- 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
a good house to dine in (for we are all obliged to remain at oilier times & sleep in camp). By this convenience I am enabled to ask the officers of the Line, & occasionally the Gentlemen of the country, to dine with me; & as I have command of the Troops here, I have always a table of 12 covers every day. This, tho’ very expensive, is however very necessary.
Even in Boston, Percy’s courtesy, justice, and liberality made him grudgingly respected. Not only did he entertain Boston gentlemen in his house; he made himself agreeable in other ways: sending his compliments to a merchant’s wife on the excellence of her landscape drawings, or offering immediate assistance to a family made homeless by a fire. Though he was a stern disciplinarian, he was at the same time considerate of his officers and men and of their families. Later, after he returned to England, this statement was published in the Independent Chronicle of Boston:
It is impossible to express the regret of the army on the departure of Lord Percy. Provincials as well as our own people, if in distress, shared alike in his benefactions. He kept open table for inferior officers. In short, he spent while in America ten thousand pounds of his own fortune, all his pay, and upwards of twenty-five thousand pounds remitted to him by the Duke and Duchess.
As we continued to turn over the sheets in the portfolio, we found a chart of Dorchester Heights, where Washington’s brilliant fortifications, constructed under cover of darkness, forced Gage’s successor, General William Howe, to evacuate Boston. And there were maps of Percy’s later movements and campaigns. On March 17, 1776, he sailed with Howe from Boston tor Halifax but returned with him to Staten Island that July; now a lieutenant general, he was given command of one of the three great divisions of the British army, fought with success in the Long Island campaign, and led his division in the thickest of the fight to capture Fort Washington. There, as on his return from Lexington, his horse was shot under him. In December, with General Henry Clinton, he took Newport and remained as commanding general of Rhode Island. During this campaign his mother died; from her he inherited the titles and estates of a half dozen baronies and became a peer of England in his own right. As a result of a vigorous disagreement with General Howe, who demanded troops that Percy felt could not be spared from his own precarious position, he asked for a recall. He sailed from Newport on May 5, 1777, never to return to America. On his departure the townspeople of Newport presented him with a formal address in which they praised him for “that unbounded and well-directed Generosity which has so often procured for your Excellency the blessings of those who were ready to perish.”
This was the man whose maps had lain so long untouched in a black box and were now spread before us. The day wore on in the billiard room at Alnwick Castle as we went on recording the information needed to make the cartographical listing of Earl Percy’s maps which we had promised the Duke. Our excitement deepened as the value and significance of the collection became more and more apparent. His Grace kept coming in to share our discoveries. So did other, younger members of the family. “I have six children,” said the Duke, “and they are all at home for the Christmas holidays.” The Duchess, wearing a sweater and a short skirt, also came to see what we were doing; we had seen her picture in the library, as a graceful lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth II. Once, the huge oak portal burst open and a handsome, blond, teen-age boy dashed into the room. “Harry,” said his father with vigor, “don’t you ever shut a door?” For a breathless moment, there was young Harry Percy himself, whom Shakespeare’s Prince Hal had called “the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet lifel I want work!’ ”
About noon, His Grace appeared with a bottle of sherry and three glasses and said, “Sit down a little and let us talk.” He wanted to know about our background, and he spoke readily about his own war experience, his trips to America, and other matters. He told us about his estates in Northumberland, and those surrounding Syon House, the beautiful country house near Isleworth on the Thames, first occupied by a Northumberland in 1553 and redone in the eighteenth century by the great architect Robert Adam; this the Duke promised to open for us for map hunting. Clearly this man possesses a historical imagination and a keen understanding of his extraordinary heritage. And yet, he is a man of the present day, valuable to modern England. He is the first chancellor of the recently founded University of Newcastle. Under his direction, part of the gardens of Syon House have been made into a center where any Englishman can come to see methods and experiments in gardening, receive instruction, and buy plants. And shortly after our conversation he accepted the chairmanship of the royal commission to make an exhaustive study of the hoof and mouth disease that decimated the herds of England during the winter of 1967-68.