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The Petworth family tree

Oil painting on canvas, Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland (1602-1668) his first wife Lady Anne Cecil (d.1637), and their daughter, Lady Catherine Percy (1630-1638) by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (Antwerp 1599 - London 1641), circa 1633/35
Oil painting on canvas, Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland, his first wife Lady Anne Cecil and their daughter Lady Catherine Percy , circa 1633/35 | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

There are three family names associated with Petworth House and Park: the Percys (Earls of Northumberland), the Seymours (Dukes of Somerset) and the Wyndhams (Earls of Egremont / Lords Leconfield). Through centuries of history the family has lived at Petworth House and transformed it into the grand mansion you see today.

The Percy family of Petworth

The Percy family were for many years one of the most powerful families in England. They were devout Catholics living mainly in the north, where they commanded the loyalty of many like-minded Catholics. This became particularly significant during the Protestant Reformation under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, when Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, firmly allied himself with the Catholics.

Treason and execution

In 1572, the 7th Earl of Northumberland, was executed for conspiring against Elizabeth I in favour of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. His brother, Henry Percy, fought on the side of Queen Elizabeth and she subsequently granted him the title of 8th Earl.

House arrest at Petworth

Over the years Henry Percy was also suspected of conspiring with Mary, Queen of Scots. He was put under house arrest at Petworth – far away from his Catholic supporters in the north, and close enough to London to be observed. This is when the family’s regular association with Petworth began.

During his third incarceration at the Tower of London in 1584, the 8th Earl was found dead in his cell, shot through the heart. Suicide would have meant all the Percy lands and titles passing to the Crown but there was enough evidence to show that Henry had been murdered, and the Percy titles could therefore pass to his son.

The Gunpowder Plot

Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, was known as the ‘Wizard Earl’ because of his interest in science and alchemy. It was the 9th Earl who set about expanding the manor house at Petworth and started a great collection of books.

He was mistakenly implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and spent the next 17 years in the Tower of London. The Molyneux Globe on display in the North Gallery at Petworth is rumoured to have been given to the Wizard Earl by Sir Walter Raleigh when they met in the Tower.

English Civil War

Algernon Percy, the 10th Earl of Northumberland, was a high-profile Parliamentarian and managed to stay in favour with both parties during the English Civil War; although he supported parliament, he was against the execution of Charles I.

Choosing to retire to Petworth, Algernon was a keen collector of European pictures and during Cromwell's regime he bought several works by Sir Anthony van Dyck from Royalists who were fined for supporting the Crown.

Sister of the 10th Earl of Northumberland, Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle, mischievously served both Royalists and Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. She famously pawned her pearl necklace to raise money for the royalist cause but was imprisoned in the Tower of London as a result.

The Proud Duke, Charles Seymour 6th Duke of Somerset of Petworth House, West Sussex, painted by John Closterman,1692
Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset, in 1692 | © National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

The Seymour family of Petworth

The family line passed neatly to Joceline Percy, 11th Earl of Northumberland in 1668, but he died in 1670 with no male heir. Instead, the wealth and estates were inherited by the 11th Earl’s only daughter, Elizabeth Percy, who could not inherit the title because she was female.

Petworth is transformed

Elizabeth Percy married Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset, in 1682. As was the custom, Charles automatically inherited all of Elizabeth’s wealth and estates upon marriage, and together they used her money to fund the grand rebuilding of Petworth between 1688 and 1702 in the Baroque style. The finest craftsmen of the time were employed, including Grinling Gibbons and Louis Laguerre.

The Wyndham family of Petworth

The most complicated inheritance split came after the death in 1750 of Algernon, 7th Duke of Somerset, who also had no male heir. In preparation for this, two further titles were granted to Algernon in 1749 to make sure that the family’s legacy did not become extinct.

1. The title 1st Earl of Northumberland was created. This was a new creation of the old Percy title, passed to Hugh Smithson, husband of Algernon’s daughter Elizabeth. Hugh Smithson, as part of the deal, changed his surname to Percy.

Half of the Percy estates were inherited by this branch of the family, mostly in the north of England. Hugh Percy was later elevated to Duke of Northumberland, and the current line of the Dukes of Northumberland continues to live at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

2. The title 1st Earl of Egremont was created and passed to the descendants of Algernon’s brother-in-law Sir William Wyndham, who married Lady Katherine Seymour, Algernon’s sister. This settlement included Petworth and many estates in Sussex, Cumbria and Yorkshire. By the time of Algernon’s death in 1750, Sir William and Lady Katherine were dead, so the title was inherited by their son Charles Wyndham, who became the 2nd Earl of Egremont.

Portrait of Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont, of Petworth House in West Sussex, painted by William Hoare
Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The 2nd Earl of Egremont

The 2nd Earl, Charles Wyndham, employed Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to replace the geometric Baroque landscape of the 6th Duke of Somerset. Charles was an avid collector of antique Roman and Greek sculpture, fine examples of which can be seen around the house.

The 3rd Earl of Egremont and his descendants

The title Earl of Egremont neatly passed from the 2nd Earl to his son the 3rd Earl, George O'Brien Wyndham, in 1763. A great patron of the arts, the 3rd Earl built the North Gallery to showcase the best of British art. He ushered in what became known as Petworth’s ‘Golden Age’ and many of his commissions still hang in the house, most notably 20 works by JMW Turner.

Despite fathering a large progeny of illegitimate children, the 3rd Earl did not produce a legitimate male heir. When he died in 1837, his eldest illegitimate son George Wyndham was able to inherit most of the estates, but because of his illegitimacy, could not inherit the title.

For the next 20 years George was known simply as Colonel George Wyndham. In 1859, Queen Victoria bestowed the new title of Baron Leconfield on Colonel George, and the family were then known as the Lords Leconfield.

The 20th century and beyond

In 1963, John Wyndham, the current Lord Egremont’s father, retired as Harold Macmillan’s private secretary. As Macmillan held John Wyndham in high esteem, he asked for the title Egremont to be restored to the family, so he effectively held two titles – Lord Leconfield from the 1859 creation, and Lord Egremont from the 1963 creation.

The current Lord and Lady Egremont continue a tradition of unbroken occupancy at Petworth House today.

The Last Judgement by William Blake, Petworth, Sussex

Petworth House and Park's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Petworth House and Park on the National Trust Collections website.

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