The Percys — Aphids on the Yorkist Rose

Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, was born on 3 February 1393 to Henry “Hotspur” Percy and Elizabeth Mortimer. He was just a 10 year old boy when his father died at the Battle of Shrewsbury on 21 July 1403, but if Hotspur had not been killed by a rogue arrow to the face during that conflict then the future 2nd Earl of Northumberland might have been Henry VI of England instead. The civil war between Henry IV and the Percy faction was that important, and Henry IV came within a hair of losing everything to them.

hotspur death

It is amazing how many things happened in the lifetime of one person, but the 2nd Earl was still in the nursery when his father and grandfather, the 1st Earl of Northumberland, supported Henry Bolingbroke’s theft of Richard II’s crown in 1399. Bolingbroke had promised to reward them well once he was King Henry IV, but the new king soon grew arrogant assumed he could be cavalier in the treatment of the men who had put him on the throne.

Henry IV may also thought he should keep those Percys in there place, lest they get ideas above there station. Now that one king had been deposed in favor of a cousin much farther down the line of inheritance, why not another? Hotspur’s wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March and Philippa of Clarence, who was the only legitimate child of Edward III’s SECOND son, while Henry IV was heir of Edward III’s FOURTH son. Hotspur’s son was really a more legitimate contender for the throne. Henry IV should have played nice, considering how loosely the crown wobbled on his head, but he tried the tough-guy monarchial approach instead … which got him into a war with several of his nobles spearheaded by the Percys.

Either sheer luck or divine intervention kept Henry IV and his heir alive, but Bolingbroke’s son was canny enough to see that he would need peace with the great northern families for his throne to be secure, so when Henry V was crowned in 1413 he was open to reconciliation with the Percy scion. Thus Henry Percy was granted his rights to the title of 2nd Earl of Northumberland in 1416.

Everything went well for several years, but then The Percy’s had a falling out with another powerful family – the Nevilles. Things came to a head when Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick and Richard, Duke of York, decided to usurp the throne from Henry VI and his son. Northumberland joined Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset in fighting for the king (mainly to thwart York/Neville). Northumberland and Somerset were both felled defending the king during the First Battle of St Albans, 22 May 1455.


This was considered the first battle in the bloody War of the Roses, and many more Percys would lose their lives before it was settled by the ascension of Henry VII in 1485. In 1460, the 2nd Earl’s second son, Thomas Percy, 1st Baron Egremont, died fighting for Henry VI in the Battle of Northampton. The Earl’s eldest and fifth sons,  Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland and Sir Richard Percy, were both killed by Yorkists at the Battle of Towton in 1461. The Earl’s fourth son, Sir Ralph Percy, died at the Battle of Hedgeley Moor in 1464.

The 2nd Earl’s grandson, yet another Henry Percy, had to eventually pledge fealty to York’s son, King Edward IV, to regain the the family titles and become the 4th Earl of Northumberland. However, this Earl would watch from the sidelines at the Battle of Bosworth Field as the last Yorkist, Richard III, fell. The 4th Earl became a trusted member of Henry VII’s court, but his grandson, the 6th Earl would die without an heir after being thwarted in a love match with Anne Boleyn. There were sufficient nephews to carry on the family linage, however, so that the male line didn’t end until Josceline, the eleventh Earl. Afterwards, his daughter Lady Elizabeth Percy, married Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset. Their granddaughter, another Elizabeth, married a Yorkshire knight named Sir Hugh Smithson, who took the last name of Percy and was created the first Duke of Northumberland in 1766 to elevate him to a rank worthy of his wife. The new Percy’s are still going strong in the form of Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland.


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