The Gunpowder Plot is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of British history. For more than four centuries we’ve commemorated the scheme’s failure – but if it had succeeded, and the House of Lords had been blown up during the state opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605, it would have been a devastating blow to England’s ruling elite. Potential casualties included the king, James I, his principal ministers and courtiers, almost the entire leadership of the Church of England, and many of the men who controlled local government. As the plotters calculated, political chaos would have ensued, opening the way for a possible Catholic rising and a dramatic change of regime. The Plot’s ambition and audacity was astonishing, and James and his advisors instinctively assumed that this attempted coup must be the brainchild of someone important who expected to benefit from it. After all, the most serious attempts to assassinate the king’s predecessor, Elizabeth I, had all involved major figures such as disaffected peers, or foreign powers like Spain.
And indeed, within hours of the Plot’s discovery, just such a high-profile suspect emerged. Even before Guy Fawkes was caught in the act in the cellars beneath the Lords, the government had established that he was working for Thomas Percy, soon to be identified as one of the Plot’s ringleaders. And Percy was a trusted servant and kinsman of Henry Percy, 3rd (or 9th) earl of Northumberland, one of England’s leading aristocrats, and a man whose profile marked him out as a possible traitor. One of the last remaining peers who could trace his noble lineage back to medieval times, Northumberland numbered among his ancestors numerous actual or suspected rebels, including his uncle, the 1st (or 7th) earl, executed for treason in 1572, and his father, the 2nd (or 8th) earl, who died a prisoner in the Tower of London. Both men had sided with the Catholic opposition to Elizabeth I. Northumberland himself was raised as a Protestant, but retained close links with the Catholic community. Convinced that his rank entitled him to a major role in government, the earl repeatedly turned down lesser positions which he considered beneath his dignity, thereby remaining on the sidelines of the Elizabethan regime. When James I came to the throne, Northumberland presented himself as a spokesman for English Catholics, but failed to secure any concessions. Briefly in favour with the new king, he was appointed a privy councillor in 1603 and put in charge of the royal bodyguard, but when no further significant promotions ensued, he once again became frustrated and began to openly criticise James. By the time of the Gunpowder Plot, Northumberland was increasingly avoiding the royal court, and devoting his time to scholarly pursuits, particularly science, his keen interest in this field earning him the nickname of the ‘wizard earl’.
Given this background, it was hardly surprising that, as the government investigation into the Plot got underway, Northumberland was quickly detained and questioned. His interrogators found him evasive, and the picture that gradually emerged looked highly suspicious. Thomas Percy had visited him on 4 November, and engaged in a lengthy private conversation. The earl insisted that this was about the management of his estates, but he couldn’t prove it, since Percy himself was killed before he could be arrested. Then it was discovered that Northumberland had appointed Percy one of the king’s bodyguards without administering the obligatory oath of loyalty, a highly dubious action given that Percy was a fanatical Catholic. And it got worse. Another of the earl’s servants, Dudley Carleton, had negotiated the lease of the building close to the House of Lords which the plotters used to gain access to the all-important cellars. Meanwhile, the scientist Thomas Harriot, one of Northumberland’s clients, was found to have cast the king’s horoscope, a standard method of ascertaining when he might die. Could this all possibly be coincidental, or did the earl know rather more than he was prepared to admit?
At length the government reluctantly concluded that Northumberland was innocent. The turning-point was probably the testimony of the remaining plotters that Percy had in fact kept the earl in the dark about his intentions. He’d considered warning Northumberland to avoid Parliament on 5 November, but no one knew whether he’d actually done so. On balance it seemed that he hadn’t. The main purpose of Percy’s visit was not to alert the earl, but rather to establish whether he’d picked up any rumours of the Plot at court, since the conspirators knew that word of their plans was starting to leak out.
This revelation that Percy regarded his employer as expendable may well have saved Northumberland’s life. On that basis, he could scarcely be the secret mastermind the government had imagined, and the case against him collapsed. However, James I was now in a quandary. He’d kept the earl locked up for months, and was very reluctant to admit that this treatment was unjustified. Accordingly, in June 1606 Northumberland was put on trial and convicted of contempt, the grounds being Percy’s irregular appointment as a royal bodyguard, and the earl’s half-hearted efforts to track Percy down when the plotters were on the run. Despite never being formally charged with complicity, he was fined £30,000, dismissed from all his offices, and sentenced to life imprisonment, a punishment which most contemporaries regarded as vindictive. The fine was eventually reduced to £11,000, but Northumberland remained a resident of the Tower of London until 1621, when James finally released him as part of a wider amnesty for political prisoners. The earl spent the rest of his life in largely peaceful retirement, his reputation at last repaired – not the evil genius behind the Gunpowder Plot, but rather its innocent victim.
Mark Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (1991)
J. W. Shirley, Thomas Harriot (1983)
Biographies of Henry Percy, 3rd (or 9th) earl of Northumberland and Dudley Carleton, Viscount Dorchester will appear in our forthcoming volumes on The House of Lords 1604-1629 ed. Andrew Thrush.