REYAHN KING picks her Object of the Week from York museums' collections: The Percy Panels

THE six carved oak panels are thought to depict members of the Percy family. The Percy’s were the most powerful family in the north of England for most of the medieval period and beyond.

They owned vast swathes of land in the North which was given to their ancestors when they came to England after William the Conqueror in 1067. They held land in Yorkshire and the Dukedom of Northumberland, with their main residency at Alnwick Castle. York St Mary’s Church in Castlegate was among the Percy holdings. 

The panels were probably once part of something much larger, most likely a decorative domestic scheme. They may have formed part of room panelling or have been in an overmantel above a large fireplace. The rectangular panels may have come from a four poster bed. 

Four of the square panels are thought to show profile portraits of Henry Percy, Fourth Earl of Northumberland (1449-1489); his wife Maud Herbert (1448-c.1485); their son Henry Algernon Percy, Fifth Earl of Northumberland (1478-1527); and his wife Catherine Spencer (d.1542). The profiles appear designed to be displayed with the pairs of husband and wife facing each other. 

York Press:

A carved oak panel depicting a dancing couple. The lady is wearing a long gown moulded to the figure down to a high waist, the skirt extending over the hips in ample pleats.  She is holding something round in one hand, the other hand is holding hands with the man.  She has long flowing hair with no headdress of any kind thus showing that she is a maiden or bride.  The man has on a cap, a collarless shirt and doublet, a cod-piece and decorative hose elaborately puffed and slashed across the thigh. and square toed shoes.  Carved above the couple there are four Percy badges, the crescent moon, the crowned key, the bugle-horn and the pair of manacles.

One rectangular panel shows a couple dancing. He wears fashionable slashed doublet, cod-piece, decorative hose and square-toed shoes.  Her hair is long and loose with no headdress, suggesting she is a maiden or a bride. The other panel scene is of a musician playing a wind instrument called the cornett. Both panels feature heraldic badges.

Henry Percy, fourth Earl of Northumberland was the great grandson of Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy (1364 - 1403). In the portrait, the fourth Earl wears an unusual winged cap and is surrounded by a wreath with four leaf designs. 

His father and grandfather had both died for the Lancastrian cause, but the fourth Earl gained notoriety for his allegiance to Richard III, the Yorkist king. Despite this, he failed to intervene at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and thus played a significant part in the Lancastrians beating the Yorkists. 

King Henry VII made the Earl the Lord-Lieutenant of Yorkshire. In 1489 Henry VII put a heavy tax on the North of England to support his war in Bretagne. Percy had asked for an abatement to the tax but the request was rejected. He was held responsible by his tenants who killed him at his manor in Topcliffe near Thirsk.  

York Press:

Percy, Henry Algernon, 5th Earl of Northumberland. A carved oak panel depicting a profile portrait of a man wearing a shirt, doublet and gown and a cap with a ribbon running through it and a flower emblem at the front of the cap.  The man is surrounded by a wreath of carved leaves and berries with four Tudor roses coming out, one at each corner.

The fourth Earl’s funeral at Beverley Minster was magnificent and cost over £1,510 in the money of the time. His wife Maud, the daughter of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, is also buried there. Her carved portrait shows her wearing a caul – a decorative hairnet often made of gold, silver or silk network with jewels or pearls – surrounded by the same style of wreath and leaves as her husband.

The Fifth Earl of Northumberland was a flamboyant character with a retinue to rival the King. He was a trusted member of the King’s court and escorted Princess Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, in pomp and splendour northwards to her marriage with the Scottish King James IV. The fifth Earl married Catherine Spencer, in an advantageous match for both political and financial reasons. The money was needed to support the Earl’s expensive lifestyle although he nevertheless died leaving a debt. 

The Tudor roses of the wreath surround in his portrait and the pomegranates carved into the portrait of his wife Catherine symbolise their allegiance to the monarchy. The Tudor rose was a badge of Henry VIII and pomegranates a badge of his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Such symbols were not enough to prevent Cardinal Wolsey of doubting his loyalty to Henry VIII and he served a time in the Fleet prison.

York Press:

Spencer, Catherine, wife of 5th Earl of Northumberland. A carved oak panel depicting a profile portrait of a woman wearing a loose fitting gown with a square neckline and a headdress with a central feather and a large round flower emblem to one side. There is the Percy badge of a crescent moon carved to one side of the woman. The woman is surrounded by a wreath of carved leaves and berries with four pomegranates coming out, one at each corner.

Both women’s portraits also include the crescent moon badge indicating the Percy family. The Percys had used this symbol since the First Earl captured a high ranking Muslim prisoner in the Crusades and adopted his emblem.

The four heraldic badges of crescent, manacles (signifying the vanquished), crowned key and bugle horn carved on the rectangular panels indicate the Percy and Bryan families. The crowned key is that of the Poynings family and indicates maternal descent from the Bryan family. The Bryan estate was contested for 30 years before it was finally decided in 1488 that the fourth Earl had the best claim to the Bryan inheritance. 

The panels are likely to date to 1501 or after, given that the fifth Earl and Countess married in 1501 or 1502. They are unlikely to have been made much later than 1527 when the Earl died.

The panels probably came originally from the Percy Inn, Walmgate, the York mansion of the Percy Earls. The Percy mansion stood from the 13th century until it was demolished at some point in the 18th century. In the late 19th century a local historian, Robert Davies, bought them for seven guineas when a house in Bedern, York, was broken up. Davies gave them to his nephew Revd Porter of Claines vicarage, by which time the panels had continued their life as decorative furnishing by having been made up into a cupboard by Jackson and Graham, the London cabinet makers. York Castle Museum acquired the panels in the 1940s after the death of Revd Porter.

Reyahn King is the chief executive of York Museum's Trust