Would Pippa dare marry into this family?
Pippa Middleton is said to be dating George Percy, heir to the Duchy of Northumberland. Based on the Percys’ long and gory history, she should tread carefully.
By William Langley
7:00PM GMT 19 Nov 2011
For 700 years, the rich, ruthless and noble Percys of Northumberland have been turning up in all the most interesting places – in jails, on the end of pikestaffs, across fields of battle and in the pages of Proust. But now things are serious. Pippa Middleton, our shapely First Sister, is reported to have fallen into the arms of a Percy. If so, history suggests she would be wise to watch out.
Not that Old Etonian George Percy, the 26-year-old heir to the Duchy of Northumberland, appears to be anything but a decent sort. Environmentally conscious George first dated Pippa while they were at university together, and when her relationship with cricketer-turned-banker Alex Loudon faltered earlier this year, he seems to have stepped gamely back into the breach.
The problem for Pippa is the Percys’ remarkable talent for choosing the wrong women. Take Henry, the 6th Earl, who in the early 1520s fell desperately in love with Anne Boleyn. A secret betrothal was agreed, but the news leaked, and the Earl suddenly found himself facing some tough competition. Pulling royal rank, Henry VIII claimed Anne for himself, and poor Percy was fobbed off with Lady Mary Talbot, with whom he lived miserably until his death – a broken man – at the age of 35.
Thomas, the 7th Earl, also chose the wrong woman, and paid an even heavier price. Although a favourite of Elizabeth I, he pledged himself to Mary, Queen of Scots, joining the “Rising of the North” that was intended to put the Catholic claimant on the throne. When it failed – partly through Thomas’s organisational incompetence – he fled to Scotland, but was sold to the English for £2,000, taken to York and beheaded in public. Consolation of a sort came three centuries later when the Pope beatified him, giving the Percys their first, and to date only, saint.
There’s plenty more to worry about. In fact, since they first reached Britain in the aftermath of the Norman invasion, the Percys have been in more scrapes than the rest of the aristocracy put together. One earl was lynched by an angry mob of his own tenants; another assassinated by government hitmen; and several have been imprisoned, banished or drummed out of polite society.
Still, nothing has held them back for long. By the 18th century, the Percys had been promoted to dukes; by the 19th they were rife in court, the diplomatic service and at the heart of Tory politics. Today, the family owns 100,000 North Country acres, and at their centre sits Alnwick Castle, a grey, forbidding medieval fortress that starred as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. There are further holdings in Yorkshire and Surrey, and the family’s London base is Syon Park, a magnificent former abbey on the River Thames near Kew. Estimates of the Percys’ total wealth start at around £300 million.
All of which does wonders for George’s eligibility – and raises the question of whether the resoundingly middle-class Middletons could be poised to pull off a remarkable double-duchess coup.
But not just yet, suggests the buzz from London society. George is viewed as a rather more cautious type than the regular run of toff-about-town. His current enthusiasm is an alternative energy company which he co-runs with raffish ex-mining tycoon Algy Cluff; the pair are planning to sink geothermal test wells in County Durham which they hope will release cheap, low-carbon energy.
Although he lives in Kensington, and has several friends in the capital’s fast set, George tends to stay away from the Mahiki-Boujis nightclub circuit. In fact, all the young Percys – George has three siblings – maintain a relatively soft social profile. His older sister, Lady Katie, 28, married financier Patrick Valentine earlier this year. Younger brother Max is at Edinburgh University, and little sister Melissa works as a tennis coach at Queen’s Club. Not a whiff of scandal has touched any of them
But, then, the family has a lot to live down. In his book about the Percys, Kings of the North, Alexander Rose suggests that they have prospered by doing things differently. While other noble families built their power and fortunes on advantageous marriages and royal service, the Percys went after the booty. Most of it came from the lawless lands between England and Scotland in the 14th and 15th centuries. While monarchs to the south were preoccupied by their power struggles with France, the Percys craftily carved up the border country, amassing huge tracts of land over which they ruled with virtual autonomy.
Certainly, they tested the limits. Harry Hotspur, the son of the 1st Earl, accurately depicted by Shakespeare as a hyper-energetic dimwit, led a rebellion against Henry IV, only to be defeated at the Battle of Shrewsbury. His body was chopped into pieces for distribution around the kingdom, and his head displayed on a staff in York. Then there was the embarrassment of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Admittedly, Thomas Percy, one of the leading conspirators, was not a direct member of the family, but he was close enough, and the fallout came close to destroying the entire dynasty.
When the plot was rumbled, Percy fled to Warwickshire, where he was shot by pursuing government agents and died instantly. No such clean fate awaited the unfortunate 9th Earl, a blameless man well versed in science and literature and known as ”The Egghead’’, who was thrown into the Tower for 17 years and forced to pay a colossal fine of £30,000.
Who’d want to be a Percy? No end of people, actually. There is a prominent American branch of the family – the Percys of Mississippi – supposedly founded by Charles Percy, the disinherited, bigamist son of an early earl. According to one historian, the plantation-owning Percys “virtually built the Deep South”. And then there’s Kevin Percy, a 76-year-old former Olympic hockey player from New Zealand, who claims to be the rightful heir to the Percy millions. Kevin believes he is a direct descendant of Hotspur, and has written to the Queen asking for the knight’s remains to be exhumed and checked against his DNA.
Miss Middleton’s slinky lines have been rightly acclaimed. But they’ll never be able to match the twists and turns of her friend’s family history.