Tomb: Henry Percy, 4th earl of Northumberland

The tomb of Henry Percy, 4th earl of Northumberland in Beverley Minster

Who was Henry Percy?

The only son of Henry Percy, 3rd the earl of Northumberland and Eleanor Poynings, the 4th earl is (in)famous for not joining the battle of Bosworth – an act that many have credited with contributing to Richard III’s defeat.

Earlier in the Wars of the Roses, his father had died fighting for the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton (1461). Initially imprisoned by Edward IV, the young Henry Percy did homage to the Yorkist king in 1469 and Edward restored him to the earldom of Northumberland in March 1470. He remained in England during Edward IV’s exile of 1470-1 and was crucial to Edward’s retaking of the throne – when Edward landed at Ravenspur to retake the throne, the 4th earl of Northumberland made no move to stop him, allowing Edward to recruit supporters and march south without major opposition.

During Edward IV’s reign of 1471-83, Northumberland’s power in the north of England was challenged by the influence of Richard, duke of Gloucester. The two men appear to have initially had a good relationship, and Northumberland’s army helped back Richard’s claim to the throne in 1483. However, rather than rewarding Northumberland with increased power in the north, Richard chose to retain direct control of the area and to continue to build his own following. This is generally believed to have motivated Northumberland’s decision to keep his army on the sidelines at Bosworth (though poor communication and positioning may also have made it difficult for him to join the battle!). In the immediate aftermath of the battle, he was imprisoned but was soon released to help control the north for Henry VII.

Why was his death controversial?

Northumberland was killed in April 1489 at South Kilvington by a mob protesting against taxes imposed by Henry VII. In a world where violent death on the battlefield or the executioner’s block was not unusual for noblemen, his murder by commoners was shocking. As was the fact that his own retainers were believed to have abandoned him to his death – possibly motivated by his perceived betrayal of the Yorkist cause in 1483, and his subsequent enforcement of Tudor policy. An elegy written by John Skelton, gives a sense of the feelings around his death:

“And were not they to blame, I say also,
     That were aboute hym, his owno servants of trust,
To suffre hym slayn of his mortall fo ?
     Fled away from hym, let hym ly in the dust:”

Where was he buried?

He was buried in Beverley Minster in a chantry chapel constructed at the east end of the north choir aisle specifically for the 4th earl. The choice of location was his, written into his will of 1485, and is believed to have been close to other Percy burials (now lost). Noble funerals of the time were commonly large affairs, designed to make a statement of continuing political and social stability, despite the death of a particular individual – given the instability that had led to Northumberland’s murder, it was particularly important in this case. It is likely that most northern lords and gentry attended the funeral, along with 500 priests and the 14,800 poor people (who each received 2d in alms).

The Percy chapel

The whole chapel was originally conceived as a memorial to Northumberland. Only one pane of stained glass now survives from a window that depicted his life and death, including his body being prepared for burial. The west chapel and arch and the window jambs are decorated with badges of the Percy family.

Henry Percy, 4th earl of Northumberland’s tomb, with empty niches around the sides

Northumberland’s tomb

The tomb is an imposing stone chest with ogee-headed niches to all four sides. Between the niches are small badges decorated with heraldic badges of the Percy family. The niches would have contained statues but these are known to have been lost by 1641 – it is likely that they were images of saints or angels, destroyed by iconoclasts.

There are no effigies or brasses on the tomb but it originally sat under a large freestanding canopy with battlements and a flattened, ogee arch. Like the rest of the chapel and tomb, the canopy was decorated with Northumberland’s coat of arms and heraldic badges, and with his motto “Esperance ma comfort”. The canopy and tomb would have been painted and gilded, as would the other heraldic badges in the chapel, making it a resplendent sight. The canopy was sadly removed in the 18th century,.


Rosemary Horrox (ed.), Beverley Minster: an illustrated history (The Friends of Beverley Minster, 2000); S. Ellis, Percy, Henry, fourth earl of Northumberland (c. 1449–1489), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2006)

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