Percy, James (DNB00)

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PERCY, JAMES (1619–1690?), claimant to the earldom of Northumberland, born, it was alleged, at Harrowden in Northamptonshire in 1619, was the only surviving son of Henry Percy, by Lydia, daughter of Robert Cope of Horton in Northamptonshire. His grandfather was generally admitted to be Henry Percy ‘of Pavenham’ in Bedfordshire. When, upon the death of Jocelyn Percy, eleventh earl of Northumberland, and son of Algernon, tenth earl [q. v.], his only daughter Elizabeth, eventually Duchess of Somerset, succeeded to all the transmissible honours of her ancestry, James Percy, who had hitherto successfully followed the trade of trunkmaker in Dublin, came forward and challenged her great inheritance. The eleventh earl died at Turin on 21 May 1670, and the trunkmaker arrived in London in pursuit of his claims on 11 Oct. in that year. He waited, however, for some months, until the widowed countess, who was pregnant, had given birth to a dead child, and it was not until 3 Feb. 1671 that he entered his claim at the signet office, and presented a petition to the House of Lords praying for recognition in his person of the title, style, honours, and dignity of Baron Percy and Earl of Northumberland, as great-grandson of Sir Richard Percy, the fifth son of Henry, eighth earl [q. v.] Through Sir Richard, a soldier of repute, who had died at Angers, aged 73, in 1648, he claimed to be next-of-kin in the male line. Shortly afterwards the dowager-countess protested against his claim, and on 28 Feb. 1672 the House of Lords dismissed his petition as baseless. Not only, it was contended against the petitioner, had Sir Richard by general belief died unmarried, but it was impossible that a man born in 1575 should have a great-grandson born in 1619. Undeterred by the failure of his first assault upon the title, which he regarded as ‘tentative or merely provocative of discussion which might throw sufficient light upon the family pedigree to enable him to make out his true descent,’ Percy now set to work to collect evidence to the effect that the last four earls had all owned his relationship, and in Trinity term 1674 he brought an action in the king's bench against one John Clarke for calling him an impostor. The case was tried before Sir Matthew Hale, who finally nonsuited the plaintiff, though he expressed a somewhat unguarded belief in the genuineness of his claim. Greatly encouraged, he now set seriously to work to find a more authentic great-grandfather, and, acting upon a hint given him by the old Countess of Dorset, who alleged that some of the Percy children were sent down south to Petworth in hampers at the time of the trouble in the north (1569?) during Queen Elizabeth's reign, he asserted that one of these children was his father, Henry Percy, who was a grandson of Sir Ingelram Percy, the younger brother of Henry Algernon, sixth earl of Northumberland [q. v.] Against the petition which he based upon this assertion it was contested that Sir Ingelram was unmarried, and that his only issue was one illegitimate daughter. It does not appear that Sir Ingelram's will was put in as evidence on either side, but the terms of this document, which is still extant in the prerogative court of Canterbury, dated 7 June 1538, render it extremely improbable that Sir Ingelram left any legitimate children. Percy's resources were well-nigh exhausted by his neglect of business and long residence in London; but upon the revolution of 1688, after a litigation extending over nearly twenty years, he determined to once more carry his claim before the House of Lords. On 11 June 1689 a final judgment was given against him by the peers, by whom he was sentenced to be brought before the four courts in Westminster Hall, bearing upon his breast a paper, with the inscription, ‘The False and Impudent Pretender to the Earldom of Northumberland.’ He was then seventy years old, and he is supposed to have died shortly after the adverse decision. There is no mention of the execution of the sentence in the contemporary newspapers. Percy seems to have firmly believed in the justice of his claim, which was evidently regarded as plausible by contemporary opinion; and the weight of interest that was arrayed against him insured him a certain measure of popular favour. On the other hand, it must be admitted that he was unable to adduce any documentary proofs, and showed himself completely ignorant of the character and degree of his pretended affinity with the noble house of Percy. The claimant left three sons, who were respectively merchants in London, Dublin, and Norwich, and of whom the second, Anthony, was lord mayor of Dublin in 1689, but the claim upon which he wasted so much energy was not renewed by any member of his family.

[To our Royal King's Sacred Majesty … the humble complaint of J. Percy, 1677, fol.; Claim, Pedigree, and Proceedings of James Percy, now claimant to the Earldom of Northumberland, presented to both Houses of Parliament, 1680, fol.; the Case of James Percy, Claymant to the Earldom of Northumberland, 1685; Craik's Romance of the Peerage, iv. 286–321 (containing a very full account of the proceedings in connection with the claim); De Fonblanque's Annals of the House of Percy, ii. 487; Burke's Peerage and Romance of the Aristocracy, iii. 154; Collins's Peerage, ii. 178; Brydges's Restituta, vol. iii.; Lords' Journals, 11 June 1687; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, iii. 528.]

T. S.