Northumberland was the son of Hugh Percy, 2nd Duke of Northumberland and Frances Julia, daughter of Peter Burrell born on April 20th 1785. He was educated at Eton and the University of Cambridge (St John’s College).
Northumberland entered parliament as the member for Buckingham in July 1806. In September of that year he was elected member for the City of Westminster, on the death of Charles James Fox. He declined to fight the seat at the general election two months later, instead being returned for Launceston. In 1807 he offered himself as a candidate for the county of Northumberland in opposition to Charles, Lord Howick (afterwards the 2nd Earl Grey), who declined to contest the seat. Percy was returned unopposed, and continued to sit until 1812, when he was called to the House of Lords through a writ of acceleration by the title Baron Percy. In 1817 he succeeded his father as Duke of Northumberland. He married Lady Charlotte Clive in 1817. They had no children. He served as Ambassador Extraordinary at the coronation of Charles X of France in 1825, defraying the expenses thereof himself, and he “astonished the continental nobility of the magnitude of his retinue, the gorgeousness of his equippage, and the profuseness of his liberality”. In March 1829 he was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, a post he held until the following year.
At this time local administration of Launceston was conducted by the corporation, which consisted of a mayor, the returning officer for parliamentary elections, eight other aldermen and an indefinite number of freemen, from whom aldermen were elected by the aldermen; all usually held their offices for life but were removable ‘for reasonable cause’. The franchise was vested in the freemen, who were created by the corporation from among ‘the quiet men and inhabitants’, but were only required to be resident at the time of their election. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a deliberate policy of reducing the number of freemen, so that by 1831 there were just eight. It was reported in 1833 that 11 of the 17 corporators came from ‘the same family connection’. The corporation was ‘chosen and supported principally with a view to maintain the political influence of the patron’, Hugh Percy, 3rd duke of Northumberland, the recorder, whose family had owned the 11,000-acre Werrington estate, which included extensive property in the borough, since 1775.
It was alleged that an ‘allowance or annuity’ was given by the duke to corporators, some of whom were ‘under considerable pecuniary obligations’ to him, and he covered the annual deficit in the corporation’s accounts. He also spent heavily on charities and improvements to the town, including the provision of a free water supply; his total outlay in the period 1825 to 1831 was £5,233. Properties were let at ‘low rents’ and subsidized coal was supplied during periods of economic hardship.
Northumberland, a Tory, nominated both Members; one historian has stated that the price of a seat was £5,000. James Brogden, a merchant and financier, had sat since 1796, and his colleague since 1812 had been Pownoll Bastard Pellew, the heir of the 1st Viscount Exmouth, who had secured naval promotion for the duke’s brother. They were again returned unopposed in 1820. In the early nineteenth century there were growing numbers of Independents and Wesleyan Methodists among the towns inhabitants.
The merchants, tradesmen and artisans of Launceston and its vicinity petitioned the Commons for relief from agricultural distress, on the 30th of May 1820. In November 1820 ‘the bells were rung’ to greet the news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline, and preparations were made for other celebrations. Northumberland’s steward, the attorney Richard Wilson, reportedly ‘ordered the ringers to desist’ and ‘prohibited any public demonstration’, threatening the publicans with the loss of their licenses; a ‘brilliant and general illumination took place’ nevertheless.
The following month 17 inhabitants, many of them corporators, signed a requisition for a public meeting to promote a loyal address to the king, but according to a Whig newspaper ‘a very great proportion of the inhabitants … refused to sign’ the resulting document. The corporation and inhabitants sent petitions to the Commons for repeal of the coal duties, 19 February 1824, and against Catholic relief, 22 March 1825. On 22 February 1826 the mayor, John Roe, summoned by requisition a meeting of the inhabitants of Launceston and neighbouring Newport to hear the Methodist minister John Barfett and the Rev. J. W. Button move an anti-slavery petition. The attorney Thomas Pearse, a prominent critic of the Northumberland interest, avowed himself ‘friendly to the object of the meeting’, but he ‘censured in strong terms the liberal system acted on in the present day’ and warned that if the slaves were emancipated ‘they would rise and entirely destroy the colonies’, causing demand for British manufactures to decline and exacerbating the present economic distress.
The Revs. Charles Lethbridge and John Rowe supported the petition and suggested that no further discussion was necessary, but they were attacked by Pearse’s brother William, a Methodist woollen manufacturer of Newport, who observed that ‘the Launceston people loved darkness rather than light’ and had ‘invariably discountenanced public discussion’. However, the petition was ‘unanimously … adopted’ and presented to Parliament, 15th of March 1826.
At the general election that summer Brogden was nominated by Dr. Coryndon Rowe and John Rowe, and Pellew by the attorney Philip Roe and James Green; they were returned unopposed. Afterwards, ‘upwards of 1,000 gentlemen and tradesmen dined at the different inns’ and ‘about 100’ celebrated with the Members at the White Hart.
At a meeting of owners and occupiers of neighbouring land in February 1827 there was disagreement as to whether increased protective duties or relaxation of currency restrictions was the remedy for agricultural distress. Separate petitions were therefore sent to the Commons, on the 12th of February, in favour of increased protection and against any alteration in the existing corn law. Both Houses received petitions for the maintenance of agricultural protection, on the 27th of February, and 8th of March 1827. Following a public meeting, on the 26th of May, a petition for the abolition of slavery and the equalization of duties on free-grown and West Indian sugar was presented to Parliament, on the 19th of June 1828. On the 8th of January 1829, ‘in pursuance of a public notice’ signed by 22 individuals, including Thomas Pearse, Francis Rodd of Trebartha chaired a meeting, ‘attended by all the respectable and influential part of the town and neighbourhood’, where an anti-Catholic petition was considered. Edward Archer of Trelaske and John King Lethbridge of Tregare moved the petition and were supported by the Rev. Samuel Archer, vicar of Lewannick. At this point, ‘about half-a-dozen of the friends to emancipation entered the hall’, and according to conflicting newspaper accounts there was either ‘some desultory conversation’ or ‘an animated discussion … in the course of which the exclusionists came off second best’.
Rodd insisted that no debate was intended to take place and the petition was adopted without a vote. A counter-petition was also organized, the prime mover in which was David Howell of Trebursye In fact, Northumberland’s appointment that month as lord lieutenant of Ireland, and his consequent commitment to the Wellington ministry’s emancipation bill, meant that no petition was forwarded. Northumberland instructed the Members to support the bill, contrary to their previous opinions, but while Brogden complied, Pellew resigned his seat. Sir James Willoughby Gordon, the quartermaster-general of the army and a friend of Wellington, was offered the vacancy, and at the ensuing by-election in March he was introduced by the leather manufacturer Richard Penwarden and the attorney Langford Frost. Gordon expressed regret that he differed from some of those present, but he dismissed fears about ‘the influence or the zeal of the Catholics’ as ‘puerile’; the declaration of his election was ‘greeted by loud cheers, intermingled with a few hisses’. According to the borough’s historian the outcome was greatly to the ‘chagrin’ of the corporation, who had ‘frequently and publicly avowed that they would never return a supporter of the Catholic claims’ The owners and occupiers of neighbouring land petitioned Parliament for the prohibition of wool imports, on the 6th of April, and the 5th of May 1829. It was reported in May 1830 that a petition had been sent to the Lords against renewal of the East India Company’s charter, which was ‘the first … of such description sent from Cornwall since the agitation of the question’, but there is no record of its reception. At the general election that summer Brogden was proposed by John Rowe and the corn factor James Snell, and Gordon was again sponsored by Penwarden and Frost. After they were declared elected, ‘upwards of 700 persons were entertained at the different inns’ while the Members dined with ‘a number of gentlemen’ at the White Hart, from the windows of which ‘several pounds in silver’ were thrown to the children below.
A public meeting ‘adopted and numerously signed’ an anti-slavery petition, on the 8th of October, and it was resolved to form a Launceston branch of the East Cornwall Anti-Slavery Society; the petition was presented to the Commons, on the 23rd of November, and one from the Wesleyan Methodists was sent to both Houses,on the 5th, and 16th of November 1830. Following the formation that month of Lord Grey’s ministry, relations between Northumberland and Gordon became strained when the latter was prevented from accepting office as master-general of the ordnance. In January 1831 a requisition for a public meeting on reform, signed by 53 ‘respectable inhabitant householders’, was rejected by the mayor, Philip Roe, out of ‘a sense of public duty’. Eleven of the signatories therefore summoned a meeting, which was held at the King’s Arms, on the 27th of January, and was ‘well attended’. Thomas Pearse, the chairman, who demanded a ‘fair, free and equal representation’, noted that in Launceston there were only 17 electors of whom five were non-resident, and two of these were permanently abroad. He ridiculed Roe’s refusal to convene a meeting, arguing that the people were expressing their support for ‘a patriot king’ and his ministers. The petition was moved by William Pearse, who maintained that it was necessary to restore the balance between the three estates of the realm, and that if the people had not had ‘their lawful rights … torn from them’ there would have been no American and French wars and no crippling national debt; he was seconded by the druggist Thomas Eyre. John Rundle of Tavistock congratulated the town on its course of action, and ‘the greatest order and harmony prevailed throughout’. In the ‘numerously signed’ petition, the inhabitants declared that they were ‘firmly attached to the constitution’, but regretted that the representative system had ‘not kept pace with the improvements which industry and science have introduced’. They condemned the nomination of Members by peers as a ‘gross violation of the constitution’ and specified Northumberland’s control over Launceston, ‘one of the closest of the many close boroughs in this county’. No ‘stronger proof’ of the ‘subversion of the rights and interests of the people’ existed than the way in which Northumberland, having changed his own position on Catholic emancipation, had returned a Member of ‘opinions in direct opposition’ to those of the inhabitants. They therefore called for a measure of reform to enfranchise the ‘property and intelligence of the nation’ and to guard the ‘birthright of British subjects’ from ‘any undue influence’; the petition was presented to Parliament by Edward Wynne Pendarves, the Whig county Member, and by Lord King, on the 4th, and 9th of February Petitions in favour of the Grey ministry’s bill, which proposed to enfranchise the £10 householders but reduce Launceston’s representation to one seat, were sent to both Houses, on the 24th and 28th of March. An anti-reform petition was also circulated, but ‘with the exception of the corporation very few … signed it’ and it was not presented. Whereas Brogden voted against the bill, in accordance with Northumberland’s wishes, Gordon was reluctant to oppose the king’s government and only abstained on the second reading; this was not good enough and he was given ‘notice to quit’. He told Grey that he had ‘always felt hampered’ as Northumberland’s nominee, and caustically observed that ‘the duchess helps him in the maintenance of his opinions, and where perhaps there is not an overflowing of intellect, it is vain to expect anything like a clear view of the signs of the times’. At the ensuing by-election in April 1831 Northumberland brought forward Sir John Malcolm, the former governor of Bombay, who was returned unopposed. In his speech of thanks, Malcolm explained that he was being ‘returned by the patron … free of expense and … except on the reform bill, he could vote as he pleased’. Next month he and Brogden were returned unopposed at the general election.
On the 29th of July 1831 Malcolm made the case in the Commons for allowing Launceston to retain two Members. He pointed out that the borough ‘stands in five parishes and may be fairly deemed conjoined with all’, so that the whole population was really ‘one body’. Newport, which was scheduled for complete disfranchisement, might also logically be ‘embodied with Launceston’, thereby creating a ‘most respectable and independent constituency’. However, he did not divide the House as he anticipated ‘no beneficial results’. Following a meeting of the inhabitants in late September, a petition for the speedy passage of the reintroduced reform bill was sent to the Lords, on the 4th of October. Next day a petition was received from the corporation, requesting the Lords to ‘allow their chartered rights to be defended … by counsel’, but nothing came of this. The news of the Lords’ rejection of the bill was received ‘with indignation and astonishment’, and on the 25th of October, Howell chaired a public meeting which was ‘more fully attended than any former political one’ in the borough. Thomas and William Pearse and Eyre were among the speakers, and an address to the king was agreed expressing support for Grey’s ministry and requesting the use of ‘every constitutional means’ to facilitate the passage of a measure ‘as full and effective’ as the last one. By the new criteria adopted in the revised reform bill of December 1831, Launceston still found itself in schedule B as it contained 543 houses and paid £632 in assessed taxes, placing it 71st in the list of the smallest English boroughs. The boundary commissioners reported that as the surrounding area was ‘essentially agricultural and but thinly populated’, the only way to complete the new constituency was to incorporate the whole of the out-parishes of Lawhitton, South Petherwin and St. Thomas, and to add the parish of St. Stephen’s, which included Newport. In 1832 there were 243 registered electors, of whom 12 were freemen, making Launceston one of the smallest boroughs within the reformed electoral system. At the general election that year Brogden retired and Malcolm, who claimed that he could be returned by spending £3-5,000 on bribes or by giving ‘three or four sound pledges – immediate abolition of slavery, no (East India Company) monopoly, no corn laws etc.’, also declined to stand again. Howell, ‘a large landed proprietor’ who resided in the borough, accepted an invitation to offer on ‘liberal and independent principles’ against Northumberland’s nominee, Sir Henry Hardinge, the former Member for Newport. Hardinge narrowly triumphed after a contest that ‘raged for two months’ and was the ‘bitterest and dirtiest in the history of Launceston’. He defeated Howell more decisively in 1835, and the dukes of Northumberland continued to control the representation until the Werrington estate was sold in 1864 by Admiral Algernon Percy, 4th Duke of Northumberland. Launceston was disfranchised in 1885.
In November 1834 Northumberland was elected high Steward of the university of Cambridge, holding that honour until 1840 when he was made Chancellor of the University.He played a prominent role in the establishment of the Church Building Society responsible for building the so-called “Waterloo churches” during the early 19th century. He proposed the CBS’s formation at a meeting in the Freemasons’ Hall, London on 6 February 1818, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Society lobbied parliament to provide funding for a church building programme, and parliament subsequently passed the Church Building Act, voting £l,000,000 to the cause. He also played a part in the development of football in a time when it was a controversial game by providing a field for the annual Alnwick Shrove Tuesday game and presenting the ball before the match – a ritual that continues to this day. Between 1817 and 1847 he held the honorary post of Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland.
Northumberland died at Alnwick in February 1847, aged 61. His remains were transported to London by train on 19 February, 1847, and were interred in the Northumberland Vault within Westminster Abbey, on 23 February, 1847. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Lord Prudhoe.