Percy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Percy Surname Meaning

The Percy name came from its first bearer in England, William de Percy, who derived his name from the fief of Perci or Percy near Villedieu in Normandy where, it is thought, he originated.

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Percy Surname Ancestry

England. The forebear of the Percys in England was the Norman William de Percy who arrived in 1067 and made his base in Yorkshire.

Northumberland.  From this Norman came a prominent early line of Percys in Northumberland.  They became the Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland.

The Percys owed their rise to power by being the bulwark against the marauding Scots across the border. In 1309 Henry Percy bought the barony of Alnwick in Northumberland. He became at a stroke the greatest landowner of the north after the King and the owner of one of its most powerful fortresses, Alnwick Castle. His son Henry added to the family holdings by acquiring Warkworth castle. And their main source of power came from their appointment as the wardens of the east March of Scotland, an office which they were to hold for most of the next two centuries.

But as soon as the Scottish menace faded in the 16th century, the Percys lost their power. The Tudors no longer needed a viceroy in the north. The sixth earl was ruined by Henry VIII, the seventh executed by Elizabeth, the eighth murdered in the Tower and the ninth gave up on politics for chemistry and astronomy. They were for much of this time Catholic sympathizers who were involved in the Rising of the North of 1569 and, directly and indirectly, in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

The male line ended when Joceline Percy died in 1670. His daughter Elizabeth would inherit the estate (although James Percy, a trunkmaker in Dublin, did challenge her claim). In 1682 Elizabeth married Charles Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, and they became one of the wealthiest couples in England.

The Percy and Northumberland line then reinvented itself when Elizabeth Percy nee Seymour married Sir Hugh Smithson in 1740. She inherited the barony of Percy ten years later. Her husband adopted the name of Percy, after much legal argument, and was created the Duke of Northumberland. Their line, encompassing many politicians and military people over the years, has continued to this day. Alnwick Castle remains with them, as does Northumberland House and Syon House in London.

The Percy family history has been covered in two books – Gerald Brenan in his 1902 book A History of the House of Percy and Alexander Rose in his 2002 book Kings in the North.

Percys Elsewhere. There was in addition a southern branch of the Percy family which held the Petworth manor in Sussex from the 12th century onwards. Sir William Percy of this family served as the MP for Sussex in the late 1300’s. The present Petworth House was built in 1688, but it passed out of Percy hands in the next century.

The Percy name also cropped up in the west country:

  • it was to be found in Dorset and Devon and Dorset mainly. The Percy name had appeared in Shaftesbury, Dorset by the late 1400’s. Perhaps Percy had different origins here.
  • but the Percys of Worcester may have descended from the Northumberland Percys. Thomas Percy was mayor of Worcester in 1662 and a later Dr. Thomas Percy, who grew up in Shropshire, became chaplain to George III and the Bishop of Dromore in Ireland.

Percy in Yorkshire often became Piercy and sometimes Pearce. The Piercy name, possibly originally Percehay, was to be found around Malton in east Yorkshire and dated back to the early 1500’s.


America.
There were some early Percys in America, in each case related to the Northumberland Percys:

  • George Percy came to the Jamestown colony in 1607, served as its Governor, and was the author of two important accounts of the early colony. But he didn’t stay. He returned to England in 1612.
  • Richard Percy meanwhile came to New England from Bristol on the Lion in 1630. He settled in Rhode Island. Some of his descendants migrated north to Maine.

But the best-known Percy line in America arrived some time later. Its progenitor was an Irish Catholic adventurer named Charles Percy, later Don Carlos Percy, who came to British West Florida in 1775 and prospered at Natchez under Spanish rule as a plantation owner growing indigo dye.

There were many prominent Percys in this illustrious Southern family. The line passed from Don Carlos Percy to:

  • his son Thomas G. Percy a cotton planter at Huntsville in Alabama. His plantation abutted that of his friend John Walker, one of Alabama’s first Senators. Thomas had married Maria Pope, the daughter of plantation owner Leroy Pope and a distant relative of the English poet Alexander Pope.
  • his grandson the heroic Colonel William Alexander Percy, the “Gray Eagle” of the Civil War. The colonel later became a railroad lawyer.
  • and three of the colonel’s sons – Leroy, William, and Walker – and their families and descendants. Their numbers included Leroy Percy, the US Senator for Mississippi in 1910, his son the writer and war hero Will Percy, and a cousin, the novelist Walker Percy.

The family story was narrated in Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s 1994 book The House of PercyIt is a tale, as the author described it, of honor, melancholy, and imagination in a Southern family.


New Zealand. Joseph Percy left Sherborne in Dorset for New Zealand in 1847. He met his wife there and they settled in Lower Hutt near Wellington. His descendants were still there a hundred years later. Meanwhile Henry Percy, also from Sherborne, had arrived there with his family five years earlier on the Clifton. He was aged just nine at the time. He later married and in 1869 moved to Wairarapa where he purchased Thornton Park. This farm was to stay with the Percy family until 1973
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Percy Surname Miscellany

William de Percy.  The Cartulary of Whitby Abbey stated that William de Percy arrived in England in 1067, one year after the Battle of Hastings.  His Percy name derived from the manor of Percy in Normandy and was probably adopted after his arrival in England.

His most notable feature was his whiskers.  The Normans who came to England were generally clean-shaven.  Not so this William who was nicknamed aux gernons (bewhiskered).  Later generations of Percys would use the soubriquet in the form of a first name Algernon.

He appeared in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a great landowner, holding no fewer than 30 knight’s fees.  His estates were mainly in the North Riding of Yorkshire where he had been granted lands in the 1070’s.  He built his castle at Topcliffe.

Percy accompanied Robert Curthose, the Duke of Normandy, on the First Crusade.  He died in 1096 within sight of Jerusalem. His heart was taken back to England and was buried at Whitby Abbey where his brother Serlo was its first abbot.

Prominent Early Percys of the English Line.  William de
Percy who died in 1096 – he came to England at the time of the Norman Conquest and was the first feudal baron of Topcliffe

Agnes de Percy (1134-1205)
– she perpetuated the Percy line after marrying Joscelin of Louvain
– their son Richard adopting the Percy name and title.

Richard de Percy who died in 1244
– he was one of the feudal barons who signed the Magna Carta in 1216.

Henry de Percy (1273-1314)
– he was the first feudal baron of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

Sir Henry Percy (1365-1403), also called Harry Hotspur
– he helped Henry IV seize the throne in 1399 but later rebelled against him.
– this rebellion failed and he was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Henry Percy (1421-1461), the third Earl of Northumberland
– he was a Lancastrian leader in the Wars of the Roses.
– he was killed at the Battle of Towton where the Lancastrians were defeated.

Blessed Thomas Percy (1528-1572), the seventh Earl of Northumberland – Catholic sympathizer, he led the Rising of the North in 1569 and was subsequently executed.

Henry Percy (1564-1632), the ninth Earl of Northumberland
– he was known as the “Wizard Earl” because of his chemistry and astronomy pursuits.
– a Catholic sympathizer, he was imprisoned in the Tower of
London for seventeen years (after being accused of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot).

Algernon Percy (1602-1668), the tenth Earl of Northumberland
– he was a prominent Parliamentary supporter during the Civil War.
– his son Joceline who died in 1670 was the last male of direct Percy lineage to inherit the Earldom.

There were other Percys, junior members of this family, who were also prominent – such as Thomas Percy, one of the participants in the Gunpowder Plot, and George Percy, an explorer and early governor of Virginia.

James Percy’s Claim to the Northumberland Estate.  When James Percy heard of the death of Jocelyn Percy, the eleventh Earl of Northumberland, in Turin in May 1670, he was a trunk-maker in Dublin. Finding out that Jocelyn’s only daughter Elizabeth would inherit the estate, he rushed to London to challenge this inheritance and press his own case.

He maintained that some of the Percy children were sent down south to Petworth in hampers at the time of the Rising in the North in 1569 and that among those children were his father, Henry Percy, a grandson of Sir Ingelram Percy and the younger brother of Henry Algernon, the sixth Earl of Northumberland.

The House of Lords eventually had their say on this case in 1689, concluding 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.

They 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 claimant left three sons, who were respectively merchants in
London, Dublin, and Norwich, and of whom the second, Anthony, was lord mayor of Dublin in 1689, but the claim upon which he wasted so much energy was not renewed by any member of his family.

Dr. Thomas Percy and The Reliques.  Dr. Thomas Percy was born at Bridgnorth in Shropshire in the Severn valley in 1729.  His father, Arthur Lowe Percy, a grocer, was of sufficient means to send his son to Oxford in 1746.  Thomas graduated in 1750 and proceeded to an M.A. in 1753.  In that year he was appointed to the vicarage of Easton Maudit in Northamptonshire.  Three years later came rectory of Wilby in the same county, benefices which he retained until 1782.

At Easton Maudit most of the literary work for which he is now remembered — including the Reliques — was completed.  The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry came out in 1765. This was based on an old manuscript collection of poetry, rescued by Percy in Shropshire from the hands of a house maid who was about to light the fire with it.

When his name became famous he was made domestic chaplain to the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and was tempted into the belief that he belonged to the illustrious house of Percy.  This may have held some truth as recent research has shown evidence that suggests that he was directly descended from Henry Percy, the second Earl of Northumberland.

Through his patron’s influence he became dean of Carlisle in 1778 and Bishop of Dromore in Ireland in 1782.  His wife died before him in 1806.  The good bishop, blind but otherwise in sound health, lived until 1811.  Both were buried in the transept which Percy added to Dromore Cathedral, ‘The Percy Aisle.

Who Was Don Carlos Percy?  Charles Percy’s early life is sketchy.  He was Irish Catholic and was born in Ireland around the year 1740.  But we do not know where or who his parents were.   According to legend, the first Percy of his family was possibly “the disinherited son of the mighty Percys of Northumberland.”  Percy in fact claimed this link but could not or chose not to prove it.

He first surfaced in 1762 when he was serving with the British army in Kilkenny in Ireland.  He appears to have been married to a lady named Margaret and to have had a son named Robert.
Then at some point he absconded to America, abandoning this
family altogether.

He claimed that he was a plantation owner in North Carolina. And some reports have him at St. Eustatius in the Dutch West Indies.  What is known is that he arrived at Pensacola in British West Florida around 1775.  This was a place where few questions would have been asked about him or about his past. As a veteran of the British army, he was entitled to a land grant.  This he secured and he became one of the early Natchez settlers in what is now Mississippi. There in 1780, at the age of forty, he married for a second time, the sixteen year old Susannah Collins.

After 1783 the British agreed to leave West Florida and Spain gained control of the whole region. Charles Percy adapted quickly to the new regime.  He cultivated the friendship of the Spanish Governor and received the honorary title of Don Carlos.   With Spanish support and subsidies, he embarked on the growing of indigo, the dye most favored in the making of 18th century cloth.  He quickly made his fortune.

However, the end of his life was not happy.  He became depressed and, in 1794, he drowned himself in a local creek, which has since been named Percy’s Creek.

Prominent Percys of the Southern American Line.  Charles“Don Carlos” Percy (1740-1794), the founder of the Percy dynasty

– Thomas G. Percy (1786-1841), a wealthy cotton planter and settler in Alabama

— William A. Percy (1835-1888), a distinguished colonel in the
Confederate army (his sister was Sarah Dorsey nee Percy, a noted southern writer)

— Leroy Percy (1860-1929), the US Senator for Mississippi

—- William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), a lawyer and writer

— William Armstrong Percy (1863-1912)

—- William Armstrong Percy II (1906-1971)

—– William Armstrong Percy III (born 1933), historian and gay rights activist

— Walker Percy (1864-1917), a lawyer and state legislator who took his own life

—- Leroy Pratt Percy (1888-1929), who also took his own life

—– Walker Percy (1916-1990), a novelist.

In addition Charles H. Percy (1919-2011), the US Senator for Illinois was also a direct descendant of Charles “Don Carlos” Percy. 

The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy and Imagination in a Southern Family.  Two centuries of wealth, literary accomplishment, political leadership, depression, and sometimes suicide established a fascinating legacy that lies behind Walker Percy’s acclaimed prose and profound insight into the human condition.  In his book The House of Percy, Bertram Wyatt-Brown interpreted the life of this gifted family, drawing out the twin themes of an inherited inclination to despondency and an abiding sense of honor.

The Percy family roots in Mississippi and Louisiana went back to “Don Carlos” Percy, an 18th century soldier of fortune who amassed a large estate but fell victim to mental disorder and suicide.  Wyatt-Brown traced the Percys through the slaveholding heyday of antebellum Natchez, the ravages of the Civil War (which produced the heroic Colonel William Alexander Percy, the “Gray Eagle”), and a return to prominence in the Mississippi Delta after Reconstruction.

In addition, the author recovered the tragic lives and literary achievements of several Percy-related women, including Sarah Dorsey, a popular post-Civil War novelist who horrified her relatives by befriending Jefferson Davis, a married man, and bequeathing to him her plantation home and her remaining fortune.

Then there was Senator LeRoy Percy, whose climactic re-election loss in 1911 to a racist demagogue deeply stung the family pride, but inspired his bold defiance to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s.  There was also the poignant story of the poet and war hero Will Percy, the Senator’s son.

The weight of this family narrative found expression in Will Percy’s memoirs, Lanterns on the Levee and in the works of Walker Percy, who was reared in his cousin Will’s Greenville home after the suicidal death of Walker’s father and his mother’s drowning.  The novels of Walker Percy – The MoviegoerLancelotThe Second Coming, and The Thanatos Syndrome to name a few – left a permanent mark on 20th century Southern fiction.

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Percy Names
  • William de Percy was the progenitor of the Percy family that became the Earls and Dukes of Northumberland. 
  • Sir Henry Percy, also known as Harry Hotspur, was the schemer in Shakespeare’s plays who helped Henry IV seize the throne and then rebelled against him and was killed in battle. 
  • Charles Percy, an Irish Catholic adventurer also known as Don Carlos Percy, was the founder of the Percy family of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. 
  • William Alexander Percy from Mississippi was a World War one hero, lawyer, and memoirist, best known for his book Lanterns on the Levee: Memoirs of a Planter’s Son.

Percy Numbers Today
  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Northumberland)
  • 3,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 6,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

 

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