PERCY, Hugh, Earl Percy (1785-1847).
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Family and Education
b. 20 Apr. 1785, 1st s. of Hugh Percy†, 2nd Duke of Northumberland, by 2nd w. Frances Julia, da. of Peter Burrell† of Langley Park, Beckenham, Kent. educ. Eton 1796-1802; St. John’s, Camb. 1802-5. m. 29 Apr. 1817, Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive, da. of Edward Clive*, 1st Earl of Powis, s.p. summ. to the Lords in his fa.’s barony as Baron Percy 12 Mar. 1812; suc. fa. as 3rd Duke of Northumberland 10 July 1817; KG 25 Nov. 1819; KP 6 Mar. 1829.
Ld. of bedchamber 1821-d.; PC 23 Mar. 1825; ambassador extraordinary to France for coronation of Charles X 1825; ld. lt. [I] Jan. 1829-Dec. 1830.
Ld. lt. Northumb. 1817-d.; high steward, Camb. Univ. 1834-40, chancellor 1840-d.; constable and high steward, Launceston 1843-d.
Col. Percy vols. 1803.
Percy, who was described by Mrs Nicholson Calvert as ‘a chattering good humoured civil young man’, was utterly dominated by his father. The 2nd Duke of Northumberland, a former soldier, was vain, arrogant and crotchety. He attached himself to the Prince of Wales in 1788, but his real political influence was slight. In 1803 he refused the Prince’s request that he return Tom Sheridan for Newport, as it would interfere with arrangements made to seat Percy on his coming of age; in 1805 he turned down a similar application by Lord Auckland for his son.1
Northumberland took extreme umbrage at Fox’s failure to consult him on the formation of the ‘Talents’, his contention being that before he committed himself to support an administration headed by Lord Grenville, to whom he had long been politically opposed, he was entitled by his rank, property and electoral influence to receive guarantees that it would not conduct itself on Pittite principles. Initially he threatened to withhold support and ‘to exert myself to the utmost by collecting together a number of independent and respectable persons amongst my old acquaintances and Lord Percy’s young ones, and attentively watch the measures of these gentlemen’. It took the intercession of the Prince to persuade him to back the ministry, and, although he promised to overlook their ‘inattention’ to him, he continued to hold a strong grudge against Fox in particular. As a placatory gesture the Prince offered to try to persuade the King to summon Percy to the Lords in his father’s barony, but Northumberland declined the proposal:
Lord Percy seems much more inclined to go in April into the House of Commons ... and as I have so many seats it is a matter of no moment to me; besides, I should be very sorry that such a thing should be made a great favour shown to the Prince ... when I believe there is not a single instance of any difficulty being made about it, in the case of a person situated as Lord Percy is.2
Percy was not in fact brought in immediately on coming of age. In June 1806 the duke was contemplating putting him up for Northumberland, where a vacancy was expected, but Lord Grenville, a cousin of Northumberland, offered to accommodate him. The original plan, to return him for Okehampton on the Holland interest, was frustrated, but at the end of July a minor government reshuffle opened Enniskillen, which was tendered to Percy and accepted. The Marquess of Buckingham’s objections to returning William Henry Fremantle* for Buckingham, which he wished to reserve for Grenville kith and kin, caused the arrangement to be altered at the last moment and Percy was elected for Buckingham on 11 Aug. 1806.3 On Fox’s death in September, Grenville asked Northumberland to allow Percy to stand as his successor in Westminster. There was a brief threat of trouble from Richard Sheridan, treasurer of the navy, but he was forced aside and Percy came in without opposition early in October, when his father assured Grenville that ‘Percy, as well as myself, will be happy in having any opportunity of ... strengthening ... your lordship’s administration’.4 Only a week later ministers decided to dissolve, and on learning that they intended to back Sheridan in Westminster the duke withdrew Percy in pique and wrote to his agent:
The treatment I have received convinces me I must form a party of my own and make my consequence in the country be a little felt. Lord Percy is young, and I hope to deliver into his hands a party of respectable country gentlemen ... The very proposition of starting Mr Sheridan ... after his late conduct, was offensive, and I and Lord Percy can look upon it in no other light than as a pretty broad hint they wished him to retire ... Two elections for Westminster in one month and Mr Sheridan for colleague was too much for a person even of less delicate feelings than a Percy to bear.
Percy was sent to Cambridge to assess the chances of an attempt on the university. When these proved slim he returned north, where his father made no headway with his plan to get him in for the county and he was then dispatched to Cornwall, to be elected for Launceston.5 Sir John Swinburne, head of the independent interest in Northumberland, commented to Lord Howick, one of the county Members, 26 Oct.: ‘He is so completely cowed and devoted to his father’s wishes that he is at present a complete puppet and what a mortifying part he is made to act!’, and on 31 Oct.: ‘His father seems to have as little regard to his bodily feelings, as he has to his mental ones. What a shame it is to see this poor youth thus hawked about the kingdom!’ Francis Horner*, who described Northumberland as ‘a diseased capricious old peer, who has nothing in his head but gout’, believed that these peregrinations had ‘completed the ruin of his son’s character in public life’.6
Northumberland, who had convinced himself that Grenville had withheld information of his intention to dissolve at the time of Percy’s return for Westminster, wrote complainingly of ministers to the Prince’s secretary, McMahon:
I feel myself perfectly absolved by their behaviour from all connection with any party, and at full liberty to act during the ensuing Parliament as I shall think best. In such times as these I am much inclined to support his Majesty’s government, if the cabinet will permit me, but if they spurn my support and treat me with indifference, Lord Percy and I must with our friends exert ourselves ... Many nice and ticklish questions will probably be brought on ... which may make our support not unuseful to them.
At the same time, he professed his desire for ‘a fair, open, manly, and unreserved friendship’ with Grenville personally; and early in December 1806 he made such an offer to the prime minister, stressing the fact that he had ‘six Members in the House of Commons’ and insisting that he must be kept au fait with ministerial intentions. Grenville responded cordially and assured Northumberland that the decision to dissolve had been taken after Percy’s return for Westminster. The duke claimed to be satisfied and the reconciliation was cemented by his being given command of the Blues at the end of the year.7
Percy supported the ‘Talents’ until their fall. In his maiden speech, 23 Feb. 1807, he spoke for the abolition of the slave trade and outlined a scheme for the gradual abolition of slavery, which he tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce as a bill, 17 Mar. He voted for Brand’s motion condemning the ministerial pledge, 9 Apr., and when supporting Lyttelton’s motion on the change of administration, 15 Apr., commended the ‘Talents’ for the abolition of the slave trade and the appointment of the finance committee, but deplored their attempt to give ‘an extension of power to the Roman Catholics’. Nevertheless Northumberland made him the instrument of his revenge on the Foxites, in the person of Lord Howick, at the general election of 1807, for although he assured Howick that he wished to preserve the peace of the county, he secretly engineered a move to set up Percy who, throughout the proceedings, was in Cornwall for his re-election for Launceston. Percy and the other sitting Member together enjoyed the backing of the Portland ministry and Howick was forced to withdraw. Percy, who Swinburne thought ‘was a mere instrument in his father’s hands, and kept ignorant of what was going on for some time’, chose to sit for the county.8
Howick, disgusted with the duke, thought his Members could be discounted from estimates of opposition strength, but late in June 1807 Fremantle reported that, though Percy would not vote for an amendment to the address, ‘he is with us on other questions’. In the autumn Northumberland told McMahon that ‘I have never heard one syllable either from Lord Grenville nor of him, nor do I know anything more of their future plans or intentions than my footman’. He was scathing about the military and political record of the ‘Talents’, although he held no high opinion of the ability of their successors:
Lord Percy ... has a fine game before him with the eight Members, if he knows how to play it, and does not fling it away ... I am much inclined to retire and leave it all to him. By the conduct of the late ministers, they certainly cannot pretend to have any claim upon him. He knows nothing of the present ones. He has therefore carte blanche; and it will be his own fault if he does not take the proper advantage of it if he is left to himself.
Percy is not known to have voted with opposition during the 1808 session. On 23 Mar. Lord Palmerston, a lord of the Admiralty, reported that he ‘has been voting with us occasionally but has certainly not been very regular in his attendance, however quite enough so, to show his general disposition’. He presumably supported ministers over the Copenhagen expedition, of which his father approved, and sided with them against the attacks on Lord Wellesley.9 On 21 Feb. 1809, however, he spoke and voted for Petty’s motion that the convention of Cintra had disappointed the hopes of the country, though he was not prepared to censure government for the transaction. Three days later he supported Ponsonby’s call for inquiry into the Spanish campaign and he also voted for Hamilton’s motion of censure on Castlereagh, 25 Apr., and Madocks’s charges against Perceval and Castlereagh, 11 May 1809.
Northumberland, who did not envisage much improvement in military policy from Perceval’s government, carefully instructed Percy as to his course of action if the projected Northumberland county meeting to address the King on recent failures took place:
I should certainly think you will act right, in not attending ... and ... I should advise you to say, that nobody can lament more than you the present state of the country, and the failure of the expeditions ... but that ... any meeting and address to the king is at present premature ... That if however a meeting is thought proper, it would surely be more advisable to move for a petition to Parliament to institute an enquiry.
With Perceval’s sanction Lord Mulgrave, first lord of the Admiralty, offered Percy a seat at the board but, to no one’s surprise, the duke turned it down. Perceval himself then wrote to Northumberland, frankly soliciting his support, and proposing to make Percy a lord of the Treasury. The duke, who stated that ‘they are measures, and not men, which determine my support’, returned what Creevey fairly termed a ‘dry refusal’, to the delight of the Carlton House set.10
Shortly before the meeting of Parliament in 1810 Percy was at Teignmouth, not disposed to attend ‘until I am obliged’, but he did so in time to give a silent vote for the amendment to the address, 23 Jan., an action which ruffled his father:
Percy ... has not exactly followed the line I pointed out to him ... for in consequence of the neglect ... of ... Grey and Grenville towards us all, I was most particularly anxious that we should not appear totally to have forgotten it; and again unnoticed, and unconsulted, to follow as a matter of course in the herd of their dependants. I therefore most earnestly requested Lord Percy to get up in his place (if he found it necessary to vote for the amendment) and say, that thinking it absolutely necessary to enter into a most scrupulous examination of the failures ... he should feel himself obliged to vote for the amendment ... although he highly disapproved of the sentence in it, which prejudged the case ... and if others objected to this clause, to move for those words to be left out ... Unfortunately however, by Lord Percy’s silent vote and the amendment itself being rendered unnecessary for the purpose for which alone Ld. Percy should have voted for it, as H.M. had declared in his speech that the necessary papers ... should be laid before the House, he will have convinced the public, and I fear perhaps the noble lords themselves, that he consents to be a mere tool of the party.
Northumberland told Percy that ‘in order to remedy this false impression and to regain if possible his former proper independence’, he should make it clear ‘that he has no connexion with the opposition and is no party man’. He envisaged his son leading ‘half a dozen, or a dozen country gentlemen, who want nothing but the good of their country’ and acting ‘a noble, upright and independent part which would place him in that elevated station, where he ought to be, and secure to him the confidence of the country in general’. A week later the duke’s estimate of the potential strength of the party of ‘really independent gentlemen’ which Percy should ‘endeavour to collect’ had risen to ‘30 or 40’. Nothing came of these fantasies, although Northumberland continued to indulge them.11
Percy voted with opposition on the Walcheren expedition, 26 Jan. and 5 Mar. 1810. The Whigs were ‘hopeful’ of his support in the crucial division of 30 Mar. and duly received it; but his only other recorded opposition vote of the session was against the committal of Burdett, 5 Apr., and he voted against parliamentary reform, 21 May. In answer to the question of James Brogden* as to ‘whether on the supposition of a strong government being formed’ he would allow Percy to take office in it, Northumberland wrote, 31 Mar. 1810:
I am sure you would not wish him to connect himself with the present set, and you know ... in what a manner myself, and all those connected with me, have been treated by ... Grey and Grenville ... Whenever ... the heads of any party think proper to lay before me the intended plan for the formation of an administration and state distinctly ... the measures they intend to bring forward ... I shall give them my answer; and if these ... are such as I shall approve, I may be inclined to consent that Lord Percy should accept of a situation becoming his condition in the state, provided they appeared anxiously to wish for and seriously to think that his support and assistance could be of any serious benefit to the state by so effectually giving his countenance and mine to them. But from whence is this application to come? Not from the Greys and Grenvilles, without a positive apology for the past, and a proper security for the future.12
With the prospect of a Regency in November 1810 the duke bombarded McMahon with advice for the Prince and ‘gave Lord Percy strict charge to go to Carlton House and receive HRH’s commands as soon as ever he arrived in town’. Percy, who confided to Brogden his hope that the King would recover, ‘for if the long debates are to begin in November it will be absolutely necessary for the freeholders of Northumberland to look out for another Member as I do not think that I can possibly weather a longer session than we usually have’, dutifully called on the Prince, but stayed in London only a few days and, to his father’s surprise, was back at Alnwick before Christmas. He returned to town in time to vote with opposition on the Regency, 1 and 21 Jan. 1811. At the end of January, when the Prince still contemplated making a change of ministers, McMahon informed Northumberland that he intended ‘to write himself to your Grace his whole plan and wishes, and to ardently solicit your Grace’s acceptance of carte blanche in cabinet and in office or in both, for ... yourself, and for Lord Percy in whatever can be most pleasing and suitable to his elevated sphere’. Colonel Willoughby Gordon, imparting the same message, asked ‘whether a foreign court would be his object ... or whether a seat at the Treasury, or any other situation’, and expressed the Prince’s desire for a reconciliation between the duke and the opposition leaders.13 The Prince’s decision to retain the existing government made these questions academic, but there is no record of Percy’s having divided with opposition for the rest of the session.
As the expiration of the Regency restrictions approached, Northumberland told McMahon:
Lord Percy will be in town by the meeting of Parliament, desirous of doing whatever is most agreeable to the Regent. Perhaps, however, as he is a young man, it may be as well if HRH’s wishes were conveyed to me, and I could then direct him and any other friends how to act, as from myself.
In the interval the duke made known his wish to have Percy called to the Lords as the personal act of the Regent and a firm promise was readily forthcoming. Percy went to town early in January 1812 and his father, anxious to keep him straight, charged McMahon to verse him in the Prince’s wishes. Percy received at least one such catechism, but does not appear to have taken any active part in the House. The offer to call him up was formally communicated by Perceval on 20 Feb. 1812 and four days later he voted with ministers, for the first time, according to Robert Ward, against Bankes’s resolution for the abolition of the sinecure of paymaster of widows’ pensions. Percy was made to extract from Carlton House an unequivocal confirmation of the fact that his elevation was to be considered as a personal favour conferred by the Regent, ‘without owing any particular obligation to any minister’, and was called to the Lords on 11 Mar.14
When his father’s death in 1817 released him from his bondage, Percy proved himself the better man, although he played little part in politics and contemporaries wrote harshly of his personal qualities on his appointment as lord lieutenant of Ireland by Wellington in 1829. Greville described him as ‘a very good sort of man, with a very narrow understanding, an eternal talker, and prodigious bore’, dominated by his forceful wife. Mrs Arbuthnot called him ‘a stupid, prosing man’ and Lady Holland dismissed him as ‘a poor creature, vain, ostentatious and null’.15 In fact he emerged with great credit and was arguably the best viceroy Ireland had had since the Union. He died 11 Feb. 1847.