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A complicated century

When a Percy heiress married the Duke of Somerset, the Percy name disappeared for 70 years. What happened, who was involved, and how did they return to Alnwick Castle?

Posted by Daniel Watkins, Senior State Rooms Guide
on 30 November 2016

Elizabeth Percy and Charles Seymour

On the 30th August, 1682, Elizabeth Percy married Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset. Elizabeth was the sole heiress of the Percy family and all its lands, including Alnwick Castle, and so was considered to be the greatest heiress of the time, but she agreed to the marriage with some hesitation; at the age of 15, she had already been widowed twice.

Charles was just one of her admirers, and was originally rebuffed by Elizabeth, who told him she had no wish to “alter her condition” and become his wife. This did not discourage Seymour, who, although he was a duke, was not a member of the senior branch of his family, and so did not have access to most of the Seymour estates, or their fortune.

A little like Elizabeth, who had become the sole heir of the Percys, he had become the Duke of Somerset a little unexpectedly. The 3rd Duke died in 1671, and Charles’ cousin became 4th Duke, dying just four years later. Charles’ brother then became 5th Duke, but he died three years later, murdered by a jealous husband while in Italy, leaving the 16-year-old Charles as the 6th Duke.

Marrying Elizabeth would mean a large fortune, which was much needed by the duke, but it came with a condition, demanded by Elizabeth’s grandmother as part of the marriage: Charles would change his name to Percy, ensuring their family name would survive.

However, when Elizabeth reached her majority, acquiring her full legal rights as an adult, Seymour broke this condition, persuading her to execute a deed that released him from the obligation of the Percy family name. He wasted no time at all on making this happen; Elizabeth came of age on the 26th January, 1688, and the deed was dated just four days later.

This meant the couple would not be known as Percys, but also gave Charles full control of his wife’s fortune. However, the Barony of Percy remained with Elizabeth as a title held in her own right, and would be passed to her heirs, whether male or female.


Charles Seymour, the ‘Proud Duke’

Charles was known as the ‘Proud Duke’, and for good reason. A contemporary named Lord Dartmouth claimed that he “was a man of vast pride, and having had a very low education, showed it in a very indecent manner. His high title came to him by one man’s misfortune, and his great estate by another’s; for he was born to neither, but elated with both to a ridiculousness.” While he was politically ambitious, fearless and energetic, he also had several major character defects, such as an excessive amount of pride, great personal vanity, an irritable and aggressive temper, and a childish petulance over any slights he felt against him, whether real or imaginary. This made him difficult to work with for colleagues, and an object of dislike or ridicule for opponents, as well as a stern patriarch and taskmaster at home.

However, he was able to hold high office for many years, possibly because he was a dangerous man to ignore. Contemporaries considered him someone “who acted more by humour than by reason”, who became a problem “if kept out of secrets, but more so if let into them”. It must have been easier to include him in the team than to leave him out!


The ‘Proud Duke’: public life

Charles Seymour was a prominent figure at the royal court and within politics from the time of King James VII and II in the 1680s to Queen Anne in the early 1700s.

James appointed him Lord Chamberlain after Seymour had played a part in putting down a rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II. His time in this position only lasted a couple of years, however, as he was dismissed for refusing to formally present a newly appointed ambassador sent by the Pope. Seymour is said to have pointed out to James that if he had done this duty, he would be breaking the laws against Catholicism; the King apparently replied that this did not matter, and Seymour responded that breaking the law may not matter to the King, but it did to him. This was the end of Charles’ career as Lord Chamberlain!

A few years later, he was among the noblemen who invited William, Prince of Orange, and his wife Mary to become King William III and Queen Mary II, and would hold various positions over the next few decades, the most important being Master of the Horse (the third most senior office in the Royal Household), looking after everything relating to horses, hounds and carriages. Unfortunately for him, he retired from public life in 1715 after finding out his son-in-law Sir William Wyndham had been imprisoned on suspicion of Jacobitism. Disgusted, the duke instructed his servants to “shoot all the rubbish” (meaning his insignia as Master of the Horse) into the courtyard of St. James’ Palace. He never returned to his former prominence at court.


The ‘Proud Duke’: personal life

Charles had been described by contemporaries as a “man in whom the pride of birth and rank amounted almost to a disease”, and many people had tales of how highly he thought of himself, and how pompously he behaved as a result. The following are a few of the more famous stories about the ‘Proud Duke’:

  • He would not permit servants to ever have their backs to him. One servant was dismissed for breaking this rule – he was using a bellows at a fire at the time, a very difficult task to complete without facing the fire!
  • When travelling in his ducal carriage, the way would be cleared before him so he did not have to experience “the gaze of the vulgar”. Apparently, on one occasion a pig farmer refused to be cleared, saying “I shall see him, and my pig will see him too”!
  • When one of his daughters sat down in a chair while he was dozing, instead of standing behind his chair, he told her that her breach of respect and decorum would not be forgotten. He would eventually cut £20,000 from her inheritance!
  • When his second wife, who he married after Elizabeth’s death, playfully tapped his shoulder with a fan, she was bluntly told, “Madam, my first Duchess was a Percy, and she never took such a liberty!”

In 1743, a man named Jeremiah Miles recorded some of the duke’s daily activities in his retirement, noting that he would come down to breakfast at 8am in full dress and wearing the blue ribbon of the Order of the Garter.  Miles continues: “after breakfast he goes into his offices, [and] scolds and bullies his servants and steward till dinner time”. His table was always spread as if expecting company, but Charles would only ever be joined by his wife, his daughters, “and when he has a mind to be gracious, the Chaplain is admitted.” Miles concludes: “he treats all his country neighbours, and indeed everybody else, with such uncommon pride, and distance, that none of them visit him.”


Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset

As Duchess of Somerset, Elizabeth shared interests with Queen Mary, such as their enthusiasm for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, and became especially close to Queen Anne during her reign from 1702-1714, to the extent that political opponents believed her to be a damaging influence on the Queen. Anne, however, stood by her friend, and even intended to leave Elizabeth half her jewels on her death, considering the duchess “the fittest person to wear them after her.” Unfortunately, Anne had failed to make a will, and so the jewels never passed to Elizabeth.

Lord Dartmouth called Elizabeth “the best bred as well as the best born woman in England”, while fellow contemporary Lord Onslow considered her “in all respects a credit and ornament to the court”, and it is clear she was both well respected and very popular. It may be because of her closeness to Queen Anne that Charles was tolerated despite his obvious flaws; it seems that it was Elizabeth, and not he, who had most political importance. It is a great shame that after Elizabeth’s death on the 23rd November, 1722, at the age of 55, Charles destroyed all her correspondence with Anne.

Elizabeth and Charles had six children who survived into adulthood. One of their sons, Algernon (born in November 1684), would become important to the next part of this story.


Algernon, Earl of Hertford

Algernon, who was known as the Earl of Hertford until becoming 7th Duke of Somerset in 1748, was involved in both military and political affairs. Having served in the army under the 1st Duke of Marlborough, Algernon rose through the ranks, becoming a general in 1747. In 1705, he was elected as an MP for a borough in Wiltshire, but three years later secured a county seat for Northumberland. In the same decade he became Lord Lieutenant of Sussex and Governor of Tynemouth Castle, and later in life he spent five years as Governor of Menorca, followed by eight years as Governor of Guernsey.

When his mother Elizabeth died in 1722, Algernon inherited her ‘personal honours’, including the Barony of Percy, and so could join the House of Lords as Baron Percy.

Seven years earlier, in March 1715, he had married Frances Thynne (coincidentally related to his mother’s second husband, Thomas Thynne), who the ‘Proud Duke’ very quickly developed an irrational, intense and almost violent dislike for. Frances wished to become a patroness of learning and was very fond of literature, even entertaining poets at Alnwick Castle, and seems to have been sensible, generous and affectionate. Algernon’s appreciation for, and championing of, his wife and her causes resulted in complete estrangement from his father, and consequently a potentially major problem for his daughter.


An inheritance crisis

Algernon and Frances had two children. Their daughter Elizabeth, called Lady Betty by her family, was born in November 1716, and her brother George, known as Lord Beauchamp, was born ten years later. He would have become the 8th Duke of Somerset, but this was not to be.

In September 1742, Lord Beauchamp went with his tutor, Mr. Storrocks, on the Grand Tour of Europe. Two years into the Tour, he wrote a letter to his mother expressing his excitement for seeing her again that Christmas. Six days later he died of smallpox in Bologna, aged just 19.

While George’s parents were deeply distressed by the news of his son’s death, it produced an apoplectic rage in his grandfather Charles, who blamed Algernon and Frances entirely for Lord Beauchamp’s death, and cruelly and bitterly reproached them. Charles would have known that without George, there was no direct male heir to the family’s titles after himself and Algernon, especially as Frances was now too old to have more children. His hatred of his son’s family took precedence in his mind, and the duke secretly approached King George II to ensure his granddaughter Elizabeth and any children she had with her husband Sir Hugh Smithson, who she had married in 1740, were excluded from any major inheritance.

A much earlier settlement meant that in this situation, the grand title of Duke of Somerset (but the smallest part of the family’s properties) would be inherited by Sir Edward Seymour, a direct male descendant of the 1st Duke of Somerset, who had been executed back in 1552. The fate of the Percy titles and estates, however, and the lands that came with them (including Alnwick Castle), was something the ‘Proud Duke’ thought he could change.

The King was asked to make it so these titles and estates, after Algernon’s death, would go to the duke’s grandson Sir Charles Wyndham (son of Sir William mentioned above). Elizabeth, who would inherit the title of Baroness Percy in her own right, would otherwise be disinherited from her Percy ancestry.

The duke’s plan was discovered and foiled at the last minute by Algernon and Sir Hugh, who managed to convince George II that it would conflict with an earlier settlement stating the Percy estates would go to Elizabeth. Frances wrote about the discovery of the plot on the 27th September, 1744:

“All this passed without our knowing a syllable of their scheme, which was so near being executed that it was to be signed on the Monday, and we did not hear of it until late on Friday night... On Monday, my lord finding the time so short, wrote to the King and told him that it was not in the power of the Duke or Duchess of Somerset to hinder Lady Betty of the estates in Northumberland, and therefore he hoped that His Majesty would not do so great a hardship to him as to give the title from his only child. This letter he sent by Hugh Smithson. The King immediately called him into his closet and allowed him to explain the case, which he listened to with the greatest attention and humanity, and said it was far from his intention to do a hardship to my Lord Hertford who had always been a faithful servant; but he had had the affair misrepresented and had proceeded so far that he was really at a loss what to do.”

The King, continued Frances, “resolved to suspend it till he could examine into the truth… and there the matter rests for the present.”

The duke made another attempt in spring 1745, but still did not succeed; on this occasion, Elizabeth herself wrote to him, asking him to reconsider.


The inheritance is split

Charles died on the 2nd December, 1748, and Algernon became the 7th Duke of Somerset. The following year, the King settled the matter of the inheritance, issuing two patents.

The first, issued on the 2nd October 1749, officially made Algernon Earl of Northumberland and Baron Warkworth, giving him the Percy estates in Northumberland and Middlesex, which included Alnwick Castle and Syon House as well as Northumberland House in central London. If Algernon had no male children – which was a certainty – these titles and lands would pass to Sir Hugh and therefore to Elizabeth, and to their male descendants thereafter. Importantly, only Sir Hugh’s children with Elizabeth would be entitled to this inheritance; any other children he may have had (namely illegitimate son James Smithson, who went on to bequeath money that founded the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC!) would receive nothing.

The second patent was issued the next day, and officially made Algernon Earl of Egremont and Baron Cockermouth, giving him the Percy estates in Cumberland, Yorkshire and Sussex, including Petworth House (which the family had used for centuries). If, as above, Algernon had no male children, these titles and lands would pass not to Hugh and Elizabeth, but to Sir Charles Wyndham and his male descendants.


The return of the Percy name

Since Elizabeth Percy signed her deed in 1688, there had been no Percy family by name, even though the Barony of Percy still existed. However, when Algernon died just four months after George II’s patents were issued, a private Act of Parliament dated February 1750 stated “Algernon, late Duke of Somerset, did in his lifetime express his desire that the name of Percy should be used and be the surname or family name of the Earls of Northumberland.”

This meant Hugh and Elizabeth, the new Earl and Countess of Northumberland, were permitted to change their name from Smithson to Percy. Elizabeth was able to reclaim her Percy ancestry, to which she had been related by blood if not by name, and after the couple visited Alnwick Castle in 1750, fully intended to restore its greatness and splendour.

She and Sir Hugh spent the following decades transforming Alnwick into a palatial residence, and simultaneously restoring their other houses. In 1766, King George III made them the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, completing the dramatic social ascent that had begun with the sad death of her brother two decades earlier. Elizabeth, who had been prepared to live with her husband at his provincial but comfortable house in Yorkshire, and Hugh, whose grandfather had been a haberdasher, were now one of the most important couples in the country, Percys once again lived at Alnwick Castle, and this very complicated part of the Percy family’s story was over.


Suggested further reading:

Adriano Aymonino, Decorum and celebration of the family line: Robert Adam’s monuments to the 1st Duchess of Northumberland

S. Bracken, A.M. Gáldy, and A. Turpin, Women Collectors

E.B. De Fonblanque, Annals of the House of Percy

Richard Lomas, A Power In The Land

Christopher Rowell, Petworth: the People and the Place

Colin Shrimpton, Alnwick Castle

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