THE PERCIES AND PETWORTH
The Manor of Petworth in Sussex was bequeathed by King Henry I to his first wife Queen Adeliza. She then presented it to her brother Joscelyn de Louvain, whose children took the name of Percy when he married Lady Agnes de Percy the heiress of the ancient Percy family. This lady was the great – granddaughter of William de Percy (Algers-nons) who was rewarded after the conquest with great estates in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and other counties. So it was in 1150 that the Percy connection with Petworth began.
The Percy association with Petworth continued uneventfully until the mid 16th century when the Percies (who were by then Lords and Earls of Northumberland, their chief seat being Alnwick Castle) decided to live permanently at Petworth to be closer to Englands political and social heart at Westminster, that had become their magnet. Their country Manor house at Petworth was within easy reach of their other fashionable London residences of Northumberland and Syon Houses.
The courtly life that followed was in stark contrast to the fierce border prowess that had once been this fearless family’s hallmark and from whom the most famous Percy of them all Hotspur was born. The Percies had replaced their eagerness to fight with the sword for their honour with the social niceties of court and it hardly suited them at all. Henceforth their relationship with Petworth was synonymous with the social and political machinations of the times.
In 1557 the Earldom of Northumberland was reinstated (after suffering attainder in 1537) on Thomas Percy who became the 7th Earl with remainder to heirs male of his body with special remainder to his brother Henry and heirs male of his body for ever. Thomas Percy was attainted and executed for treason. These same honours, rights and titles then rightly passed to his brother Henry Percy who became the 8th Earl of Northumberland by succession. Henry Percy married Katherine Nevill and they had 10 sons and two daughters. Three of these sons had surviving issue and the eldest Henry became 9th Earl of Northumberland when his father was dreadfully, murdered in the Tower of London. Henry remained permanently at Petworth and was by all accounts the most distinguished of his line.
One of Henry’s younger brothers returned to Northumberland (when it was dangerous to be a Percy) where his male descendants have survived and live today. The heir male of this cadet branch of the Percy family can be considered to be heir ‘de jour’ to the dormant title of Baron Percy, Lucy, Poynings, Fitz-Payn and Bryan and Earl of Northumberland by the summons of 1557.
Henry Percy (9th Earl) was a learned man and a patron of learning and the arts, and he amassed a fine library of books and collection of works of art, many of which can still be seen at Petworth today. He was an associate of Christopher Marlowe, Anthony Van Dyck and Sir Walter Raleigh and was know as ‘The Wizard Earl’ due to his interest in alchemy and the sciences. He too fell foul of the crown and spent 22 years in the Tower of London on despicable and trumped up charges unrelentingly pressed by an unscrupulous King James I and his duplicitous Chancellor after being wrongly implicated in unproven charges on suspicion of involvement in the Gun Powder Plot that his second cousin Thomas Percy an infamous Catholic sympathiser was inextricably involved.
Lady Dorothy, Earl Henry’s wife was irrepressible in her support of her husband and eventually through her unfailing efforts Henry Percy was given his liberty after payment of a ransom of 11,000 pounds.The wizard Earl retired to Petworth to live out the rest of his days with his books, science, friends and of course his adoring wife.
Henry’s son Algernon Percy became the 10th Earl of Northumberland. His son Josceline Percy became the 11th and apparently, last Earl of Northumberland in the Percy – Louvaine line. He succeeded his father by only two years (he fell ill and died near Turin) leaving his only daughter Elizabeth as sole heiress to the ancient Percy estates.
But the Percies had been away from their Northumrian estates for many years and had become well ensconsed in the Sussex country side. Alnwick was run by agents and was allowed to fall into disrepair. It was arranged that young Lady Elizabeth Percy be left in the keeping of her mother until she remarried. When this occured Lady Elizabeth was left to the guardianship of her grandmother, a Howard and a dowager vixen who was a proud, ruthless socialite.
Little Lady Elizabeth was married three times before the age of 16. Even King Charles II sought her hand for his illegitimate son but was turned down. Elizabeth was finally married to the 6th Duke of Somerset one of the most pompous Lords ever (he was known as the proud Duke because of it). He was later instrumental in ensuring the succession of George I to the crown on the death of Queen Ann and was rewarded accordingly. The 6th Duke took the Percy estates as his own and was the man who rebuilt the modest Manor of Petworth into the grand house we know today. Not much of the old Percy manor remains except the 13th century chapel and some 17th century work in the north east part of the house.The proud Duke died in 1748 and was succeeded by his son Algernon Seymour who a year later was granted the Earldoms of Northumberland and Egremont from King George II.
Algernon Seymour died in 1750 but left no son and his estates including those of the ancient house of Percy were divided between his sisters and their husbands. A sister Lady Betty Seymour had married Sir Hugh Smithson and when the ancient Percy estates were split up the Smithson’s inherited some of the Percy estates and Sir Hugh changed his name to Percy by an act of Parliament and was illegally given the Barony and Earldom of Northumberland and the accompanying estates without objection, although James Percy a trunk maker from Dublin caused much grief when he made claim to the ancient Percy honours by petition to the House of Lords. James Percy failed in his claim through the dishonest conduct of his solicitor and was implicated and convicted by the Lords for his efforts because of it.
Sir Hugh Smithson curiously demanded the Dukedom of Brabant which was denied. In 1766 Sir Hugh Smithson was elevated to the Dukedom of Northumberland and Earl Percy. In 1784 he also aquired the title, Viscount Louvain of Alnwick!
The ancient Percy estates of Petworth and Cockermouth (part of the ancient Lucy estates in Cumberland) and of Leconfield in Yorkshire went to Charles Wyndham the son of Algernon’s second sister who married Sir William Wyndham. This family line then descended through the children of George 3rd Earl of Egremont and Miss Iliffe who bore him six illegitimate children before he eventually married her.
Extract from Wyndham and children first by Lord Egremont.‘On 16 July 1801 she (Miss Iliffe) became his (George Wyndham’s) lawful wife, but the marriage that should have established her position destroyed it and a deed of separation and settlement was executed in May 1803, and she left Petworth never to return. In the meantime one legitimate child was born, only to die in infancy. I have inherited Petworth through the illegitimate line……..
As to the girl who was born in wedlock, I remember once dining alone at Petworth with my Uncle Charles Leconfield, my predecessor there, and discussing the family affairs. I mentioned the legitimate girl and said ‘It was a good thing she wasn’t born a son and survived, wasn’t it , Uncle Charles?
‘My dear boy, it doesn’t bear thinking of!’ he replied.
George Egremont’s eldest son George succeeded to most of the estates but could not because of his illegitimacy inherit his fathers titles. He was created Baron Leconfield by a beneficent crown as some sort of consolation. Since then Petworth and its grand park have been gifted to the nation in lieu of death duties as were the ancient Percy Yorkshire estates.
Petworth today is still the home of the Wyndham family where the Earl of Egremont a direct descendant in the female line of the 6th Duke of Somerset and Josceline Percy 11th Earl of Northumberland, resides today. It has been recorded as said by at least one prominent commentator that the current Earl of Egremont is more a Percy than the present Duke of Northumberland. With respect, neither Noble Lord is a Percy and nothing could be further from the truth.
The history of Petworth reaches back into the Middle Ages, as Horace Walpole realised when he described it as ‘Percy to the backbone’. William, 8th Baron de Percy (1193-1245) had a ‘new small park in which is his cunegaria [rabbit warren]’. In 1499 the 5th Earl of Northumberland added 105 acres, and in the course of the 16th century more common land was enclosed until, by 1621, the park was about 400 acres (it is now 700 acres).
In 1574 the 8th Earl of Northumberland’s surveyors noted two main parks, both of which were scantily planted with oak and beech. The little park, to the north-west of the house, was about 220 acres and contained ’72 deare’. Its central feature, still known as Arbour Hill, had ‘divers pleasant walks’. From this vantage point it was possible to view the progress of stag-hunting in the valley beneath. Henry VIII erected a banqueting house here when Petworth became crown property after the execution and attainder of Thomas Percy in 1537.
The 8th Earl laid out ‘new walkes’ to the north of the house (the birch or ‘birchen’ walks) and these were later incorporated into the Pleasure Ground. He constructed the huge quadrangular stables and riding school to the west of the house. By 1635 the hill running east to west from the north end of the house to the lake was terraced in ramparts or ‘rampires’, and this work was continued by the 10th Earl in 1636. The Orangery stood at the north end of a rectangular walled orange garden, which covered an acre of ground stretching northwards from the chapel cloister at the north end of the house.
Immediately to the west of the walled orangery garden was the flower garden, dominated by a great greenhouse to the north. In front of the greenhouse was a parterre with at least two lead statues with a central fountain served by a fountain house on the top of the terraces. The fountain house doubled as a banqueting house and was provided with a polished marble table carved by Selden in 1696.
Most of the 6th Earls landscaping was obliterated in the return to ‘nature’ undertaken by ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1750s, and in the storm of 1987, but some of his sweet chestnuts and oaks still stand on the plateau above the former terraces. Brown’s patron was the 2nd Earl of Egremont, who lost little time after inheriting Petworth in 1750 in commissioning Brown to survey the park (1751). Brown’s five contracts, worth £5,500 (beginning in 1753 and ending in 1765, two years after the 2nd Earl’s death), resulted in one of his supreme creations, which was to be further developed and enriched by the 3rd Earl and his successors in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Today Brown’s plan remains the backbone of the Trust’s management of the park, but such was the extent of the 3rd Earl’s and later planting that the post-1987 storm survey concluded that none of Brown’s trees had survived being blown down by the winds.
Petworth is a fabulous place to visit. The Chapel has been renovated and is fantastic to see.
Esperance en Dieu