Earl of Northumberland

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

Percy family

Left: Paternal arms of Henry de Percy, 1st Baron Percy (1273–1314): Azure, five fusils in fess or,[1]("Percy ancient") which he abandoned in favour of right: Or, a lion rampant azure ("Percy modern"/Brabant)[2] Both arms were quartered by the Percy Earls of Northumberland and remain quartered by the present Duke of Northumberland

William de Percy, 1st Baron Percy, who came from the village of Percy in Normandy, was in the train of William I. After arriving in England following the Harrying of the North (1069–70), he was bestowed modest estates in Yorkshire by Hugh d'Avranches. However, by the reign of Henry II the family was represented by only an heiress, Agnes de Percy (d.1203) following the death of the third feudal baron. As her dowry contained the manor of Topcliffe in Yorkshire, Adeliza of Louvain, the widowed and remarried second wife of Henry I, arranged the marriage of Agnes with her own young half-brother, Joscelin of Louvain. After their wedding, the nobleman from the Duchy of Brabant in the Holy Roman Empire settled in England. He adopted the surname Percy and his descendants were later created Earls of Northumberland. The Percys' line would go on to play a large role in the history of both England and Scotland. As nearly every Percy was a Warden of the Marches, Scottish affairs were often of more concern than those in England.[3]

In 1309 Henry de Percy, 1st Baron Percy purchased Alnwick Castle from Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham. The castle had been founded in the late 11th century by Ivo de Vesci, a Norman nobleman from Vassy, Calvados in Normandy. However, by the early 14th century, the English line of the De Vesci family had become extinct. The family's property and estates had been put into the guardianship of Bek, who sold them to the Percys. From this time the fortunes of the Percys, though they still held their Yorkshire lands and titles, were linked permanently with Alnwick and its castle.

Henry de Percy, 2nd Baron Percy, who was granted the lands of Patrick IV, Earl of March, in Northumberland, by Edward II in 1316, began to improve the size and defences of the castle. He was appointed to Edward III's Council in 1327 and was given the manor and castle of Skipton. Was granted, by Edward III, the castle and barony of Warkworth in 1328. He was at the siege of Dunbar and the Battle of Halidon Hill and was subsequently appointed constable of Berwick-upon-Tweed. In 1346, Henry commanded the right wing of the English Army which defeated a larger Scottish force at the Battle of Neville's Cross. His son, Henry de Percy, 3rd Baron Percy married Mary of Lancaster, an aunt of John of Gaunt's wife Blanche of Lancaster.[3]

1377 creation

17th century Percy Window in Petworth House, Sussex, displaying in stained glass 9 heraldic escutcheons of quartered arms of 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, father of 7th & 8th, 7th, 8th & 9th Percy Earls of Northumberland, each impaling the quartered arms of his wife

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.[3]

1416 creation

Henry V restored Hotspur's son, the second Earl, to his family honours, and the Percys 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.[3]

The fourth Earl was involved in the political manoeuvrings 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 displayed magnificence in his tastes, and being one of the richest magnates of his day, kept a very large household establishment.

Henry Percy, the sixth Earl of Northumberland, loved Anne Boleyn, and was her accepted suitor before Henry VIII married her. He married later to the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, but as he died without a son, his nephew, Thomas Percy became the seventh Earl.[3]

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.[3] 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.

List of titleholders

Early earls

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

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

Earl of Northumberland, third creation (1464)

Earls of Northumberland (1416, cont.)

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


The Earls of Northumberland in Literature and Media

  • The 1st Earl of Norhumberland and his son, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, play large roles in Shakespeare's play, "Henry IV, Part 1).
  • A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter (1st Earl of Northumberland and Henry "Hotspur" Percy)
  • Lion of Alnwick (Book 1 of The Percy Saga) by Carol Wensby-Scott (1st Earl of Northumberland and Henry "Hotspur" Percy)
  • Lion Dormant (Book 2 of The Percy Saga) by Carol Wensby-Scott (Hotspur's son the 2nd Earl of Northumberland and his son the 3rd Earl of Northumberland)
  • Lion Invincible (Book 3 of The Percy Saga) by Carol Wensby-Scott (The 4th Earl of Northumberland)
  • Alnwick Castle, the traditional home of the Earls of Northumberland, was used as the location of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.



  1. Debrett's Peerage, 1968, p.849, Duke of Northumberland
  2. Howard de Walden, Lord, Some Feudal Lords and their Seals 1301, published 1904, p.43
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Northumberland Yesterday and To-day by Jean F. Terry, 1913, from Project Gutenberg