|Born :||Before 1563|
|Died :||8 November 1605 – Holbeche House, Staffordshire|
It is commonly accepted that Thomas Percy was the great-grandson of the 4th Earl of Northumberland; his father being Edward Percy of a lower branch of the Percys, and his mother being Elizabeth Waterton and making him the second cousin to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland. However, there are some who speculate that he was the 9th Earl’s illegitimate half-brother, or as put forward by Francis Edwards, that he came from the Percys of Scotton, Yorkshire. However, this seems to be based on little more than the fact that Guy Fawkes also had lived in Scotton, and therefore would make for a tidy explanation of their later acquaintance.
Whatever his origins, he was accepted by the Earl of Northumberland as a kinsman, although he was to later say that Percy was known to have ‘pretended himself to be of the elder howse’
About his early life, not much is known. He entered Peterson College at Cambridge on July 4 1579 and matriculated the following year, and in 1589 it was perhaps he who sailed with George Clifford to the Azores. As is typical for young men of any age, in his youth he was described by Fr. Tesimond as having been ‘rather wild and given to the gay life; a man who relied much upon his sword and personal courage’. He continues to describe Percy as ‘tall and well built, of serious expression but with an attractive manner. His eyes were large and lively. He was a man of great physical courage, and pleasing in his ways.’
Not everyone was quite so flattering. An informant had described him to Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London, in quite a different light:
‘Briefly, never was he quiet in mind, cheerful in countenance, or any way seeming to take delight.by the turmoiling of his body through seldom intermitted vexing, he became often so resolved into sweat that he promised much labour to his laundresses, who report that he changed his shirts twice every twenty-four hours.’
Percy had a reputation as an enthusiastic, although somewhat reckless swordsman. He and John Wright would travel the country in order to fight other skilled swordsman. Although these fights were just to demonstrate and hone their skills, not fights to the death, as a matter of pride they were performed without any protective equipment whatsoever.
By 1595 he was given a position of considerable trust by his kinsman and patron, the Earl of Northumberland, as an agent of his estates in the North responsible for the collection of his rents. He obviously made a good impression as he was made Constable of Alnwick Castle, a Percy stronghold on the Scottish border the following year.
Thomas Percy was far from a scrupulous man, which may have been exactly what the Earl of Northumberland needed in extracting the rents from the often less than cooperative Northern tenants.
Although 34 charges of dishonesty were later proved against him by the tenants, including unlawful imprisonment, forgery and questionable evictions, these seem to only have improved his standing in the Earl’s eyes. 1596 found Percy in prison apparently for killing a Scot in a border skirmish, and a short while afterwards was involved with the Earl of Essex in an attempt to capture the Scottish Warden of the Western Marsh, Sir Robert Ker. But not only did he continue in his offices, in 1600 he personally joined Northumberland, who held a command in the Low Countries, and was rewarded with the sum of 200 pounds. Despite his actions, Percy seemed to be firmly on the track to success under Northumberland’s patronage, and Northumberland placed an increasing amount of trust in him.
Thomas Percy’s personal life was just as questionable as his professional one. In 1591 he married Martha Wright, sister to two of the other conspirators, Christopher and John Wright, of a staunchly recusant Yorkshire family. It was reported by Dr. Godfrey Goodman, 40 years after the event:
‘It is certain that he was a very loose liver; that he had two wives, one in the south and another in the north. An honorable good lady said that she knew them both. His wife in the south was so.poor that she was fain to teach school, and bring up gentle-women. There are some living that were her scholars.’
Although Goodman has somewhat of a reputation as an unreliable gossip, the story is held up by a letter from Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower, to Salisbury in regards to 500 pounds held by Monteagle of Percy’s wife. Waad had to enquire as to which of his wives. Father John Gerard, writing in 1897 reported that when Percy’s name was published in connection with the Plot, the magistrates in London arrested one wife, while those in Warwickshire arrested the other.
However, Paul Durst makes a convincing argument against Percy having been a bigamist. He shows how the wife in London on the 5th November could easily have been the same woman who was apprehended again in Warwickshire on the 12th, and that the question by Waad points to nothing more than Percy having had a wife who died prior to his marriage to Martha Wright.
His most convincing argument is that if Percy were a bigamist he would have been quickly dealt with by Martha’s brothers, as opposed to being the close co-conspirators that they were.
It appears that Percy’s pious Catholic wife Martha had a profound effect on her unruly husband, as Tesimond reported that at some point he converted to Catholicism himself. ‘He then changed his ways in remarkable fashion, giving much satisfaction to Catholics and considerable cause for wonder for those who had known him previously.’
Percy then became active in trying to improve the Catholic cause in England. His lord, Northumberland, despite his later protestations to the contrary, was a reputed Catholic sympathiser, described by a French Ambassador as ‘Catholic in his soul’. His father, the 8th Earl, had been openly Catholic, and his uncle was beheaded for his part in the Northern Rising of 1572 on behalf of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Northumberland, although still an enormously wealthy and powerful magnate, desired to repair the damage to the wealth and reputation of his family during the Elizabethan period, and also to check the ever-increasing influence of Robert Cecil. So when in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign Thomas Percy approached him with the idea of making overtures to James VI of Scotland, her likely successor, Northumberland applauded the idea. By promising James the support of the Catholics to ensure a smooth accession in exchange for promises of toleration, Northumberland hoped to improve his station by earning a debt of gratitude from James in the coming reign.
Northumberland sent Percy to James in Scotland at least three times by 1602 with secret written and verbal correspondence. He told James on behalf of the English Catholics how they would readily accept him as their king if he could accept them as his loyal subjects and release them from the years of persecution they had suffered in Elizabeth’s reign. The Catholics had many expectations from James as they had upheld the cause of his mother, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, and there were many rumours that his own wife was in fact a Catholic.
According to Percy, they were not to be disappointed. After his return from Scotland, he spread the good news amongst the Catholic community that James had given his word as a prince not only to free them from their persecution, but to actively favour them and admit them to every honour and office on an equal par with Protestants.
After James’ unobstructed accession to the English throne, it became clear that whatever promises made were quickly forgotten, as far from alleviating the situation of Catholics, he not only increased the prosecution of the existing laws but added new, more stringent ones. This turn of events completely humiliated Thomas Percy. He experienced bitter disappointment and anger at being so deceived by James, as well as a loss of reputation amongst many of the Catholics who now believed that Percy was lying to them all along. He also felt responsible for having convinced his Catholics brothers to accept James as their king.
In hope of reminding James of all that had passed between them, he sent a supplication on behalf of the Catholics that was completely ignored. James went so far as to publicly deny that he had ever made any promises of tolerance to anyone and nor would he ever consider it.
Percy’s seed of resentment was now deeply sewn. He told his tale of James’ two-faced deception repeatedly to people he trusted in the Catholic community, and lost no opportunity to express his bitterness at having been so ill used.
In this manner, his feelings about King James were made crystal clear to Robert Catesby, who could see that Percy would be eager to take revenge. It was apparent that Percy would be willing to do anything to rescue his reputation from the taint of having been a mere puppet and dupe used to neutralize the Catholics arousing the open mockery and castigation of the community. During one conversation with Catesby, Percy burst out that he would kill the king, but the cooler Catesby told him “No, Tom, thou shalt not adventure to small purpose, but if thou wilt be a traitour, thou shalt be to some great advantage”. (Hat MSS v18 p73)
In April 1604, a few weeks later, Thomas Percy met again with Catesby, who was joined by Thomas Wintour. During their conversation, Percy again could not contain his frustration and exclaimed “Shall we always, gentlemen, talk and never do anything?” Catesby now knew he had his man, and explained to Percy that indeed, they did have a plan to do something, but before he would reveal it, Percy would have to take an oath of complete secrecy.
On 13th May, in a house behind St. Clements Inn rented by the Jesuit priest, John Gerard, the original five conspirators met to take the oath: Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Guy Fawkes and Thomas Percy. After the administration of the oath, they took the sacrament in an adjoining room to seal their compact. This being done, Catesby revealed to Percy his plan to blow up Parliament and Percy joined their number.
Percy definitely had many benefits to bring to the conspiracy. His zeal and dedication to the cause was unquestionable, and his connections with Northumberland gave the group considerable advantages. This standing was further improved when he was conveniently made a Gentleman Pensioner only three weeks later, giving him free access to the court and members of the Royal family, and along with Catesby. Percy soon established himself as a leader of their group.
The first order of the day was to obtain a center of operations. Catesby had already identified a suitable house adjacent to the House of Lords and close by the Parliament Stairs, a landing on the Thames almost directly opposite Catesby’s house in Lambeth. This house was owned by John Whinniard, the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe, and leased to the antiquarian Henry Ferrers.
It has been claimed by many writers that because of his position as Gentleman Pensioner it would not be suspicious for Percy to take a house close to Parliament, and that he used the assistance of other influential Pensioners to persuade Ferrers and Whinniard to lease the house to him. However, this ignores the fact that the house was leased by Percy on 24 May, but he was not made a Gentleman Pensioner until the following month.
It is more likely that a personal relationship clinched the deal. Henry Ferrers came from a Catholic family and had in fact rented his property at Baddesley Clinton several years before to relatives of both Robert Catesby and Thomas Wintour, the sisters Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby. It is unlikely that Ferrers was unaware that these sisters had promptly turned the property into a hive of Catholic activities, where the Superior of the Jesuits. Fr. Henry Garnet often lived. It doesn’t seem that Ferrers made a habit of asking too many questions of his catholic associates.
Guy Fawkes assumed the name of John Johnson and established himself at the Whinniard house as Percy’s servant. As parliament had been adjourned until February, and their plans further delayed by their house being taken over temporarily by a Scottish delegation, it was not until December 1604 that the conspirators, according to Guy Fawkes, started work on the mine which was to lead from the Whinniard house underneath the Parliament House.
In the meantime, the details of the plot were being worked out. It was decided that as Prince Henry was likely to be attending Parliament and would therefore perish with his father, that Percy would seize his 5 year old brother, Charles, Duke of York, with a view of placing him on the throne. The young Duke would be in residence at Richmond on the day of the opening of Parliament, with only a few household members present. It would be easy for Percy as a Gentleman Pensioner to whisk him away as soon as they heard the explosion, under the pretext of taking him to safety.
The work on the mine, if it ever existed, did not go well according to Fawkes. The walls were thicker than they anticipated and they were having a problem with water seepage. It was at the end of March, as they were working, that they heard a strange sound coming from almost above their heads. It turned out to be the sounds of coals being removed from a cellar that was situated on the ground floor of the House of Lords. A coal merchant named Bright held the lease also of Whinniard, but he was going out of business, therefore it was a simple matter for Percy to lease this cellar as well, claiming it would be a useful place for him to store fuel.
Now all the conspirators had to do was to move the gunpowder that they had collected from Lambeth into the cellar, disguise it with fuel that they purchased for that purpose, lock it up and await the coming of Parliament.
That being done, Percy continued in his normal duties for the Earl of Northumberland, spending the summer of 1605 in Alnwick in Northamptonshire collecting the rents. In August, at a meeting in Bath he gave permission to Catesby to bring in any other conspirators he saw fit.
On October 30th. Percy was in York with 4 men, arranging for the delivery of the rents that they had collected, however early the following morning he departed abruptly, taking two men with him, and telling the other men that he would be back the following day. As Guy Fawkes admitted that he had “gone northward” between the 31st and the 2nd of November, it is entirely likely that Fawkes was dispatched to warn Percy of the discovery of the Monteagle letter.
On November 2nd, Percy wrote three letters from Gainsboro, one to William Stockdall, the auditor for the Earl of Northumberland, claiming that he had to leave abruptly because the Archbishop was about to have him arrested as a chief pillar of papistry. He said that Stockdall should meet him with the rents the following Thursday at Doncaster. However, the dating of these letters must be incorrect, as Percy was seen riding post from Ware that same day, and had somehow managed to make it to London to have dinner at the Angel in St. Clements that same night, a 150-mile trip that defies plausibility.
The following day he met with Catesby and Wintour to discuss the ramifications of the Monteagle Letter. Although there was some discussion of flight, Percy was determined not to succumb to panic, and that he would “abide the uttermost trial”. He decided to visit Syon House, which belonged to the Earl of Northumberland, to see if any rumours were circulating. He felt that if their secret was discovered, he would be arrested immediately on his appearance there, and was willing to sacrifice himself to give the others an opportunity to escape.
Percy found nothing untoward at Syon House when he went there on the 4th. He spoke for a while with his patron about an imaginary loan, and dined with him and a few other gentlemen without any hint of a discovery of a plot being mentioned. After leaving Syon House, it is possible that this was when he paid a visit to Richmond. As later testified to by a servant, Agnes Fortrun, Percy came to the Duke’s lodging there and was asking many questions. She claimed that this took place around the 1st of November, however this would have been impossible.
He returned from Syon at 6pm and met with Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright and Robert Keyes, and relayed the good news. Everything was to go ahead as planned. After making arrangements for a watch to be sent to Fawkes, who was standing by at Westminster, so that he could know the time to set the gunpowder the following day, Percy went to Essex House, which also belonged to the Earl of Northumberland. He went under the pretext of seeing his cousin Jocelyn, but was probably trying to keep an ear out for any possible talk of discovery.
According to Tesimond, Percy wisely decided to sleep in a different place that night, but sometime before 5am his sleep was disturbed by Christopher Wright, who had heard that the gunpowder had been discovered, and everyone was now searching for Percy as the tenant of the cellar. As Percy and Wright prepared to flee London, Percy was heard to say by his servant, William Talbois, “I am undone’!
During their flight, they were overtaken by another of the conspirators, Ambrose Rookwood at Little Brickhill in Buckinghamshire. Percy is reported to have been astonished to discover that Rookwood was a co-conspirator, and that “I thought no man had been acquainted with it but such as I had known.”
Although it is possible that the other conspirators had overlooked mentioning it to him, this seems unlikely. And there can be no doubt that the other conspirators were aware. Rookwood had been lodging in London with Robert Keyes, and he and Christopher Wright had both had their sword hilts engraved with the Passion of Christ shortly before.
The conspirators rendezvoused at Dunchurch, where additional men had been gathered together by Sir Everard Digby. The purpose of the gathering was under the guise of a hunt, however the true purpose was to kidnap the Princess Elizabeth from her home at nearby Coombe Abbey after the explosion in London. However, just hours before the anticipated event. Digby was told news of the failure of the plot and that they all had to flee for their lives.
Back in London, the first of several proclamations had been sent out for the immediate apprehension of Percy, and almost amusingly, Percy had been claimed to be spotted leaving London in almost every conceivable direction. If not for the conspirators almost suicidal action of breaking into some stables at Warwick Castle in order to obtain fresh mounts, thereby alerting the local authorities, Percy and his friends might have gained a considerable lead over his pursuers, and been able to make their way into Wales, where it is believed they were heading. As it was, the plotters were soon hotly pursued and quickly brought to ground by Sir Richard Walsh, High Sheriff of Worcestershire for their final stand at Holbeache House.
On the morning of November 8th, Walsh and his men stormed the house, smoking the conspirators from their hides. As they took up their defensive position in the courtyard, Catesby and Percy were felled by a single shot from the musket of John Streete of Worcester, who later claimed compensation from the government for his marksmanship. Percy was killed instantly, Catesby managing to crawl back inside the house before expiring.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Thomas Percy" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/thomas-percy/, January 16, 2022