1902 Encyclopedia > Percy

Family prominent in English history

PERCY. This family, whose deeds are so prominent in English history, claimed descent from one Manfred de Perci, who was said to have come out of Denmark into Normandy before the adventure of the famous Bollo. But it is more certain that two brothers, William and Serlo de Percy, came into England with William the Conqueror, who endowed his namesake the elder with vast possessions in Hampshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire, among which were Topcliffe in the North Riding and Spofforth in the West Riding, the principal seats of the family for many ages afterwards. This William deserves special notice besides, since he refounded the noble abbey of Whitby, which had been destroyed by the Danes,—obtaining a grant of the lordship from Hugh, earl of Chester. Yet his piety would seem to have been of a rather unsteadfast character, for, having endowed the abbey with certain lands, he resumed them in order to reward a faithful dependant, till his brother Serlo, the abbot, complained to King William, and caused him to make restitution.

The family, however, did not really descend in a direct male line from this William ; for in the reign of Henry II. his male descendants became extinct, and the inheritance was divided for a time between two sisters, though by failure of issue of one of them it was reunited in the next generation. Agnes, the sister from whom all the subse-quent Percies were descended, accepted as her husband Josceline, a son of Geoffrey, duke of Louvain, on the ex-press condition that he and his posterity should bear the surname of Percy, and assume the arms of her family, re-linquishing their own. This Josceline was a brother of Adelais or Alice of Louvain, the second queen of Henry I., and by an arrangement with his sister, confirmed by Henry II. when duke of Normandy, he became possessed of the honour of Petworth in Sussex. He was also castellan at Arundel, and held several other important posts in the south of England. His son Richard and Richard's son William were among the barons who rose in arms against John and Henry III. respectively ; but the grandson made his peace with his sovereign, and had his lands restored to him. It should be remarked, however, as a feature of the times, that Richard de Percy was not the eldest but the youngest son of Josceline, and that, according to modern notions, he was really a usurper, who occupied the inheritance of a nephew; his right, however, passed undisputed. He was one of the twenty-five barons ap-pointed to enforce the observance of Magna Charta.

The next important member of the family is Henry de Percy, whom Edward I., after the deposition of John Baliol, appointed governor of Galloway, and who was one of his most active agents in the subjugation of Scotland, till the success of Robert Bruce drove him out of Turnberry Castle, and made him withdraw into England. He was rewarded by Edward II. with the barren title of earl of Carrick, declared to be forfeited by the Scottish hero; and the same king appointed him governor of the castles of Bamborough and Scarborough. But he himself made his position strong in the north of England by purchasing lands from Anthony Beck, bishop of Durham, among which was the honour of Alnwick, the principal seat of the family ever since. His son, another Henry, took part in the league against Edward II.'s favourites the Despensers, was in favour with Edward III., and obtained from Edward Baliol as king of Scotland grants of Lochmaben, Annan-dale, and Moffatdale, which he surrendered to the English king for the castle and constableship of Jedburgh or Jed-worth, with the forest of Jedworth and some neighbouring towns. A few years later, in fuller recompense of the unprofitable gift of Baliol, a grant of 500 marks a year was made to him out of the old customs at Berwick; and in 1346 he did splendid service to his sovereign by defeat-ing and taking prisoner David, king of Scotland, at the battle of Neville's Cross.

To him succeeded another Henry Percy, a feudal baron like his predecessors, who fought at Crecy during his father's lifetime; and to him another Henry, who was made earl of Northumberland at the coronation of Richard II. It may be remarked incidentally that the succession of the name of Henry in this family is altogether extraor-dinary. For three generations before this first earl of Northumberland; and for five different descents after him (making altogether a period of 238 years), the head of the house invariably was a Henry. Such a remarkable con-tinuance of a single Christian name would have been less surprising in later and more peaceful times, when we might reasonably have expected the eldest born to succeed his father quietly through many generations. But the first four earls of this family were all slain in battle or in civil tumult, and the heir-apparent of the first, a Henry like the rest, was cut off in the same way during his father's lifetime. Was it that the incessant activity due to Border raids and moonlight expeditions created in these men a physical vigour of constitution which protected them to a large extent against disease and infirmity ?

The first carl of Northumberland, certainly, had led a busy life enough, not only on the Borders but elsewhere. He had been in the French wars of Edward III.; he had been at times a warden of the marches against Scotland, or a commissioner to treat for peace with that country. He had ravaged the lands of the earl of Dunbar and had won Berwick. Powerful in the south as well as in the north, he was the Lord Henry Percy who protected Wickliffe when cited before the archbishop at St Paul's. As earl of Northumberland he exhibited his independence of Richard II. in a way characteristic of a northern baron. Sent for to court, he neglected to come, was disgraced and banished, and thereupon fled to Scotland. He repaired to Henry of Lancaster soon after his landing at Ravenspur, and helped treacherously to decoy Richard II. into his hands at Conway. Naturally he received great honour from Henry after he had become king. He was made constable of England for life, and received a gift of the Isle of Man and a number of important offices in Cheshire, Wales, and the borders of Scotland. He wras even appointed one of the commissioners for the marriage of the king's daughter Blanche with Louis, duke of Bavaria ; and for the first three years of the reign both he and his family seemed faithful to the new dynasty which they had greatly helped to establish. In 1402 he and his brave son Henry, the celebrated Hotspur, won the battle of Homildon Hill and took the earl of Douglas prisoner. But immediately afterwards Harry Hotspur, whose character is so well known through Shakespeare's play of Henry the Fourth, resenting the king's injustice to his brother-in-law, Sir Edmund Mortimer, who had been taken prisoner by the Welsh, and whom Henry, for reasons of policy, declined to ransom, entered into a league with Owen Glendower, in whose custody Mortimer was, for a combined war against the king.

' The whole family of the Percies seem to have felt that their services to Henry of Lancaster were ill requited. The earl himself joined the conspiracy. His brother Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester (so created by Richard II.), stood also to all appearance in high favour with the king, who had entrusted him with the care of his son Henry, prince of Wales. But he suddenly left the court and joined his nephew in the north, both sending forth proclamations and raising the country. The rebellion was crushed in the battle of Shrewsbury (1403), in which Hotspur was slain, and the earl of Worcester was beheaded just after the fight, while Northumberland was marching southwards to join with them. Having taken no active part in the movement, the earl pretended that he had really been going to assist the king, and had wished to avert hostilities. He after-wards went peaceably to the king at York, and was placed in custody; but such was his power and influence that next year he was acquitted of treason in full parliament, and had all his honours and possessions restored to him. All confidence, however, between him and the king was at an end, and in 1405 he joined the insurrection of Arch-bishop Scrope, who, after being beheaded as a rebel, was venerated as a martyr over the whole north of England. Then he fled to Scotland, afterwards to Wales, and in the end, returning to his own country, perished in a new rebellion at Bramham Moor.

The title and estates were thus forfeited. But, by an act no less gracious than politic, Henry V. restored them to this earl's grandson, then a prisoner with the Scots, whose liberation he had no difficulty in procuring from the duke of Albany during the time of James I.'s captivity. From that day the loyalty of the family to the house of Lancaster was steadfast and undeviating. The second earl died fighting for Henry VI. at the first battle of St Albans in 1455 ; the third was slain in the bloody field of Towton (1461); the fourth was killed in quelling an insurrection in the time of Henry VII. So strong was the Lancastrian feeling of the family that even Sir Ralph Percy, a brother of the earl who fell at Towton, though he had actually submitted once to Edward IV., turned again, and when he fell at Hedgley Moor consoled himself with the thought that he had, as he phrased it, " saved the bird in his bosom."

No wonder, then, that in Edward IV.'s days the title and estates of the family were for a time taken away and given to Lord Montagu, brother of Warwick the king-maker. But the north was so accustomed to the rule of the Percies that in a few years Edward saw the necessity of restoring them, and did so even at the cost of alienating still further the powerful family of the Nevilles, who were then already on the point of rebellion.

A crisis occurred in the fortunes of the family in the reign of Henry VIII. on the death of the sixth earl, whose two brothers, much against his will, had taken part in the great insurrection called the "Pilgrimage of Grace." A thriftless man, of whom it is recorded that in his youth he was smitten with the charms of Anne Boleyn, but was forced to give her up and marry a woman he did not love, he died childless, after selling many of the family estates and granting the others to the king. The title was forfeited, and was granted by Edward VI. to the ambitious Dudley, earl of Warwick, who was attainted in the succeeding reign. It was restored in the days of Queen Elizabeth to Thomas Percy, who, being a staunch Catholic, was one of the three earls who took the lead in the celebrated "Rising in the North," and was beheaded at York. His brother Henry, who succeeded him, was no less unhappy. Involved in Throgmorton's conspiracy, he was committed to the Tower, and was supposed to have shot himself in bed with a pistol found beside him; but there were grave suspicions that it had been discharged by another hand. His son, the next earl, suffered like his two predecessors for his attachment to the religion of his forefathers. The crown lawyers sought in vain to implicate him in the Gunpowder Plot; but he was imprisoned for fifteen years in the Tower and compelled to pay a fine of £30,000. The son who next succeeded was a Parliamentary general in the Civil War. At length, in 1670, the male line of this illustrious family became extinct, just five hundred years after the marriage of Agnes de Percy with Josceline of Louvain.

Not one of the English noble houses is so distinguished as the Percies throughout the whole range of English history. It is remarkable alike for its long unbroken line, its high achievements, its general culture of arts and of letters. Pre-eminent also, as remarked by Sir Harris Nicolas, for its alliances among the peerage, it continues to this day, though represented once more by a female branch. The present dukedom of Northumberland was created in 1766 in the family of Smithson, who assumed the name of Percy and have borne it ever since. Sir Hugh Smithson, who became the first duke, married a granddaughter of a daughter of the la-st earl. (J. GA.)

The above article was written by: James Gairdner, Public Record Office, London.

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