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Earl of Northumberland: Wikis


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The title of Earl of Northumberland was created several times in the Peerages of England and Great Britain, succeeding the title Earl of Northumbria. Its most famous holders were the House of Percy (also Perci), who were the most powerful noble family in Northern England for much of the Middle Ages. The heirs of the Percys were ultimately made Duke of Northumberland in 1766.


Percy family

The Percys, descended from a Danish raider named Mainfred who settled in the Pays de Caux (northwest of Rouen) in the ninth century, had modest estates in Yorkshire, bestowed by the Conqueror on the first of the name to arrive in England in his train.¹ The family, however, was represented by an heiress only in the reign of Henry I, Agnes de Percy. The King's second wife, a daughter of the Duke of Brabant, thought Agnes, with her wide possessions, a suitable match for her own young half-brother, Joscelin of Louvain. The marriage took place and the match produced the long line of Henry Percys ("Henry" being a favourite name of the Counts of Louvain) who played such a large part in the history of both England and Scotland. As nearly every Percy was a Warden of the Marches, Scottish doings concerned them more or less intimately—indeed, often more so than English affairs.

It was the third Henry Percy who purchased Alnwick Castle in 1309 from Antony Bec, Bishop of Durham and guardian of the last De Vesci, and from that time the fortunes of the Percys, though they still held their Yorkshire estates, were linked permanently with the little town on the Aln, and the fortress which commanded and defended it. The fourth Henry Percy began to build the castle as we see it now; but to call him "the fourth" is a little confusing, as he was the second Henry Percy, Lord of Alnwick. On the whole, it will be clearer to begin the enumerations of the various Henry Percys from the time they became Lords of Alnwick. It was, then, Henry Percy the second, Lord of Alnwick, who began the re-building of the castle; he also was jointly responsible for the safety of the realm during the absence of Edward III in the French wars, and in this official capacity he helped to win the battle of Neville's Cross. His son, Henry, married a sister-in-law of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster.

1377 creation

In 1377 the next Henry Percy, was created Earl of Northumberland, which title he was given after the coronation of Richard II. Nor was this all, for he was that Northumberland whose doings in the next reign fill so large a part of Shakespeare's Henry IV, and he was the father of the most famous Percy of all, Henry Percy the fifth, better known as "Hotspur." Hotspur never became Earl of Northumberland, being slain at Shrewsbury in the lifetime of his father, whose estates were forfeited under attainder on account of the rebellion of himself and his son against King Henry IV.

1416 creation

Henry V restored Hotspur's son, the second Earl, to his family honours, and the Percies were staunch Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses which followed, the third Earl and three of his brothers losing their lives in the cause. The fourth Earl was involved in the political maneuverings of the last Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III. Either through indecision or treachery, he did not respond in a timely manner at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and thus helped cause his ally Richard III's defeat at the hands of Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII). In 1489, he was pulled from his horse and murdered by some of his tenants. The fifth Earl was a gorgeous person whose magnificence equalled, almost, that of royalty. Henry Percy, the sixth Earl of Northumberland, loved Anne Boleyn, and was her accepted suitor before Henry VIII unfortunately discovered the lady's charm, and interfered such that Percy lost his prospective bride. He had no son, although married later to the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and his nephew, Thomas Percy, became the seventh Earl.

Thereafter, a succession of plots and counterplots—the Rising of the North, the plots to liberate Mary Queen of Scots, and the Gunpowder Plot — each claimed a Percy among their adherents. On this account the eighth and ninth Earls spent many years in the Tower, but the tenth Earl, Algernon, fought for King Charles in the Civil War, the male line of the Percy-Louvain house ending with Josceline, the eleventh Earl. The heiress to the vast Percy estates married the Duke of Somerset; and her granddaughter married a Yorkshire knight, Sir Hugh Smithson, who in 1766 was created the first Duke of Northumberland and Earl Percy, and it is their descendants who now represent the famous old house. One of Sir Hugh's illegitimate sons, James Smithson, left behind a bequest to found the Smithsonian Institution.

The current duke lives at Alnwick Castle and Syon House, just outside London. Parts of the Harry Potter movies were shot at Alnwick, and there is a scene in The Madness of King George (when Pitt walks backward from the king down a long corridor) filmed at Syon.

¹Another branch of the family remained in Normandy which is still in existence.

List of titleholders


Early earls

Earls of Northumberland, first [re]creation (1377)

Earls of Northumberland, second [re]creation (1416)

Various references use at least three different sequences of numbers for the Earls; the ones shown here are those used in the individual articles on the 12 Earls. The major difference arises from the question of whether Henry (1394–1455) was 1st as a new creation or 2nd as a restoration of the rights of his grandfather, Henry (1341–1408)

Earls of Northumberland, fourth [re]creation (1674)

Earls of Northumberland, fifth [re]creation (1749)

The line continues with the Dukes of Northumberland (third creation)

See also

Further reading

  • Rose, Alexander. Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History. Phoenix/Orion Books Ltd, 2002. ISBN 0297818600, ISBN 1-84212-485-4.

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