Monday, October 27, 2014

The Incorrigible Tom Percy ~ Martyr or Murderer?

by Linda Root

Thomas Percy
Lord Henry Percy
Earl of

In A History of the House of Percy from the earliest times to the present century(1902) author Gerald Brenan attributes the fall of Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland to his cousin Tom.  Even Brenan’s sympathetic  account cannot avoid noting the Wizard Earl should have seen it coming.

If there was a black sheep in the Percy family, it definitely was Thomas.  In his youth he got away with murder, but in his middle years, he nearly got away with regicide. To add to the irony, popular history blames it all on a man named  Guy Fawkes.

Described in Brenan's tome as a tall, handsome man with large, clear eyes who had a propensity to sweat and who was regarded as 'half fanatic—half ruffian', Thomas was often in trouble with the law.  He was a most unlikely person to have attained the high position in the service of his mighty cousin which provided him the opportunity and wherewithal to engage in a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament. If there were such a thing as poetic justice, The Fifth of November would be called Percy-Catesby Day, for Tom and his best friend Robert Catesby were the true instigators of The Gunpowder Treason. Fawkes was just their foot soldier.

Prior to the events that lead to Northumberland’s downfall, the Earl appointed Tom Constable of Alnwyck Castle, which charged him with  the management and collection of rents gleaned from the Earl’s estates in Northumberland and along the English East and Middle Marches. To appreciate the importance of such an assignment requires an understanding  of how incredibly wealthy Lord Henry Percy had become and how vast his holdings.  His primary residence in Northumberland, Alnwyck Castle, best known to modern readers as Hogworts, was a scant nine miles away from his equally elegant coastal fortress at Warkworth,  a mile inland on the River Coquet. The game parks and farms between and beyond were Percy holdings.

Alnwyk, Wikimedea commons, PD
Warkworth Castle, Wm.Turner{{PD-Art}}

Nevertheless, the Percy fortune was not as vast as it might have been had the Percys of the sixteenth century behaved themselves to the satisfaction of Elizabeth Tudor. After the death of the 'Magnificent Earl' Henry Percy, the 5th Earl of Northumberland who had distinguished himself in the service of both of England's Henrys-- the 7th and the 8th-- the subsequent holders of the title seemed to have a penchant for getting themselves in trouble.

The 6th Earl, another Henry, is best known for his unsanctioned betrothal to a girl named Anne Boleyn. The 7th Earl cut the widest historical swatch of the group by leading the Northern Uprising of 1569 and getting himself beheaded and beatified.  The always fiscally driven Elizabeth did not mind restoring some of the Percy lands and the title to the dead Earl's brother as long as the exorbitant fines were paid.

The 8th Earl of Northumberland had supported the Queen in her struggles against his errant older brother and was high in Elizabeth's favor until he embraced the cause of the imprisoned Queen of Scots.  He was murdered during one of his stays in the Tower.

Thus, the Henry Percy of our story,  Ninth Earl of Northumberland, inherited estates  reduced by forfeitures, levies and fines incurred due to antics of his family  during Elizabeth’s reign.

The Earl’s employment of his controversial cousin as his agent had to have been a  business decision based on nepotism, since there was nothing in Tom Percy's past performance to recommend him to the task. The upkeep of the Northern properties required skilled administration,  not the  heavy handed and corrupt  management style of Thomas Percy.

Garter plate of the 5th Earl of Northumberland, Wikimedia

Thomas Percy may have been a grandson of the Fifth Earl of Northumberland,  'the Magnificent Earl' who served both Henry Tudors,  but he was not a close kinsman of his contemporary, the Ninth Earl.  He went to London at the urging of his brother Jocelyn, ostensibly to study law, but the academic  regimen failed to entice him, and he ended up living in Alsatia, a London suburb known for its violence. In the vernacular of his day, he was known as a ‘free companion,’ making his way by the use of his sword.

Before he became the manager of the Earl’s extensive estates in Northumberland, Tom Percy had walked in the shadow of the gallows more than once. Yet, whether by virtue of his charm or by reason of his bloodline, trouble seemed to roll right off his back. Even today anyone who pursues a career in criminal prosecution has at some point received a phone call or a personal visits from the representative of a well known  family of means requesting clemency for a child who has managed to get his or her  name on the police blotter. Political arm-twisting is not a new thing.  Recent studies have shown it to have run rampant in the last decade of Elizabeth Tudor's reign. In the twilight of the sixteenth century when young Tom  transgressed, the political pressure came from his kinsmen  the Earls of Northumberland and Essex, two of Elizabethan England's highest ranking peers.

In 1596 the most notorious of his exploits brought him perilously close to the gallows. While Brenan’s history does not divulge the details, other sources suggest he murdered a Scotsman named Burns in a street fight, the first of several events in which he escaped punishment through the intervention of people in high places. Before his trial, one of his older brothers appealed to the Earls of Northumberland and Essex on  his behalf. Essex penned a note to Lord Beaumont,  Chief Justice of the Court of Sessions, flaunting Tom's ties to himself and Northumberland, stressing Tom's background and predicting he would be of great service to his country in the future. Upon Essex’s intervention, Thomas was sprung.  Essex later defined service to his county by leading a failed rebellion against his Queen, an act  which got him killed. His protege was to follow in his footsteps.

 2nd earl of  Essex
If Thomas Percy learned anything from the escapade it was to exploit his ties to those in high favor with the crown.

Upon a promise to behave himself, he was paroled to Northumberland’s London establishment,  Sion House at Isleswich, a wealthy  suburb.  During this time he also served as one of Essex’s henchmen in a failed plot against Sir Robert Ker, Baron Roxburghe,  who was Warden of the Scottish Middle Marches. During the years 1601 and 1602,  he accompanied Northumberland on an adventure in the Low Countries. Within a few months of his return, he was sent to Alnwyck as the Earl's personal agent. He likely stayed clear of the Essex fiasco because he was  in Europe at the time.

Regarding Percy's  appointment as his cousin’s agent, he had nothing to commend him to the post but good looks, charm, and some limited service to the Earl during their stay in Flanders.  Insofar as the tenants on Northumberland’s lands were concerned, he  was nothing but a hooligan who was overreaching in his efforts to collect from those he chose to bully, and lenient with those who  did him homage as if he were the titular earl rather than his agent.

Englishmen in the rural north shared many of the characteristics of Border reivers and were not about to succumb to abuse from Northumberland’s new dandy. Some openly resisted his demands with threats of violence. Others among the disgruntled resorted to the courts and presented strong cases against their self-appointed overlord. The court did not look kindly upon the collection methods of the Constable of Alnwyck, and eventually Northumberland was required to intercede. Tom wrote obsequious, apologetic  letters and was predictably forgiven.

He continued in his post as Constable, but to appease his many enemies, he acted through a deputy and with the Earl’s approval moved south to London. He only returned to Alnwyck when it was time to collect the Earl’s substantial revenues.  At about this time, he had developed a new reason d'etre and probably planned to divert a portion of his cousin's revenues to his new enterprise. Although raised a protestant like his cousin, Percy had married a Catholic woman,  Martha Wright, and adopted her religion with the same belligerence and zeal he exhibited in his other endeavors.  Some of his apologists propose his new-found faith  cured him of his hooliganism, but if that were so, the lessons did not last long. He was regarded as a rabble rousing fanatic by Catholic moderates and most recusants found his beliefs dangerous. He even made his friend and fellow activist Robert Catesby nervous.

Residing near London after misadventures with his cousin’s tenants placed him closer to the center of political action in Elizabeth Tudor’s waning years. When the Earl became enchanted with a religious settlement of tolerance such as Henry IV had brought to France, Percy became the Earl’s  emissary to the Catholic houses both in England and abroad.  Not long after his marriage he was fingered as a possible recusant and jailed after attending a meeting of known Catholic activists. True to form, he exploited his personal connections  to the fullest; by the following morning due to Northumberland’s intervention, he was freed to watch others hang.

JamesVI of Scotland
Percy's activities should have put him high on Elizabeth's Watcher’s List, but time was in Thomas's favor.  Fortunately, his high profile exploits occurred at a point when powerful men on both sides of the Border were waiting for Elizabeth Tudor to draw her final breath. Many Englishmen were openly courting her likely heir, James Charles Stuart, King of Scots, son of Christendom’s most celebrated Catholic martyr. Because of his eloquence, good looks, and confident manner, when the northern Catholic powers sought a secret emissary to plead the Catholic cause to the King of Scots, the mission was given to wily Tom.

What transpired between him and James VI of Scotland  is a topic of controversy. Tom came back from Scotland with good news for English Catholics: the King of Scots had  adopted an attitude of tolerance.  If he became Elizabeth’s heir, Catholics would be free to worship without reprisal.

There are three explanations to how such a report originated: first, Tom reported his discourse with the Scottish king accurately, but the king was deliberately misleading him; second, the parties struggled with a language barrier and each party to the conversation heard what he wished to hear; and three, Percy sugar-coated  the king’s comments to enhance the likelihood of a Stuart succession in which he believed he would find favor. It may well  have been a combination of all three. In any case, in the months before the death of Elizabeth Stuart, Thomas Percy was brokering to his Catholic friends a succession by a sympathetic James VI who did not exist.  If James harbored any doubt as to his attitudes toward Catholicism, two minor uprisings in the early days of his reign resolved them.

By 1603 at his friend Robert Catesby's home at Ashby St. Legers, Percy was already claiming a willingness to avenge the new King’s deceit by killing the new King with his own bare hands. Catesby urged him to exercise restraint until he could arrive at a better alternative.

After the meeting of the  King’s first parliament in the spring of 1604, English Catholics were disappointed by the message sent by their new sovereign.  Through  representations of men like Percy, most of them had expected a relaxation of restrictions on Catholic practices, and some anticipated a reinstatement of the mass. At his premier parliament James I made the union of the kingdoms his first priority. His attitude toward both Catholics and Puritans was becoming less tolerant with time.  Instead of relaxing restrictions against non-Anglicans, he intensified them.

By May 1604, Catesby had a plan to present to Percy and his friends.  Percy , Catesby and three other men of like disposition met at the Duck & Drake Inn near the Strand. Percy’s alleged opening words to the others were "Shall we always, gentlemen, talk, and never do anything?"

At the close of the meeting, the five conspirators retired to a back room at the inn where they took an oath of secrecy on a prayer book and celebrated a mass performed by the celebrated Jesuit Father Gerard. The Gunpowder Treason was born.

Engraving of the  Gunpowder Conspirators, Wikimedia Commons

A survey of the literature concerning the  evolution of the plot shows Percy as one of the principals from start to finish.  He brought his brother-in-law John Wright and Wright’s brother Christopher  into the  group in the initial stages. He is alleged to have recruited some of the later members in writing. At first blush his method sounds incredibly capricious, but  Catholic activists in the English north were often linked by blood or marriage, a close knit group. They shared a network with many recusants and priests. Tom Percy and Robert Catesby were drawing from a familiar well.

While many of Thomas Percy’s co-conspirators were of the country gentry, Percy was the most urbane. He knew his way about London and its suburbs.  He also enjoyed the status afforded one who was Northumberland’s personal agent and kinsman.  In that capacity he sublet a residence adjoining the Houses of Parliament, and installed Guido (Guy) Fawkes in it as his caretaker under the pseudonym ‘John Johnston, Mr. Percy’s servant.’  Under cover of darkness Fawkes, who had experience as a soldier dealing with ordnance and explosives, hauled sacks of  gunpowder from a barge on the nearby Thames to the residence. At first they attempted to tunnel their way from their leased headquarters into the Houses of Parliament until they realized doing so was unnecessary. The cellar of the house  was more extensive than the upper floors and ran under the House of Lords.

For those of us who may have experienced  the degree of vetting which precedes a presidential visit, it is hard to imagine the ease with which a man of Percy's history was able to lease premises adjoining Parliament. His explanation to the owner was a need to be close to the center of activity in his capacity as Northumberland’s personal agent.

Miniature of the 9th Earl of Northumberland, Wikimedia Commons

Northumberland himself planned to move to his rooms in Essex House for the opening session of Parliament.  According to numerous witnesses, insofar as Northumberland knew, his cousin was still in the North Country collecting rents. He was soon to learn he had been misinformed. Thomas Percy may have been clever,but  he was hardly discreet. One of his and the Earl's  common relatives ran into Percy  when he was out in town and inadvertently mentioned the incident to the Earl. When Northumberland began to make inquiries as to his cousin’s presence in the capital, Tom heard of it and arrived at his cousin’s residence on the pretext of accounting for the money which he conveniently failed to bring along.  He was graciously invited to stay for lunch.

The date was November 4, 1605.

The luncheon meeting was used by Cecil and his prosecutor Coke to imply Northumberland was knowledgeable of  the plot.  Some sympathetic historians believe Tom Percy went to Sion House to warn him to stay home the following morning, but skeptics believe that once his presence in London had been disclosed, Percy hastily moved to cover his tracks. If the purpose of his visit was to warn the Earl, he failed in his endeavor. After Percy left Sion House, the Earl moved from the suburb to  Essex House and  retired early to be fully rested for the pageantry of the following day.

Percy’s assignment did not place him anywhere near Westminster at the opening of Parliament. His initial role had been to position himself outside of London so he could kidnap Princess Elisabeth  Stewart, who Catesby had selected as their  choice of puppet sovereign. Later the assignment changed to seizing the Prince of Wales from  Oxford where he was a student and security was lax.

Until 1605, no one expected Prince Charles, the sickly Duke of Albany to live long enoough to be a contender for the crown. However, the parliament planned for the spring of 1605 was called off because of plague in the city, and concurrently, the much improved Charles Stuart arrived from Scotland and was placed in the care of  Sir Robert and Lady Carey. As the eve of the misadventure approached, Wales announced an intent to accompany his royal parents to the parliamentary gala. Charles, who would soon be five,  had begun to walk and talk. In the first days of November, Percy had been reassigned to stalking young Charles.

While in Scotland Charles Stuart  had been raised in a Catholic environment, and in spite of the nostalgia surrounding Good Queen Bess, the English still favored placing the English crown on the head of a male. Charles’s fragile health suggested he would be easy to manipulate. He  seemed a perfect puppet. Percy was to snatch him from the Carey house and haul him out of London to a safe house until he could be proclaimed king. Because of his status, he would have been acceptable to most English and would be sympathetic to a pro- Catholic hierarchy. England would be governed during Charles’s  minority by a pro-Catholic Regent. Northumberland's name had been mentioned. This does not mean he was aware of it, but it was enough to whet Cecil's palate, who considered Northumberland an enemy.  At any rate, Charles became the new candidate to replace his father on the throne.

That, of course, is not how it all ended, but it might have.

The initial five conspirators well may have carried it off. But letting too many people into the group doomed the plan. The popular theory is one of them, likely Sir Francis Tresham, sent a letter to an M.P. named William Parker, Lord Monteagle on October 26, warning him to stay away from Parliament.  Parker, whose Catholic leaning had previously placed him at risk immediately ran to Robert Cecil and tattled. Catesby and Percy learned of the revealing letter  from a man named Ward who was one of Monteagle’s servants and had seen the letter.  Tresham vehemently denied all knowledge of it, and when no steps were taken to curtail the conspiracy, the plotters decided Cecil had regarded it as a prank, and they went forward with their plans.

According to the prevailing theory, Cecil decided to wait to act until he had the goods on all of the culprits and if possible, a link implicating the  Jesuits. Up to that point, no one had warned  King James of a plot to blow him, Queen Anne, his heir the Prince of Wales, and half of the government to smithereens.

Then events grow 'curiouser and curiouser'.

The Monteagle letter, PD-Wikimedia commons.

Another nine days went by without any action on behalf of the Crown. No alarm bells rang: no whistles were blown. Percy and the others met and voted to go forward.  It is at this point that Tom Percy discovered his presence in London had been revealed, forcing him to deliver his accounting to Northumberland at Sion House at midday, an act that allowed Cecil to later act against the Earl.  Percy apparently went from Sion House to Whitehall to  reconnoiter the Carey House as a prelude to snatching Charles. True to form, he approached a woman on Carey’s household staff and asked  questions about the security of the little Duke of Albany.

Late that night, while passing by Clements Inn near Essex House Percy learned from the tavern crowd that a man named John Johnston had just been arrested in possession of enough gunpowder to blow up Parliament. There was a plan in place to cover such a disaster. Tom hurried to an appointed rendezvous where one of the conspirators had fresh horses waiting.

They fled the city and proceeded to a safe house and met up with several of the others on the way. Later when they reached their destination and alerted the others, Guy 'Guido' Fawkes was in the Tower under torture. It was only a matter of time before the entire plan came undone. According to the statement of witnesses, they attempted to stoke an uprising and were turned away by even their most ardent Catholic friends. A leading Jesuit despaired of their actions as dooming the fate of England’s many moderate Catholics. There was no alternative left but to run.

In what Antonia Fraser portrays as a brave last stand in her entertaining book, a group of the conspirators including the Wrights, Catesby and Percy were too fatigued by their flight to ride forward into Wales and after stopping at Ashby St. Legers, they holed up at a house in Holbeach just over the Staffordshire county line.  When their pursuers began to close in, some of their number fled into the woods and were later caught, but not the original principals, who elected to stand and fight.

By the morning of November 8, they were surrounded by Sheriff Richard Walsh of  Worchester and a posse comitatas.  Both Wright brothers fought bravely but in vain.

Catesby’s last recorded words as reported in Brennan’s account were to his friend: "Stand by me, Tom!...Stand by me and we will die togetlier [sic]."

Percy and Catesby stood back to back with swords in play until they were felled by a single shot fired by a man named Hall who received a pension until he died in 1640.

Northumberland did not hear of his cousin’s fate until November 10th  just before he was placed under house arrest. Earlier he had requested  to be permitted to join the pursuit, citing a need to recover the rather large sum of his money in the possession of his cousin. Cecil refused, stating his departure from the city would seem suspicious to the inflamed populace. Later that day he was informed the King was excusing his presence at all further meetings of the privy council while 'matters were being investigated.'

After learning of the injury to his cousin, the Earl demanded a foreign surgeon be imported to tend to his cousin’s wounds, since English physicians were notoriously clumsy.  He wished the man kept alive long enough to exonerate him, he declared. Predictably, Sheriff Walsh made no effort to treat the fallen traitor who died before he could be interrogated. When the King learned of  Percy’s death, he could not hide his joy. Anti-Jacobean historians speculate Percy had more to share about his visits to Scotland than King James wished Cecil and his subjects to discover.

The mystery in all of this is two-fold: first of all, why would a man as  astute as the Wizard Earl of Northumberland put his fortune and his reputation in the hands of a man like Thomas Percy?; and secondly, why did Cecil wait so long to make his move?  Historians  have addressed those issues from different viewpoints and arrived at differing conclusions, leaving an irresistible lure for writers of historical fiction who can spot a good story in need of telling, hopefully without doing an injustice to the past.


Linda Root

Author’s Note:

In the spirit expressed in the ultimate paragraph of this post, I have spent the last few months writing In the Shadow of the Gallows, the fourth novel in my Legacy of the Queen of Scots series, due in January 2015.  For the first three novels in the series, visit  my author page on Amazon.

Principal Sources Include:

1. Brenan, G. & Lindsay,W.A.. (1602) A History of the House of Percy: From the earliest times down to the present century, London, Fremantle & Co.
2.  Haynes, Alan (2005) [1994], The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion, Sparkford, England: Hayes and Sutton, ISBN 0-7509-4215-0
3. Gerard, Fr. John, John Morris Ed. The Condition of Catholics Under James I: Father Gerard’s narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, John Morris, 1871.
4. Fraser, Antonia (2010). The Gunpowder plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, Hachette, Retreived  5 August 2014. 
5. The Memoirs of Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth edited by C.H.Powell, Alexander Moring Limited, London 1905.


  1. What was it with the Percy family, anyway? They seem to have made treason a family industry from way back! Even before the era you mention.

  2. Very interesting article. And they certainly were an extraordinary family. A couple of slips/typos. It should be posse comitatus (not comitatas). 'In the months before the death of' Elizabeth Tudor, not Elizabeth Stuart. And surely James's daughter Elizabeth was Stuart, not Stewart? Just nit-picking! As I say, a very interesting study of the infamous Tom. I've always found the Wizard Earl particularly fascinating.


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