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The title of Earl of Northumberland was created several times in the Peerages of England and Great Britain, succeeding the title Earl of Northumbria. Its most famous holders were the House of Percy (also Perci), who were the most powerful noble family in Northern England for much of the Middle Ages. The heirs of the Percys were ultimately made Duke of Northumberland in 1766.
The Percys, who hailed from the village of Percy in Normandy, had modest estates in Yorkshire, bestowed by the Conqueror on the first of the name to arrive in England in his train, William de Percy, 1st Baron Percy. The family, however, was represented by an only heiress, Agnes de Percy, in the reign of Henry II. Queen Adeliza of Louvain, the widowed and remarried second wife of King Henry I and a daughter of the Duke of Brabant, thought Agnes, with her wide possessions, a suitable match for her own young half-brother, Joscelin of Louvain. The marriage took place and the match produced the line of Henry Percys who played such a large role in the history of both England and Scotland. As nearly every Percy was a Warden of the Marches, Scottish doings concerned them more or less intimately—indeed, often more so than English affairs. 
It was the third Henry Percy who purchased Alnwick Castle in 1309 from Antony Bec, Bishop of Durham and guardian of the last De Vesci, and from that time the fortunes of the Percys, though they still held their Yorkshire estates, were linked permanently with the little town on the Aln, and the fortress which commanded and defended it. The fourth Henry Percy began to build the castle as we see it now; but to call him "the fourth" is a little confusing, as he was the second Henry Percy, Lord of Alnwick. On the whole, it will be clearer to begin the enumerations of the various Henry Percys from the time they became Lords of Alnwick. It was, then, Henry Percy the second, Lord of Alnwick, who began the re-building of the castle; he also was jointly responsible for the safety of the realm during the absence of Edward III in the French wars, and in this official capacity he helped to win the battle of Neville's Cross. His son, Henry, married a sister-in-law of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster.
In 1377 the next Henry Percy, was created Earl of Northumberland, which title he was given after the coronation of Richard II. Nor was this all, for he was that Northumberland whose doings in the next reign fill so large a part of Shakespeare's Henry IV, and he was the father of the most famous Percy of all, Henry Percy the fifth, better known as "Hotspur." Hotspur never became Earl of Northumberland, being slain at Shrewsbury in the lifetime of his father, whose estates were forfeited under attainder on account of the rebellion of himself and his son against King Henry IV.
Henry V restored Hotspur's son, the second Earl, to his family honours, and the Percies were staunch Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses which followed, the third Earl and three of his brothers losing their lives in the cause.
The fourth Earl was involved in the political maneuverings of the last Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III. Either through indecision or treachery, he did not respond in a timely manner at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and thus helped cause his ally Richard III's defeat at the hands of Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII). In 1489, he was pulled from his horse and murdered by some of his tenants.
The fifth Earl was a gorgeous person whose magnificence equalled, almost, that of royalty. Henry Percy, the sixth Earl of Northumberland, loved Anne Boleyn, and was her accepted suitor before Henry VIII unfortunately discovered the lady's charm, and interfered such that Percy lost his prospective bride. He had no son, although married later to the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and his nephew, Thomas Percy, became the seventh Earl.
Thereafter, a succession of plots and counterplots—the Rising of the North, the plots to liberate Mary Queen of Scots, and the Gunpowder Plot — each claimed a Percy among their adherents. On this account the eighth and ninth Earls spent many years in the Tower, but the tenth Earl, Algernon, fought for King Charles in the Civil War, the male line of the Percy-Louvain house ending with Josceline, the eleventh Earl. The heiress to the vast Percy estates married the Duke of Somerset; and her granddaughter married a Yorkshire knight, Sir Hugh Smithson, who in 1766 was created the first Duke of Northumberland and Earl Percy, and it is their descendants who now represent the famous old house. One of Sir Hugh's illegitimate sons, James Smithson, left behind a bequest to found the Smithsonian Institution.
The current duke lives at Alnwick Castle and Syon House, just outside London. Parts of the Harry Potter movies were shot at Alnwick, and there is a scene in The Madness of King George (when Pitt walks backward from the king down a long corridor) filmed at Syon.
List of titleholders
Earls of Northumberland, first [re]creation (1377)
- Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland (1341–1408) (attainted 1405)
- Sir Henry Percy, also called Harry Hotspur KG (c.1365–1403) heir apparent
Earls of Northumberland, second [re]creation (1416)
- Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland (1394–1455), grandson of Henry (1341–1408) and son of "Hotspur"
- Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland (1421–1461), (forfeit 1461), son of Henry 2nd
- John Neville, Earl of Northumberland, (1st Marquess of Montagu) (1431–1471), (1465-1470 released)
- Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland (1449–1489) (restored 1470-1473), son of Henry 3rd
- Henry Algernon Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland (1478–1527), son of Henry 4th
- Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland (1502–1537). son of Henry 5th, died without children
- Blessed Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland (1528–1572), grandson of Henry 5th
- Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland ( –1585), also grandson of Henry 5th, younger brother of Thomas
- Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (1564–1632), son of Henry 8th
- Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland (1602–1668), son of Henry 9th
- Josceline Percy, 11th Earl of Northumberland (1644–1670), son of Algernon, died leaving only one daughter, so the Earldom became extinct
Various references use at least three different sequences of numbers for the Earls; the ones shown here are those used in the individual articles on the 12 Earls. The major difference arises from the question of whether Henry (1394–1455) was 1st as a new creation or 2nd as a restoration of the rights of his grandfather, Henry (1341–1408)
Earls of Northumberland, fourth [re]creation (1674)
- George Fitzroy, 1st Earl of Northumberland (1665–1716) (became Duke of Northumberland in 1683; extinct)
Earls of Northumberland, fifth re-creation (1749)
- Algernon Seymour, 7th Duke of Somerset (1684–1750), female-line grandson and heir of the 11th Earl of the 1416 creation
- Elizabeth Percy née Seymour (1716–1776), only daughter of the 1st Earl, married Sir Hugh Smithson
- Hugh Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland (1714–1786), changed his name to Percy when he inherited the Earldom of Northumberland from his father-in-law by special remainder; became Duke of Northumberland in 1766
The line continues with the Dukes of Northumberland (third creation)
- Rose, Alexander. Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History. Phoenix/Orion Books Ltd, 2002. ISBN 0-297-81860-0 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], ISBN 1-84212-485-4 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Tate, George The history of the borough, castle, and barony of Alnwick. Henry Hunter Hare, Alnwick, 1866
The Earls of Northumberland in Literature and Media
- The 1st Earl of Norhumberland and his son, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, play large roles in Shakespeare's play, "Henry IV, Part 1).
- A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter (1st Earl of Northumberland and Henry "Hotspur" Percy)
- Lion of Alnwick (Book 1 of The Percy Saga) by Carol Wensby-Scott (1st Earl of Northumberland and Henry "Hotspur" Percy)
- Lion Dormant (Book 2 of The Percy Saga) by Carol Wensby-Scott (Hotspur's son the 2nd Earl of Northumberland and his son the 3rd Earl of Northumberland)
- Lion Invincible (Book 3 of The Percy Saga) by Carol Wensby-Scott (The 4th Earl of Northumberland)
- Alnwick Castle, the traditional home of the Earls of Northumberland, was used as the location of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain in the US: Northumberland Yesterday and To-day by Jean F. Terry, 1913