Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Percy, Thomas (1729-1811)
PERCY, THOMAS (1729–1811), editor of the ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ and bishop of Dromore, was born in Cartway Street, Bridgnorth, Shropshire, on 13 April 1729. His father was a grocer and the son of a grocer, as appears from the ‘Bridgnorth Common Council Books;’ but, in later life at least, the bishop was anxious to deduce his descent from the Percys of Northumberland, with the living representative of whom he was brought into official and social connection. At Bridgnorth the name was spelt Pearcy and Piercy; in a Battel Book at Christ Church, Oxford, it is spelt Piercy. The first noted occurrence of the spelling Percy is in the register at Easton-Maudit, and was probably due to the aspiration just mentioned. In an entry in that register he states that his family came from Worcester; and it is from Sir Ralph Percy [q. v.], a younger son of Henry Percy, second earl of Northumberland [q. v.], who, however, was unmarried, that he seeks to trace his pedigree (Nash, Worcestershire). He was educated at Bridgnorth grammar school; and, obtaining a Careswell exhibition, he proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1746. His career at the university was not specially distinguished. He graduated B.A. in 1750 and M.A. in 1753. He proceeded D.D. from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1770.
In 1753 he was presented to a college living—the vicarage of Easton-Maudit, Northamptonshire. This was his home for twenty-nine years, and there his most important and influential works were produced. Among his parishioners were the Marquis of Northampton and the Earl of Sussex. Among the neighbouring clergy was the distinguished Anglo-Saxon scholar Edward Lye [q. v.], at Yardley Hastings. Even at that time Easton-Maudit was not inaccessible from London. The vicar was often to be seen in town; and Dr. Johnson himself, not to speak of lesser folk, sojourned for some weeks at the vicarage in 1764. In 1756 Percy was appointed also rector of Wilby, some half-dozen miles off.
Meanwhile he was busy with various literary undertakings. Of no great originality, he was by nature peculiarly susceptible to the currents and tendencies of his age. It was an age that was wearying of its old and longing for new idols—wearying of ‘didactic poetry’ and excessive modernness, and longing for pictures of life; not only of present and European life, but of the life of the past and of the distant in place as well as in time. Accordingly Percy began his literary life by translating from a Portuguese manuscript a Chinese novel, viz. ‘Hau Kiou Choaun, or the Pleasing History, with an appendix containing the Argument or Story of a Chinese Play, A Collection of Chinese Proverbs, and Fragments of Chinese Poetry, with Notes,’ 4 vols. 1761. This he followed with two volumes of ‘Miscellaneous Pieces relating to the Chinese,’ 1762. An interest in China and in the East generally was ‘in the air.’ But more noticeable was the growing interest in the older poetry of Europe. Deeply impressed by Macpherson's studies in Gaelic and Erse poetry, Percy in 1763 published ‘Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, translated from the Islandic Language.’ In this book he gratefully acknowledges the assistance of his neighbour Lye. In 1763 he also edited Surrey's ‘Poems,’ giving some account of the early use of blank verse in English.
Percy was already engaged upon the work that was to immortalise him. For some time he had possessed an old folio manuscript containing copies, in an early seventeenth-century handwriting, of many old poems of various dates. He had found it one day ‘lying dirty on the floor in a bureau in the parlour’ of his friend Humphrey Pitt of Shifnall in Shropshire, ‘being used by the maids to light the fire,’ and had begged it of its careless owner. The suggestion that he should turn this treasure to some account seems to have come from Shenstone—though he did not live to see the ripe fruit of his advice—and was entertained as early as 1761. ‘You have heard me speak of Mr. Percy,’ runs a letter from Shenstone to Graves, dated 1 March 1761. ‘He was in treaty with Mr. James Dodsley for the publication of our best old ballads in three volumes. He has a large folio MS. of ballads which he showed me, and which, with his own natural and acquired talents, would qualify him for the purpose as well as any man in England. I proposed the scheme to him myself, wishing to see an elegant edition and good collection of this kind.’ A few months later Shenstone wrote to a Mr. McGowan of Edinburgh to ask if he could send any Scottish ballad for Percy's use. Many others lent their assistance; among them Thomas Warton (the younger), Grainger, Birch, Farmer, Garrick, and Goldsmith. Warton ‘ransacked the Oxford libraries’ for him; he himself visited Cambridge and explored Pepys's collection, besides receiving help from ‘two ingenious and learned friends’ there; he secured correspondents in Wales, in Ireland, in ‘the wilds of Staffordshire and Derbyshire.’ At last, in 1765, appeared Percy's ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ (3 vols. sm. 8vo). The book made an epoch in the history of English literature. It promoted with lasting effect the revival of interest in our older poetry. Percy had serious misgivings as to whether he was employing his energies profitably, but expressed the hope that ‘the names of so many men of learning and character’ among his patrons and subscribers would ‘serve as an amulet to guard him from every unfavourable censure for having bestowed any attention on a parcel of Old Ballads.’ He occasionally tampered with his texts and inserted at the end of each volume, in conformity with current sentiment, a ‘few modern attempts in the same kind of writing to atone for the rudeness of the more obsolete poems.’ Dr. Johnson, Warburton, and other contemporary authorities were not sparing in their condemnation and contempt. A second edition of the ‘Reliques’ was, however, called for in 1767, a third in 1775, and a fourth, revised by his nephew, Thomas Percy (1768–1808) [q. v.], in 1794. In 1867–8 the original folio from which Percy drew his materials was edited by Prof. J. W. Hales and Dr. F. J. Furnivall, and published in three volumes.
His next contribution to antiquarian knowledge was the editing of ‘The Household Book of the Earl of Northumberland in 1512, at his Castles of Wressle and Leconfield in Yorkshire,’ 1768. This work also made a new departure. It stands chronologically at the head of the long series of household regulations and accounts whose publication has rendered the knowledge of old English life minute and exact.
In 1770 he published another work of great importance on account of its recognition of the high interest of the old Norse life. This was entitled ‘Northern Antiquities, with a Translation of the Edda and other pieces from the Ancient Islandic Tongue. Translated from M. Mallet's Introduction to L'Histoire de Dannemarc, &c. With additional Notes by the English Translator and Goranson's Latin Version of the Edda.’ Percy's preface is a vigorous and well-informed refutation of a view that had been ‘a great source of mistake and confusion to many learned writers of the ancient history of Europe, viz. that of supposing the ancient Gauls and Germans, the Britons and Saxons, to have been originally one and the same people, thus confounding the antiquities of the Gothic and Celtic nations.’ In 1771 he published his familiar ballad ‘The Hermit of Warkworth,’ a composition very characteristic of the eighteenth century.
Meanwhile he had not neglected the studies associated directly with his profession as a clergyman. In 1764 he published ‘A New Translation of the Song of Solomon;’ and in 1769 ‘A Key to the New Testament,’ which was thrice reissued. He was appointed chaplain to the Duke of Northumberland, and in 1769 chaplain to the king. At last substantial preferment came. In 1778 he was made dean of Carlisle; but he did not resign the livings of Easton-Maudit and Wilby till four years later, when he became bishop of Dromore in Ireland. Dr. Robert Nares [q. v.] succeeded him at Easton.
Twenty-nine years had Percy been connected with Easton, and twenty-nine years was he connected with Dromore. But his only contribution to literature after leaving Easton was ‘An Essay on the Origin of the English Stage, particularly on the Historical Plays of Shakespeare.’ When the fourth edition of the ‘Reliques’ appeared in 1794, his nephew, the editor, defended him against the truculence of Joseph Ritson [q. v.], who denied the existence of the famous folio manuscript. Possibly Ritson's insolence did something to dishearten Percy from fresh literary labours. Moreover, the distance of his home from London was not without effect. The county of Down was very much out of the world. ‘Letters to him frequently never reached their destination, and he was months in arrear with the last magazine.’ But his correspondence shows that interest in literary things never abated. In 1801 he contributed to an edition of Goldsmith's ‘Miscellaneous Works’ materials ‘for an improved account of the author's life.’
Percy resided constantly in his diocese, ‘discharging the duties of his sacred office with vigilance and zeal, instructing the ignorant, relieving the necessitous, and comforting the distressed with pastoral affection.’ About 1804 his eyesight began to fail; at the end of 1805 he writes that ‘it is with difficulty I transcribe my name.’ Twelve months later his wife died, a woman of great tact as well as a devoted and affectionate partner. For nearly five years he lingered on, bearing both his blindness and his bereavement with a touching equanimity. He died on 30 Sept. 1811, and was buried by the side of Mrs. Percy in the transept he had added to his cathedral.
Percy married in 1759 Anne, daughter of Barton Gutteridge of Desborough, Northamptonshire, not far from Rothwell, whose name he spells Goodriche on her tombstone. His well-known lines to Nancy were addressed to her before she became his wife; they were printed in 1758 in the sixth volume of Dodsley's ‘Collection of Poems.’ In 1771 Mrs. Percy was appointed nurse to Prince Edward, afterwards Duke of Kent. Six children were born to him, two of whom died at Easton; a third, said to have been a youth of great promise, died at Marseilles in 1783; and a fourth son, who had been a king's scholar at Westminster, died at Dromore of consumption. Two daughters survived him—viz. Barbara, married to Ambrose Isted of Ecton House, near Northampton; and Elizabeth, wife of Archdeacon the Hon. Pierce Meade.
Percy's portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and was engraved by Dickinson.
In 1840 was formed, in commemoration of Bishop Percy, the Percy Society for the Publication of Ballad Poetry. It was dissolved in 1852, after publishing ninety-six volumes.
[Life of Bishop Percy, by the Rev. J. Pickford, in Bishop Percy's Folio MS. ed. Hales and Furnivall, 1867–8; Percy, Prelate and Poet, by Alice C. C. Gaussen, 1908; Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. Wheatley, 1876–7; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. vols. vi. vii.; Letters from Thos. Percy, D.D., &c., to George Paton, Edinburgh, 1830; Notes and Queries, passim; Boswell's Johnson.]