Life before 1604
Thomas Percy was the younger of two sons born to Edward Percy of Beverley and his wife Elizabeth (née Waterton). His father was a son of Jocelyn/Josceline Percy (died 1532), whose father was Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland. He was born around 1560 and matriculated at the University of Cambridge as a member of Peterhouse in 1579. Little is known of his early life. He may have been a papist before he was at some point received into the Catholic Church, and he may have sailed with George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, in 1589. In 1591 he married Martha Wright, daughter of Ursula Wright (a convicted recusant) and sister to Christopher and John Wright (both later involved in the Gunpowder Plot). Claims by several authors that Percy may have left Martha "mean and poor" for an unidentified woman in Warwickshire are disputed,[nb 1] but the two were at least estranged. In 1605 Martha and her daughter were living on an annuity funded by the Catholic William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle. Thomas and Martha's son, Robert, married Emma Mead at Wiveliscombe in Somerset on 22 October 1615.
Percy was a tall, physically impressive man, "of serious expression but with an attractive manner", although by his forties he was prematurely greying. He appears to have had some complaint with his clothing; author Alan Haynes describes this as a skin disorder so acute that "he could not endure any shirt but of the finest holland or cambric", although author and historian Antonia Fraser has written of his propensity to sweat so much that he changed his shirt twice a day.
I understand by this bearer, my servant Meyricke of your willing disposition to favour Thomas Percy, a near kinsman to my brother of Northumberland, who is in trouble for some offence imputed unto him. I pray you to continue the same, that thereby his life may not be in hazard. He is a gentleman well descended and of good parts, and very able to do his country good service; you shall do a thing very acceptable to us both and not disagreeable with equity, which we will upon all occasions deserve of you.
Letter from Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to Mr Justice Beaumont, February 1596
Thomas was the great-grandson of Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland, and the second cousin once removed of the 4th Earl's descendant, Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland. Despite not being a close relative, in 1595 the 9th earl made him responsible for collecting rents from his northern estates, and the following year appointed him constable of Alnwick Castle. Thomas exercised his authority in a manner which gave some cause for complaint, not least from an officer he replaced, and contemporary reports of his dealings with the earl's tenants include claims of mismanagement and bribery.[nb 2] During a border skirmish he killed James Burne, a Scot, for which he was imprisoned at a London gaol, but his release was secured by the intervention of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Thomas subsequently aided Essex in a conspiracy against the Scottish warden of the middle marches, although unlike several others who later joined the Gunpowder Plot, he was not a member of the earl's failed rebellion of 1601.
Percy has been variously described as a belligerent and eccentric man, with "surges of wild energy subsiding into sloth". The Jesuit priest Father John Gerard wrote that in his youth Percy had "been very wild more than ordinary, and much given to fighting", while the Jesuit Oswald Tesimond thought he had been "rather wild and given to the gay life, a man who relied much on his sword and personal courage." According to both men, Percy's conversion to Catholicism was a calming influence, but biographer Mark Nicholls, who calls Percy "a pugnacious character", says that this was only true to a point. His excesses did not prevent him from joining Northumberland during his command in the Low Countries, held from 1600–1601, for which he was rewarded with £200. The earl also appointed Percy his receiver of rents in Cumberland and Northumberland, in 1603. Henry Percy was considered a supporter of the Catholic cause, and on several occasions before 1603, suspecting that Queen Elizabeth I did not have long to live, he entrusted Thomas with the delivery of secret correspondence to and from her probable successor, King James VI of Scotland. Northumberland's uncle had been executed for his involvement in the Rising of the North, a plot to replace Elizabeth with James's mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. He planned to make up for his family's disgrace by building a strong relationship with James, but also wished to counter the influence of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, whose father (it was rumoured) James believed had been responsible for Mary's death.
Exactly what assurances James gave Percy are unknown. Tesimond wrote that he made "very generous promises to favour Catholics actively", and "he would admit them to every kind of honour and office", but the consensus among historians is that what promises James did make were oral, rather than written. Fraser posits that the Scottish king probably intended to allow Catholics to worship privately, which if true was a much more reserved view than that subsequently announced by Percy, who told his fellow Catholics that the king had promised to protect their religion. Considering the "quaintness" of James's spoken English there may have been some misunderstanding on both sides. In his surviving correspondence with Northumberland, the king writes only that neither would "quiet" Catholics be disturbed, nor would those that deserved recognition "through their good service" be overlooked. This mixing of signals was to have lasting consequences.