Bishop Thomas Percy was born 13 April 1729 in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, the son of Arthur Lowe Percy a grocer and farmer at Shifnal who sent Thomas to Christ Church, Oxford in 1746 following an education firstly at Bridgnorth Grammar School followed by nearby Adams’ Grammar School in Newport, Shropshire. 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.
He was ordained Bishop of Dromore, County Down, Ireland, and was also Chaplain to George III. Percy’s greatest contribution is considered to be his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Dr Percy’s first work, ‘Hao Kiou Choaan, or The Pleasing History’, was published in 1761. This is a heavily revised and annotated version of a manuscript translation of the Haoqiu zhuan (好逑傳), and is the first full publication in English of a Chinese novel. The following year, he published a two-volume collection of sinological essays (mostly translations) entitled ‘Miscellaneous Pieces Relating to the Chinese.’ In 1763, he published Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, translated from the Icelandic. The same year, he also 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 edition of the ‘Household Book’ of the Earl of Northumberland (1770) (The Regulations and Establishment of the Household of Henry Algernon Percy, the Fifth Earl of Northumberland, at his Castles of Wresill and Lekinfield in Yorkshire. Begun anno domini M.DXII) 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. Appointed a chaplain to the king in 1769, Percy was formally admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge that year, and received a doctorate of divinity from Cambridge in 1770.
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.
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, which Percy claimed to have rescued 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. Percy “improved” 35 of the 46 ballads he took from the Folio. In the case of The Beggar’s daughter of Bednal Green (Bethnal Green), he added the historical character of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Evesham. In this version the ballad became so popular that it was used in two plays, an anonymous novel, operas by Thomas Arne and Geoffrey Bush, and Carl Loewe’s ballad “Der Bettlers Tochter von Bednall Green”. A fuller account of the history of the ballad can be found in “The Green” by A. J. Robinson and D. H. B. Chesshyre. Percy sadly passed away on 30 September 1811. however his work was partly responsible for the ballad revival in English poetry that was a significant part of the Romantic movement.