was frequently revived. The plot, as described by Martin Wood, is as follows:

Adeline, disguised, searching for her fugitive husband, Gondibert, and arrives at Henry the Sixth’s camp at Hexham just before Henry’s doomed battle against Edward the Fourth. Gondibert had fled six months earlier because his support of Henry’s cause had put his life in danger; he now lives in the forest as the captain of a band of robbers. The battle is a disaster, and the principal players escape to the forest separately. Gondibert captures a new victim, the defeated Queen Margaret, then learns her identity and offers his assistance; after all, they are on the same side. When his men bring him another captive, the disguised Adeline, she recognizes him and tests his faithfulness; when his answers suit her, she reveals her identity, and the emotional reunion scene plays out. The Queen and her child, the Prince of Wales, escape to France, and Gondibert enjoys an amnesty declared by the victorious Edward.

Jeremy Black observes that Colman seems broadly to have used Shakespeare’s historical and tragicomic plays as a model for his play (220). The situational parallels and some verbal echoes with early modern drama do seem striking in Colman’s play. Isaac Reed may have known Colman’s father, George Colman the elder, as they were both prominent members of London’s theater and literary elite in the late eighteenth century (Reed included a favorable critical/biographical sketch of Colman the elder and his plays in David Baker’s 1782 Biographica Dramatica [1:93-94]). It may be possible, then, that Colman the younger had seen Barnes’s manuscript play and to some (unknowable extent) based his The Battle of Hexham on the earlier work. Much less convincing is Sisson’s speculation, “a MS. of [Colman’s] play may have been catalogued [in the auction catalogue] by title instead of by author, in which case it would alphabetically follow the entry under Barnes, but this would have been a curious error” (235-6 n. 3).

Update December 2023 (MT): An annotated copy of the 1807 Reed catalogue held at the Grolier Club records that the "Battle of Hexham" manuscript was sold to the bookseller J. Barker. However, as Teramura notes, Barker's 1814 comprehensive list of plays The Drama Recorded does not include any reference to a Barnes play titled "The Battle of Hexham" nor does the 1812 edition of Reed's Biographia Dramatica. When the manuscript appeared again for sale in 1819, the catalogue did not mention any attribution to Barnes. Teramura concludes that the 1807 catalogue's attribution represented an error and that the manuscript sold more likely represented a text of Colman's extant play than a lost play by Barnes. If true, this would make "The Battle of Hexham" a ghost lost play.

Works Cited

Baker, David Erskine, ed. Biographica Dramatica, or, A Companion to the Playhouse: A New Edition. 2 vols. 1782.
Black, Jeremy. Culture in Eighteenth-Century England: A Subject for Taste. Continuum, 2007.
A Catalogue of the Curious & Extensive Library of the Late Isaac Reed, Esq. London: King and Lochee Auctioneers, 1807.
Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923. (rev. 1951).
Cox, John. “Barnes, Barnabe (bap. 1571, d. 1609)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004: doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/1467.
Creighton, Charles. Shakespeare’s Story of His Life. London: Grant Richards, 1904.
Fleay, Frederick Gard. A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1559-1642. 2 vols. London: Reeves and Turner, 1891.
Grosart, Alexander B. The Poems of Barnabe Barnes. Privately Printed. 1875.
Hazlitt, W. Carew. Hand-Book to the Popular, Poetical, and Dramatic Literature of Great Britain. London: John Russell Smith, 1867.
Park, Thomas. Heliconia: Comprising a Selection of English Poetry of the Elizabethan Age. 3 vols. London: Longman et al, 1815.
Sibley, Gertrude. The Lost Plays and Masques, 1500-1642. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1933.
Sisson, Charles. Thomas Lodge and Other Elizabethans. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1933.
Teramura, Misha. "Reconsidering The Battle of Hexham: A Lost Play by Barnabe Barnes?" Early Theatre 26.2 (2023): 119–29.
Wood, Martin. George Colman the Younger: Summaries of Selected Plays. 2002.

Site created and maintained by Matteo Pangallo, Bates College; updated 07 April 2013; updated by Misha Teramura, 9 December 2023.