On the day that the Duke of Northumberland shook hands over an (empty) stack of barrels with the Marquess of Salisbury and Peter Knyvett in Westminster Hall to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, Dr Colin Shrimpton entertained the Alnwick and District Local History Society with a talk about Thomas Percy, the Duke’s ancestor who had been involved in the conspiracy.
Thomas Percy was the great-grandson of the 4th Earl of Northumberland. He was a recusant, and was looking forward to Catholic toleration. He had been involved in negotiations with James VI of Scotland on toleration, and was disappointed when the king, now James I of England, took no action. Generally, historians allocate a minor role in the plot to Percy, because at the time he was thought to be the coolest and least committed. Dr Shrimpton, however, regards him as one of the principal conspirators.
There are good grounds for this: he undertook the organisation; he leased the chamber underneath the old Westminster Palace; and he was Guy Fawkes’ employer. Further, he was by nature a devious man, who was adept at hiding his true views. Possibly one of the reasons for the historian’s lack of interest in Percy is the fact that his handwriting was barely legible, and very strangely punctuated. Dr Shrimpton wondered what a graphologist would have made of his character! After Guy Fawkes was arrested, the conspirators fled to the Midlands to raise a force of Midland gentry. But many of their men surrendered, and both Catesby and Percy were mortally wounded, economically with a single bullet, at Holbridge, Staffs.
Thomas was born in Beverley in 1560 surrounded by evidence of the past greatness of his family, and its current impoverished position. Fines for recusants were heavy, and Leconfield, the family home in Yorkshire was in a poor state. The sixteenth century had been a difficult one for the Percy family. Thomas (executed) and Ingelram (imprisoned), younger brothers of the 6th Earl, were implicated in the Pilgrimage of Grace; the 7th Earl was a follower of Mary Queen of Scots and was
executed at York, whilst the 8th Earl, a great plotter and the most devious of the Percy’s, died in mysterious circumstances in the Tower in 1585.
Percy regarded himself as an idler as a young man. He was also an adventurer, as was the 9th Earl, and they went off to fight in the Low Countries. The 8th Earl was Percy’s first employer. On his death, Thomas worked for the 9th Earl. They had a lot in common, and the Earl trusted him. Percy was a Gentleman Pensioner; the 9th Earl was their Captain. They formed the King’s bodyguard, though, as it came out later at the Star Chamber, the Oath of Allegiance had never been properly administered.
The main residence of the Earl was Syon House, and Leconfield was stripped of its interiors to save money. Percy led a peripatetic existence, often in the saddle. He travelled to London to see the Earl, to Scotland to negotiate with the Scottish court, and although married to Martha Wright, sister of one of his co-conspirators, he also had a mistress in the Midlands. Alnwick therefore formed a good base for him.
But Alnwick Castle was another property in poor condition. It had had no Constable since the 1530’s. This was an important job, usually given to a trusted relative. Instead, Sir John Forster was warden of the marches. He lived at Alnwick Abbey, and allowed both Alnwick and Warkworth Castles to become ruinous. He finally retired in 1594, allowing the Earl to appoint his own man, Thomas Percy.
One of Percy’s first problems was to deal with the town burgesses, who were becoming independent of the Castle. In 1600 the plague killed the town bailiff, and Percy was able to put in his own appointee. Another problem was the foreign bailiff, Henry Harbottle; this post had been in the Harbottle family for 200 years. Percy dismissed him on the grounds of “insufficiency” and did the work himself, accruing more power to the Castle. He took on all-comers. Some of the more important families had enclosed some land, thinking the Earl too weak to stop them, but they had to give it back.
There was a particular problem with the Scots. In 1594, Percy ordered the tenants of Bondgate to equip themselves with horses and weapons, with the threat of eviction if they did not, as the Scots had, he said, “beggared” the tenants. On one occasion they kidnapped one of the Earl’s auditors. Alerted, Alnwick men chased after them at night (without having time to get dressed!). Following this, Percy asked the Earl for 500 men to deal with the Scots, though Dr Shrimpton questions the real motive for this request: it would be a very useful force to have available in a coup.
Percy was so successful that inevitably there were complaints, and in 1602 a concerted effort was made to remove him. A group petitioned the Earl with complaints, but Percy responded in kind, and he kept his job: after all, he had been very successful in raising the Earl’s income. After November 5th 1605, the 9th Earl found himself in dire straits. He had had lunch with Thomas Percy on the 4th November at Syon House, and had excused himself from attending Parliament on the 5th on the grounds that he had a “purge”. Was he warned not to attend? He was “interrogated” and transferred to the Tower of London, where he spent 17 years. He was, however, very comfortable there. He had the walks renewed, and had his own laboratory with staff. His sons were educated
within the Tower though they lived outside. They amused themselves by playing Shove Groats. The half groats had a habit of disappearing under the floorboards, so the floor was taken up to recover them!
On his release he was confined at Petworth House, a form of house arrest. Apart from his imprisonment the Earl was fined €30,000, a huge sum for the time, equivalent to 6 years of rental income. However, this meant that he had little to occupy him other than the management of his estate, and he built on Thomas Percy’s previous work. He had the estate surveyed and mapped, and transformed all the copyholders to leasehold. This had profound implications for the future, since Parliament converted copyhold land to freehold in 1926.
The citizens of Alnwick do owe Percy particular thanks for Hulne Park. In 1592, the Earl was thinking about de-parking this land. The walls were in poor repair and £500 was needed to repair them. Thomas took a lease on it, and it was retained as a park for posterity. There was more to Thomas Percy than Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.