The Gunpowder Plot and the Petworth connection

Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland by Anthony Van Dyck

The Gunpowder Treason Plot of 1605 was a failed attempt to assassinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland at the State opening of Parliament by a small group of Catholics led by Robert Catesby. The plot was foiled and to this day we still remember the 5th of November with Bonfire Night.

The Petworth connection

A second member of the group of assassins was Thomas Percy, the second cousin to Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland who owned the estates at Petworth. The 9th Earl was also known as the Wizard Earl for his interest in science and alchemical experiments and you can see a portrait of the 9th Earl in the Square Dining Room.

Before James VI of Scotland was crowned King of England, the two cousins Thomas Percy and the 9th Earl, worked closely together, corresponding with James in Scotland to try and secure better prospects for the Catholics in England than those already in place under the rule of Elizabeth I. For the Earl it was also an opportunity to curry favour with the soon to be King of England and reduce the family disgrace caused by Thomas Perc'ys separation from his wife Martha Wright, a favourite of Elizabeth.

Thomas Percy’s meetings with James seemed to go well. Percy returned with promises of support for the Catholics, and the 9th Earl believed that James would go so far as to allow Mass in private houses, so as not to cause public offence. Percy, keen to improve his standing, went further, claiming that the future King would guarantee the safety of English Catholics.

Unfortunately it seems that any promises made by James were never set in stone and only ever spoken about so were  possibly misconstrued, allowing for misunderstanding and dissolution because any allowances for Catholics under James' rule were not forthcoming.

The Plot

By pure chance Thomas was appointed Gentleman Pensioner giving him reason to establish a base in London.  He subleased a property in Westminster and installed Guy Fawkes, under the pseudonym of Jon Johnson, as his servant. 

Fawkes was a committed Catholic having joined a delegation to the Spanish court in 1603 to plead for an invasion of England.  Shortly before the plot was finally to take place, having been postponed twice due the changing of the opening of Parliament, a few members of the plot expressed concern over those Catholics who could be caught up in the explosion, in particular, the 9th Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of Arundel.

Thomas Percy visited 9th Earl of Northumberland at Syon House, west of London, on 4 November 1605, the day before the plot. After he was captured he claimed it was a ‘fishing expedition’ but if might well have been an opportunity to find out if the 9th Earl knew anything about an anonymous letter that William Parker, 4th Baron of Monteagle had received on 26 October warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament on 5 November.

Whatever the reason for the visit, the plot went ahead and at midnight on the 4 November 1605, after a search of the House of Lords, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. They found a large pile of firewood in the undercroft beneath the House of Lords, accompanied by what they presumed to be a serving man (Fawkes), who told them that the firewood belonged to his master, Thomas Percy. The guards left to report their findings, at which time Fawkes also left the building. The mention of Percy's name aroused further suspicion, as the authorities already knew him as a Catholic agitator.

The incrimination of the 9th Earl

Following the discovery of the plot and subsequent death of Thomas, who was shot following a pursuit, there was nobody who could either implicate or clear the 9th Earl of any involvement in the plot. The 9th Earl’s failure to ensure that Thomas Percy had taken the Oath of Supremacy (swearing allegiance to the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England) upon his appointment as a Gentleman Pensioner, as well as the visit to Syon House by Thomas Percy, the day before the plot, was damning evidence.

As further motive, the Privy Council also suspected that had the plot succeeded, the Earl would have been Princess Elizabeth's protector with increased influence in the ruling of the country. However, with insufficient evidence to convict him of treason the Earl was charged with contempt, fined £30,000 and stripped of all public offices. He was removed to the Tower of London, and following his release in 1621 he returned to Petworth where he, coincidentally, died on 5 November 1632.