Marcel Proust, we are told, was never more pleased than when he came upon the name of the Duke of Northumberland. Perennially fascinated by the boom of ancient titles, the novelist was delighted by its echo of high lineage and its sheer sonority. As the equally elegant and superior English writer who tells us this observed, the title had a "sort of thunderous quality".
For most of its history, it has been borne by the Percy family, who became earls of Northumberland in the 14th century and dukes in the 18th. The Percys were companions of the Conqueror, prominent participants in English civil wars from the 12th century to the 16th, captains in the 100 years war, alternately heroes and villains in the history plays of Shakespeare, accessories to the gunpowder plot, political fixers under George III, generals in the American war of independence and admirals in the Napoleonic wars, ministers of Queen Victoria, and Tory wirepullers in the 1920s. Over the past eight centuries, two earls and one duke have been killed in battle, most recently in 1940; one has been lynched by a mob; one beheaded for treason, one shot by government assassins, five incarcerated in the Tower for more or less prolonged periods, and one beatified by the Church of Rome. It is a striking record of public service or disservice, depending on your point of view. The Percys are still the owners of Alnwick Castle and Syon House, and are among the largest landowners in Britain. . . .
As soon as the Scottish menace faded in the 16th century, the Percys lost their power. The Tudors no longer needed a viceroy in the north. The sixth earl was ruined by Henry VIII, the seventh executed by Elizabeth, the eighth murdered in the Tower and the ninth abandoned politics for chemistry and astronomy. His successors abandoned the north altogether, and went to live on their Sussex and London estates. The modern fortunes of the family are due to Sir Hugh Smithson, who married the last Percy heiress in the 18th century, adopted her name, and re-established the family as a great northern dynasty.
Sumption offered some caveats about the book's padding with British history whenever the biographical details ran out, but I thought I'd find a reasonably priced used copy -- no such luck. Rare as hen's teeth, I guess. I'll have to use interlibrary loan if I really want to read it.