What happened to the Percies?


The current Duke of Northumberland, Ralph Percy is the uncrowned King of Northumberland. He lives in an impregnable, grey austere medieval fortress, Alnwick Castle, which was built in 1100 and has been the home of his ancestors since 1309; his estate covers 98,000 acres with 3500 separate tenancies and is one of the best run in the country.

His Graces immediate ancestors include the Duke of Sutherland, the Duke of Hamilton and the Duke of Buccleuch. His great grandfather was Duke of Richmond and his great great grandfather was Duke of Argyle. But more than all of this, Ralph Percy is the head of the Percys a family that can trace its ancestry back to Normandy and Northern France well before the events of 1066 took place. The Percy’s gave us amongst others Hotspur, immortalised by Shakespeare and the Blessed Thomas Percy, beheaded by Elizabeth I and the infamous Thomas Percy who was so inextricably linked to the infamous ‘GUN POWDER PLOT’.

Who were the Percy’s?

What has been previously written and published about the origins of the Percy’s, says they were a Viking/Norman family descended from Mainfred, the Danish Chieftain who settled in Normandy before 886 as has been described wherein there is an essence of fact.

What is true, is that the family’s chief seat was at a place called Perci in Normandy and according to custom they took their name from their property. The history of this great family prior to this is reflected in what is now known of their heraldry and DNA which all points toward their existence before they came to Normandy to the town of Lille near Bethune in Flanders.

The first member of the Percy family to come to England was Alan de Percy well before 1066. The next to arrive was William de Percy a son of Alan (1030 – 1096), and an intimate friend of William the Conquerer; he came to England in 1067 and was known as ‘Algersnons’ due to his wearing of whiskers – a beard. This William de Percy or ‘Algersnons’ established himself in the North of England immediately, and by the time Domesday Book was compiled, he was listed as being Lord of over 100 manors. His descendants bore the title Baron Percy.

It is an illustrious pedigree, second to none. Only one thing is wrong! The current Duke of Northumberland and recipient of the family’s ancient titles is not a Percy at all. His surname and that of his ancestors should be Smithson.

In the early 17th century the 10th Earl of Northumberland Algernon Percy played a prominate part in the restoration of the Monarchy. He married twice; first to a daughter of the Cecil family, in spite of his father’s deep disapproval, who said that ‘the blood of a Percy would not mix with the blood of a Cecil if you poured it on a dish’. That may have well been the case, but the trouble was it appeared that there was very little Percy blood left, and something had to be done. The marriage produced five daughters, and the wife died. His second wife was a daughter of the Howards and this marriage produced one son the 11th Earl who had in turn one son who died in infancy. With that child the Percy’s apparently came to an end as no effort was made to locate any other living cadet branches of the family to find any direct male descendants of William with the whiskers. (see James Percy the Trunckmaker case!). All that was left it seemed was one Daughter the Lady Elizabeth Percy, who became the loneliest and richest heiress in the country when her father died while in Italy in 1670 at the age of twenty five. As a mere infant of four years she was to carry the heavy burden and responsibilities of the family’s vast estates. The Earldom of Northumberland and the Barony of Percy were now it seems wrongly deemed to be extinct, and it looked like the ancient family of Percy would die with her. She was the most eligible heiress in England, and as a result the poor girl was married three times before her sixteenth birthday due to the untiring work and manipulations of her dowager Mother. 

To understand how the modern duke of Northumberland can tell himself a Percy when the Percy line apparently became extinct in 1670, one must examine with intrigue the complicated series of accidents, designs and machinations involving the descendants of Lady Elizabeth Percy. Elizabeth nicknamed ‘carrots’ due to her red hair was pestered by suitors. Charles II wanted her as a wife for one of his bastard sons, but this time he was unlucky. At the age of twelve, she was made to marry the Earl of Ogle, who died six months later. Her second husband was Thomas Thynne of Longleat, who was murdered by hired assassins in Pall Mall at the behest of another jealous suitor, Count Koningsmark. Twice a widow at the age of sixteen, she finally married in 1682 that preposterous “Proud” Duke of Somerset. It is not even possible to say that she lived happily ever after, since life, as the Duchess of Somerset, the consort of a mad over bearing tyrant, cannot have been pleasant. She died in 1722, and all her Percy estates against the direct wishes of her ancestors somehow became vested in the dukedom of Somerset. Immediately their son Algernon Seymour was created Baron Percy to protect the families’ inheritance.

Algernon married and produced a son and daughter. The son was Lord Beauchamp, heir to the dukedom of Somerset and eventual heir to the Percy properties including Alnwick Castle, would, in the normal course, pass down with the dukedom of Somerset. The daughter was Elizabeth Seymour, who in 1740 made a marriage of significance.

Elizabeth Seymour’s husband was a Yorkshire squire, Sir Hugh Smithson, Bart. She was thereupon known as Lady Betty Smithson, and for her next four years there was no reason to imagine that their status would change as he was no heir to any title. Then in 1744 Lady Betty’s brother Lord Beauchamp suddenly died, an event, which threw all the related families into disarray. It meant the eventual end of that line of Seymours, and it made Lady Betty sole heiress to some of the Seymour estates, and to all the Percy estates of her grandmother. It also made Sir Hugh Smithson a very important man indeed.

The fate of the Seymour’s, the Percy’s and the Smithson’s was settled in a kaleidoscope of events between 1748 and 1750. First, the Proud Duke of Somerset died, and was succeeded as 7th Duke by his son Algernon, Lady Betty’s father. In 1749, the 7th Duke of Somerset was wrongly made 1st Earl of Northumberland of a new creation. He had no legitimate male heirs, so a most unusual stipulation was included in the patent of creation, according to which the title and Percy estates (including Alnwick Castle) should pass at his death to his son in law Smithson, and subsequently to Smithsons heirs by the body of Lady Betty. In 1750 the 7th Duke of Somerset died. The Dukedom passed to a very distant kinsman (ancestor to the present Duke of Somerset), and the new Earldom of Northumberland passed to Sir Hugh Smithson, who promptly assumed the name and arms of Percy by an act of Parliament.

Almost a century had passed since the last Percy Earl of Northumberland had died, well beyond the memory of those alive in 1750. Smithson had married not a Percy, but a Seymour, great grand daughter of the apparently lone male survivor of the last Percy Earl. That he should now become a Percy was altogether an amazing piece of fantastic invention.

The Smithsons were themselves a modest but ancient Yorkshire family. In Domesday Book there is listed a certain Malgrun de Smethton, from whom there is clear descent through to Sir Hugh. But this was little compared to the majesty of Alnwick Castle and the riches that came from the ownership of several thousand acres. Unfortunately the signs are that Smithsons sudden elevation to the highest ranks went straight to his head.

To be Earl of Northumberland was not enough for his vanity, although it had satisfied generations of the real Percys. He was proposed as Lord chamberlain, but the Marquis of Hertford was appointed instead. Northumberland demanded some sort of advancement by way of compensation, and when a Marquessate was suggested, he insisted that he have a Dukedom. The King, George III somehow agreed! So Sir Hugh Smithson became the 1st Duke of Northumberland and Earl Percy in 1766, and Viscount Lovaine of Alnwick in 1784. He is the direct ancestor of the present Duke.

The only inconvenience, which might upset matters, would be the sudden appearance of a genuine Percy heir. They were not wanting but one claimant James Percy, had pressed his rights for twenty years immediately after the death of Josceline the last Earl of Northumberland in 1670. He was a trunk maker and wanted to be an earl so he petitioned the House of Lords. He failed miserably due to the unending and ruthlessley determined dowager Duchess, Elizabeths Mother. James Percy was eventually made to wear a sign around his neck proclaiming him “The impudent pretender to the ancient title of Earldom of Northumberland”.