The Percys were a Norman family originating from Perci-en-Auge in Normandy, whose founder was one William de Percy known as 'Algersnons' (the whiskered), who arrived in England around the year 1067 and was later recorded in the Domesday Book as the holder of over a hundred manors, mainly in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. William de Percy became the 1st Baron Percy and died within sight of Jerusalem on the First Crusade.
It was Henry de Percy, the 8th Baron Percy who purchased the barony of Alnwick in Northumberland from the Bishop of Durham and thereby became the 1st Baron Percy of Alnwick, and converted Alnwick into one of the key defensive strongholds in Northumberland and established the Percys as one of the leading families in the north of England.
His descendant, Henry Percy, the 11th Baron Percy and the 4th Baron Percy of Alnwick was a follower of John of Gaunt, and was appointed to the office of Marshal of England on the 1st December 1376. He was then created the Earl of Northumberland by Richard II in 1377 shortly after the coronation. He later became a leading supporter of Henry IV in his seizure of the crown in 1399, only to revolt against the king in 1403. Although this Henry later made his peace with the king after his son Harry Hotspur was defeated and killed at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, he engineered Scrope's Rebellion in 1405 and was forced to flee to Scotland after the failure of that particular revolt. In 1406 he was convicted of treason in absentia and was stripped of his titles, later to be killed at the battle of Bramham Moor on the 19th February 1408.
The title was eventually restored to the 1st Earl's grandson, another Henry Percy in 1414. This Henry Percy took the Lancastrian side during the Wars of the Roses, in support of his namesake Henry VI and was killed at the battle of St Albans in May 1455. His successor yet another Henry Percy, the 3rd Earl was killed at the battle of Towton in 1461 and subsequently included in the list of those attainted for treason by the victorious Edward IV.
Neville and the Restoration of the Percys
John Neville was the third son of Richard Neville, the Earl of Salisbury, and a brother of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. Like the rest of the Neville family John, known as the Lord Montagu was a supporter of the House of York, and in 1464 was responsible for the Yorkist victories at the battles of Hedgeley Moor and at Hexham in the spring of 1464.
His reward was to be created Earl of Northumberland in 1464 by Edward IV, but the king later decided to forgive the Percys, and on the 25th March 1470 the earldom of Northumberland was restored to the 3rd Percy Earl's son who was naturally named Henry Percy. John Neville was persuaded to acquiesce in the loss of his earldom by the grant of the title Marquess of Montagu and some estates in the south-west of England, but he wasn't entirely happy and later joined his brother the Earl of Warwick in his revolt of 1470-1471 and was killed at the battle of Barnet on the 14th April 1471.
The 4th Earl Henry Percy became a devoted adherent of Edward IV, and fought on his behalf at the aforementioned battle of Barnet. He later
acquiesced in the accession of Richard III, and even turned up at the battle of Bosworth, but whether by design or incompetence took no part in the battle. Although initially treated with suspicion by Henry VII he was soon accepted but was unfortunately killed by a mob at Thirsk in 1489. His son and successor Henry Algernon Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland was eleven years of age at the time, but grew up to be known as 'The Magnificent' and fought on behalf of Henry VIII in France were he was present at the sieges of Therouenne and Tournay and at the Battle of the Spurs.
The 5th Earl died in 1527, and was followed by his son another Henry Algernon Percy and whilst the 6th Earl wisely remained aloof from the Pilgrimage of Grace his two brothers, Thomas and Ingleram Percy, both took a leading part in this revolt and were both later captured and executed for treason as a result. This was somewhat unfortunate as the 6th Earl lacked sons and had been counting on his nephews to continue the line, now debarred from the succession by virtue of their fathers' attainders for high treason. Known as 'The Unthrifty' for fairly obvious reasons, the 6th Earl died in poverty in 1537, genuinely grief-stricken at the downfall of his family, and left his estates to the Crown, in the hope that this would placate the King and so induce him to restore them to one of his nephews once the dust had settled.
Dudley and the Restoration of the Percys once more
In 1551, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, was created Duke of Northumberland as a reward for his support of Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector at the beginning of the reign of Edward VI. John Dudley was however executed for treason in 1553, and his title forfeited by attainder. (See Earl of Warwick for further details.)
In the meantime one of the nephews of the 6th Earl named, Thomas Percy, (son of the Thomas who had been executed in 1537) succeeded in being restored to the family estates in 1549 and in 1557 was given a set of new Letters Patent by queen Mary re-creating him as Earl of Northumberland, the 7th Percy to hold the title. Thomas Percy was however a devoted Roman Catholic, which was all very well when Mary was on the throne but rendered him an object of suspicion to her Protestant successor Elizabeth I. These suspicions proved to be well founded as together with the Earl of Westmorland Thomas became involved with the disastrous Rising of the North in 1568. The failure of this rebellion led him to flee north in search of refuge but he fell into the hands of the Earl of Moray, Regent of Scotland, who kept him prisoner until 1572, when the Regent sold him to Queen Elizabeth. She had him executed at York on the 22nd August 1572.
Thomas Percy left only daughters (any sons he might have had would have been prevented from inheriting the title by virtue of his attainder as a traitor) but by a stroke of luck he had ensured that the letters patent specified his brother as an heir and so the title passed to his younger brother Henry. Technically speaking what Henry inherited was the title under the 1557 creation and not that of the original Percy creation; hence he should really be the 2nd Percy Earl of the second creation, but no one appears to take any notice of this technicality, and he is therefore simply known as the 8th Earl.
The 8th Earl was a professed Protestant and even took the arms against his brother in the Rising of the North, but not everyone was entirely convinced and so he served two terms of imprisonment in the Tower of London. In 1584 he was arrested once more on suspicions of conspiracy with Mary Queen of Scots and sent to the Tower for the third time. In the following year he was found shot dead in his cell. The offical line was suicide, but as it was noted that Percy's corpse bore three bullet holes, many then and since have doubted this explanation.
He was succeeded by his son Henry Percy who became the 9th Earl, and was known as the 'Wizard Earl' on account of his devotion to the study of chemistry and astronomy. He became a supporter of the claims of James I of Scotland to the throne of England, and was thus in favour when James duly became king in 1603. Unfortunately the 9th Earl placed a great deal of trust in his cousin Thomas Percy, a fanatical Catholic and one of the principal conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot. Suspicion naturally fell upon the Earl, who like his father thus became intimately acquainted with the Tower of London for a period of fifteen years, and was only released after the payment of a large fine.
The 9th Earl was however able to enjoy the luxury of dying of natural causes in 1632. He was succeeded by his son Algernon Percy, the 10th Earl
who in 1637 was appointed to the office of Admiral of England. In 1641 he took the side of the Parliament in the House of Lords against Charles I, became a member of the Committee of Safety, and later of the Committee of Both Kingdoms but sought to achieve a compromise with Charles I. Algernon actively opposed the attempts to being Charles I to trial, and after the king's execution he retired from public life but lived long enough to see the restoration of the monarchy before he died on the 13th October 1668.
Algernon was duly followed by his son Joceline Percy, who unexpectedly died of a fever in Turin in 1670, leaving a only daughter and the title became extinct.
There was however, a James Percy, the 'Dublin trunkmaker' who spent twenty years or so trying to establish his to claim the title. Although he was undoubtedly named Percy, it doesn't appear that he was actually related to any of the Percys who held the earldom and the House of Lords eventually rejected his petition declaring him to be the "The False and Impudent Pretender to the Earldom of Northumberland".
Fitzroy, Seymour and Smithson
The next holder of the title was a George Fitzroy, born on the 28th October 1665, being the illegitimate son of Charles II by his mistress Barbara Villiers, the Duchess of Cleveland. George Fitzroy was created by his father Earl of Northumberland in 1674, and further elevated to the status of Duke in 1683, but died without issue in 1716.
Now we need to return to Josceline Percy, the 11th and final Percy Earl, or more specifically his only daughter Elizabeth Percy. Although the Percy earldom may have reverted to the crown, the Percy estates went to Elizabeth thereby making her a most desirable heiress. Although, since she was only four years old at the time of her father's death, her prospective suitors had to wait a few years.
But this being the seventeenth century she did not have to wait that long; Elizabeth was first married in 1679 at the age of 12 to a Henry Cavendish, the Earl of Ogle, who died a year later; then in 1681 to a Thomas Thynne of Longleat who was murdered by the Swedish Count Konigsmark in 1681; and finally in 1682 at the grand old age of 15 to Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset.
This final marriage produced a son, Algernon Seymour, who eventually succeeded to the title Duke of Somerset in 1748 at which point he was 64 years of age and had already buried his only son George Seymour. He had a daughter Elizabeth Seymour who had married a Hugh Smithson who would obviously inherit the lion's share of his wealth but no title. Algernon Seymour therefore endeavoured to have himself created Earl of Northumberland in 1749 with special remainder to his son-in-law, Hugh Smithson.
Algernon died barely a year later in 1750 and was succeeded by his son-in-law Hugh Smithson who in recognition of the fact that he was now both Earl of Northumberland and owner of the former Percy estates changed his name to Percy. In 1766 he was created Earl Percy and Duke of Northumberland.
THE EARLS OF NORTHUMBERLAND
Title forfeit in 1406, restored in 1414
Created Duke of Northumberland, in 1683, died without issue in 1716
Hugh Smithson adopted the surname of Percy and was created Duke in 1766, thereafter see Duke of Northumberland
A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entries for
Northumberland], EARLS AND DUKES OF
- The Ancient House of Percy at
Alexander Rose Kings in the North (Phoenix, 2003)
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- THE ENGLISH PEERAGE or, a view of the ANCIENT and PRESENT STATE of the ENGLISH NOBILITY London: (1790)