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Percy, Henry, first earl of Northumberlandlocked

  • J. M. W. Bean

Henry Percy, first earl of Northumberland (1341–1408)

manuscript painting, c. 1400–25 [standing at horse's head]

Percy, Henry, first earl of Northumberland (1341–1408), magnate and rebel, was the elder son of Henry Percy, third Lord Percy of Alnwick (c. 1321–1368), and his first wife, Mary (d. 1362), the daughter of Henry, third earl of Lancaster (c. 1280–1345).

Early life

Born on 10 November 1341 Percy spent much of his youth in the royal household and in that of his uncle, Henry, duke of Lancaster. On 12 July 1358 he married Margaret (d. 1372), widow of William, Lord Ros of Helmsley, and daughter of Ralph Neville, fourth Lord Neville of Raby. His involvement in the affairs of the Scottish border began in his father's lifetime. Despite his youth he was a warden of the marches in 1362, being appointed to negotiate with the Scottish government. In February 1367 he was entrusted with the supervision of all castles and fortified places in the Scottish marches. When he entered into his inheritance in 1368, however, it was France that provided the obvious outlet for martial ambitions: in August 1369 he took part in the chevauchée led by John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and he joined Edward III's brief and abortive expedition in 1372, and Gaunt's expedition of 1373. He was made knight of the Garter on 29 January 1366.

During these years Percy showed every sign of following a policy of expanding his family's territorial power and influence in the north. In 1373 he bought from the crown the wardship of lands of David Strathbogie, the last earl of Atholl, together with the wardship and marriage of his two daughters and heirs, who were in due course married to Percy's two younger sons. It was also in these years that he began the negotiations which, on the death of Gilbert Umfraville, earl of Angus, in 1381, brought him a substantial share of the Umfraville inheritance. His gains included the castle and lordship of Prudhoe, thus enlarging his wealth and power in Northumberland.

The Good Parliament and its aftermath, 1376–1377

The events of the Good Parliament of 1376 propelled Percy into the first rank of the kingdom's politicians. When the Commons through their speaker sought the appointment of a committee of lords to assist them in the discussion of grievances, Percy was one of the four barons and bannerets they requested. It may well be that the leaders of the Commons were aware of a personal grievance on Percy's part against one of the court faction—Alice Perrers. When Percy's father died in 1368, he left a two-year-old daughter from his second marriage who, on her mother's death in May of the same year, became sole heir to the baronial family of Orreby. As a close kinsman who could not inherit, Percy would have had reasonable expectations of a grant of the wardship of his half-sister's lands. Two decades later, indeed, the terms of her testament suggest a close relationship between her and her half-brother. As it was, in December 1369 her wardship and marriage were granted to Sir Alan Buxhull, who by May of the following year had sold them to Alice Perrers. There is certainly evidence that Percy was interested in his half-sister's wardship, since following Alice Perrers's condemnation in the first parliament of the next reign he succeeded in securing the wardship of the bulk of her lands (20 May 1378), with effect from the date of Perrers's forfeiture. In any event, there can be no doubt that Percy played a leading role in the campaign against the court faction waged by the Good Parliament. According to Thomas Walsingham, it was Percy who accused Lord Latimer of suppressing a letter sent to the king and the imprisoning of its bearer. When in due course the chancellor and treasurer were replaced and Alice Perrers excluded from court, Percy was one of the new council appointed.

When the Good Parliament's successor met in January 1377, Percy more than acquiesced in its reversal of its predecessor's reforms. He had become an active supporter of the court, now openly led by John of Gaunt. His motives can only be guessed. It may well be that he had hopes of crown patronage, including his half-sister's wardship: it is equally possible that he was concerned about hostile activity on the part of the Scots in the summer and autumn of 1376, and saw advantages to be gained from active support of the government. In December 1376 he had been appointed marshal. He was vigorous both in the performance of his duties and in support of John of Gaunt. He accompanied Gaunt, preceding him in procession, when he appeared in person in support of John Wyclif when the latter was summoned before the assembled bishops at St Paul's on 19 February 1377. Percy's use of force to clear a way for Gaunt and himself led to an angry confrontation with the bishop of London, as also did his request that Wyclif be seated.

The following day a mob of London citizens rioted in defence of the city's privileges and released a prisoner from the Marshalsea by force. Gaunt and Percy had to flee the city and take refuge with the princess of Wales at her manor of Kennington. These events, however, did not ultimately interfere with the undoing of the work of the Good Parliament. When its successor ended, Gaunt and Percy were firmly in control. Percy's membership of the group that held power in the kingdom was marked on St George's day 1377, when his three sons were knighted in company with the heir to the throne, the king's youngest son, and Gaunt's son and heir. The accession of the new king, Richard II, produced evidence of Percy's increased importance. On 16 July 1377 he was created earl of Northumberland and officiated as marshal at the coronation.

The border and John of Gaunt, 1377–1385

The new earl's career soon took a change of direction. Northumberland had on 8 May 1377 been appointed captain of Calais. But if this indicated an interest in the French war it was quickly dropped. He also gave up the office of marshal. It is quite likely that he wished to avoid a prolonged dispute with Margaret Brotherton over her family's hereditary claims to the office. Certainly experience had shown him that the office was a risky one in terms of the holder's popularity in London if he decided to take his duties seriously. In any case the truce with Scotland was no longer effective, and it was necessary to attend to his interests on the border. He responded to an attack on Roxburgh by the earl of Dunbar with an invasion of Scotland, laying waste Dunbar itself. In November 1378 a Scottish force seized Berwick and the earl and his son Henry Percy (Hotspur) retook it.

Shortly after this, however, a rift appears to have developed between Northumberland and the government, dominated by John of Gaunt, over policy towards Scotland. When in the summer of 1380 the Scots invaded Cumberland, pillaging Penrith and threatening Carlisle, the government forbade Northumberland to respond. When he attended the council, despite an outwardly friendly reception, he was told to take his complaints to the next marcher court. The government was following a deliberate policy of maintaining the truce with Scotland, being prepared to overlook the occasional provocation of a border raid. It was realized that the ad hoc arrangements hitherto employed on the border, involving either commissions of local landowners with powers lasting only a few months, or the appointment of individual magnates to raise retinues—Northumberland himself had been employed in this way in the summer of 1380—were inadequate to maintain the government's authority, especially if a truce was to be preserved. The result was the appointment of John of Gaunt as the king's lieutenant in the marches towards Scotland, with responsibility for the defence of the north and the power to make truces with the Scots.

This led to an open feud between Northumberland and Gaunt, which flared up in the course of the peasants' revolt of 1381. When the revolt broke out, Gaunt was on the border engaged in negotiations with the Scottish government. News of the rebels' deep hostility towards himself led him to take refuge in Scotland for a short time. When he returned and began his journey southwards, he expected to receive hospitality from the earl of Northumberland. Instead, he was refused admission to Alnwick Castle. The earl claimed he was acting in Gaunt's interest. In a letter delivered by two of his retinue to Gaunt within sight of the castle walls he gave advice (in which the bishop of Hereford and earl of Stafford concurred) that Gaunt return to Bamburgh Castle and wait there until he was 'well-informed about the estate of the King and the business of the Commons' (Goodman, 81–2). It may well be, however, that there was also some sort of oral message, since according to both Knighton and the Anonimalle chronicle the earl expressed doubts about the king's intentions towards Gaunt. After Gaunt had taken refuge a second time in Scotland, it became clear that there were no grounds for such doubts.

For Gaunt, a prince of royal blood, the wealthiest magnate in the realm, and the king's lieutenant, the episode was a public humiliation. On his return to England he refused the protection that Northumberland had been commanded by the king to give him. A very public quarrel ensued. It is possible that Gaunt did not throw down his gauntlet, as Froissart relates. But there can be no doubt that a confrontation occurred at a royal council at Berkhamsted on 19 October 1381, when the earl's language offended the king as well as adding further insult to Gaunt. He was temporarily arrested for lèse-majesté and had to appear to answer Gaunt's charges in parliament in November 1381. The upshot was his public apology.

Gaunt's behaviour in this episode can be explained simply in terms of his need to compel a leading earl to understand that he could not insult the foremost prince of royal blood with impunity. In contrast, Northumberland's motives were much more complicated than simple caution during the crisis of the peasants' revolt and a desire to avoid involvement in Gaunt's unpopularity. As the leading magnate in the border region he may well have resented Gaunt's supreme role as royal lieutenant there. It is, however, possible to detect a motive of potential territorial rivalry behind this concern over Gaunt's authority. Gaunt's son and heir had married one of the two daughters and heirs of the last Bohun earl of Hereford. The inheritance they had to share included the lordship of Annandale and Lochmaben Castle. Northumberland may thus have feared an extension of the territorial power of the house of Lancaster into an area he had come to regard as his sphere of influence.

Why, however, did the earl act so strongly in the summer of 1381? The explanation must lie in the greatly increased territorial power in the north that he achieved during this very time. Before 15 December 1381 he had married as his second wife Maud (d. 1398), the widow of Gilbert Umfraville, the last Umfraville earl of Angus, and daughter of Thomas, Lord Lucy. In addition to her dower in the Umfraville estates she held in her own right the inheritance of the baronial family of Lucy, which included the castle and honour of Cockermouth. How far Northumberland at the time of the marriage had expectations of adding this great estate to his own family's inheritance is not known; but during the life of his wife he was now the leading landowner in Cumberland. His achievement must have made the prospect of Gaunt's power and ambition on the border especially difficult to bear.

Northumberland's apology in November 1381 did not end tensions between him and Gaunt. On 16 December 1381 the Lancastrian retainer, John Neville, lord of Raby, was appointed sole warden of the east march, the earl receiving the sop of a middle march. The changes then made in this arrangement mirror the tensions between Northumberland and Gaunt. On 14 March 1382 both the earl and Neville were, with others, made wardens of both east and west marches. Within a few months, on 26 June 1382, with Gaunt once more as king's lieutenant, Northumberland's authority as a warden was limited to the middle march and the area of his lordships of Alnwick and Warkworth, an arrangement repeated the following year on 25 July 1383.

The end of the truce with Scotland, followed by an abortive invasion by Gaunt in April 1384, eventually led to a recognition of the realities of Northumberland's territorial power on both sides of the Pennines. On his return from Scotland, before returning south, Gaunt made an agreement with Northumberland, effectively handing over defence of the north to him from 1 May to 11 June 1384. It had become clear that the territorial power of the Percys was now firmly entrenched in Cumberland as well as Northumberland, since the Lucy inheritance was in the process of being entailed within the Percy family. Even so, the earl's authority in the marches was far from secure. In July 1384 he had to share the marches with lords Neville and Clifford.

Tensions between Northumberland and Gaunt had by no means disappeared. The latter took advantage of the embarrassing position in which Northumberland found himself when attending parliament in November–December 1384. A band of Scots seized Berwick, of which he held the custody, by bribing his deputy. Gaunt took the lead in accusing him of negligence. Judgment was given against him on 14 December 1384 that, in the event of his failure to recover the town, all his property was to be at the king's pleasure. He took prompt action. Deciding to avoid the risks of a long siege, he paid the Scots to leave. He received a royal pardon on 17 February 1385. When an army under the king's command invaded Scotland in August 1385, Northumberland led the rearguard.

Richard II and the border

Northumberland's ambitions had to adjust to changed political circumstances when Gaunt left England to pursue his claims to the kingdom of Castile in July 1386. A source of conflicting ambitions and personal antagonism had been removed. Instead, the policies of the young king and the ambitions of his courtiers became the dominating influences in the kingdom's affairs. Northumberland was bound to play an important role in national politics as well as the affairs of the north. In the struggle between the king and the lords appellant in 1387–8 he followed a policy of caution. He was sent by Richard II to seize the earl of Arundel; but he withdrew when he saw that Reigate Castle was well defended. At a later stage he took on a mediator's role when he assured the king of the loyalty of the duke of Gloucester and his other opponents, urging him to hear their grievances. By doing nothing against the appellants he was protecting his interests on the border, since their policy of war with France was bound to create opportunities in the north.

The appellants responded to a threatened Scottish invasion in the summer of 1388 by making the earl's son Hotspur warden of the east march for three years and ordering his father and seven other lords to remain on their estates to defend the north. There then occurred one of the most famous episodes in the history of both the Percy family and English chivalry. Hotspur took the field against a diversionary raid into Redesdale by the earl of Douglas, while his father stayed at Alnwick Castle intending to bar the Scots' return home. At Otterburn Douglas was killed, but Hotspur was defeated, and he and his brother Ralph were captured.

The following year conditions in the kingdom changed with the return of Gaunt and the beginnings of a decline in the position of the appellants. Gaunt was no longer a threat to Northumberland. One of his first acts after his return was to comply with the king's request to renounce any enmity towards the earl; and, in any event, his interests moved to Aquitaine. But what had a decisive effect on the position of Northumberland was the change of direction in government policy that followed the failure of renewed efforts made against France during the regime of the appellants. A truce with France in 1389 was followed later that year by one with Scotland. At the same time the king began to assert his personal authority in the knowledge that more peaceful conditions on the border had reduced his government's need for the power of Northumberland.

In June 1389 Richard II appointed Thomas (I) Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, warden of the east march, inserting into border society a courtier who had no territorial interests there. There are clear indications of Northumberland's hostility, since when Mowbray requested an extension of his appointment for five years, in October 1389, the earl and other lords voiced strong opposition in the council. Although they failed to prevent the reappointment, a deal was put together: Hotspur became warden of the west march for five years, and his father became captain of Calais. It may well be that the king then concluded that his own interests required more recognition of Percy ambitions. Whatever the reasons, Northumberland and Nottingham switched offices. On 1 June 1391 Northumberland became warden of the east march for five years, his son retaining the west march.

Thus in 1391 the efforts to secure control of the defences of the border that Northumberland had made, at least since the beginning of Richard II's reign, had achieved success. But it was short-lived. Hotspur was replaced by Lord Beaumont in June 1395. On 1 June he in turn replaced his father in the east march. The family had controlled both marches for no more than four years, and those in a period of truce that offered no opportunities against the Scots.

From 1395 onwards Northumberland must have become increasingly dissatisfied with the policies of Richard II. Even during the years when he and his son held both wardenships, the king had pursued negotiations with the Scottish government intended to secure some form of permanent peace between the two kingdoms. When Richard II left for Ireland at the end of May 1399, there can be no doubt that Northumberland and his son were ready to rebel if a good opportunity arose. It is, however, difficult to chart in detail their disillusionment with the king. If any credence can be given to a story told by Froissart, there was an open rift when Richard II set sail for Ireland. He describes how the king came to hear of complaints about him on the part of the earl and Hotspur. Richard then sent the earl a special order to attend on him, in addition to the summons he had received for service in Ireland. His refusal to comply led to the banishment of Northumberland and his son. There is nothing to support the details of this story; and there is no record of a summons to service in Ireland. But the story itself, even if inaccurate, may mirror a situation of potential conflict between the king and the earl in the spring and early summer of 1399. Even so, in the preceding two years there had been no indications of open hostility. Northumberland appears to have accepted the king's coup of September 1397 and his revenge against the three leading appellants of a decade earlier. And he was a member of the committee appointed by the Shrewsbury parliament of February 1398 to deal with its remaining business.

It is possible that Northumberland had anxieties about the increase in the power of the Nevilles at the hands of the crown. In September 1397 Ralph, Lord Neville, was made earl of Westmorland. And on 7 October following he and his wife were granted in tail male Penrith and other lands in Cumberland together with £120 a year from the customs of Newcastle. But the Nevilles had played an important role, often in conjunction with the Percys, in the affairs of the Scottish border since the early years of Edward III; and Northumberland's first wife had been Neville's aunt. It is unlikely that Northumberland regarded Neville as a threat, at least not to the extent of prompting open hostility to the crown. Yet he seized the opportunity to rebel when it came. His main motive lay in the policies that Richard II was following in the north and towards Scotland. He sought to assert his authority by importing into the marcher wardenships courtiers who had no territorial interests in the region, a policy that was part of a larger one of seeking a permanent accommodation with the Scottish crown. The long truce with France made in 1396 was followed by negotiations with Scotland in which Northumberland and his son had no part. Richard II thus planned a future that had no place for the territorial ambitions that were part and parcel of the Percy family's interests and traditions.

The deposition of Richard II and the accession of Henry IV

A new phase in Northumberland's career and the fortunes of his family began with the landing of Henry Bolingbroke in Yorkshire in July 1399. Northumberland and his son Hotspur were among the first, if not the first, leading magnates to join him. It is clear that Bolingbroke's successful progress through England, culminating in the seizure of Richard's person, would not have been possible without the Percys' active support. Northumberland seems to have acted as the commander of his forces, and it was Hotspur who quelled resistance in Cheshire. There is no reason not to believe that they were ready participants in those acts in which Bolingbroke acted as a de facto ruler of the kingdom, despite the adherence to his cause of the lieutenant appointed by Richard II, the duke of York. Indeed, one of these acts benefited Northumberland himself: on 2 August 1399 he was appointed warden of the west march under the seal of the duchy of Lancaster, and he and his son thus regained the control of the border which they had lost in 1396.

Beyond these basic facts, however, it is difficult to achieve certainty about the Percys' conduct and the motives underlying it. The reason lies partly in the weaknesses and contradictions of the narrative sources, but also in the difficulty of discovering the truth of claims made by Northumberland, his son, and his brother Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester, at the time of their rebellion against Henry IV in 1403. In effect, they then denounced Henry IV as a perjured usurper. Shortly after landing in July 1399 he had sworn an oath at Doncaster that he sought only his rightful inheritance as duke of Lancaster, together with the estates that were his due as the husband of his late Bohun wife. It is not certain that this incident occurred, since John Hardyng, who in the second version of his chronicle provides the Percy manifesto of 1403, omits all mention of it in the earlier, ‘Lancastrian’, version. The origins of the story may simply lie in the Percys' propaganda (the sole other source differs in detail, and places the oath at Bridlington).

The important issue, however, is whether the Percys were aware, if an oath was sworn, of different intentions on Bolingbroke's part. It is difficult to believe that a man with the earl's political experience—much more, in fact, than either Bolingbroke himself or his other leading supporter, the earl of Westmorland—would have played so active a role in the events that led to Bolingbroke's accession without a careful appreciation of the latter's intentions. It must have been obvious that a change of king was at least likely. And the capacity for revenge that Richard II had demonstrated, notably in 1397, made this especially so. When Northumberland accepted the wardenship of the west march under the duchy seal, he was co-operating in Bolingbroke's use of the royal prerogative. It is possible to argue that in so acting Bolingbroke was performing as steward of the kingdom; but there was no emergency that necessitated his performance of this particular duty.

The most important service that Northumberland performed on Bolingbroke's behalf occurred when he acted as his emissary to Richard II who, after his return from Ireland, had eventually taken refuge in Conwy Castle. There is now a consensus among historians that the most important and reliable account of this episode is that of the French metrical chronicler Jean Creton. Although he was not present at the meetings between the king and the earl, his informant, the earl of Salisbury, was. Northumberland probably arrived at Conwy on 11 August with a small entourage, having placed most of his men some miles away. On meeting the king he made a number of demands for reform on behalf of Bolingbroke. The king was in no position to refuse these. But according to Creton he secured an oath of loyalty from Northumberland, who at the same time gave an assurance about Bolingbroke's own intentions, by swearing that he had heard him swear at Chester that he did not seek the throne. After some hesitation the king agreed to leave the castle on 14 August, Northumberland riding ahead of him. He was then met by Northumberland's main force. According to Creton, Richard, despite his initial anger and distress, was persuaded to accept the escort the earl had planned without his knowledge. It is difficult to see what alternative he had. And it is impossible not to conclude that Northumberland had on Bolingbroke's behalf plotted to secure the person of the king.

This episode and Northumberland's involvement in it paved the way for the removal of Richard II from his throne. As in the case of earlier events, absolute certainty about the Percys' participation in the events that followed is difficult. According to the account given by Hardyng in the earlier, ‘Yorkist’, version of his chronicle, and also the manifesto published by the Percys when they rebelled in 1403, they pressed the claim of the boy earl of March who, by the rule of primogeniture, was the heir. In principle it would have been in their interests to do so, since Hotspur was married to March's father's sister, so that the Percys could in the event of his accession look forward to at least a period of dominance in the affairs of the kingdom. It is more than likely that, once the removal of Richard II had been determined, March's claims were debated in some way. In the sermon he preached after Bolingbroke had been accepted as king, Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, referred to the dangers that might face a kingdom ruled by a child. This, and the discussions to which it may have referred, may have given a degree of plausibility to the story in the Percys' manifesto. But there is nothing in Northumberland's conduct between July and September 1399 to give support to it. On the contrary, the earl acted openly as a supporter of the accession of Henry IV. He was one of the two earls on the deputation sent to the Tower of London to receive the abdication of Richard II as part of the procedures followed for his removal from the throne. It was Northumberland who presided over the Lords' discussion of what to do with the former King Richard. At the new king's coronation he stood by Henry's side, carrying Lancaster's sword which had been worn by Bolingbroke when he landed in Yorkshire three months earlier.

A series of royal grants and appointments then substantially strengthened the position of power that Northumberland had occupied in the preceding three months. On 30 September 1399 he became constable of England for life, the highest military office in the kingdom. His position on the Scottish border was recognized by a fresh appointment as warden of the west march, his son Hotspur retaining the east march, both appointments being for ten years. The most remarkable grant, however, occurred on 19 October 1399 when the earl and his heirs were granted the Isle of Man. The full importance of these gains can be appreciated only in the light of those also made by his son Hotspur and his brother, the earl of Worcester. Hotspur, in addition to the wardenship of the east march, received a number of offices in north Wales, including that of justice of Chester. Worcester became admiral of England for life. Taken together, the gains made by the Percys present two features. First, they now dominated the military and naval leadership of the kingdom. Second, they now extended their power and influence into fresh areas—Wales and the principality of Chester. In this connection their link by marriage with the house of Mortimer was also recognized. On 17 November 1399 the farm of the greater part of the Mortimer estates during the minority of the young earl of March was given to four persons, of whom Northumberland and his son were two. On 1 October 1401 the farm was transferred to the earl alone. The effect was to increase, if only temporarily, the Percys' new influence in Wales and the marches.

Henry IV and the rebellion of 1403

The Percys' position of dominance in the affairs of the realm was maintained to all appearances during the first three years of the new reign. Northumberland was the leading member of the council, and played an equally important role in the public events of royal diplomacy, being, for example, a joint commissioner to arrange the marriage of the king's daughter to the son of the king of the Romans. But tensions between the king and Northumberland and his family were growing. It is fair to assume that Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland, felt inadequately rewarded in comparison with the Percys for his support of Henry in July–September 1399; and he was married to the king's half-sister Joan Beaufort, whose brothers were only too ready to undertake roles in government. At the same time, once the immediate needs of the usurpation were over, the new king was bound to rely more and more on nobles and gentry who had risen in the service of his father.

At first the rise to power of a court faction consisting of these elements was hampered by the government's financial difficulties. In the parliament of 1401 the Commons regarded the earl of Northumberland as an ally in their struggle to restrain royal expenditure. The earl and his brother were members of a sworn and enlarged council, while the latter recovered the stewardship of the royal household which he had held under Richard II.

A number of developments then produced a rift between the king and the Percys. If any single event can be said to mark an open deterioration in their relations, it occurred in March 1402, when the captaincy of Roxburgh Castle was transferred from Hotspur to the earl of Westmorland, a change that dented the Percys' control of the Scottish border. The cause of the deterioration, however, was a growing realization on the part of the earl, his son, and his brother that they were being increasingly detached from the centre of power. Their dissatisfaction took the form of complaints about the crown's failure to finance adequately the duties they performed on its behalf. In a series of letters the earl and Hotspur complained of their treatment, the first known being from May 1401. Two written by Northumberland himself belong to 30 May and 26 June 1403, the second complaining of the dishonour inflicted on the kingdom and the Percys themselves by the king's unwillingness to meet their financial needs. The earl denied the rumour that he and his son had received £60,000 from the crown since the king's accession, and claimed that £20,000 was owing to them. An analysis of the actual treatment they received, based on the issue and receipt rolls of the exchequer, shows that they were not ill-treated in terms of the financial situation of the crown. They may well have felt some financial strain in performing their duties, but this was a risk implicit in the acceptance of offices that at the same time carried with them benefits in terms of patronage and territorial influence. It is quite clear that these financial disputes with the crown became known outside the immediate circles of government. One of the chroniclers describes a confrontation between Northumberland and the king in which the earl demanded money for the defence of the marches and the king angrily replied, 'Aurum non habeo, aurum non habebis' ('I have no gold, you will have no gold'; Eulogium historiarum, 306). It is difficult not to believe that in these disputes over money the earl and his son felt the need for special treatment, at least partly out of a sense that their influence in the kingdom's affairs was diminishing.

There were other sources of disagreement and tension. Northumberland and his son were not happy about the king's policies in Wales, apparently preferring a policy of negotiation with Owain Glyn Dŵr, probably because they wanted resources to be diverted to the war in the north. A more personal dispute occurred as a result of the capture of Hotspur's brother-in-law, Sir Edmund (IV) Mortimer, by the Welsh rebels. The king refused to permit the Percys to arrange his ransom, accusing Mortimer of treason. But the worst dispute occurred as a result of the crushing defeat that the earl and his son inflicted on a Scottish invading force at Homildon Hill on 14 September 1402. The king refused to allow any ransoming of captives without his leave. For the Percys it was a blatant royal interference within an area they controlled. Father and son responded defiantly. The earl in the end surrendered his captives; but Hotspur refused to part with his, the chief of whom was the earl of Douglas.

Beyond this pattern of events the sources do not provide any glimpse of the discussions that must have occurred between Northumberland, his son, and his brother. The financial records of the exchequer suggest that every effort was made to meet the financial needs of the earl and his son in the late autumn and winter of 1402–3. On 2 March 1403 Northumberland and his heirs were granted a great tract of territory, covering the greater part of the area of southern Scotland claimed by the English crown. This was a resounding recognition of the Percys' dominance of the Scottish border and of a tradition of family aggrandizement that was now a century old.

Despite this, in the summer of 1403 the Percys rebelled. On 21 July 1403 Hotspur and his uncle the earl of Worcester met Henry IV in battle at Shrewsbury. Their defeat and the death of Hotspur in the battle, followed by the execution of his uncle two days later, ended the rebellion. Even though Northumberland himself was not at the battle, there can be no doubt that he was a full participant in rebellion. He was named with his son and brother both in the manifesto in which, on the eve of the battle, they defied Henry IV. The chronicler Hardyng, who was present at the battle, regarded Northumberland as a fully involved conspirator, describing how he raised troops and began to move south. Equally there can be no doubt that the Percys' intention was the removal of Henry IV from the throne and his replacement by the young earl of March. By this means they intended to retain the gains they had already made and to control the kingdom, at least during the minority of the new king.

Beyond this, however, there are problems and difficulties arising out of the apparent timing and strategy of the rebellion. It is clear that the Percys were in collusion with the Welsh rebel Owain Glyn Dŵr, and also that Hotspur moved from the north via Cheshire, aiming at Shrewsbury, the headquarters of the prince of Wales for his operations against Glyn Dŵr. At first sight it is puzzling that the Percys rose in rebellion within a few months of a royal grant that greatly increased their power on the Scottish border. But it is more than likely that they were contemplating rebellion in the autumn of 1402 and deferred action until after the winter. The royal grant of March 1403 may well have upset their plans by presenting a test of their time-honoured territorial ambitions, impelling them to make a visible effort to assert their new rights. Indeed, Hotspur laid siege to the castle of Cocklaw in Teviotdale.

It is the role of Northumberland himself that presents the most serious difficulties. It is impossible to accept Hardyng's account as a basis for an understanding of events. He wrote in the ‘Yorkist’ version of his chronicle that:

His [Hotspur's] father came not out of Northumberland,But failed hym foule without witte or rede.

Chronicle, ed. Ellis, 361–2Northumberland, in fact, did move south, but found his way barred by the earl of Westmorland and the forces he had raised. At that point Northumberland did not know of his son's death. His moving south does suggest, however, that the Percys were following a two-pronged strategy, the intention being that their two armies would later unite. It is more than possible that their timing had gone awry. Hotspur may have been precipitate and moved towards Shrewsbury too fast. Or the earl's departure from Northumberland may have been delayed because of a threat of invasion by the Scots: Hotspur's attempt to exercise his family's rights under the grant of March 1403 had led to mobilization on the part of the Scottish government.

At any rate the royal victory at Shrewsbury and the earl's withdrawal back into Northumberland left him totally isolated. After some time at Warkworth Castle he went south again, this time to submit to the king at York, on 8 August 1403. He was imprisoned at Baginton (a castle between Kenilworth and Coventry). He had to agree to the placing of royal garrisons in his castles of Alnwick, Warkworth, Prudhoe, and Langley. When his constables refused to admit the royal appointees on the ground that they held their offices for life, the earl was compelled to issue his own commands to his men that they give up their posts (October 1403). But as late as 13 January 1404 his men still controlled Alnwick, Warkworth, and Berwick.

At this point, when a parliament was about to meet, it must have been clear to Henry IV and his advisers that it was going to be extremely difficult to dislodge Northumberland from the position of power and influence in the north that his family had built up over the preceding century. In any event it would have been impossible to charge him successfully with treason. He was able to deny that he had conspired with his son and brother; and there is no evidence that the crown had information to contradict this. In terms of the law of arms he had never unfurled his banners against the king. Some sort of rehabilitation for him was inevitable.

On 6 February 1404 Northumberland came before the king, Lords, and Commons in parliament, asking for pardon. The Lords then declared that he was not guilty of treason but of trespass and offences against the Statute of Liveries, offences that carried a fine and ransom at the king's pleasure. The earl then took an oath of allegiance and secured a royal pardon. An account of this business, apparently sent to Durham Cathedral priory at the time, indicates that the formal parliamentary record does not give the full facts, since the king had pardoned the earl two days earlier (probably to make it clear that this was a matter for the king, not the Lords).

Northumberland's rehabilitation was far from total. He was no longer constable of England. His family had lost the wardenships of the marches that it had achieved in 1399, his own west march going to the earl of Westmorland who had forestalled his march south. Apparently there was also a price to pay for his pardon. What pressures were brought to bear in the succeeding months is not known, but on 9 July 1404 Northumberland promised to deliver to royal commissioners between the following 20 July and 1 August the castle of Berwick, the annual revenue of 500 marks from the customs of the town, the castle of Jedburgh, and the Forest of Jedworth. He was promised in exchange lands for himself and his heirs; but he had lost a powerful body of interests in the affairs of the Scottish border secured by his grandfather seventy years before.

The rebellion of 1405 and its aftermath

It is fair to assume that Northumberland's feelings were ones of humiliation rather than gratitude for escape from the total consequences of rebellion. Even so, he remained a magnate with considerable territorial power; and the difficulties encountered by the government in its efforts to secure control of his castles had demonstrated the depth of loyalty among leading retainers. He could have chosen to bide his time, seeking to safeguard the interests of his heir, Hotspur's son. Yet he chose to rebel again.

It is not certain when the planning of another rebellion began. It may have been under way by January 1405. Whether or not he was implicated in a plot to seize the young earl of March, he made excuses for not coming south to attend a meeting of the council that month. One result of his planning was an alliance with Owain Glyn Dŵr. Aside from circumstantial indications, this alliance is commemorated in the text of the tripartite indenture between Northumberland, Glyn Dŵr, and Sir Edmund Mortimer of February 1405. It is not certain that the details are trustworthy; but it divided England and Wales between the three allies, the earl's share being twelve counties, stretching from the north into the midlands. In terms of the history of Percy ambitions, this is not incredible. The conspiracy also stretched into England. Richard Scrope, archbishop of York, apparently had genuine concerns about the government of the kingdom which, if Hardyng can be trusted, may have involved sympathy with the rebellion of 1403. Thomas (II) Mowbray, earl marshal, nurtured grievances against Henry IV as his late father's enemy, though the motives of Thomas, Lord Bardolf, are not clear.

Both circumstantial evidence and the comments of the chroniclers leave no doubt that Northumberland was the leader of the rebellion that followed. However, he never brought the forces he had raised to join up with those led by his allies. For him the deciding event in the rebellion was one that resulted from an anxiety to avoid the mistakes of 1403. He attempted to remove the earl of Westmorland as a potential opponent. Early in May 1405 he marched at night with a force of retainers to seize Westmorland when the latter was staying with Sir Ralph Eure at Eure's manor in Durham. When Westmorland, forewarned, made his escape, Northumberland apparently decided that the rebellion was doomed and abandoned the archbishop and the earl marshal to their fate. His decision to do nothing further did not save him. When the king advanced north from York, he and Bardolf fled to Scotland. His attainder and forfeiture followed in the next parliament.

The rest of Northumberland's career consisted of moves from refuge to refuge and futile efforts to launch further rebellion. His stay in Scotland lasted no more than a year. When he and Bardolf learned of the Scottish government's intention to hand them over to Henry IV, they fled to Owain Glyn Dŵr in Wales. A journey to the French court failed to secure the French king's help in replacing Henry IV with the earl of March. By the summer of 1407 the two fugitives were back in Scotland. There followed a desperate attempt at an invasion of England. In February 1408 they reached as far south as Tadcaster in Yorkshire, a Percy manor. At the nearby Bramham Moor they encountered a force raised by the local sheriff. Northumberland was killed in battle on 19 February, his body receiving the customary treatment for a traitor—decapitation and quartering. His head was set on London Bridge. His remains were eventually brought together and buried in York Minster.

With his first wife Northumberland had three sons: Henry Percy Hotspur, Thomas, and Ralph. Thomas died in 1387, while serving on John of Gaunt's expedition to Castile. His son and heir, Henry Percy of Athol (so-called because his mother was the elder coheir of the last Strathbogie earl of Atholl) died without male issue in 1432. Ralph Percy fought against the Turks in the battle of Nicopolis in 1396 and died abroad the following year, presumably on his journey home.

Assessment and legacy

Northumberland's whole career can be divided into two main phases. In the first, ending with the Lancastrian usurpation of 1399, he achieved gains that alone would have secured him a leading position in the history of his family, at least equalling those of his grandfather and great-grandfather. As well as strengthening his territorial power in Northumberland, he secured, in the Lucy inheritance in Cumberland, the most substantial estate on the western side of England's border with Scotland. He played a role in national politics far greater than that of any earlier head of the house of Percy. But this period also revealed a concern, almost obsessive, with maintaining a dominant position on the Scottish border by exploiting the potential rewards of the wardenships of the marches. In the second period, following the accession of Henry IV, this came to the fore, as did an ambition to dominate the affairs of the whole kingdom. In these years it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Percys' very success had isolated them. In 1403 they had no help from other magnates. And in 1405, bereft of his son and brother, Northumberland showed lack of judgement in rebelling without substantial allies. Thereafter his efforts to avenge the failures of 1403 and 1405 were as futile as they were bitter.

The failure of the rebellions against Henry IV left a permanent mark on the fortunes of the Percy family. In November 1414 Northumberland's grandson and heir, Hotspur's son, was restored to the entailed estates held by his father and grandfather. And in March 1416 he recovered the title of earl of Northumberland. His restoration to the Percy inheritance was, however, far from complete. The taint of the attainders of Henry IV's reign lay over the family until it was removed in 1484; and the recovery of some entailed estates was not immediate. More significant, however, was the permanent loss of two important territorial gains achieved in the course of the fourteenth century. The Isle of Man, granted by a grateful Henry IV in 1399, was lost for ever. Above all, the Jedburgh estate, the revenue from the customs of Berwick, and the hereditary captaincy there had been surrendered to the crown and the promised compensation was never received. Although their dominant territorial position in Northumberland remained, the Percys' claim to total primacy on the eastern march was permanently damaged.


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  • Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
  • Syon House, Brentford, London


  • manuscript painting, 1400–1425, BL, Harley MS 1319 [see illus.]
  • miniature, BL, Cotton MS Nero D.vii, fol. 111
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