Home Of The Percies

SOME say it was Alnwick, says Mallory of Lancelot’s famous Castle, Joyous Gard, which speaks at least for its early renown. But he must have been thinking of a fortress earlier than that rebuilt by the first of the Northumbrian Percies. No such records exist as those that relate to the more romantic Bamburgh. A great many lands had been massed together to form the barony of Alnwick before the Conquest. Tradition avers that after the battle of Hastings William bestowed it on his standard-bearer, Gilbert Tyson, but on the other hand the chronicle of Alnwick Abbey gives Bisbright Tisonne as the owner before that event.

The Norman Castle was in the first place built by No de Vesci, who was Lord of Alnwick at his death in 1135. Thirty-eight years later, when it was besieged by the Scots under William the Lion, it was commanded by William de Vesci, “the brave natural son of the lord of the Castle.” It remained in possession of the De Vesci’s until 1297. Often in early Northumbrian history a de Vesci plays a leading part, but the interest of the Castle begins in earnest with its purchase by Henry Percy in 1309. It was a critical period. During the twelfth century Northumberland had enjoyed unexampled prosperity. ” Right down to the Pyrenees there was no country so well provided with the necessaries of life or inhabited by a race more universally respected.” The stress of war had made itself felt during the long successful reign of Edward I who had been dead for two years and had as successor the weak Edward IL Percy must have thoroughly understood the state of the country, but he, elonged to a race not easily discouraged by difficulties. The first Percy to settle in England had not come over with Duke William, but immediately after. It would appear that the name was originally that of a Norman village, probably connected with percée, a glade in a wood. The founder of the English family had a friend at court in the person of Hugh d’Avanche, a cousin of the Conqueror, and this may explain how he came to receive a grant of land in Yorkshire, where the Percies originally settled. An heiress of the family married Jocelyn, younger son of Godfrey, Count of Louvain, who had risen to be Duke of Brabant. Their son adopted the maiden name of his mother and thus became Henry Percy I. So many Henrys came into the succession that they had to be distinguished by numerals like a race of Kings. It was a Percy III of Louvain who became Percy I of Alnwick.

The purchase was a transaction that casts a brilliant light on the men and manners of the time. At his death William de Vesci had left his property in Alnwick in trust to Bishop Bec for his natural son, William of Kildare. Bec was a great ecclesiastic, and, like many of his day, was notorious for characteristics little akin to those of Christianity. He was able, but grasping and dishonest. Making his pretext certain ” warm words ” of his charge, he sold the castle and estate to Percy and pocketed the money. Fortunately for William Kildare the purchaser became his friend and protector, undoing the wrong to some extent.

It was the son of Henry Percy HI who, when he came into possession, did most of the building. Well he might, for in Edward H’s reign things had gone from bad to worse and the condition of the Borders became terrible. It was no wonder that the Scots were roused to a fury of revenge. Gray’s famous lines were as applicable to Edward in Scotland as to Edward in Wales :

Ruin seize thee ruthless King Confusion on thy banners wait Tho’ fann’d by conquest’s crimson wing They mock the air with idle state.

Aged and worn as he was with campaigning and grief, Edward’s fury knew no bounds when in r 306 Robert Bruce stabbed the Red Comyn, the Lord of Badenoch, in the church of the Grayfriars in Dumfries. Although nearing that fatal illness which seized him on the Solway Sands, he dealt out stern punishment to the Scottish nobles. Green says in his ” Short History ” :

Bruce was already flying for his life to the Highlands. Hence-forth,” he said to his wife at their coronation, ” thou art queen of Scotland and I king.” ” I fear,” replied Mary Bruce, ” we are only playing at royalty, like children in their games.” The play was soon turned into bitter earnest. A small English force under Aymer de Valence sufficed to rout the disorderly levies which gathered round the new monarch, and the flight of Bruce left his followers at Edward’s mercy. Noble after noble was hurried to the block. The Earl of Athol pleaded kindred with royalty ; ” His only privilege,” burst forth the King, “shall be that of being hanged on a higher gallows than the rest.” Knights and priests were strung up side by side by the English justiciaries ; while the wife and daughters of Robert himself were flung into Edward’s prisons. Bruce himself had offered to capitulate to Prince Edward, but the offer only roused the old king to fury. ” Who is so bold,” he cried, ” as to treat with our traitors without our knowledge ? ” and rising from his sick-bed he led his army northwards to complete the conquest. But the hand of death was upon him, and in the very sight of Scotland the old man breathed his last at Burghupon-Sands.

Edward II was ill suited to stand in his father’s shoes, and when he lost the field of Bannockburn in 1314 the tables were completely turned against the English. Northumberland felt the full brunt of the Scottish ire. ” For fifteen years after 1316,” says the historian, ” the whole county remained waste, no one daring to live in it except under the shadow of a castle or walled town.” Those who wish for details of the devastation and plundering should read the excerpts made by Raine from the accounts sent from the Lindisfarne Chapelries to Durham. No crops, no cattle, no household goods and no life was safe.

Standing on the battlements of Alnwick Castle and looking north over the little river Aln gliding under the bridge, and glancing down between its green banks, it is easy to see how the animosity to Scotland must have been at its height when the second Percy was adding new towers and fortifications to the ancient stronghold. Every tower looks towards Scotland like a soldier waiting for his foe, every stone lion couchant or gardant has his head turned in the same direction, while the images of fighting men surmounting the old towers signify battle and nothing else. The Percies were well aware that the Castle standing on the edge of the wild, hilly moorland in the level country between the Cheviots and the sea was a bastion against which waves of soldiery must beat if they would win their way to the south. They were aware, too, that the Scots, most tenacious and stubborn of nations, would not be easily stopped. Ballad and chronicle alike bear witness to the pride and self-confidence that characterised them after the battle of Bannock-burn. It took many a hard fight on the part of the English to redress the balance. But between two nations equally brave the stronger is bound to come out top in the end. It took the whole of the fourteenth century to do so and it was a glorious but troubled century in the annals of Northumberland. The tables were first turned at Halidon Hill, where the Scottish army lost in a great measure through the arrogance and over-confidence of their leaders. Another disastrous day for Scotland was that in which the battle of Neville’s Cross was fought. Otterburn was not a national trial of strength, but the glorious end of a Border fray from which victor and vanquished emerged with equal honour. Homildon Hill, 1402, was the decisive English victory in this contest. Flodden came later and was fought on new issues.

Of all the figures in this drama the one which left the most abiding name in Northumberland, and even on the whole of England, was ” Harry Percy, that Hotspur of the North,” whom Shakespeare with a regal disregard of time and date makes the protagonist of his darling prince. Prince Henry was born in 1387 and the battle of Shrewsbury was fought in 1403, so that he was then sixteen years of age. , The chroniclers say nothing of any rivalry between them or of the Prince killing Percy, whom he knew well, as Hotspur had been his military adviser when he was learning the art of war in Wales at the early age of thirteen. Hotspur, under Henry IV, in addition to being Warden of the East Marches, was Justiciary of North Wales and Constable of the Castles of Chester, Flint, Carnarvon and Conway – a fact which explains a passage about Homildon in Bates. Unfortunately for northern pride, the retinue lists and muster rolls of the period show that these archers, instead of being raised from Bamburghshire, Islandshire, and Norhamshire, must have been mainly Welshmen.” The celebrated description of Hotspur put into the mouth of Prince Hal is chiefly interesting as showing how all England knew of Hotspur’s fame : ” He that kills me six or seven dozen Scots, washes his hands and says to his wife, ` Fie upon this quiet life I want work.” 0 my sweet Harry,’ says she, ` how many hast thou killed today ? ‘ Give my roan horse a drench,’ says he and answers ` some fourteen,’ an hour after – ` a trifle, a trifle.’ ” This is not a boy’s merriment, but the boisterous laughter of him who created Falstaff. Hotspur is a more popular hero than Lancelot because he is more real than any of King Arthur’s legendary knights. Gallant, hasty and hot, he and no other would answer to the Trojan Hector if the epic of the county were to be written ; and if an Andromache were needed she would surely be found in the lady to whom Dr. Bruce referred when he said of the chief entrance to Alnwick, with its two flanking towers : ” Oft times from the windows of these towers will the spouse of Harry Hotspur have waved a parting adieu to her heroic husband as he valiantly rode forth on some warlike expedition.” The play of Henry V is a tribute to the bravest and well nigh the best of English Kings ; and Shakespeare, bending everything to the end he had in view, uses the greatest warrior of the day to show his hero greater still. The latter was greater in organising power and generalship, but he could not have been braver.

Hotspur’s father was the third Percy of Alnwick and the first Earl of Northumberland. Few of the name died in bed, and he, after a stormy life, was killed at Bramham Moor.

The second Earl was slain in the battle of St. Albans, 1455, and four of his sons fell in the Wars of the Roses, and the third Earl was killed at Towton in 1461. The fourth Earl was murdered by a mob at Thirsk. He had been trying to enforce a war tax of Henry VII. He was described as

Of knightly prowess the sword, pomel and hilt The myghty lion doutted by se and land.

It was he who had the lion rampant carved and placed over the outer gate of the Castle. The original has been removed and another substituted, but the cornice and the ledge are still preserved in Alnwick Castle with the motto ” Esperance ma comfort.”

His successor was he who escorted the Princess Margaret, as described in a previous chapter. They nicknamed him The Magnificent, and he was the first to die in his bed. The sixth Earl is famous as the lover of Anne Boleyn. He was a good soldier, but, from his prodigal way of life, called The Unthrifty.

The seventh Earl was executed at York for taking part in the Northern rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, and his successor was found in bed killed by a pistol shot, fired by himself it is thought. He had lost influence in the North by long absence in the south. The ninth Earl was mixed up in the Gunpowder Plot, sent to the Tower and ultimately released on the conditions that he should pay a fine of £20,000, then an enormous sum, and stay away from the North. For a time the Percies were over-shadowed by the Radcliffes, who at this time added Alston, with its lead mines, and the barony of Langley to Dilston and their other properties. But the eclipse of the Percies was only temporary.

The daughter and heiress of Josceline had married Algernon Seymour, the seventh Duke of Somerset, and the only survivor of their union was a daughter, who insisted on marrying Sir Hugh Smithson, a Yorkshire baronet of good family. The Duke did not like the match, and left the great Percy Estates in Yorkshire, Cumberland and Sussex to his nephew, Sir Charles Wyndham, so that only the Northumbrian estates remained to his daughter and son-in-law. Sir Hugh Smithson changed his name to Percy and became Earl, and subsequently the first Duke of Northumberland. He proved to be a very successful and able administrator, who vastly increased the value of the estates and was responsible for what the architect of to-day properly regards as a disastrous -restoration of Alnwick Castle, which, amid the changing times and fortunes, of which this is only a bird’s-eye view, had fallen into decay. A more enlightened modern effort on the part of Algernon, fourth Duke, was begun in 1854.

Alnwick Castle fell into ruins when the wars with Scotland were drawing to a close. In early days the walls appear to have enclosed the same area as they do to-day, five acres. The walls were probably built by Eustace Fitzjohn, who after his marriage to the heiress adopted the name of de Vesci, and Clarkson, who wrote his survey in 1558, gives the names of the following towers on the walls : Armourer’s Tower, Falconer’s Tower, Abbot’s Tower, Barbican, Garrett, Round Tower, Auditor Tower, Record Tower, Ravine Tower, Constable’s Tower, Postern and Sally Port. The garrets – a word akin to the French guerité – were huge stone sentry boxes. The Barbican was probably erected by the first Percy. It was the aim of the first Duke to restore the Castle so as to make it habitable, and it was his misfortune that Gothic was fashionable at the time, and he was led into doing his restoration in the wrong way. Duke Algernon converted the stately building into an equally stately pleasure house – notable for its magnificent rooms and great staircase, its museum and collections and noble library. It is a place to make you dream as Coleridge dreamt,

At Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree,

till some grim heritage from the savage wars, like the deep and horrible dungeon, spoils the vision by intruding less agreeable fancies. Alnwick sleeps under the castle walls ; a quiet old-fashioned town of curious streets, chares and ancient buildings of which one of the most interesting is that called Hotspur Tower.

You cannot imagine either town or castle without trying to picture the Abbey, too. This has been rendered easier by the work done by St. John Hope in 1884. Till then only the gate-house of the Abbey was visible, but the great antiquary had the turf cleared away so that the bases of the walls are seen, and thus he who would form a mental picture of the ancient church has at least a ground plan on which to work.

Hulne Priory is about three and a half miles north of Alnwick, and in Hulne Park. No one could wish for a more beautiful and interesting walk, for the famous park stretches right away from the outlying spurs of Cheviot to the gates of Alnwick. The late Henry H. Paynter, a well-known ornithologist, who for many years was honorary secretary to the Farne Isles Association, and who when consulted in any year and in any moment of the year used to give one the latest information of the comings and goings, the nesting and increase or decrease of the tribes of bird folk, contributed to the Journal of the Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club a brief note of a page and a half, into which was compressed an excellent summary of the ornithology of the park.

Between 1866, when he went to Alnwick, and 1917, the year before he died, he found no fewer than sixty-seven species nesting in the park. This is a striking tribute to its manifold attractions. The reason as he gave it is that on the one hand the Park reaches the uplands that roll away north and westward, and with the other hand touches the belt of fat, rich land which borders the sea. Heather on the west, and on the east fair meadows, on the river bank great trees and luxuriant vegetation offer a varied bill of fare to the birds, and they have the protection of private ground. Of the rarer birds noticed he enumerates a Black Kite trapped in 1866, the only one taken in Great Britain. Among others he observed Ospreys, the rough-legged Buzzard, a honey Buzzard, three Ruffs, a Roller and a Wryneck. Before Lord William Percy began breeding waterfowl, and ringing them to trace their migration or other movements, Wild Duck, Pochards, Widgeon, Pintail and Scaup Duck visited the park. On the heather and crag are Grouse, Blackgame, Curlews, Woodcock, Nightjar and occasional Merlin, Golden Plover and Teal. Kingfisher and Dipper, Pied and Gray Wagtail, Summer Snipe, Mallard and Moorhen breed. So, too, does an occasional Sedge Warbler.

Among the birds nesting in the woodland are Sparrow Hawk and Kestrel, Rook, Magpie, Woodcock, Woodpigeon, Carrion Crow, Tawny and Long-eared Owl, and occasionally are also to be found nests of the Heron, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Jay. This is a list which shows that an idle day in Hulne Park may be filled with the interest of watching birds as well as enjoying the charms of Nature. Hulne Priory is said to have been founded under romantic circumstances. The story is repeated by Grose from ancient writers. It is briefly that the Lord of Alnwick and Richard Gray, two Christian warriors, when in the East visited Mount Carmel and found there a saintly monk named Fresborn, who had been a Crusader. On returning home they begged the Superior of the Carmelites to let him accompany them, which leave he reluctantly granted. The particular hill was chosen for the site on account of a real or fancied resemblance to Mount Carmel. According to Mr. Reavell, of Alnwick, the oldest documentary evidence is an undated charter by John de Vesci, which must have been granted between 1265 and 1288 A.D. It recites that John’s father, William de Vesci, had previously granted a site for the friars. Like all the first buildings of this preaching brotherhood, the church originally built was an aisleless parallelogram. The ruins are very interesting even though tampered with by the first Duke, and they have been technically and admirably described by St. John Hope.

Bishop Percy, the author of the famous ” Reliques of Ancient Poetry,” though not an Alnwick Percy, was, on account of his name and position, invited to Alnwick in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and in a letter has left a fine description of the surroundings as they were in 1765. After telling about the start and his first view of the Cheviots, which astonished and delighted him, he goes on, in a passage as interesting to-day as it was a hundred years ago, to say : ” After winding round the edge of a most astonishing precipice, the first object the eye looks down upon at the foot of the mountain is the River Alne, winding in the most beautiful and whimsical irregularities. This is to be received into a large lake on the right, which will cover 200 acres of ground. On a little hill on its margin, are seen, as in a picture held far below the eye, the fine remains of Hulne Abbey : more to the left are little swellings, the hollows of which are fringed with a chain of small, rough thickets. Beyond these rises a vast extent of wild, naked plains, with here and there a single farm or plantation scattered like solitary islands in a wide, unbounded ocean. Over these the eye gradually rises to where the vast mountains of Cheviot erect their huge conic heads ; between the openings of which, the sight gains a glimpse of the still more distant blue Hills of Tiviotdale in Scotland. The top of Cheviot is distant more than twenty miles : the Hills in Tiviotdale near forty or fifty.” He finds the British Carmel clothed with young plantations of evergreens and forest trees, and looking to the west finds a more extensive view of that amazing wild prospect towards Cheviot ; to the sea,fine green valleys ” in the midst of which the town of Alnwick, overlooked by the Castle, has a most picturesque appearance.” Below it the river Alne is seen beautifully winding towards the sea. The prospect terminates with the Farne Islands to the north and a fine, moving picture made by the shipping. On the seashore he sees the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle and the little Port of Alnmouth. To the south-west is a wild, rude moor, part of the ancient forest of Haydon.