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Portrait of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland
Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632)

HENRY PERCY, ninth Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632), son of Henry Percy, eighth earl, born at Tynemouth Castle in 1564, was educated in the protestant faith by one Thompson, vicar of Egremont. In 1582 he set out on a foreign tour, and at Paris he formed an intimacy with Charles Paget, agent of Mary Queen of Scots and a staunch Roman catholic — a circumstance which raised suspicions of his loyalty. Both Paget and himself wrote home denying that religion entered into their discussions.

He developed literary tastes, read Guicciardini and Holinshed, and purchased works of art. Astrology and alchemy interested him, and among his possessions in early life was a crystal globe. His indulgence in scientific experiments gained for him the sobriquet of 'the Wizard Earl.' He was soon passionately addicted to tobacco-smoking, and lost large sums of money by gaming. In 1585, on his father's death, he succeeded to the earldom of Northumberland, and settled in London at the family residence near St. Andrew's Hill, Blackfriars. In 1590 he removed his London dwelling to Russell House, St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, and in James I's reign to Walsingham House. He made Alnwick Castle his place of residence in the north.

Somewhat fanciful in his tastes, he was unpopular in domestic life. With his mother he was perpetually quarrelling, and his numerous tenants found him an unsympathetic and harsh landlord. He was a justice of the peace for Sussex, Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland, and the North, East, and West Ridings of Yorkshire, but neglected his duties and declined to take part in repressing border warfare. Meanwhile he took some part in other departments of public affairs. He served as a volunteer under the Earl of Leicester in the Low Countries in 1585-6, and in 1588 in the fleet sent against the Spanish armada. In 1591 he was made governor of Tynemouth. On 23 April 1593 he was installed a Knight of the Garter, and George Peele dedicated to him in the same year, in flattering terms, his elaborate poem entitled 'Honour of the Garter,' in which he celebrated the installation ceremony. In 1596 he carried the insignia of the order of the Garter to Henry IV of France, and in 1599 was nominated a general of the army.

Northumberland's name was entitled to stand eighth on the list of presumptive heirs to the crown, and the Roman catholics, who had hopes that he would yet declare for the faith of his fathers, suggested about 1590 that he should strengthen his claim by marrying another heiress, Lady Arabella Stuart.1 In 1590 he disappointed this design by wedding Dorothy, sister of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, and widow of Sir John Perrot. He was on good terms with his brother-in-law Essex, although he formed a low opinion of his character; but he found his wife uncongenial, and they frequently lived apart. No permanent breach, however, took place, and she stood by him in his later difficulties.

In 1600 he went to the Low Countries, and took part in military operations about Ostend. The English commander-in-chief, Sir Francis Vere, treated him with less respect than he deemed fitting, and, after brooding over his injuries, he sent Vere, in 1602, a challenge, which that general declined to treat as serious. A very angry correspondence followed. A similar quarrel with Lord Southampton was composed by the council.

When, during 1602, it became apparent that James VI of Scotland was certain to succeed to the English throne, Northumberland, following the example of his brother-in-law Essex and of Sir Robert Cecil, opened a correspondence with the Scottish king, and drew from him some pledge respecting his policy. James's conciliatory tone disarmed all Northumberland's scruples, and he became an ardent champion of James's claim. Although not an avowed catholic, Northumberland required of his future sovereign a promise of toleration for English catholics, and sent his kinsman Thomas Percy (1560-1605) to Edinburgh to receive assurances on this point. James forwarded a satisfactory message. Consequently, on Elizabeth's death and James's accession, Northumberland welcomed the new monarch with apparent enthusiasm.

He was at once made a privy councillor and captain of the band of gentleman pensioners, and next year (1604) was nominated joint lord lieutenant for Sussex and, with some inconsistency, a commissioner to expel Jesuits and seminary priests. On 30 Aug. 1605 he was created M.A. at Oxford. But the king's methods of government did not satisfy him. He and his wife had vigorously protested against the punishment of their friend Sir Walter Raleigh, and the persecution of the catholics had not been relaxed. The court was overrun by Scotsmen, for whom Northumberland acquired an antipathy. He is said, moreover, to have perceived that Prince Henry was likely to prove a more sagacious ruler than his father, and courted the prince's society more than James approved. In the autumn of 1605 he retired from court to Syon House, with the apparent intention of forsaking politics for the more congenial study of science and literature.

On the discovery of the 'Gunpowder Plot' of 5 Nov. 1605 some suspicion of complicity fell upon Northumberland. His kinsman Thomas Percy, one of the chief conspirators, had dined on 4 Nov. with Northumberland at Syon House. Lord Salisbury, whose relations with Northumberland were never cordial, deemed it prudent to commit the earl to the care of the archbishop of Canterbury at Croydon, 'there to be honourably used until things be more quiet.' Lord Salisbury informed a correspondent, Sir Charles Cornwallis, that no thought was harboured in the council that the earl was responsible for the plot. His arrest was only 'to satisfy the world that nothing be undone which belongs to policy of state when the whole monarchy was proscribed to dissolution.'2 On the 11th, in a letter to the council, Northumberland appealed to his habits of life as proof that his interests lay elsewhere than in political conspiracy. 'Examine,' he said, 'but my humours in buildings, gardenings, and private expenses these two years past.' He had few arms, horses, or followers at Syon, and had known none of the conspirators excepting Percy. On 27 Nov., however, he was sent to the Tower.

On 27 June 1606 he was tried in the court of Star-chamber for contempt and misprision of treason. It was stated that he had sought to become chief of the papists in England; that knowing Thomas Percy to be a recusant he had admitted him to be a gentleman pensioner without administering to him the oath of supremacy; that after the discovery of the plot he had written to friends in the north about securing his own moneys, but gave no orders for Percy's apprehension. He pleaded guilty to some of the facts set forth in the indictment, but indignantly repudiated the inferences placed upon them by his prosecutors. He was sentenced to pay a fine of £30,000,3 to be removed from all offices and places, to be rendered incapable of holding any of them hereafter, and to be kept a prisoner in the Tower for life.

Northumberland emphatically protested to the king against the severity of this sentence, and his wife appealed to the queen, who had shown much kindly interest in him. But the authorities were obdurate. The king insisted that £11,000 of the fine should be paid at once, and, when the earl declared himself unable to find the money, his estates were seized, and funds were raised by granting leases on them. The leases were ultimately recalled, and the earl managed to pay £11,000 on 13 Nov. 1613; but more than seven years of imprisonment still awaited him.

Northumberland gathered about him in the Tower men of learning, to whom he paid salaries for assisting him in his studies. Thomas Harriot, Walter Warner, and Thomas Hughes, the mathematicians, were regular attendants and pensioners, and were known as the earl's 'three magi.' Nicholas Hill aided him in experiments in astrology and alchemy. He also saw something of his fellow-prisoner, Sir Walter Raleigh. A large library was placed in his cell, consisting mainly of Italian books on fortification, astrology, and medicine. But Tasso and Machiavelli were among them. His only English works were Chapman's Homer, 'The Gardener's Labyrinth,' Daniel's 'History of England,' and Florio's 'Dictionary'.4

A part of his time was occupied in writing his 'Advice to his Son (Algernon) on his Travels,' which was printed from the manuscript at Alnwick in the 'Antiquarian Repertory,' iv. 374. For some years his second daughter, Lucy, was his companion in the Tower. She formed a strong affection for James Hay, afterwards Earl of Carlisle, and resolved to marry him. Northumberland disliked Hay as a Scotsman and a favourite of the king, and declined to sanction the union. The marriage, however, took place in 1617. Thereupon Hay, in order, apparently, to overcome Northumberland's prejudice against him, made every effort to obtain his release. In this he at length proved successful. In 1621 James was induced to celebrate his birthday by setting Northumberland and other political prisoners at liberty.

The earl showed some compunction in accepting a favour which he attributed to Hay's agency. However, on 18 July, he was induced to leave the Tower after an imprisonment of nearly sixteen years. He was advised to recruit his health at Bath. Thither he travelled in a coach drawn by eight horses. The story is told that he insisted on this equipage in order to mark his sense of superiority to the king's favourite, Buckingham, who had lately travelled about the country in a coach-and-six. But Hay was doubtless responsible for the demonstration. Bath worked a speedy cure, and Northumberland retired to his house at Petworth. He took no further part in public affairs, and died at Petworth on 5 Nov. 1632, being buried in the church there. His portrait was painted by Vandyck.

By his wife, who died on 3 Aug. 1619, and was also buried at Petworth, he was father of Algernon Percy, tenth earl, and Henry Percy, lord Percy of Alnwick, and of two daughters, Dorothy (1598-1677), wife of Robert Sidney, second earl of Leicester, and Lucy Hay, countess of Carlisle.

1. cf. Thomas Wilson, State of England, 1600.
2. Winwood, Memorials, ii. 172.
3. £30,000 in 1606 had roughly the same purchasing power as £4.35 million in 2008. Source: Measuring Worth
4. De Fonblanque, Annals of the House of Percy, ii. 626 sq.


Lee, Sidney. "Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland."
The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol XLIV. Sidney Lee, Ed.
New York: Macmillan and Co., 1895. 411-413.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study: Batho, G. R, ed. The Household Papers of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland.
            The Royal Historical Society, 1962.

Brenan, Gerald. A History of the House of Percy.
            Fremantle & Co., 1902.

Collins, Arthur. An History of the Ancient and Illustrious Family of the Percys.
           Gale ECCO, 2010. (Reprint from 1750)

De Fonblanque, E. Barrington. Annals of the House of Percy.
           London: Richard Clay & Sons, 1887.

Lomas, Richard. A Power in the Land: The Percys.
           East Linton: Tuckwell Press, Ltd., 1999.

Rose, Alexander. Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History.
            Phoenix Press, 2003.

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This page was created on August 20, 2009. Last updated April 26, 2023.

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