Percy, Thomas (1729–1811), bishop of Dromore, poet, and scholar, was born 13 April 1729 in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England, son of Arthur Piercy or Pearcy, grocer, and his wife Jane (née Nott); there was at least one other son. Thomas was educated at the local grammar school, and won an exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford, where he made the first of many literary friends, Thomas Gray. He graduated BA (1750) and MA (1753), and was ordained an anglican clergyman. He was vicar (1753–82) of Easton Maudit, Northamptonshire, with the additional living of Wilby from 1756. He was tutor in 1766 in the household of Hugh Percy (qv), 1st duke of Northumberland, with whose family he claimed kinship; from 1756 he had signalled his desire for a link to the aristocratic traditions of the Percys, by using the spelling Percy for his own name. He was chaplain to King George III in 1769. In 1770 he was awarded the degree of DD from Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
From 1761 Percy published a number of works of literary scholarship, including in 1763 a translation of five ancient Icelandic poems, but his reputation rests especially on his Reliques of ancient English poetry (1765), in which he published versions of old ballads which he had first come across in Shropshire in a manuscript being used for lighting a fire. Percy took a great deal of trouble over the work, though both contemporary and later critics objected to the freedom with which he ‘improved’ the originals, generally eliding bawdy lines and subject matter which would not appeal to aristocratic patrons; linguistic experts found fault with aspects of Percy's treatment of the ancient poetry. However, Reliques was immediately successful, and there were reprints or editions in 1767, 1775, and 1794, with increasing profits to the author. As well as pioneering the scholarly study of English ballad poetry, Percy's work is regarded as one of the major sources of the romantic movement; poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge acknowledged its influence, even calling their own first collection Lyrical ballads.
On 16 January 1768 the Northamptonshire clergyman was elected a member of ‘the Club’, an elite literary association in London, celebrated in its own day, and notable ever since as the milieu in which Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith (qv), and other luminaries met as friends. Percy's Northern antiquities and a translation of the Edda (1770), based on Mallet's pioneering work in French, was the first work in English to draw attention to the Norse sagas; in it, he authoritatively pointed out the dissimilarities between Celtic and Germanic antiquity. He also published translations from Chinese and Portuguese, and a translation of the ‘Song of Solomon’ was lastingly popular.
Thomas Percy became (1778) dean of Carlisle, and in 1782 was appointed bishop of Dromore. He became resident in Co. Down almost immediately, and as he believed that his pastoral responsibilities were of paramount importance, he seldom visited former associates in England. Though he maintained his friendships by correspondence, he all but gave up literary work. He did attempt to have an edition of the works of Oliver Goldsmith prepared to benefit the Irishman's impoverished family, and in 1793 he published an essay on the history of English drama. In 1785 he was one of the founder members of what became the RIA, and in his circle of friends in Dromore he numbered Henry Boyd (qv) the translator of Dante, Thomas Campbell (qv), and Thomas Stott (qv). The bishop's patronage and encouragement enabled a young weaver poet, William Cunningham, to gain an education; Percy found him a post as teacher in Belfast, but, like Percy's own only son, Cunningham died young of tuberculosis. Thomas Romney Robinson (qv) was also treated almost as a son by Percy, and Stott held the bishop in such high regard that the name ‘Percy’ was used in his family for three generations. Percy intervened to prevent the old castle at Dromore being used as a stone quarry; he gave ground in the town for a catholic chapel, and built a new aisle in his cathedral. His letters are an interesting source of information on local and Dublin events, especially in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion. He was a close correspondent of Sir Richard Musgrave (qv) and helped him in collecting material for his history of the 1798 rebellion. Percy strongly supported the act of union in 1800. In 1807 he subscribed 100 guineas (£105) to the proposed Belfast Academical Institution, though its other supporters included known radicals; he also subscribed to, and initially paid the salaries of, a Dromore corps of yeomen. According to his monument in Dromore cathedral, all ranks and religious denominations in the area honoured him for his universal benevolence and piety.
Some of Percy's original compositions, especially an 800-line poem in ballad style called ‘The hermit of Warkworth’, and ‘The friar in orders grey’, are still read as good examples of the contemporary taste for recreated antiquities. His affectionate poem to Anne Goodriche or Gutteridge of Desborough, Northamptonshire, before their marriage (24 April 1756) became so well known that Robert Burns recognised a version in Scots: ‘O Nanny wilt thou gang wi’ me’. Percy's last years in Dromore, as a very old man, and completely blind from 1806, were somewhat sad. His wife died 30 December 1806; only two out of five daughters survived to adulthood, and their only son had died in 1782 at Marseilles. One daughter married a son of the 1st earl of Clanwilliam. Thomas Percy died 30 September 1811. Over the next century, the episcopal palace and the gardens Percy laid out fell into ruin, but his library is almost entirely held in QUB, and the name of ‘Bishop Percy of Dromore’ will always be associated with the epoch-making changes in the history of ideas fostered by his literary works.