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Percy family papers

Call Number: OSB MSS 88

Scope and Contents

The Percy Family Papers consist of letters, covers, and a few other papers, most sent to members of the Davidson family by several members of the Percy (Smithson) family, particularly the first three Dukes of Northumberland. The papers span the dates 1760-1822 and were originally assembled into an autograph album by Thomas Davidson, Jr., Esq. of Newcastle on Tyne, who held at least two patronage positions in the grant of the Dukes, including Distributor of Stamps for Northumberland. The album was disassembled in 1969 and the correspondence received its present arrangement; other papers were apparently kept in their original order. The papers have been organized into two series: I. Correspondence; and II. Other Album Pages.

Series I, Correspondence , is housed in folders 1-97 and contains letters and covers, arranged alphabetically by correspondent. About half of the items in the series are unaccompanied covers addressed to various members of the Davidson family, mounted on album pages, some annotated by Davidson. The remainder are almost entirely brief business and social notes from the Dukes of Northumberland to Thomas Davidson and Thomas Davidson, Jr.

While the letters are largely routine, the correspondence as a whole sheds light on the strong and well-tended connections between the Percy family and the recipients of their patronage. Topics include payments and letters to be forwarded by Davidson for them; local committee meetings, village and manor court schedules, and appointments; social calls and invitations to public receptions at Alnwick Castle; congratulations on the birth of children and condolences on deaths; and the frequent absences of the Dukes and their family members in London.

A letter of February 6, 1781 conveys Northumberland's endorsement of Thomas Davidson, Jr.'s nomination as Distributor of Stamps. Letters by the second Duke of Northumberland also discuss Davidson's appointment as Clerk of the Lieutenancy of the County and various militia matters during the Napoleonic Wars. An 1816 letter concerns shipping arrangements for a portrait of the Duke by Thomas Phillips, which "has been much admired in London by the connoisseurs." Box 2, folder 86 contains four letters from his sister, Lady Elizabeth Percy, to Martha Davidson, containing family news and expressions of homesickness for Alnwick Castle.

Series II, Other Album Pages , is located in folders 98-107 and arranged in original album order. Contents include a printed copy of the Davidson crest; locks of hair; a recipe for rheumatism medicine; and detached autographs and seals. There are two printed items: a copy of the popular facsimile of the last letter of Queen Marie Antoinette with accompanying printed translation; and a broadside "Monody on the Death" of Frances Julia, Dowager Duchess of Northumberland, attributed to "M.H." of "Ladies' Academy, Wearmouth."


  • 1760-1822


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Percy Family Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased in 1969. For further information, please consult the appropriate curator.


0.63 Linear Feet (2 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Correspondence, covers, and other documents chiefly from members of the Percy family to members of the Davidson family, disbound from album assembled by Thomas Davidson, Jr. Includes routine business and social letters from the first three Dukes of Northumberland to Thomas Davidson and Thomas Davidson, Jr.; letters from Elizabeth Percy to Martha Davidson; one letter by Thomas Percy; and various autographs and seals.

I. Hugh Percy (formerly Smithson), 1st Duke of Northumberland, 1715-1786

Hugh Smithson, fourth baronet of Stanwick in Yorkshire, married the heiress to the Percy title and estates in 1740 over the objections of her family. In 1750, shortly after her succession as Baroness Percy suo jure, Hugh Smithson took the surname Percy by Act of Parliament and was seated in the House of Lords as Earl of Northumberland. He was created Duke in 1766 with the support of William Pitt.

Northumberland was active in politics for over thirty years. He instituted many agricultural improvements on the Percy estates, reclaiming land and rebuilding laborers' cottages, and developed highly profitable coal mines. He renovated Alnwick Castle, hiring Robert Adam as architect and designer, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was a founding Trustee of the British Museum.

The couple had two sons and one daughter, Lady Elizabeth, who died unmarried. In addition, Northumberland had several natural children. His son James Smithson, born in France to Elizabeth Keate Macie in 1765, was trained as a scientist at Oxford and died in Genoa in 1829, leaving the estate that eventually became the founding bequest of the Smithsonian Institution.

Lady Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, died in 1776. Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland, died on June 6, 1786.

II. Hugh Percy, (sometime Smithson), 2nd Duke of Northumberland, 1742-1817

Eldest son of the first Duke, Hugh Smithson assumed the surname of Percy by Act of Parliament along with his father in 1750. He entered the Army in 1759 and in 1764 married Lady Anne Stuart, daughter of Lord Bute. He served with distinction at the Battle of Lexington and was named Lieutenant-General of the Army in America early in 1777, but was recalled from command after many disputes with General Howe. He continued his military career, however, taking command of the Percy yeomanry regiment in 1798 and a colonelcy in the horse-guards in 1806.

Northumberland was granted a divorce in Parliament from Lady Anne in 1779 on the grounds of her adultery; he immediately married Frances Julia Burrell, with whom he had three daughters and two sons. He continued his father's agricultural improvements, and when corn prices fell after 1815, he reduced his rents by twenty-five percent; his tenants built a monument to him in gratitude. He held twice-weekly gatherings at Alnwick Castle, inviting tenants and local tradespeople. The second Duke of Northumberland died suddenly "of rheumatic gout" in July 1817. His widow died in May, 1820.

III. Hugh Percy, 3rd Duke of Northumberland, 1785-1847

Hugh Percy, eldest son of the second Duke, was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge and elected M.P. for Buckingham and for Westminster in 1806. While in Parliament he proposed a bill to abolish slavery in the British colonies, but it failed. In 1807 he took his seat in the House of Lords as Baron Percy. Ten years later he succeeded his father as Duke of Northumberland. He married Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive, who was for some years Governess to the future Queen Victoria. The couple had no children.

Northumberland was Ambassador Extraordinary to France at the coronation of Charles X in 1825. In January 1829 he was appointed Governor-General of Ireland, shortly before the passage of the Catholic Relief Bill, and was recalled when the ministry of the Duke of Wellington fell in November 1830. He was elected Chancellor of Cambridge in 1840, a post he held until his death at Alnwick Castle on February 12, 1847.

Processing Information

This finding aid was produced from a previously existing card set in the Manuscripts Catalog, or from another inventory. All pertinent bibliographical information has been retained.

Guide to the Percy Family Papers
Under Revision
by Beinecke Staff
June 1996
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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