This is more usually a first or Christian name, and sometimes encourages unfair laughter: “Come on Percy, show ‘em wot you got!” As a surname or family name it should inspire respect, possibly awe because the Percy family have figured in British history almost since the damp mists of Time.
The Percys were marcher lords (q.v.) in the far north-east of England. A William de Percy was given vast lands by William the Conquerer in return for helping him conquer England. He fought beside Duke William the Norman bastard at the Battle of Hastings (1066).
Only a couple of centuries after Hastings, most of the north of England was divided between the Nevilles and the Percys. The family also owned great estates in Essex, Hampshire, Lincoln- shire and Yorkshire. But Northumberland meant (and means) Percy, and it was on the wild coast of that inhospitable region that the family built (in 1309) a castle at Alnwick, which is not only still there – it is inhabited by Percys.
That was feudal England, when power was exercised even at local level as an autocracy. By the fourteenth century the patriarch of families like the Percys was more like a king, master of all he surveyed. They ruled Northumberland. These were also the days in which there was no automatic unquestionable love, loyalty or respect for the King – especially among the nobles.
Still, it didn’t do to be too obvious. It was a Lord Alnwick who led the charge in the battle of Neville’s Cross in October 1346, during the meandering Hundred Year’s War with France. The charge was led against a Scottish force, because Scotland, true to form, had become chief ally of the French. Another Percy fought in France with Edward III and the young Black Prince at Crécy.
Henry, 4th Lord of Alnwick soon became Edward’s most important courtier (and political magnate). In 1377 Henry Percy was Marshal of England, and then Earl of Northumberland. But later the Earl came to be seen as a traitor. He led a rebellion against Henry IV in 1403, and joined forces with Edmund de Mortimer and the Welsh prince Owen Glendower or Glyndwr. This first Earl was defeated and ran off to Scotland, against which, as a Marcher Lord, he was supposed to be defending England. Far from defending his country, he used to make raiding sorties into England from Scotland. He was not a popular Percy (see Shakespeare). Later, at Bramham Moor, the first Percy Earl was killed.
His son was the most famous of all the Percys, nicknamed ‘Hotspur’, made famous by Shakespeare in Henry IV Part I. He was an athlete and a fearless knight who made his name fighting in France. He met a gallant end at the Battle of Shrewsbury fighting against Bolinbroke, whom he had originally helped to become Henry IV. It is just possible that this Percy had engaged in personal combat with the future Henry V, Prince Hal, but this may be the stuff of troubadours. In the same battle his uncle, another Percy, was captured and summarily dispatched, a truly medieval custom. The Percys were a bad smell for a few years.
Not even kings could leave the Percys out in the rain for long, and when Hal became Henry V he restored the lands his father had confiscated and made the current Percy an Earl again. In 1455 the Wars of the Roses started off with a frightful bang at the First Battle of St. Albans, in which the High Constable of England, a Percy of course, was killed.
In the early sixteenth century the Percys were again separated from their estates. The 6th Earl died in 1537 without having an heir. His brother could not inherit because he had just been executed for taking part in a rebellion against the monster Henry VIII. This was called The Pilgrimage of Grace, but what it meant was widespread unrest in the whole country.
Henry VIII’s son Edward VI (who was not destined to live long) gave the Percy titles and lands to a nasty individual called John Dudley, who now became Earl of Warwick and Earl of Northumberland. He did away with the Duke of Somerset, uncle of the young king, and brother of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. With Henry the Monster on his deathbed, this Dudley Northumberland promoted the idea of making his daughter-in-law, poor Lady Jane Grey the Queen, with his son Guildford Dudley as Consort. The Monster’s daughter, Catholic Mary Tudor was not having any of this, and the teenage couple lost their heads. So did John Dudley, who was executed in 1553.
Mary Tudor, now Mary I of England, gave the original Earldom back to a Percy, Sir Thomas, son of the man who had foolishly taken part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Thomas Percy, the new 7th Earl, was mad enough to take part in what is called The Northern Lords’ Rising in 1570. This was a purely family affair, really, as the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl (and many others) thought the rapidly rising Cecil family too powerful, exerting a bad influence over Queen Elizabeth I. It was all to do with religion. The Percys and the Nevilles were demanding that the Church of Rome should be restored to what they considered was its proper place in English religious life. They also wanted Mary Queen of Scots to be returned from imprisonment to Scotland. As a result of the Cecils’ influence over the Queen, Thomas Percy was executed at York in 1572.
The 8th Earl of Northumberland, Thomas’ brother Henry took part in yet another how-do-you-do called the Throckmorton Plot, which was supposed to get rid of Elizabeth I and replace her with the young Queen of Scots (q.v.). The plan was supported by the Spanish throne and nobles, as well as by English religious exiles living in France. Mary Queen of Scots’s fearsome mother Mary and her brother the Duke hoped to mount an invasion. It failed, and Henry Percy was sent to the tower where, before he could be properly beheaded, someone murdered him.
The 9th Earl hoped for a quiet life, as indeed he should have done, but his hope was in vain. The Percy name seemed to be cursed. He was wrongly accused of being involved in the Gunpowder Plot (q.v.) against James I (1605). This was probably because he was an ardent Catholic, but on the other hand there was no evidence anywhere of his supposed complicity. He was fined then enormous sum of £30,000 and imprisoned in the Tower of London for fifteen years.
The 10th Earl, Algernon Percy succeeded at the age of thirty. He was doubtless the most important peer in the North. King Charles I needed his support and made him a member of the Order of the Garter. In 1636 he became Admiral of the Fleet, and during his time in this post compiled one of the most comprehensive assessments of the Navy ever seen. Percy presented the King with complete lists of examples of corruption and mismanagement among the commissioners but the King couldn’t be bothered, so the corruption and mismanagement continued. Nevertheless, he was created Lord High Admiral of England, though he could only be so until the king’s brother James (the future James II) came of age!
Later generations of this remarkable family resumed their role as guardians of the northern frontier, as generations of Scots made a habit of raids. Then the real male line ended in 1670 and the surname and titles might have vanished, as has happened in so many distinguished families, had not the earldom passed in the female line to a gentleman called Sir Hugh Smithson (1715 – 56) who married a Percy lady and changed his surname by deed poll to Percy. Not only this, but later he was created (in 1766) Duke. The present Dukes of Northumberland are still very much with us, and their home base is in Alnwick Castle. Film fans will know that many exterior scenes in the film series Harry Potter were filmed at Alnwick, by permission of the Percys.