Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland
Born: November 10, 1341
Alnwick, Northumberland, England
Died: February 20, 1408
Bramham Moor, Yorkshire, England (age 66)
Northumberland in History
The achievements of Henry Percy are relatively minor during the first thirty-five years of his life. His family had long been considered border lords (those lived on the English/Scottish border and defended England from Scottish invasions) and Henry continued the Percy tradition by doing his part in fending off the Scots. He came into his inheritance upon the death of his father in 1368 and participated in the wars in France during Edward III's reign under the command of the king's son John of Gaunt. It was not until the reign of Richard II, though, that Percy would gain any real influence in the kingdom. He participated in the Good Parliament (the last held under Edward III) and, upon the ascension of Richard II, was created Earl of Northumberland and marshal of England. The next twenty years saw the continued rise of the Percy family as lords of the north. Northumberland, his son Henry "Hotspur" Percy and his brother Thomas Percy (later Earl of Worcester) were looked at as English defenders against the Scots. Percy quarreled a bit with John of Gaunt at one point when he was assigned to take more of a role in the north and the family suffered a significant defeat at the Battle of Otterburn where Hotspur's army was defeated and he was captured. In addition, the Percies most certainly had competition as wardens of the Scottish marshes, namely the Nevilles and the Cliffords. Despite the numerous problems the Percies faced, Northumberland continued to be an influential figure in England. By the late 1390s, however, he and his family begin to grow unhappy with the way in which King Richard was handling the border situation. He continuously left them out of truce negotiations and other important issues. It is this disgruntlement on the part of the Percies that most likely caused them to put their support behind Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, had been exiled by the king for his quarrel with Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, the previous year. After his exile, John of Gaunt passed away and Richard confiscated Bolingbroke's inheritance to pay for the Irish expedition he was about to embark on. Furious, Bolingbroke illegally returned to England while Richard was away (claiming he had only come to regain the duchy of Lancaster that had belonged to his father) and gained a large number of supporters, including, most significantly, the Percies. It soon became clear that Bolingbroke meant to take more than just his father's dukedom and, when Richard returned from Ireland, Northumberland played the main part in deceiving him, capturing him and bringing him before Bolingbroke. Richard was formerly deposed and Bolingbroke succeeded him as King Henry IV. Northumberland, Hotspur and Worcester were all rewarded for helping Henry ascend the throne. Unfortunately, the celebration would not last for long and the Percies would soon regret helping Henry onto the throne.
In 1402, the Percies won a highly significant victory against the Scots (under Archibald, Earl of Douglas) at Holmidon Hill. Douglas, along with several other noblemen, was taken captive. The king was pleased with the victory but still expected the Percies to hand over the Scottish prisoners they had captured. Northumerland handed over his hostages but Hotspur refused to hand over his. This infuriated King Henry and he threatened that there would be consequences if the prisoners were not surrendered to him. Still, Hotspur resisted. In addition, the king refused to ransom one Edmund Mortimer who had been captured by the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower and had married the rebel's daughter. Mortimer was Hotspur's brother-in-law and uncle to the young Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, one who had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry did. Ultimately, the Percies decided to rebel against the man they had been so instrumental on putting on the throne in favor of the Earl of March. There were certainly other factors involved (such as the king's failure to pay certain sums to the Percies) but the issues with the Scottish prisoners and Mortimer would be the final straw. The Percies joined forces with Glendower and the Welsh and Douglas and the Scots in rebellion against the king in 1403. When Henry heard about the rebellion he reacted swiftly enough to isolate the army led by Hotspur, his uncle Worcester and Douglas before they were able to be joined by the forces of Glendower and Northumberland. A bloody battle broke out at Shrewsbury that saw a decisive victory for the royal forces, the death of Hotspur and the capture (and later execution) of Worcester. After Hotspur's defeat, Northumberland was pursued by the king's army and forced into submission. Northumberland was forced to swear unfeigned allegiance to Henry, was stripped of his title of marshal and had to submit a large portion of his lands. For the next two years, he led a quiet life on his remaining northern estates.
In 1405, however, Northumberland (along with his long time ally Thomas Bardolf) once again joined forces with Glendower and Mortimer in rebellion against the king. This time it was the hope of the rebels to overthrow the king and divide the power three ways: Glendower were rule over Wales; Northumberland the north; and the young Earl of March would rule the rest of England. The conference between the three sides has come to be known as the Tripartite Indenture. In addition to these rebels, Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, and Thomas Mowbray, Earl Marshal (son of the Mowbray who had quarreled with Bolingbroke) were in open rebellion against the king. Unfortunately, Scrope and Mowbray were tricked into dismissing their army by the Earl of Westmorland and were promptly arrested and executed. This did not help the cause of Northumberland who was now wanted for treason. With the collapse of Scrope's rebellion the earl and Bardolf searched for more sources of help. The next several years saw the two men visit France, Wales and, finally Scotland, in an attempt to find aid to uphold their cause. Ultimately, the two were in danger of being handed over to the king, courtesy of the Scots. Therefore, they had to act soon. In February of 1408, Northumberland and Bardolf invaded England for a final time in one last ditch effort to overthrow the king they felt had unjustly taken the throne. They encountered the army of Thomas Rokeby, Sheriff of York, at Bramham Moor and prepared to do battle in the blistering snow. It appears that Northumberland chose to die for his cause and was killed during the battle. He was sixty-six. Bardolf was captured but injured so badly that he died later that night. With the death of Northumberland, the Percy rebellion was officially at an end and Henry IV could breathe somewhat easily (although his health was steadily failing him). Henry Percy had continued the good name of his ancestors as a warden of the Scottish marches and had even achieved an earldom, something his family had never previously done. He and his son had gained their family a position of influence and power that would last for a number of years. Unfortunately, they would fall at a much more rapid pace than they rose. Percy made the bad decision of rebelling against two kings. Despite all his earlier achievements, Northumberland will be most remembered as a rebel and a traitor to his country.
Northumberland in Shakespeare
Appears in: Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2
Shakespeare portrays Northumberland in an extremely negative light. In Richard II, he resorts to trickery to get Richard to submit to him and continuously nags him to look over a document of the people's grievances. In 1 Henry IV, when the Percies rebel against Henry, Northumberland deserts his son and brother at Shrewsbury, claiming to be sick. At the beginning of 2 Henry IV, we are informed that his sickness was feigned. Although he seems genuinely distraught when he hears of Hotspur's death, he is later talked into deserting the rebellion of the Archbishop and Earl Marshal by his wife and daughter-in-law. Finally, there is a brief reference of the defeat of Northumberland and Bardolf at Brahmam Moor towards the end of the play. Although Shakespeare portrays the earl as both deceitful and cowardly, he gives him a small amount of credit at the end. It may not seem fair though, to give such a small tribute to a man who appears to have fought valiantly in a last ditch effort to overthrow a king he made a mistake in putting on the throne. The battle sounds all the more impressive when one considers that Northumberland was well into his sixties.
Bean, J. M. W. ‘Percy, Henry, first earl of Northumberland (1341–1408)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21932, accessed 5 Oct 2009]
Rose, Alexander. Kings of the North: The House of Percy in British History. London: Phoenix Press, 2002.