Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Percy, Hugh (1742-1817)

PERCY, HUGH, second Duke of Northumberland of the third creation (1742–1817), eldest son of Hugh Smithson Percy, first duke [q. v.], was born on 28 Aug. 1742. On the death of his mother in 1776 he succeeded to the barony of Percy. Horace Walpole credited him in his youth with a ‘miserable constitution.’ On 1 May 1759 he was gazetted ensign in the 24th foot, but exchanged into the 85th, with the rank of captain, on 6 Aug. of the same year. On 16 April 1762 he became lieutenant-colonel commanding the 111th regiment. He served under Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick during the seven years' war, and was present at the battles of Bergen and Minden. His ‘Pocket-Book of Military Notes, 1760–61,’ is among the Alnwick MSS. In 1762 he became captain and lieutenant-colonel in the grenadier guards, and on 26 Oct. 1764 was appointed colonel and aide-de-camp to George III. Meanwhile he had been elected, on 15 March 1763, member for Westminster, which he continued to represent till his succession to the peerage in 1776. His marriage with Bute's daughter gained him admission to the king's private junto (Albemarle, Rockingham, i. 185), and his appointment as colonel of the 5th fusiliers in November 1768 was strongly animadverted upon in Junius's ‘Letter to Sir W. Draper,’ 7 Feb. 1769. He had then, however, loosened his connection with the court, as he did not approve of the king's American policy.

Though opposed to the policy of the war, Percy embarked for Boston in the spring of 1774, and was placed by General Thomas Gage [q. v.] in command of the camp there. On 19 April 1775, after the battle of Lexington, he marched out of Boston in command of a brigade, consisting of the Welsh fusiliers and four other regiments; with their aid he covered the retreat to Charlestown of the army which had been hemmed in at Concord without ammunition. He marched thirty miles in ten hours during the day, and was under an incessant fire for fifteen miles (Bancroft, iv. 538–9). Owing probably to a disagreement with William Howe, fifth viscount [q. v.], he did not accompany his regiment to Bunker Hill, where it was, in his own words, ‘almost entirely cut to pieces;’ but in March 1776, ‘though he had no heart for the enterprise,’ according to Bancroft, he was given the command of two thousand four hundred men for an attack on Dorchester Heights. The attack was ultimately abandoned, and Boston evacuated. Meanwhile Percy, whose conduct in the retreat from Concord had been highly commended in despatches by General Gage, was appointed on 11 July 1775 major-general in America, and on 29 Sept. advanced to that rank in the army. On 26 March 1776 he became general in America, and attained the rank of lieutenant-general in the army on 29 Aug. 1777. On 16 Nov. 1776 he commanded a division in the attack on Fort Washington, and was the first to enter the enemy's lines. In the following year, however, after many disputes with Howe, he demanded and obtained his recall. On 18 June Walpole writes: ‘Lord Percy is come home disgusted with Howe’ (Corresp. vi. 445, 446 n.)

Percy was very popular with his regiment, which obtained permission to call itself the Northumberland fusiliers. He was opposed to corporal punishment, and gave more care to commissariat arrangements than was customary at the time. The widows of men in his regiment who had been killed at Bunker Hill were sent home at his expense, and given a further sum of money on landing. On 2 Nov. 1784 Percy received the command of the second troop of horse grenadier guards, which was transferred in June 1788 to the 2nd lifeguards (Cannon, Hist. Rec. of Life Guards, p. 287). When the regiment went to the Netherlands in 1815, Northumberland gave each man a guinea and a blanket. He had attained the rank of general on 12 Oct. 1793, and in 1798 he took command of the Percy yeomanry regiment; on 30 Dec. 1806 he was gazetted to the colonelcy of the horse-guards, which he held for six years.

Percy was at first an admirer of Pitt, but he complained of neglect by the court in receiving no reward for his services in America, and gradually identified himself with the opposition. He succeeded to the dukedom in 1786, and was nominated to the lord-lieutenancy and vice-admiralty of Northumberland. On 9 April 1788 he received the Garter. Next year he formed one of what was called ‘the armed neutrality’ group, and subsequently joined the Prince of Wales's circle of friends (Auckland, Corresp. ii. 301; cf. Courts and Cabinets of George III, i. 399, 410, ii. 79). Both king and queen evinced dislike of his proceedings. George III had written (5 Nov. 1780) of ‘that peevish temper for which he [Percy] has ever been accused’ (Corresp. with North, ii. 341). When Fox anticipated taking office in 1789, he offered Northumberland the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland and afterwards the mastership of the ordnance (Russell, Life of C. J. Fox, iv. 283).

In 1797 further overtures were made to him through Lord Moira in expectation of Pitt's retirement, but he received them coolly, remarking that no ministry would last a session against both Pitt and Fox. In 1803 he declined joining in an attack on Addington, on the ground that it would make room for Pitt, whose principles he detested. His impracticable temper in politics was well satirised about 1802 in a tory squib called ‘Wood and Stone; or a Dialogue between a Wooden Duke and a Stone Lion,’ the latter being the figure over the entrance of Northumberland House. The duke is represented as replying to the remonstrances of the lion:

Tho' to my Sovereign's grace I owe
My Garter and commission,
A sneaking kindness still, you know,
I've shown for opposition.

On 10 June 1803 the Prince of Wales asked him to nominate ‘my young friend Tom Sheridan’ for one of his boroughs. The duke replied that he was keeping it for his eldest son.

After the resumption of the war in 1803, Northumberland expressed open dissatisfaction with the military arrangements, and resigned the lord-lieutenancy of Northumberland. But, in view of a threatened French invasion, he raised fifteen hundred men among his tenantry and equipped them at his own expense.

When, in 1806, Fox and Grenville formed the ministry of All the Talents, Northumberland was not consulted. To mark his resentment, he sent a circular on 4 Feb. to all the members for his boroughs, desiring them not to take part in debate or vote ‘until he had been able to judge of the principles upon which this new coalition intend to govern the country.’ He refused to accept Fox's explanations, and ‘confessed he was totally mistaken in his character.’ But the Prince of Wales sent him a long letter, urging him to take a more amiable view of the situation, and a reconciliation with Fox followed. In June 1807 Northumberland was privately assured by the Portland ministry ‘that in the event of his grace having any disposition to confer with ministers upon public business, the Duke of Portland or the lord chancellor will certainly wait upon him to discuss every measure of importance previous to its adoption.’ Shortly afterwards he was offered the command of the blues and a peerage for his eldest son. But in February 1812 Thomas Grenville informed the Marquis of Buckingham: ‘I suppose we must now reckon Northumberland decidedly adverse to us, because, though he was magnificent enough to refuse the bedchamber for his son, he was shabby enough to ask it for his son-in-law’ (Court and Cabinets of the Regency, p. 240).

Northumberland was an admirable landlord. He gave large entertainments at Alnwick twice a week, tradesmen and dissenting ministers being sometimes invited. When prices fell after the peace he reduced his rents twenty-five per cent.; and the tenantry, to show their gratitude, erected a memorial column in 1816. But when some gave up their farms in expectation of a further reduction, they were forbidden to compete for them again; this prohibition remained in force till the time of the fourth duke.

Northumberland was elected F.S.A. in May 1787, and F.R.S. on 6 March 1788. When Earl Percy, he presented to the king a petition, with twenty thousand signatures, in favour of Dr. Dodd, on which Dr. Johnson wrote ‘Observations.’ Boswell met him at dinner at Paoli's house on 22 April 1778, and Johnson wrote a letter designed to interest him in Bishop Percy, editor of the ‘Reliques.’ Frequent and excessive gout made him irritable, and he seems to have had his full share of family pride. He died rather suddenly on 10 July 1817, and was buried in the family vault in Westminster Abbey. Walpole says that he was ‘totally devoid of ostentation, most simple and retiring in his habits.’

The duke was twice married: first, on 2 July 1764, to Lady Anne Stuart, daughter of Lord Bute, from whom he was divorced in 1779; and, secondly, on 25 May 1779, to Frances Julia (d. 1820), third daughter of Peter Burrell, esq., of Beckenham, Kent. By the latter, whose sister his younger brother Algernon had previously married, he had three daughters and two sons, all of whom were buried in Westminster Abbey (Chester, Register, pp. 493, &c.) The eldest son, Hugh Percy, third duke, and Algernon Percy, fourth duke, are separately noticed. Two portraits by Stuart were engraved by Turner and Scriven. Finlayson both drew and engraved a portrait of him as Lord Warkworth, and engraved one by Hamilton of him as duke. A whole length of Northumberland, sitting in his robes, was painted by Phillips and engraved by Ransom (Evans, Cat. Engr. Portraits).

[Doyle's Baronage, with portrait after Battoni, 1765; Fonblanque's Annals of the House of Percy, ch. xvi., containing many extracts from the Alnwick MSS.; Tate's Hist. of Alnwick, i. 360–3; Walpole's Memoirs of George III, i. 420, Last Journals (Doran); i. 422, ii. 120, 306 n., and Letters (1891), vi. 218, 445–6 n.; Grenville Papers, ii. 149, 168, 385, 516, iii. 384; Jesse's Memoirs of George III, ii. 88, 95–6; Rose's Diary and Corresp. i. 51–61; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 142–3, 276–277; Bancroft's Hist. United States; Ann. Reg. 1817, pp. 145–6; Europ. Mag. p. 84; Official Returns Memb. Parl.; authorities cited.]

G. Le G. N.