The Percys of Northumberland, then and now

To my fascination, I just found out that the Percy line, the Earls and Dukes of Northumberland, still exists in England, and that the 11th Duke of Northumberland, who died of a drug overdose in 1995, was named Henry (Harry) Percy, just like Henry (Harry) Percy, a.k.a. Harry Hotspur, the son of the Earl of Northumberland whose rebellion against the King is portrayed in one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Henry IV Part One. And, further, that the present Duke of Northumberland, Harry Percy’s younger brother Ralph, lives in Alnwick Castle, where Harry Hotspur was born in 1364.

I made the connection when reading an article in Thursday’s New York Times, “The Versailles of the North.” It is about the Duchess of Northumberland, who has become controversial as a result of her construction of large gardens on her husband’s estate which borrow their motifs more from Euro Disney and the fantastical Bellagio’s in Las Vegas than from traditional English country gardens. A few paragraphs into the article, we’re told,

The saga began in 1995, when the duchess, then 36 and known as Jane Percy, was living with her husband, Ralph, a 38-year-old property surveyor, and their four children in a farm house half an hour north of Alnwick (pronounced ANN-ick). That October Mr. Percy’s brother Harry, the 11th Duke of Northumberland, was found dead in London from an overdose of amphetamines. Ralph Percy was suddenly the 12th duke, with holdings that included 120,000 acres of land, 171 tenant farms and 700 houses and cottages, along with Alnwick Castle, with its collections of Meissen china, Louis XIV furniture and paintings by Titian, Caneletto and Van Dyke. According to The Sunday Times of London, the duke is the 270th richest person in Britain, with a fortune estimated at £300 million.

The article tells us nothing more about the family history, but the name Harry Percy, Duke of Northumberland leaped out at me, reminding me of Harry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland in Shakespeare’s play, and, as I found out from Wikipedia, they are indeed of the same Percys. To think of the same family, keeping the same surname, the same estate, and the same castle, for 699 years (the third Henry Percy purchased Alnwick Castle in 1309), and the same title, more or less, for 631 years (Hotspur’s father was made the first Earl of Northumberland in 1377) is kind of thrilling.

Of course’s Shakespeare’s history plays are highly fictionalized. At the climax of Henry IV Part One, Harry Hotspur, who with his father and others is in rebellion against the King, is slain at the battle of Shrewsbury in one-on-one combat by Prince Harry, the future Henry V. In reality, as Wikipedia tells us,

… Hotspur was defeated and killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury when he raised his visor to get some air (as he was wearing plate armour which restricted air circulation) and was immediately hit in the mouth with an arrow and killed instantly.

The central tension of the play is that Prince Harry, instead of attending to affairs of state, spends his time in low and mischievous pursuits with his friends Falstaff and Poins, while the King worries that Hotspur, of the same age as the prince, is a far better man and soldier than his own son. In reality, Hotspur was born between 1364 and 1366, while Prince Harry was born in 1387. At the time of the battle of Shrewsbury, Hotspur was in his late 30s, and the Prince was 16.

Here is the great scene where the King pours forth his anguish at his son’s bad behavior, and the Prince promises that he will reform himself, telling his father, “Percy is but my factor, good my lord,” meaning that Percy is but his agent, whose glorious deeds will only make the Prince’s deeds shine forth even the greater. “

ACT III SCENE II. London. The palace.


Lords, give us leave; the Prince of Wales and I
Must have some private conference; but be near at hand,
For we shall presently have need of you.
[Exeunt Lords]
I know not whether God will have it so,
For some displeasing service I have done,
That, in his secret doom, out of my blood
He’ll breed revengement and a scourge for me;
But thou dost in thy passages of life
Make me believe that thou art only mark’d
For the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven
To punish my mistreadings. Tell me else,
Could such inordinate and low desires,
Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts,
Such barren pleasures, rude society,
As thou art match’d withal and grafted to,
Accompany the greatness of thy blood
And hold their level with thy princely heart?
So please your majesty, I would I could
Quit all offences with as clear excuse
As well as I am doubtless I can purge
Myself of many I am charged withal:
Yet such extenuation let me beg,
As, in reproof of many tales devised,
which oft the ear of greatness needs must hear,
By smiling pick-thanks and base news-mongers,
I may, for some things true, wherein my youth
Hath faulty wander’d and irregular,
Find pardon on my true submission.
God pardon thee! yet let me wonder, Harry,
At thy affections, which do hold a wing
Quite from the flight of all thy ancestors.
Thy place in council thou hast rudely lost.
Which by thy younger brother is supplied,
And art almost an alien to the hearts
Of all the court and princes of my blood:
The hope and expectation of thy time
Is ruin’d, and the soul of every man
Prophetically doth forethink thy fall.
Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney’d in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder’d at;
That men would tell their children ‘This is he;’
Others would say ‘Where, which is Bolingbroke?’
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress’d myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new;
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne’er seen but wonder’d at: and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast
And won by rareness such solemnity.
The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative,
Grew a companion to the common streets,
Enfeoff’d himself to popularity;
That, being daily swallow’d by men’s eyes,
They surfeited with honey and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little
More than a little is by much too much.
So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes;
But rather drowzed and hung their eyelids down,
Slept in his face and render’d such aspect
As cloudy men use to their adversaries,
Being with his presence glutted, gorged and full.
And in that very line, Harry, standest thou;
For thou has lost thy princely privilege
With vile participation: not an eye
But is a-weary of thy common sight,
Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more;
Which now doth that I would not have it do,
Make blind itself with foolish tenderness.
I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord,
Be more myself.
For all the world
As thou art to this hour was Richard then
[Richard II, whom Henry IV deposed]
When I from France set foot at Ravenspurgh,
And even as I was then is Percy now.
Now, by my sceptre and my soul to boot,
He hath more worthy interest to the state
Than thou the shadow of succession;
For of no right, nor colour like to right,
He doth fill fields with harness in the realm,
Turns head against the lion’s armed jaws,
And, being no more in debt to years than thou,
Leads ancient lords and reverend bishops on
To bloody battles and to bruising arms.
What never-dying honour hath he got
Against renowned Douglas! whose high deeds,
Whose hot incursions and great name in arms
Holds from all soldiers chief majority
And military title capital
Through all the kingdoms that acknowledge Christ:
Thrice hath this Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes,
This infant warrior, in his enterprises
Discomfited great Douglas, ta’en him once,
Enlarged him and made a friend of him,
To fill the mouth of deep defiance up
And shake the peace and safety of our throne.
And what say you to this? Percy, Northumberland,
The Archbishop’s grace of York, Douglas, Mortimer,
Capitulate against us and are up.
But wherefore do I tell these news to thee?
Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes,
Which art my near’st and dearest enemy?
Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,
Base inclination and the start of spleen
To fight against me under Percy’s pay,
To dog his heels and curtsy at his frowns,
To show how much thou art degenerate.
Do not think so; you shall not find it so:
And God forgive them that so much have sway’d
Your majesty’s good thoughts away from me!
I will redeem all this on Percy’s head
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account,
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
This, in the name of God, I promise here:
The which if He be pleased I shall perform,
I do beseech your majesty may salve
The long-grown wounds of my intemperance:
If not, the end of life cancels all bands;
And I will die a hundred thousand deaths
Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow.
A hundred thousand rebels die in this:
Thou shalt have charge and sovereign trust herein.
Also, here is Act I Secne 2, one of the most delightful scenes in all of literature, where we see the as-yet unreformed Prince trading wits with his pal Falstaff.

And here is Act I, Scene 3, where the fatal argument between the King and Hotspur breaks out, and Hotspur’s hot and marshal temper is expressed to the full. While I had read the play many times previously, I felt I really didn’t understand the character of Hotspur until I saw a production of the play at the Public Theater many years ago and the actor playing Hotspur made him a living man, literally stomping his feet on the ground in impatience and rage. The actor made it all the clearer that while Hotspur has noble and sympathetic qualities, and is a “force of nature,” he is a man of impulse, not reason.

- end of initial entry -

Graye writes:

I am a frequent reader of your blog. Thank you about your entry about the Percy family.

Here is a bit of gossip about Harry Percy, the 11th Duke, who was a godson of Her Majesty the Queen. He never married and was a somewhat sad man. The overdose of amphetamines from which he died was said to be related to his suffering from myalgic encephalomyelitis. He was involved with Valerie Campbell, the mother of notorious “supermodel” Naomi Campbell, recurrent thrower of bejewelled communication devices, who would be long in real trouble were she white and the victims of her temper tantrums black. Like so many grossly overweight people, he was personally kind and friendly. A tragic figure, to say the least.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 18, 2008 02:03 AM | Send

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