Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Percy, Hugh (1715-1786)
PERCY, HUGH, whose surname was originally Smithson, first Duke of Northumberland of the third creation (1715–1786), born in 1715 at Newby Wiske, Yorkshire, was the only son of Langdale Smithson, esq., and Philadelphia, daughter of W. Reveley, esq., of Newby, Yorkshire. In 1729 he succeeded his grandfather, Sir Hugh Smithson, as fourth baronet of Stanwick, Yorkshire. Eleven years later he inherited property in Middlesex from another relative, Hugh Smithson, esq., of Tottenham. He matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, on 15 Oct. 1730. He became high sheriff of Yorkshire in 1738, and represented Middlesex in parliament from 15 May 1740 till his elevation to the peerage ten years later. In 1740 he proposed marriage to Elizabeth, only daughter of Algernon Seymour, who had been created Baron Percy in 1722. The lady's father was eldest son of Charles Seymour, sixth duke of Somerset [q. v.], by his first wife, Lady Elizabeth, only daughter and heiress of Josceline Percy, eleventh earl of Northumberland (d. 1670). The duchess died in 1722, and transmitted to her husband all the estates of the Percy family. The Duke of Somerset disliked the union of his granddaughter with Smithson, but the marriage took place on 10 July 1740. In 1744, on the death of her only brother, George Seymour, lord Beauchamp, Lady Smithson (or Lady Betty, as she was generally called) became eventual heiress of the Percy property. Somerset's endeavours to disinherit her failed because by the family settlements there was no power of alienating the property. On his death in 1748, Lady Betty's father was created Earl of Northumberland on 2 Oct. 1749, with succession to Smithson, and his heirs by Lady Betty. Smithson succeeded to the title in 1750, and on 12 April of the same year assumed, by act of parliament, the name and arms of Percy. For the next thirty years Northumberland and his wife figured prominently in social and political life. On 3 Jan. 1753 he was named a lord of the bedchamber (cf. Walpole, Memoirs of Reign of George II). On 20 March 1753 he was appointed lord lieutenant of Northumberland, and on 18 Nov. 1756 received the Garter. He was renominated lord of the bedchamber (25 Nov. 1760), and in May 1762 became lord chamberlain to Queen Charlotte. On 22 Nov. he was sworn of the privy council.
In the early years of George III's reign he attached himself to Lord Bute, whose daughter married his son in 1764. Both Northumberland and Bute were members of the king's private junto, which met daily at the house of Andrew Stone [q. v.] in the Privy Gardens. On 29 Dec. 1762 Northumberland became lord lieutenant of Middlesex. On 17 March 1763 Henry Fox [q. v.] suggested to Bute to give him the privy seal (Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, i. 198). Next month Bute resigned office; and although Grenville, who succeeded to the post of prime minister, had no liking for Northumberland, the latter was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland. On 20 April 1763 Christopher Smart [q. v.] celebrated the appointment in an ode. In Ireland he seems to have been fairly popular, and to have displayed a more than viceregal magnificence, to which Horace Walpole makes many scornful allusions (cf. Grenville Papers, iii. 112). On a visit to London early in 1765, Northumberland was employed by the king in a political intrigue to overthrow the Grenville ministry, and did all he could to induce Pitt and Temple to join the leading whigs in an effort ‘to form a strong and lasting administration.’ The king ultimately suggested that a ministry should be formed with Northumberland as first lord of the treasury. But Temple, who still regarded him as Bute's lieutenant, refused to act under him. Pitt told the king that he thought ‘certainly Northumberland might be considered,’ but did not approve of his being given the treasury. Pitt seems to have received Northumberland's advances favourably, and made some promise that Northumberland should benefit if he himself returned to power. The negotiations for the time dropped, and Northumberland appeared to gain little by them (cf. Walpole, Memoirs of George III, and his Letters). Grenville insisted with success on his dismissal from the viceroyalty in 1765. In July 1766, when Pitt formed a new government, under the nominal leadership of the Duke of Grafton, the king urged that Northumberland should become lord chamberlain. Francis Ingram Seymour, second marquis of Hertford [q. v.], was, however, appointed; and Northumberland, on making complaint to Pitt (just created Lord Chatham), was advised to ask the king for an advancement in the peerage. The king proposed a marquisate; Northumberland demanded a dukedom. Chatham supported his request, and the king somewhat reluctantly assented. On 4 Oct. 1766 the Duke of Grafton wrote to Chatham: ‘Lord Northumberland was yesterday created Duke of Northumberland, Earl Percy, and Viscount Louvaine, the last of which Mr. Conway had the address to persuade [sic] him from adding as a second dukedom, as he before had that of getting him to change the title he first had asked, of Duke Brabant.’ The title of Viscount Lovaine of Alnwick was not actually conferred till 28 Jan. 1784 (Grenville Papers, iv. 208–9; Chatham Corresp. iii. 74–6 n.).
Although in 1767 Horace Walpole wrote that Northumberland was thought likely to be the head of a ministry to be formed of the ‘king's friends,’ Northumberland never completely identified himself with that faction. He voted against the Stamp Act, and for its repeal, and in 1770 supported Chatham's resolution condemning Lord North's advice to the king not to receive the ‘remonstrance and petition’ of the corporation of London on the subject of the Middlesex election. But, as lord lieutenant of Middlesex, he used all his influence against Wilkes and his friends, and incurred a full measure of popular animosity. His eldest son, Hugh, who had sat in parliament for Westminster since 1764, was opposed at the general election in 1768 by a nominee of Wilkes (Walpole, Letters, 2nd ser. i. 294). During the riots of 1768, caused by the mob's sympathy with Wilkes, Northumberland was compelled by the populace to publicly drink Wilkes's health at Northumberland House, and he was threatened with a prosecution for murder in consequence of two men having been killed in an election riot at Brentford (ib. 20 Dec. 1768). In 1778 he was appointed by Lord North master of the horse. Walpole ridiculed the appointment because Northumberland had the stone and was very lame with gout. His friendship for Lord North's government was doubted: ‘within a few weeks of his promotion he had openly talked opposition in all companies’ (Walpole, Last Journals, ii. 306). He resigned in 1780. During the Gordon riots he experienced further proofs of the hostility of the mob. He was forced from his carriage and robbed of his watch and purse on the cry being raised that a gentleman in black who rode with him was his jesuit confessor (Lord Mahon, Hist. of England, vii. 28).
Northumberland interested himself in art, science, and literature. He was elected F.R.S. in 1736, and in 1764 stood unsuccessfully for the presidency against Lord Morton. In 1753 he became a trustee of the British Museum. Alnwick Castle the duke thoroughly repaired and renovated in pseudo-Gothic style. Johnson visited it when on his way to Scotland, and, being treated with great civility by the duke (BOSWELL, ed. Hill, iii. 272), remarked, ‘He is only fit to succeed himself’ (ib. ii. 132). On 5 July 1764 the duke is said to have celebrated the king's birthday by entertaining fifteen hundred guests. Northumberland House, in London, was enlarged, and Sir Horace Mann [q. v.] was commissioned to buy pictures for its adornment. Walpole thought the gallery ‘might have been in better taste’ (see letters to Sir H. Mann, Corresp. ii. 479, iii. 75). Bishop Percy said that Syon House had been formed into a villa which, for taste and elegance, is scarce to be paralleled in Europe (Aungier, Hist. of Syon Monastery, p. 125). The duke formed a fast friendship with Bishop Percy, and through the bishop he came to know Oliver Goldsmith, to whom he showed much courtesy. In the management of his large property he showed much business capacity. Between 1749 and 1778 the rent-roll of the Northumberland estates rose from 8,607l. to 50,000l. The country was planted, drained, and reclaimed, and the labourers' houses were improved. The result was largely due to the development of the mines.
The duke died on 6 June 1786 at Syon House, and was buried with great pomp in his family vault in St. Nicholas's Chapel, Westminster Abbey.
He was the handsomest man of his day. Walpole grudgingly admitted his advantageous figure and courtesy of address, but declared that ‘with the mechanic application to every branch of knowledge, he possessed none beyond the surface;’ and that ‘the old nobility beheld his pride with envy and anger, and thence were the less disposed to overlook the littleness of his temper.’ Walpole also charged him with ‘sordid and illiberal conduct at play,’ a failing which is glanced at in ‘A Tale’ published with ‘The Rolliad,’ where the Duke divides a small unclaimed sum with the waiter at Brooks's; but Walpole concluded that, ‘in an age so destitute of intrinsic merit, his foibles ought to have passed almost for virtues’ (Memoirs of George III, i. 418–20; cf. Last Journals, ed. Doran, ii. 306). Dutens, who knew more of the duke than Walpole, and was an equally good judge of character, said that ‘he had great talents and more knowledge than is generally found amongst the nobility;’ but adds that, ‘although his expenditure was unexampled in his time, he was not generous, but passed for being so owing to his judicious manner of bestowing favours’ (Memoirs of a Traveller, ii. 96–8).
The duchess, long a conspicuous figure in society, had some literary taste. Walpole applied to her the epithet ‘junketaceous,’ and credited her with an excess of patrician pride and ostentation. He says that she persisted in following the queen to theatres with a longer retinue than her own, and that she was mischievous under an appearance of frankness. Dutens, on the other hand, who knew the duchess intimately, credits her with magnanimity and a strong attachment to her friends. It was for her amusement that Goldsmith's ballad ‘Edwin and Angelina,’ written in 1764, and subsequently printed as ‘The Hermit’ in the ‘Vicar of Wakefield,’ was originally privately printed in 1765. She contributed to the book of fashionable bouts-rimés projected by Sir John and Lady Miller of Batheaston (cf. Tate, History of Alnwick). Boswell boasted of a correspondence with her. Her entertainments at Northumberland House, at which the best contemporary musicians, like Niccolini and Mrs. Tofts, performed, were far-famed. The duchess died on 5 Dec. 1776. ‘The Teares of Alnwick, a Pastoral Elegy,’ by Henry Lucas (fl. 1795) [q. v.], and ‘A Monody sacred to the memory of Elizabeth, Duchess of Northumberland,’ by Thomas Maurice [q. v.], commemorated her.
Northumberland had by his wife two sons and a daughter, Elizabeth, who died unmarried. The elder son, Hugh, his successor, is noticed separately. The second son, Algernon (1750–1830), distinguished himself in the Gordon riots. On the death of his father he became a peer under the title of Baron Lovaine of Alnwick, and was in 1790 created Earl of Beverley. He married, in June 1775, Isabella Susannah, second daughter of Peter Burrell of Beckenham, by whom he was father of (among other children) George, fifth duke of Northumberland, Hugh, bishop of Carlisle [q. v.], Henry [q. v.], William Henry [q. v.], and Admiral Josceline Percy [q. v.] The duke had also two natural daughters, who, as well as his legitimate children, were buried in Westminster Abbey, and an illegitimate son, known as James Smithson [q. v.], who founded the Smithsonian Institution at Washington.
A portrait of the first duke was painted by Reynolds, and De Fonblanque, in his ‘Annals of the House of Percy,’ gives reproductions of etched portraits of both the duke and duchess, by W. Hole. Bromley mentions paintings of the duke by Hamilton engraved by Finlayson, by Sharples engraved by Hodges (dated 1784), and by D. Pariset, after P. Falconet.[Lodge's Genealogy of the Peerage; Doyle's Baronage; Gent. Mag. 1786, i. 529, ii. 617; De Fonblanque's Annals of the House of Percy (founded on documents among the Alnwick MSS.), ch. xvi. app. pp. xxxiv–vi; Tate's Hist. of Alnwick, i. 325–60; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886; Walpole's Mem. George II, ed. Lord Holland, 2nd ed. i. 8, iii. 27, Mem. George III, ed. Le Marchant, i. 88, 205, 308, 418–20 n., Letters, ed. Cunningham, 1891, passim, and Last Journals, ed. Doran, ii. 306; Rockingham Memoirs, i. 185–203; Grenville Papers, ed. Smith, ii. 6, 223, 225, iii. 112, 175, 177, 224, 225, 329, 330, 384–5, iv. 208, 209, 213; Chatham Corresp. ii. 240, iii. 74–76 n., 81, 88; Memoirs of a Traveller (Dutens), i. 262, ii. 96–8, &c.; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. vii. 71; Almon's Polit. Anecdotes, ii. 51–2; Jesse's Life and Reign of George III, i. 425, 444; Dyson's Tottenham High Cross, pp. 96–7; Thornbury's Old and New London, iii. 137; Lord Auckland's Corresp. i. 378 (letter concerning his legacies); Ret. Memb. Parl.; Forster's Life of Goldsmith, i. 402–7, ii. 257; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, 1891. See also an article in Temple Bar, May 1873; Evans's Cat. Engr. Portraits; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Chester's Reg. Westminster Abbey, pp. 441–453 (where date of birth is probably wrongly entered).]