Thomas Percy, 1st Earl of Worcester
Died: July 23, 1403
Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England (Age 60)
Worcester in History
Thomas Percy, the younger son of Henry Percy, third Lord Percy, led his life as the archetypal warrior-diplomat. He began his military career as a teenager in the early 1360s, accompanying men such as Edward the Black Prince and John of Gaunt on expeditions to France and Spain during the reign of King Edward III. Throughout the decade Percy established himself as a highly competent soldier, in addition to gaining several important political posts. He was captured by the Welsh in 1373 and taken to France where he was ultimately ransomed. In 1376, he was created both a king's knight and a knight of the garter. After Edward III's death the following year, Thomas continued to play a prominent role in the government of the late king's grandson and successor, the ten-year-old Richard II. Percy did his part in putting down the Peasant's Rebellion of 1381 and was a frequent beneficiary of various rewards and responsibilities for his loyal service to the king.
Unlike his elder brother (Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland) and nephew (Henry "Hotspur" Percy), Thomas did not play a very prominent role in border politics against Scotland and chose to remain at the court. Thomas continued to remain active in war, accompanying John of Gaunt on his expedition to Spain in 1386. While Gaunt and Percy were away, a group named the Lords Appellants (led primarily by Thomas of Woodstock, a younger brother of Gaunt's) took control of the government from King Richard and executed or exiled many of his favorites. It is believed that Thomas still remained loyal to the king through these turbulent times, and Richard was given full power back shortly after the incident. In 1394, Thomas accompanied the king on his successful expedition to Ireland and, more importantly, played a large part in sentencing the Lords Appellant (who Richard had decided to annihilate) in 1397. That same year Thomas was created Earl of Worcester and (like many others) shared in the spoils left by the exiled or executed Lords. In 1399, Worcester once again joined Richard on an expedition to Ireland (this one not nearly as successful as the previous one) to put down the rebellions occurring there. When the king's retinue returned to England, Henry Bolingbroke (son of the recently deceased John of Gaunt and cousin to the king) had already returned from exile to retrieve his inheritance (which Richard had seized to fund the trip to Ireland). It soon became apparent that Bolingbroke meant to depose Richard and put himself on the throne, and Worcester, whose brother and nephew were two of Bolingbroke's biggest supporters, was torn between the rightful king and the usurper who had been wronged by him.
Although there are conflicting reports in different chronicles, it is most likely that Worcester never showed any direct defiance towards King Richard and only became a supporter of Bolingbroke because of the way the tide turned. After Bolingbroke was crowned King Henry IV, all of the Percies were rewarded greatly. Worcester continued to faithfully serve the new king until 1403 when he was given a post in Wales (an area that was highly unstable at the time due to the rebellions of Owen Glendower). Apparently, Worcester was not happy with the way the king was handling the Welsh situation (and the fact that he was not being paid properly for his duties). This is the most likely reason why Worcester decided to join his brother and nephew (who had already been alienated by Henry) in rebellion against the king. Worcester gathered an army and joined forces with Hotspur (who had already enlisted the Scots to help their cause). Although help was expected from both Northumberland and the Welsh against the royal army, King Henry (and his young son Hal, the future Henry V) were able to isolate the army of Hotspur and Worcester before their allies could join them. Certain chronicles claim that a last minute peace offering was put on the table by the king, and Worcester, who was the representative for the rebels, misinterpreted it. This, however, is all speculation. After the peace offering was declined, a bloody battle broke out at Shrewsbury. Hotspur was killed in battle, and Worcester was taken captive. He was soon after beheaded, and his head was put on display on London Bridge. The earl was sixty years of age. Like his kinsmen, Northumberland and Hotspur, Worcester built a respectable name for himself in English politics. Unfortunately, he will always be best remembered (also like his kinsmen) as a rebel and traitor to the crown.
Worcester in Shakespeare
Appears in: Henry IV, Part 1
Worcester is briefly mentioned in Richard II as breaking his staff of office and joining the side of Henry Bolingbroke against King Richard. It is doubtful that Worcester's defection to Henry's cause was that dramatic from a historical perspective. By the beginning of 1 Henry IV it appears that he and King Henry are already at odds after the king dismisses him from the committee meeting after listening to defiant words from the earl. After this insult Worcester and his brother and nephew plan to rebel against the king. Worcester plays a major role in antagonizing Hotspur to stay angry at Henry and his son, Prince Hal.
The biggest role Worcester takes on in the play is that of mediator between the rebel and royal forces before the Battle of Shrewsbury. He pleads the case of the rebels and is given a generous offer by King Henry to surrender and receive a full pardon. Worcester, believing that the is king insincere and will most likely punish him and his brother anyway (sparing Hotspur and chalking up his rebellion to brash youth), gives his nephew the opposite answer, and the battle begins. Hotspur is killed in battle by Prince Hal, and Worcester and another rebel captain, Sir Richard Vernon, are captured by the king. In the play's final scene, Worcester and Vernon are brought before King Henry, who reprimands them for not accepting his offer for mercy. Worcester claims he was doing what he felt he needed to. The two men are then condemned to death. Along with his brother Northumberland, Worcester is portrayed in a very negative light as a man who betrayed his own nephew to pursue his own selfish goals (and died for it anyway). The historical Worcester was far from perfect but was most likely not the deceitful man that Shakespeare brings to life.
Brown, A. L. ‘Percy, Thomas, earl of Worcester (c.1343–1403)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21955, accessed 29 Oct 2009]