Henry Percy released by Henry Tudor, December 1485

On 6 December 1485, Henry Percy 4th Earl.of Northumberland was released from imprisonment. Henry Tudor had gaoled Percy following the Battle of Bosworth, at which Percy had borne arms on the side of Richard III. However, his loyalty to Richard was questioned by some chroniclers at the time. The Croyland Chronicle called him a ‘traitor to the north‘.

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, was a complex character. He had sided with both the Lancastrians and Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses, leading to his imprisonment by Edward IV. Following his release by Edward, he chose to avoid becoming embroiled in the clashes of 1471.

Percy seemed to prosper under the influence of Richard Duke of Gloucester in the north. The bitter rivalries that had scarred the north-east before the Earl of Warwick‘s death seemed to be a thing of the past as Percy worked in conjunction with Richard to improve local governance and the border’s security.

His loyalty, though, was questioned. Though he and his retinue were present, on Richard’s side, at the Battle of Bosworth, some accounts suggest he deliberately held back from engaging at a critical moment in the battle.

Nonetheless, after the battle, he was taken to the Tower of London and incarcerated there from August until 6 December. This is an unusually short amount of time for a man who had been a commander against the newly crowned King Henry VII. It could well be that Henry Tudor was simply trying to ensure continuity and good order in a troublesome part of the country. Instead, it was interpreted by some as evidence that Percy had been in contact with the Tudor invader and had prior agreements with him. That belief contributed to his murder in his manor of Topcliffe in 1489.

Did Henry Percy betray Richard III?

The 4th Earl of Norrhumberland is featured in my book on Betrayal in the Wars of the Roses. Below is an extract from the book that relates to Henry Percy’s release and the possible reasons for his early return to his posituons and his relationship with both Richard III and King Henry VII.


Neither the reasons for failing to engage in battle, or the motive for his murder, are proven though. The battlefield deployment at Bosworth is the potential reason for the earl not engaging. Richard III had deployed with his vanguard under the duke of Norfolk at the front, forming a wide front designed to enable the outflanking of any alternative method deployed by Henry Tudor, and to maximise the advantage of Richard having the larger army. Behind this vanguard was Richard III’s own battle, consisting of his household knights and experienced and trusted soldiers. The Earl of Northumberland was deployed behind these in the rear, with a force that had varied levels of military experience. To the left of the Earl of Northumberland’s battle was the royal artillery. For the Earl of Northumberland to have fought would have meant that either the Tudor force had broken through the vanguard and Richard’s elite force, or for the engagement to be enabled or forced through a wide outflanking manoeuvre by either a part of the Tudor army, or by the Earl’s force. There is no evidence that either happened. Nor would the Earl make such a move as he had to be wary of the ‘third army’ of the Stanley’s and be ready to engage in support of the king’s own battle should it require reinforcement. The Tudor army did make an outflanking attack. Led by the Earl of Oxford, this hit the vanguard of King Richard’s army. Whether or not there was opportunity for the Earl of Northumberland to advance on his force is difficult to establish. It would have required the battle commanded by the king himself to have moved from its starting position, otherwise there would have been no space through which the reserve could advance. If that had happened, the battle was in its final phase as Richard’s force advanced in the fatal charge that was attempted on Henry Tudor’s position.

Clearly it is possible that the Earl may have wished to remain as neutral as practical in the summer of 1485. However, he had attended to Richard III and taken the field of battle. Furthermore, the Croyland Chronicle tells us that in the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth, ‘While these events were taking place, many nobles and others were taken prisoners; and in especial, Henry, earl of Northumberland ’.

Whether or not the Earl had deliberately failed to engage in battle, it was a view that at least some people appear to have had at the time. Though imprisonment by Henry VII suggests that there was no complicity with the invader prior to Bosworth, that imprisonment was short. Henry Tudor had practical reasons to restore the Earl at an early stage. The border, and the north, needed to be secure. For that to happen needed an element of continuity, and led to the restoration of Henry Percy at an early stage.

The Earl did not enjoy the same degree of autonomy as he had held prior to Bosworth. His positions were subject to renewal on an annual basis, for example. It is perhaps the way Henry Percy acted in the years 1486-89 that reinforces the belief that he betrayed Richard III. There was insurrection in the north in 1486. In 1487 the army of Lambert Simnel, the Earl of Lincoln, and Viscount Lovell, landed in the North, marching from Piel Island to York and onwards to the south. In 1488 problems arose relating to taxation, which rumbled on into 1489.

Each of these led to repression of men who had been loyal to Richard III, had sympathies with the Yorkist cause, or who had showed any form of ambivalence toward the fledgling Tudor regime. And Henry Percy had played an active role in suppression of this opposition. For the Earl, it meant that for him to remain loyal to the new regime would place him in some degree of conflict with those who had previously been within his, or Richard III’s affinity.

In 1486, for example, the Earl had crushed rebellion swiftly and decisively. The Croyland Chronicle recorded that, ‘The earl of Northumberland, however, prudently quelled this insurrection at its first beginning, and caused certain of those who had prompted the movement to be hanged on the gallows. ’ Such swift action would endear the Earl to the new king but perhaps undermines the loyalty that the people of the north had to the earl.

The following year, Henry Percy took control of the defence of York as the invading army approached. The events surrounding this invasion illustrate quite clearly how the Earl of Northumberland, City of York, other local magnates, and the crown, worked together to coordinate a defence of the region. Here we see that not only did the Earl play a leading role in the defence of the City of York, but also that to a large extent, he had no choice as correspondence within the region is strongly suggestive of the area being supportive of the Tudor regime over those of the claims of Lambert Simnel and the nobles in his invading army.

Henry Percy 4th Earl of Northumberland links


Henry Percy and the defence of York in 1487

Biography on Luminarium

Image credit

One of the ‘Percy Panels’, thought to portray Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland. York Castle Museum.

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