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The Earl of Northumberland
Henry Percy-9th Earl of Northumberland.jpg
Born 27 April 1564
Tynemouth Castle, England
Died 5 November 1632(1632-11-05) (aged 68)
Petworth House, England
Noble family Percy
Spouse(s) Lady Dorothy Devereux
Father Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland
Mother Katherine Neville
Quartered arms of Sir Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, KG

Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland KG (27 April 1564 – 5 November 1632) was an English nobleman. He was a grandee and one of the wealthiest peers of the court of Elizabeth I. Under James I, Northumberland was a long-term prisoner in the Tower of London. He is known for the circles he moved in as well as for his own achievements. He acquired the sobriquet The Wizard Earl (also given to Gerald FitzGerald, 11th Earl of Kildare), from his scientific and alchemical experiments, his passion for cartography, and his large library. His mild deafness and slight speech impediment did not prevent him from becoming an important intellectual and cultural figure of his generation.

Early life

He was born at Tynemouth Castle in Northumberland, England, the son of Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland, whom he succeeded in 1585. His father died, an apparent suicide, in the Tower of London, where he was being questioned about his allegedly treasonable dealings with Mary Queen of Scots. His mother was Katherine Neville, daughter and co-heiress of John Neville, 4th Baron Latimer. She remarried Francis Fitton.

He was brought up a Protestant, as his father had been, taking instruction from the vicar of Egremont. This did not prevent suspicions in later life, particularly when he associated with Charles Paget, that he was a crypto-Catholic.[1] Around 1586, he first employed the artist Nicolas Hilliard paying 60 shillings for his portrait.[2]

Although his earldom was in the north of England, Northumberland also had estates in the south at Petworth House in Sussex and also at Syon House in Middlesex, acquired by his marriage to Lady Dorothy Devereux (sister of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex) in 1594.

They had four children:

Through his eldest daughter Dorothy, Countess of Leicester, he is an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. Though it did produce a male heir, Algernon, the marriage was not successful, and the couple separated after a time, despite efforts by the Queen, who was fond of Dorothy, to reconcile them..

Catholic sympathiser

The Percy family was still largely Catholic, while Northumberland was at least nominally Protestant. When it became clear that the Protestant James VI of Scotland was likely to succeed Elizabeth, Northumberland sent Thomas Percy, a recent Catholic convert, on a secret mission to James's court three times in 1602. He said that English Catholics would accept James as king if he reduced the persecution of Catholics. Northumberland employed Thomas Percy as a rent-collector at Syon House. Thomas was the great-grandson of the 4th Earl of Northumberland, but was unscrupulous, with 34 charges of dishonesty brought against him. Henry wrote to James "It were a pity to lose a good Kingdom for not tolerating a mass in a corner". Through Thomas Percy, Henry received loosely worded assurances of religious tolerance from James.[3][4]

Shortly before James's accession to the English throne in 1603, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury through Lord Henry Howard particularly warned the king against Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Northumberland.[5] This theory of the "diabolical triplicity" rested on innuendo, about the occult interests supposedly cultivated by the intellectual circles led by Percy and Raleigh, and possibly on the traitorous intent suggested only by rumours from the 1580s that Percy would marry Arbella Stuart.[6][7] Brooke led the Main Plot against James, and Raleigh soon lost his freedom. Northumberland, on the other hand, was appointed to the Privy Council.

Thomas Percy went on to become one of the five conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The goal of this plot was to overthrow the Parliament under King James I. When the plot was discovered, Percy fled and was besieged at Holbeache House in Warwickshire. On 8 November 1605, a marksman shot dead both Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy with a single bullet. As a result, the Earl of Northumberland was suspected of being part of the plot and spent the next 17 years as a prisoner in the Tower of London. He also paid a fine of £30,000 (about ₤6,000,000 as of 2012). His life was spared, largely because it was accepted that he had planned to be present at the fatal meeting of Parliament, which was strong evidence of his innocence of any direct involvement in or knowledge of the Plot.

In the Tower

Still a rich man, Northumberland made himself comfortable in the Tower of London. He took over Martin Tower, and had a covered-over bowling alley installed. Raleigh, who preceded him to the Tower with a death sentence hanging over him, he saw regularly. From 1616, Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset and Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset were inmates, and he was on social terms with them. Frances promoted the marriage of his second daughter Lucy Percy to James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle. As a father he disapproved of the marriage and required Lucy to reside with him; but Frances outwitted him. Despite Percy's extreme disapproval of his daughter's marriage to James Hay, Hay was determined to win over his father-in-law's respect. To do so, he fought for Percy's release from the Tower with success in 1621. [8]

He met friends while in the Tower;[9] these included Thomas Harriot. With Raleigh they discussed advanced scientific ideas and smoked tobacco. After Percy's release, he went to the Bath Inn, later referred to as the Arundel House, to regain his health. Once recovered he retired to Petworth where he remained until his death on 5 November 1632.

His wife died in 1619.

Intellectual interests and associates

Because of his interest in scientific experiments and his library, Northumberland acquired the nickname "The Wizard Earl". The library was one of the largest in England at the time. He was a patron to Thomas Harriot, Nicholas Hill, Robert Hues, Nathaniel Torporley and Walter = DNB/>[10] The astrologer John Dee, nearby Syon House at Mortlake, was also a friend of Henry, and their circles overlapped.[11] Harriot had been a navigational tutor to Ralegh and his captains. From 1598 (or possibly from 1607) Harriot lived at Syon House. There he used a telescope to make a map of the moon several months before Galileo did the same. He may have been the first person to observe sunspots.

Peele wrote a poem The Honour of the Garter, dedicated to Northumberland and for the occasion of his admission to the Order of the Garter, on 26 June 1593.

Northumberland had also connections to the literati. George Peele wrote a poem The Honour of the Garter, dedicated to Percy and for the occasion of his admission to the Order of the Garter, on 26 June 1593. For his efforts Peele was paid £3.[12][13] Christopher Marlowe claimed his acquaintance and certainly moved in the same group.[14] Percy was a friend to John Donne. After Donne's elopement and clandestine marriage in 1601, he had the task of taking a letter for him to the new father-in-law, Sir George More.[15]

In William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (1594), there is a mention of the "School of Night". It has been argued that this refers of a circle of scientific investigators which met at Syon House, though other commentators think the word "school" is a misprint for something like "shawl." Since Percy was often considered to be an atheist, the "school" was sometimes referred to as the "School of Atheism." Raleigh was the supposed leader and Thomas Harriot and Marlowe were supposedly members. Frances Yates comments on this hypothetical group, supposedly including also George Chapman as the author of Shadow of Night, as arguably part of Ralegh's circle, to the effect that they would be "Saturnians" in the sense of her study.[16]


  • Andrew Pyle (editor) (2000), Dictionary of Seventeenth Century British Philosophers


  1. ^ s:Percy, Henry (1564-1632) (DNB00)
  2. ^ Batho, G. R., ed., Household Papers of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, Camden Society, (1962), 64-65.
  3. ^ Alice Hogge, God's Secret Agents (2005), pp. 303-5.
  4. ^ Gerald Brenan, William Alexander Lindsay, A History of the House of Percy (1902), vol. ii p. 81.
  5. ^ Christopher Lee, 1603: A Turning Point in British History (2003), p. 101.
  6. ^ Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Raleigh p. 274.
  7. ^ Sarah Gristwood, Arbella, England's Lost Queen (2003), p. 109.
  8. ^ Anne Somerset (1997), Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of King James I, p. 429 and p. 433.
  9. ^ Gordon Batho, The Education of a Stuart Nobleman, British Journal of Educational Studies, 1957
  10. ^ Pyle, pp. 646-8, article Percy, Henry, 9th Earl of Northumberland.
  11. ^ Peter J. French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (1984), p. 62 and pp. 171-2.
  12. ^ Millar MacLure, Christopher Marlowe: The Critical Heritage (1995), p. 39.
  13. ^ Patrick Gerard Cheney, The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (2004), p. 282.
  14. ^ Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy,pp. 235-241 and p. 280.
  15. ^ David L. Edwards (2001), John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit, p. 255.
  16. ^ Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (2001 edition), p. 169.
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Lord Hunsdon
Captain of the Gentlemen Pensioners
Succeeded by
The Earl of Suffolk
Peerage of England
Preceded by
Henry Percy
Earl of Northumberland
Succeeded by
Algernon Percy
Baron Percy
(descended by acceleration)


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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.