This particular Earl of Northumberland is an unusual one in that he was the only one of his family to appear on the Yorkist side of the battle listings during the Wars of the Roses which of course means that a bit of back story is required for his actions to make sense.
Essentially the two great northern families were the Percys and the Nevilles (think Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick a.k.a. the Kingmaker). Had Henry VI been a little bit more effective it is possible that the two families wouldn’t have reached such a state of animosity that when Henry VI broke down in 1453 that the two sides came to blows. A force of more than seven hundred Percys and their retainers, led by Lord Egremont (the Earl of Northumberland’s second son), attacked a wedding party of Nevilles on Heworth Moor near York. Quite clearly this did not bode well for wide political implications as it was almost inevitable that if the Percys were favoured by Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou that the Nevilles would look to the other side for support.
The Nevilles affiliated themselves with the Richard of York. The Earl of Salisbury (the Kingmaker’s father) also called Richard Neville was Richard of York’s uncle. His sister, Cicely Neville a.k.a. ‘The Rose of Raby’ was married to Richard of York.
So far so good. The Earls of Northumberland then proceeded to drop like flies and of course they all rejoiced in the name Henry thus making remembering them easy or difficult depending on what you’re trying to remember. The Second Earl of Northumberland didn’t make it beyond the first official battle of the Wars of the Roses. He was killed at the First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455. He was succeeded by his eldest son Henry Percy (just to confuse matters he’s also known as Lord Poynings on account of gaining the title when he married his wife) who became the Third Earl of Northumberland. The third earl was definitely Lancastrian. The feud was in full swing now as the noble families of England merrily took turns slaughtering on another. He died in his turn on 29 March 1461 at the Battle of Towton. This battle was won by Richard of York’s son Edward who was now Edward IV of England, his father having fallen victim to a sharp weapon at the Battle of Wakefield the previous year.
The death of earl number three finally brings us to our Henry Percy. He did not automatically become the Earl of Northumberland. His father’s earldom was forfeited at the Battle of Towton by the victorious Yorkists who naturally declared everyone fighting on the wrong side of the battle field traitors and promptly confiscated anything of value as well as lopping off a few heads. In that sense Henry Percy was lucky. He was imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and from there he was sent to the Tower in 1464. During this time John Neville, the Kingmaker’s brother was created Earl of Northumberland – I don’t even want to imagine how that went down with the locals.
In 1469 after swearing fealty to Edward IV Henry Percy was released. He then set about trying to get his estates returned. He petitioned for the reversal of his father’s attainder though this was not granted by Parliament until 1473. For various reasons including his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV began to find his Neville cousins rather wearing and ultimately Henry Percy gained Edward IV’s support. John Neville found himself kicked out of his newly acquired earldom whilst Henry Percy regained the family title. Ta dah! Henry Percy, Fourth Earl of Northumberland and Ta dah! John Neville, Marquess of Montagu.
Unsurprisingly John Neville wasn’t best pleased and promptly changed sides along with his brother the Earl of Warwick who was displeased with having been made to look a fool whilst negotiating for Edward IV’s marriage to a french princess only to discover that he’d married Elizabeth Woodville. After that the Nevilles found that dominating court became rather tricky with the best perks going to a huge extended Woodville clan. Both brothers were killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471
Henry Percy went back to doing what the Earls of Northumberland had been doing for a very long time – i.e. ruling vast tracts of land and skirmishing with the Scots. He held many of the important government posts in the north of England which were traditional in his family including from 10 May 1483, as protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, confirmed the fourth earl of Northumberland’s appointment as warden-general of the east and middle marches ‘during the space and time of a whole year’, after which it was renewed for five months but perhaps it would appear not as much power from Richard III as he had hoped. Naturally enough he fought at Bosworth where he commanded the right wing of Richard III’s army.
And now for the twist. The Percys were naturally Lancastrian by inclination. Percy’s father and grandfather had died for Henry VI. Some historians says that Percy betrayed Richard III by holding his forces back from action. Percy’s northern levies weren’t committed to the battle.
If Northumberland had been a metaphorical spoke in Richard’s wheel he wasn’t very well rewarded by Henry Tudor who now became Henry VII. Northumberland, along with the earls of Westmoreland and Surrey was taken into custody and kept in prison for several months, being released only under strict conditions of good behaviour. He was restored to his position as warden but with curtailed powers. Henry may not have trusted him but Percy knew how to protect England’s northern border. He was also at hand to help defeat the Yorkist forces that gathered during the Lambert Simnel rebellion in 1487.
In 1489 Northumberland was part of the king’s administration gathering £100,000 of tax. This led to the Yorkshire Rebellion. Northumberland had to deal with the resistance of Yorkshiremen to the tenth of incomes demanded for Henry’s Breton war and for the raising of a force against the Scots. Things can’t have gone well for the Earl as his own tenants were up in arms. He was so alarmed that on Saturday, 24 April, he wrote to Sir Robert Plumpton from Seamer, close to Scarborough, ordering him to secretly bring as many armed men as he could to Thirsk by the following Monday. It didn’t do him much good.
On Wednesday, 28 April, having gathered a force estimated at eight hundred men, he came into conflict with the commons, whose ringleader was one John a Chamber, near Thirsk, at a place variously called Cockledge or Blackmoor Edge, and was killed.
It was at first reported that he had gone out unarmed to parley with the rebels. It rapidly became clear that another reason for the earl’s death was that the good men of Thirsk who had been loyal to Richard III held the earl partly responsible for their king’s death. The rebellion was ultimately suppressed by the Earl of Surrey (the son of the Duke of Norfolk and yet another noble who’d been on the wrong side at Bosworth). Surrey took on Northumberland’s lands whilst the newest Henry Percy was a minor.