Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland
|The Earl of Northumberland
Medallion of Henry Percy
|House of Percy
|Henry Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland
|29 June 1537
Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland, KG (c. 1502 – 1537) was an English nobleman, active as a military officer in the north. He is now primarily remembered as the betrothed of Anne Boleyn, whom he was forced to give up before she became involved with King Henry VIII.
Henry Percy was born about 1502, the eldest son of Henry Algernon Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland, by Catherine, daughter of Sir Robert Spencer. Through his mother he was a cousin of William Carey who was the brother-in-law to Anne Boleyn.
Henry was sent, when quite young, to be a page in Thomas Wolsey's household. He was knighted in 1519. The principal source for the early passages of Percy's life is the biography of Wolsey by George Cavendish.
Involvement with Anne Boleyn
Though his father had destined him by 1516 for the daughter of George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, he fell in love with Anne Boleyn, then a young lady about the court. Percy became betrothed to Anne probably in the spring of 1523, when he was still page to Wolsey. On hearing the news, Wolsey scolded Lord Percy before his household, since permission for the marriage had not been sought from his father nor from the King, who had an interest due to the importance of the Northumberland earldom. While Cavendish claimed that the King already had a personal interest in Anne at this point, driving Wolsey's angry reaction, this has been debated. The intrigue was soon discovered, and the Earl of Northumberland sent for young Lord Percy.
Another serious obstacle, besides the proposed Talbot match, is that Anne was intended to wed James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond (who was then a page in Wolsey's household), to manage and resolve a dispute over the earldom of Ormond involving Sir Thomas Boleyn, her father, who had a somewhat feeble claim on the vast Ormonde estates in Munster through his grandmother.
Percy's father refused permission for the match, as he considered Anne Boleyn a mere knight's daughter, and not an appropriate fit for his son and heir.
Marriage to Mary Talbot
Percy's father famously scolded him, saying "thou hast always been a proud, presumptuous, and unthrift waster" and he was quickly and unhappily married to Lady Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, by early 1524 or in 1525 with earlier legal stages. Starkey dates it at August 1525 or August 1526. The old earl allowed the couple little in the way of comforts or income. Wolsey attempted to insinuate his own servants into the household as a means of controlling the young Henry.
By 1528, only four years into their marriage, the couple’s relationship had broken down irretrievably. Northumberland suspected his wife of spying on him for Norfolk, while her father worried he was abusing her and might even poison her. Northumberland was outraged at Shrewsbury’s suspicions and refused to permit his father-in-law’s servants to see or speak to his wife. When the countess's brother-in-law, William, Lord Dacre, asked the duke of Norfolk to defend her, Northumberland told Norfolk that he, Northumberland, would never see her again as long as he lived. The couple may have separated shortly thereafter, at least temporarily, since Mary delivered a stillborn child at her father’s home in April 1529. In 1532, Mary accused her husband of a precontract (i.e. betrothal with legal force) with Anne Boleyn. She confided her alleged grievance to her father, who then mentioned the matter to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. Anne Boleyn, consulted, ordered an inquiry. Northumberland denied the accusation on oath.
In 1536 Shrewsbury noted his daughter had been living with him for two and half years. At about the same time, Northumberland announced that he was bequeathing his entire inheritance to the King since he had no children and he and his wife were not likely to have a legitimate heir. He was by then estranged from his brothers, and did not want them to inherit his property. Mary Talbot hated Henry heartily for the rest of his short life, and later sought a divorce.
In July 1522 he was made a member of the Council of the North; in October he was made deputy warden of the East Marches, and his brother-in-law William Dacre suggested that, young as he was, he should be made warden the same year.
Northumberland was constantly ill with an ague–a feverish, shivery illness–and was burdened with debt, and yet had to keep up an establishment and engage in fighting on his own account. Wolsey treated him in a patronising manner. He was not often allowed to go to court, nor even to his father's funeral. His chief friend was Sir Thomas Arundell.
In spite of all this, he was very active on the borders. He had leave in 1528 to come to London; in 1530, while he was at Topcliffe, he received a message from the king ordering him to go to Cawood and arrest Wolsey. He sent his prisoner south in the custody of Sir Roger Lascelles, while he remained to make an inventory of the Cardinal's goods. He was one of the peers who signed the letter to the Pope in July 1530 asking that the divorce might be hurried on, was a friend of Sir Thomas Legh, and possibly was a reformer. On 23 April 1531 he was created Knight of the Garter. On 11 May 1532 he was made High Sheriff of Northumberland for life and on the 26th of the same month a privy councillor.
Northumberland took part in the trial of his brother-in-law, Lord Dacre, in July 1534. In the January following he was accused of slackness on the borders, and also of having a sword of state carried before him when he went as justiciary to York. If illness was in part responsible, Eustace Chapuys also ranked him, on information which he had from his doctor, among the disaffected early in 1535.
In May 1536 Northumberland, by now a man in broken health, formed one of the jury for the trial of Anne Boleyn. Anne is said to have confessed a precontract with him in the hope of saving her life. He collapsed following the verdict and had to be carried out.
Having no children, Northumberland now began to arrange his affairs. In February 1535 he wrote to Thomas Cromwell that he had decided to make the king his heir, a decision he confirmed later. In 1536 he was created Lord President of the Council of the North, and viceregent of the Order of the Garter.
In September 1536 he had a grant of £1,000 to come to London in order to make arrangements about his lands. The matter was incomplete when the Pilgrimage of Grace broke out. Northumberland's brothers and mother were open sympathisers with the rebels, but the Earl himself remained loyal. The rebel leader Robert Aske and his men came to Wressle Castle, where he was ill in bed, and asked Percy to resign his commands of the marches into the hands of his brothers, or at least go over to the rebels. He refused both requests; and when the lawyer William Stapleton went up to see him, he was in despair. Aske sent him to York, to protect him from his followers, who wanted to behead him.
He made a grant to the king of his estates, on condition that they pass to his nephew. When, however, his brother, Sir Thomas, was attainted and executed, he made the grant unconditional in June 1537. By this time his mind was fast failing. He moved to Newington Green, where Richard Layton visited him on 29 June 1537. Layton found him yellow and distended.
Northumberland died on 29 June 1537, and was buried in Hackney church.
He married, in 1524, Mary Talbot, daughter of George, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, but left surviving no issue. They did however have one known child, a stillborn child born April 1529 at the home of the earl of Shrewsbury where Mary had gone to escape her husband. The earldom fell into abeyance on his death, but was revived in favour of his nephew Thomas. His widow lived until 1572. He left an illegitimate daughter, Isabel, who, in 1544, married Henry Tempest of Broughton.
Northumberland's two brothers, Sir Thomas and Sir Ingelram Percy, took an active part in the management of his estates. They were both leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Both were arrested. Sir Thomas was attainted and executed in 1537. His sons succeeded to the earldom: Thomas as seventh earl and Henry as eighth earl. Sir Ingelram Percy was confined in the Beauchamp Tower, where his name is to be seen cut in the stone; he was soon liberated, went abroad, and died about 1540.
- "Percy, Henry Algernon (1502?-1537)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Karen Lindsey, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, xvii, Perseus Books, 1995
- Ives, p. 63.
- David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, p.xxii. Starkey believes the story to be true.
- Hoyle, R. W. "Percy, Henry". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/21937. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Ives, p. 65, citing David Starkey.
- p.xxii, David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII
- Bernard, G. W., "The Fall of the House of Percy", The Tudor Nobility, Manchester University Press, 1992 ISBN 9780719036255
- Ives, p. 166
- Harris, Barbara, J., English aristocratic women 1450 - 1500: marriage, family, property and careers, pg. 177.
- Ives p. 339 and p. 341
- Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. James Gairdner, vol. X, nos. 459 and 460
- Eric Ives (2005), The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn
|Peerage of England
|Earl of Northumberland
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