- Historic Sites
The Treasure Of Alnwick Castle
Behind the ancient towers of his Northumberland home are the unique Revolutionary War battle maps of the general who saved the British from disaster at Lexington
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
We stood beside the billiard table in a richly beautiful room in Alnwick Castle, hesitating lor a moment before opening the great portfolio which the Duke of Northumberland had laid out for us. On the walls shone the mellow beauty of Titians and Tintorettos. Outside the high windows the great park rolled upward to the hills of the border country. The Duke spoke encouragingly. “My ancestor was one of the commanders of the British troops in Boston in 1775,” he said. “He liked maps. His collection has been here in a black box ever since he came home, until I put it into this portfolio. Do you care to look at it?”
It seemed incredible that in this ancient castle, scat oi the Percys, dukes, defenders of northern England against marauding Scots, we should be seeking a piece of our own American history. Yet it was not the first time that we had discovered early American maps in foreign and romantic surroundings. We had hunted them in the libraries and private collections of ten countries. We had, of course, worked in the great map collection of the British Museum, where all American cartographers come in time, and it was there, in 1959, that R. A. Skelton, then superintendent of the Map Room, had suggested to us that the library of Alnwick Castle might hold our kind of treasure. Now, eight years later, we were there. A letter to the Duke had brought a gracious reply: we might certainly come, but he feared we would find little. His earliest printed map of America was one of Virginia made in 1751, he said, to which we replied that the only map of Virginia which we knew of that had been made in that year was the work of Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, and Joshua Fry, a surveyor and professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary. There were two known copies, both in America; if His Grace had a third, it was the only known copy in Europe, and we would like mightily to see it.
So we had come, along the edge of the North Sea, across the quiet December fields to the small, graystone town of Alnwick. We had climbed off the train beside a huge monument topped with the Percy lion with its stiff, outstretched tail. After nightfall, from the windows of the local inn, we gazed at the castle, with its great reach of battlements, cold moonlight shining on the stone warriors who have manned those turrets ever since it was necessary to fool invading Scots into the belief that Percy forces were greater than they were. That Gothic fortress seemed an unlikely home for a collection of Americana.
When in the morning we made our way along snowy, winding streets, crossed the ice-covered drawbridge, and passed beneath the ancient portcullis, we were promptly escorted up a stair in the towering central keep to the office of the Duke’s secretary. “Please sit clown by the fire,” she said; “His Grace wants to see you.” Presently, a tall, mild-voiced man, with sandy hair, very blue eyes, and a coat with a darned sleeve and leather patches on the elbows, came in, shook hands, and said, “Come along; I’ve put what I have on the billiard table.”
In the billiard room His Grace said, “There, that’s the 1751 map of Virginia.” There it was indeed—the third known copy of the first edition of the famous Fry-Jefferson map. It was quickly apparent that the Duke shared our excitement. After this he took us into his library, a room of noble proportions with the soft amber bookbindings rising to a great height and a small, graceful balcony dividing them halfway up. “Help me lift this portfolio,” said the Duke. “This is the map collection of Hugh, Earl Percy, who was in America from 1774 to 1777. It has never been properly listed; perhaps you could do it for me. Let’s put it on the table.”
We opened the great folio and began turning over the maps. There were more than fifty, most of them manuscript originals of the terrain of battles and engagements of the American Revolution, many drawn on the day of conflict or shortly after. The signatures of John Montresor, Claude Joseph Sauthier, and Thomas Page, whom we knew to be among the finest surveyors and draftsmen of the Revolutionary era, caught our attention. A sketch of Bunker Hill and Charlestown Neck as seen from Beacon Hill, with British entrenchments and “Rebel Redoubt,” had apparently been made during the bloody storming of Breed’s Hill. A map of New York (page 31) showed Fort Washington, surveyed on the very day that Percy led his troops in the capture of that fort. This was history in the making.
Then we came upon a small map of Boston and its vicinity (page 29), which showed in color various positions of troops along the road leading to Lexington and Concord, with accompanying legends: “Bridge where the attack began,” indicated by two red lines across a stream; the positions of rebel “militia”; “Col. Smith’s return from Concord”; “Lord Percy’s return from Lexington”; and at the bottom of the sheet, “19th April 1775.” William said to the Duke, “Every American schoolboy knows a poem beginning: