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  Henry Percy (1564–1632), by Nicholas Hilliard, 1590–95 Henry Percy (1564–1632), by Nicholas Hilliard, 1590–95
Percy, Henry, ninth earl of Northumberland (1564–1632), nobleman, was born in April 1564 at Tynemouth Castle, the eldest son of , from 1572 eighth earl of Northumberland, and Katherine Neville (1545/6–1596), daughter and coheir of John Neville, Lord Latimer; he was the elder brother of and the playwright was another of his brothers. After early instruction in the protestant faith from the vicar of Egremont, Cumberland, Percy went abroad to complete his education. He was probably in Paris when, on 21 June 1585, he succeeded to the earldom upon the suicide of his father in the Tower of London. In later life the earl confessed that his youth had been profligate, but he outgrew these indiscretions. He embarked upon a series of initiatives to improve returns from his estates, which lay not only in the family's traditional heartland of Yorkshire, Northumberland, and Cumberland, but also scattered right across England and Wales. This process continued over the next forty years. William Camden claims that Northumberland served as a volunteer against the Armada (The History of the … Princess Elizabeth, 1688, 414). There is no further evidence for this, but the earl did visit the Low Countries in 1588, an experience which stimulated his lifelong interest in siege warfare and military tactics.

During the 1590s the earl enjoyed a measure of favour at the hands of Queen Elizabeth. Though hardly well disposed to the Percy family, Elizabeth liked to indulge the young men at her court. She restored Northumberland to the eighth earl's governorship of Tynemouth Castle in 1591, and made him a knight of the Garter in 1593. Prudently, the earl avoided giving any offence in the exercise of religion: eschewing the attachment to Catholicism that had so blighted the careers of both his father and his uncle, he remained a lifelong member of the established church.

In 1594 Northumberland married Lady Dorothy Perrott (d. 1619), widow of Sir Thomas Perrott, son of Sir John Perrott, the late lord deputy in Ireland, and sister of Elizabeth's favourite, . Their marriage proved tempestuous, the Devereux connection turning sour as Essex's fortunes declined and Northumberland maintained his long-standing friendship with Devereux's adversary, Sir Walter Ralegh. In 1600 the earl again visited the Low Countries and, finding life there congenial, did not return until February 1601. He hurried home only after learning that his brother-in-law had staked and lost everything on rebellion.

The variety of Northumberland's interests is illustrated by his well-stocked library. Insofar as it can be reconstructed, it consisted principally of books on science, medicine and anatomy, military matters, architecture, travel, and classical texts. At various times the earl was a patron to and friend of some notable scholars, including Walter Warner, Robert Hues and, particularly, Thomas Harriot, associated with the earl from the 1590s. Indeed, his patronage earned him notoriety, as an atheist and dabbler in forbidden knowledge, a ‘wizard earl’, a man ‘who troubled not much himself’ about religion (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/116). In addition to three ‘Advices’ of ‘Instructions’ to his son, sections of which were variously later published, the earl drafted a substantial work on the art of war and composed two literary conceits, ‘Love’ and ‘Friends and Friendship’. Yet, although he was long troubled by deafness, and was described by one admiring contemporary as ‘civill, modest and quyett’, both ‘inward and reserved’ (BL, Hargrave MS 226, fols. 241–3), Northumberland was never the detached scholar. Household accounts provide ample evidence that he lived court life to the full, ready to sit at the gaming table and happy to participate in the ceremonial.

Northumberland was rather easily led and incapable of keeping a secret, and there is, too, an occasional glimpse of ungovernable temper. In 1587 he was imprisoned for causing a disturbance at his mother's house, while in 1597 and 1602 he was only narrowly prevented from fighting duels with the earl of Southampton and Sir Francis Vere, an antagonist of long standing. In 1599, following the deaths of two infant sons in 1597 and the birth of a daughter, Dorothy (1598–1659), later married to Robert Sidney, earl of Leicester, the earl and his countess separated after a furious row. However, they were eventually reconciled, and further children followed: Lucy (1600–1660), later , , later the tenth earl, and .

Soon after Essex's downfall Northumberland, along with the queen's secretary, Sir Robert Cecil, Sir Walter Ralegh, and other leading courtiers, made secret overtures to James VI of Scotland against the time when Queen Elizabeth should die. As his go-between to Edinburgh the earl selected a trusted cousin and estate officer, Thomas Percy, and through the Catholic Percy he sought toleration for English Catholics. Giving vague assurances, James promised nothing. When, in March 1603, Elizabeth lay dying, Northumberland was among those invited to join the council in their deliberations, and there seems to have been a suggestion, perhaps from Cecil, that the earl should act as protector of the realm while James made his way south to London.

Nothing came of this, but Northumberland nevertheless reaped an immediate reward in James's new world. He was sworn a member of the privy council in April 1603, and was appointed captain of the gentleman pensioners, the official royal bodyguard, in May. Once again, however, he risked advocating some form of toleration, forwarding a petition from English Catholics at one of his first meetings with James. This did not immediately mar the cordial relations between king and earl, but during the summer that all-important bond began to weaken. The dispatches of the French ambassador, Christophe Harlay, comte de Beaumont, are full of assertions that the English are dissatisfied with their king, and while Beaumont never names his source, the earl, a carefully cultivated friend, is an obvious suspect. Though each authority alone may be considered unreliable, the observations of Beaumont's compatriot, the marquis de Rosny, and the writings of various discontented Englishmen at Madrid and Brussels during the summer of 1603 together suggest that Northumberland was growing increasingly disillusioned with James and his Scottish entourage.

Just when the council was investigating two linked conspiracies against the king, Northumberland put a foot wrong. On either 12 or 13 July 1603, in front of king and court, he spat in the face of his old adversary, Vere. James was deeply offended. The earl was banished from court to cool his heels in the archbishop of Canterbury's summer palace at Croydon. Vague rumours, almost certainly without foundation despite his friendship with Ralegh, one of the principal conspirators, linked Northumberland's name to the so-called Bye and Main treasons. On this occasion he survived and gradually began to rebuild his position at court.

Two years later, he was not so fortunate. With the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot it was revealed that one of the ringleaders was none other than the trusty Thomas Percy. Northumberland, it transpired, had not only made Percy a gentleman pensioner, he had dispensed with the oath of supremacy which the king had ordered should be demanded from new members of the band. Still more damning, Percy had visited the earl for dinner on 4 November, the day before the projected destruction of the Lords. Northumberland always insisted that his private discussions with Percy that fateful day had touched on estate business—nothing more—but his arguments never quite convinced anyone else. Percy was killed soon afterwards in open rebellion: while he could never now accuse Northumberland of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, he was equally unable to clear him. As the earl put it, ‘noen but he can shew me clere as the day, or darke as the night’ (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/225).

James and his council struggled to identify a nobleman sufficiently eminent to serve as protector of the realm had the plot succeeded. That mastermind was never found. The surviving plotters claimed that any decision on the protectorate had been deferred until after the explosion, but, again, their assurances failed to convince. Suspicion against Northumberland grew accordingly; no one could quite credit that Percy would have let him die in the Lords. After a lengthy examination on 23 November Northumberland was dispatched to the Tower on the twenty-seventh.

Following months of government indecision, the earl was charged with contempt and on 27 June 1606 proceeded against in Star Chamber ore tenus, which could in theory only follow upon a confession of guilt by the accused. Northumberland's fellow councillors stripped him of all public offices, fined him £30,000 and condemned him to imprisonment during the king's pleasure. Some admitted that the penalties appeared harsh, but thought it appropriate that James should enjoy scope for clemency. The king, however, was disinclined to be generous. Northumberland remained in the Tower until June 1621, James's suspicions enduring long after the deaths of those councillors who in popular imagination and in the earl's increasingly mordant conceits had conspired to keep him under lock and key. His countess, a loyal and tireless visitor, died in August 1619 and Northumberland's grief at her passing was touchingly genuine.

Liberation eventually came as part of an amnesty to mark James's fifty-fifth birthday. The earl emerged into a world greatly altered. Determined to improve his son's prospects at court, he cultivated both his son-in-law James Hay and the duke of Buckingham, setting aside his distaste for the parvenu courtier. Northumberland lived on for eleven years of placid retirement, at Petworth, Bath, and London and with his daughter Dorothy Sidney and her husband at Penshurst. He died at Petworth, apparently of a malignant disease, not inappropriately on 5 November 1632, and was buried there within twenty-four hours.

Mark Nicholls


Alnwick Castle, Duke of Northumberland MSS [includes MSS formerly at Syon House] · TNA: PRO, SP 12 · TNA: PRO, SP 14 · Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, Salisbury–Cecil MSS · GEC, Peerage · M. Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (1991) · G. R. Batho, ‘The finances of an Elizabethan nobleman: Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland (1564–1632)’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 9 (1956–7), 433–50 · G. R. Batho, ‘The education of a Stuart nobleman’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 5 (1956–7), 131–43 · G. R. Batho, ‘The payment and mitigation of a star chamber fine’, HJ, 1 (1958), 40–51 · G. R. Batho, ‘The library of the Wizard Earl: Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland (1564–1632)’, The Library, 5th ser., 15 (1960), 246–61 · M. E. James, ed., Estate accounts of the earls of Northumberland, 1562–1637, SurtS, 163 (1955) · G. B. Harrison, ed., Advice to his son by Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland (1609) (1930) · M. Nicholls, ed., ‘The wizard earl in star chamber’, HJ, 30 (1987), 173–89 · M. Nicholls, ‘“As happy a fortune as I desire”: the pursuit of financial security by the younger brothers of Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland’, Historical Research, 65 (1992), 296–314 · The letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. E. McClure, 2 vols. (1939) · The Wizard Earl's advices to his son, ed. G. R. Batho and S. Clucas (2002)


Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, letters and papers |  Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, papers of duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle, incl. the collections formerly at Syon House · NRA, priv. coll., letters to earl of Essex · W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, rental of estates, certificate of enquiry regarding lands, and account of proceedings in star chamber


N. Hilliard, miniature, 1590–95, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam [see illus.] · F. Delaram, line engraving, 1619 (hl with hat), BM, NPG · F. Delaram, line engraving, BM, NPG · N. Hilliard, miniature, FM Cam. · A. Van Dyck, oils, Petworth House, Sussex · double portrait, oils (with Gater George), Petworth House, Sussex; version, Alnwick Castle, Northumberland