James Percy

James Percy—the So-Called Earl of Northumberland

In 1670 Jocelyn Percy, the eleventh Earl of Northumberland, died without male issue. Up to his time, throughout the six hundred years, the noble family of Percy had never been without a male representative, and the successive earls had almost invariably been soldiers, and had added to the lustre of their descent by their own valiant deeds. But when Earl Jocelyn died, in 1670, he left behind him a solitary daughter—whose life was in itself eventful enough, and who became the wife of Charles Somerset, the proud Duke of Somerset—but who could not wear the title, although she inherited much of the wealth of the Percys.

Jocelyn Percy was, however, scarcely cold in his grave when a claimant appeared, who sought the family honours and the entailed lands which their possession implied. This was James Percy, a poor Dublin trunkmaker, who came over to England and at once assumed the title. His pretensions aroused the ire of the dowager-countess, the mother of Earl Jocelyn, who, on the 18th of February 1672, presented a petition to the House of Lords on behalf of herself and Lady Elizabeth Percy, her grand-daughter, setting forth that "one who called himself James Percy (by profession a trunkmaker in Dublin) assumes to himself the titles of Earl of Northumberland and Lord Percy, to the dishonour of that family." This petition was referred, in the usual course, to the Committee for Privileges. This was immediately followed by a petition from the claimant, which was read, considered, and dismissed. However, both parties appeared before the House of Lords on the 28th of November, James Percy claiming the honours, and the countess declaring him an impostor. Percy craved an extension of time; but, as he was unable to show any probability that he would ultimately succeed, his demand was refused, and his petition was dismissed—Arthur Annesley, earl of Anglesea, alone protesting against the decision.

Percy, however, displaying the same valour and obstinacy in the courts which his ancestors had so often shown on the battle-fields, was not daunted, although he was discomfited. He appealed to the common-law tribunals, and brought actions for scandal and ejectment against various parties, and no fewer than five of these suits were tried between 1674 and 1681. The first adversary whom he challenged was James Clark, whom he sued for scandal, and in whose case he was content to accept a non-suit; alleging, however, that this untoward result was not so much brought about by the weakness of his cause as by the faithlessness of his attorney. In a printed document which he published with reference to the trial, he distinctly states that the Lord Chief-Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, was so much dissatisfied with the decision, that in the open court he plainly asserted "that the claimant had proved himself a true Percy, by father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother, and of the blood and family of the Percys of Northumberland; and that he did verily believe that the claimant was cousin and next heir-male to Jocelyn, late Earl of Northumberland, only he was afraid he had taken the descent too high." It is further reported that Sir Matthew, on entering his carriage, remarked to Lord Shaftesbury, who was standing by, "I verily believe he hath as much right to the earldom of Northumberland as I have to this coach and horses, which I have bought and paid for."

His next action was against a gentleman named Wright, who had taken upon himself to pronounce him illegitimate, and in this instance he was more successful. The case was heard before Sir Richard Rainsford, Sir Matthew Hale's successor, and resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff, with £300 damages. Flushed by this victory, he took proceedings against Edward Craister, the sheriff of Northumberland, against whom he filed a bill for the recovery of the sum of £20 a-year, granted by the patent of creation out of the revenues of the county. Before this, however, in 1680, he had again petitioned the House of Lords, and his petition was again rejected—Lord Annesley, as before, protesting against the rejection. The litigation with Craister in the Court of Exchequer being very protracted, the Duchess of Somerset (who was the daughter and heiress of Earl Jocelyn) brought the matter once more before the Lords in 1685, and her petition was referred to the Committee of Privileges. In reply to her petition Percy presented one of complaint, which was also sent to the Committee. No decision, however, seems to have been arrived at, and the reign of King James came to a close without further action. In the first year of the reign of William and Mary (1689), Percy returned to the charge with a fresh petition and a fresh demand for recognition and justice. These documents are still extant, and some of them are very entertaining. In one he candidly admits that he has been, up to the time when he writes, in error as to his pedigree, and, abandoning his old position, takes up fresh ground. In another, "The claimant desireth your lordships to consider the justice and equity of his cause, hoping your lordships will take such care therein that your own descendants may not be put to the like trouble for the future in maintaining their and your petitioner's undoubted right;" and lest the argumentum ad homines  should fail, he asks, "Whether or no three streams issuing from one fountain, why the third stream (though little, the first two great streams being spent) may not justly claim the right of the original fountain?" In addition, he appends a sort of solemn declaration, in which he represents himself as trusting in God, and waiting patiently upon the king's sacred Majesty for his royal writ of summons to call him to appear and take his place and seat according to his birthright and title, "for true men ought not to be blamed for standing up for justice, property, and right, which is the chief diadem in the Crown, and the laurel of the kingdom." That summons never was destined to be issued. When the Committee for Privileges gave in their report, it declared Percy's conduct to be insolent in persisting to designate himself Earl of Northumberland after the previous decisions of the House; and the Lords ordered that counsel should be heard at the bar of the House on the part of the Duke of Somerset against the said James Percy.

This was accordingly done; and the Lords not only finally came to the decision "that the pretensions of the said James Percy to the earldom of Northumberland are groundless, false, and scandalous," and ordered that his petition be dismissed, but added to their judgment this sentence, "That the said James Percy shall be brought before the four Courts in Westminster Hall, wearing a paper upon his breast on which these words shall be written: 'THE FALSE AND IMPUDENT PRETENDER TO THE EARLDOM OF NORTHUMBERLAND.'" The judgment was at once carried into execution, and from that time forward the unfortunate trunkmaker disappears from the public view. He does not seem to have reverted to his old trade; or, at least, if he did so, he made it profitable, for we find his son, Sir Anthony Percy, figuring as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1699. There can be no doubt that, although he was treated with undue harshness, his claims had no real foundation. At first he alleged that his grandfather, Henry Percy, was a son of Sir Richard Percy, a younger brother of Henry, ninth Earl of Northumberland—an allegation which would have made Sir Richard a grandfather at thirteen years of age. It was further proved that Sir Richard, so far from having any claim to such unusual honours, died without issue. In his second story he traced his descent to Sir Ingelram Percy, stating that his grandfather Henry was the eldest of the four children of Sir Ingelram, and that these children were sent from the north in hampers to Dame Vaux of Harrowden, in Northamptonshire. He advanced no proof, however, of the correctness of this story, while the other side showed conclusively that Sir Ingelram had never been married, and at his death had only left an illegitimate daughter. At any rate, whether James Percy was honest or dishonest, "the game was worth the candle"—the Percy honours and estates were worth trying for.