PERCIVAL (PERCYVALL, PERCEVAL), Richard (c.1558-1620), of Sydenham, Som.; Kensington, Mdx.; and Salisbury House, The Strand, Westminster; later of Dublin and Liscarroll, co. Cork

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. c.1558,1 1st s. of George Percyvall of Nailsea and Sydenham, Som. and Elizabeth, da. of Sir Edward Bampfylde of Poltimore, Devon.2 educ. Merchant Taylors’ sch. 1571; L. Inn 1576, called 1615; travelled abroad (Spain) ?early 1580s.3 m. (1) by 1582 (without portion), Joan (d. c.1584/5), da. of Henry Young of Buckhorn Weston, Dorset, ?wid. of John Royall, 3s. d.v.p. 2da.;4 (2) by 1599, Alice, da. of John Sherman of Ottery St. Mary, Devon, 2s. 2da.5 suc. fa. c.1600.6 d. 4 Sept. 1620.7 sig. Ri[chard] Perciuall.

Offices Held

Asst. usher, ?Merchant Taylors’ sch. London c.1585-90.8

Sec. to (Sir) Robert Cecil† by 1594-1612.9

Clerk, assignments of statutes, recognizances and bonds (jt.) 1609;10 clerk registrar, Ct. of Wards 1610-14;11 clerk to Wards commission [I] 1616-d.12


Any account of Percival’s life relies heavily on two early sources: a brief memoir written in 1649 by his nephew and sometime secretary Edmund Percival;13 and James Anderson’s History of the House of Yvery (1742), commissioned by Percival’s descendant, the 1st earl of Egmont.14 Anderson used both family papers and oral traditions, and had access to the archives of the defunct Court of Wards, although he tended to overestimate the wealth and significance of his patron’s ancestors, and recounted tales from family lore which were sometimes garbled.

Although one visitation claimed the Percivals originated in Wales, Edmund Percival was probably correct in stating that they were ‘an ancient family of above five hundred years’ standing’ at Weston-in-Gordano on the north Somerset coast.15 This estate passed to another branch of the family in the fifteenth century, but Percival’s father inherited lands elsewhere in the county, some of which he sold in 1582 to pay for a lawsuit over his wife’s claims to the Bampfylde estates.16 Percival’s monumental inscription stated that he was aged 69 at his death in 1620, an improbable claim as he would have been 20 at his admission to Merchant Taylors’ School in 1571; nor should he be confused with a namesake who matriculated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1562. According to Edmund Percival, his studies at Lincoln’s Inn were abruptly terminated when he married: his bride, probably a widow, brought him no dowry, and his father disinherited him, advising him, having ‘ruined himself by his riots, to recover himself by his wits’.17

Percival spent four years in Spain, perhaps as a factor to a West Country merchant, leaving his family in the care of his cousin Richard Bampfylde, and Roger Cave of Stanford, Northamptonshire, a ‘very distant relation’. He returned home after his wife’s death, when his father apparently spurned an offer of reconciliation; he may only have stayed in England because of the outbreak of war with Spain.18 He became assistant usher under his old teacher, Richard Mulcaster†, probably at Merchant Taylors’,19 and wrote a Spanish-Latin-English dictionary and grammar based on his own knowledge and on Bartolomeo de las Casas’ Historia de las Indias, scarcely a flattering portrait of Spanish imperialism.20 After 1588, Richard Drake†, a courtier among whose relations Percival later found his second wife, used him as an interpreter in the interrogation of Don Pedro de Vald├ęs, admiral of the Andalusian squadron of the Armada. Percival helped to broker Don Pedro’s exchange for Sir Edward Wynter†, then held prisoner in Antwerp; he also sought the advice of Don Pedro and another prisoner in drafting his dictionary.21

Percival’s work attracted the attention of secretary of state Sir Francis Walsingham†, but he gained no preferment from the latter, and should not be confused with Christopher Percevall, an English resident in Friesland, who was used as an intermediary by Walsingham in 1588-90.22 Percival may have hoped to serve with Walsingham’s son-in-law, the 2nd earl of Essex, to whom he dedicated his Bibliotheca Hispanica, but in 1594, having been introduced to Lord Burghley (Sir William Cecil†) by Roger Cave, the lord treasurer’s brother-in-law, he became the first of (Sir) Robert Cecil’s† permanent secretaries.23 Cecil did not use Percival for diplomatic correspondence, but in 1598 the latter translated a set of secret instructions to the Spanish diplomats negotiating with Henri IV of France. The instructions, allegedly thrown into the sea during a chase, were ‘so blemished and defaced with the sea water that they were not legible’, but Percival discovered Henri to be on the verge of concluding a separate peace with Spain, against the interests of his English and Dutch allies.24 The queen looked to take Percival into her own service, only to be told by Burghley ‘that he thought him [Percival] a fitter servant for himself than her’.25 Claims that Percival was rewarded with an annuity of 800 marks and a sinecure in the duchy of Lancaster appear to be unfounded.26 Percival perhaps inflated the importance of the incident when recounting it to his family in later life, as both his nephew and Anderson claimed that the dispatches had ‘discovered the whole design’ of the Armada of 1588.27

Percival performed various functions as Cecil’s secretary. He supervised the fitting of Cecil’s private apartments at Theobalds, and handled land purchases including negotiations for the extension of Salisbury House in the Strand, where he had his own suite of rooms.28 As an MP, his nomination to the committee for the bill assuring the advowson of Cheshunt vicarage to Cecil (12 Dec. 1606) also served his master’s interests.29 However, his main role was the transaction of wardship business, for which he handled petitions even before Cecil’s appointment as master of the Wards in 1599. The Court’s records include a volume of estate valuations submitted by suitors, which Percival cross-checked against official valuations returned by county feodaries.30 Percival’s family later claimed his secretaryship was worth £2,000 p.a.; it was certainly common for suitors to offer gratuities, although he may have been expected to share the more substantial inducements with his master.31 Offered £100 to secure an inquisition into lands worth £400 a year, he asked his suitor ‘without pressing or urging thereunto’ to pay a similar sum to another man, possibly for a reversion of the auditorship of the Wards.32 Like other court officials, Percival solicited wardships for his own benefit, on one occasion to avoid having to sell land to raise dowries for his daughters.33 He probably sub-let the administration of most of the estates he was granted, and in a number of cases, including those of his cousin James Percival of Weston-in-Gordano, Walter Earle* and John Stawell*, he acted for friends or relatives of the ward.34 Percival eventually acquired a formal post in the Wards in 1609, as supervisor of the receiver-general’s accounts following the suspension of Sir William Fleetwood I* on suspicion of embezzlement, an appointment formalized in the following January when he was created clerk remembrancer.35

It was undoubtedly Cecil who promoted Percival’s return to Parliament in 1604; the requisite local patronage at Richmond was provided by Sir Cuthbert Pepper†, surveyor of the Wards. Percival made his most important speech during the debate of 23 Apr. 1604 over James’s plan to change his title to ‘King of Great Britain’, which many feared would invalidate laws made in the name of the king of England. Recalling James’s recent exhortation to debate any ambiguities arising from the change of name, he assured the House that there was no intention ‘to forestall any man’s opinion by threats’.

The name of our mother England to be kept. Our desire natural and honourable. She hath nursed, bred, brought us up to be men, able to serve at home for justice, abroad for victories. The Spaniard hath dispersed our fame.

However, recognizing that the king’s desire for change was also just, he proposed a form of words to bridge the difference, ‘King of Great Britain, that is to say, of England and of Scotland’, which was endorsed by Sir Richard Spencer, a former secretary to Lord Burghley. Having addressed his brief, Percival concluded by expressing personal fears about the influx of Scots courtiers: ‘if we have an inundation, or deluge, we shall use nothing as our own’. Sir Edwin Sandys quickly moved a potentially explosive proviso ‘that none but of our own nation may have offices of the Crown’.36 Percival returned to the issue of the name two days later, backing Speaker Phelips’s call for James to indicate his preferred style of address, but fears of ‘a deluge of Scots’ were now being explicitly cited among the objections to the change in name.37 The point was rendered irrelevant a few days later, when the judges ruled that any change of title would invalidate the laws of both countries, but Percival’s diatribe against the Scots, which may have been co-ordinated with Sandys (his contemporary at Merchant Taylors’) perhaps explains why he was not used as a government spokesman thereafter.38 He was only involved in one other matter of general significance: when rumours of the king’s sudden death began to circulate on 22 Mar. 1606, Cecil, now earl of Salisbury, sent him and Sir Walter Cope* to reassure the Commons that James was both well and on his way to London.39

A good deal of the rest of Percival’s activity within the House concerned legal issues familiar from his work for the Court of Wards. He was named to committees for seven bills relating to private estates,40 and on 21 Apr. 1610 was forbidden to speak a second time in a debate on the estate bill of Sir Henry Crispe, whose wardship he had held a decade earlier. He may have been expected to take care of the interests of the Court of Wards in the bills for contracts and marriages (19 Apr. 1610) and elopement of wives (8 May 1610), but his only recorded contribution to the debates on the abolition of wardship proposed under the Great Contract of 1610 was to support the motion of Sir Maurice Berkeley to excuse attorney-general Sir Henry Hobart* for having wrongly suggested that the Commons aimed for the court’s replacement by a Court of Orphans. One other committee nomination, for the bill for restitution of wrongly seized goods or lands (24 Feb. 1610), may have been relevant to his post as clerk of recognizances.41 Various interests can be discerned in Percival’s other parliamentary activities. He was apparently named to the committee for the bill confirming the new charter of Berwick-on-Tweed (16 May 1604) at the town’s behest, and earned the thanks of the inhabitants. Other nominations reflect his local interests, both in London and the south-west: the foundation of a grammar school in Gloucestershire (28 Feb. 1607); and modification of the Thames Watermen’s Apprenticeship Act of 1604 (13 Mar. 1607); he also spoke in the final debate on the bill for improvement of tillage in Devon. At a more personal level, he was included on the committee for the bill naturalizing Levinus Munck† (18 Apr. 1610), another of Salisbury’s secretaries.42

Percival lost his secretaryship at Salisbury’s death in 1612,43 but continued as clerk remembrancer of the Wards, and held the next reversion of one of the auditorships. The new master of the Wards, Sir Walter Cope, owned the manor of Kensington, where Percival lived from 1602, and he may have persuaded Percival to buy shares in the Virginia Company, of which he was a council member.44 Percival’s income must have dropped after Salisbury’s death, which was presumably the reason for his sale of the manor of Sydenham, Somerset in 1613.45 In the following year he surrendered his patent for an auditorship of the Wards, ruled invalid as ‘a reversion of a judicial office’. He was then summarily dismissed from his other posts by the new master of the Wards, William, Lord Knollys†, a Howard client and no friend to Salisbury’s affinity.46 Thereafter, Percival probably sustained himself through legal practice: he was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1615, where he may have rented chambers.47 In the following year he was appointed clerk to the Irish Wards commission; he sold the remainder of his English lands and bought an estate in co. Cork.48 Anderson claimed Percival had previously reported on the possibility of establishing an Irish Court of Wards under Elizabeth, but he was wrong to identify him as commissary-general of Leinster in the 1590s, a post held by Christopher Percivall of Great Yarmouth.49

Although resident in Ireland, Percival returned to England several times over the next few years: in 1617 he assigned several of his leases of English wards’ lands to William Cecil*, 2nd earl of Salisbury, and Sir Anthony Forest*; while in the following year he reported on proposals for reform in the administration of Irish wardships.50 He apparently licensed his sons to deputize in his absence, but failed to secure a reversion of his post for them; Anderson ascribed this setback to ‘the endeavours of a great Scotch favourite’, perhaps James, Lord Hay.51 He did secure his own discharge from debts of £118 owed to the English Court of Wards, a fee of £40 a year during his tenure as clerk, and a letter from the Privy Council ordering ‘that there be no advantage taken against him ... by reason of his absence’.52 Percival died in Dublin, apparently intestate, on 4 Sept. 1620, and was buried in St. Audoen’s church.53 His descendants secured an Irish barony in 1715 and the earldom of Egmont in 1733, but the most famous was Spencer Perceval†, chief minister during the Napoleonic wars, who was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812.54

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. Assuming he was aged 18 at entry to L. Inn.
  • 2. Vis. Som. ed. Weaver, 61; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 39.
  • 3. Reg. Merchant Taylors’ Sch. ed. C.J. Robinson, i. 18; LI Admiss.; LI Black Bks. ii. 173; HMC Egmont, i. 487.
  • 4. J. Anderson, Hist. of House of Yvery (1742), ii. 121, 138-40; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 79; Harl. 1166, f. 23.
  • 5. St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Harl. Soc. Reg. xxv), 29; Anderson, ii. 138-140. Alice does not appear in the Sherman pedigree in Vis. Devon (Harl. Soc. vi), 260.
  • 6. Anderson, ii. 126; VCH Som. vi. 329.
  • 7. Anderson, ii. 138.
  • 8. HMC Egmont, i. 488.
  • 9. HMC Hatfield, iv. 614; xxi. 375.
  • 10. C66/1829.
  • 11. WARD 8/87, m. 75; 8/88, m. 68.
  • 12. CPR Ire. Jas. I, 309a; APC, 1621-3, p. 158.
  • 13. Add. 46932, ff. 77-8, reprinted in HMC Egmont, i. 487-8.
  • 14. The notes and orig. mss of the work are to be found among the Egmont pprs. Add. 47147-62.
  • 15. Vis. Som. ed. Weaver, 61; HMC Egmont, i. 487-8; Anderson, intro. 4-5; i. 417-20, 4.
  • 16. E150/925/25; C142/56/24, 142/97/79, 100, 142/240/31; Anderson, ii. 110-17; Add. 47151, f. 267.
  • 17. Reg. Merchant Taylors’ Sch. i. 18; Anderson, ii. 121, 137-8; Al. Cant.; Harl. 1166, f. 23; HMC Egmont, i. 487.
  • 18. Anderson, ii. 122-3; HMC Egmont, i. 488.
  • 19. HMC Egmont, i. 488 claims that he was usher at St. Paul’s under Mulcaster, who only arrived from Merchant Taylors’ in 1596.
  • 20. R. Percyvall, Bibliotheca Hispanica (1591), sig. A2, where he mistakenly cited this as the work of Cristobal de las Casas.
  • 21. Vis. Devon (Harl. Soc. vi), 94, 260; P. Martin, Spanish Armada Prisoners, 80-1; E133/47/5; Percyvall, sig. A2.
  • 22. SP12/223/28; CSP For. 1588, p. 143; 1589, pp. 5, 131, 189-90; 1589-90, pp. 202, 218, 233.
  • 23. Anderson, ii. 122-4; HMC Hatfield, iv. 614; A.G.R. Smith, ‘Secretariats of the Cecils’, EHR, lxxxiii. 482, 498.
  • 24. SP78/41, f. 253v, cited in R.B. Wernham, Return of the Armadas, 222-6; HMC Egmont, i. 488.
  • 25. HMC Egmont, i. 488 wrongly attributed the comment to Cecil, then in France, see Wernham, 220-5.
  • 26. HMC Egmont, i. 488; Anderson, ii. 123-4. No record can be found in C66, E 403, SO3 or R. Somerville, Hist. Duchy of Lancaster.
  • 27. HMC Egmont, i. 488; Anderson, ii. 123-4.
  • 28. HMC Hatfield, vi. 440-1; xii. 375, 407; xv. 54; xvi. 314; xvii. 434-5; C54/1713, 54/1746, 54/1866; C66/1476, 1533, 1557, 1560; VCH Herts. ii. 203; LMA, Acc. 312/123; Baggs, pl. 1 b.
  • 29. CJ, i. 330a. Percival owned land in Cheshunt, see C54/2312/35.
  • 30. WARD 9/164, cited in Smith, 498; WARD 5.
  • 31. Anderson, ii. 124; HMC Hatfield, ix. 378; xii. 487; xxxii. 2.
  • 32. C2/Jas.I/T12/74; C66/1741.
  • 33. HMC Hatfield, xi. 92; xiii. 79; xiv. 275.
  • 34. HMC Hatfield, vii. 170; xi. 429-30; WARD 9/348, ff. 23, 78; Anderson, ii. 126-136 lists those grants he found in the Ct. of Wards.
  • 35. SP14/47/54; Add. 47147, ff. 33-5; WARD 8/87, m. 75.
  • 36. B. Galloway, Union of Eng. and Scot. 21, 38-41; CJ, i. 180-3, 955; W. Notestein, House of Commons 1604-10, p. 81.
  • 37. CJ, i. 184a, 957b.
  • 38. R.C. Munden, ‘King, Commons and Reform 1603-4’, Faction and Parl. ed. K. Sharpe, 65; Reg. Merchant Taylors’ Sch. i. 17-18.
  • 39. Hull RO, L.160. The House rose before their arrival, see CJ, i. 288b.
  • 40. CJ, i. 283b (countess of Essex); 288a (Lord Windsor); 294b (Lord Chandos); 378a (earl of Derby); 417a (Brook restitution); 421b (Arundell of Trerice); 432a (Sir Raynold Rouse).
  • 41. CJ, i. 399a, 419a, 420a, 422b, 426a; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 73, 364; Anderson, ii. 127-8.
  • 42. CJ, i. 212a, 344a, 352b, 419a, 424a; Anderson, ii. 128.
  • 43. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 351 was wrong in claiming Percival as one of Salisbury’s executors, see PROB 11/119, f. 391.
  • 44. C66/1741, 1789; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, pp. 166-7, 377; HMC Hatfield, xii. 407; Kensington (Harl. Soc. Reg. xvi); E115/318/108; Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, iii. 87, 331.
  • 45. HMC Egmont, i. 487.
  • 46. E214/1449; Anderson, ii. 131-3; Add. 47150, f. 162. For judicial officers of the Wards, see H.E. Bell, Ct. of Wards and Liveries, 16-25.
  • 47. LI Black Bks. ii. 173. An indenture of 1616 described him as ‘of Lincoln’s Inn’: C54/2312/35.
  • 48. Anderson, ii. 134-5. CPR Ire. Jas. I, 309a; C54/2312/35.
  • 49. Anderson, ii. 125. For Christopher Percivall (d. 1605/6), see CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 445; CSP Ire. 1596-7, p. 333; 1598-9, p. 81; 1600, p. 481; 1601-3, p. 311; PROB 11/108, f. 64.
  • 50. HMC Hastings, iv. 52; CPR Ire. Jas. I, 325a; Anderson, ii. 135-6; APC, 1618-19, p. 258; V. Treadwell, ‘Irish Cts. of Wards under James I’, Irish Hist. Studies, xii. 13-15.
  • 51. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 591; SO3/6, unfol. (Nov. 1618); C66/2180/1; Anderson, ii. 135. The grant went to one Bagshaw: APC, 1621-3, p. 158.
  • 52. APC, 1618-19, pp. 400, 404-6; Anderson, ii. 135.
  • 53. Add. 47151, f. 265; Anderson, ii. 137-8.
  • 54. Anderson, ii. 141 et seq.; CP sub Egmont.