A Difficult Father-in-Law: the Ninth Earl of Northumberland

G.R. Batho introduces Henry Percy, the “Wizard Earl”, a man of great gifts and eccentric character who proved a quarrelsome husband and a difficult and unaccommodating parent.

Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, was a difficult father-in-law. By nature, he was a cynical man. A scholar of no mean attainments, he was a good linguist and was called the “Wizard” on account of his interest in science. He once confessed himself to prefer the infinite mistress, Knowledge, to the finite mistress, his wife, the hot-tempered Dorothy, widow of Sir Thomas Perrot and sister to Elizabeth’s favourite the Earl of Essex, whom he had married in 1594.

They had four children who survived infancy— Lady Dorothy, born 1598; Lady Lucy, born 1599; Algernon, Lord Percy, born 1602; and Henry, later Baron Percy of Alnwick, born 1605. Northumberland was no fatherly man towards his children—“children’s conversations,” he once wrote to the Earl of Salisbury, “are not suitable to my humour.” When they had grown up, he held it as axiomatic that “men cannot choose in the secret of their own hearts but to love themselves best”; and, accordingly, he believed children to be so many secret wishers of their father’s early demise that they might enjoy their legacies the sooner.1

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