Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Thomas Percy (1765)

Thomas Percy, by Thomas Langdon 1793 Yale Centre for British Art

Thomas Percy (1729-1811) Bishop of Dromore, County Down was famous in his own time and best known today for his popular three-volume work Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), a collection of ballads and romances dating from the late medieval period to the seventeenth century. The main source of Percy’s Reliques, literary legend tells us, was a manuscript of verse which Percy discovered whilst rescuing it from a maid who was going to use it to light a fire. This manuscript, known as the Percy Folio, is held at the British Library.

The ballads collected in Percy’s Reliques cover subjects such as the border wars, folklore and the supernatural , the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and includes popular ballads such as ‘The Ballad of Chevy Chase’, ‘The Dragon of Wantley’ and ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. It also contains ballads mentioned by and possibly inspiring the works of Shakespeare.

Percy’s work was later criticised when it was discovered that parts of the collection were heavily revised and edited, presumably to appeal to a contemporary audience. Professor Mary Ellen Brown notes, “Rather than printing what he had found in that manuscript, he sought other texts and versions, freely combining, collating, and creating to offer complete and, to him and his coterie of advisers, aesthetically pleasing versions. (1) Percy also omitted some of the more bawdy ballads from the Folio, for fear of offending his noble patrons. Reliques was dedicated to Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Northumberland, who was married to Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland. It is also likely that Percy believed that it was inappropriate for a member of the clergy to publish such material.

Reliques went through four editions during Percy’s lifetime and more than fifty editions have been published since. It has been described as a book that “changed the course English literature.” (2) Its publication initiated a new interest in early British literary forms. In particular it was a powerful influence on Romantic literature in both Britain and Europe, inspiring Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, the brothers Grimm, Walter Scott, and later William Morris and the Victorian Romantics. It is recognised as “leaving a powerful impression on practically every major European writer from the end of the Enlightenment through the rise of Classicism and the Romantic movement and on into the realist nineteenth century.” (3) Reliques is also noted for playing an important role in the development of folklore and folk-song studies, a cause taken up by later collectors and scholars. Reliques was also one of the first serious studies on the subject of British verse and poetry, Percy included four essays on the topic within his collection, these have continued to influence poets and academics to this day.

Sources

(1) Mary Ellen Brown (2010) “Child’s Ballads and the Broadside Conundrum” in Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800, ed. Patricia Fumerton, Anita Guerrini, Kris McAbee, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2010, p.58

(2) Joseph M. P. Donatelli (1989) “Old Barons in New Robes: Percy’s Use of the Metrical Romances in the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” in Hermeneutics and Medieval Culture, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher, Helen Damico, Suny Press, 1989, p.225

(3) Michael Perraudin and Matthew Campbell (2012) “Introduction” in The Voice of the People: Writing the European Folk Revival, 1760-1914, ed. Matthew Campbell, Michael Perraudin, Anthem Press, 2012, p.2

Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Thomas Percy (1765) Layton #2755

 

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