Tag Archives: orson welles

1403: Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester

On this date in 1403, Henry IV made sauce of the Earl of Worcester after the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Thomas Percy was the uncle of northern rebel Sir Henry Percy, evocatively known as “Hotspur”.*


Rampant: statue of Hotspur Harry Percy at Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle. (cc) image from Bootneck Photography.

This Northumberland lord, whose name hints at his reputation for for ferocity and impetuousness, was not necessarily incensed in principle at Henry Bolingbroke‘s usurpation of the English crown as Henry IV. In fact, he took an appointment to put down the anti-Lancastrian rebellion of Welsh troublemaker Owain Glyndwr. (Percy didn’t succeed.)

But this royal imposter didn’t pay off Percy richly enough in either coin or respect.

Hotspur left Wales to whomp the Scots at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, but King Henry’s demand that he turn over the big-name prisoners taken in that battle (instead of ransoming them for profit) — coupled with Henry’s own refusal to ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from Welsh captivity — provoked a furious row between “king” and “subject”. Henry IV is supposed to have denounced Henry Percy a traitor and drawn a blade on him.

“Not here,” Hotspur raged, “but in the field!”

Alas: the field wasn’t kind to the Percies this time.

A revolt raised by a guy named Hotspur should hardly fail for want of ambition, and this one was the hottest of spurs: the Percies (with our day’s principal, Uncle Worcester) made a pact with Glyndwr (still going strong in Wales) and Glyndwr’s hostage-turned-son-in-law Edmund Mortimer (who was the uncle of the kid who should have been king) to give Bolingbroke the boot and carve up the realm between them.

Shakespeare represents this argument at the start of Henry IV, Part 1, and the conflict it engenders will drive that play’s story. This is Hotspur privately fuming after Henry has refused to help Mortimer (Act I, Scene 3):

let my soul
Want mercy, if I do not join with him: [i.e., Mortimer]
Yea, on his part I’ll empty all these veins,
And shed my dear blood drop by drop in the dust,
But I will lift the down-trod Mortimer
As high in the air as this unthankful king,
As this ingrate and canker’d Bolingbroke.

Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight abridges this and several other Shakespeare plays, and its opening action — after the Falstaff and credits — sets our stage. Worcester here is played by French Connection villain Fernando Rey.

Shrewbury was the result, a battle that up to the moment it commenced seemed amenable to mediation. Worcester himself negotiated face to face with King Henry, but refused to submit himself trusting the sovereign’s mercy. “On you must rest the blood shed this day,” Henry told him.

Some of that blood was Hotspur’s, as a result of a freak combat injury: he took a fatal arrow to the face when he raised his armor’s visor to get some air.**

Worcester didn’t outlive him by much — as depicted in Act V, Scene 4, he was summarily executed shortly after the battle:

KING HENRY IV

Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.
Ill-spirited Worcester! did not we send grace,
Pardon and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary?
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain to-day,
A noble earl and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.

EARL OF WORCESTER

What I have done my safety urged me to;
And I embrace this fortune patiently,
Since not to be avoided it falls on me.

KING HENRY IV

Bear Worcester to the death and Vernon too:
Other offenders we will pause upon.

(Vernon was one of two knights executed with Worcester in Shrewsbury.)

* Yes, the English football club Tottenham Hotspur is named for the dashing Henry Percy. “Audere Est Facere” is the team’s motto, “to dare is to do” … even though that totally didn’t work out for Hotspur himself.

** Oddly enough, Hotspur’s opposite number Prince Henry (the future victor of Agincourt, Henry V), also got shot in the face in this battle.

Unspecified Year: Bigger Thomas

The main character of Richard Wright’s Native Son was condemned to a March 3 electrocution by the state of Illinois.

In Number 666-983, indictment for murder, the sentence of the Court is that you, Bigger Thomas, shall die on or before midnight of Friday, March third,* in a manner prescribed by the laws of this state.

The Court finds your age to be twenty.

The Sheriff may retire with the prisoner.

Readers are not treated to the actual execution scene, but the hopelessness of Bigger Thomas’s situation is the book‘s whole context and theme. There is little room to entertain a reprieve.

“In the first draft I had Bigger going smack to the electric chair,” the author remarked. “But I felt that two murders were enough for one novel. I cut the final scene.”

The first Book of the Month club selection by an African American author was an instant best-seller, but hardly easy reading. Wright tackles the catastrophic “hatred, fear, and violence” suffusing negro life.

Inspired in part by a real-life Windy City murderer, Bigger Thomas grows up wretched and impoverished in Depression-era Chicago and eventually commits an accidental homicide, then rapes and murders his girlfriend. Wright took some heat for staging a character seemingly written to whites’ darkest fears of African-Americans, but it was his object to force the reader to relate to a violent man whose brutality is conditioned by the world he inhabits.

Bigger Thomas’s trial has his lawyer present an overt indictment of structural oppression as the true cause of Bigger’s crime.

“I didn’t want to kill,” Bigger shouted. “But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder … What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em. It’s the truth …”

Whether Wright truly broke out of the existing literary genres may be a matter of debate.

James Baldwin considered Native Son to be of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin tradition, “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality … the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.”

All of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear … elow the surface of this novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy … Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

“Everybody’s Protest Novel” (pdf)

“Protest novel” or otherwise, Native Son‘s mainstream success extended to the stage, where Orson Welles — fresh from the debut of Citizen Kane — directed a Wright-written adaptation in 1941. Less successfully, Wright himself played the title role in a 1951 Argentinian film.

“Bigger Thomas” is also the name of a long-running ska band.

Though the novel is not yet public domain in the United States, it is in some countries — and can be perused free here.

* For the finicky chronologist: Native Son was published in 1940. At that point, the most recent occasions March 3 had fallen on a Friday were 1939 and 1933.