Myth of the column built to honour Duke

The 25m Greek Doric column is guarded by four couchant lions and topped by a Percy lion passant, with characteristic straight tail.
The 25m Greek Doric column is guarded by four couchant lions and topped by a Percy lion passant, with characteristic straight tail.

A distinctive and patriotic monument in the heart of Alnwick, the Percy Tenantry Column, is perhaps better known by another, more unusual name.

According to local legend, when the residents of Alnwick paid to have the ‘Farmers’ Folly’ built, the Duke was so impressed he raised their rents – because they could afford it.

It was erected by the tenant farmers of Hugh, 2nd Duke of Northumberland, many of whom were also members of the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, a unit raised by the Duke for home defence during the Napoleonic Wars.

The column was funded by tenants towards the end of the Duke’s life, in thanks for a remittance of rents during a catastrophic harvest. Yet, this symbol of mutual respect somehow morphed into the ‘Farmers’ Folly’.

At the turn of the 19th century, farmers in the North East were prospering due to the high cost of agricultural goods sold to support English troops battling Napoleon. The 2nd Duke, who had ascended to the title in 1786, doubled their rents, but his tenants were able to absorb the cost.

When peace was achieved in 1815 there was a severe agricultural depression and the farmers struggled to pay the newly increased rents. As such, in an unusual show of feudal decency, the Duke reduced his rents by 25 per cent.

But according to Alnwick Castle’s archivist Chris Hunwick, local writers at the time did not record any increase in rent. Six years after its completion, William Davison made no mention of rent increases or the column’s nickname. In 1866, topographer George Tate did discuss the 3rd Duke’s reversal of the ‘temporary expedient’ put in place by his predecessor, but there is no indication of injustice or ill-feeling.

It is only in 1881, more than 60 years after the column was completed, that the alternative title is seen in print. In the Berwickshire News and General Advertiser an unnamed writer, citing “reports current in the town”, tells how “the Duke, upon seeing this useless waste of money, caused the rents to be raised… and from this circumstance the monument was named ‘Farmers’ Folly,’ the public looking upon its erection as a ‘foolish’ pageant by the farmers.”

And so began the myth.

Other misrepresentations of the truth also surround the monument. Earlier this year an exhibition of photographs in a local museum stated that it had been dubbed the ‘Farmers’ Folly’ by locals who thought it “neither useful nor beautiful”.

Some claim that the tail and, more disturbingly, rear of the Percy Lion points towards Scotland in a show of defiance by the Duke; others argue that it points towards the castle in a show of disgust by the slighted tenants.

In reality, it is clear from any aerial shot that it does neither.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of gossip and legend. Not only does the story behind the so-called ‘Farmers’ Folly’ draw locals together, but it also allows visitors a glimpse into Alnwick’s community heritage.

In any case, every time the truth is re-revealed by painstaking historical research, the myth seems to overpower it. After all, we do love a bit of local knowledge – even if it’s not strictly true.