Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland

Born: July 25, 1421

Leconfield, Yorkshire, England

Died: March 29, 1461

Towton, Yorkshire, England (Age 39)

Northumberland in History

Being born into the noble Percy family of the north, this Henry Percy was born and raised to do the same thing his ancestors had been doing for more than a hundred years: to protect England from Scottish invasions. This would be the task that took up a majority of Percy's life. By 1446, Percy had inherited the vast estates of his father-in-law, Robert Poynings, and had become a loyal supporter of King Henry VI. Percy and his father continued to act as wardens of the Scottish marches until the 1450s, when they were forced to deal with their increasingly tense relationships with the Nevilles, another prominent northern family, and the factions that were arising at the court of Henry VI. The Percies were loyal Lancastrian supporters (those who supported Henry VI), while the Nevilles (ultimately) supported the Yorkists (those loyal to the Duke of York). This added more tension to an already tense relationship between the two families, and when the Lancastrians and Yorkists engaged in the first battle of the Wars of the Roses at St Albans in 1455, the Percies and Nevilles used the opportunity to annihilate one another. Unfortunately for the the Percies, the Nevilles (who, again, supported the Yorkists) came out on top after the Battle of St Albans. Percy's father (who was Earl of Northumberland, a title the Percies had held since 1377) was killed, as was Lord Clifford, the leader of the Clifford family, who were allies of the Percies, as the Yorkists landed a decisive victory against the Lancastrians.

Although Percy was now Earl of Northumberland, he did not take his father's death at the hands of the Yorkists lightly and became more involved in the Lancastrian government, yet still maintained his reputation as a border lord against the Scots. By 1460, the Duke of York had pressed his claim to England's throne (through his descent from Lionel, second surviving son of Edward III) and full-blown civil war erupted. The Yorkists defeated the Lancastrians at Northampton and captured Henry VI. When Northumberland was accused of looting Neville lands, he was summoned to appear in court, leading to further looting. This, in turn, caused York and the Earl of Salisbury (the head of the Neville family) to march against Northumberland's forces, who were allied with those of the Duke of Somerset and Lord Clifford. The idea was a bad one, and York's forces were soundly defeated at Wakefield. York was killed and Salisbury was captured and executed after the battle, undoubtedly to Northumberland's great pleasure.

Northumberland's army then preceded to march south, to join with Queen Margaret's forces, and handed Salisbury's son, the Earl of Warwick, a defeat at St Albans, retrieving the king in the process. Unfortunately, the Lancastrians were barred from entering London by its citizens and were accosted by the forces of York's son, Edward, Earl of March, at Towton. In a bloody, snowy battle, the Lancastrians were defeated in rather gory fashion. Northumberland was killed and the king and queen were forced to flee England, allowing March to have himself crowned as King Edward IV. Apparently, this Henry Percy did not learn his lesson from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, all of whom died while fighting in civil wars. At the very least, one can never accuse the family of being cowards.

Northumberland in Shakespeare

Appears in: Henry VI, Part 3

After Northumberland's father is killed at the end of 2 Henry VI (although the elder Percy never actually appears in the play), he is one of those of the younger generation, along with Lord Clifford, who vow revenge for their fathers' deaths at the hands of the Yorkists. In 3 Henry VI, Northumberland is present when Henry VI agrees to make York his heir and is unhappy with the proposition. He is also seen after the Battle of Wakefield when York is murdered by Clifford and Queen Margaret and seems to sympathize with the fallen duke. It is later announced that Northumberland was killed in battle fighting the Yorkists, though his death is not displayed in the play's action.


Griffiths, R. A. ‘Percy, Henry, third earl of Northumberland (1421–1461)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21934, accessed 12 Jan 2010]


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