Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Percy, Algernon (1602-1668)

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PERCY, ALGERNON, tenth Earl of Northumberland (1602–1668), son of Henry, ninth earl of Northumberland [q. v.], was born in London, and baptised 13 Oct. 1602 (Chamberlain, Letters during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, p. 157; Collins, Peerage, ed., Brydges, ii. 346). Percy was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, as family papers prove, and not at Christ Church, Oxford, as stated by Collins and Doyle (Fonblanque, House of Percy, ii. 367). His father then sent him to travel abroad, providing him with detailed instructions what to observe and how to behave (Antiquarian Repertory, iv. 374). On 4 Nov. 1616 he was created a knight of the Bath (Doyle, Official Baronage, ii. 663). In the parliament of 1624 he represented the county of Sussex, and in those called in 1625 and 1626 the city of Chichester. He was summoned to the House of Lords as Baron Percy on 28 March 1627, and succeeded his father as tenth Earl of Northumberland on 5 Nov. 1632.

Charles I was anxious to secure the support of Northumberland, and conferred upon him, on 16 May 1635, the order of the Garter (Strafford Letters, i. 363, 427; Fonblanque, ii. 630). For the next few years he was continually trusted with the highest naval or military posts. On 23 March 1636 he was appointed admiral of the fleet raised by means of ship-money in order to assert the sovereignty of the seas. It effected nothing beyond obliging a certain number of Dutch fishermen to accept licenses to fish from Northumberland's master. But its ineffectiveness was due rather to the policy of Charles than to his admiral's fault (Gardiner, History of England, viii. 156; Strafford Letters, i. 524; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1635–6, pp. xx, 357). Northumberland was full of zeal for the king's service, and presented to him in December 1636 a statement of the abuses existing in the management of the navy, with proposals for their reform; but, though supported by ample proof of the evils alleged, the commissioners of the admiralty took no steps to remedy them. ‘This proceeding,’ wrote Northumberland to Strafford, ‘hath brought me to a resolution not to trouble myself any more with endeavouring a reformation, unless I be commanded to it’ (Strafford Letters, ii. 40, 49; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1636–7, pp. 202, 217, 251; Fonblanque, ii. 379). Strafford, who had supported Northumberland with all his might, urged him to be patient and constant in his endeavours, and pressed, through Laud, for his appointment as one of the commissioners of the admiralty, or as lord high admiral (Strafford Letters, ii. 54). In April 1637 Northumberland was a second time appointed admiral, but again found himself able to achieve nothing. His disgust was very great. He wrote to Strafford from his anchorage in the Downs complaining bitterly. ‘To ride in this place at anchor a whole summer together without hope of action, to see daily disorders in the fleet and not to have means to remedy them, and to be in an employment where a man can neither do service to the state, gain honour to himself, nor do courtesies for his friends, is a condition that I think nobody will be ambitious of’ (ib. ii. 84; Gardiner, viii. 219; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1637, pp. xxi–xxv). On 30 March 1638 Northumberland was raised to the dignity of lord high admiral of England, which was granted him, however, only during pleasure, and not, as in the cases of Nottingham and Buckingham, for life (ib. 1637–8, p. 321; Collins, ii. 247). It was intended that he should retain his post until the Duke of York was of age to succeed him (Strafford Letters, ii. 154; Gardiner, viii. 338). The troubles in Scotland brought Northumberland military office also. In July 1638 the king appointed a committee of eight privy councillors for Scottish affairs, of which Northumberland was one. The consideration of the discontent of the people and of the king's unpreparedness for war made him think it safer for the king to grant the Scots the conditions they asked than rashly to enter into a war. ‘God send us a good end of this troublesome business,’ he wrote to Strafford, ‘for, to my apprehension, no foreign enemies could threaten so much danger to this kingdom as doth now this beggarly nation’ (ib. ii. 186, 266). On 26 March 1639, when the king prepared to proceed to the north to take command of the army, Northumberland was appointed general of all the forces south of the Trent and a member of the council of regency (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1638–9, p. 608). His private letters to his brother-in-law, the Earl of Leicester, show that Northumberland was dissatisfied with the king's policy, and had no confidence in most of his fellow-ministers. Secretary Coke he held incapable, and endeavoured to get his place for Leicester. Secretary Windebanke he regarded not only as incapable, but as treacherous, and was enraged by his interference with the command of the fleet, which allowed Tromp to destroy Oquendo's ships in an English harbour. Northumberland's own views inclined him to an alliance with France rather than Spain, and he was opposed to Hamilton, Cottington, and the Spanish faction in the council. Strafford was his friend, but he thought him too much inclined to Spain, and Laud's religious policy he disliked. The discontent which existed in England and the emptiness of the king's treasury seemed to him to render the success of the war against the Scots almost impossible (Collins, Sydney Papers, ii. 608–23; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1639–40, pp. 22, 526; Strafford Letters, ii. 276). For these reasons Northumberland hailed with joy the summoning of the Short parliament, and regretted the vehemence with which the commons pressed for the redress of their grievances. ‘Had they been well advised,’ he wrote to Lord Conway, ‘I am persuaded they might in time have gained their desires’ (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1640, pp. 71, 115; Sydney Papers, ii. 623). Backed only by Lord Holland, he opposed the dissolution of the parliament in the committee of eight, and spoke against Strafford's proposal for a vigorous invasion of Scotland. Vane's notes of his speech are: ‘If no more money than proposed, how then to make an offensive war? a difficulty whether to do nothing or to let them alone, or go on with a vigorous war’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. p. 3; Gardiner, History of England, ix. 122). ‘What will the world judge of us abroad,’ he complained to Leicester, ‘to see us enter into such an action as this is, not knowing how to maintain it for one month? It grieves my soul to be involved in these counsels, and the sense I have of the miseries that are like to ensue is held by some a disaffection in me. … The condition that the king is in is extremely unhappy; I could not believe that wise men would ever have brought us into such a strait as now we are in without being certain of a remedy’ (Collins, Sydney Papers, ii. 652, 654).

As early as the previous December Charles had announced to Northumberland that he meant to make him general of the forces raised for the second Scottish war (ib. ii. 626). According to Clarendon, Strafford was originally designed for the post, but he chose rather to serve as lieutenant-general under the Earl of Northumberland, believing that the conferring of that precedence upon him would more firmly fasten him to the king's interest, and that his power in the northern parts would bring great advantage to the king's services (Rebellion, ed. Macray, ii. 80 n.) His commission is dated 14 Feb. 1640 (Rushworth, iii. 989). Northumberland, in spite of his doubts and despondency, vigorously exerted himself to organise the army, and contributed 5,000l. to the loan raised for the king's service in 1639 (Sydney Papers, ii. 629; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1640, pp. 294, 363, 514, 572). But in August 1640 he fell ill, and Strafford took command of the army in his place (ib. pp. 588, 603).

In the Long parliament Northumberland gradually drew to the side of the opposition. He was one of the witnesses against Strafford on the twenty-third article of the impeachment; and, though denying that Strafford had intended to use the Irish army against England, his evidence to the lord deputy's recommendation of arbitrary measures was extremely damaging. The king, wrote Northumberland to Leicester, was angry with him because he would not perjure himself for Strafford (Rushworth, Trial of Strafford, pp. 533, 543; Sydney Papers, ii. 665).

Northumberland himself was vexed because the king declined to promote Leicester (ib. ii. 661–6). Clarendon represents Northumberland sending to the House of Commons Henry Percy's letter about the army plot as the first visible sign of his defection (Rebellion, iii. 228; Commons' Journals, ii. 172–5). It was followed in the second session by an open alliance with the opposition party in the House of Lords. Northumberland signed the protests against the appointment of Lunsford to the command of the Tower, against the refusal of the House of Lords to join the commons in demanding the militia, and against their similar refusal to punish the Duke of Richmond's dangerous words. The popular party showed their confidence in Northumberland by nominating him lord lieutenant of the four counties of Sussex, Northumberland, Pembroke, and Anglesey (28 Feb. 1642). His possession of the post of lord high admiral secured the parliamentary leaders the control of the navy. When the king refused to appoint the Earl of Warwick to command the fleet, the two houses ordered Northumberland to make him vice-admiral, and Northumberland obeyed. On 28 June 1642 the king dismissed Northumberland from his office, but too late to prevent the sailors from accepting Warwick as their commander (Clarendon, Rebellion, iv. 330, v. 376; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. p. 85; Gardiner, History of England, x. 176, 185, 208).

Charles felt Northumberland's defection very severely. He had raised him to office after office, and, as he complained, ‘courted him as his mistress, and conversed with him as his friend, without the least interruption or intermission of all possible favour and kindness’ (Clarendon, Rebellion, iii. 228; Memoirs of Sir Philip Warwick, p. 117). In three letters to Sir John Bankes, Northumberland explained his position. ‘We believe that those persons who are most powerful with the king do endeavour to bring parliaments to such a condition that they shall only be made instruments to execute the commands of the king, who were established for his greatest and most supreme council. … It is far from our thoughts to change the form of government, to invade upon the king's just prerogative, or to leave him unprovided of as plentiful a revenue as either he or any of his predecessors ever enjoyed.’ He protested that the armaments of the parliament were purely defensive in their aim. ‘Let us but have our laws, liberties, and privileges secured unto us, and let him perish that seeks to deprive the king of any part of his prerogative, or that authority which is due unto him. If our fortunes be to fall into troubles, I am sure few (excepting the king himself) will suffer more than I shall do; therefore for my own private considerations, as well as for the public good, no man shall more earnestly endeavour an agreement between the king and his people’ (Bankes, Story of Corfe Castle, pp. 122, 129, 139).

True to these professions, Northumberland, though he accepted a place in the parliamentary committee of safety (4 July 1642), was throughout counted among the heads of the peace party (Gardiner, Great Civil War, i. 53, 80). On 10 Nov. 1642 he was sent to present a message of peace to the king at Colebrook, and in the following March he was at the head of the parliamentary commissioners sent to treat with the king at Oxford. Whitelocke praises his ‘sober and stout carriage to the king,’ his civility to his brother commissioners, and the ‘state and nobleness’ with which he lived while at Oxford (Memorials, edit. 1853, i. 195–201; Old Parliamentary History, xii. 29, 201). His zeal for peace made him suspected by the violent party. Harry Marten took upon himself to open one of Northumberland's letters to his wife, and, as he refused to apologise, Northumberland struck him with his cane. This took place on 18 April 1643 in the painted chamber, as Marten was returning from a conference between the two houses, and was complained of by the commons as a breach of privilege (Lords' Journals, vi. 11; Clarendon, Rebellion, vii. 20). In June Northumberland was accused of complicity in Waller's plot, but indignantly repudiated the charge, and Waller's statements against him are too vague to be credited (Sanford, Studies and Illustrations of the Great Rebellion, pp. 543, 562). He was one of the originators of the peace propositions agreed to by the House of Lords on 4 Aug. 1643, and appealed to Essex for support against the mob violence which procured their rejection by the commons (ib. p. 576; Gardiner, Great Civil War, i. 185; Clarendon, Rebellion, vii. 166–75). Finding Essex disinclined to support the peace movement, Northumberland retired to Petworth, and for a time absented himself altogether from the parliamentary councils. Clarendon, who held that the king might have won back Northumberland by returning him to his office of lord admiral, asserts that if the other peers who deserted the parliament at the same time had been well received by the king, Northumberland would have followed their example (Rebellion, vii. 21, 188, 244, 248).

A few months later Northumberland returned to his place in parliament, and the two houses showed their confidence by appointing him one of the committee of both kingdoms (16 Feb. 1644). In the treaty at Uxbridge in January 1645 Northumberland again acted as one of the parliamentary commissioners, and was their usual spokesman (Whitelocke, i. 377, 385; Clarendon, Rebellion, viii. 218). But he was hardly as ready to make concessions as before. ‘The repulse he had formerly received at Oxford upon his addresses thither, and the fair escape he had made afterwards from the jealousy of the parliament, had wrought so far upon him that he resolved no more to depend upon the one or provoke the other, and was willing to see the king's power and authority so much restrained that he might not be able to do him any harm’ (ib. viii. 244). During 1645 he acted with the leaders of the independents, helping to secure the passage of the self-denying ordinance, and the organisation of the new model army (Gardiner, Great Civil War, ii. 189; Sanford, Studies and Illustrations, p. 353). On 18 March he was appointed to the guardianship of the king's two youngest children, with a salary of 3,000l. a year; and it was even reported that if the king continued to refuse to come to terms, the Duke of Gloucester would be made king, with Northumberland as lord protector (ib.; Lords' Journals, vii. 279, 327). After the fall of Oxford the Duke of York also passed into his custody, with an allowance of 7,500l. for his maintenance.

With the close of the war Northumberland again took up the part of mediator. His own losses during its continuance had amounted to over 42,000l., towards which, on 19 Jan. 1647, parliament had voted him 10,000l. (Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. p. 86; Commons' Journals, viii. 651). In January 1647 he united with Manchester and the leading presbyterian peers in drawing up propositions likely to be more acceptable to the king than those previously offered him. They were forwarded through Bellièvre, the French ambassador, who transmitted them to Henrietta Maria (Gardiner, Great Civil War, iii. 213). On 26 Nov. 1646 Northumberland had been accused of secretly sending money to the king during the war, and the charge had been investigated at the desire of the commons by a committee of the House of Lords; but the informer himself finally admitted that the charge was false (Lords' Journals, viii. 578, 678). That it should have been made at all was probably the effect of his obvious preference for a compromise with Charles.

Northumberland was one of the peers who left their seats in parliament after the riots of July 1647, and signed the engagement of 4 Aug. to stand by the army for the restoration of the freedom of the two houses (Lords' Journals, ix. 385). It was at Northumberland's house, Syon, near Brentford, that the conferences of the seceders and the officers of the army were held and an agreement arrived at (Waller, Vindication, p. 191). When the king was in the hands of the army, and during his residence at Hampton Court, he was allowed to see his children with more frequency than before, parliament, however, stipulating that Northumberland should accompany his charges. In one of these interviews it is said that Charles gently reproached Northumberland for his defection, and hinted that, if he would return to his allegiance, the Duke of York should be married to one of his daughters. But Northumberland remained firm against any temptations; while his opposition to the vote of no address proved that fear was equally unable to make him swerve from the policy of moderation and compromise (Green, Lives of the Princesses of England, vi. 360; Gardiner, Great Civil War, iv. 52). On 21 April 1648 the Duke of York escaped from Northumberland's custody, and made his way in disguise to Holland. But as early as 19 Feb. Northumberland had asked to be relieved of his charge, and declined to be responsible if he should escape; so the two houses, on hearing the earl's explanation, acquitted him of all blame in the matter (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1648–9, p. 19; Lords' Journals, x. 220; Life of James II, i. 29–33). In the following September Northumberland was appointed one of the fifteen commissioners sent to negotiate with Charles at Newport, and appears from his subsequent conduct to have regarded the king's concessions as a sufficient basis for the settlement of the nation. In the House of Lords he headed the opposition to the ordinance for the king's trial. ‘Not one in twenty of the people of England,’ he declared, ‘are yet satisfied whether the king did levy war against the houses first, or the houses first against him; and, besides, if the king did levy war first, we have no law extant that can be produced to make it treason in him to do; and for us to declare treason by an ordinance when the matter of fact is not yet proved, nor any law to bring to judge it by, seems to me very unreasonable’ (Gardiner, Great Civil War, iv. 289).

Under the Commonwealth and protectorate Northumberland remained rigidly aloof from public affairs. He consented, however, to take the engagement to be faithful to the Commonwealth (Sanford, Studies and Illustrations of the Great Rebellion, p. 292). At his own request parliament relieved him of the expensive and troublesome charge of Prince Henry and the Princess Elizabeth, appointing, at his own suggestion, his sister, the Countess of Leicester, to fill his place (Cary, Memorials of the Civil War, ii. 127, 138; Commons' Journals, vi. 216). He took no part in any plots against the government. An attempt to make him out to be a delinquent failed; but the demand that Wressell Castle should be made untenable, and the consequences of a loan raised by the parliament, for which he had become engaged, gave him some vexation (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1649–50, p. 286; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. pp. 87–8). He refused to sit either in Cromwell's House of Lords or in that summoned by his son in 1659. To Richard's invitation he is said to have replied that, ‘till the government was such as his predecessors have served under, he could not in honour do it; but, that granted, he should see his willingness to serve him with his life and fortune’ (Clarendon State Papers, ii. 432). He looked forward to the restoration of the House of Lords as a necessary part of the settlement of the nation, but deprecated any premature attempt on the part of the lords themselves to reclaim their rights. On 5 March 1660 he wrote to the Earl of Manchester, referring to the recent attempt made by some of the lords to persuade Monck to allow them to sit, and urging its unseasonableness (Manchester, Court and Society from Elizabeth to Anne, i. 395). An unconditional restoration he did not desire, and was one of the heads of the little cabal which proposed that merely those peers who had sat in 1648 should be permitted to take their places in the upper house, and that these should impose on Charles II the conditions offered to his father at the Newport treaty (Collins, Sydney Papers, ii. 685; Clarendon State Papers, iii. 729). In the Convention parliament which met in April 1660 he supported a general act of indemnity, and was heard to say that, ‘though he had no part in the death of the king, he was against questioning those who had been concerned in that affair; that the example might be more useful to posterity and profitable to future kings, by deterring them from the like exorbitances’ (Ludlow, Memoirs, 267, ed. 1894).

Though the policy which Northumberland had pursued must have been extremely distasteful both to the king and to his ministers, he was sworn in as a privy councillor immediately after the king's return (31 May 1660) (Blencowe, Sydney Papers, p. 158). He was appointed lord lieutenant of Sussex (11 Aug. 1660) and joint lord lieutenant of Northumberland (7 Sept. 1660), and acted as lord high constable at the coronation of Charles II (18–23 April 1661). But he exercised no influence over the policy of the king, and took henceforth no part in public affairs. He died on 13 Oct. 1668, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, and was buried at Petworth.

Clarendon terms Northumberland ‘the proudest man alive,’ and adds that ‘if he had thought the king as much above him as he thought himself above other considerable men, he would have been a good subject.’ ‘He was in all his deportment a very great man,’ and throughout his political career he behaved with a dignity and independence more characteristic of a feudal potentate than a seventeenth-century nobleman. Without possessing great abilities, he enjoyed as much reputation and influence as if he had done so. ‘Though his notions were not large or deep, yet his temper and reservedness in discourse, and his unrashness in speaking, got him the reputation of an able and a wise man; which he made evident in his excellent government of his family, where no man was more absolutely obeyed; and no man had ever fewer idle words to answer for; and in debates of importance he always expressed himself very pertinently’ (Rebellion, vi. 398, viii. 244). At the commencement of the civil war he had ‘the most esteemed and unblemished reputation, in court and country, of any person of his rank throughout the kingdom.’ At the close of the struggle he preserved it almost unimpaired. ‘In spite of all the partial disadvantages which were brought upon him by living in such a divided age, yet there was no man perhaps of any party but believed, honoured, and would have trusted him. Neither was this due to any chance of his birth, but, as all lasting reputation is, to those qualities which ran through the frame of his mind and the course of his life’ (Sir William Temple to Josceline, eleventh earl of Northumberland, 26 Dec. 1668; Fonblanque, ii. 475).

Northumberland married twice: first, in January 1629, Lady Anne Cecil, eldest daughter of William, second earl of Salisbury. This match was strongly disapproved by the bridegroom's father, who attributed his wrongs to the jealousy of the first Earl of Salisbury, and declared that the blood of Percy would not mix with the blood of Cecil if you poured it in a dish’ (Fonblanque, ii. 370). She died on 6 Dec. 1637, and was buried at Petworth (Strafford Letters, ii. 142). By her Northumberland had issue five daughters, three of whom—Catharine, Dorothy, and Lucy—died in childhood; Lady Anne Percy, born on 12 Aug. 1633, married, on 21 June 1652, Philip, lord Stanhope, and died on 29 Nov. 1654; Lady Elizabeth Percy, born on 1 Dec. 1636, married, on 19 May 1653, Arthur, lord Capel (created Earl of Essex in 1661), and died on 5 Feb. 1718 (ib. i. 76, 116, 469; Collins, ii. 353; Fonblanque, ii. 388, 407).

Northumberland's second wife was Lady Elizabeth Howard, second daughter of Theophilus, second earl of Suffolk. The marriage took place on 1 Oct. 1642. She died on 11 March 1705. By this marriage the great house built by Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, came into Northumberland's possession, and was henceforth known as Northumberland House. It was demolished in 1874 to make room for Northumberland Avenue (Wheatley, London Past and Present, ii. 603). By his second countess Earl Algernon had issue: (1) Josceline, eleventh earl of Northumberland, born on 4 July 1644, married, on 23 Dec. 1662, Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Thomas Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, and died on 21 May 1670, having had issue a son, Henry Percy, who died on 18 Dec. 1669, and a daughter, Elizabeth Percy, born on 26 Jan. 1667, afterwards Duchess of Somerset; (2) Lady Mary Percy, born on 22 July 1647, died on 3 July 1652.

A portrait of Northumberland and his countess by Vandyck was No. 719 in the National Portrait Exhibition of 1866; it is in the possession of the Marquis of Salisbury. Another by the same painter, the property of the Earl of Essex, was No. 760. The latter was No. 57 in the Vandyck exhibition of 1887. Lists of engraved portraits are in Granger's ‘Biographical History,’ and in the catalogue of the portraits in the Sutherland copy of Clarendon's ‘History,’ in the Bodleian Library. They include engravings by Glover, Hollar, Houbraken, Payne, and Stent ({sc|Bromley}}).

[A life of Algernon, earl of Northumberland, based mainly on the family papers, is contained in De Fonblanque's House of Percy, vol. ii. The papers themselves are calendared Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. A life is also given in Lodge's Portraits; Doyle's Official Baronage, ii. 663; Collins's Peerage, ed. Brydges, vol. ii.; Collins's Sydney Papers; other authorities cited in the article.]

C. H. F.