Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords – Preview #5

AttractionsThe northward leg of our journey will take us to Northumberland, land of the Percys. The family’s most famous son is also the Percy who features most heavily in Shakespeare’s works: the fierce and bellicose Hotspur, one of the chief antagonists of Henry IV, Part 1. Shakespeare places him in opposition to Prince Hal, the future Henry V, going so far as to have Henry IV lament:

Henry IV: Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
But let him from my thoughts.

The Percy family is one of England’s most enduring, and Alnwick Castle (pictured in a 1750 painting, below) has been their seat of power since they were mere barons in the early 14th century. They were raised to the earldom by Henry IV, whom they later rebelled against, but found royal favor again during the Wars of the Roses, where they first supported the Lancastrian cause of Henry VI. The second earl (Hotspur’s son) died at the Battle of St. Alban’s, and the third earl died in the Battle of Towton. Shakespeare dramatizes both of these battles: Henry VI, Part 2 ends with St. Alban’s, and Act 3 of Henry VI, Part 3, featuring the famous scene where a father kills his son and a son his father. After Towton, the family briefly lost their title, but the fourth earl got it back by pledging fealty to Edward IV. From then, the Percys became Yorkists, fighting for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Though taken prisoner after that battle, the fourth earl evidently won Henry VII’s regard, as the king released him and entrusted him with several prominent government posts during his life.

1024px-Canaletto_Alnwick

The family fared less well under later Tudors. The sixth earl was briefly engaged to Anne Boleyn, until Cardinal Wolsey scolded him into jilting her — perhaps because Henry VIII had already expressed interest in Anne. His brother Thomas took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising against Henry VIII, was convicted of treason, hanged, drawn, and quartered — though considered a Catholic martyr. The seventh earl led the Rising of the North, an attempt to replace Queen Elizabeth I with her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. When the plot failed, he fled to Scotland, was captured, and beheaded at York. The Percys’ apparent inability to pick a winner continued into the 17th century. The ninth earl took part in the Gunpowder Plot against King James I, and the family supported first the royalists, then the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War.

After what could be regarded as two centuries of bad decisions, the Percys settled down, with the family raised to the dukedom in the 1700s. The Percy name has twice fallen extinct in the male line, but been revived when husbands of Percy daughters chose to take the surname — a testament to the family’s enduring legacy. They also have a few interesting American connections — one Percy was an early governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the illegitimate son of the first duke was James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institute.

Downton AbbeyBecause the Percys’ Alnwick Castle is in better condition than many castles from the same period, it has enjoyed fame through film and television, appearing in Becket, Black Adder, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. More recently — and perhaps more notably — its exterior played the part of Hogwarts Castle in several of the Harry Potter movies, and fans of Downton Abbey may recognize it as Brancaster Castle, site of the 2014 and 2015 Christmas specials.

Next time on the NKSC Preview: Hadrian’s Wall and a castle by the sea.

We  do still have a few slots on the trip open, so if you find these previews enticing and have been sitting on the fence, register now to join us in July!