Thomas Percy

Thomas Percy (April 13, 1729 - September 30, 1811), was Bishop of Dromore, and is remembered as editor of Tatler, Guardian, and Spectator. His greatest contribution to the world is considered to be his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1768), the first of the great ballad collections, which was the one work most responsible for the ballad revival in English poetry that was a significant part of the Romantic movement.


He was born at Bridgnorth. His father, Arthur Lowe Percy, a grocer and farmer at Shifnal, sent Thomas to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1746 following an education at nearby Adams' Grammar School in local Newport.. He graduated in 1750 and proceeded M.A. in 1753. In the latter year he was appointed to the vicarage of Easton Maudit, Northamptonshire, and three years later was instituted to the rectory of Wilby in the same county, benefices which he retained until 1782. In 1759 he married Anne, daughter of Barton Gutterridge.

Dr. Percy's first work was a translation from a Portuguese manuscript of a Chinese story, published in 1761. Two years later he published Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, translated from the Icelandic. In 1763 he edited the earl of Surrey's poems with an essay on early blank verse, translated the Song of Solomon, and published a key to the New Testament. His Northern Antiquities (1770) is a translation from the French of Paul Henri Mallet. His reprint of The Household Book of the Earl of Northumberland in 1512 is of the greatest value for the illustrations of domestic life in England at that period.

These works are of little estimation when compared with the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). In the 1760s, he obtained a manuscript of ballads (the Percy Folio) from a source in Northumberland. He had in mind the idea of writing a history of the Percy family of the peerage (the Dukes of Northumberland), and he had sought materials of local interest. He had sought out old tales from near Alnwick, the ancestral home of the Northumberland Percy family, and he had come across many ballad tales.

In 1763, Percy, aiming for the market that Ossian had opened for "ancient poetry" (see James MacPherson), published Five Pieces of Runic Poetry from Icelandic, which he translated and "improved."

Percy was a friend of Samuel Johnson, Joseph and Thomas Warton, and James Boswell. In 1764, Dr Johnson and others encouraged Percy to preserve the poetry he was finding at home. Percy therefore took the ballad material he had from his folio and began searching for more ballads, in particular. He wanted to collect material from the border areas, near Scotland. In 1765, he published the Reliques to great success.

Still not having secured an adequate living, Thomas Percy continued with his project of commemorating the Alnwick area, and so he composed his own ballad poem on Warkworth Castle, then a ruin, which the Dukes of Northumberland controlled and which the Duchess of Northumberland favored for its sublime views. Combining the vogue for the "Churchyard Poets" and the ballad vogue that he himself had set in motion, Thomas Percy wrote The Hermit of Warkworth in 1771. Samuel Johnson famously composed three ex tempore parodies of this verse in the 1780s. When an admirer too often told Johnson of the beautiful "simplicity" of the ballad verse form, Johnson pointed out that the line between simplicity and simple mindedness is narrow: just remove the sense. He then demonstrated:

"The tender infant meek and mild
Fell down upon a stone;
The nurse took up the squealing child
But yet the child squeal'd on."

Thomas Percy was angered by the parody, but Hester Thrale says that he soon came to his senses and realized that Johnson was satirizing the form, and not the poem.

Soon after, he said,

"I put my hat upon my head
And went into the strand.
There I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand."

This extemporized parody was written down by Boswell and others. It may have been aimed less at Percy than at the ballads that were then appearing nearly daily on every subject.

In 1782, Percy was ordained as the bishop of Dromore.

Percy carried out most of the literary work for which he is now remembered at Easton Maudit. When he became famous, he was made domestic chaplain to the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, and was tempted into the belief that he belonged to the illustrious house of Percy. Through his patron's influence he became Dean of Carlisle in 1778 and Bishop of Dromore in County Down in 1782.

His wife died before him in 1806; the bishop, blind but otherwise in sound health, lived another five years. Both were buried in the transept which Percy had added to Dromore Cathedral.

Literary Work

The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry set the stage not only for Robert Burns, but also for Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. The book is based on an old manuscript collection of poetry, rescued by Percy in Humphrey Pitt's house at Shifnal, Shropshire, from the hands of the housemaid who was about to light the fire with it. The manuscript was edited in its complete form by JW Hales and FJ Furnivall in 1867-1868. This manuscript provides the core of the work but many other ballads were found and included, some by Percy's friends Johnson, William Shenstone, Thomas Warton, and some from a similar collection made by Samuel Pepys.

This biography was taken verbatim from the Wikipedia. We're providing a snapshot just in case the Wikipedia servers were temporarily unreacheable. The original page is not only much more up-to-date, it also features links to other pages and sites. This snapshot was last updated: 09/12/2006. (mm/dd/yyyy)

Home :: Authors :: Thomas Percy