Your RDA of Irony

On This Day in 1403: Treason Can Be Hazardous

Henry IV was very disappointed in the Percy clan. It was a powerful family in Northern England and very useful to a conniving usurper. After helping him seize the English throne and kill the rightful (if preposterously incompetent) King Richard II in 1399, however, it turned out that the Percys could not be trusted. The rapacious family actually expected every title and estate that Henry had promised them. Didn’t they understand politics? Apparently not. The Percys rose in rebellion, having suddenly realized that Henry was an usurper. The now legitimist nobles were supporting the royal claims of the Earl of March–who happened to be related to the Percys by marriage.

Of course, Shakespeare covered this topic–in iambic pentameter–in Henry IV, part I. So you know that the rebels were led by the dashing teenage jock, “Hotspur” Percy but he was killed at the battle of Shrewsbury in a climactic duel with that reprobate teenager Prince Hal. Well, not quite….

Hotspur once had been a teenager; it is a prerequisite when you are 38 years old. That was his age at the battle of Shrewsbury. In fact, he was two years older than Henry IV. Prince Hal actually was a teenager–16–but he did not kill Hotspur. That deed was accomplished by an anonymous archer whose arrow determined the outcome of the battle. Up to Hotspur’s unlucky catch, his forces seemed to be winning; not a knockout decision but ahead on corpse totals. However with the death of their leader, the rebels abandoned the field and Henry IV retained the throne.

But that was Percy luck. Even the competent commanders in the family tended to get killed; and you can imagine the actuarial tables for the inept ones. Here is a brief recitation. Hotspur’s father was killed fighting against the Lancastrians. Hotspur’s son was killed fighting for the Lancastrians. (Changing sides did not improve the family luck.) Hotspur’s grandson was killed fighting for the Lancastrians. Hotspur’s great-grandson was killed in a rent riot. (Now that has to be embarrassing, killed by your disgruntled tenants.)

By some fluke, Hotspur’s great-great grandson died of natural causes at the age of 50. (16th century medicine was as deadly as the warfare.) Of the great-great-great grandsons, one may have died of natural causes; but being a Catholic once engaged to Anne Boleyn, he was definitely on Henry VIII’s “To-Do List.” And his brother was decapitated–as was his son! The 8th Earl of Northumberland–the great-great-great-great-great grandson–was mysteriously shot while in the Tower of London. (It must have been a suicide!)

You have to wonder why the British royals did not simply strip the Percys of their titles and properties, reducing them to fishmongers in Newcastle. Perhaps the Percys offered the Renaissance equivalent of a fox hunt: just catch and kill them. You could also wonder why the Percys did not choose a safer social niche. They must have felt a certain glamour to it all. Whether riddled with arrows or in the midst of their decapitation, they would have gasped “What, and give up show business?”

A year or so ago, the  New York Times had an article on the Duchess of Northumberland. Being egaliterian/vulgar Americans, we would call her Mrs. Percy. After six hundred years, that is definitely job security.

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