Percy was born on September 4, 1580, at Petworth House, Sussex, in the southeast of England, the eighth and youngest son of Henry Percy, eighth earl of Northumberland, and Catharine Neville. The seventh earl of Northumberland, George Percy’s uncle, was beheaded by Queen Elizabeth in 1572 for conspiring to release Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic. Percy’s father, meanwhile, was confined to the Tower of London three separate times on similar charges. He was found shot to death in his cell in 1585 in what later was ruled a suicide.
George Percy was educated at Eton College, Gloucester Hall, at the University of Oxford, and at the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court, in London. A sickly child, he may have suffered from some form of epilepsy or a recurrent fever. A petition to Percy’s brother Henry Percy, the ninth earl of Northumberland, dating from the 1590s, refers to the boy’s “greivous and tedious sicknesse.” A warm climate was then considered beneficial for certain ailments, and in 1602 Percy embarked on a voyage to the West Indies. Nothing certain is known about this adventure; the next surviving reference to Percy, from 1603, refers to a visit to his brother Sir Richard Percy in Ireland. Nevertheless, this early experience of an Atlantic voyage may explain why Percy later threw in his lot with the settlers who established the first enduring English colony in the Americas.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 also may have been a factor. After the discovery, very late in the day, of a conspiracy by English Catholics to blow up the House of Lords at the state opening of Parliament, George Percy’s brother Henry Percy was accused of complicity in the treason. He was tried in the Star Chamber and sentenced to a massive fine and indefinite imprisonment. After this, England was no place for a dependent younger brother. The imprisoned Northumberland, nicknamed the Wizard Earl for his fascination with science, understood Percy’s predicament. Also interested in colonization and exploration, he was friends with Sir Walter Raleigh, who had financed the Roanoke voyages between 1584 and 1590, and Thomas Hariot, who had accompanied one, and possibly two of those trips. The earl’s support for his brother likely was seen as an endorsement of the Virginia Company of London, which received its royal charter to settle America on April 10, 1606.
Arrival in Virginia
Percy sailed to Virginia aboard the Susan Constant , the flagship of a three-vessel fleet that anchored in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607. There, the hundred or so Englishmen found “nothing worth the speaking of,” Percy later wrote, “but faire meddowes and goodly tall Trees, with such Freshwaters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.” That night, Percy and a group of twenty to thirty of the colonists were attacked by local Indians, leaving two men in the party injured. Three days later, according to Percy, “we set up a Crosse at Chesupioc Bay, and named that place Cape Henry,” after King James I‘s son, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.
From May 21 to 27, Percy joined Captain Christopher Newport, Captain John Smith, Captain Gabriel Archer, and others on an exploration voyage up the James River, or what Percy described as “one of the famousest Rivers that ever was found by any Christian.” The colonists made mostly friendly contact with the Kecoughtans, the Paspaheghs, the Quiyoughcohannocks, and the Appamattucks, all Algonquian-speaking groups in the paramount chiefdom of Tsenacomoco. At the falls of the James, on May 24, the Englishmen “set up a Crosse at the head of this River naming it Kings River, where we proclaimed James King of England to have the most right unto it.”
The colony’s first few years proved much more difficult than those first few weeks. The settlers mostly were military men and skilled laborers who hoped to be supplied with food either by England or the Indians. That they arrived at the beginning of a seven-year drought tested their relations with the Indians. Malnutrition among the colonists soon led to disease and many deaths, especially during the summer months. (In his account, Percy is matter of fact. After vividly describing an Indian ceremony, he writes: “The sixt of August there died John Asbie of the bloudie Flixe. The ninth day died George Flowre of the swelling. The tenth day died William Bruster Gentleman, of a wound given by the Savages, and was buried the eleventh day.”)
All of these difficulties were exacerbated by chronic internal dissention. Percy, despite his wealthy background—or perhaps because of his family’s pro-Catholic mischief—was not initially chosen by the Virginia Company to sit on the Council, the seven-man body charged with carrying out the company’s orders in Virginia. John Smith, the son of a farmer, however, was chosen, and Percy, for various reasons, was frequently critical of his leadership. According to Percy, Smith was “an ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellow, attempteinge to take all mens authoreties from them.”
Smith was elected president of the Council on September 10, 1608, a time when hunger was still a prevailing concern among the colonists. That autumn, Percy accompanied Smith on an expedition to the Chickahominies, whom the Englishmen threatened into trading away a hundred bushels of corn. In May 1609, in yet another of many attempts to relieve the continuing hunger at Jamestown, Smith dispatched Percy and about twenty men to Point Comfort, at the mouth of the James, to live off oysters.
By the autumn of 1609, Percy had gained a seat on the Council, but tensions with Smith were particularly high. Smith sent two groups of soldiers on missions to bargain with the Indians, one to the falls of the James and the other, under Percy and John Martin, to the mouth of the James. After the apparent deaths of two messengers at the hands of the Nansemonds, Percy and his men destroyed the Indians’ village. That, in turn, led to a nasty fight with the Nansemonds. Both missions were disasters for the Englishmen and led to the loss of half their men. And the violence they sparked turned into the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
On September 10, 1609, Percy was elected president and Smith, injured in a gunpowder explosion, left the colony for England in October. Soon after Smith’s departure, Percy ordered Captain John Ratcliffe to build a fort at Point Comfort, to be used in defense against the Spanish. (As imperial rivals of the English, the Spanish were seen as a greater threat to the colony’s safety than the Indians of Tsenacomoco.) Percy called the fort Algernon in honor of his relative, William Algernourne de Percy.
In November, Ratcliffe was ambushed and tortured to death by Indians, and all the colonists retreated to the fort at Jamestown save for thirty, under Captain James Davis, who remained at Fort Algernon. That month, the Indians laid siege to Jamestown, preventing settlers from hunting or fishing outside the fort. Soon, “all of us att James Towne beginneinge to feele the sharpe pricke of hunger which noe man trewly descrybe butt he which hathe Tasted the bitternesse thereof,” Percy wrote. By the time the Indians lifted their siege in May, only sixty colonists out of about 240 remained alive. None of Davis’s well-supplied men died, however, and Percy charged them with having “concealed their plenty from us.”
With the arrival of the new governor, Sir Thomas Gates, late in May, Percy stood down as the colony’s leader. He continued to sit on the Council as part of a new, more strict colonial government, and one that waged brutal war against the Indians. On August 10, 1610, Percy led an attack on a Paspahegh town, killing more than a dozen warriors. His men captured the wife and two children of the weroance, and when Percy did not move to execute them, the soldiers “did begin to murmer.” Percy agreed they should “putt the children to deathe the which was effected by Throweinge them overboard and shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water.” The children’s mother was executed that night at Jamestown. Percy and his men finally managed to kill the weroance, Wowinchopunck, in the spring of 1611.
After the departure of an ill Governor Thomas West, baron De La Warr, Percy briefly served as deputy governor, from March 29 until May 19, 1611. A year later, after weighing the continuing hardships of life in Virginia and his own recurring ill health, he decided to return home, setting sail for England in April 1612.
The Earl’s Support
The earl’s support for his younger brother is evident from accounting papers now at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. In 1607, when the first resupply voyage to Jamestown was in preparation (it arrived on January 2, 1608), the earl spent £9—a considerable sum—on a chest containing clothing and provisions for Percy’s Virginia adventure. Throughout Percy’s residence in Jamestown the earl sent out luxuries as well as necessities: clothing and books, paper and ink, wax and lights. “Blew beades and read copper” for trading accompanied “a fetherbedde bolster 2 blanketts and a covering of tapestrye.” Tobacco and pipes also appear in these papers. These items represent a considerable commitment, and Percy apparently expected no less. In a surviving letter to the earl dated August 17, 1611, he asked Northumberland to help him maintain a lifestyle appropriate to the “governour” of Jamestown, where he was expected to keep a “continuall and dayly table for Gentlemen of fashion.”
The earl was being generous, if not overgenerous. Like his other brothers, Percy inherited a personal income from their mother’s dower estates. When many of these estates were sold off after 1600, the earl bought out the brother’s interest by guaranteeing him an equivalent income from the household account. Before sailing for Virginia, Percy and the earl seem to have struck a deal. While Northumberland did not have to pay the household annuity, he settled debts that Percy incurred in England and made sure that his younger brother did not lack material support. There was a mutual convenience in this, though in later years Northumberland was pestered by merchants seeking settlement of debts allegedly run up long before. He eventually lost patience, suspecting chicanery. “This,” he wrote at the foot of one such petition, “I granted not, for I have to[o] many of this nature brought me every day.”
After Percy’s return from Virginia, his annuity was increased by installments to £100. This should have guaranteed comfort to a single man, but surviving evidence hints at the occasional financial crisis. Whether these crises were brought about by late payment or profligacy is unknown. On two occasions the earl had to redeem Percy’s cloak from a creditor, and he spent £2 recovering Percy’s pawned “sute of Apperell” in 1616.
While in Virginia, Percy kept a journal, extracts of which were published in 1625 by the Reverend Samuel Purchas in Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes. Titled “Observations Gathered Out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English,” Percy’s account describes the transatlantic voyage and the landing in Virginia before breaking off in September 1607. As the account ends, an alarming number of men are dying of disease: “many times three or foure in a night, in the morning their bodies trailed out of their Cabines like Dogges to be buried: in this sort I did see the mortalitie of divers of our people.”
In the mid-1620s, Percy wrote an additional account of the events at Jamestown between 1609 and 1612, which he intended to serve as a response to the self-serving version published by John Smith in his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624). “A Trewe Relacyon” was addressed to Percy’s nephew, Algernon Percy, tenth earl of Northumberland, to show “how mutche I honnor you” and to rebut the “many untrewthes” circulating about Virginia. Although it was not widely published until 1922 by Lyon G. Tyler, it survives in a unique contemporary copy in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Historians have long used it as a critical primary source on the politics and intrigues of Jamestown, the First Anglo-Powhatan War, and, most vividly, the suffering of the Starving Time.
As with so many younger sons and landless siblings in the seventeenth century, Percy’s later years are now obscure. Clues hint at a group of erudite friends, based in London. In a letter dated August 1607, Dudley Carleton told John Chamberlain that Percy had, in turn, addressed a letter to Walter Warner, the mathematician and recipient of a pension from Percy’s brother the earl: “Mr Warner hath a letter from Mr George Percie who names their towne James-fort, which we like best of all the rest because it comes neere to Chemes-ford [Chelmsford, in Essex].” William Strachey, secretary to the Virginia colony and author of the Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania, nodded to a friendship with Percy when dedicating his book to Northumberland. If his work had merit, Strachey argued, this was in part due to the earl’s “noble brother (from whose Commentaries and observations, I must freely confesse, I have collected these passadges and knowledges) [and who] out of his free and honorable love to me hath made me presume to offer unto your Lordship.”
Percy was still prone to illness. In 1615 he contemplated sailing to the Amazon delta. He pointed out to the earl that his “fitts here in England are more often, more longe and more grievous” than “in other parts neerer the lyne [the equator].” He was susceptible to anger as well. When Richard Plumleigh slandered the earl’s recently deceased wife in 1619, Percy challenged him to a duel, but the Privy Council, in a typical action, stepped in to prevent bloodshed. A family tradition insists that Percy fought in the Low Countries during the 1620s: in the fine portrait of Percy at Syon House, the middle finger of his left hand appears to be missing, and, so the story goes, it was shot away in an engagement during these campaigns. Such tales, though, set aside the picture itself: the finger may just as credibly be folded back. They also disregard chronology: the portrait is dated 1615. A copy was presented to the Virginia Historical Society by Charles Wykeham Martin of Leeds Castle in 1853, and is still among its collections. Percy died during the winter of 1632–1633, leaving no will. Algernon Percy settled his uncle’s debts.
Some seventeenth-century pedigrees at Alnwick Castle insist that Percy married Anne Floyd or Lloyd in Virginia, while others include no reference to a marriage. One pedigree compiled around 1673 states categorically that Percy died a bachelor, that he “left noe estate.” None of this can be taken at face value. Many family pedigrees from the 1670s were “adjusted” either to refute or sustain the claim of James Percy, who, with the earldom vacant for want of a male heir, maintained that he was descended from one of the ninth earl’s brothers. When the genealogist Sir Thomas Banks visited America early in the 1800s he met two brothers in Virginia who claimed descent from Percy. Banks pointed out that if what these men said were true, they would be “the right male heirs of the earldom of Northumberland of the de novo creation, the ancient one being suspended in the crown.” The claim seems never to have been pursued in England.
- “Observations Gathered Out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English” (In Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes; Samuel Purchas, ed., 1625)
- A Trewe Relacyon of the Pcedeinges and Ocurrentes of Momente wch Have Hapned in Virginia from the Tyme Sr Thomas Gates Was Shippwrackte uppon the Bermudes ano 1609 untill My Depture Outt of the Country wch Was in ano Dñi 1612 (1922)