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 and 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 powerhouse Percys in their place, lest they get ideas above their station. Now that one king had been deposed in favour 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, albeit not as close as Edmund Mortimer himself. 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 throughout the ensuing rebellions, 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. Therefore, when Henry V was crowned in 1413 he let it be known he was open to reconciliation with the Percy scion. The teenage Henry Percy made peace with the new king, and 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 the Yorks and the Nevilles). 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 the matter was eventually settled. 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, now 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  in 1485 as the last Yorkist, Richard III, fell to Lancastrian/Tudor invaders and thereby assured the ascension of Henry VII. The 4th Earl of Northumberland 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, a descendant of  the eldest brother of the queen who supplanted Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII’s affections. The granddaughter of Charles Syemour and Elizabeth Percy, another Elizabeth, married a Yorkshire knight named Sir Hugh Smithson, who took the last name of Percy in honor of his wife’s powerful maternal ancestors. Hugh Smithson Percy was created the new Duke of Northumberland in 1766 to elevate him to a rank worthy of his wife.

These new Percy’s are still going strong in the form of Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, who married his childhood sweetheart and is a refreshingly devoted AND sensible parent. The youngest son of the 12th duke, Lord Max Ralph Percy recently married a Bavarian Princess, Nora Oettingen-Spielberg, on 15 July 2017, but the eldest son and heir has yet to get married and make future dukes. No rush, though. The gentleman in question is still in his early 30s.

The family’s ancestral home, Alnwick Castle, was also used as the setting for Hogwarts in the first Harry Potter movies. Perhaps not the future Hotspur envisioned, but it is nonetheless awesome.


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