The Ballad of Chevy Chase is arguably the most famous poem to come out of Northumberland. It seems by its very nature to be based on an actual historical incident, yet like much that is churned and ploughed over by bards across the ages the source of reference of the work has become lost in myth and legend.
The poem has been reworked many times over the years – in both oral and written traditions – and survives in two generally accepted versions today. Many have linked the composition to the Battle of Otterburn of 1388, others to a scrap between the Scots and English resulting from a dispute over a day’s hunting upon ‘Cheviot Chase’ (‘chase’ being a tract of hunting land).
The Battle of Otterburn essentially amounted to a teasing out of Northumbrian forces (under Harry Hotspur) from Newcastle into the hills around Otterburn by a Scottish army under the Earl of Douglas. The resultant face-off led to the capture of the former, the death of the latter and a victory for the Scots. In the skirmish in the Cheviots a Northumbrian Percy led a large illegal hunting party across lands over which the Earl of Douglas had a protective eye – and in the fight that followed a disproportionately large number of men were slain with only 110 surviving.
There doesn’t seem to be a set date for the latter incident, and it is reckoned that there was already a ‘Ballad of the Battle of Otterburn’ in existence before either version of the Chevy Chase poem surfaced (the first was probably written around 1430 and the second as much as a couple of centuries later). So what we have here with The Ballad of Chevy Chase is undoubtedly an amalgam of at least two, and probably more, historical events … suitably spiced up with a dash of poetic licence, too, of course.
So that’s that cleared up, then.