Thomas Percy was one of the conspirators associated with the 1605 Gunpowder Plot – the attempt to kill James I and as many in Parliament as was possible. Thomas Percy was killed at Holbeche House and therefore escaped the fate that fell to those who were caught – being hung, drawn and quartered.
Thomas Percy was born around 1563. Little is known about his early life though he did start Cambridge University in 1579. Reports from the time suggest that Percy had a reputation as a good swordsman and he travelled the country demonstrating this skill.
In 1595, the Earl of Northumberland gave Thomas Percy the position of collecting the rent on the Earl’s land in the north. Percy became Constable of Alnwick Castle. Whether he did his job honestly is open to speculation – he was charged thirty four times with crimes such as forgery and unlawful eviction. However, Percy was good at what he was employed to do – collecting rent from families that were frequently less than willing to pay it. He was well regarded by his employer, the Earl of Northumberland. In 1596, Percy was jailed for killing a Scot in a border skirmish. But his standing in the eyes of Northumberland continued to grow and the Earl took Percy with him to the Low Countries where he held a command.
None of his early life gives any indication that religion was to take a hold on him to such an extent that he was willing to involve himself in a plot to kill James I. However, there are some clear indicators. In 1591, he married Martha Wright, the sister of John and Christopher Wright, two of his fellow conspirators in 1605. The marriage by degrees seemed to calm down Percy. After the marriage, Percy converted to Catholicism and it was reported that “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.”
Though he was to deny it, the Earl of Northumberland was known to have Catholic sympathies. Thomas Percy persuaded Northumberland that a sound approach would be to make contact with James VI of Scotland who was seen as the obvious successor to Elizabeth. James was told that Catholics in England would support his accession if he promised greater toleration of Catholicism in England. Percy visited Scotland on three occasions in 1602 and believed that he had got the required promise of toleration. Percy returned to north England and told Catholics what appeared to be the good news.
However, James did not keep what were deemed to be promises. In fact, he increased the persecution of the Catholics while denying that any promises had been made whatsoever. Percy was humiliated within the Catholic community and many believed that he had deceived them.
Percy had to make good his standing in the Catholic community and it was this that Robert Catesby latched on to. In one outburst the angry Percy publicly stated that he wanted kill the king. Luckily for Percy, this was done in front of an audience of Catholics. Robert Catesby calmed down Percy but it was clear to him that Percy would be a valuable addition to the group of conspirators that was developing. Percy joined the original group of conspirators on May 13th 1604. Percy, Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Wintour and John Wright all swore an oath of secrecy in a house rented out by John Gerard, the Jesuit priest.
Percy leased a house very near to the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes became ‘John Johnson’ the servant of Percy at the house. Percy, now a Gentleman Pensioner, was also able to lease the cellar in Parliament from a coal merchant named Bright who was going out of business and needed whatever money he could get. The gunpowder was moved to the cellar and was covered with straw, wood and hay – fuel that the Percy household claimed they needed for the winter. With this done, Percy returned to the north of England and continued with his rent collecting duties for the Earl of Northumberland.
It is thought that sometime between October 31st and November 2nd Fawkes warned Percy of the ‘Monteagle Letter’. On November 3rd, Percy met with Robert Catesby and Thomas Wintour to discuss the implications of the ‘Monteagle Letter’. They decided to go ahead with the plan.
With the discovery of Fawkes, the cry went up for the arrest of the man who had rented out the cellar – Thomas Percy. He fled from London as had been arranged if the plot was foiled. The conspirators took horses from Warwick Castle which alerted the authorities there and the Sheriff of Worcester, Sir Richard Walsh, pursued the conspirators to Holbeche House. There the conspirators were faced with a simple choice. If they surrendered they knew what they could expect. They decided to fight their way out despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered. Thomas Percy was shot dead by the same bullet that killed Robert Catesby. Therefore they were spared the butchery that was associated with being hung, drawn and quartered.