Born in 1729, Thomas Percy would, with one work, go on to be a real trailblazer in the movement that would grow into Romanticism, help establish the field of ballad collecting and by extension the wider field of “folklore” that would emerge a half or century or so years after his death in 1811.
He would also become a Bishop, which is perhaps less interesting for the purposes of the podcast, but very important to him!
Podcast episodes featuring Percy
In common with many of the folklorists on this website Percy had a good start in life, and his societal standing grew from there.
He hailed from Bridgnorth a small market town on the River Severn in the rural English county of Shropshire, that borders wales. Born the son of a grocer and farmer the family had resource enough to send Thomas to Oxford University to be educated, and from there he went on to a role in the Church – a very common route for educated young men, and at 24 he became Vicar in a Northamptonshire Village, to remain in that county until 1782.
It seems that his church positions, first as Vicar and then Rector, weren’t quite a full time job, or at least he had ample opportunity to fit a side hustle around them. Another common trait he shares with many antiquarians of this period.
Having gotten married in 1759 in his early 30s he began to produce his works on a range of topics, showing some breadth to his education.
His first publication was an English translation of a Portuguese translation of a Chinese novel. He also produced a translation from the Hebrew of the eyebrow-raisingly raunchy biblical extract the Song of Solomon, of a French book about the history and legends of Scandinavia, and “runic” poetry translated from Icelandic.
Clearly the man had spent a lot of time on Duolingo.
Percy had also acquitted some very influential friends from somewhere or other (spoiler: it was oxford), chief amongst them were “man of letters” and compiler of one of the most “influential dictionaries in the history of the English language” Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Watson, a poet whose works is most famous for promoting the enjoyment of melancholy and graveyards. A proto-goth type.
The “Percy” Folio
In the 1760s Percy happened to come across a manuscript of ballads in the home of his friend Humphrey Pitt of Shiffnal Shropshire.
Now this was not a published book but a one-off collection of hand written ballads that some unknown had had compiled together, but in a rather hasty manner.
It was time, apparently, found lying dirty on the floor under a Bureau in the Parlour with pages being used as a fire light. (Though I do wonder if this is a little hyperbolic, for it makes a more romantic origin story).
It was this collection pf papers that was to make Percy rather famous, and give a good push to the development of Romanticism. Some scribblings by an dedicated collector found completely by chance. Oh, fortune, what a fickle mistress she be!
So who actually wrote these ballads down? Well we don’t know that. The forward to the first edition of the manuscript from 1867 says that in language and sentiment the songs suggest an affinity to Cheshire and Lancashire (though not the modern Lancashire, but the much larger old county consisting also of what is now Merseyside and Greater Manchester amongst others).
It makes sense to must assume the songs were either recorded by a listener, or listeners or taken from previous written sources. And it is most probably that it was a combination of these: As summed up by David Atkinson: “it is an antiquarian anthology compiled during the 1640s, up to c.1650 (the date usually assigned to it), from written and printed sources ranging in period from late medieval to more or less contemporary”.
The upshot of all this is that we don’t really know when any originals of these ballads date from or who wrote them. We, by which I mean people far more learned than I, do have some clues for some of them and they seem to date to as early a few hundred years prior to the 1650s for some (though not in quite the same form), all the way up to the 1650s.
This gives a reasonable large span of time for these ballads to have come from originally. Though of course the idea of originality here is full of problems as even then they could have come from even earlier sources.
So what’s in this collection of papers?
Nearly two hundred individual songs covering a wide range of subjects – there’s eight Robin Hood tales quite a lot more of King Arthur stories (both of the two epics I’m currently avoiding doing in depth on the podcast).
There are long songs about history (by which I mean kings and earls and battles and the like), and various other stories about fantastical heroes and romance and the like.
There are also a large number of “Loose and humorous songs” as a much later publication called them, accompanied by an introduction positively dripping wet with prudish distaste. These weren’t to make their way into Percy’s own publication. For some reason. To give you an idea of why here is a sample of such verse about a very sad demise:
“But woe mee, & woe mee ! alas, I could not raise ! it would not, nor could not, do all I could to please. his inke was run, his pen was done. Iacke ! art thou dead ? hold up thy head !” - From "A creature for Feature"
I think you get the picture.
Reliques of Ancient English Poetry
The poet William Shentone claims in a letter that it was he who proposed to Percy that he should tidy up and publish the ballads from the manuscript, and this idea seems to have found great favour with Percy. It was this work that would form the basis Percy’s seminal work “Reliques of ancient English Poetry”
Shentone would go on to help Percy with his publication and, were it not for his death prior to its publication, his name would also likely have been on the cover.
Percy and Shentone weren’t satisfied simply with the contents of this grubby found folio though.
Rather, having decided to produce a ballad book they looked to bolster it, so sought out ballads from other sources, most especially calling upon the network of eminent antiquarians and scholars with whom they corresponded.
And it seems that network really really stepped up to the task, sending all sorts from their various collections.
Over a period of four or five years the work was completed. This involved selecting, writing and in no small part editing the collection of ballads Percy had to work with.
Now when the work eventually came out these edits became a source of some controversy, as happens with roughly 75% of the folklore collectors featured on this website.
My usual reaction to this is usually to lean strongly towards supporting the position of those making their edits rather than their critics. Clearly there is a line here – making up a poem and claiming it’s an old ballad is clearly a no no. But the fact is that songs are changed often in the singing anyway, and if editing them makes them more comprehensible and a little more enjoyable for a reader rather than a listener? Well edits to those ends are generally no bad thing.
I am well aware though that in this I come at this very much from the direction of a story teller rather than a historical scholar. Personally I feel far more annoyed by the leaving out all of the rude bits than to minor edits here in here.
However in this particular case even I feel this goes too far. It’s fair to say that in some cases, though not every case, Percy and Shenton clearly made quite a lot of huge changes to their source material: far more than I can defend them for – adding whole sections, changing endings of songs that kind of thing.
Not all the ballads are so affected but it’s nevertheless clear that there is a great deal of the two poets own work in them.
But regardless in 1665 the work was finally published as “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” (in 3 volumes). It was by the point a large compendium – featuring a whopping 180 ballads, of which only 45 were drawn from the folio manuscript – so a great many more from that document were left out than were included.
“Ancient” was a bit of a misnomer (read: total fib), given the medieval dating of the earliest we’ve mentioned. But beyond that it included a great many ballads well known to be great deal more modern than that.
As well as the ballads from the folio and ballads collected or sourced from other collectors there were ballads from Shakespeare, translations of ballads from around the world (e.g. A West Indian tale and a Spanish song), a number from Scottish ballads and recently authored poems that were about ballad like topics (e.g. The Witch of Wokey).
This and the aforementioned significant edits attracted immediate scorn from some contemporaries, but any opprobrium for the work was soon loudly drowned out by the praise of others and above all by the work’s genuine popularity, including amongst the most wealthy and influential in the land.
The work was republished a year later and again the year after that. While it was not the first ballad collection these particularly large number of ballads really struck a chord with the (wealthy) reading public of the time, and by consequence the work was soon widely famed and remain popular for many years to come. This was true across the continent – and particularly in Germany, as well as just in England.
The issue of Percy’s considerable edits came under much more sustained attack a couple of decades later, particularly from the antiquarian, vegetarian and revolutionary Joseph Ritson, writing in the 1780s.
He’s a fascinating figure who had a tragic end and I may have wandered off and done a bit too much research on him when writing this piece. I especially enjoyed this amazingly caricature of Ritson complete with a copy of Reliques with a couple of knives stuck in it.
It was widely agreed that Ritson’s criticisms were totally valid, but this didn’t really dampen the effect that the work had already had on inspiring a new generation of ballad collectors and poets keen to adapt the ballad form.
In the slightly longer run it went on to directly influence many important (read rich and famous) writers of modern ballads and ballad collectors: not least Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Robert Burns, Samuel Coelridge and the Brother’s Grimm.
A stellar cast of people who in turn were responsible for inspiring many more collectors and folklorists and so making available a great many of the stories that I tell on the podcast now.
He’s sometimes cited as one of the founders, or early fore-runners of Romanticism – as per the quote below:
Percy’s life after Reliques
But what of Percy, only 36 at the time of publication of the ballads? He had a growing family (6 children in his lifetime) and his position as a rector was was hardly the most senior.
Well, off the back of Reliques he enjoyed a considerable appreciation of his position in society over the next two decades.
He had dedicated Reliques to members of the “Percy” family, who were Dukes and Countesses of Northumberland, and no relation to him, though Percy seemed like he really wished they were so.
This helped secure their patronage of him and he became Chaplain and Secretary to Hugh Percy Duke of Northumberland, no relation, writing up a book for him based on a 16th century manuscript all about the running of the household within late medieval Castles. Fun!
Interestingly during this period, in a sequence of events I’ve trouble parsing, his wife was somehow appointed nurse to a young Prince Edward and then in 1769 Percy himself became Chaplain to King George III himself. A chaplain by the way is basically a private priest and so this seems a highly prestigious position to hold.
And yet he also completed his aforementioned translation of Norse tales from the French in 1770, the same year he received a Doctorate in divinity from Cambridge, having apparently time to do all of this in a couple of years.
While there is evidence he remained interested in old ballads and he continued to write correspondence and publish some works, it seems his rise in the hierarchy of the church took over much of his life following this period.
He became Dean of Carlisle in 1778 and four years after that in 1782, reached the highly distinguished position of Bishop of Dromore in County Down, moving his family to Ireland.
His role as Bishop was one that kept him busy for the three more decades of his life. Throughout this period he wrote some works and kept up correspondence, including responding to the criticism of the Reliques by the aforementioned Ritson.
But over time his ability to contribute as he once had declined: as J. Pickford puts it, writing in 1867:
“He still continued to devote as much time as could be spared from the graver duties of his profession to the cultivation of literature, though from all accounts it was a place not very favourable for such studies — and must have been to a great extent an ex patriation……. still under these difficulties the old love of learning continued”.
Bishop Thomas Percy died in 1811 at the decent age of 82, blind but otherwise in good health.
And with his one collection of ballads he had a profound impact on the future direction of European ballad collecting, folklore, giving us some pretty great stories and songs along the way (even if he might have added quite a bit to them himself).
Episode pages featuring Percy
- Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript
- Shakespearean Ballads in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Transition from Oral Songs to Printed Historical Documents – Minoru Mihara
- Bishop Percy’s folio manuscript. Loose and humorous songs (This is the one you want, I’m sure)
- On the Nature of Evidence – David Atkinson
Works by Percy
- Reliques of Ancient English poetry Volume 1
- Reliques of Ancient English poetry Volume 2
- Reliques of Ancient English poetry Volume
One final thing…
This is what you find if you.. google “Thomas Percy images” and omit the Bishop. No longer the most famous Thomas Percy it seems.