Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Percy, Thomas (1560-1605)

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PERCY, THOMAS (1560–1605), an organiser of the ‘Gunpowder Plot,’ was younger son of Edward Percy of Beverley, by his wife Elizabeth Waterton. His grandfather, Josceline Percy, was fourth son of Henry Percy, fourth earl of Northumberland [q. v.] (De Fonblanque, Annals, ii. 586). Although brought up as a protestant, Percy became in early life an ardent catholic, and, despite an unamiable temper, he attracted the notice of Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland [q. v.], his second cousin once removed. The latter appointed him, in October 1594, constable of Alnwick Castle, and he seems to have acted as agent for the earl's northern property, and to have incurred much unpopularity by a tyrannical exercise of his authority. The Earl of Essex, brother-in-law of the Earl of Northumberland, also befriended him. In February 1596 Essex wrote to Francis Beaumont [q. v.], the judge, asking him ‘to favour Thomas Percy, a near kinsman to my brother of Northumberland, who is in trouble for some offence imputed to him. He is a gentleman well descended, and of good parts, and very able to do his country good service.’ Two years later he was detained as a recusant in Wood Street compter, London. In 1602 charges of embezzling his master's money were brought against him, on the information of some discontented tenants, but the investigation which followed left the Earl of Northumberland's confidence in him unshaken.

In the same year Percy undertook, at the bidding of Northumberland, a political mission to Scotland. He carried a letter from the earl to James VI, requesting a promise of toleration for the English catholics in the event of James's accession to the English throne. James's reply was interpreted favourably. In 1604 the earl secured for Percy a place at court in London as a gentleman pensioner. Percy shared the discontent of his co-religionists at James's reluctance to repeal the penal legislation against the catholics. His wife was a sister of John Wright, a staunch catholic, and an intimate friend of Robert Catesby [q. v.] Percy is said to have accidentally heard, in 1604, Wright, Catesby, and a third associate, Thomas Winter, discuss the obligation which lay on English catholics of striking a blow for their faith. Percy suggested the murder of the king as the best means of removing catholic disabilities. Catesby thereupon confided to him the general features of a plan, upon which he, Wright, and Winter, had already resolved, of blowing up the houses of parliament. Thenceforth Percy was one of the most active organisers of ‘the gunpowder plot.’ He hired, in his own name, a house at Westminster adjoining the parliament house (24 May 1604), and installed in it Guy Fawkes [q. v.], whom he represented to be a servant of his, by name John Johnson. Percy added to his property a neighbouring cellar in the following March, and superintended the storage there of gunpowder, with a view to destroying the parliament house as soon as the next session opened. The execution of the desperate design was finally appointed for 5 Nov.

Some weeks before, Catesby met Percy and others of the conspirators at Bath, and they resolved to enlist the services of catholic countrymen in various counties, so as to insure a general rising as soon as the explosion had taken place in London. Percy undertook to supply to a party of rebels, apparently at Doncaster, ‘ten galloping horses’ from the Earl of Northumberland's stables, and to hand over the Michaelmas rents, to the amount of 4,000l., which he was about to collect for his master. To carry out these objects he arrived at Alnwick in October. Meanwhile, William Parker, fourth baron Monteagle [q. v.], was warned of the conspiracy on 26 Oct., and the information he gave to the authorities led them to arrest Guy Fawkes in the cellar on 4 Nov. Fawkes described himself as Percy's servant. By that date Percy had just arrived in London from the north, and on the 4th he dined with the Earl of Northumberland at Syon House; but a message from Fawkes acquainted him with the turn of events, and he left London with Christopher Wright the next morning. A royal proclamation at once offered 1,000l. reward for his capture. He was described as tall, with a broad beard turning grey, stooping shoulders, red-coloured face, long feet, and short legs. Percy and Wright found Catesby at Ashby St. Leger, whence they made their way to Holbeach, on the borders of Staffordshire, on the 7th. On the 8th the government troops attacked the house in which the conspirators had taken refuge. Catesby and Percy fought desperately, back to back. The former was killed outright; Percy was desperately wounded, and died two days later.

Percy figures in Crispin Pass's engraving ad vivum of Guy Fawkes and his seven chief confederates.

Percy's wife is said to have removed from Alnwick during Percy's lifetime and to have settled at the upper end of Holborn, London, where she gained a livelihood by teaching. A son Robert married at Wiveliscombe, Somerset, on 22 Oct. 1615, Emma Mead, and left issue. Of Percy's two daughters, one married Catesby's son Robert.

[Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix. 173–5, x. 142–3; De Fonblanque's Annals of the House of Percy, ii. 586–600; Jardine's Gunpowder Plot, 1857; see arts. Catesby, Robert, and Fawkes, Guy.]

S. L.